The Amish Guys

I’m sitting on a train in Cleveland. It’s 5:30 AM. I’m not sleeping. I haven’t been. I haven’t been sleeping since, oh, let’s say 3 AM. I try not to look at the clock so early in the morning.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to write another one of those goofy blogs from the train. Who reads them anyway? I have to say, though, that occasionally I do check on my ‘blog stats.” Every once in a while it will show a reader from China or Great Britain, in addition to a handful in the States that stumbles on this jumble of musings. But, I’m getting off the track. (Not a good thing to say while riding on the train, is it?)

As I was saying, I’m sitting on the train, not sleeping, but writing… When one gets on the train in the middle of the night, there’s a bit of pressure to get the right seat. Since, today, the train car is quite empty it shouldn’t have been too tough to find one on the correct side with a window available to the scenic views. And it wasn’t. So at 12:30 AM we plunked our stuff down, unbeknownst to us at the time, right in the middle of a nest of Amish folks.

Now I’ve traveled with Amish folks before, talked with them, even listened from a distance as they sang Sunday morning hymns. Nice people. I expected no less this morning as they were all snoring nicely when I got on the train. 

Then at one point, maybe at another stop, or maybe one guy discovered the other after riding a bit. I don’t know. Anyway, this Amish guy changed seats from sitting with his wife to sitting with another Amish guy in the seats right behind me. They must have been best friends. I say best friends because from the moment his butt hit the seat those two guys didn’t stop talking. No sleeping, just talking, talking, talking. For hours… Amazing… best of friends for sure.

Now I’ve been in similar situations where I’ve been able to hear the one sided drama of a person’s life as they shared it with another, and anyone within 50 feet, on their cell phone.  Sometimes the conversation is interesting, sometimes not. 

However, in this case, I got both sides.  Unfortunately, these guys were speaking a language only another Amish guy could understand. I couldn’t begin to tell you what they were talking about. Oh well, I was trying to sleep!

Oh, now it looks like the guys might need to get some rest, since the one went back to sitting with his wife. He might be able to get some sleep. It’s quieter there, I’m sure. They’ll have plenty of time to catch up on sleep now between here and Utica where they’ll be getting off.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s a gift to have someone to talk with like that. And the Amish guys did, all night! And, besides, now I’ll be able to nap along the way, I’m sure. Ahhh… It’s quieter now.

No! Wait! They’re back at it again! Hmmm … I think it’s time for me to get some coffee.


I’m zipping through Montana on the Empire Builder, heading for a long-awaited visit with the kids and grandkids. All around me are a variety of people from all over, heading who-knows-where. I take that back. There are tags above the seats indicating the person’s destination, but that’s about all there is to know about these folks.

When riding on the train it’s pretty easy to remain anonymous. Nobody’s wearing name tags after all. Wait, I take that back. The Amtrak staff all have them. Including the lounge car attendant, Tom.

Now Tom isn’t shy about sharing his name. When he comes on the intercom, he announces, “This is Tom from the lounge car…” So there I was, in the lounge car, picking up a snack or two and I noticed his last name on his name tag. The ‘Vander’ jumped out at me and I thought, “Ja! A Dutchman!”

I come from a long line of Dutch folks. I live an area that crawling with Hollanders. As a matter of fact one of my people’s favorite pastimes is Dutch BINGO.

This is how it happens. Two Dutch people strike up a conversation and one comment leads to another and the two people find out they are related. BINGO!

For example… As it often does, the small West Michigan town of Borculo, predominantly peopled by Dutch folks, comes up in casual conversation.

“Borculo? I use to drive through Borculo,” you say.
“My cousin’s friend’s neighbor lived in town,” says your friend.
“Really?” you say. “The Essenbergs lived there on the main drag.”
“I went to college with an Essenberg.”
“Calvin College?”
“Yes! What dorm? …” and on an on until you figure out that you are somehow way-back related and attended the same family Christmas parties when you were kids!

That, my friend, is Dutch BINGO.

You can imagine my excitement when I read the name VanderVelde on Tom’s name tag. It’s rare indeed to find genuine Hollanders out here in the real world. So, on my next trip down to the lounge car … yep, you guessed it, I played the Amtrak version of Dutch BINGO.

Well, it turns out that Tom and I attended the same 4th of July picnics when we were kids! His aunt and my aunt were both aunts living just blocks apart in, you guessed it, Borculo! Where, I discovered, he spent several summers, while his parents provided entertainment on a Dutch cruise line. And where I cruised the streets on my bike trying to impress the Essenberg sisters. We laughed when we discovered we were in the same dorm at, you guessed it, Calvin College! Imagine that!

And imagine this. All it took to spin this t-a-l-l tale was a name on a nametag and a l-o-o-o-o-n-g train ride to the west coast. Today’s gift? Maybe… 😉

Seeing What’s Ahead

Right now I’m hurtling down train tracks slicing their way through the middle of New Mexico. The land is covered mostly with grass, and what trees there are sit a fair distance away. The rocky landscape punches through the thin soil from time to time exposing what’s below. On one side of the train the clouds are building and on the other there’s blue sky.

