The Luck of the Draw in an Amtrak Dining Car

I’m about to take off on another cross-country rail journey en route to a semi-annual meeting of the National Association ofRailroad Passengers (NARP) in Washington.
I mentioned this to someone the other day and got the typical reaction. He stared at me for a couple of seconds, then said, “All the way across the country?”
 “Yes, all the way. LA to Chicago to Washington.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“Two nights to Chicago and one more to DC.”
 “Three nights,” he said, shaking his head. “Wow.”
Clearly, spending the time to cross the country on Amtrak was not an idea he would entertain. But to my way of thinking, the time it takes is a reason for going by train, not an argument against it.

Consider: I’m going to leave Los Angeles at 6:15 tomorrow night on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. Just after we leave Fullerton, I’ll head to the dining car and, before we get to San Bernardino, I’ll have finished a very good steak dinner and will be polishing off the last of a half-bottle of merlot.
With any luck, dinner will have been spent in interesting conversation. Amtrak features “community seating” in their dining cars, you see, so you never know who will be your diner companions.
First timers can find this awkward, but it’s one of the features of train travel I enjoy most. Who’s it going to be tonight? A Japanese doctor studying organ transplants at a Boston hospital? A retired history professor who knows all about the area of New Mexico we’re traveling through? A 300-pound biker in a tank top? A perky lady in her 70s treating seven grandchildren to a week in Glacier National Park? I’ve had them all. And, by the way, the biker turned out to be highly-educated and a fascinating dinner companion.
My favorite encounter in an Amtrak dining car was a 60-something woman whose father worked at the old Polo Grounds in New York City, the home of the baseball Giants before they moved to San Francisco. But that’s for next time.