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American Friendship Adventure

Embracing the difference

After I completed a training workshop in New York, I decided to take Amtrak back to Seattle. I booked a trip on the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago with a transfer to the Empire Builder to Seattle. Along the way, I was deeply affected by people that I met with their own stories to tell.

In Rensselaer, NY, where the Boston section of the Lakeshore Limited is combined with the New York section, a student from France wandered away to smoke a cigarette. Not knowing he'd gotten off, the conductor gave the "All Aboard."

"Wait," I shouted. "Our Frenchman hasn't come back. He needs this train to get to Milwaukee for a wedding." The conductor stopped the train and sure enough, the student came running back, worried about missing the train.

Outside of my high school French teacher, he was the first person from France I've ever met. He told me about life in Bordeaux where he was from. Yes, his parents and grandparents did grow grapes and yes, they did bottle wine. In fact, he had several bottles with him and gave people in the car samples to taste. I was happy to meet a man with such a different lifestyle.

On their way to St. Paul was a family with a young lady who had Downs Syndrome. As we passed the various metropolitan areas north of Chicago, we went through a number of cities with their own urban congestion problems.

In one city, she was excited to see cars backed up for a long way waiting for the train. Some were going straight, and some were turning from side streets onto the main highway, hoping for the generosity of their fellow motorists. "Look," she said excitedly. "A people jelly," meaning a traffic jam. Her simple mistake warmed my heart.

I spent most of my time in the lounge when it was open. A fellow passenger was an Amish man from Ohio. Yes, he wore traditional Amish clothing. His plain brown shirt was buttoned up to the collar. His trousers didn't have a zipper or buttons but he held them up with red suspenders. He had sturdy, practical work boots. He had a hat, he told me, but it was back in the coach car. He did not drink.

He said his group of Amish were on their way to Missoula, Montana, for a wedding. Missoula is about 120 miles from the train's stop in Whitefish, Montana. I've heard that the Amish don't drive vehicles with internal combustion engines—so I was surprised to learn they don't mind being driven. They had rented two vans with drivers to transport the group to Missoula.

The other thing I learned from him was that after the wedding and return to Whitefish, he was going alone to Libby, Montana. My ears picked up. Libby is where my mother grew up and it's more than a hundred miles from anywhere with a population. It used to be a sawmill town, where her father worked.

I asked my new acquaintance why he chose Libby as a destination. He said he was on his way to hunt for food for his Amish community. He had rifles and shotguns stowed safely in the baggage car. He had purchased an elk tag, a moose tag, and a bear tag and was looking for big game.

It was a complete surprise to me. All my life, I've heard that the Amish were pacifists with no weapons. And yet, here was an Amish man with guns and the intent to use them. His explanation made sense. He wasn't waging war and wasn't killing other people.

He told me that Montana's game department only gives out hunting tags to keep animals from overbreeding and to reduce the populations to calculated levels. Above those numbers, they encourage hunters to visit "Colorful Montana."

There was a young man downstairs in the snack car with a beautiful, knitted wool cap. He said his girlfriend had made it by hand. He was going to Bellingham, Washington, to visit her at college.

My son was about the same age and also wore a cap, to cover the dreadlocks he had grown. I told the young man in the snack car I hoped I wasn't being nosy, but did he have dreadlocks under the cap. He smiled as he lifted it and a headful of deep brown dreadlocks spilled out.

My seatmate was from Middlesex, England. He was shy, so I didn't push him for information about his city. I knew I could look that up when I got home. He didn't have a coat, so when we got into the mountains of Montana, he started to shiver.

I had a small blanket I used for the three nights on the trains. I lent it to him, glad to make his trip more pleasant. I hoped he would take back stories of American generosity when he returned to England.

The conductor was a photographer in his off time. On his deadhead trips to his starting point, he liked to take pictures of the Empire Builder's travels through the scenic beauty of the northern tier states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota (yes, it has beautiful rolling green hills), Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

He sat with me and scrolled through his photo collection on his iPhone, showing me amazing sunrises, sunsets, lush farms, flower-filled mountain passes, and many other wonderful sights. He also told me tales of the wild west in Montana, stories of mountain men, Indian scouts, US Army troopers, outlaws, and even city folks trying to settle permanently in the many towns.

Finally, in the lounge car, sipping whisky, was another man in plain country clothes. He told me he had a 640-acre farm in southern Illinois. He grew corn and soy in rotation and made a tidy profit for his energies.

"I'm putting you on," he said. "I only farm 639 and three-quarter acres." What an interesting statement. Of course, I asked him what the last quarter acre was used for.

With a great big grin, he said, "I lease it to a telephone company. There's a 250-foot cell tower on it. Their towers have to be spaced at even intervals to work, so they pay a lot of money for the privilege of using my land."

I loved the people I met on my trip. I'm a railroad fan, but I never knew about the rich backgrounds and stories of my fellow passengers. Taking my nose out of my Kindle paid off in joy and camaraderie.

May 19, 2023 18:35

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