Sitting in the observatory car of the Empire Builder, I alternated between reading a novel and glancing out of the giant windows at the vast scenery on my return trip from Chicago, Illinois to Shelby, Montana.
Then, I was approached by two boys. "Hello," the younger one said. "My brother and I are filming a documentary about people on the train and are wondering if you would be willing to participate."
For a split second, I almost declined. (How often is our default answer to invitations from strangers 'no' instead of 'yes'?) But their sincerity compelled me. I leapt up and said, "Absolutely."
The Montana brothers (14, 16) escorted me to the other side of the observatory car where we met their Texan friend (15). When I sat down, they gave me an opportunity to skim their questions in advance. After doing so, sitting beside my interviewer and in front of a video camera, I suddenly had a sense that I was about to experience some Democracy in Amtrak and that I had encountered some junior Alexis de Tocquevilles.
"Hello, my name is Killian and I'm here with Miss Amanda," the young Texan began. "We have three categories of questions for you including: religious, cultural, and miscellaneous. If you want, feel free to skip some of the questions."
This was their list that they kindly let me reproduce here:
Three Categories: Religious, Cultural, and Miscellaneous
Cat 1: Religious
- Do you believe in an afterlife?
- (If yes) Do you believe in a Heaven?
- Do you believe in a Hell?
- How do you get to Heaven?
- How to you get to Hell?
Cat 2: Cultural Views:
- What is the main difference you see today between the current generation of young people and the generation that you grew up in?
- If you could put a label on this new, younger generation, what would it be?
- If you had any advice for the new, upcoming generation, what would it be?
- What world leader had the greatest affect on you personally as a young person. (Or which was the most fascinating to you, and why?)
- In your opinion, how do you think America has changed in recent years compared to the past?
- How do you feel about abortion and its providers such as Planned Parenthood?
- What are your views on homosexuality?
Cat 3: Miscellaneous
- Do you believe in spontaneous human combustion?
- What was your favorite mode of transportation when you were growing up?
- What is your personal weather preference: Hot or Cold?
- What are three things that you want to do before you die?
- What is your drink preference?
- Would you rather watch sports or play them?
- Studies have shown, that over the last ten years, the clown population has been steadily decreasing. Do you think that this will have a negative affect on American children and adults alike?
At the conclusion of the interview the boys said, "We don't intend to publish the video online. We just want to transcribe the recorded answers into a Word document and share our trip with our family and friends.
Their questions impressed me and reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville's study of the beliefs, customs, religious views, principles, manners, and perspectives of those he sought to understand during his travels throughout America in the mid-1800s.
In his Introduction, Tocqueville says, "It is not, then, merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America; my wish has been to find instruction by which we may ourselves profit."
The way the boys attentively listened to the answers of their fellow passengers struck me. Like Tocqueville, by inquiring into how the Americans live, they were ultimately asking an even more fundamental question. They were asking: how should I live?