For a long time I’ve had a fantasy about traveling on an overnight train over a long distance. I guess its something about the romance of falling asleep to the rhythm of the rails, as well as being drawn to an earlier era when travel was leisurely and relaxed. For whatever reason, a long train trip was on my “bucket” list. Now I can check it off. Two weeks ago, my husband and I boarded the California Zephyr in Emeryville, California and arrived in Chicago, Illinois 52 hours later. Yes, I loved sleeping to the rhythm of train travel. Yes, the scenery as viewed from the observation car was breathtaking. What was the most surprising and delightful, though, was meeting and interacting with all the passengers who boarded the train at various locations. These were, after all, totally random people. These were people who I ordinarily would never meet, let alone carry on amazingly intimate conversations with. And yet, intimacy was exactly what developed between myself and this odd assortment of people. How did this happen? I’ve developed a theory to explain it. Here it is:
When you pay for a “roomette”, formerly known as a “Pullman” berth in a train…you also get all of your meals included. On Amtrak they practice “community” seating at meals. This means you will be seated with new people at every single meal. At first I was really resistant to this idea, but since there was no choice, I got used to it. By the end of the trip I really loved it. Here are the things I discovered that surprised me.
- People are rarely who you expect them to be when you just glance at them briefly as they board the train. I suspect I am like everyone else in that I make up stories about people based on how they look, move, talk, and dress. What I discovered, though, was that my stories were just that….. Stories. The “hick” looking couple from Mississippi were far, far from ignorant and “redneck”. I guess it just takes being captively placed with people to make that discovery. What a shame. I think I need to look at my “storytelling”.
- Once you open up a little bit to people and ask them about their jobs and families, you would be surprised how much you have in common. A rebellious teenager in Cleveland Ohio is much the same as a rebellious teenager in Oakland. This was comforting to know. I felt less “lonely”.
I guess somewhere along the line it occurred to me that I could say anything I wanted, and share anything I wanted with the people on this train. The reality was, I was never going to see any of them again. That’s kind of the “deal” you make in these situations I think. Its part of the appeal of travel that there is ultimately no “reputation” to worry about…no nasty gossip to follow you around. Essentially, you get to be anonymous, which is incredibly freeing. It got me to thinking that if I was in any way “famous”, I would never be free in this way. (No danger of that!)
My final thought about train travel is that it’s actually a metaphor for life. Aren’t we all, after all, just “Passing Through” the lives of all the people we come into contact with? I’m reminded of a song I learned in the sixth grade entitled “Passing Through”. Here’s the chorus to the song:
Passing Through, Passing Through
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue
Glad that I ran into you
Tell the people that you saw me passing through
I’m so glad I met all the people on this train. They will never be strangers, even though it’s unlikely I will see any of them again.