The high desert of Utah stretched to the horizon as I sat in the lounge car of Amtrak’s California Zephyr talking to Chester about nuclear bombs. We were both bound for Denver. Chester, a retired beekeeper in his late 70s, lives in Colorado. I was on my way to South Dakota, via the Mile High City, for my father-in-law’s 90th birthday party.
There’s something about train travel that invites conversations. Maybe it’s the slower pace. Or perhaps it’s because people don’t invade one another’s space — as they are forced to do on airplanes. Therefore, they feel more relaxed and sociable. Whatever the reason, it’s among the things I enjoy about the train — that and the magnificent scenery.
The Zephyr crosses the rugged Sierra Nevada between Sacramento and Reno and snakes along the Colorado River in the spectacular canyons of Colorado. But even as America unfolds outside the train’s windows, there is room for conversation.
Chester — who has a penchant for progressive causes — told me of a senior class trip he took in 1953 with other students from a Colorado high school. Their school bus was on the road in Nevada and southern Utah shortly after a nuclear bomb test in the Nevada desert. (When I got home, I verified that a test occurred. It happened in May 1953, and nuclear fallout spread into Utah.)
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Chester said officials advised motorists that the area was safe but they had to stay in their vehicles if they broke down. He shook his head at the naivete of that time. Who would accept such a promise today?
We were still talking as the train passed into Colorado, and some campers along the Colorado River showed their bare backsides to the train. Happens all the time, someone said. Cheeky campers.
A week later, as the westbound Zephyr carried my wife and me toward home, we had breakfast in the dining car with an Australian couple in their 50s. They were living in Indonesia and on “holiday” to visit their daughter, who teaches kindergarten in the New York City area. They had flown to Denver, taken in a Colorado Rockies ball game and were headed to California, wherethey would meet up again with their daughter.
They had moved to Indonesia to volunteer in an education program — something like the American Peace Corps, according to the man. Neil was his name. His wife had the most expressive face that filled with amazement and joy as she spoke excitedly of their adventures in America. She talked excitedly of visiting Harlem in New York City and of her eagerness to see San Francisco.
The couple also spoke about horrific traffic jams in Indonesia, where people who are crammed into a bus stand for hours waiting for the vehicle to move. Such patience — or is it resignation? — is hard to imagine in the United States.
The Australians walked the streets in Indonesia, getting swept along in funeral processions bearing a body to a public cremation. Terribly interesting, the woman said respectfully as the train rushed west after re-routing took us over the Great Salt Lake. It was a treat to see birds gliding over the lake’s glassy surface as the sun rose.
Between Winnemucca and Reno, a man from Ohio told me more things about himself in 15 minutes than you learn about some neighbors in years. The man said he self-published a children’s book after a divorce as a form of therapy. He plans his next book to focus on the personalities of Jesus’ 12 disciples.
He also shared that he is a farmer, a conservative and a caregiver who once worked with disabled adults. Furthermore, he doesn’t like to fly because airplanes make him claustrophobic, his father died when he was college age and he later struck out on his own by moving to San Diego. He worked there as a gas station cashier.
Looking back, it sounds like the dreaded TMI (too much information). However, for reasons I can’t quite explain, it didn’t seem that way on the train. We ended our chat when my wife and I headed to the dining car for lunch.
Our table companions were two young guys from Santa Cruz who had quit their jobs to drive across the country, eventually arriving in New York City, where they sold the vehicle. They were headed back to the Bay Area to start over.
We had vegetarian burgers for lunch — sprinkled with conversation, of course.
Doug Hoagland is a free-lance writer in Fresno. He can be reached at email@example.com.