Making Observations: Models from a Train

I went to sleep in San Antonio, Texas, last night and woke this morning when we came to a stop at the small depot in Del Rio. I am on Amtrak, a two-day/-night ride to Los Angeles, where I will be finishing a rewrite on my adaptation of John Erwin’s novel, Into The Snow. I love to travel by train.

Talk about observation for work as an actor, or writer for that matter. Staring out the window at the ever-changing landscape and skies, or coming through the back door of tiny towns, as Amtrak does, where you observe the real life of the inhabitants (not what you will find displayed on the highway billboards as to why you should stop in their town).

This is, for me, a source of inspiration. And I always observe or meet interesting people, usually in the dining car, sharing a table and a meal, as well as pieces of our stories.

Last night, I was seated with a couple living in Dallas from Boston, Seattle, Florida, and Michigan, on their way to Agoura, California, to babysit grandchildren for one of their four children. He, Douglas, works for programming for HP, so he can work anywhere from home. She, Alice, is a civil engineer, thus their reason for living in Dallas for now.

They were such an interesting and appealing contrast to me. Douglas’s associates, “workers in the field,” are in China, India, London, and Taiwan. Her work has to do with aqua ducts and the problems of disappearing water sources for the people of Dallas and surrounding areas. (Wow, talk about scary “science fiction”–but factual.)

Talking about our younger days and raising our children, she mentioned that when her children were four or five years of age, they got rid of their television. They wanted their children to see all there was to do in life that would give them a balanced perspective, not to be told what they should want or buy or how they should feel about anything. They felt television brought nothing to their children’s lives that they couldn’t supply as a family: values, ethics, adventures.

Film was a different animal. Film was an event, one they could choose to see, while not having “it” (the television set) live in their home.

This was their first train trip and they were loving it. Douglas had flown planes for American Airlines for 30 years, so their family could fly anywhere, anytime, for five dollars, one of the perks of being a pilot. (And, of course, that led to a discussion on flying as passengers/cattle today. After listening, I will definitely, if at all possible, be returning from this trip on Amtrak, I decided.)

It was so very nice to find such interesting, knowledgeable people of “like mind.”

Over breakfast this morning, I sat with another couple that I will always remember (although whose names I will never know). Living in Puerto Rico, his family escaped from Cuba when he was 7. He met her in Puerto Rico. After several years, when his family moved to the States, he stayed in Puerto Rico. With all of the family they have–children and grandchildren–still living in this country, they are on a seven-month odyssey together to visit the family they miss so much.

Married for 50 years, both are learning French, he with his thick Cuban accent, and she with a soft Puerto Rican one. Having stopped in New Orleans for a visit, they fell in love with the city and want to go back being able to speak French. Their enthusiasm for life and deep love for each other is so evident and, to me, quietly beautiful.

A nice way to start my day. More “food” for writing characters.

There are two young Mennonite couples across the aisle from me, one with a baby about nine months old. Dressed the same as her mom, long blue pinafore style dress with blue scarf covering their heads and knee-high black socks (which she keeps trying to pull off), she is adorable with big equally blue eyes. They are getting off in El Paso. I know from the yellow tickets over their seats.

The two young men and other young wife spend most of their time in the observation car. Momma comes back to the seats to nurse and let baby sleep. She’s a good momma. While baby sleeps, I watch her gaze out the train window, not seeming to focus on what’s passing by. (We are passing a huge white blimp, tethered to the ground, in the absolute middle of nowhere and there’s nothing–just desert, a blimp, and a small metal building with two trucks parked next to it. A very strange sight. I even hear someone else express that in a seat in front of me.)

Momma seems to notice nothing. She is in this world, but so removed from it. I see the two couples relate to no one but each other, in a language I cannot understand. Isolated, by choice, and for such different reasons than the people I observe in airports, who are isolated by electric devices stuck in front of their faces. I cannot help but wonder what is going through this young mother’s mind. I am deeply curious, and I’ll never know.

But, oh, the stories I can weave and imagine.

Traveling by train, for me, is a great incubator for the imagination. I highly recommend it. However, I have completely gotten off track. I had meant to write about Del Rio, Texas, and a film I was in, “Fear In A Handful of Dust” (called “Fleshburn” in Europe), that was shot there. It was my introduction to independent films, which nurtured my desire to do more in that direction over studio-financed films, for so many reasons. It was my introduction to the desert and how brutal it can be as a location.

So… be continued.


Header photo by Shankar S. from Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (Electric Loco: Metropark Station, NJ) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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