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Chance Encounters

Thoughts of a Traveling Writer

by John Pitt

Bishops Castle, Great Britain

Photo: Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau

When visiting North America in the early 1990s, I traveled mostly by bus until I discovered a more relaxed and enjoyable way to see the country. Now I've traveled over 75,000 miles by train around the United States.

Anything can happen on a train, and when Amtrak's Pennsylvanian paused early one evening at Lancaster a young Amish couple came onboard. The man looked like Gary Cooper and had a neat beard, wide-brimmed hat and long, black coat. His wife wore traditional dark clothes, black boots and a bonnet, and carried their baby asleep in a black shawl.

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Suddenly it felt like being in a scene from the film Witness. All afternoon we had traveled through Pennsylvania Dutch country — flat fields, white farmhouses and churches with wooden bell towers, where occasionally a horse-drawn buggy would trot along a dusty road or wait beside the tracks for the train to pass. By the time we reached Lancaster it seemed perfectly natural to have an Amish family join us and share their picnic.

Such chance encounters are part of what makes a train journey such a rewarding experience, even when as a writer I'm trying to concentrate on making notes on the passing scene. It might be a group of schoolgirls heading for Niagara Falls, or Australian backpackers crossing the Arizona desert. Trains are friendly places so you are sure to run into someone interesting before long, and you can learn a lot by sitting next to a Kansas City mortician or a drag artist on her way to entertain the troops in San Diego. Between the small towns and big cities you also appreciate America's sheer size and variety, and see what it looked like before McDonalds and Coca Cola.

I've traveled by rail many times, but I still get a thrill every time I board one of Amtrak's long-distance trains. It may be faster to go by plane, even allowing for tortuous journeys to and from airports, but for anyone not in a tearing hurry trains are definitely the best way to travel. As Homer Simpson has said, "Nothing beats flying across the country on a train."