Around the U.S. By Train – Part 4

The Crescent, Amtrak‘s train # 20, runs daily between New Orleans and New York by way of Atlanta and Washington. It departs at 7:00 in the morning and it occurs to me as I’m walking down the platform to my sleeping car that 13 hours in New Orleans is not nearly enough, dinner at Irene’s notwithstanding. Next time I’ll give this city at least two nights. At least.

As soon as I reach car 2010, I’m greeted warmly by the train attendant, who seizes my bag and leads me down the corridor to roomette 6. After making sure I know how everything works, he says, “My name is Gary and I want you to remember throughout the trip that you are my guest. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” All right, Gary! We’re definitely off to a good start.

The sleeping cars on the Crescent are Viewliners, built by Amtrak to operate on overnight trains running in the eastern part of the U.S. These are single-level cars, unlike the Superliners used on western trains, which are too high to fit through some of the tunnels in this part of the country. Like the Superliners, the Viewliners have roomettes and bedrooms, the main difference being these roomettes include a wash basin and a toilet. They also have a smaller window for people sleeping in the upper bunks. On Superliners, the facilities for roomette passengers are “down the hall.” The larger bedrooms in both types of car include those facilities.

As the Crescent leaves the city, the only remaining signs of Hurricane Katrina I can see are a few abandoned houses and many others that are obviously new construction. All is still not right in this wonderful city, however, for several of the wards that were hit with the worst flooding are still virtual wastelands. On the way to the station this morning, my cab driver, a dignified, soft-spoken black gentleman, talked about it bitterly. “That storm took away everything I had,” he said, “and here I am today, 79 years old and driving a taxicab just to get by.” He paused a moment, then added softly, “That Katrina was a real motherfucker.”

(I thought a lot about deleting that expletive, but didn’t because it’s an exact quote and because in context it perfectly communicated the hurt and devastation he felt. My apologies if you found it offensive.)

We’ve barely left the city behind when the Crescent starts out across Lake Pontchartrain on a single-track bridge built on pilings. The effect is a bit startling because looking out the windows on either side of the train, no structure is visible and it appears the train is rattling along in mid air, just a few feet above the water.

Just before noon, we stop in Meridian, Mississippi, to change engineers and conductors and to refuel the locomotives. There’s a nearly new station here in Meridian, the brainchild of Mayor John Robert Smith. Mayor Smith is a staunch supporter of Amtrak and is well known as a man of vision among folks who are advocates of rail travel. This new station serves both rail and bus passengers under one roof and has revitalized this whole section of the city.

An hour later, the Crescent has crossed into Alabama and is rattling along at close to 80 mph. In contrast to the Texas landscapes, everything here is green, the fertile land fairly bursting with life. Bursting with kudzu, too. The creeping vine is everywhere and covering everything where given the chance – trees, telephone poles, even entire hillsides. We pass a ramshackle one-story building with the kudzu covering one wall and half the rusted metal roof. The faded sign over the door reads NU-IMAGE STYLE SHOP. There’s evidence of recent heavy rains here, with standing water in many of the fields we pass. A half dozen egrets are wading attentively through one; a great blue heron stands solemnly in an adjacent field.

I’m back in the dining car for lunch as the train gathers speed after a stop in Tuscaloosa. A large bearded man, who has introduced himself as Frank, is seated across from me, but staring out the window at more than a dozen impressive red brick buildings, part of the University of Alabama’s athletic complex. “Tuscaloosa,” he mutters, “Home of the world’s most obnoxious football fans.” Frank, I am not surprised to learn, is from Baton Rouge and has been an LSU fan since he was seven.