One Christmas when I lived in the Chicago area, I treated my parents to a ride on the City of New Orleans to visit us. I wanted them to visit, but I also had an ulterior motive. I wanted to see what train travel was like and if we might have a different option of heading south than fighting airport security and enduring flight delays. They loved it. It was the first time they had done it, too. They described it as hassle-free, interesting and pretty social. Well, that was all I needed. The next trip down, we were doing it.
The first half of the trip was a bit of a disaster as the heat went out on the train, and we were freezing. Eventually, they got it fixed, though, and it was really nice. The train left the station in Chicago at 8:00 PM. They had a private seating area at Union Station in Chicago where you could comfortably sit and watch TV and wait for the train to depart. It was nothing like an airport. Union Station is fabulous. If you remember the scene in The Untouchables where the baby carriage careened down the staircase, that was filmed at Union Station.
Around 9 PM, dinner is served in the dining car. Dinner is a fine dining experience. It really is just like in the movies. I’ll never forget the rack of lamb I savored on one trip. It was perfect. White linen tablecloths, waiters hurrying around swaying from side to side with the movement of the railroad car and the world flying by. They seated 4 people at each table, so each meal we had a different dining guest. We met couples from all over the country who preferred train travel to air travel. The word I kept hearing them say was that it was more civilized. And, I would have to agree, particularly if you get a private room.
We had a porter in our bedroom who provided us with orange juice and coffee and helped us with anything we needed. When we returned from dinner, our bunk beds were made up, and it was time to sleep. It took a little getting used to with all the noise and the swaying, but I did sleep. When they woke us up at 6, we were almost in Memphis. Little did I know I’d be living there one day. The arrival in Memphis marked the journey into the South. The night was filled with Northern cities, and we were asleep, so we didn’t really experience them. When I drive south like I did yesterday, I’m always reminded of the City of New Orleans because I-55 runs parallel to the route. The same cities fly past my windshield although at a much faster rate. Jackson MS … Yazoo City ….Brookhaven … Hammond – Those are the cities that fly past before getting into the swampland outside New Orleans. The train departs Memphis around 7 AM, and it arrives in New Orleans at about 1 PM.
I wasn’t as impressed with breakfast and lunch as I was dinner, but we still sat with strangers and got to know them. It was definitely interesting. The Viewing Car is almost all windows. When we weren’t in our little room, we hung out there. It was beautiful. On one trip down, a bad winter storm dumped snow and ice all over the South. As my other traveling friends were stranded in airports, getting flights canceled and otherwise having to make alternate plans, we slowly moved down the track to New Orleans. We ordered a bottle of wine and got fairly fairly wasted and watched our own little movie of the frozen south. The train got in a couple of hours late, but we didn’t have any delays, and quite frankly, we had partied our way to New Orleans.
The bedrooms made into private sitting areas, so we had time to read and talk privately. I read the book Bayou Farewell on one of those trips, and learned some things I didn’t know about the wetlands in my native land. I love train travel. I keep hoping that this country will embrace it and have more of it. It’s not really cheaper than airline travel. In fact, in many instances, it’s vastly more expensive, especially if you take a multi-day trip across the country. I want to do the Amtrak Cascades route across Canada to Seattle or the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles. I hear they are fabulous, but they are expensive, and they take a lot of time. Maybe one day.
It’s quicker and better economically for me to travel by car to go home, but every time I pass the sign for Yazoo City, I remember those trips on the City of New Orleans. The train tracks race through rural areas, and the scenery is much different than that from the interstate highway. The rolling of the train car is soothing, and the shriek of the train whistle at each railroad crossing is a reminder that we are traveling slowly across the land. Rather than being crammed into a can like sardines and served some pretzels and coke, we had our own comfortable private space with a porter to talk to and serve us. We met interesting people, and we were able to relax. Often when I run in downtown Memphis, the City of New Orleans is sitting in the station or departing as I pass. It always brings back fond memories. I agree. The word is civilized. I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done…