On the train, you learn things about the people you're sitting near. It's inevitable. People who travel in small groups talk amongst themselves as though there's no one else around. You hear what they say. You make judgments about them.
Then there are the old people - well, they're usually old - who take the train specifically because they're lonely and need someone to talk to. Watch out for these people. They'll spill their guts out to whoever happens to be sitting next to them, completely unfazed by polite signals like picking up a book and leafing through it, or turning away and looking out the window, or closing your eyes and pretending to be asleep. They don't care whether or not you're interested in what they're saying, as long as you appear to be listening.
On my train journey, I hardly spoke except when spoken to, but I still got to know several people. They were kind of strange, but then, don't you have to be kind of strange to pick a two-day train trip over a three-hour plane ride?
Pinstriped Pajama Blazer: Never talked to this guy, except once: he had been playing chess on his brand new desktop computer when a message popped up that said, "Your battery is getting low. Would you like to revert to Power Saver mode?" (I asked him if he meant "laptop" and he nodded and said he did.) He was completely perplexed by this message, loudly asking me, "What on Earth is this? How do I make it go away?" (It had just gone away by itself.) "Where did it go? Was that important?"
Martin, Martin Rogers: The first thing I noticed about this guy (well, it was kind of hard not to) was his outrageously pretentious laugh. It was like something out of "The Great Gatsby". I turned around, curious to see what this guy looked like (seriously, if you had heard this laugh, you would have turned, too), and there he was - Martin, Martin Rogers, a balding, white-haired man wearing a dress shirt and slacks (yes, on a train). He was sipping from a miniature bottle of red wine, guffawing at jokes (his, hers, whoever's) even when they weren't very funny. Later that night, I overheard Martin discussing the texture of a 21 dollar steak he had just consumed in the dining car with the guy sitting one seat in front of him. "The food on these trains is really quite good," he assured him, laughing pretentiously.
The next day, I overheard Martin telling a soft-spoken North Dakotan boy that he was on his way to Montana to drive buses for Glacier Park. "Give me a call if you're ever in the area and I'll give you a ride," he said. (The boy said he'd try.) For the next forty-five minutes or so, Martin, Martin Rogers continued to bore this boy (and anyone else in the car who'd listen) with random facts about Glacier Park, Glacier Park's buses and Glacier Park, Incorporated, the organization which maintains and operates (but does not own) Glacier Park's buses.
Jess: Jess from Minneapolis, who I sat next to from Minneapolis to Glacier Park (Martin's stop!) seemed to have no idea where her life was going. She was en route to Glacier Park to be a housekeeper, but didn't "do" housecleaning. "Like I totally don't clean, so I don't know how this going to work," she said. What did she do, you might ask? I know I did. "Oh. Medical illustration," she said. "I want to make diagrams for science textbook companies."
"Really?" I said. "That sounds awesome."
"Oh, well it isn't," Jess said. "I kind of hate it, actually."
Sounds to me like Jess has some soul-searching to do. I didn't say so at the time. It wasn't necessary. She already knew, and besides, I'm sure she probably thought the same thing about me. English and music?
The Old Lady from Calospell: The old lady from Calospell got on in Whitefish, MT and didn't say a word to anyone until we had reached the Cascades. So when she asked me, "Where are you headed?" I had no idea that she was secretly one of those old ladies.
But she was. Oh yes. For the next couple of hours, this old lady said almost everything that occurred to her. She told me about her house in Calospell, the kind of plants that grew in her garden, a great buffalo burger she had one summer in California, the time she shot an elk. You wouldn't believe the kind of things that this woman remembered, and thought to mention. "I was sitting in the living room knitting with my husband, who was watching TV, when I heard a noise. I said to my husband, "Did you hear that?" And he didn't hear it, so I figured it was nothing and went back to my knitting. But then I heard the noise again, and so did my husband. So he went to the window and pulled aside the curtain, and you know what we saw? There was this little baby bear there making its way across the lawn, and it had two tags in its ears, and my husband, he said to me, "Why do you suppose this is?" Of course I told him that they meant it had been captured twice in town before; we should call animal control." By the time I got off the train in Edmonds, I felt like I knew almost everything about this woman, her life in the wilderness, her husband (now dead), her four children and their spouses, what schools they went to, what they studied, what they're doing now, how many kids they have... I could have told you about the old lady's favorite department stores in Calospell (you used to have to drive all the way to Missoula), or how long it took (on a good day) to get there from her house.
I swear to God, some people (mostly old ladies, but younger people too) just will not stop talking to me. I don't know why. (Do you?) Maybe it's because I've spent so much of my life listening. Maybe it's because I'm unwilling to be mean to a person who seems to have good intentions at heart. Or maybe it's because I lead these people on by seeming to enjoy the respite from silence. I swear I just don't know.
I also met a one-eyed man who was traveling to Alaska with his son, but he wasn't very interesting. To be honest, he reminded me a lot of my Grandpa. And yours. He was just your standard old guy, except for the bit about having only one eye. Afraid of flying. Knew a lot about nuclear power plants. You know what I mean.
Tomorrow: "HAVE SANDWICH INGREDIENTS, WILL TRAVEL"!