Wapsie Experience (12/8/16)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, December 7, 2016
In medieval England, a pilgrimage to Canterbury to pray at the grave of murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket was a common sacred journey of the faithful. Eight centuries later, many of us were subjected to reading all or parts of Geoffrey Chaucer's classic, "Canterbury Tales" You may recall that to pass the travel time on foot, each pilgrim offered a tale.

Friday evening, November 18, I began a holiday pilgrimage at the Fort Madison AMTRAK station, ending almost exactly forty hours later in Los Angeles Union Station. Still reeling from an early afternoon Regina football loss in the UNI Dome, I joined two hundred other passengers shortly after dusk.

My train trip was a marvelous time where I met some unique, interesting fellow Americans of varied ages. It is they who will be the subject matter of my column; they will not each tell a tale as we traverse through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California; instead I will offer a tale about a number of them. (Names will be changed to protect the innocent!)

I had two seat-mates for the 2000 mile one-way trip; "Jason" a thirtyish full-time bartender at an American Legion post, situated near a golf course in a large Midwestern city. He got on in Kansas City late Friday and left the next day in the Albuquerque sunshine.

He was six foot tall with a foot and a half long blond ponytail. We talked of aging vets, the drinks they preferred and National League baseball. I soon learned that cheap whiskey, in his case Wild Turkey, brought aboard in a silver flask and mixed with two dollar train Coca Cola, helped him fall asleep.

I heard about a former girlfriend who was known to throw furniture down the stairs when he drank some of her cherished supply of Tanqueray Gin! I could tell he would have entertained and been liked by these vets from 2 p.m. until midnight!

"Javier" showed up at our longest stop, in New Mexico's largest city, Albuquerque. He was employed as a mechanic for the Albuquerque Fire Department. Recently turned twenty, he was heading for San Bernardino and his parents and siblings and Thanksgiving dinner.

He modestly told me that senior year, 2015, he was a 145 pound state wrestling champion in the Golden State. He was fortunate to attend a brand new, San Bernardino High School, nickname, The Volcanoes! He had been a halfback and a corner back on the football team too. On his cell, he showed me pictures of the four dormant volcano cones that gave his school its nickname.

We also had a discussion of the wild animals that called this part of California their home. (No, I did not ask if he had any younger brothers or sisters who might be interested in a good academic and athletic school back east!)

Sitting right behind me the entire trip both ways was a young Amish couple from Indiana in their very early 20's; "Samuel" and "Sara" and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, "Rachel". Bearded Sam was at least 6' 3'' with a bright blue shirt and pants held up by suspenders. Sara was certainly a good catch for him and the model of a good wife and mother based on my observations on parts of six different days. She was wearing a floor length gray dress.

Their young one delighted many as she slowly walked down a small part of the aisle in a gray dress and sometimes a bonnet! And not an Easter one, for sure. They knew of someone who lived in Kalona, Iowa and also knew it was the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi River.

Samuel began the mornings we were together, reading the Scriptures, from a large Bible. Very edifying. I didn't ask him if he was "cramming for his finals". Sara sang several lullabies every night to put the baby to sleep. It didn't work on me nearly so well!

Coming home, they asked if they could use my cell phone to make sure a friend had called to have a cab waiting in Chicago to take them to another location to catch the next train to Indiana. This was a first; Pennsylvania Dutch spoken on my phone! All of my readers would have been charmed by this couple who totally escaped the recent presidential campaign due to not having any electricity in their home. And we are certain that we live in the more advanced society!

Breakfast Saturday morning I was seated with "Rick"; a late 20's single guy currently working on installing in the state of Ohio, those tall wind-capturing devices we have towering over many an Iowa field. I don't remember how buffaloes entered our conversation, but I reminded him that "Buffalo Bill" Cody had been born in Le Claire, Iowa.

I also noted that I had visited his grave on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado. He had been on that majestic peak too. While I drove my car down the mountain to the Coors Brewery; he was in town for some sort of skateboard competition and descended the entire mountain on his fancy competition skateboard! He was a free spirit and fun to visit with and a wearer of very stylish matching earrings.

