Conversations with Strangers on a Cross-Country Train Ride

Joe Keohane on the Social Fluidity of Long-Distance Travel

Somewhere near the border of California and Arizona, in the predawn light, two men are talking about cabbage. One is tall, tan, a strapping guy in a flannel shirt with the look of a rancher. I’ll call him the Rancher. Probably midsixties. The other is an older Chinese American man. He’s reading a book called The Plant Paradox. I’ll call him the Vegetarian. It’s five-thirty in the morning, and we’re all awake because that’s when, for reasons no one has been able to adequately explain, Amtrak has decided to serve breakfast on this train. I’m numbly drinking coffee while staring out the window of the observatory car, watching the dim contours of the scenery scroll by, as scrubby Arizona yields to California in the early morning light.

The Rancher wanders over, glances at the Vegetarian’s book, and takes a seat next to him. “Are ya into science?” he asks.

The Vegetarian says yes, he is. The Rancher asks what the book is about, and the man explains it to him. It’s about the dangers of lectins, he says, which are plant-based proteins found in many fruits and vegetables. This segues smoothly into a conversation about fasting and diet. The Vegetarian has been a vegetarian for years, he says—since he retired. He fasts regularly, too. I horn in and ask if fasting makes him ornery. A large, bearded guy behind me hears my question and pipes up, “You bet I’d be ornery! I need my meat, man!” The Vegetarian nods and says yes, it does make him a little tired when he’s doing it, but he’s never felt better on the whole.

The Rancher considers this, narrows his eyes, and asks: “What do you think about cabbage?”

“Cabbage?”

“Yeah, cabbage.”

“Cabbage is good.”

Really?”

*

It’s May 2019, and I’m on this train—some forty-two hours from Chicago to Los Angeles—because in my quest to get good at talking to strangers, I wanted to find a situation in which it was the norm, but in a venue that’s less structured than my experiences at Conversations New York. If you’re looking for a context in which talking to strangers is pretty much obligatory, America is a good bet. It’s unusual among Western nations in its general chattiness, which has always been one of my favorite things about it—even in a deeply fraught historical moment like the present. Only in America would the cliché “never met a stranger” be considered so flattering, so desirable, so virtuous, that it would appear in countless American obituaries every single day.

In his 1971 memoir, the great British actor David Niven recounts a cruise he took as a young man. “The crossing was my first confrontation with Americans en masse and I found it a delightful experience,” he wrote. “Their open-handed generosity and genuine curiosity came as something of a shock at first. What a change, though, to be asked the most searching personal questions in the first few minutes of contact, or to be treated to a point-by-point replay of the life of a stranger. What a difference as an unknown foreigner to be invited to sit at a table of friends or to join a family.”

If you’re looking for a context in which talking to strangers is pretty much obligatory, America is a good bet.

So it was decided: I’d do this exercise in America. But where specifically in America should I go? That’s where the train came in. I’d read novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s 1975 book, The Great Railway Bazaar, which is largely an account of talking to strangers while riding trains halfway across the world. After one fruitful exchange, Theroux writes, “The conversation, like many others I had had on trains, derived an easy candor from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again.” I had also recently happened upon a magazine story about taking the train across the country, in which the writer observed that train people are “individuals for whom small talk is as invigorating as a rail of cocaine.” Sign me up.

There was something deeper that appealed to me, though. Americans are bewitched by trains. Trains transformed America, and in exchange, Americans are transformed by trains. I had been corresponding with one such person, an American musician by the name of Gabriel Kahane. After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Kahane had become downcast about the country. So he set out to spend two weeks on trains to get out of his bubble and spend time with his fellow Americans. In effect, he wanted to talk to strangers—strangers in the sense of people he didn’t know, but also people from whom he’d become estranged culturally and politically. The journey resulted in his acclaimed 2018 recording, Book of Travelers.

“It was absolutely transformational,” Kahane told me. “It mostly reinforced my belief that the digital lens through which we interpret the national mood is deeply skewed. Not that we don’t have serious, life-and-death ideological differences, but that those differences are so much easier to navigate when you’re dealing with someone as flesh and blood, rather than as a digital, glowing, faceless avatar.” Kahane says the experience forced him to confront his biases about people in the other parts of the country—though politics seldom came up. He found most of the conversations he had with people naturally revolved around family—around the love people have for their families and the sacrifices they make for them. “If anything,” he says, “it gave me faith in humanity.” That was good enough for me.

I booked a sleeper cabin on Amtrak’s cross-country train, the Southwest Chief. On departure day, I take a cab to LaGuardia Airport. A nice lady at the newsstand asks me where I’m going. I say Chicago, but from there I’m actually getting on a train to Los Angeles.

“Oh my. How long is that?”

“About two days,” I tell her.

“Why don’t you take a plane?”

“Because I’ve always wanted to do this, and I figured out a way to do it for work.”

