I was twenty one and had just finished a year studying abroad in a college in Los Angeles. The summer stretched out before me, unfurling itself like the map of the USA in my hands, and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore.
Gone was the suitcase I’d brought out with me from home – sorry Mum, sorry Dad – as it was too heavy and cumbersome to travel with. I eagerly crammed all of my belongings into a newly purchased backpack.
I had accumulated a lot of stuff in the space of a year.
I was perhaps a bit too naive of the world of backpacking to appreciate that if my bag was almost as big as I was, towering above my head when it sat on my back, that it would be heavy. Very heavy.
Still, even as I overbalanced, sweated and frowned when my arms turned purple at the lack of circulation, I carried on regardless and with the somewhat misguided vitality of youth.
I bought an Amtrak rail-pass that entitled me to a month worth of travel.
Taking The Train
It was easy to plan your route. It seemed to me to be a much simpler and cheaper to travel than to rent a car and drive (did I mention the US is a rather large country?) or fly from city to city, missing out on all the countryside.
I was also quite amused by the thought of sleeping on the train; filled, as I mentioned before, with the vitality of youth. Actually, scrap that. I am considerably older now and would be still amused at the novelty of sleeping on a train, unperturbed by the cramped and uncomfortable sleeping conditions. Fortunately for me, I obtain the necessary skill to be able to nod off pretty much anywhere. You can appreciate this is a God-send when travelling.
The Seattle to Chicago journey across the Northwest of America is mammoth. A 45hr and 15 minute journey across at least five states and 46 stations.
I was travelling with a fellow English girl whom I had met studying whilst at Occidental College. Some time into the journey we ventured into the observation carriage. This was a glass topped carriage where passengers can sit with a drink and admire the scenery rolling past the panoramic windows.
We hadn’t been there long before a guy approached us. He looked to be a few years older, in his mid to late twenties. He was dressed in jeans and a blue checked shirt. On his feet were boots complete with intriguing spurs and on his head sat a stetson. I couldn’t quite believe it, but we had found ourselves talking with an actual cowboy.
Conversations With A Cowboy
He was drinking a tumbler filled with an inch of amber liquid. He dipped his hat. “Can I buy you ladies a drink”? he offered. My friend and I glanced at his glass suspiciously and politely declined. This wasn’t a glass of wine on offer. “That’s a shame,” he mused. “The girls in my town can drink the guys under the table”.
“Where do you live?” we asked, mouths agape. So far in America the number of real-life cowboys we had met amounted to zero.
He lived in North Dakota. “Where I live, a strange car can drive in one end of town and before it reaches the other end the whole place knows about it. People call each other up on the phone to tell them about it”.
This was clearly small town life. “I’m from Reading”, I explained. “Just outside of London in England”.
“Oh right”, he said, swilling the liquid in his glass, processing that information. “I’ve been in Seattle for a couple of days. That’s as far as I’ve travelled”.
“Oh, cool”. I was impressed. This guy was true America through and through.
“Do you girls ride horses?”
“Ride horses? Um, no, not really”. I frowned, trying hard to remember the last time I sat on a horse. I recalled a memory from a holiday in Devon when I was about ten years old and offered this to him weakly.
“I ride horses”, he told us.
Given his attire, this was not surprising.
My friend and I chatted to him about our studies and our grand trip planned across America. He nodded politely throughout.
“So, do you like riding horses”?
“Oh yes, I like riding horses”, I tried to enthuse. “I mean, I enjoyed my little ride on Dartmoor that one time”.
“My whole life is horses”, he said, lighting up when he talked about his passion. “My grandfather and father bred horses. Are you sure I can’t buy you ladies a drink”?
My friend and I murmured our thanks but no thanks, slightly in awe of this guy in his black felt hat, his long hair curling at the collar.
“Do you like horses”? he tried again and I could sense a theme to his interests and conversational limits.
“Well, sure, I like horses”, I agreed vaguely. “I’m not really an expert. There’s not much opportunity for horse riding in Reading town centre”.
He finished his drink. “I breed them, break them in and sell them”.
I was enjoying this conversation, even though we had quickly established we had nothing much to say to each other. That was the point of it, really. We were of a similar age, but that was about all we had in common. Not only were we different nationalities, we were whole worlds apart in our lives, experiences and outlooks.
It was fascinating. I thought he was fascinating.
Realising that he was unable to coax us into drinking with him, he inclined his head towards us once more and got out of his seat. “It was a pleasure to meet you, ladies. I will be getting off at Minot. That’s the nearest station to where I live”.
“Lovely to talk with you”, my friend and I chimed as he took his leave.
The train continued to roll through field upon field of sandy coloured flax. I wondered what his life was like in his rural corner of America.
Now, even though many years have passed and I have continued to travel, I still think about the time I met a cowboy on a train.
I hope he still loves horses.
Photos thanks to Pixabay