Voices on the Train

For 126 hours and 5000 miles, I heard voices on the train. I hadn’t anticipated this listening when I packed my bags for our Amtrak trip. The main attraction for me was looking out the window. And I did. I saw people in their daily lives—combining fields and walking dogs and sweeping front porches and climbing on school buses. I saw laundry on lines and irrigation in desert fields. I saw mansions cropping the tops of mountains and people subsisting under strung-out canvases along the railroad tracks. And from the ground, I saw the vastness of this country and its varied terrain. All this is what I had expected.

But I was surprised by the richness of listening. There were, of course, the official Amtrak voices. Most of them made me feel like getting on board, cooperating with the program—take my turn, make way for people who were exiting the train, wear a mask, and follow Amtrak’s security slogan: If you see something, say something.

Many of them helped me know what I was seeing.

“Out your window,” a conductor said as we crossed Minnesota, “are bluffs, not hills. You want to know the difference between a bluff and a hill?”

He paused while we considered.

“A word,” he said. “That’s it. And this is not a valley we are passing through. It’s a coulee. If you’re getting off at the next stop and you want to fit in, use the right words.”

But there were some other Amtrak voices that helped me sympathize with rebellious middle school students. Three syllables in, I could feel my spine stiffen. I could already tell I didn’t want to comply, no matter the request.

Several times I heard computer keys clicking right along with mine. I spoke with an author who was finishing his ninth book on music history. And with a woman who was writing about her journey across the country. She told me that right there on the train she was working to forgive what happened on her last stop. A white man in a SUV hurled a hot cup of coffee at her as she walked along the pedestrian path of a bridge and then rudely gestured with his hand.

“I’m trying to tell myself,” she said, “that his anger is a mask for his fear.”

One night I had just reclined my coach seat. My travel pillow was in just the right position, my eyes were shielded from the overhead lights, and the rocking train was lulling me to sleep. That’s when I heard the first heavy breathing across the aisle. Soon the man was snuffling and wheezing and snorting through his nose. And then guttural snoring echoed through the car.

What amazed me was the voices I didn’t hear. All night the man snored, and no one complained. That night, my faith that compassion still exists was restored.

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