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March 24, 2007, 04:00 AM
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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 16, 2007

As we travel through life, the hectoring of modern society finds us few chances for quiet contemplation.

A cleverly lazy fellow such as moi can sometimes catch a snatched few minutes in a parked car in his driveway or perhaps even a walk in the woods. But so few spots near urban areas are quiet even there.

If you are adjudged insane (and far more such than we know are walking about loose) perhaps you will be provided with a whirlpool bath, designed to quiet your maniacal urges. You know, the ones we all feel toward real and abstract forces in our lives.

Maybe drugs or booze offer temporary relief but surely not sustaining comfort—unless you believe the late Dean Martin.

Where but oh where can one find a sustained stretch of time when gliding through space. Surely not in today`s urban traffic, even in your $75,000 Lexus. Where indeed are those mostly silent interludes that allow one Zen-like contemplation in the urban miasma?

I`ll tell you: It`s the quiet car on Acela trains that run numerous times a week between Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston.

Working as a consultant with a diverse portfolio of activities, I find Acela is a habit-forming joy, an addiction with no apparent side effects. You can get special discounts for regular use, which put costs in line with air travel, especially when you add the typical hassles of flight these days.

When passenger train travel across the United States was common, experiences such as sleeping cars and parlor cars offered all Americans a similar chance. But with the accelerated pace of business life, most of that is lost. The quiet car is an exception, a miniature throwback to those golden train days which are lost forever.

Oh, but you say, I could more cheaply go hide in a closet in my own house, avoiding kids, wifely instructions, etc. OK, do that if you must. But the sense of stillness to me is not the essence. Peace needs some motion. And I don`t mean a couch-potato immersion in front of a TV set.

Peace is not completely noiseless or frictionless, just relatively so. And the panorama of passing scenery from stretches of open water and woods to the backsides of broken warehouses or humble row houses allows a wandering eye to speculate on anything and everything.

Alas, we rumble a bit on American trains, not having reached rail or auto parity with the Japanese. But perhaps it`s even the rocking motion I like, the moving-picture scenery. And no loud talking or cell phone use. People there are like yourself—amiably and quietly taking their extended escapes with you in a world too overgrown with news about Iraq or Anna Nicole Smith.

And you might even have a seminal thought about how to help a family member or friend with a personal problem—or even how to help yourself better understand yourself. Heavens, that lack of such meditative opportunities in modern life almost drowns out everything most of the time.

So, pick a nice day or not, take a good book, magazine or crossword, leave from D.C. at a civilized hour like 10 a.m. and give it a try. I`ll bet two things will happen:

First, I suspect along the route you will have a wonderful nap or two.

Second, you will feel the power of this extended time/space submersion, making you subject to my addiction to this nontoxic, non-debilitating yet utterly compelling mode of travel.

Go to www.amtrak.com for more information.

Donald A. Collins [email him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.