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My holiday commute takes 12 hours each way among some of the strangest people I’ve ever met. No, I don’t take an international flight — I ride Amtrak.

American passenger rail isn’t what it used to be. With the universality of the automobile and ever cheaper airfare, the train has become a niche transportation for a niche group. At Penn, the vast majority of students jet out for the holidays. Real train travel (i.e. not just to New York) is exceedingly rare. Nevertheless, riding passenger rail is a unique experience more students should take a chance to investigate.

There are plenty of reasons why I ride Amtrak. Bought far enough in advance, overnight coach tickets are more in line with Greyhound prices than airfare fees. Instead of taking a cab or UA-sponsored shuttle to the airport, I hop on at the train at 30th Street Station and hop off again 10 miles from my house. And instead of spending hours contending with baggage checks and airplane security, I arrive 20 minutes before my train with time to spare.

Yet my favorite part of riding the rails has to be the other passengers. Travelers aren’t afraid to talk to one another, and Amtrak is a mixing pot of all sorts of backgrounds and personalities. I’ve never come away from a trip without bringing a good story with me.

I remember once sitting next to a young man with sunken cheekbones and a massive beard. He muttered a few words under his breath in greeting and then went back to watching a bizarre, low-budget soap on his laptop. He was so strange that I didn’t try to make conversation, but we finally exchanged a few words again around 2 a.m. As it turns out, he was a Turkish national on his third month in America — and his third month learning English. That weird show he was watching? Courtesy of the Turkish movie industry. We ended up having a great chat about his home country, and I learned a valuable lesson about judging people too soon.

Another time, I had a conversation with an ancient trucker by the name of Mr. Lemon. His voice was a thick drawl, and he took frequent sips from a 40 he had wrapped in a paper bag. His stories were surreal. The longest he had driven without sleep was 72 hours (he talked about “road phantoms” that made it hard to go longer). Once he escaped from a Mexican jail by weakening the cell bars with hot sauce. Another time he drove a motorcycle across the Bering Strait only to be stopped by Russian border patrol. He may have been embellishing the truth, but I’m sure not going to forget him anytime soon.

Most of the time, the folks you meet on the train are worth keeping up with. My freshman year, a Georgetown law student gave me invaluable advice on the law-school application process. A few trips later, I spent my time hanging out with a group of college kids I still chat with today. Most recently, I ended up sitting with a retired Coast Guard commander, former legislative director in the Senate and current high-powered lobbyist. We had such a great conversation that he gave me his card — and offered to grab lunch with me the next time I was in D.C.

Twelve hours is a long time to spend traveling, but the range of people I’ve encountered has made it worth the hardship of a creaky neck and a restless night’s sleep. This Thanksgiving, enjoy home — but enjoy the journey getting there, too. If this trip is anything like the many ones before it, I know I will.

Emerson Brooking is a College junior from Turnerville, Ga. He is a member of the UA. His e-mail address is

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