A Very Amtrak Joe Christmas

Not Me - Except in South Korea: Via People.com

There is a moment from my cross-country trip a few years ago that has always stayed with me. Somewhere south of Kankakee – the City of New Orleans  was epically late – I sat down in the dining car for breakfast.

Amtrak has a policy where they sit strangers on a train together. It has led to some of the best conversations, funny exchanges, and pure awkwardness I’ve experienced. A South Korean tourist with little in the way of English, and me with nothing to offer in Korean, once told me I looked like Leonardo DiCaprio. Ha.

It was this policy that put me at a table with a woman in her 50s who was taking the train south of Memphis to join up with her family after a quick trip to Chicago. As the train rolled along and southern Illinois blended into Kentucky, we got to talking about Christmas plans and my trip. Then she asked a question in the way that only a mother could, “What does your family think of this trip?”

The truth of the matter was that at the time I wasn’t talking to my mother at all. Although my father and I were in touch, we weren’t close. I had made my plans without considering what they thought. Although I was spending both Christmas and New Years with close friends, her question got to the heart of something that I’ve been pondering since that exchange. And it is this: what would it be like to travel on a major holiday. Not a St. Patrick’s Day or Labor Day, but one of those holidays that everyone is supposed to be around their family. And by travel, I don’t mean taking Amtrak from NYC to DC or even a flight from the East Coast to Chicago. I’m talking travel that requires at least a half day, if not more.

I’d always wondered who would travel on this day. Where were they going or maybe, leaving? What would the vibe of the train or plane or bus be like?

My questions were answered this week when I rode Amtrak from Vermont to NYC. Due to the train schedule and my own itinerary, I left Vermont on Christmas morning. With maybe six other folks in tow, we pulled out of Rutland for points south at 11 am.

Despite the throngs of open seats, a guy around my age sat across the aisle from me. A few minutes into the trip, as we crossed Otter Creek’s waterfall, he offered some Christmas candy and licorice to me and the conductor. With the train throttling towards Castleton, he introduced himself as Nick and I told him my name was Joe. And then, at 11:30 am on Christmas morning, Nick took out a bottle of wine from the home of his grandfather, who had recently passed away, and said we were going to drink.

This is me - on a train. Not during Christmas though. Sorry.

For the next two hours, until we reached Albany, Nick’s destination, we talked about everything from our horrible travel experiences to his efforts to start a new business with his brothers to the scariest bridges we’ve ever crossed. For the record, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel scares me to this day.

As we finished off the bottle of wine between Saratoga and Schnecteday, Nick offered a silver wrist bracelet he had been given. Having already enjoyed the wine and candy, I passed.

In a frankness that I assume came from the combination of the wine and the holidays, we both opened up about what we were dealing with. Admittedly, I only brought the fallout from ending a two-year relationship to the table while Nic spoke of his family’s issues with drugs, the struggles with his law-breaking girlfriend, and his own checkered past.

If we had crossed paths in any other setting, I imagine we would have kept on passing by. As I’ve grown older there may be less gifts for me under the tree each year, but my conversation with Nick as we made our way through upstate New York is much closer to the Christmas spirit than any one gift that may or may not be remembered a few years after it is unwrapped on Christmas morning.


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