Amish on a train

May 21, 2023

Dell Franklin, Jewish in California

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.


Upon leaving the Denver train station at 8 in the morning, I dropped my lone bag off at my assigned seat on the California Zephyr and quickly hurried to the already crowded glass-enclosed observation car, found a seat and arrayed my book, notebook and sweatshirt before me, in a sense laying territorial claim as, an hour later, the glorious spectacle of red-rock mountains, the Colorado River and verdant gorges flowed by, like a nonstop newsreel.

On the other side of the car, a few seats down, six people, who seemed dropped off from a 17th century convent, sat together, the women so heavily clad in matching blue and white ankle-length dresses and head coverings that only their smooth faces, without a trace of make-up, shined as if waxed. The men wore darker blue outfits, beards like Abe Lincoln, and haircuts like monks.

As I became settled  and prepared to remain camped until dark, one of the conductors made several announcements and finished by hoping those in the observation car reached out and engaged. I immediately caught the eyes of the folks in their outfits and waved, and the men waved back, smiling, while the women instantly looked down as if avoiding a curse.

As out of place as they appeared, admittedly I did not look any less obvious in my T-shirt advertising a brand of vodka, shorts and sneakers, and sporting a beard that needed trimming and two years growth of hair I gave up trying to control.

Perhaps they suspected I was homeless and somehow sneaked onto the train? I was certainly drawing glances from a few people on all sides; and the couple beside me issued quick, eye-averted greetings and quickly lost themselves in smart phones.

When the two men put on their boater-like straw hats, I was sure the crew was Amish, especially when, while passing by some gorgeous scenery, instead of pulling out cell phones and snapping pictures like everybody else (except me), the men stood and made sweeping gestures at the window while their women, all ensconced in small books, dutifully looked up.

When I happened to peer at them while turning to gaze at the scenery on their side of the coach car, a man on their right was going out of his way to describe everything about the scenery — Colorado, the train; acting like a big brother coming to the aid of a lost tribe of urchins. And the men were eating it up.

It wasn’t until later in the afternoon after I’d eaten the snacks provided to me by relatives in Denver, that the younger of the two Amish men wandered over to the now empty seat beside me and sat down with a small booklet he’d been consulting all day, which I realized was a dated atlas.

“So, are we in Colorado still?” he asked in a partial German accent.

“We’ve just passed through Grand Junction and we’re now in Utah,” I told him.

“And what is Utah like?”

“Well, they have a lot of Mormons,” I explained. “Utah is like a Mormon state.”

“And what are the Mormons like?” he asked.

I issued him a look indicating he should be careful. “Watch out,” I warned. “You might get converted.”

He burst out laughing. We began to talk. They were from Maine, up by the border of Canada and had dual citizenship. They were heading to San Diego. Why San Diego? They wanted to see the country. They’d never left their county.

This man was possibly around 40. He was stocky and his skin and teeth seemed radiantly healthy and his eyes were clear and possessed a sort of innocent appreciation of being alive, as if on a joyous adventure.

As the high desert rolled by, I pointed to dried up river beds and informed him of the drought attacking that area. It seemed he had no idea what was going on in the country, as though he had never listened to the news and was just coming out of a cocoon. Yet he seemed the happiest, least neurotic human being I’d come across in decades.

He asked me about the book I was reading (“Up In The Old Hotel” by Joseph Mitchell), and I described some of the stories and characters in the New York City Bowery in the 1930s, and he seemed agog at this information.

We continued talking. He wanted to know what I did. I told him I was retired, but had been a bartender, cab driver, stock boy, sold T-shirts and ball caps, and mentioned several other low-level jobs throughout the country.

He had never left the farm he worked on with his grandfather, father, sisters, brothers, grandchildren, etc. They held no cell phones, did not drive cars, had no television, self-sustained on their farm, raising cattle and growing alfalfa. They drank milk from their cows and water from wells. They grew their own fruits and vegetables, and canned them for winter. They baked their own bread. They raised chickens and fished at a stream on their land.

“I have never missed a meal. We lack nothing. We work hard,” he said. “But not that hard. Life is easier now than when my parents and grandparents grew up.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked exceptionally hard,” I confessed. “Like my parents and grandparents.”

“How did you manage?”

“I decided early on not to get married and have kids and become part of the stressful American Dream machine that forces you to work nonstop for forty years and grinds you down into powder.”

His eyes, at first stunned, began to register understanding. “You know what’s wrong with America?” he asked. “What’s wrong with the world?”



I nodded. “It seems to me,” I said. “that the more advanced we become as a civilization, the more complicated things are.”

“Why does everybody have to have so much?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I have very little—the minimum.”

“You seem happy and content.”

I shrugged. “Most of the time. Not always.”

As we talked on, it seemed, somehow, we were becoming friends. But when I peered over at his wife and the other Amish ladies, they quickly looked down. I said nothing. Toward evening, he returned to his seat.

Later, at a stop in Salt Lake City, we had an hour break, and as he and his fellow Amish friend or relative stood smoking outside beside the station, a rather ghoulish passenger who had repeatedly passed by and peered at them in the coach, now halted before them and asked, “Are you Mennonites?”

Since they were too startled to answer, and I was beside them, I said, “No, they’re Orthodox Jews!”

The Amish burst out laughing while the creep crept away.

The next afternoon, when we arrived in Emeryville, where they were to continue their journey, I waited in my seat while the Amish trudged past me; the men pausing to say their goodbyes. As the women passed, eyes averted, one caught my eye, and I smiled and uttered “good luck.” Her eyes jerked spasmodically in what I could only describe as shock, utter confusion and panic, before instantly looking away as they all prepared to take an Amtrak bus to Las Vegas.

I had the feeling they would be well taken care of, no matter where they went.

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Keep writing Dell. Really good stuff.