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Amtrak's Chicago to New Orleans train "The City of New Orleans" inspired a song of the same name made popular by Arlo Guthrie.

If included among U.S. airlines, Amtrak would rank 8th (2008) in the number of passengers served. On average, there are nearly twice as many passengers on an Amtrak train than there are on a domestic airline flight.

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Setting Something Good in Motion

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At lunch, I also met Melvin and Charmae Jackson, a Memphis couple who were on their first train trip to New Orleans in many years — on the advice of friends and relatives who had raved about the City of New Orleans.

Louisiana bayou country.

"We love it already," said Charmae. "The food is good, and it's so relaxing! We're just sitting back and letting everybody else do everything."

Soon the bayou country north of New Orleans began to appear outside and the sun was starting to break through the clouds that had kept pace with us since Memphis. I went back to my Roomette to shoot photos of the changing panorama: the bayou, with pelicans flying and tall white herons standing in the shallows; then Lake Pontchartrain, topped off with a long causeway leading into New Orleans; and then the northern outskirts of the city, with neighborhoods still obviously in disrepair from flooding; and past the massive Louisiana Superdome into the Union Passenger Terminal.

Soon I was riding in a cab through the French Quarter and encouraged to see streams of people on the street. I couldn't wait to get back out among them — and I did so quickly after checking in. In a ritual from previous trips, I went immediately to Jackson Square, the historic center of New Orleans, before setting off to sample the many styles of music on Bourbon Street.

Jackson Square.

I took in some Dixieland jazz and Cajun music at two different clubs before sitting down for a dinner of pork chops and red beans and rice. I enjoyed chatting with a group of locals who were dressed in festive costumes for what they said was a "Party Gras" celebration that was ready to commence. That was a new one on me — but I liked the sound of it.

I headed back towards Jackson Square to claim a spot on the corner of Orleans and Royal streets for the Krewe du Vieux parade, a Mardi Gras season spectacle poking fun at current events. For the next half hour, I happily took in wild floats and uplifting brass band music. People of all ages and backgrounds strutted past in hilarious costumes. This was a perfect way to end the evening.

Sunday morning, I was up early. After a bite to eat, I took a walk around the Quarter and shot some photos of people enjoying a peaceful, sunny Sunday morning. At Jackson Square, I scanned the paintings that artists had hung along the square's iron fences. I was drawn quickly to some vibrant paintings depicting jazz bands, and I ended up buying a good-sized one, knowing that it would be easy to take back with me on the train.

Art at Jackson Square.

With time slipping away, I took a stroll along the Moon Walk, which overlooks the Mississippi at the edge of Jackson Square. Walking back up to a platform that overlooks both the river and the square, I saw a paddlewheeler to my left and, to my right, horse-drawn carriages filled with smiling tourists ambling down the street. This lovely and lively scene seemed to say: "How can you possibly leave now?"

Well, it was hard, but back at the station an hour before the 1:45 pm departure, I resolved to return the New Orleans again soon. The pain of having to leave was tempered by the warmth I felt in running into Curtis and Annie Garrison in the station's first-class passenger lounge. We laughed as we traded stories about our short but memorable visits to the French Quarter the night before. Since they hadn't seen the parade, they enjoyed hearing my account.

In the lounge, I also had a chance to meet another couple — from the Minnesota farming community of Milroy — who were on their way home from a New Orleans vacation. Jack and Jan Christensen raved about their visit — with highlights including bus tours of New Orleans sites and a poignant visit to the National World War II Museum.

"It was our first time in New Orleans," said Jack. "We really wanted to visit and help the local economy. We decided to go by train because of a newspaper story about the City of New Orleans. And we've really enjoyed the experience."

"We've really liked the close-up look you get of the country," said Jan, "as well as all the people we've met on the train."

Jack added that the experience had him planning a train trip to see the Minnesota Twins baseball team play games in Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Detroit.

Ernie Noa.

Once back on the train, I felt that, as tough as it had been to leave the French Quarter so quickly, it was nice to be moving again on a sunny afternoon. Soon I was amusing myself by snapping pictures of the sunny bayou scenery.

As I took a break between snapping photos, I turned away from the window and said hello to a new neighbor who had just boarded in Hammond, Louisiana. He stopped in with a cup of coffee in hand and we began what turned out to be a fascinating chat—a conversation like so many I've had riding Amtrak that expands my horizon about the endless diversity of people and their interests.

This new fellow passenger, Ernie Noa, worked in Champaign, Illinois, for a book publishing company, and so we quickly found professional common ground. But what really caught my interest was Ernie's hobby, which was the reason he was on the train.

Ernie was just returning from an event in nearby Diamondhead, Mississippi, that made me smile just to imagine it — a meeting of hobbyists from around the world who build and operate large model trains that run on steam power. I become absorbed in Ernie's descriptions of the weekend that he'd spent in the courtyard of a large resort running these trains on raised tracks, with steam pouring out and whistles sounding. [continued...]