I've visited New Orleans often over the past 25 years - so Hurricane Katrina's August 2005 devastation broke my heart. When I got the opportunity to ride the legendary Amtrak City of New Orleans train from my home in Chicago to the Big Easy, I saw it as a chance to do something to help rebuild New Orleans - by encouraging people to hop on Amtrak from points north and take a trip.
You've probably heard one of the many recordings of The City of New Orleans, the famous song about this route. That song is about people feeling the rhythm of the rails and rocking to a gentle beat — and despite feeling exhausted from a long work week, I was in that musical groove within minutes of my 8 pm departure on January 18, 2008.
I was certainly in the right frame of mind to meet with Dave Kaszubski, an Amtrak customer service manager, and hear him sing the praises of the train's new combined diner-lounge car dubbed the "Cross Country Café."
Catfish on the City of New Orleans regional menu.
Both the diner and lounge sections of this car are filled with comfortable diner-like booths. The lounge section adds a sleek service counter, where a new menu of regional dishes can be had all day—everything from barbecue chicken pizza to fried catfish, red beans and rice with andouille sausage, and chicken and sausage jambalaya.
"The Cross Country Café is a more comfortable and relaxing environment for passengers to enjoy a meal," Dave explained. "It's also more conducive for playing cards and games. It's a great place to bring your family or meet new friends."
I tried out the café over dinner with Shannon Sandifer, a spiritual director returning home to Baton Rouge from theology studies in Evanston, Illinois. She said she hadn't been on Amtrak in 20 years and was finding taking the train to be a refreshing alternative to air travel.
"The train provides such great balance," she remarked. "I've enjoyed several good conversations with fellow passengers over a good meal, but I've also been able to enjoy solitude back in my Roomette."
After a dinner of catfish capped off with coffee and crème brulee cheesecake, I stayed in the Cross Country Café to talk with Noemi Escandon and Noelia Vargas, who were visiting from Spain and teaching language skills to elementary school children in Waukegan, Illinois, under a cultural exchange program. They said they were headed down to Memphis to take in the sights, including Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. I urged them to visit the music clubs along Memphis' famous Beale Street.
Noemi Escandon and Noelia Vargas.
Our conversation moved from the café at 10:30 p.m. when we got off at Champaign, Illinois, to stretch our legs. Back onboard, our eyes were drawn to a large Amtrak route map, and the three of us started a conversation about Amtrak travel options. We were soon joined by Tom Williams, a geography professor at Western Illinois University. He had just boarded the train and was on his way to a convention of the American Meteorological Society in New Orleans. I enjoyed this laughter-filled conversation until it hit me that I really needed some sleep.
Back in my Roomette, I looked out at the passing landscape, with lights dotting the darkness and casting long shadows across roads and sidewalks where people went about their lives on a wintery Friday night.
As Saturday dawned, the halfway point on our 900-mile trip to New Orleans — Memphis — was close by. Over breakfast, I listened with fascination to Tom Williams explain the Mississippi Valley topography passing by outside our window. At Memphis, we got off to get some air, and when we got back on, we once again found ourselves at the map in the downstairs vestibule. As Tom told me about the geographical significance of Yazoo City, I heard a chuckle from a passenger who had just boarded.
"By the way you pronounced Yazoo City, I can tell you're from the North," said the man, laughing.
Tom Williams (left) with Dave Kaszubski.
In short order, Tom and I were having a delightful conversation with Curtis Garrison, a retired union official from Memphis. He and his wife Annie were traveling down to New Orleans for an overnight getaway.
"Sometimes we just have to head down to New Orleans for a shrimp po' boy," Annie explained, laughingly referring to a classic New Orleans sandwich.
Not much later, I met yet another new passenger, Lesley Julian, a retired meteorologist from Louisville, Colorado, who, like Tom Williams, was heading to the meteorology confab in New Orleans. I couldn't resist getting her expert opinion on the snow that was blanketing the ground outside — an unusual sight in the South.
"Well," she replied, "you've got meteorologists on this train — and we make our own weather wherever we go!"
I laughed, but as the afternoon progressed, and the snow was still visible on the ground and the moss-covered cypress trees, I began to wonder if she really was joking!
When I went down for lunch, I had to smile when I met yet another person going to the meteorology convention: Noel Petit, a professor of computer science at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. [continued...]