Strangers on a train

Note: all names have been changed to protect the innocent :) 

When I booked an Amtrak trip out to Colorado earlier this month I did it for two reasons: at that point a 15-day rail pass was cheaper than a flight, and I liked the idea of having two full travel days on either side of the family snowboarding trip to read, write, and relax. What I forgot, or perhaps just didn’t think about, was the fact that “the train,” as it’s referred to by its residents, is as much a temporary neighborhood as it is a mode of transportation, a loose and fleeting affiliation somewhat akin to the universal bond of the smoke break but on a larger scale, and with cramped necks and backs as side effects instead of bad breath and lung cancer. This is my attempt to capture a few of my more memorable companions for the Seattle to Sacramento leg of the trip.

My seatmate, Tom, was the first to remind me of the social nature of trains, a big, swarthy Aussie who retired a few years ago as a police officer from the little town in the suburbs of Sydney that I got dropped off at by my first hitch in Australia in 2004 (a middle-aged guy who spent the 800km or so between Surfers Paradise and Newcastle telling me all about his detailed and very creative interpretation of Christianity). He was in the last three weeks of a 3-month cross-country tour, obsessed with America and exploring the country in little months-long bursts every couple of years or so, and his current destination was a week in a little cabin in the mountains around Salt Lake City with 6 friends. We swapped travel stories and talked about America (he thought it was a great travel deal and kept going on about how cheap everything was), retirement (his pension was enough for him to get by, but he still supplemented his income with odd jobs whenever he could; America was his only real travel destination, even within Australia, and he scrimped and saved to be able to afford his trips here), gun control (he couldn’t imagine being a cop in America and having to constantly worry about everyone you interact with having a gun; in Australia they’re so tightly regulated that the police actually go into peoples’ houses and inspect each one, assault rifles and handguns are illegal…and they have around 30 gun deaths per year, vs. our 35,000), mandatory voting (the fine’s around $90-100, so it’s easier just to vote than it is to pay it; he said some people cast a “donkey ballot” by signing in at the polls and then just tearing up their ballot, but most people take it seriously), Australian sovereignty (there was a referendum that narrowly failed last year or the year before that would have formally divorced Australia from the British monarchy and changed their parliamentary system of government to a more American one; he said the next time it goes to the ballot it’ll pass, just because the royalists are dying off and not being replaced), and my memories of Newcastle, which were mostly limited to the little movie theater where I saw The Barbarian Invasions and proving to myself that the pair of Eccos that preceded the one I have now, which were less than a week old at the time and would go on to last me until the end of the 2008 campaign, really were waterproof.

Due to limited space you’re always seated with strangers in the dining car. Lunch on that leg was with Jose, a newly liberated (he preferred that to “retired”) jack of all trades who was now free to focus on his music and his art full-time and a proud grandfather with a wide girth and an easy laugh who fondly recalled seeing Willie Mays play at Candlestick Park once. With the help of his free flight credits during a stint working the ticket counter for United Airlines he’d fallen in love first with Canada and later with one of its female citizens, who coaxed him north from San Francisco 20 years ago after his first wife died, and he was en route from Vancouver to the bay area to visit his daughter and her family when we talked. He was diabetic, so he skipped dessert, and he gave me some bachelor food tips about making food in batches and snacking on fruits and vegetables whenever possible that came either from his present or his distant past, I wasn’t sure which. We talked about food (Christmas Eve dinner in his family is a huge feast of tamales that his daughter is probably working on right now; he also had some Native American ancestry, and he got excited when I told him about Off the Rez in Seattle), baseball (the 49ers’ last game at Candlestick Park is coming up tomorrow; his daughter wouldn’t get tickets, so they’re going to gather around and watch it on TV instead), his art (a newlywed couple on a train asked him for a poem once to prove that he was really a poet, so he made one up on the spot; the way he describes his life in Vancouver sounds a lot like a little slice of the West Village in the 60’s), and the importance of doing what you’re passionate about. Our conversation began with the two of us sitting across from each other in the dining car looking at our lunch menus and ended with his getting up to take a smoke break when we stopped somewhere around Olympia; the waitress who brought us the bill recognized him as one of the route’s seasonal regulars.

Dinner was with Kate, 37 years old (it’s interesting how many people give their ages unprompted over the course of casual conversation with someone they’re probably never going to see again), two weeks out from having quit a job working for the Olympia transit authority and giving some serious thought to what she wanted to do next with her life en route to spending the holidays with her family in southern California. She had sprung for a sleeping compartment, and she told me that this was the only time she’d ever been unemployed in her adult life but that she felt it was worth the risk. She might want to go back and get a degree from The Evergreen State College next fall, but in the meantime she’s looking forward to concentrating on studying yoga and auditing a few classes. She carried herself like someone blinking into the light for the first time in a long time, finally unburdened and not quite sure what to do with herself yet but excited to figure it out.

