I boarded the Crescent in DC, at majestic Union Station. There’s track work on this line (They repair the Southern lines in the winter and the Northern lines in the summer), so I’m in a small roomette, built for people who are inspired by the tiny home movement.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some tiny homers took ideas from these clever little cubicles on the overnight train. The sink folds out, the little commode is underneath. The bed pulls down from the ceiling and there are sturdy nylon straps designed to keep you in the bed, no matter how much the train may bump or tilt.
Dinner is only served for about 90 minutes on these trains and my conductor tells me that if I get to the dining car early, I’m guaranteed to get the meal I want. So, I’m among the first three people to be seated.
My purpose is to talk to people all the way around the country, and so I’ve brought bribes with me. I have a laminated sign that says, “I’ll trade a Lindt truffle for a story. (I’m Celeste Headlee of NPR and TED Talks, not a weirdo).” In my bag, I have three large bags of assorted truffles, ready to delight the palates of people who chat with me.
But here’s the beauty of the train: it’s designed to encourage conversation. The tables are set with linen cloths and napkins, the servers are prompt and courteous, just like any restaurant. The difference is, we are short on space, so unless you have three or more people in your party, you will likely be seated across from a stranger.
My companions were Jeanne and Brian Hanson. After we finished introductions and took a breath, Brain says to me, “Do you want to hear a story?” I didn’t even have my sign with me! It was great. Of COURSE I wanted to hear a story.
Brian and Jeanne explain that ten years ago, not long after they both retired, they decided to ride a tandem bicycle from Portland, Oregon, to Kentucky. They live in Delaware and they chose to take trains from the East to the West Coast. “We’ve both done enough flying to hate it,” they wrote in 2008, “And have traveled just enough by train to like it.” They published a blog of their trip with lots of photos.
The Hansons were in Kansas when Joe Biden was named as Barack Obama’s vice president and they were proud of their hometown guy. When people asked where they were from, they’d say, “Delaware, home of Joe Biden!” But because they were in Kansas, they say they were met with blank faces. No one cared about Joe Biden there, and so they stopped saying that.
Jeanne and Brian rode 4,000 miles or so over the course of four months, carrying their supplies on their tandem bike and staying in $28 motel rooms. It’s clear that trip was a highlight of their lives so far. They tell the story, well, in tandem.
This couple is overflowing with energy and enthusiasm. Jeanne and Brian play instruments, sing in choir, study languages, and tutor two Venezuelan immigrants in English. They teach yoga and paint and spend so much time with their neighbor’s kids that they consider them “adopted” grandchildren.
The reason they’re on this train is that they’re going to Tucson, Arizona, to ride around on their bike. A friend gave them a collapsible tandem bike some years ago that comes apart and fits into two suitcases and they’re taking it with them to the Grand Canyon State.
Here’s the thing: when I sat down in that dining car and realized I would have to sit across from strangers and chat all through dinner, my first reaction was negative. Let me be clear, I am a conversational expert who’s taking the train in order to talk to people and even brought chocolates as a conversational bribe and yet, my knee-jerk reaction when confronted with the prospect of chatting with strangers was reluctance.
I believe the adverse reaction to conversation with strangers is hardwired in many of us by now. Disappointment flashed across my brain, before it was replaced by eagerness. Be careful not to judge situations by that first, brief flush of emotion. Let the second and third thoughts come and possibly lead you to great stories about tandem bicycle rides.