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Ernie and I continued our discussion over dinner, where we were joined by Shay Kleinpeter, an 18-year-old high school senior from Baton Rouge who was on his way to a college interview in Indiana. Shay showed an impressive knowledge about the history of Amtrak and railroading in general, and both Ernie and I found ourselves asking him questions and smiling at each other in awe at his answers. We assured Shay that he had a promising future ahead of him, no matter what career he finally chose.
Our dinner conversation also touched upon the rebuilding in New Orleans. Ernie told an inspiring story about the owner of a bayou restaurant who had fed people free of charge for weeks after the hurricane.
The rebuilding of the area came into sharper focus for me after dinner when I went back to the lounge and got into a discussion with Sue Kaufman and Marlaine Francis, two instructors from Eastern Illinois University who had been in New Orleans as part of a project to restore quality elementary and secondary education to the area.
Said Sue, "We're looking at ways to rebuild a successful public education system in which high-quality teachers get adequate pay, and students have a safe and healthy learning environment."
Sue and Marlaine said that they felt it was very important for people to visit New Orleans to get a feel for the work that remains to be done to bring the community back to normal — and that taking the train provides a good opportunity to discuss this subject with others and find solutions.
After getting some sleep, I shared an early breakfast with John and Randi Hudson, a couple from the Seattle area who were returning from a vacation in Alabama and Florida. They told me that their decision to cover most of the trip on Amtrak stemmed from a previous Whistle Stop article I'd written on the Seattle-to-Chicago Empire Builder route.
The City of New Orleans Cross Country Café.
"Wow," I said, "I think you've already made my day."
They said they'd really enjoyed their trip so far — particularly the dining.
"It's all been great," said Randi, laughing, "especially the desserts on the City of New Orleans. The bread pudding pie with apples and raisins is outstanding. Last night, I didn't share it — it was that good!"
Soon the Christensens came walking by, and I introduced them to the Hudsons. Within minutes, they were laughing and carrying on like old friends.
On this cheery note, I felt it was an appropriate time to head back to my Roomette to savor the moment as we made our approach to Chicago, and to take some more photos. I'd give myself one of the treats I enjoy the most about train travel — simply looking out the window watching the world go by. I recalled what someone had once said to me: "On the train, you can unwind your way across the country." Well, I wanted to unwind a bit more before beginning another week of business in Chicago.
The rural landscapes were swept with snow, but the sun was peeking through the clouds here and there — and, while we were back in the North, where winter is truly a serious business, the day had a certain beauty to it.
As I reflected on the trip, the intriguing new people I'd met came parading in front of me. As I passed the progressively taller buildings and watched the human activity intensify as we came closer to Chicago, it struck me that I'd never have met these new people if I hadn't boarded the City of New Orleans some 60 hours earlier. And I wouldn't have been able to have a chance to dance to the tune that only New Orleans can play.
Snow on the tracks in Chicago.
So, as I rolled back into Chicago's Union Station on Martin Luther King Day, I was grateful to be feeling inspired on a day honoring a truly inspiring man. There was no doubt that I felt a lift from this trip. I'd been reminded of the importance of keeping a sense of music and rhythm in my life, as if in a parade that I was happy to be marching in. By staying "musical," I realized, I could be like the resilient people of New Orleans — and be able to bounce back no matter what life threw at me.
The new people I'd encountered, the rhythm of the rails, the brass bands marching through the French Quarter — all of it was giving me a new bounciness in everything I did. And I think there's a good chance that riding on the City of New Orleans might do the same for you.
Whichever way you head on this historic route, you're bound to set something good in motion.
Photos by Terry Breen and Bonnie Aldrich.