R.E.M. – Can’t Get There From Here
I am on the train to Maine. Let me say that again. I AM ON THE TRAIN TO MAINE!!! I have waited 34 years for this day so I am just a little bit excited.
In 1983, my mother got a new job up in Maine and those of us still at home moved from our New York City suburb to a small town in Maine. Up to that point in my life I had never given public transportation much thought. Every kid I knew had a father who took the commuter train into the city to an office job. That’s what my dad had done up until my parents got divorced and his company transferred him to their LA office. My mother’s job situation had been bad and the cost of living in New York was high. Moving up to Maine for a better job and into a less expensive house came along at just the right time.
We’d spent our childhood summers at a tiny beach town up in Maine and I think my mother had dreams that life would become as idyllic as those summers had been. Those summers were idyllic. But summer in Maine and winter in Maine are two very different things. I can’t speak for my older and younger sister who made the move with me but I was not looking forward to moving at all. I was 15 and my mother’s rule about going into New York City had been that once you were 16, you could take the train into the city with a friend and without an adult, so long as the friend knew their way around and she knew where we were going and what we were doing. I was just a few months shy of my 16th birthday and suddenly the promise of that freedom was gone.
Life in Maine took some getting used to. It wasn’t just the snow and the fact that everyone looked like they walked out of the LL Bean catalog. We were city girls by the standards of the Mainers in our high school. We dressed differently, we listened to different music, I remember one kid commenting that he had never seen a girl wearing nail polish before I came to school. The place where I probably experienced the biggest culture shocks was in my German class. I’d taken Latin in New York but the Maine high school didn’t have a Latin class at the level I was at so I started over and took German 1. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, you know that you start with very basic things. Our German teacher was a funny little man from an Austrian skiing village. Teaching us about the seasons he mentioned that spring in Austria and Germany came in March with gradually warmer temperatures and flowers starting to sprout and bloom. The other kids took this information in as if they’d never experienced spring before. Little did I know it was because they hadn’t, not in March and not gradually anyway. When we learned about different modes of transportation, he talked about how the cities are all connected by trains and how much people relied upon trains to get to work. One kid raised his hand and asked if that didn’t cause a lot of traffic jams with the cars having to stop for the trains to cross the streets to get to the station. I think that was the moment when I thought, holy shit, I am really living in East Bumfuck now. We had train tracks in town but only the occasional freight train would use them. The gates would come down and stop traffic so the long, lumbering freight trains could creak their way through. These kids had never seen passenger trains. Had never seen commuter trains with dedicated tracks and tunnels so they never needed to cross the roads.
I went off to college outside of Philadelphia where two different train lines made stops on campus. I took the train into Philadelphia as often as I could, became a master at hopping the local trains up to New York City, and the Amtrak to destinations far away. I fell in love with 30th Street Station. After college I returned to my mother’s house in Maine. Shortly afterwards, there was a bus strike. I hadn’t gotten my driver’s license yet because I hadn’t needed it but suddenly I felt trapped. There was no way to get out of that small town if you didn’t have a car. I longed for a train to come and deliver me from the small town that felt so remote. Never had the words to this song felt more appropriate.
Ten years ago or so, they started an Amtrak train to Portland. Now it goes all the way to my mother’s town. You can easily walk to the train station from her house. It’s my dream come true. I never managed to do it before because now we are a family of four and it’s easier and less expensive to drive when we go to visit. But this time I am travelling alone and my car needs a new clutch so it was the perfect opportunity. There is still a little of that can’t get there from here element because you have to switch not just trains but train stations in Boston and, just to make sure I really appreciate the final leg of this trip, they put us on buses for the stretch between Boston and the first stop the train makes because of track work this weekend. I took a train, a subway, a bus, and finally the train that will take me all the way to my mother’s house. It took twice as long as driving does but it was worth every minute.