Somewhere between Lancaster and Altoona, passengers on The Pennsylvanian fell hard for Chelan Weiler, with her fingerless mittens and wool cap and guitar with the missing E-string.
I bought her a $2.50 frappuccino. Eric Mendlow took her out for sweet potato fries during the four-hour layover in Pittsburgh. Before Dorene Miller exited in Johnstown, she left $15 and a note on Chelan's seat in coach so she'd have that much more to travel on as she headed to Los Angeles and, from there, Bakersfield.
From Bakersfield Chelan would have to find a way to the her friends' cabin, 150 miles down the road. She'd have two days on the rails to think one up.
"I am exploring. Exploring possibility," she said. She wasn't talking about a ride. She was talking about her life.
She's 22 years old. She took the semester off from Evergreen State College in her native Washington. She has, to date, majored in nothing in particular. She studies religion, philosophy, literature and writing. Her career goal of the moment is to combine pottery and beekeeping.
The bees she would befriend. The pottery?
"It's like embodied meditation and also art at the same time and it feels really good on the fingers," she said.
"Would anyone mind if I got my guitar and sang a few songs?" she asked. People in the snack car started. When was the last time a girl dressed like a hippie pulled out a battered guitar on a train?
She was back in a jiff. She squeezed herself into the tight spot between bench and table and started plucking.
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, 'What will I be?'
Will I be pretty? Will I be kind?
Here's what she said to me
Que sera, que sera, sera
What will be is what will be
The future is not ours to see ...
It was the old words, the ones Doris Day sang. The tune was different, gentle, rolling, the same words to new music. I saw my old living room. Eric remembered his mother singing him that song. We just smiled and she seemed surprised at how charmed we were. (Listen.)
She asked us to sing along.
Little darling, it's been
A long, cold lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years
Since it's been clear ...
I'm damned if she didn't pull out her cell phone, put it on speaker function, call a friend back in Washington state and have the three of us sing it into his voicemail. (Listen.)
Looking out the window, I saw the back yards of places I'd known as a young man. There was the hotel in Gallitzin where I drank. There was the place I'd been summoned by the coroner who needed photos when life became too much for one young man whose last view was the wrong end of his own hunting rifle. There was Lilly, the little town where residents traded small arms fire with the Kluxers who decided to march through town and taunt its Catholics. ...
There was the apartment where I began my first marriage. It ended 11 years later, two stops west. I don't much like old feelings but they seem to have a mugger's affection for me and that stretch between Altoona and Latrobe was its own long, cold, lonely winter.
If Chelan's journey has been happy, and mine has been stumbling, Eric's have been more grounded. Three close relatives died in succession and he left the job market to settle estates and heal and contemplate.
The contrast between the chirpy, singing college girl on an adventure and the 48-year-old man confronting the fragility of life couldn't be missed.
"This is what train travel used to be like," he said.
That is to say there was a time a journey took the body from one point to another, but a traveler's heart sometimes took its own journey. Chelan will go rock climbing in California. Like Eric, so much of my internal travels are getting back to an old place, be it a happy heart or the job market. He's learned to be past worrying.
"I decided not to feel that way anymore because it wasn't helping. The panic wasn't helping me," he said. "I wish I had her response to it. This is I think a better response."
In Pittsburgh she was lost in a conversation, telling me about her brother in Italy, her sister on a Caribbean island, how her parents are so generous she worries it will take the edge off her need to make her own way.
I urged her to find a locker for her stuff for the four hours wait in the station. She had most of what she owned with her and she could see my own dread at the thought of losing all my goods.
"In a way it would be liberating," she said.
I have no doubt a few possessions would not be missed by a young woman who likes he way the world feels in her fingers.
(See Michael Henninger's video of our trip on The Pennsylvanian here.)