Train Travelogue – Part I

Tedious travel provides unique social experiences



In the 1960s I made a penniless pilgrimage cross country from Boston to California. In 2011 I went in the other direction, this time aboard an Amtrak train. Join me as my train leaves southern California into northern Arizona. I have selected a few poignant episodes to illustrate what occurred in my chance encounters with strangers.

4:00 AM, Wednesday, April 13, 2011, entering Flagstaff, AZ

I am annoyed in the middle of the night by a loud reading of Scripture by a young woman across the aisle. An older female companion is blanketed and trying to sleep. When I ask for quiet since people are trying to sleep, she begins to weep and speak in a deranged manner. I warn her twice that I will fetch the conductor but she continues weeping, saying, “I have to read Scripture; sorry, but I love God, I love God.” My heart goes out to her but practicality takes precedence.

I walk to the front of the train, all the way to the Pullman sleeper, and tell the conductor. He comes back with me and tells her to be quiet. She looks at him as if he’s from another planet, then apologetically says, “Okay, Okay!” After he leaves, she extends her arm across the aisle to me, saying, “Can we talk?” I don’t answer her. “Okay, okay.” Then she goes silent for a while.

I felt like clasping her hand to comfort her, but knew she could distort such a gesture. Having suffered a nervous breakdown in my youth, I could sympathize with her emotional distress. I wished that I could heal her with the touch of a finger. I found myself weeping for her and wiped away my tears.


5:50 AM, Wednesday, April 13, east of Flagstaff, AZ

We leave behind Flagstaff with piles of snow along the tracks, and stop at Winslow, a nondescript town. We pass an isolated house on its outskirts, then a Navajo arts and crafts store on the highway out of town.

Our emotionally disturbed passenger is quietly sleeping; her bare feet and legs propped over the seat in front of her. She awakens and moans aloud. People take notice but do not complain.


6:00 AM

The dawning sun blazes on the eastern horizon. There is so much dry uninhabited land, all scrub and grass at high altitudes. I welcome seeing a large plot of deep green alfalfa grass, bordered by trailer homes. It is in stark contrast to endless rolling hills of scrub grass. Our train passes a twin-stack power plant next to a small lake. Telephone poles whiz past. Unlike downtown LA, where we crawled at 20 mph, we are pacing highway traffic at about 75 mph.

The clickety clack, clickety clack rhythm is not annoying me anymore. The Coaster trains along the California coast are newer and well maintained, but this Amtrak inbound is dilapidated, noisy, and jounces on the uneven track beds.

I make the most of the clatter and worn apparatus. I wonder why we don’t have elevated monorails with new Magnetic Levitation trains that can zip across our continent in 12 rather than 72 wearisome hours. I suspect the automobile industry long ago paid lobbyists to crush rail travel in the U.S. Americans have a fierce love affair with cars, allowing for self-directed, pride-driven individualism.


I hear the emotionally disturbed woman mumbling to herself. In daylight she looks young, about thirty. I glance at the girl’s pink seat ticket. Her destination is Albuquerque, NM. She surprises me by having a coherent, lively conversation with someone across the aisle. I assume her mental illness is episodic.

That whole event last night was avoidable. I could probably upgrade right now to sleeper coach at four times the senior discount cost of coach class, but decide against it ― not only to pinch pennies as I have been used to doing since my youth, but for closer contact with other travelers.

Mahatma Ghandi of India, as I recall, avoided purchasing First Class on trains, insisting on the experience of the common man. Though as a successful lawyer he had the means, he felt that wealth and political power conspired to cushion him from the social abrasion needed to polish his character. He likened it to rough gems tumbling together in a container until each has a smooth surface.

Maybe this tedious travel experience of mine is a sort of finishing school for me.


6:18 AM, Wednesday, April 13, 2011, Flagstaff station

The steep, narrow ladder-like stair is a major flaw in the coach design. Older, obese folks are huffing and puffing, scarcely able to reach the second level without help. Young Amish couples come aboard, dressed in black and dark blue clothing, and they pause to let me climb the stairs first. They are members of an Amish gathering I can see on the station platform.

“Where are you folks from?” I ask, before mounting the stairs. “We’re headed back to Missouri,” a man says with a smile and gracious nod. Only the man answers. I notice his lady casting her eyes down in modesty.

Jesus was challenged by his disciples for talking to a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well. Back then, men did not casually speak to women and treated their wives and daughters as chattel property. The Amish cling to their old traditions.

What a divine coincidence that I’m reading a New Oxford Review article by Eric Brende, “Why Consumerism Still Consumes Us,” that speaks about the Amish lifestyle. It would be interesting to validate it in casual conversation with the men. The Amish women on board would likely be reluctant to speak with me.


6:32 AM, leaving Flagstaff

We travel through a vast flat plain. A solitary windmill spins fast in the middle of nowhere, pumping up precious water from a deep aquifer, to replenish a water trough. Cattle drink from it. Suddenly, thirty foot ridges rush past, composed of numerous large boulders, some tumbled down from sheer cliff walls. Though not man-made, the block shapes have a straight-edged factory look from Nature’s chisel.

The woman’s traveling companion starts criticizing her for a long night of ranting and raving over Scripture. The ill woman cannot remember being a nuisance last night, exhibiting selective amnesia or a split personality. Lack of sufficient sleep can affect memory and behavior.

A highway road sign announces Gallup, 47 miles; Albuquerque, 187 miles.


8:33 AM, entering Gallup, N.M.

I prepare my daily meal of precooked, packaged brown rice and tuna that I bought in a supermarket. I am carrying about 30 pounds of food and water provisions in one luggage bag; like Army C-rations, they are easy to prepare and eat. I suspect it has better nutritional value than what the diner car offers at high cost.

While the disturbed young woman is off to a restroom, her older companion turns to me and apologizes, explaining the young woman’s sudden loss of two children, two grandchildren, and a husband five years ago in a shocking auto accident. It left her devastated and derailed.

“Her older sister is a friend of mine who arranged for me to take her to Albuquerque but forgot to mention she’s an emotional wreck. All she can do is seek comfort in her little Bible and pray aloud to her God when she can’t sleep.”

After hearing this, I try to imagine how I would feel and behave after losing my whole family in a car accident. My mind would not go there. It distressed me to learn she has not had, nor can she afford, professional help since that severe trauma.

My mind flits through pages of health books I have read. Maybe inexpensive, high-dose B-vitamins like B-6 and niacin for anxiety and schizophrenia would help her recovery. My own experience with this obligates me to share it with others. But we arrive at her destination before I can explain it all. My people suffer for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).


To be continued in Part II: My Discussions with the Amish on Amtrak


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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