There Are No Strangers On a Train.
People know that I’m into train travel and the subject invariably comes up when I’m in conversation with someone. For example,,my dentist/friend will be attending a conference in Chicago later this year and he’s actually thinking about taking the California Zephyr from there back to the West Coast. And good for him! The other day, I was telling him that one of the great pleasures of train travel is meeting people over meals in the dining car.
In fact, on my next cross-country Amtrak trip, I’m going to chronicle every meal: who my tablemates were and what they told me that was interesting or funny or outrageous. If my past journeys are any indication, nine or ten dining car meals will provide guarantee plenty of material.
For instance, on the Crescent, heading from New Orleans, I was having lunch in the dining car with a middle-aged man with a pronounced Cajun
lilt to his voice. We had stopped at a station and, staring out the window, he said softly, more to himself than to me, “Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Home of the Alabama Crimson Tide … and the world’s most obnoxious football fans.” He was – need I say? – from Louisiana and an LSU fan.
On the Southwest Chief six or seven years ago, I was up early and in the lounge car as the train stopped in Dodge City, Kansas, where the station is just down the street from Boot Hill. It turned out that the man sitting next to me was a professor of American History at Yale who very kindly expounded on some of the fascinating characters that lived and loved and looted in those parts back in the 1880s and 90s.
On my most recent trip, also on the Chief, a young man in his 20s was at my table for dinner. He was semi-pleasant, although not very talkative, and rather vague about his personal life. For instance, when I asked him where he was coming from, he sad “Here and there.” The next afternoon, he was escorted off the train in Galesburg, Illinois, by a couple of policeman and a German Shepherd that had gone bonkers after one whiff of the kid’s backpack.
And there are amazing coincidences, too. Once – it was on the California Zephyr, I think – I’d been chatting with a man for several minutes before asking him where he was from. Answer: ten houses down from mine in the town of Kailua on the island of Oahu.
A writer friend of mine is fond of saying that everyone has at least one interesting story to tell and the challenge is finding the right question to ask in order to find it.
He’s absolutely right and the place to prove it is in an Amtrak dining car.