I have always loved riding the train. This weekend, I finally got to ride the train in the U.S., after living for a year abroad and taking trains everywhere, riding Amtrak from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, New Mexico. Traveling up the winding route to Las Vegas, with the cottonwoods beginning to turn, I heard conversations between so many Americans, unknown to each other before the train ride, that I don’t recall hearing since I traveled on airplanes as a child, when passengers traveling on long flights sitting next to each other would start as strangers and part as friends.
There was the midwestern farmwoman-turned-entrepreneur and her southern husband, in their seventies, talking for two hours in the “observation car” with the younger choral director and musical theatre buff from Michigan, en route to a choral convention in Las Vegas. They talked about art, and lyrics, and finding one’s passion and how to market oneself as a musician in this day and age and why art is so important to humanity. And the Mennonite siblings—a brother and sister in lilac shirts and dress, and an older sibling in a sky blue dress, the women sporting Amish head coverings and all of them wearing white, gauzy masks, made from the same material as their head coverings—speaking in a beautiful, Pennsylvania-Dutch inflected English, answering endless questions from the blond, non-Mennonite and middle-aged woman to their right, who laughs gregariously and asks all sorts of what she calls “nosy” questions (“do you use technology? How old will you be when you get married? Are you going to cut your hair?”). They answer good-naturedly, and they laugh at each others’ different senses of humor, she loudly and raucously, they softly and giggling.
And the conductor who sang us a five-minute, operatic song about the beauty of the state of New Mexico (his composition?), over the loudspeaker (my neighbor to the left told me he did a different song when they were traveling through Colorado), and who takes tips downstairs for his singing skills. And the African American man, en route to Los Angeles, who is teaching dominos to the young Anglo man sitting across from him at the table and wants to see a UFO in Roswell, as two older European men adjacent to them opine and offer opinions on the game as it transpires in real-time.
The Observation Car, it seems, is where people come to feel connected to others, to see the country from the “observatory”—the glass covered car that allows us an exquisite view of the countryside as we pass—and to learn from one another about their differences. But most of all, I am struck by how infrequently I see this in other aspects of American life. This sense of curiosity for other people, and the subsequent desire to converse and ask questions, takes time. This is something that many of us, ensconced in our work lives and routines, rarely find. It is as if it takes the luxury of a transcontinental train ride, to find it again. It makes me wonder: is Amtrak one of the last vestiges of American civic life still happening “in the wild,” so to speak? And if so, how might we rebuild this sense of civicmindedness, elsewhere?
Cultural Anthropologist, Singer-Songwriter and multilingual speaker Kristina Jacobsen blogs on the boundaries and connections between songwriting, ethnography and the songwriting life.
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