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A train journey offers time to chat with fellow passengers, to look, and to listen

Illustration by Andrea De Santis

Our silver train wound through New Mexico, past brick-red mountains with tops as flat as tables, their sides scraped jagged as if by a giant’s impatient fingers. Below, sage-green brush speckled the dusty desert floor.

That’s if you chose to look outside. Inside, at our table draped in white linen, I was dining on salmon and baby green beans, and chatting about 1950s movie stars with a retired Las Vegas hotel housekeeper.

“I was walking down the hall at the Dunes Hotel when I saw this gorgeous man,” Marta Galvan, 71, recalled. “And I said to him, ‘I know you!’ and he said, ‘I’m Cary Grant.’ ”

Galvan had more stories: about how she met the Apollo astronauts and cleaned Muhammad Ali’s hotel room. I was game for it all. When you travel by train, you have time to listen.

I had boarded Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train line at Chicago’s Union Station on a drizzly Wednesday in mid-July. I’d just given my oldest child, Liam, one last, big hug as he started the first job of his post-college life. Now my train attendant, Michael Caughman, smiled and welcomed me to my sleeper car.

I could have flown from O’Hare to my hometown of Los Angeles in a little over four hours—and for less money. The train ride would take me 43 hours. So why do it? Maybe more than a year of lockdown showed me that grace can flow from time and contemplation. Or perhaps I didn’t feel like wrestling my flying phobia to the mat yet again.

In any case, on that summery Wednesday evening, I lounged in my sleeper car, watching a lovely lake stretch on and on, and wondering when we’d reach the other side. Then I checked the map and realized it was the Mississippi River, casually flowing past my picture window.

There’s magic to a train ride. Magic in seeing America slide by while you sit, or stand, or stretch, or even walk around. Magic in discovering that Caughman, our hardworking train attendant, had turned my two chairs into a bed when I slipped away to brush my teeth. Magic in, as one fellow passenger put it, “driving while I sleep.”

I had the crew to thank. Caughman, for example, gets no more than five hours of sleep a night when he’s working, and he’s six days on, five days off. When he returns home to Whittier, California, he asks his wife to give him a day to rest before he jumps into household duties and parenting three kids.

Maureen, the lead dining-room attendant, never seemed to stop. She appeared at my room twice a day to ask what time I’d like to eat. She straightened up before and after meals. And when I walked into the dining room, she’d point me to a table with friendly strangers.

I closed down the dining car meal after meal, chatting with fellow passengers about trips we’d just taken, or were about to embark on; the work we did and the families we had; our favorite views over the course of the trip.

One morning, I lingered over my bowl of berry-studded oatmeal as we chugged through eastern Colorado. I told my tablemate, Greg Gauthier, 32, about leaving my boy in Chicago, and how bittersweet it felt. Outside the window, in a small town on the high plains, a worker was opening the local swimming pool for the day.

Gauthier told me he’d gone back to Wheaton, Illinois, for a family reunion. He was reliving a rail journey he’d taken with his parents when he was a child. For him, the train ride had delivered more than just nostalgia. A software engineer in Mountain View, California, Gauthier had spent most of the pandemic by himself. The social part of train travel, he said, “is warming me back up to meeting other people.”

 I knew what he meant. A thousand miles away, my son was learning the contours of his new adult life. Here on the train, I saw my own life taking shape again, among people, and their stories, and the land that makes us whole.

Constance Sommer is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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