America’s literary scene may have first clustered around Henry James’s Boston, then proceeded to Hemingway’s moveable feast in Paris, then stumbled around between the Village and Haight-Ashbury. Today it has taken to the rails between New York and the upstate village of Hudson, with some of my favorite writers often colonizing the Amtrak Café Car between town and country. As the rents in Manhattan went from somewhat crazy to only-oligarchs-need-apply crazy, many of the writers I know have raised sticks and moved to the bucolic villages stretching roughly from Rhinebeck to Hudson on the east side of the river and from Kingston to Catskill on the west side. After visiting an art colony near the town of Ghent in Columbia County in the early aughts, I got a sunny little place nearby where I spend six months out of the year and where I do nearly all of my writing. I take the train up and down the Hudson almost every week and it is the only commute I’ve ever enjoyed. Many of us (okay, many of me) are not great drivers and prefer taking the train to meetings with our editors, accountants and shrinks, which means the Empire Service is lousy with scribblers of the first sort, finalists for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize, at least one of whom has won the praise of our hyperliterate former president Barack Obama. The conversation often falls into homey mid–Hudson Valley subjects—general house upkeep, the presence of life-threatening ticks on our properties, and the demise of a favorite tapas place in the tiny village of Tivoli.
Unlike, say, the imperious Acela plying the power centers of New York, Washington and Boston, the trains to Albany have a deeply bohemian flavor. The cars are late 20th-century Amfleet models, stainless-steel and tubular. I get a sausage-and-egg sandwich and a cup of coffee and make sure I get a spot by the window facing the Hudson. My ride takes under two hours, but I feel like I get more work done on the way up to the country than I do any other time during the week. The river is ridiculously stunning—good luck seeing something so dramatic as you chug out of London or Paris—and the tracks hug the eastern river bank the whole way up, giving you unparalleled views of the procession of ecology and history, from the sheer cliffs of the Palisades to the storied gray shadows of West Point. I dare you to take that trip once a week and not come up with a great novel, poem or at least blog post by year’s end. My memoir, Little Failure, was partly composed on the train, and there’s something about train travel that stirs up memory. Maybe it’s the meditative quality as the waves lap up to the tracks, the barges head upriver fuming white wakes behind them, and you whip by the platforms of literary suburbs and towns. (Ossining! That’s where John Cheever lived and wrote, right?)
My favorite part of the trip may be the view of Bannerman’s Castle, right off the east bank of the Hudson and about midway through my trip. The castle was built in the early 20th century by a munitions magnate of the same name. For reasons that still escape me, Francis Bannerman VI, a loony immigrant of Scottish descent, stocked the castle with his wares, and in 1920 the shells and powders came together to create a massive explosion. The resulting wreck is a novel in itself, a gorgeous ochre ruin, a timeless testament to hubris and bad project management. Whenever I pass the crumbling ramparts, something new pops into my head. My novels and memoir often focus on dystopias past, present and future, and whenever I see Bannerman’s Castle—so many good ideas gone so terribly wrong—my typing fingers fire up a storm and whatever I’m working on falls right into place.
Heading down to the city in the evening is wonderful too, especially if you manage to catch the magic hour before sunset, with the Hudson lit up orange and red as if it were a river on Mars. All my favorite writers, and sometimes artists and photographers and theater people, are in the bar car doing what writers and artists and theater people do—drinking. I’ve settled on a rather unsettling combination that some of my colleagues also enjoy: a Bloody Mary, several bags of Doritos and maybe something relatively healthy like the smoked almonds. As we reminisce and declaim into the night, popping open those mini-bottles of vodka and stirring them into the Bloody Mary mix, I feel like the years are falling away before me. This isn’t some high-speed, ultra-sleek experience; the train makes a proper choo-choo sound against the rails as the writers declaim and argue the way writers should. All this has happened before and will happen again. The Empire Service is timeless.