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A Long, Strange Trip

LONDON — Anyone who has ever languished in an airport terminal or broken a sweat during airplane turbulence at 35,000 feet should give Amtrak a try and experience the unique joys that mode of travel can bring: Eight-hour waits in the Chicago...

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LONDON — Anyone who has ever languished in an airport terminal or broken a sweat during airplane turbulence at 35,000 feet should give Amtrak a try and experience the unique joys that mode of travel can bring: Eight-hour waits in the Chicago yards, foul-smelling microwaved hotdogs, and the unnerving thought of slamming into a car that’s playing chicken on the railroad tracks are all in a day’s train ride, at least when British author Jenny Diski is on board.

In her new book “Stranger on a Train,” a companion volume to her highly acclaimed “Skating to Antarctica,” Diski writes about two trips she made around the U.S. on a series of Amtrak trains with nostalgic names like “Sunset Limited,” and “Coast Starlight.” But while the author lives through her share of strange and stressful moments, the book is truly a tribute to America’s railways — and the people who ride them.

“I don’t read travel books and I don’t think of myself as a travel writer. My books about travel are really an extension of fiction writing,” says Diski. “The train trips were an excuse for reflection.” And both trips — the first a direct route from Savannah to Phoenix, and the second a circular one from New York, to Albuquerque to New Orleans and back to New York’s Penn Station — afforded Diski plenty of time to ponder.

Diski, 55, and a smoker to her very core, meets most of her travel companions in the smoking compartments — where, of course, all the fun happens. She encounters an aging gigolo who teaches her dance steps, a multilingual chef who won’t shut up, an amorous drunk who believes in leprechauns, and a space engineer-turned-ballroom dancer. She also meets her friend Bet who, even after the journey ends, has such a hard time letting go that Diski begins to get freaked out. But it all concludes happily when Bet and her family drive Diski to the train station.

The author, like most of her fellow travelers, is a social tourist and an emotional one. After a conversation-packed day, she writes: “I went to bed early, my head reeling with the intimate instant lives of others, strangers who popped up next to you, told you everything you needed to know about themselves and then waved as you or they moved on…You could stay as private as you wanted to, and when they told you about themselves, even terrible things that brought tears to your eyes, you weren’t expected to make a long-term commitment to them. They told for the sake of telling, you listened because you were there.”

Sometimes, she doesn’t need to do any talking. Just looking — and listening — fires Diski’s imagination. She wonders about the Amish family spending the night in their upright seats, snoring “probably in Low German. Who knows what they dreamed?” She muses about a young girl who takes everything literally. “I felt we were in the presence of something extraordinary, a kind of idiot savant, whose absence of irony, whose complete inability to grasp the plasticity of language, might easily be mistaken for transcendental wisdom.”

Even when Diski thinks she’s had enough of train travel — and she certainly has by the end of the second journey — she’s still hungry for more humanity. “Although I’ve had it with other people, I can’t stop listening…Every word is banal, corny, expected, a story a thousand times told, but every word is true…I love it, and I can’t bear it.”

Diski admits that she’d never had a conversation on a train before her first Amtrak adventure, which she took on a whim after she arrived in the U.S. by freighter, on assignment for The Observer newspaper in London. “Talking to strangers is not in the character of British people. You can sit on a train from London to Scotland facing a stranger, and you’ll still be strangers when you get off the train,” she says.

Headed down the track, the author says she discovered Americans’ love of words. “Americans speak very elegantly, and I’m enchanted by the access people have to language. They’re playful with it. There’s a rap and rhythm to the way they talk.”

Diski’s love of a quick and clever confession has also made a country music fan of the author. “I love the perfectly formed, two-minute stories of heartbreak…The whine of human love and loss. The whole journey might have been a country-and-western album,” she writes at the end of her story.

Diski is at work on her next book about the Biblical characters Isaac and Jacob, and about the silences lurking in the Bible. “I’m taking a look at what isn’t there, and I’m treating the characters as if they’re members of a family,” she says. The biblical theme is one she also explored in “Only Human,” a book in which Diski reimagines the lives of Abraham and Sarah.

And, yes, travel is also on her agenda. “I’d love to get on a freighter and sail to the South China Sea,” she says. “I’d like to do a long trip — six months, maybe, and definitely more train journeys. I’m tempted to go back to America but it doesn’t seem as if Amtrak is going to be there much longer, and that is terribly sad. Trains are integral part of the country. They made America.”

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