Voyage of the Empire Service
“Is this the train to New York?” The voice behind me on the escalator was tentative, although we were already on our way down to the platform in Albany. My colleague responded faster than I could. “I sure hope so!”
Chuckles met in the open air. Why one of the northernmost Amtrak stations—the eighth-busiest in the country, the expert barista who always seems to be working at the coffee shop will tell you proudly, his sweet smile shining from his chocolate eyes—has open-air platforms reminiscent of carports remains beyond me.
Dragging her rolling bag behind her, wearing stretchy pants and a commemorative cycling t-shirt in vibrant pink, it was clear the quiet woman wasn’t among the blasé business travelers that make up most of the southbound traffic on this line at any given time on a weekday morning.
She piped up again. “I’ve been told the right side is the best place to sit?” It was clear she wasn’t quite sure what reaction to expect from my colleague and I, who very clearly were among the blasé business crowd. Our laptop bags and large cardboard-sleeved espresso beverages gave us away—or perhaps our modestly heeled footwear, carefully selected jeans and slacks, and neatly layered tops and jackets—one dark and semi-edgy, the other predictably office-like.
“Well, you can see the water.” My colleague was friendly, but she rarely looks up on this train ride, after years of riding into The City at all hours of day and night.
“It is. … Is this your first time?” I took a closer look at this woman, older than I, the sort of slight person who always appears uncertain. Her expression said she didn’t want to miss out on the sights. A small nod in reply.
We boarded, cattle into the chute, funneling in response to the conductor’s bellow. “New York Penn! All the way forward!”
I kept an eye on the woman in pink. Saw her settle a few rows behind my own window seat and re-acquire her traveling companion, another woman in the official dress of the leisure traveler.
As the flow of bodies ceased, I wandered back, squatted down in the aisle next to her, and offered a bit of advice. “The reason they told you to sit on this side is because you’ll be right on the river, yes. But in about an hour and a half, you’ll have a wonderful view of West Point.” Her eyes widened and her friend leaned in. “You’ll be looking across the river at it. It’s grey stone and looks like a prison or a fortress on the hill, sticking out in to the water. That’s the landmark people seem to really love.”
“Oh, thank you!” Both of them beamed. Thirty seconds out of my day, the same travel tip coworkers shared with me many years ago. The same landmark I’ve watched for on every trip since.
It’s strange, the contemplation of leaving. This is very likely the last trip I’ll take to New York City on the Empire Service, which rolls across from the Niagara border crossing and hooks a hard right at Albany to follow the Hudson down to Manhattan, or the Ethan Allen that moves down from Vermont, or the Adirondack that ferries people south from Montreal once a day.
I’m sure to be in The City again plenty of times—a place a friend referred to, fairly accurately, as my “least favorite place on earth” in a text last night. But I’m more likely to be coming in on a different line, or by air.
And I’ll be in Albany and Saratoga every now and again. By car or by plane, in all likelihood.
But the reality of my upcoming adventure is settling in.
I’ll miss the excited tourists with wide eyes, taking in the history that permeates this part of the world—a history that every child in the U.S. learns from their earliest school days. My work trip today involves a portion of the Smithsonian Institution—a name I learned in reading my grandparents’ books and spouted off on sight when I spied it in my second-grade reading text in a classroom in western Nevada. West Point is where chains across the river stopped traffic during the Revolution—and where I went to football games and lawn concerts when I was in college, thanks to a dear friend’s military passes.
It’s funny, though. Home? Everywhere I’ve been feels like part of the definition. Saratoga. Ticonderoga. Fairfield. Halifax. Sacramento. Houston. And, as always, “If you follow the old Kit Carson Trail / ’til the desert meets the hills / oh you certainly will agree with me / it’s the place of a thousand thrills ..."