Misc: What a train ride can teach us about community

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On the Thursday before Memorial Day, my husband and I boarded the California Zephyr bound for Chicago. We can’t board at Union Station in Denver as that building is being renovated. What has been turned into the train station is a low concrete structure just across the street from Union. If Denver International Airport announces itself in great tent tops that seem to float across the western sky, the temporary train station hunkers down, crouching against Coors Field.

Perhaps it is the speed at which a train travels. Perhaps it is the experience of sleeping in close proximity.

It’s crowded when we arrive. People sit surrounded by their luggage, and their food: water bottles, soda, fruit, chips and sandwiches. Nothing appears to satisfy the airline carry-on three-ounce limit above which, one assumes, everybody dies.

I listen for the ominous warnings emanating from hidden speakers: Not only is the moving walkway ending, but unaccompanied luggage will be seized and, one suspects, detonated by the bomb unit.

I listen for the subliminal message just below the airport broadcast, the message that we should all, “Be afraid; be very afraid.”

Instead, I see a single sign. It is my favorite sign from our endless war on terror. It says:

If You See Something,
Say Something.
It’s Probably Nothing.

Amtrak had me at “It’s probably nothing.”

No one searches our luggage. No one swipes my packed underwear with an explosive detecting eye make-up remover pad, or, at least, what looks to me like an explosive detecting eye make-up remover pad.

We shuffle to our sleeping car and settle in our “roomette.” Ventures to the bathroom, at the end of the car, and to the dining room, two cars over, reveal compartment after compartment of people, sitting…and reading. Having conversation. Looking out the window at the eastern plains of Colorado. Playing cards.

Because there is no Internet reception and only sporadic cell phone reception (Thanks, government inefficiency!) passengers are forced to fall back on non-battery operated pursuits.

There are no televisions, broadcasting minute-by-minute misery, and there is no piped-in music to mask the sounds of the wheels on the rails as we make our way into Nebraska and night.

Meals on the train are at tables set for four. For my husband and me, that means we shared three meals with strangers before we pulled into Chicago on Friday afternoon.

We ate with an Amtrak employee who discussed government subsidies for various means of transportation with my husband and possible future western rail lines with me and advised us both on menu choices.

We ate with an English couple, traveling by train from San Francisco to New York City. She’s an administrator with the British National Health Service and he’s an engineer. They’ve opted for private health insurance and do not sing the praises of the single-payer system.

We ate with a woman whose speech is stroke-slowed, but whose thoughts are bright and quick. She is an Iowa native, returned home for good after many years away, a follower of Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan and an advocate for foods, recognizable as comestibles rather than chemicals, and places where people root and remain.

The conversations were not always easy and there were as many points of disagreement among us as agreement, but our conversations were always civil, as well as lively. We learned some things and continued the conversations even after our table-mates parted and it was just the two of us talking about whether a city building an airport counted as a government subsidy of the airline industry.

I’m not sure why bringing a group of people into the closed space of an airport or an airplane is atomizing, while bringing a group of people into the closed space of a train station or train observation car is not. I can only reflect on my experiences in both settings.

Perhaps it is the connection to the outside world. At one point during a meal we all sat and watched in wonder as we crossed the Mississippi River. Sailors on a barge waved at us as we passed. I have made that crossing many times, by car and by train, and I never tire of the sight. On a plane, only the captain’s voice alerts me to what I could not otherwise identify far below.

Perhaps it is the speed at which a train travels. I can watch the towns passing, watch as the farmland of Illinois bleeds into the exurbs and then the suburbs and finally the city of Chicago. It is not the same sense of dislocation one feels after being sealed in a tube and whisked above the clouds from one place to another with nothing but sky in between.

Perhaps it is the experience of sleeping in close proximity, all of us vulnerable, barefooted and bed headed as we pass on the way to the toilet. Perhaps it is sharing meals with strangers.

Perhaps it’s the announced assumption of the official sign in the station. Yes, it says, we are strangers, and so initially suspicious of one another. But we’re going to share a journey together and will most likely discover along the way that we mean no harm and may even intend good.

So, if you see something, say something. But it’s probably nothing.

– Melissa Musick

(This article originally appeared in Celebration, the liturgical resource of The National Catholic Reporter.)