Cross Country Training (Notes from Riding Through the Heart of America)

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20160304_095457Nobody likes to hear the principal call your name through the loudspeaker. This is an eternal fear. It’s like one of those dreams where you wake up realizing you have a test you haven’t studied for (let alone in a course you’ve never attended class for). You never ever want to hear your name blared from some public address system (unless there’s a reward involved).

So, when I’m anonymously sitting in the makeshift shaft they call the Rochester train station (the new one is supposed to be ready this fall), you can understand why I suddenly became uncomfortable when the speaker blared, “Can Christopher Carosa please come to the dispatchers desk.” I sheepishly made my way to the command center. It was nothing. They just wanted to let me know, since I was on a sleeper, I needed to board when they announced the train’s first of two stops.

Moments later, as we could hear the train approaching, the announcement came: “The train will be making two stops. The first stop is for baggage only. All passengers will be boarded on the second stop.” Apparently I’m baggage. I got up and boarded with the rest of the baggage.

So began my third cross country rail trip. There are three things I like about the train. First, it’s not a plane. Second, it’s very relaxing. Third, it gives me a lot of time to write. On this trip, I discovered a fourth reason – listening to America. It’s amazing what a finely attuned ear can tell you about this particular moment in America.

Because of my writing I’ve been fortunate to appear on dozens of radio stations from one end of the country to another. I’ve learned to listen to the host to pick up some of the thoughts and feelings of the audience. I’ve always done that when I have live speaking engagements, so I figured it might be helpful to do it when I’m being interviewed on the radio, too. I decided this train trip would make use of my listening skills. Here are some of the conversations I heard:

Passing through Gary, Indiana, Breakfast, Thursday morning: It was the latest I could go for breakfast and they sat me down by myself at a booth for four. Mark later joined me. He was traveling from New York City to Flagstaff, Arizona with his 92 year-old mother. Originally from Michigan, he had travelled the country working for an unnamed phone company. He learned a little about a lot of different places in America. But what he learned most was from his father and staying at his uncle’s cabin on some secluded island off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s a real-life MacGyver, who can fix things with just a pen knife and a paperclip. This got him in trouble on occasion when the phone companies issued laptops to all its field employees. One time he was called into the office of his (much younger) boss, who asked him where his laptop was. “In my car still in its original wrapping,” said Mark. His boss couldn’t believe Mark could do things without the aid of a laptop. Given his experience, Mark emphasized to me the importance of getting off the grid. He only has a smart phone for his mother’s sake (she has an iPhone and an iPad and is more adept than him at using these devices). I log his advice in the back of my head.

Chicago, Union Station, Amtrak Lounge, Thursday morning/afternoon: As luck would have it, two prominent political speeches bookended my six-hour stay in the Lounge. First Mitt Romney gave his now infamous not so subtle pitch to nominate him at a brokered Republican Convention. I heard the whole thing pretty well. My initial thought was if Romney were half this good in 2012 he wouldn’t be giving this speech. How did he lose to Obama? I was quickly reminded why by the kind hosts at CNN who, no matter what side they were on, gently tore apart everything Romney said. The room, for the most part, ignored everything. An hour or so later, they didn’t ignore Donald Trump’s campaign speech. The first reaction was cheers. Then came the inevitable counterpoint, with a loud conversation between a pro-Trump woman and an anti-Trump man. It got so loud I couldn’t hear Trump’s speech. I heard it went as expected, in other words, well, including a few choice zingers on Romney everyone was thinking but too chicken to say out loud.

Stopped at Galesburg, Illinois, Dinner, Thursday evening: This time I go to the early dinner and get seated with three others. I anticipate lively conversation. As it turns out, Ron and Melissa are married and do most of the talking. Cathy barely says her name before she goes silent for the rest of the meal. This happens a lot. There’s always one person who climbs into their shell. Usually I try to urge them out, but Ron and Melissa had too much to say. They’re going to Flagstaff, too, but only to rent a car and drive another two hours to some vacation place. They hail from outside of Toledo, Ohio. He’s a tow truck driver and she’s a bookkeeper. We share our experiences of the snows of Lake Erie and the glaring differences between this winter and last. Ron, Cathy, and I dine on the Amtrak Signature Angus Beef Steak. We gobble ours down. Melissa has the chicken. She takes forever to eat. Contrary to my doctor’s orders, I join the other in dessert.

