"Is that Dingle the Dingle in Ireland by chance?" a woman with stringy salt and pepper hair asked me, as we stood outside our train on a smoke stop in La Punta, Colorado.
"It sure is," I responded, having just discovered this myself in the waiting room of Chicago’s Union Station, killing time on my smartphone before hopping aboard the Southwest Chief that the woman and I were now riding together.
For the first half of my trip upon leaving New York, I had been making an effort to turn my “I Dingle” tote bag inward to obscure its words from sight. Mandy had lent it to me upon leaving the house before my three-week journey to the west coast and back. I had been covering it up because not only was I unaware as to what Dingle was, but the only association I had with it was dingleberries, the gross schoolyard slang that was thrown around to accuse you of improper hygiene. There were still scars from the battlefields of middle school that made me fear carrying around such a bag was the equivalent of wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m a Butt Muncher.”
But then when I was riding from Rockford to Chicago, I spotted a guy with a shirt that said Ogden Institute. He had big, curly hair, but was balding, baby-faced and a smoker. I couldn’t tell if he was my age or significantly younger. But I was curious about the school.
"Is Ogden in the South?" He seemed eager for a conversation when I approached him, but then looked slightly panicked at the question.
"I don’t know. I just found it at a thrift store." Hoping we could salvage something, I said, "In New Orleans, there’s a museum of Southern art called the Ogden, so I thought maybe there was a connection." But he still seemed uneasy, like a hipster who’s been outed for wearing a Mets cap by an actual fan who tries to talk them up about the state of the bullpen. "Nope, it was just something I found in a thrift store."
I found our conversational dead end to be unfortunate and realized that I had to pay it forward and remedy the situation with my Dingle bag. I was immediately glad I had Wikipedia’d Dingle when I realized that by hiding the words, I could be shielding off a conversation with an Irishman riding alongside me. The woman with the stringy hair did not have any hint of a brogue, but I assumed that she was just naturally curious. I recognized her from being buried in a crossword book in the observation car the day before.
"It’s quite nice out there," she continued. "Which county is Dingle in—do you know?"
"County Kerry," I responded.
"And which county is Dublin?"
"I don’t know. I’ve never been actually. My girlfriend lent me the bag after taking a trip out there."
"I bet she enjoyed it." The woman with the stringy hair was friendly, but had a bit of an unusual energy, like a Twin Peaks character. Our pauses between responses were lasting a beat longer than expected.
"Have you been out there?" I asked her.
"Yeah, I was there in 1998," thinking about it for a moment. "Wow, sixteen years ago."
The conductor called “all aboard” and we began going our separate ways. As she walked ahead of me, I noticed that the back of her shirt was from a race in Falmouth.
"Is that Falmouth on the Cape?" I asked her.
"Yes, you know it?"
"I went to the Dairy Queen in Falmouth every night back in the summer of ‘98." Again, that beat lingered and we went to our separate seats. I couldn’t tell if this woman was enjoying our exchanges or not. Her face was a tough read.
I gathered up my journal and iPad to head back to the observation car when the woman with the stringy hair appeared in the aisle near me again.
"Here’s a bit of trivia," she said to me as she grabbed my attention. "Down the road there, back in Las Palmas, there’s a Statue of Liberty."
"That’s funny. I just passed another one earlier in my trip. In Pennsylvania, I think."
"Oh, I didn’t know there was one there," she said.
"Yeah, and one in Madison as well," I told her. "Well, just the bust of one. She peeks out of the lake there. It looks great when it snows." I’ve never been to Madison in the winter, but recalled a post card I bought with that very image during my first Amtrak month around America.
"I bet that would make for an interesting project," the woman responded. "For someone to go around and take photographs of all the different Statues of Liberty. I have some friends from Quincy, Massachusetts who went and saw all the different Quincys there are around the country."
"Oh, what are the other ones?" I asked.
She thought about it. “Well, there’s Quincy, Indiana. And Quincy, Illinois. And I think the other one is Califronia maybe.”
"Plus it’s a great detective show," I shot back, hoping she’d catch my nod to the Jack Klugman drama from the ’70s.
But she just nodded. And again we went our separate ways.
— Billy H.C., July 10, 2014.