Maybe 10 minutes after I sat down with Kate at her table we were joined by an anonymous 31-year-old woman, warm and maternal, who’d moved to South Korea to marry a Korean man against her family’s wishes. She was en route to Klamath Falls with her incredibly cute 6-month-old son and her grandmother, a character of an old lady wearing an amazing crushed red velvet jacket and complaining loudly about how she couldn’t figure out how to turn the volume down on the new hearing aid she’d just gotten two days earlier. They were very different, the younger woman calm and quiet and the older woman direct and kind of self-consciously inappropriate, but they worked well together, and several times over the course of dinner the grandmother made an exaggerated comedic show of checking to make sure the baby (her 25th great grandchild, his mother informed us proudly) was still breathing. The grandmother lived in a small town outside of Olympia and the granddaughter lived in Ballard before she moved to Seoul and had spent the last four days back there visiting; we talked about all the new apartments in the neighborhood and discussed the challenges inherent in accommodating urban growth.

When I went to the lounge car (big full-length windows lined with chairs facing out, plus a few tables for those who need to do work) to do some reading after dinner I inadvertently sat down in an area that had been turned into a makeshift bar by a couple of temporary train drinking buddies who reclaimed their seats shortly after I got there. One of them left after one drink, but I had a long conversation with the other one, John, a 67-year-old Vietnam vet and recently retired plumber with a huge nose, a buzz cut, and an ARMY t-shirt with whom I’d exchanged a few words back at King Street Station about the three different lines we had to wait in before we got on the train. Vietnam was the one thing he didn’t want to talk about; he only mentioned it to point out that all the men in his family for five generations, including his son, had fought in foreign wars, and when I said “Thank you, for what it’s worth” he laughed and said “Not much.” He was headed to Oceanside, CA to pick up his massively customized Ram 3500—$30,000 worth of modifications had taken it to 650 hp and 1140 lb ft of torque—and then further south, back to the little spot nestled in the mountains on the peninsula across the bay from Ensenada where his 26’ mid-60’s Airstream was currently parked; he told me that he’s usually intentionally very antisocial but that he makes an exception when it comes to talking to strangers on trains. A lot of our conversation was spent with him giving me accumulated wisdom from his life (don’t burn bridges you might need later; raising kids is the greatest thing you’ll do with your life; it’s hard to find intelligent people to talk to, so appreciate them when you do; don’t spend your life pursuing status for its own sake; and something very abstract about string theory and the nature of reality that I forget the details of), and when I told him that I’d majored in religious studies he asked me for some “pearls of wisdom” to match the ones he’d given me; I told him to always do what you feel is right and not worry too much about what other people think you should be doing, and he thought that was good. The huge lottery jackpot from a few days ago came up at one point, and when I asked him what he’d do with all that money, his answer came right away: a bigger trailer and a more powerful truck.

Our rest stop at Klamath Falls was the period at the end of our conversation, and when I went outside for some fresh air I ended up getting into a snowball fight with Jenny (curly brown hair and a twinkle in her eyes) and Mary (more scholarly and reserved, with short hair and hipster glasses), two girls who were sitting behind John and me but who I hadn’t talked to until then. We were standing around by the train tracks next to a huge bank of freshly fallen snow together; I remarked that it would be a perfect time for a snowball fight, Jenny flashed a mischievous smile and said “Let’s do it!”, and for the next 10 minutes or so we ran around throwing snowballs at each other without gloves like a trio of ill-prepared kids whose parents are inside watching the game before the whistle sounded and we somewhat reluctantly got back on the train, where we added Jenny’s seatmate Celeste to our little group (each of us traveling alone) and talked ourselves to the brink of sleep, like old friends having a few after-dinner drinks except without the drinks, and me sitting sideways on my seat and peering back at them over my headrest. It was a great conversation that was all over the map but included Celeste’s inadvertently having had a long conversation with Francis Ford Coppola at a party in Napa before she realized who he was; the impact on artistic passions of needing to make money from them, and whether or not it’s worth it (general consensus: no); the process of losing loved ones to cancer (Jenny and I had had similar experiences, hers 10 years ago and mine just over 6); Christianity and its discontents; Jenny’s desire to make a living by crewing on yachts (I gave her a few tips from my experience); and her secret conviction that she was in fact on her way to Omaha to visit her brother’s girlfriend’s family for Christmas so that she’d be there when he proposed to her.

It was a great way to close out my first full day riding the rails in a long, long time; I’m glad I picked the snowball fight :)

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