Here’s a thing about trains: You are forced to be at least a little friendly. For example, if two of you are sitting at a table for four in the dining car, you can expect the Maître d’ to place another pair of people with you. So if you’re traveling the full, Seattle-to-Chicago length of the Empire Builder route, you could share meals with as many as six or seven other pairs. Adding to that, if you’re traveling in coach, you might be seated next to the same people for close to two days (with no showers). I don’t often have that much together-time with my own family.
You could avoid meeting anyone by spending the whole trip wired into electronics or with nose buried firmly in a book. Or you could embrace the experience and emerge at your final stop with twenty new Facebook friends.
Indeed, I think that’s half the point of taking the train—at least for some people.
Jules and I had barely stepped onto the bus that was to take us to the Seattle train station when we were adopted by a pair of friendly train-travel veterans heading for Chicago. I’ll call them George and Georgina.
George was a quiet, smiley fellow who might have been content to give us a nod in passing and nothing more. Georgina was something else. Large-voiced and jovial, she recounted past experiences with Amtrak, convincing us that a go-with-the flow mentality was best when things went wrong at the border. When the bus passed into Washington, she turned tourist guide, providing tips on places to visit along the route to Seattle: Fairhaven (near Bellingham) has trendy shops and a great indie bookstore. is another nice tourist town. Leavenworth is a good German town with lots of Bavarian stuff, and Mount Vernon is famous for tulips in the spring. (When I began typing Georgina’s suggestions into my iPhone, she perked up and racked her brain for more.) Somewhere during our conversation, she offered us a deck of playing cards. She said she collects them at casinos and gives them away on train trips.
We parted ways with George and Georgina at the train station, where they got in line with the sleeper car passengers and we joined the queue for coach. But that’s not the last we saw of them.
During our early morning stop in Spokane, our trained picked up an observation car with a sightseer lounge on the upper deck. This is another place to make some Facebook friends. It’s also a place to find coffee, so Jules and I headed that way when we reluctantly gave up on sleep and admitted it was morning. Covered in windows, the sightseer lounge is full of tables and outward-facing seats. Not surprisingly, George and Georgina were already nested at one of the tables, so we sat at an adjacent table to enjoy the view. (We were traveling past Glacier Park that morning, arguably the most spectacular part of the trip.) The other seats slowly filled with all sorts of people, including retired couples, young families, and college students returning to school. There was even an Amish family (man, woman, and teenaged boy) sitting at a table next to George and Georgina.
After Georgina showed me her knitting project and let me enter the pattern into my iPad (I sound like a walking advertisement for Apple products, don’t I?), she decided things were too quiet and pulled out a deck of cards. Soon she was doing card tricks for our amazement and teaching the tricks to Jules. After a bit, she switched to coin tricks (doing and teaching). The Amish family turned in their seats to watch her antics with stoic curiosity. Noticing their attention, Georgina turned to them and asked if they’d like to see the coin trick, too.
“Why, yes,” they murmured politely, and Georgina was off, teaching them a new trick. When she was finished, she said, “Say, does your religion allow you to play cards?
I winced at the blunt reference to their beliefs. I tend to err on the side of “none of my business,” when it comes to religion. But, unfazed, the Amish father graciously murmured, “Well, yes, it does.”
So Georgina returned to her seat and pulled another deck of cards from her bag. “Here, you can have these.”
As they politely accepted the deck, she bubbled, “I have lots of decks. I collect them from casinos.”
I mentally banged my head repeatedly on the table and waited for lightening to strike. But I then I realized someone was shuffling the deck. And next thing I knew, the Amish family was enjoying a quiet game of cards.
As we reached Glacier Park territory, more people entered the lounge, looking for a seat. Jules and I moved to George and Georgina’s table to make room. A thirty-something woman joined the Amish family, who welcomed her with a smile and struck up a conversation. Two older ladies took one side of our vacated table and dad with young twin boys sat across from them. Soon the lounge car filled with friendly conversation all around.
Would this have happened without Georgina’s card tricks? Or would we all have shelled up, talking only to those we already knew? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that I wouldn’t have worked too hard at mingling. And I also know that Georgina exited that train with a slew of new friends.
I’m kinda hoping she’ll be on the train for our return trip.