Part Three: Characters of the Railway
The real adventure is the friends you meet along the way.
All passenger names have been changed in the interest of anonymity.
A real Cormac McCarthy-type from the Midwest, as evidenced by the accent, sat beside his wife in the observation car as we passed the vast plains between Kansas and Colorado.
“Ooh! That was a white tail,” his wife gleefully said, quietly. It was meant for his ears only. “Was that an antelope? What was that? Don? Don, that was an antelope.”
It had been about 16 hours since we boarded the Southwest Chief in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles.
Chicago is a major transportation hub for not only the “English”, but the Amish, too. Seated at an observation car dining table was Johnathan and his wife, Catherine. A young couple, they must have been in their early twenties. Johnathan wore suspenders and a solid-color button-up; Catherine looked comfortable in her hand-sewn charcoal dress and white bonnet. They cheerfully discussed their lifestyle with eager English passengers.
“Yes, we have a phone,” Catherine said, responding to a young child in a Cars tee and light-up shoes. “But only one, and it’s shared among several families.” She described a landline to the fascinated kid. Catherine’s smile never faded as she interacted with him; her devotion as an educator ever present. Back at home, she taught the children of her community in a single-room schoolhouse.
“People work at their own pace and charge by the hour – they can really slam ya,” Johnathan said, chatting away with two older gentlemen sipping on beers; Johnathan abstained from alcohol. “That’s why I’m glad I learned to work with my hands. I can do honest business. And there’s nothing better than the feeling of a job completed when the customer’s happy with your work.”
Long after the child with the light-up shoes and the gentlemen with their beers had retired from the observation car, Johnathan and Catherine enjoyed each other’s company while dusk began to set. When conversation once again was struck up with English passengers, Johnathan imparted words of wisdom to a teenager and her mother.
“Life comes down to patience and resilience, like you’re hunting pheasant,” the young man said to the teen. “Pheasant don’t fly very much. You shoot your arrow and you either hit or you miss. If you hit the pheasant, you have dinner. If you miss it, that bird will come right back down to the ground. You collect your arrow and try again.” As the teen pondered how to apply the metaphor to her own life, her mother smiled knowingly.
For a portion of the voyage aboard the Southwest Chief, I was sat next to a man named Matthew. A musician by trade, he regaled me with stories about his son – troubled, but on the straight-and-narrow for some time now. His eyes welled with pride, knowing that with his son’s dark path behind him, he’d be alright. Matthew had seen enough loss – cancer had taken several of those closest to him in a short (and relatively recent) time. Among those lost was the love of his life.
They were a star-crossed love story for the ages. Matthew and Melanie were an item years ago, but split up. A recent brush with bad health for Matthew led him to attempt to reconnect with Melanie, who agreed to meet him for dinner. The spark reignited and the two were smitten all over again.
But it wasn’t long before Melanie called him with her prognosis. A short time later, she was gone. While Matthew didn’t weep on the train, it was clear that the story was tough to share. But these losses, he says, are the reason he’s on the train at all: He’s en route to another concert gig. He’s living his life with a new understanding of its value and that another day may not be promised.
After Matthew disembarked late that evening, we continued west toward Los Angeles. With nothing to see out the windows, the ladies behind me got creative.
There had been a good shuffling of passengers on that late-night stop and on board came an unassuming elderly woman named Ester, who must have been 85 if I had to guess. It would be revealed that she was Louisiana Creole with deep roots in her community.
As most passengers settled into their seats to go to sleep for the night, Ester and the women seated around her decided it was time to tell ghost stories. While some shared tales of phantom phone calls (a retelling of a story I’d heard one of them tell earlier in the evening), Ester went all-in.
Ester’s grandmother died when she was just six years old. Ester’s mother, per her own mother’s wishes, took the deceased’s jewelry to the funeral home to be buried with the grandmother. Funeral planning was halted, however, when the corpse and the jewelry went missing from the funeral home.
“Granny was never found,” Ester said – she was an expert storyteller; perhaps there was griot in her blood, or maybe it's that she'd told the tale a million times. My skill pales in comparison.
When Ester was 34, she married. Oh, the day was beautiful and the whole church turned up for the service. But there was something lingering over Ester’s head the whole event: Inexplicably, in the days leading up to the ceremony (and in the days to follow), rings, necklaces, and more – real jewelry, not costume pieces – kept appearing around her home. A ring in the shower, a necklace hanging from a doorknob, a brooch on her stovetop.
Perplexed, she went to her mother.
“And I say, my momma started to bawl immediately,” Ester said. “Those are your granny’s.”
Defying the coach car’s “quiet hours”, we couldn’t help but react. Ester just laughed. “Every town in Louisiana has one like that, this is just mine!”
I spent the following days thinking about Mrs. Ester’s tale and the horror implied by the only two explanations: Either ghosts are real and Granny was blessing Ester’s marriage, or someone with access to Ester’s home stole Granny’s body and took the time to deposit her jewelry before and after the wedding.
What do you think?
Train Fact 3:
Amtrak routes serve roughly 40% of the United States' rural population, who lack access to bus or air travel. This is not, however, why the Amish travel aboard trains. Per Catherine, while most Amish communities do not condone air travel, many could physically access air travel if their communities permitted it. Instead, many Amish communities choose rail or auto transportation for long-distance travel, so long as they are not the ones operating the vehicle.
Part 3 of 5.