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About four-and-a-half hours into the journey, we crossed the southeastern boundary of Adirondack Park, the largest United States park outside Alaska. Amtrak skirts the eastern edge of the six million protected acres for two hours, until just south of Plattsburgh. Mile after mile of mountain, meadow, and shore slid by outside my window. To my left was forest, ablaze with a vibrant foliage blanket that sat astride a tremendous rocky base. To the right was vast Lake Champlain—the USA's sixth largest natural, freshwater lake. I scanned the waters for Champ, the local version of the Loch Ness monster, to see if he was leaf-peeping too. But all I could spot was the yellow, red, and green-hued distant shore of Vermont.
Perhaps we were more likely to see one of 200-400 rare Adirondack moose than to catch a glimpse of something resembling a dinosaur. My mind drifted and my chin dropped a bit.
"You're not sleeping through the best part, are you?" conductor James Kaufman had caught me wavering. I had, after all, been staring eagerly out the window for five hours.
I adamantly shook my head no. Wouldn't dream of it.
"That's the foothills of the Adirondack mountains." He pointed to the slopes to our west.
"From here to Westport, we follow the natural curve of the lake, as the mountains rise just inland. That's why we go so slowly."
North along the Hudson River.
We covered the miles leisurely, giving passengers the chance to gaze at the small towns along the way. Adirondack Park is the size of neighboring Vermont, and encompasses private areas as well as public lands. Picturesque villages—the daily train their only public transport—dotted the landscape, occasionally interrupting the blanket of leaves with freestanding homes and winding roads. Trains meander through backyards, centers of towns, and along routes usually ignored in favor of efficient, direct highway travel. Rail travel gives passengers a sense of nostalgia and romance, the chance to leisurely take in the scenery from a vantage point unique in long-distance travel.
"It's so beautiful. We're from British Columbia and we have the same thing there, of course, but not as much red in our leaves," explained Kathy Plato, as she held her camera at the ready.
Her traveling companion, Ray Brendeland, agreed. "We didn't even think of the scenery when we booked the trip. I wanted to go to New York City and Kathy wanted to go to Montreal. So here's our compromise. The scenery is a great bonus."
Shortly before Plattsburgh, bare trees were sighted more frequently, replacing the frequent colorful bursts with naked branches. The day was graying, the scenery turning bleak as the season approached winter and we approached Canada.
"Smoke stop at Plattsburgh!" The conductor walked through the car. "Step off here if you want a smoke or an education." He was referring to the State University of New York located at Plattsburgh. The passengers giggled. A few made beelines for the exits, though from their fevered looks and the cigarettes in their hands, they seemed unlikely to be in pursuit of a B.A.
What a character, I thought. The conductor came from a family of railroad workers. He'd been a conductor for over thirty years.
The border was flat and overcast, while the wind was bending the foliage, grass, and trees. The bleakness seemed appropriate for a frontier, and stood in sharp contrast to the dazzling miles to the south, a journey so visually stunning that in 2000, National Geographic Traveler magazine named the Adirondack one of the world's 10 best rail trips.
I thought back to what Anne from Sydney had said outside Saratoga Springs.
"Instead of transportation, riding the Adirondack is an experience."