My first Texas Amtrak ride ended like this:
The guy across from me on the Heartland Flyer — the Amtrak train running from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City — held a cell phone in one hand and cold fries in the other, rambling on the phone for more than a half hour about the various ways to chop off turkey legs and the sundry implements required.
After the Amtrak conductor called a "power smoke break" at the last stop, the guy's phone conversations became more and more colorful, describing the opulence of Amtrak compared to Greyhound.
The bus, he said into the phone, keeps you caged in all day, prohibiting smokin' and swillin' until you get off the bus. Compared to Greyhound, Amtrak is pure luxury, complete with smoke breaks and a snack bar peddling Bud Light and stale pretzels.
"You can get your eatin' on, you can get your drink on, you can get your whatever on!" he said into the phone.
Twenty minutes later, the Heartland Flyer pulled into the station at Norman, Okla., depositing me onto a darkened platform at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, not another person in sight. I called a cab, and within a half hour, I was let off at a suburban Embassy Suites for a professional conference at the edge of a big box-laden "lifestyle center" whose roadways were unmarred by sidewalks and its drivers undistracted by pedestrians. If there were a country called Generica, and Anywhere, USA, were its capital, this might be its suburb, where cars are king and train travelers are just a step above untouchables.
Amtrak occupies a unique place in Middle America. Train geeks, retirees, those for whom both their home and travel destination exist near the rails and maybe hipsters opposed to more polluting forms of transportation all gather on the Sunset Limited or the Palmetto or Heartland Flyer, each enduring hours of power smoke breaks, stops in dusty forlorn towns on the Great Plains and obnoxious phone conversations about disemboweling turkeys in order to avoid more popular and much faster forms of transportation.
In other words, Amtrak riders are hardly those who live a place called Generica, and it's worth the slow ride between cities to hear their stories.