Whistle Stop: Train Culture

After tonight, I will have spent 146 hours of the past five weeks on a train. But though that may seem long and exhausting to some (not any more tiring than a road trip, I’d think), the unique culture of long-distance train travel has turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the overall experience of traveling the country. I thought I’d take a moment to share my experience with train travel here as I wait to board my final train of the trip: from Chicago Union Station to New York Penn Station. Incidentally, look for more updates in the upcoming week as I make up for the lack of blogging during the trip!

A guitarist entertains a small group of rail riders in the cafe.

One thing I learned very quickly was that on a train, everyone is family. People walk around in slippers, clutching stuffed animals, blankets, and pillows. Striking up long conversations with your neighbor is the norm rather than the exception (though if you don’t like your neighbor, you can always sit out the ride in the lounge car). “Where are you traveling to” and “where are you traveling from” are the standard opening questions when you make eye contact with someone. And everyone has a story.

There are several options for those wishing to mingle with passengers beyond their immediate seating area: head to the observation deck (the upper floor of the lounge car), the cafe (the lower floor of the lounge car), or make a meal reservation, where you’ll be seated at a table with strangers in the dining car if you’re traveling alone (though for a price — dinner options start at $15 and run to upwards of $25). Amtrak, in conjunction with the National Parks Service, also runs Trails and Rails during the summer, where volunteers come into the observation car to talk with passengers about the regions the train is passing through (I was able to catch these programs during the first half of my trip — for Glacier National Park, the Cascades, Puget Sound, and between Seattle and Portland — but by the time October rolled around, Trails and Rails had concluded for the season). Sleeping car passengers (those who get their own beds and showers) get additional opportunities to mingle with each other at Amtrak-hosted wine and cheese tastings and movie nights.

I learned to head to the observation car if I was in a talking mood.

Passengers also find ways to provide their own entertainment. Playing card games or board games on the observation deck of the lounge car is the most common. On the night that I was traveling from Glasgow, MT to West Glacier, MT, I hung around the lounge car after a Cup Noodles dinner (that and the hot dogs were the only two items I found palatable from the cafe) and watched Amish children run amok on the observation deck. On the lower level, a guitarist entertained song requests from a small group of rail riders. I left shortly after stumbling upon the impromptu live music scene to pack up all of my belongings in preparation for my 8:23 p.m. stop at West Glacier, MT. When I came back to the cafe, bags in tow, I was surprised to see one passenger beam at my return and raise his glass to me. I was able to stay for “Cover of the Rolling Stone” (Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show) and “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton) before my stop came up, and it was with a tinge of regret that I left the merry scene to disembark the train.

Chris, a full-time paralegal who’s been moonlighting as a  Trails and Rails volunteer since 2006, talks about Glacier National Park.

A significant portion of rail riders are retirees, but there is also a surprising number of young people and of families with small children. And, as I’ve previously noted, Amish and Mennonites also comprise a significant portion of rail passengers (as air travel is forbidden to them, while cars, though technically permissible where they ride with an outsider driver, are discouraged). Trains tended to be surprisingly packed for the most part, and it was rare for me to get two seats to myself (though when I did for an overnight ride, I was grateful for the opportunity to sleep in a sprawled out position).

Of the dozens of people I chatted with on trains, a few have stayed with me: Ruby, a primary school teacher from Colorado who’s been battling breast cancer for three years and who was returning to Colorado after visiting her son and grandson in Riverside, CA; Paulie, a 24-year old from Missouri who’s worked part time as a bail bondsman, and with whom I chatted late into the night in the cafe car of the Southwest Chief, comparing notes on our different upbringings; Rick, a legally blind sailboat salesman who considers it a success when he manages to hide the fact of his blindness from people (I didn’t realize it myself until the very end of the conversation — and this was after the train derailment, mind you, when the scene was one of general chaos); the three Mennonite women from Lancaster County who were traveling to Wisconsin to see family; Sonnet, an Oregon law student with a passion for water rights who filled me in on the big water rights disputes in the U.S. today; Adam, a stressed 23-year old father of a two-year old relocating from NoCal to Springfield, Missouri in hopes of facing a better job market, whom I chatted with while balancing his toddler on my lap — quite conscious the whole time of the fact that he was younger than myself; and an Oneida woman and primary school teacher from St. Louis en route to the Wisconsin Indian reservation on which she grew up to get tested for throat cancer (the reservation would cover her costs). The stories I heard were both humbling and empowering, and I hope to talk more about the overall impact this trip has had on me in a later retrospective post.

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