On the way to La Junta, Colorado, Breakfast, Friday morning: Again I go to the latest possible breakfast slot. This time I am seated next to Randy, who has already ordered. Randy is from a small town in central Missouri. Like the others, he’s going to Flagstaff. He’s going to visit his brother, travel through southern California for a week, then his sons will meet up with him. Randy is an interesting – and an informative fellow. On the verge of completing his required student teaching tenure, he was offered a job as Assistant Manager at a local eatery. He took it, jumped to the Long John Silver’s chain before realizing, at age 35, the fast food business was for the younger crowd. He went home one day and told his wife he decided to become a lawyer. With four young children to feed, she said, “we can’t afford it.” He countered, “We’ll find a way.” He worked as a prosecutor for many years before setting up his own shingle and becoming a defense attorney. He explained to me the concept of “jury nullification” and how it represents the ultimate veto for bad legislation. When he found out I was an investment adviser, he wanted to know my take on the economy. I told him. He then expressed his concern about a potential trade war. I told him that’s the least of our worries. He then mentioned China and how he was just fine if they made all our goods and gave them to us for free. He also said they want to build a global empire. I asked him if free trade was an issue with the old Soviet Union. Before we could continue, they closed the dining car and we had to leave.

Approaching Las Vegas, New Mexico, Lunch, Friday afternoon: I arrive late for my early seating. This gives me the opportunity to eat with the coach class. Again, we have a total of four at the table and, again, one is silent. I didn’t get any of their names since their conversation had already started. The woman, who works in HR for a small Catholic college in Indiana, is going to Flagstaff. The man, a retired assessor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, is heading for some small stop in Arizona. Since they had ordered before me, they get their food first, and I do most of the talking. It’s tough to listen when you’re talking. I lead with my journalism and writing activities since experience tells me that topic generates greater interest. It does but not for the reasons I figured. The is when the woman reveals she’s the head of HR and is very concerned about her fiduciary liability. Most people don’t know what that means and only a few people (in general, HR people) need to know what it means. So it surprises me whenever I come across someone who is genuinely aware of the subject. I offer about twenty minutes of free consulting before they ask us to make room for the next group of people. Who knows? I may have sold a couple of books.

Somewhere east of Gallup, New Mexico, Dinner, Friday evening: Again I was the last to arrive to our foursome. The husband and wife team sat opposite from me. They were an older couple from central Michigan. They were heading to LA to see their son and recognized there was a potential they would embarrass him the way all children are embarrassed by their parents. The fellow next to me was on his way back home to Portland, Oregon after visiting family in Iowa. I asked him if he was on the wrong train. He said no. He’s a frequent train traveler and has already been on the California Zephyr, which cuts across Colorado, Utah, and Nevada before stopping in San Francisco, a much more direct route to Portland. He intends to pick up the Amtrak Pacific Coast train two hours after our scheduled arrival in Los Angeles and then spend another 17 hours on the train before arriving in Portland. He has his doubts about us making it to LA in time. Our stay in Albuquerque took longer than expected as we had to add another engine to our manifest. It’s a freight engine. Freight engines can’t go as fast as passenger engines. The older couple appears to be outdoorsy type. The man regaled us with stories of his young (and old) adulthood hunting and fishing from northern Canada to the Colorado plateau. He pined for the days when both the Canadian and the American governments did not intervene with hunters, fishers, and anyone intent on going back and forth to Canada. He thinks profiling is a good idea as it means less hassle for us innocent folks.

San Bernadino, or thereabouts, California, Saturday morning: Not many people go to breakfast the morning of our arrival. I meet a couple of tired veteran train riders who regale me with tales of the high iron fished out from deep inside the bowels of their railroading memories. But the primary talk of the dining car is “What happened?” We’re running about an hour behind schedule due to all the unscheduled delays. We could hear the crew murmuring with almost childish excitement, but we can’t detect exactly what they’re talking about.

Los Angeles, California, amazingly on time Saturday morning: Who’d a thunk it? We made up a lost hour in no time flat. I’ve always thought the scheduled time from San Bernadino to Los Angeles was suspiciously long. But in the past it proved to be accurate. The fact that we made up the time on this particular trip confirmed my earlier suspicion: There’s a lot of fat built into the schedule. In either case, I decide to treat myself to a Red Cap and take the cart in. Good thing, too, because that’s how I found the answer to the mystery uncovered at breakfast. It turns out several people were arrested and hauled off the train at the stop in Flagstaff Arizona. It was the typical scenario involving a woman, several guys, and lots of adult beverages. It got physical. The Amtrak police had to come aboard and apprehend the perps. I rolled my eyes, imaging college kids on Spring Break. But then the elderly woman relaying the story said something that shocked us: Those responsible for the ruckus were card-carrying AARP members. Who’d a thunk it?

If you’ve never taken a cross country train trip I highly recommend it. I’ve done it six times now (three round trips) and each time was more memorable than the last (although, I have to admit, riding back with my brother and doing the Grand Canyon things remains the tops).

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