Saturday afternoon, the Big Ten athletic conference entered the club car conversation when bearded "Phil" strode into the rolling room, wearing a dark blue MICHIGAN sweatshirt. I couldn't resist asking him, "What happened on November 12th?" Phil loudly admitted that the Hawkeyes were the better team that historic Saturday night in Iowa City. I had to tell him about Coach Jim Harbaugh's grade school connection with Regina, can you blame me?

His friend, "Trace" had a football story too. A friend of his on a dare ran on to the field in a Wisconsin Big Ten game and we saw the result on Trace's phone; an over served college kid laying on his stomach in the end zone, hands behind his back, handcuffs being applied. A possible $500 fine!

A couple of hours later, I sat down in the club car to read a book, but soon became part  of a conversation with a couple in their 60's from Ohio. "Stella" couldn't resist sharing with me her excitement about the new president of the United States.

I am not one to shy from a political conversation and we did talk about the candidates for a bit; but after a few moments, her husband, "Bert" interrupted our talking by saying, "isn't it time to discuss cookie recipes?" A clever code for changing the subject! He did it again that evening when we met and again she trumpeted Mr. Trump. I never did get a cookie recipe out of the deal!

By Saturday evening, I had already been on the train for 26 hours and as we flew by Gallup, New Mexico on the way to Winslow, Arizona, several of us happened in the same section of the club car together for what by chance became an impromptu two hour free wheeling trivia fest!

"Bill" a folksy retired attorney had been on since Chicago. and "Marge", a senior citizen who worried about the condition of all mountain railroad tunnels (we had gone through one at Raton, Colorado earlier in the day), and "Ray" in his late 30's who got on with me in Ft. Madison after visiting a favorite uncle in that Iowa river town, were the players.

Each of us suggested topics: naming all the Vice Presidents of the United States; states of our union with foreign, non-Indian names; state capitals that are the largest cities in their respective states; all of the former republics of the U.S.S.R. (among us, we got 11, which amazed other persons in the lounge who had now begun to listen in). Bottom line we agreed to send each other hard questions via e-mail in the future.

At one point in our quiz, "Tyrone", a late 20's black male, asked, "How do you know so much stuff?" I replied, "Maybe we stayed home too many Saturday nights reading; while you go out with beautiful women on such an evening!"

The Flagstaff, Arizona stop later in the evening brought several college kids on board. Across from me was "Raj". He said "hello" in the darkened car and I said, "you have an accent, German perhaps?" "Look again" he said. He was from India, and not your typical college kid. Turns out he was one year away from his PhD in Mechanical Engineering. He told me the following Monday he was scheduled for an interview at Cal Tech in Pasadena. This encounter was a television comedy show made real and I got a big bang out of it!

We spent the next hour discussing how both our peoples, the Indians and the Irish, had been both helped as well oppressed by the British. I also learned much about the Gandhi family.

One dining car meal, I was placed across from "John" who immediately said, "Dan Gable, my hero" when I told him I lived in Iowa. John had wrestled about 25 years previously for ASU in Tempe.

My last AMTRAK acquaintance was "Phil" a bearded Irishman, the founder and director of an institute for urban agriculture on a campus in a Midwestern state. Its mission was to promote the growing of healthy foods throughout the area. He and his wife owned a 1903 six bedroom old Victorian with a wrap around porch and rented out rooms to college students after extensive interviews.

This dedicated man and his wife had spent part of Thanksgiving week bicycling in rainy Arizona on their way to very trendy Sedona, Arizona. I told him he must do RAGBRAI before they got much older. He reminded me that I need to see the Grand Canyon.

It was a great trip. I was doubly blessed with the company of Samuel, Sara and Rachel and Phil and Laurie both ways.

Try an AMTRAK train trip sometime; maybe my 4000 mile, 80 hour round trip is too much to start with; how about Moline to Chicago? Creston, Iowa to Denver? Chicago to St. Paul?
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