Conversations at 79 m.p.h.

Let’s face it . . . Most people, even those who enjoy traveling, think it’s odd that I prefer to go by train. And that is indeed my preference: I fly to the west coast—to L.A. or Sacramento or Oakland or Seattle—and take Amtrak to wherever I’m going  from there.

The other day, someone asked me what it was about long-distance train travel that I enjoyed most. Then they answered their own question: “It’s the scenery, no doubt,” they said, and the conversation moved on.

But—truth be told—I don’t think the passing scenery is what I enjoy most about a cross-country train ride. No, it’s the chance—three times a day—to spend 45 minutes to an hour enjoying a meal with three strangers in an Amtrak dining car.

Jim Becker, a long-time reporter friend of mine, once told me he believes there is something interesting about every stranger we meet. At the time, I thought that was an exaggeration; not any more . . . not after a quarter century of train travel and hundreds of meals shared with strangers in Amtrak dining cars. Here are just four examples:

— At dinner on the Southwest Chief with a woman whose father was the head electrician at the Polo Grounds in New York City (the stadium where the baseball Giants played before moving to San Francisco). He admitted to installing a signaling system in the centerfield scoreboard that was used to tell Bobby Thompson that Ralph Branca was about to throw him a curveball. Thompson homered and the Giants went to the 1951 World Series.

—A couple who, we discovered over breakfast on the Empire Builder, own the house in Granby, Connecticut, immediately next door to the old Victorian house where my father and his father were born.

— Over dinner on the Lake Shore Limited, I spent a fascinating hour chatting with a man who is one of six people in the world qualified to restore and repair ancient pipe organs.

—The American Airlines captain, having lunch en route to the Bay Area on the California Zephyr and responding to the question what prompted him to take the train: “I thought it was time I saw this country from an altitude of six feet.”