Galesburg, a town on the western edge of Illinois, was the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, and the host of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate. It was also the city in which I had one of my most memorable travel experiences and saw the power of a community of strangers.
The California Zephyr, an Amtrak route that goes from Sacramento to Chicago, is guaranteed to be filled with both scenic views and agonizing delays. On July 27, 2011, the train, over three hours late, was traveling through Illinois and, onboard, our family of five was about to miss our final connection from Chicago to Indianapolis. Three minutes before we reached Galesburg, the conductor came to us and said, “Since you are going to miss your connection, you need to get off here and take the bus to Indianapolis.” Alarmed at this sudden bit of news, we hastily threw all our belongings into our ten carry-on bags, grabbed our stowed suitcases, and prepared to disembark. As we made that “small step for man” out of the air conditioned train, we were pummeled with Illinois’ ninety-degree heat and one hundred percent humidity. Gasping for air as one gasps when struck to the ground, all we could say was, “It’s hot!”
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A minute later, the train, our last glimpse of air conditioning, was chugging out of the station. We turned around to view the large crowd that had also made the unexpected and early disembarkment, and the town into which we were dumped. We had a quick scare when someone came out of the station saying “They’ve made a mistake; we should have stayed on the train,” but the station employees assured us that our bus would come to pick us up in ninety minutes. The reassurance quieted the ruffled chickens so we all sat down to endure the heat.
As we waited, we engaged in minimal socialization with our comrades. The disgruntled crowd included a toothless lady; a single mother; an Amish family of ten; and the family’s drivers, a couple from southern Indiana. The single mother commented on the conversation her son and my brother were having about death: “They know just enough to not know a thing,” she said. After the conversation died away, I picked up my book, and looked up to see the Amish mother and two of her children walking up to me. Our families had become acquaintances on the train, and the children now had a gift for us: a package of homemade greeting cards. I thanked them and marveled at how quickly the bonds of community form between two strangers.
The bus came at 5:40 p.m. CST — thirty minutes late. We all squeezed into the bus only to fully appreciate something we had been noticing previously on our trip. We walked into the back of the bus and were greeted by an odor and a realization: the Amish, as sweet as they were, did not wear deodorant. Sitting down, we braced ourselves for a long ride.
At 1 a.m. EST, we drove into Indianapolis, a city we now considered the homiest in the world. Expecting everyone to grumpily push past each other in their groggy and irritated state, I was pleasantly surprised at the sense of community we had formed through our suffering. My dad exchanged contact information, I had a conversation with the Amish family’s drivers, and I then enjoyed a laugh with the bus driver. After a while, even the body odor was less noticeable. I left sleepy, but amazed at how quickly a stranger is a friend.
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