“I don’t understand,” she says. “Why don’t you take a plane?”

“It’ll be fun!” I say.

She looks at me.

“It’s an adventure! I’ll meet new people!” I say. “There will be great views! I’ll have a bed!”

“Hotels have beds.”

“Look, you’re not going to change my mind on this.”

She laughs and wishes me good luck. I board a flight to Chicago, where on a moving sidewalk I encounter a man with a large and oddly shaped plastic case. I follow my curiosity, as Gillian Sandstrom advised.

“What is that thing?” I ask.

“It’s a dead body,” he says. Then he pauses. “I’m kidding. It’s a stand for a trade show.”

Hours later, I step onto a very large train at Union Station, find my cabin, and away we go.

*

As the train eases into motion and the journey gets under way, the conductor, a natural performer of Colombian extraction, makes two announcements to the residents of our two-story sleeper car: “The coffee is hot, fresh, strong, and Colombian. And so am I.” And then: “There is no Wi-Fi on this train. They took it away two months ago. So you’ll have to talk to each other. I hope you like each other.” As he ticks off the rules and amenities of the sleeper car, travelers are already circulating, sticking their heads into various cabins, introducing themselves, asking, “Are you our neighbor?”

My hopes for this trip are immediately realized. The beauty of traveling by long-distance train is that strangers mingle without hesitation or self-consciousness. It is a completely fluid social environment. Like hunter-gatherer society, the model is fission-fusion. People mingle, meet, and introduce the people they meet to other people. What’s more, the awkwardness people tend to feel at the prospect of talking to a stranger is dialed down. You are invited to talk by your presence on the train—that’s the social norm—and you always have a good opener: “Where you headed?”

People are almost always game to talk. You don’t have to apologize or offer some kind of excuse for talking to someone. Passengers are constantly either having conversations or joining conversations already in progress. If you hear something interesting to you, you can just politely sidle up. This sort of wide-open sociality, I’d wager, has to do with a few factors. First, a lot of these people are from the South and the Midwest, where people talk to strangers. Second, we’re all in the same metal container, which means you quickly come to recognize one another on sight. And third, unless you’re part of a foursome, you’re going to be eating all your meals with strangers. If you’re me, and you’re alone, you’re going to walk into the dining car, and you’re going to be waved over to a table, and then you’re going to talk.

My first dinner was with a retired couple, Penny and Bill, from South Carolina. They were traveling to California to see Bill’s brother. Bill’s a retired navy officer, and his job has taken them all over the world. Penny tells me they have moved twenty-nine times. Once they had made plans to travel to Nova Scotia for vacation, when Bill told her it was off—they were going to Paris instead. Penny was delighted, until he told her it was for good. Then she was shattered. She didn’t want to move again. She didn’t speak the language, which was hard for a born talker like Penny. “My mother used to say, ‘Penny, stop talking and eat!’ ” she tells me. “My teachers used to say that on my report cards: ‘Penny is always talking!’ It’s just who I am!”

Having a dog helped in Paris, she says. It was an incidental similarity, and it broke down barriers among her and strangers. She had started saying hello to a man she came across while walking her dog, Muffin. One day he said, “Bonjour—your dog, what is her name?” She said her name was Muffin. He said, “Non, non, non! Her name is . . . Croissant!” Thereafter, every time they met he’d say, “Bonjour, Penny! Bonjour, Croissant!” After that, things got better. Since then, everywhere Penny goes, she asks dog owners what their dogs’ names are. It’s a surefire way to meet people, she says.

We talk and talk, and she tells us all about their adventures, including the time they ended up helping a friend birth sheep on a farm in England. As she’s recounting the tale, she struggles to remember a word. She asks Bill, “What is a male sheep called?”

“A goat.”

“It’s not a goat!” she says.

“Hey, I don’t know,” he exclaims. “I’m a navy man!”

As we talk, I can’t believe my luck. All their moving around has made Penny very good at talking to strangers. After all, if she didn’t talk to strangers, she says, she’d never be able to meet people and find a sense of community. One of her techniques, she tells me, is, when people say “How are you?” she doesn’t say “Good.” She says, “I’m great and getting better every day.” When she asks them how they are, and they say, “Good,” she says, “Are you really?” And then they just talk. “People need to talk,” she says.

We talk for two hours—about Amtrak food, about life, politics, anything. The conversation just wends easily along. I find them fascinating and lovely. Twice Penny calls me “a national treasure,” which, not to put too fine a point on it, but: It’s about goddamn time someone figured that out. Our fourth fellow diner, a fit, tan middle-aged woman, doesn’t have much to say, however, except that immigrants were overrunning California as part of what she believed was a criminal conspiracy. She was born in England, she says. She wears a T-shirt that reads love.

The beauty of traveling by long-distance train is that strangers mingle without hesitation or self-consciousness. It is a completely fluid social environment.

