Finding the Middle: Traveling by Amtrak and the Election

Rain storm in Wisconsin as viewed from train.



Last night we watched the dark waters of the Mississippi River, the banks no more than 50 feet from our window, as our train snaked up the Minnesota border to Winona. We turned off the lights in our roomette to better see the dark movements, the many wooded islands, the lights of homes and cabins within perilous reach, it seemed, of the river. In Wisconsin rain had drenched dairy farms, the first rain we Californians had seen in six months. This morning the sun rose over frozen ponds of flat eastern North Dakota. Now our train waits to be rerouted, the single track through a cattail swamp and wetland. Train travel has its own timing! Although most of our travel has been on time, when you are late, you can be really late! But it doesn’t matter so much on a train: you are comfortable, the scenery is specular, whether it is the mountainous switchbacks of the high Sierra, the gorges carved by the Colorado River, the flat Illinois farmland, or North Dakota marshlands with migrating birds rising in formation from tall golden stalks.

Donald and I travel in the sleeper car which gives us the space to stretch out and sleep, and a quiet place to sit during the day and work. (We both love the hermetic space of a train to read and write.) We have found this to be an inexpensive, though not for everyone, way to travel. You purchase your ticket and then purchase the roomette or bedroom. Everyone in the room gets three meals a day, and there are bathrooms and a shower in each sleeping car.

The dining room is somewhere in the middle of the train, and each party is seated at tables for four. At first we were a little dubious about being seated with strangers, but we have been amazed at how much we have enjoyed the people that we have met. On one trip we met a man who was best friends with a teacher Donald had in architecture school sixty years ago. This trip we met a man who grew up in Decatur, the town where my mother was born which is a few miles from my own hometown. His best friend’s mother taught at Blue Mound Grade School where my mother also taught. And there was the woman whose husband is in final stages of dementia and institutionalized, she on this respite trip reinventing her life alone. On the way to Chicago we sat with a very bright man who was on a kind of a spiritual pilgrimage and who asked thoughtful questions about politics that we had tried to avoid these weeks before a very contentious election. Yet he listened to our thoughts and expressed his own, all of us breathing a sigh of relief that the issues, although perhaps not the solutions, are ones we can agree on.

In fact, being seated at a table (in the middle!) with people who politics and thoughts are often different from our own— and having real conversations— has reassured me. As Donald said, there are more similarities than we thought. I wish we all had more opportunity, or took more opportunity, to do this. Too often we rant with people of like mind, fired up by political ads aimed at provoking and debates that too often are like chess games of strategy to unseat the other, not honest discussion of issues.

Sunrise in North Dakota
 We forget the skills of real discussion: to cease using inflammatory language that provokes rather than assists in communication of thoughts and feelings. We forget to listen, and then so riled, cannot imagine problem solving together. And avoiding controversial issues, something we have done with relatives we visited who we know support those on the other side of our isle, is no answer either. If there ever was a time we needed to talk to each other, to join hands with each other’s humanity, it is now.