Strangers On Our Trains
In essays describing our recent trip around the country by train, there was one element that is standard in such reports that we deliberately avoided—namely, our fellow passengers. We met some interesting ones, but detailing those interactions got in the way of describing some spectacular scenery.
First of all, it is very easy and at the same time not so easy to get to know people on a train. Many people just sit in their compact compartments or seats and read, look out the window or doze for much of their trip. The exception is the dining car for sleeping car passengers, where people are seated as they arrive. Attendants tell you exactly where to sit, and the next people to arrive are your companions for a meal.
People usually introduce themselves by first name only and exchange a few words on their backgrounds. You sometimes hear people hate to fly, but just as often they enjoy the change of pace a train offers. Invariably, they are not in a hurry, which means many are older and retired, or traveling, as we were, with younger family members. They were just along for the ride.
But the purpose of dining is to eat, oddly enough, which takes up most of these brief encounters—and they are brief. There are two or three sittings for lunch and dinner, depending on how crowded the train is, and the Amtrak staff, with great tact, manages to keep people moving. You don’t get life histories in these 30-minute interactions. One also tends to eat with some care. Trains rock even on the smoothest track, and it is not a good idea to spill coffee on a person you just met.
The lounge car is a different story. People who go there are motivated by the urge to enjoy refreshments and take in the views. Most Amtrak long-distance trains are bi-level. The lounge car has a downstairs bar with a few seats and an upper level, which is the one place where you can see easily out both sides of the train. It’s also an easy place to move around a bit and strike up a conversation with the person sitting near you. That we did whenever we could.
Our first encounter was on the ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco. We met an older woman who was en route from Southern California to visit family. She actually lives in Massachusetts in a pleasant college town. She was clearly high bred, from an elite eastern womens college. She had practiced family law in California before moving back east. She had been married 60 years, but her husband was not inclined to take a long train ride. He said, “You go alone,” so she did.
On the same trip, we spoke to a chap traveling alone from San Diego to Seattle. He appeared to be a very fit 50-something man. He was going north to take a trail hike. It must be a wild trail to travel that far. He hikes a lot. He has done the famous Appalachian Trail. He usually doesn’t do more than 20 miles a day. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, he had gone to California for college and never went back. By training a civil engineer, he switched careers to real estate investing and redevelopment. He does a lot of work on the east coast, especially in Savannah. He knew Fort Lauderdale well and mentioned Las Olas Boulevard.
He talked about the problems of rehabbing buildings in historic districts, all the requirements you had to meet to satisfy local preservationists. He seemed to have an amazing knowledge of things along the route until it was revealed he had a program on his cell phone that told him exactly what was going on each mile of the way. He even knew the name of a working oil field we passed. Did you know they had oil fields in northern California?
After a few days in the San Francisco area, we re-boarded the Coast Starlight for Seattle, where in the lounge car, as usual, we noticed a middle-age chap wearing a USMC cap with a number of campaign ribbons. It was an invitation to conversation. Sure as Quantico is in Virginia, he was a 22-year-old veteran of the Corps. He was returning from a visit to family in Southern California. He is from Oregon and was drafted after high school. He tested well, and the Marines wanted him. It was a good life. He served in Vietnam in 1968 but did not see much action. Pencil pusher. Remember “M*A*S*H?” He was Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly and did paperwork for 3,000 men. Later stationed in Washington, D.C., he had a desk in the basement of the Capitol with a typewriter and was there 28 months. He never knew what he was supposed to do. He got the mail every day. Still doesn’t know what he was supposed to do. He married high school sweetheart. She died of cancer. He became quickly bored in retirement and went to school to become a bus driver. He now drives a regular route to Idaho. It’s a four-day gig. It breaks down once in a while. It’s a good life.
Same trip. Talked to a bald-headed man who could have been in the “Coneheads” cast. He was traveling after visiting his family. He now lives in Virginia near D.C. where he is a financial analyst. He wasn’t terribly talkative. He was looking forward to turning 72 and getting social security. As a financial guy, we trust he will spend it wisely.
After another two-day layover in Seattle, we got to the part of our trip we most anticipated. The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s busiest long-distance train. On the second day out we noticed a young fellow chatting with another passenger. When the passenger left, we struck up a conversation. He was from China and in the U.S. for school, but with his Asian accent we could not figure out exactly what school he was attending. He did seem to be a traveler. He had been on trains around the country and seemed to know the east coast pretty well. We got the impression he was trying to learn everything he could about the U.S. and enjoyed talking to strangers on a train. He seemed bent on improving his English. We told him he had just met America’s greatest authority on almost everything. He realized a joke when he heard one, even if he didn’t seem to get it. We wished him well. China could use a few good men.
We also chatted a bit on all three trains with our sleeping quarters attendants. In all cases, they were cheerful and attentive, a good quality for an attendant to have.
Conversations we did not anticipate were with Uber drivers. Our son, who was in charge of logistics for the entire excursion, is an Uber junkie, and we took the opportunity to pick the drivers’ brains as they hustled us from hotels to trains and around the sights of several cities. Our first driver in Los Angeles was a high-spirited lady who could not have been nicer. When we told her we were touring the country by train she offered to park her car and join us on the spot.
Of the dozen or so drivers we met, only one or two spoke little English, but the rest were impressive people—tour guides as well as drivers. They all had immaculate vehicles of recent vintage, and they drove carefully and well. Only one of them seemed to be working full-time as a driver. He had worked for Boeing in Seattle. He seemed to be a college dropout still finding his way in a young life. Another was a retired teacher with a platinum Einstein hairdo who entertained us as he drove. He was a Michigan grad and big fan of Wolverine football. When we mentioned our son went to Notre Dame, he offered to let us out of the car right there and then.
One of the drivers in the Seattle area was a slender woman about 40 who did not say much until we asked questions. She was Canadian born but had lived in the U.S. for some time. She seemed overqualified to be driving for Uber. Turns out her real job is a life coach, one of those people, as you may know, who coach people about life. We asked where she lived before Seattle, and she said, “Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania.” We told her we knew it well, just down the road from Pottsville. We asked her if she was familiar with Swedish Haven. She hesitated, and then said, “No.” We told her that was the name John O’Hara used for Schuylkill Haven in his numerous novels and short stories set in the Pennsylvania coal regions. We sensed she had no idea who John O’Hara was, or that he was once a best-selling author, and is still considered one of the great short story writers of his day. What the hell, his day ended in 1970. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Still, few people up that way do not know the name John O’Hara. In his lifetime he was despised for his portrait of the area whose hard drinking, sex-crazed characters often resembled real people. Today, he is a tourist attraction, literally. They have tours of the many places that appeared in his stories.
We met these interesting strangers on trains and still wonder what a life coach was doing in Schuylkill Haven. She obviously wasn’t a coal miner’s daughter.