|Sitting in the Lounge car, looking up.|
People I had convos with on the train: a world traveler on his way home from a six month vacation, a mom going to visit her navy-chaplain daughter, a small town dad visiting his daughter in the big city, a film maker who told tales of train hopping in his college days, a social activists who worked to end the death penalty in her youth, and a grandmother who beamed with joy telling me about her job helping special education kids on the school bus.
I always like to ask people why they take the train instead of a plane. I rarely get the "afraid of flying" answer. It is most often something about a relaxed pace, the views of the country you can't see any other way, and the fact that the remoteness of the path usually means a day of no cell or wifi service where you have nothing better to do than watch the scenery roll by as you get to know a neighbor.
Most railroad stations I've been in immediately beg you to feel nostalgic. Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is no exception. The long wooden pew-like benches fill the waiting area for the trains and the overhead signs are black with white letters that flip into place to announce the incoming and outgoing trains and track numbers. The fast clicking sound echoes off the high ceilings and marble every few minutes.
There's something that appeals to my nomadic heart to have memories of long conversations with strangers as we sat in chairs that swayed as the train clicked along, drinking glasses of wine. Sometimes the conversations are nothing important: reminiscing about television shows of our childhood or sharing tales of favorite vacations. Sometimes, they get more serious. After a few hours one asks me, "Are you happy?" and I can tell he really wants to know. Later, he shares more about his past, about the reasons he is not. There is much time, but not enough to solve these big problems. I silently pray for a wise answers and a way to love my neighbor. The backdrop to our conversations a constantly-changing panorama of rivers and mountains, fields and barns, small towns and big cities. Introvert that I am, I love these long conversations. No one on a long-distance train is ever in a hurry, and something about that "there is no where else to be" mentality keeps my social fear of being a "bother" at bay.
Even when I wasn't talking: there were conversations to overhear. Like, the one among a mixed-group of men - aged 19 to much older. The oldest wearing a shiny red jacket, ripped at the seams, with the Marine logo and "Vietnam" on the back. He walked with pained effort, gripping the seats as he strove for balance. A younger man, probably in his 30s, stood up and offered this man his seat and then introduced himself as an Afghanistan vet. Another guy came along - he was currently in the navy. The youngest and the only one not in the service, wanted nothing more than to be a pilot and peppered the men with questions. The Vietnam vet was on his way home from visiting the Vietnam Memorial - he went to touch the names of his fallen brothers. He told stories that you could tell had been told many times, and he even repeated a few during that train ride, but the younger men never shushed him or walked away. My mind whirled with the implications of war on the lives of these men and the rest of the world, the sadness and loss in their stories only solidifying my beliefs regarding non-violence. But, this was a beautiful moment of respect and dignity and honor.
The return trip had some interesting juxtapositions. I transferred trains in D.C. I got off my overnight train with my fellow slow-paced travelers and walked on to a short regional train filled with D.C. Power suits. Though, my seat mate was still chatty. After the two hour ride up to Philly I switched to the local commuter train to get back to my town. No one talked on this train. Eyes forward, ear-buds in, no conversation. We're all tired and going home and it's been a long day. No one cared to know about their neighbor and there wasn't time anyway.
If you are ever travelling across the country and can spare a couple days on at least one end of the journey to slow down, I highly encourage you to take a train trip. This was my first summer train trip and I suggest going during longer daylight hours if at all possible - more time to see. I booked a sleeper car once years ago, and that was nice, but unnecessary. The coach seats lean back and a leg rest pops out. Bring a blanket and a pillow with you and all is well. The tracks will rock you to sleep a midst the company of newly-found neighbors.