When I was preparing for this trip, one of the first connections I made between baseball and rail travel was the idea of community. Baseball allows people from a town or entire region to unite behind a common cause for a few hours each game, and enjoy food and maybe some beer. Trains, similarly, force people to sit next to each other at meals or on travelling tours, and have conversations with semi-retired square dance callers or chemtrail conspiracy theorists. I can’t think of any way to get to know your fellow citizens – all of them.
I’ve been asked throughout my journey by family, friends and reporters what my favorite part of the trip was, and it’s become an almost impossible question to answer, since I had so many unusual moments on this trip. But I think if I had to pick a moment that was most representative of my trip, I’d choose an interview on the Empire Builder.
My 30 hours travelling that route alone was the longest ride of my trip, and I was curious how I’d handle it. When I woke up in the morning, I felt almost at a loss to figure out how to function in a space that was both small and well-populated with people. Meals ended up providing the bridge I needed to reach out.
At every meal I’ve had on the train, there’s an appetizer of awkward eye contact and cautious verbal handshakes that precede each meal. “Hi, where you headed to?” “Where’d you get on?” “I’ll have the risotto.” Stuff like that. Each meal slowly warms up from there, but I rarely felt like the conversation triumphed over the food, which for me at this particular dinner was the Thyme Roasted Chicken Breast (I never really worked up the courage to try the Steamed Mussels available on a train in Montana.) However, my time with Rinji and Marlon was an exception.
Both of them came from different upbringings. Rinji was raised in South Korea and came to the US full-time in her 20s. Marlon was Honduran and raised primarily in New Jersey, but during his time in the Marines he traveled all over Asia. They both met in New York, and from there gradually formed a life together, travelling all over Europe and the United States and getting married somewhere along the way.
Through it all Rinji, the woman from South Korea, had come to love train travel. She rode the trains in South Korea all the time almost as a necessity, and now was excited to see where Amtrak could take her in the US. After a lot of prodding, she had finally managed to convince her husband, Marlon, to join her on the Empire Builder for his first serious train trip.
Weirdly, Rinji and Marlon were my neighbors across the hall in the sleeper car, but it took me the whole day to finally meet them. At first, Rinji insisted that only Marlon should be interviewed. As Marlon and I sat in my tiny roomette, chatting about his first time on the train and watching the sun slowly set over Glacier National Park, Rinji would listen in and call out a comment here and there. Over time she gave up trying to stay out of the conversation, and we all leaned into the doorways of our roomettes and had a conversation between the three of us about what it was like to travel. Rinji loved trains, and she was confident she could convince Marlon to love them like her.
“At first I was like, ‘It’s a train, where’s the fun in that?'” Marlon told me at one point. “I’m really enjoying the ride.”
“See, I told you!” Rinji shot back.
When I think about what I want travel to accomplish, I think about Rinji and Marlon. They would not even have met had they both been afraid to go somewhere new and try something different. I got to do both of those things: prior to the start of my trip, I had been to exactly one of the cities that I visited this summer. I ate cherries in Washington, hot dogs in Chicago and poutine in Toronto. I met veterans of rail advocacy who had been pushing for better service for decades, and young people like me who just needed a better way to get to their college. Rail travel, it’s clear to me, benefits the light rail users of the city and the rural towns where trains pull in at odd hours all the same.
I fully plan to go to more baseball games in the future, but that was always a given for me. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a whole stadium full of Canadian minor-league baseball fans jeer the opposing team’s manager off the field, and I want more evenings like that. But I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about rail travel. After 37 days, 22 cities, 19 baseball games and about 6,000 miles traveled though, I can confidently say that I’ll ride the rails again.