Originally published in The Bermuda Mid Ocean News (The Royal Gazette), October 27, 2006
by Shirley Rose Higgins
For some weeks we've been talking about trains and the very impressive areas reached travelling on them. But what kind of people does one meet when they set off by train off on a long-haul, cross-country adventure?
Come along as we introduce you to a cross-section of those we met on Amtrak's Southwest Chief to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Empire Builder to Whitefish, Montana.
They're diverse, often colourful and take especially interesting trips. All seem to be addicted to train travel and lead active lives that seem to keep them in perpetual motion.
Obviously one can't generalise. Perhaps we were just lucky. Most of the passengers we got to know were met over meals in the dining car. It's railroad practice to seat people together at tables for four. Out of 14 meals on the two trips, only once were we seated with two people you'd rather not ever encounter again.
That glum, very dour Minnesota couple not only didn't speak to us, but exchanged few scant words with each other. Communications in that household must be deadly dull. They were in the West visiting friends — one finds it hard to believe they had any.
Otherwise, all people we were seated with were interesting and often very out of the ordinary, the kind you chatted with during the entire trip.
The first meal was a pleasant introduction, a World War Two veteran from Kansas City fulfilling a lifelong dream to experience a train ride somewhere other than the troop train that carried him off to war. Now he was anxious to buy a 30-day pass and cover the country.
The veteran and his wife impressed us as "salt of the earth" types, those newsman Tom Brokaw labelled "The Greatest Generation" in his coverage of World War Two veterans.
They were so obviously very decent people, who sadly lamented changes in a country they once considered such a different place. It was hard not to agree with them.
Next morning at breakfast, we met two passengers who live on an island in coastal Alaska.
"We're pretty much isolated all year, so when we vacation, part of our enjoyment is encountering the great variety of personalities one meets on trains," one said.
One well-travelled couple we ate lunch with were from coastal Huntington Beach, California, en route cross country to Maine where they would spend their summer in a beach cottage near Bar Harbour.
The husband was very partial to New Mexico, especially the area around picturesque Cerillos, which Robert Redford used as a location in his 1988 movie The Milagro Beanfield. As the train passed that interesting town during our meal, he lamented a preference for spending time there.
"But you know I like to be near the water," countered the wife. "We live on the water all year in California," he answered. Just that brief encounter left little doubt who made travel decisions in that family.
Both did admit they "like to go into Maine village shops and talk to shopkeepers for two hours", and the reluctant Maine-bound husband said: "The train ride is the trip."
At the opposite table a stylish-looking couple from Italy were equally enthusiastic about new Mexico's beauty. Their business was creating hand-painted silk scarves sold in fashionable shops.
"It's our choice to see your country at eye level rather than fly over it at 30,000 feet. Can you imagine seeing Tuscany only from the air and never from the ground? It's the same here."
There was a very pleasant woman, now living in Grants, New Mexico, whose father had come to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project and his family stayed on. Originally from the Cedar Creek area of Virginia's Shenandoah, she returns there for visits, torn between the two places.
It seemed a good idea not to mention how our ancestor General Philip Sheridan's decisive victories in that very Cedar Creek area played a decisive role in Lincoln's re-election and the north's Civil War victory. We remembered all too well the reaction when we asked about his headquarters during a trip there a few years ago.
A couple of hundred coach passengers boarded in Kansas City, Chicago-bound for Memorial Day weekend. Two very bright young African-American students we ate breakfast with were on their way to participate in a debate at De Paul University.
About to graduate from high school, they were enthused about their college future and teachers travelling with the student group were obviously proud of their young achievers [continued...]