If You Have Time, Take the Train

Penned July 3, 2019


My husband and I are on the 53-hour Amtrak Zephyr traveling from Emeryville, CA to Chicago, IL. Running logistics as a profession, it is rare for me to embark on trips with no preparation beyond scoping the online PDF of the dining car menu. (It’s good.) I’m trying to practice openness, to be without expectation, to see untouched and rugged America, to conquer my poetry anthology textbook… and also there’s no wifi.

For sure, gorgeous plains, lush valleys, and rafters mooning us (apparently it’s tradition) can all be found a window away. Cross-country train travel affords you the opportunity to see areas you would otherwise never see up close since there are no major highways. There is so much expansive desolation. I’m more consoled that in the event of a zombie apocalypse, the desert will take us in.

I suppose I did expect something. I expected to be with myself. I was not expecting to be with so many other people. To maximize limited dining car space, we are always asked to share a table with other passengers. At first my bourgeoisie sensibilities are slightly offended at the thought of my simple American fare with sides of whimsical stares out the window being frequently interrupted. Instead, the other passengers become my favorite part.

There is Bert and Josephine (no real names), an elderly couple on their way to a large family reunion. Josephine is a banker, and Bert was forceably retired from his title and escrow business in the last financial crisis. Bert spent his career helping to ensure that sellers actually owned the titles to plots of land they were selling, which in my mind is practically performing a public service. For our entire dinner, Bert happily regales us with his wisdom on how to read historical maps, trace land plot ownership, and tales of interesting characters. He is most animated when describing his dear friend, Sweetwater Clyde, who is so aptly named because water near mines often have trace amounts of arsenic, and if you imbibe enough for a premature end, water becomes sweet.

There is Mike who is our age traveling with his mother, crossing off the Zephyr from her bucket list. His mother is from Taiwan and does not speak very much English, and I love how she keeps matter-of-factly reaching for more nibbles from his plate. I suddenly miss my mom. Mike sees our wedding rings and asks how long we have been married. This kicks off a 30-minute conversation on how Mike’s own pending nuptial planning is going. We all lament the cost of the grand Asian banquet (that seafood) and whether Dragon Beaux in SF is worth it. I tell him to brace himself for HBO’s Chernobyl, and we discuss our feelings on the upcoming GOT spinoffs.

There is a large 7-person Amish family in our train. I realize I have never spoken to an Amish person before. The patriarch of the family is clearly delineated as he keeps the group’s sole pad and paper, and he is the only one who speaks to me, asking me to check my watch for the time. They spend their hours playing card games as a whole family, and I can make out some German-ish. I see their teenage daughter glance at my colorful yoga pants and Kate Spade crossbody with curiosity.

And finally, there’s Preston, a retired doctor turned psychiatrist who spent his career working with underserved communities, now taking time for himself in his golden years with writing and playing music. The three of us trade stories for two hours straight – his stories working with inmates, our stories working overseas in Asia, our shared experiences living in Hawaii, marriage, children, technology, poetry. I end our dinner with a singular question to him, “Are you hopeful?” He looks at me clearly and says, “Absolutely. You millennials have got this. You’re not sentimental about the wrong things. I always hear people complaining about millennials constantly being on their phone. Yeah, that’s cause they’re doing deals on their phone! We’ll be fine.”

I am leaving this experience feeling satiated in the best way. I’ll end this essay with some protips on logistics. First, tip your server especially well on your first meal. You will likely have the same server for every meal afterwards. Second, the crabcake really is the bomb. Third, bring your own shower towel because the one provided will only cover a quarter. Fourth, bring lots of sunscreen for your arms and legs because you will want to live in the domed observation car.