Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Social Life of Long Distance Trains

When I first started riding trains in summer 2008 I knew a lot about the Greyhound and a lot about flying. The train contains a different kind of social life than those other modes.

I'm again traveling from Chicago to Portland on the Empire Builder like I did that first summer, only this time I'm a connoisseur. I know how to avoid long conversations when I'd rather stare out the window. I know to bring along a bottle of lavender Dr. Bronner's so I can feel somewhat refreshed.

Part of this knowledge is spatial, like knowing what types of interactions happen where. If you're traveling coach, you may have only a sliver of space to yourself. The "sightseer lounge" has lots of seating, but tends to get crowded and loud. I like to sit there if I'm working on a project, or if I want to have casual conversations.

I try to avoid talking to my seatmate if I have one because I like talking to strangers so much that I will keep talking as long as they're on the train. This can lead to things like watching Jennifer Aniston rom coms with someone who works for a coroner's office in suburban Chicago. While this is fun, I prefer to maintain a sense of solitude when I'm riding for days, especially because I always put together an ambitious list of writing, reading, or sewing tasks to accomplish while en route.

Besides figuring out a system for how to not feel crowded even in a very public space, the other thing that makes the train work for me is the ladies' dressing room. Each coach car has one. It's just a little room with two sinks and a couch with its own enclosed bathroom on one end, but brushing my teeth is made much more appealing when there's not an Amtrak toilet in the room.

It's tricky, though, cause there's no lock on the dressing room's outer door. I used to feel huffy about people coming in when I was using the room, but today a lady came in while I was performing my morning toilette and we had a lovely conversation about bikes.

People react differently to the social space of the train. I witness plenty of interactions between conductors and travelers clearly miffed about the fact that they'll have to share a seat.
I mean, it is a lot nicer when you don't have to share a seat, can't deny it.

But there's a lot of camaraderie, too. When I ride in a sleeper I always enjoy getting to know the people I'm seated with at meals, and I always overhear lots of getting-to-know-you conversations. I think there's one going on behind me right now.