What I’m liking about my window view is the sky. Where I’m from in the Midwest, the long view is often obstructed by buildings and trees. But here I can see a long ways. I really have a pretty good view of what’s ahead.

I’m on my way to Rehoboth Christian School in Gallup, NM for a week of volunteering. Several months ago I signed on to this little adventure not really knowing what I was getting into. I know a little more today than I did then, but I don’t quite have a handle on the big picture yet. That’s a bit disconcerting for me not to know precisely what’s ahead, but I can do this. Just take it a day at a time.

As I write this the view out the window has changed. The clouds are moving in. The tops of the mountains in the distance are becoming obscured. Maybe there’s rain coming, or snow or just clouds. I don’t know. The view has changed. It’s become more difficult to see what’s ahead.

That’s how it goes, isn’t it? Sometimes we have a pretty good idea what’s coming in our family, work, retirement, kids, school. However, sometimes our vision gets dimmed by circumstances over which we have no control. We can’t see past the next doctor’s appointment, school exam, job crisis or life tragedy. That makes it hard. It’s hard to take things a day at a time. Hard to trust.

Whatever the view, whether I’m confident of knowing what’s ahead only for the next hour, or week or year, I need to remember that “… I belong body and soul to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…” That’s the long view I need to have. That’s today’s reminder, and every day’s gift.

All This Before I Even Got on the Train

So you are probably wondering how that trip down to Elkhart went last night. You know, the trip to the train station. When traveling east by train from where I live, it makes a lot of sense to catch it in Elkhart. So, because I had to catch the train a bit after midnight, I made the drive last night. And how was the trip you ask?

Before I can catch you up on that, I need to explain a couple things meteorological.

First of all, there’s the polar vortex! Sounds ominous. In fact it’s a large mass of extremely cold air that right now is migrating from north to south over the Midwest bringing below zero temps. (BTW, where I am right now, on the train somewhere west of Buffalo, it looks like a raging blizzard outside while inside the car it feels like a balmy 90 degrees.) Anyway, the ‘vortex’ was moving in about when I was starting my trip south to Elkhart.

Second, the wind. Last night, driving to the train station, it was very windy. Really windy! Not just a random gust here and there, but a relentless, steady, push the car around at times, windy!

Third, lake effect snow happens when cold air (see polar vortex) moves across the relatively warmer Lake Michigan waters. The warmer water warms up the cold air and adds moisture. The warm, moist air rises. The water vapor condenses into clouds from which snow forms. The snow falls and you have lake effect snow. The wind sends it all inland.

With all that in mind, here’s my story. I started out earlier than normal due to the weather. The car thermometer settled in at 2 degrees. The roads were snow covered, it being so cold that the salt on them had no melting effect. On the highway the snow was blinding. It was a good thing I was familiar with road. It was tough to see past my headlights. I turned south where, according to the weather radar, I’d be driving out of the lake effect snow bands.

I kept a steady speed of of about 40 mph until I got behind the semi truck. I slowed the pace. I figured I could escape it’s snowy vortex when I got to Schoolcraft, the next town. Which I did. Ever so carefully I crept around it and two other vehicles over the ice packed passing lane.

South of town I was on my own, no one near me, front or back. Alone, in the dark, slipping between acres of empty farm fields, the wind buffeting the car. The snow from the fields kicked up by the wind, swooshed across the road, making small drifts for me to plow through. Visibility? Well, close your eyes. What do you see? Yep, that was about it until I reached that wooded area alongside the road. For awhile, all I could see was a cloud of white in my headlights and, of the road, the occasional glimpse of the white line, for only a few seconds at a time.

As I went farther south the snowfall decreased and by the state line the roads were pretty much dry, but for an occasional icy patch to keep me on my toes. At one point, I peeked out of the side window and was surprised by a cloudless sky, bright stars scattered to the horizon. I was struck by the fact that only a few miles north from where I was a serious weather event was playing out! I felt like I had just driven out of a violently shaken snow globe.

Other than the wind to contend with, the rest of the trip went well. It took longer than normal to get to the train station. The outside temperature had dropped a few more degrees to -4. The station was open when I got there, and for about a minute-and-a-half I was alone. Then the kid came in…. But that’s another story for another time.

All in all, I’m glad to have made the effort. After all, I have special people waiting for me at my destination. That will be later-today’s gift. Right now and last night’s gifts were safe travel and a starry night (and a kid who was helped. But that’s for another day.) And, working ahead, next Monday’s gift will be an ordinary rainy day for my drive home.

A Gray Day

I’m not very good with colors, they say, but from where I’m sitting on the westbound Empire Builder it’s a quite a gray day. The sun rose at 8:34 AM where I was. It didn’t make a big deal out of the whole thing. There were no breathtaking, flashy streaks of red and pink, reflecting off clouds in a dazzling display of the creator’s glory. There was nothing in the view that would make one want to raise your hands and shout “this is the day that the Lord has made -“. The day just sorta snuck in, not changing much from the dim, cloud filtered predawn light. It’s a black-and-white kind of day.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. The fields we are zipping past are dressed in their dormant tan and browns waiting to burst into shades of spring greens in a few months. And there are patches of blue sky poking through the clouds, reminding us of more colors to come. Not to mention, the occasional red barn, yellow house and black angus that appear from time to time, along with the Christmas decorations and lights popping up in towns along the tracks.

