4:37pm

Fri September 21, 2012
Reporter's Notebook

Romance Of The Rails: Diner Cars & Drinking Companions

Community seating is a unique concept in the California Zephyr dining car. You have no choice, if you're traveling alone, of who you sit with. Truly, it’s a roll of the dice.

Thankfully for my first meal on the train, I sat next to a delightful semi-retired couple from Queensland, Australia.

Donna Alexander and Jeff Aird are semi-retired government workers taking a ten week odyssey across the United States.

We talked about their excursion through Alaska, the wild west of Utah, and their plans to see the monuments of Washington D.C.

We shared family stories, and they even taught me a few slang words:

  1. sooky. (adj.) Australian slang for feeling sulky and complain-y, with connotations of needing affection.
  2. whingy (adj.) Australian slang for whiny, like a young child late for a nap.

Towards the end of dinner, and now very comfortable with the reporter in their midst, Donna admitted her love of the HBO TV show, True Blood. As she was describing her favorite characters and visiting key places of the show, she turned on her thick 'southern drawl' -and stuck with it!

Hearing an Australian do a southern belle accent as the horn of the California Zephyr echoed in the night is both surreal and priceless.

After dinner, it was off to the lounge car, essentially the activity hub of the entire train. Large picture windows surround lounge chairs and tables strategically placed to foster group conversations and sightseeing.

"I never thought I'd ever be in the middle of Nebraska!"

Speeding through Nebraska at the time, I met up with Greg the Harley driver, and Jake - you remember them right?

They'd struck up a conversation with another pair of young English grads traversing the country on holiday. Well into another round of Stranahan's Whiskey, the group was deep in political conversation, Greg extolling his Libertarian viewpoints, Jake firing back points of English common law.

"Hey, reporter?! Want some bourbon?" Greg bellowed.

Greg's goal of the evening was to meet everyone on the train – and he was using the Stranahan's bottle to do so. Definitely the life of the party, known by other passengers on the train because of his long curly hair and his black dress cowboy shirt, embroidered with roses.

The trick though was to keep the social lubricant and introductory prop hidden away in the chair next to him. Greg kept everyone’s glass full, while keeping a keen eye out for Spencer, the assistant conductor.

Spencer had warned the rowdy bunch about Amtrak's spirits policy, which appears to be: buy it from Amtrak? OK. Bring it on board, not OK.

Minutes turned into hours, and a few more glasses of covertly poured libations later, the party were fast friends by 2:30 a.m. However, in each adjoining car, the lights were dark, and people were fast asleep as the train shot past Holdrege and Hastings NE.

The ragtag group of youngsters from England at 4am, Lincoln NE.
Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC

Around 4 a.m., the train rolled to a stop for a while in Lincoln, NE.

Eager for a smoke and fresh air, the lounge car group stumbled off the train and into a brisk evening breeze.

As weary eyed travelers boarded and disembarked the train (some starting their journey, others ending) Jake puffed on a crinkled cigarette he'd been saving since Denver. He was nearly euphoric.

"I never thought I'd ever be in the middle of Nebraska!"

To which I replied, "You’re standing outside a train car, next to a grain silo, in the middle of Nebraska at four in the morning. What could be more American?"

He smiled.

Breaking the moment, Spencer, the young assistant conductor shouted 'all aboard!!' and corralled us back onto the train, and off to sleep.

Editor's Note: Reporter Nathan Heffel is chronicling his ride on the California Zephyr, you can follow this series here. Next up: adventures in coach class sleep accommodations.

You can follow Nathan Heffel on Twitter: @Heffeln