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The Southwest Chief historic route was first traversed by the earliest Indians who first discovered its twists, turns and passes.

The Empire Builder operates daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland and was named for James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railway.

Long-distance trains travel as far as 2,800 miles and pass through as many as 12 states.

The Fascinating People You Meet on Trains

What kind of people does one meet on a cross-country train adventure?

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Heading north on the Empire Builder, first people we met were a family from Mukwonago, Wisconsin, a town where we attend a couple of large farmers' markets every summer. Indian for "Place of the Bears", it's at the edge of a lovely area carved into moraines when glaciers receded.

A very youngish grandmother, two daughters and college-age grandchildren were all in roomettes bound for Portland, Oregon. Once there, they'd rented a beach cottage to enjoy a family reunion.

On a less happy, instead sadly poignant note, was a California grandmother taking her troubled teenage granddaughter to her new home in Minnesota.

Abandoned by their mother, the ageing grandmother had unsuccessfully attempted to raise her two grandchildren holding down several jobs. Now, the girl with disabilities was being adopted and the grandmother travelling there with her, anxiously trying to maintain a close connection.

Conversation with a very personable man who joined us for dinner turned out to be exceptionally interesting. Very well travelled, his knowledge of the transportation industry was definitely far above average.

Small wonder — he was transportation editor of a Tulsa, Oklahoma newspaper. He'd become so disenchanted with flying, he was following a quite complicated itinerary back from California to Oklahoma by train rather than fly.

It meant leaving the train in Hutchinson, Kansas at 3 a.m. and catching a bus for the long ride to Tulsa where he was expected to be at his desk writing a column early the next morning.

Although she wasn't on our train, talking travel with a local pharmacy store supervisor convinced her to schedule just such a trip on the Southwest Chief. Her granddaughter was about to enter college and it was the grandmother's intent to take her there and help her settle in.

It turned out to be an eye-opening encounter. We hadn't realised her son-in-law was a member of a small Midwest Indian tribe, now wealthy beyond their imagination because of overflowing casino revenue.

The tribe decided to distribute some of that wealth in a unique —  probably controversial way — by giving each young person around $400,000 outright at age 18, plus a regular monthly stipend of a couple of more thousand indefinitely.

Adult tribal members received a house. The grandmother was worried about how to help guide the youngster down the right path, since she showed absolutely no interest in learning how to handle money. She was already lounging on a Jamaican beach for the summer enjoying her new-found prosperity, spending her new-found affluence with abandon, and grandmother thought the work ethic was forever lost. [continued...]