Alright, alright… and let’s not forget the folks whose lives intersect our own. Be they family, friends or fellow passengers on the train. In some way they all color our experiences by being who they are. In some ways they or we can be gifts from the One who made the day. A gray dreary day? On the surface, maybe, but not really. Not when it is, indeed, “… the day that the Lord has made…” and we see it as today’s gift.

Gettin’ On the Thanksgivin’ Train

I’m sitting on Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited outside the Buffalo, NY station. The wind is whipping. It looks like it’s about 10 degrees out, even though my weather app says 35. Those that chose to take advantage of the ‘fresh air break’ are certainly getting it, maybe more than they needed.

It’s an 18 hour train trip to our destination, if everything is on time, which at this point it’s not. The train’s about two hours behind. We’re about at the halfway point.

The train is full. There will be 150 more getting on in Rochester! Most, I figure, are heading somewhere for visits with family and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday. And, they prefer to hop on the train rather than drive the snowy (at least here) highways on this, the busiest travel day of the year.

From where I’m sitting, most people are engaged in some sort of activity on an electronic device. Me, too. I’m not hearing much conversation. It’s a pretty quiet car. There are few intercom announcements. Melissa, in the cafe car is a lot quieter than her colleague, Rachel, who works this train occasionally, and will clog the sound waves with all kinds of things we ‘need to know.’

The view outside is quite dull. There are no oranges and yellows punctuating the grayness. There’s no blue sky peeking around the the edges of clouds. Wildlife sightings? Nope, not even any deer near. It seems as if the scenery that makes looking out the train window worthwhile, is taking the holiday weekend off.

So, that’s what’s going on here this morning – pretty low-key.  But, every train trip is different. Sometimes it’s just a way to get from one place to another. The destination is what’s important. Sometimes the ‘journey’ becomes the main event.

The main event this weekend, however, is giving thanks, wherever we are and with whomever we are. We are giving thanks for today’s gift and every day’s gifts, which are — .  You fill in the blanks. You know better than I.


OK, I’ll admit it… I do like my electronic devices. When I have to go long periods of time without being ‘connected’ I can get a little antsy. 

I’m in the middle of Montana on the ‘sorry-no-wifi’ Empire Builder train. We’re on our way to visit family. It’s a two day trip and once we leave the wifi friendly confines of Chicago’s Union Station, we are cut off!

That is, until we reach the wifi friendly confines of Shelby, Montana where the station is located right across from the Oasis Bar and Casino. They have food and dancing and….. wifi that reaches to the other side of the tracks, right where I’m sitting. Crazy!

So to all of you who have been waiting to hear from me… you go… And thanks to the folks at the Oasis Bar and Casino.

“There’s A Memo”…”

Right up front, as we began this train trip west, I made it clear that there would be no more blogs about that dang Amtrak coffee mug. It’s the one that I bought dozens of years ago with the promise of free coffee… forever. I realized that I’ve pretty much exhausted the subject of whether or not that forever promise would be honored. I’ve tried the patience of my faithful (six) readers who are looking for something more substantial than Empire Builder coffee. “Enough is enough!” I said, that is…. until Jeanie, the cafe car attendant, when she spied my mug, leaned over the counter and almost whispering said, “There’s a memo out on those…”

Whoa! What? A memo! No! “Yep,” she said, “I heard there was a memo, but I haven’t seen it.” Wink, wink…. Then she took the mug and filled it with free coffee. Smiling, she said with a low gravely voice, “Don’t go broadcasting it now.”

Now, as I drink my clandestine cup of coffee, I vow that I won’t breath a word of it, except to you six. Besides, this will be the LAST time I write about …. shhhhhh…. you know…. wink, wink…

Today’s Free Train Coffee…

I know… I know… It’s like an obsession with me, this free coffee thing on the train. It’s not that I’m cheap, but it’s the challenge. Can I get a free cup of coffee out of the cafe car attendant from a decades old promotion, that involved buying a souvenir Amtrak mug, that promised endless coffee ‘til mug do us part?

So, today I was awake early. I had things to read and write so I headed past my sleeping fellow travelers for coffee, without the mug, just to check on who’s selling the coffee on this train. It was Marshal. He seemed friendly enough and one who would honor the coffee deal. So why not give it a shot.

So give it a shot I did. I went back and this time ordered my yogurt and coffee and greeted Marshal with my mug. After some friendly banter he proclaimed, “That will be two-dollars.” 

“Ah,” I thought. “Success!”

“No, wait,” he said. “I forgot the yogurt. That’ll be four-fifty.”

Bah! In an instant, success turned into failure, free turned into two-dollars.

So there you go… It’s not that I’m cheap… it’s the challenge.