That night, we’re told that the train is being taken out of commission due to flooding in Kansas. At midnight, we’re herded off the train and onto buses and driven three hours through the dead of night. Even then, people are chatting, at least initially. The people behind me, after the usual getting-to-know-you chitchat, realize that they were both hit by the same tornado. After a couple of hours, though, people get tired and our bus falls silent. A tall, jangly man walks up to the front and says something to the driver, then turns, walks back, and takes his seat. Twenty minutes later he’s back up there again. This time the driver snaps, “Sir, take your seat.” The other passengers exchange glances. Twenty minutes after that, we pull off the highway, into a gas station parking lot that is full of police cars. The jangly man stands up, walks out, and surrenders himself to the cops with barely a word. He had asked the driver to speed up, we learn later, because “there are some people I have to kill in California.”

The next day, the man, who quickly became known as “the Murderer,” is the talk of the train. Over a Bloody Mary lunch with a retiree from Indiana and two younger Kentuckian women, we gaze out the window and talk about the fearsome emptiness of the American West rolling by the windows of the dining car. The man says this is nothing. He’s recently started teaching an adult education class about the size of the universe, he says. He pulls out a quarter, slaps it on the table, and says, “If our solar system is this quarter, our galaxy is the size of the continental United States.” We start talking about the sensation of awe after that. And when the train stops in the middle of the New Mexico desert, someone at another table goes, “Uh-oh, what now?”

“I’m not sure, but there are a couple buses parked outside,” I joke.

“And one of them’s driven by the Murderer,” says one of our companions. “He’s waving at us!” She waves back.

The rest of the trip rolls along like this, drifting in and out of conversations, some casual, some deeper and more personal—with a social worker, a dairy farmer, an art teacher, and others. Most people are middle-aged or older, but not all; probably three-quarters are white. But everyone mingles for the two days we spend together, rumbling across the western half of the country. The ample time and magnificent scenery make people comfortable and unselfconscious. After a day or so, I feel like I’m learning to have a conversation again. Just sitting back and letting it go where it goes. A collaboration, not a competition. But what takes place on the train feels settling and restorative. It makes the complexity of others undeniable. Everybody is pretty good company. Everyone’s story is a pretty good story. They are familiar enough to be relatable, but different enough to be interesting.

*

Which brings us back to cabbage. After the Rancher and the Vegetarian exhaust the topic of fasting, the Rancher and I fall into conversation. There’s something about him, something about the way he speaks, that is intriguing to me, something eccentric that doesn’t match his looks. I ask what he does, but he dodges the question. These days, he says, “I think. Maybe too much.”

“What do you think about?”

After telling me repeatedly that his opinion doesn’t matter, he starts in on something. He says he had a thought early this morning, in fact, while staring out the window of his cabin. He said he’s long believed in the existence of other dimensions, and increasingly believes they might be closer to us than we think. He says as we passed a freight train going in the opposite direction this morning, something took hold of him. He says he noticed that in one sense, the freight train was blocking his view. But if he squinted, he could still see the moonlit desert through the gaps between the train cars. He says he imagined this passing freight as the other dimension, full of unknowable cargo, passing so fast we don’t even see it; we just see our own world through the gaps between its cars.

“Perhaps then,” he says, “perceiving another dimension is simply a question of speed.” He wonders if it could be possible to slow down the mind enough to perceive this other dimension passing before our eyes. He takes comfort in knowing it’s there, but he’s still happy to have a few feet between it and us. “I wouldn’t want to be walking around outside and end up in front of it,” he says, and chuckles.

He then goes quiet, and I get to thinking that I feel the same way about strangers: vessels of unknowable cargo, containers of whole universes, silently passing in front of us day after day, and us unaware. Some traditional island cultures believed this literally—that strangers are visitors from other dimensions lying beyond the known horizon. In a sense they’re right. They are. And we can go our whole lives without even seeing them if we don’t learn to look.

The man and I gaze out the window of the observatory car as day breaks over the California desert, and he says that only on a train can you have such thoughts, and then he gets up and walks away before I can ask him his name.

__________________________________________________

From the book THE POWER OF STRANGERS by Joe Keohane. Copyright © 2021 by Joe Keohane. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Joe Keohane
Joe Keohane is a veteran journalist who has held high-level editing positions at Medium, Esquire, Entrepreneur, and Hemispheres. His writing—on everything from politics, to travel, to social science, business, and technology—has appeared in New York magazine, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, Wired, Boston magazine, The New Republic, and several textbooks. An avid parallel parker and occasional working musician, he also won a prestigious Screenwriters Colony fellowship in 2017 for a comedy television pilot that remains, sadly, unproduced.





More Story
David Lowery on the Strange, Arduous Journey of Adapting The Green Knight for Film The following is from the foreword to The Green Knight. What was I thinking when I wrote this? I knew what I was getting...