Written Wednesday, December 30 – On the Amtrak Crescent (northbound)
Heading out of New Orleans, Louisiana
The Crescent leaves New Orleans in the morning at 7 am, so I made my way to the train station under cover of darkness. I hailed a cab at the hotel and kissed my mom goodbye. I emerged into the train station to find a long line. I found a comfy place on the train, moving several times to ensure there was a wide window view for the trip north. Altogether, the trip to Greenville, South Carolina takes about 15 hours if you take into account the time change between Central and Eastern standard times. We pass through half a dozen states on the way.
For now, it’s just fascinating to go through Louisiana at dawn. I’ve always heard that New Orleans is built too low, a city that lives at or below sea level, but it’s pretty interesting to see just how true that is. We passed canals that were level with the ground on either side where houses are built, with six-foot high walls that kept out the water. Now, we’re racing along a canal that is running low despite the rain this morning, but the walls that line its high banks is merely three or four feet tall and made of what looks like roofing material. A good 10-12 foot of flooding will definitely overflow the banks. Some of the houses are raised on stilts a half-story, or are just built up in general. This spring, I’ll be taking a half-course on housing policy, and I’m looking forward to learning about things like natural disasters and maybe flood insurance.
For a good amount of the ride out of Louisiana, we look out onto Lake Pontcharain, a large saltwater lake just to the north of New Orleans. It looks like the ocean for all I can tell, grey and endless, but there are no dunes and only scraggly grass atop the rocks that divide the tracks from the water. There are also remnants of piers, or, I’m starting to realize, houses. Wooden poles jut out a foot from the water, sketching out what used to be docks stretching a hundred feet into the lake. In a few places, small houses are set up over the water on story-high stilts. One can easily imagine these houses coming to grief in a strong hurricane. On our right side, there is a green grassy berm as high as the windows on the train, and only the bare branches of treetops peek out behind them. Interestingly enough, there are also practically no roads that lead to these houses over the water, unless there are paths cut through the berm, so they must only be accessible by boat. Now, we are gliding entirely above the water, absolutely nothing to either side but the grey waves. Goodness only knows how tall these tracks are.
This track winds northeast like the entire train, taking us north through Mississippi, Alabama, and then flattens out traveling almost directly east to go through Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve never been in these places before, but I’m excited to see names like Hattiesburg, Meridian, and Birmingham on our list of stops.
Mississippi and (now) Alabama are rather less exciting than implied by the names of cities I’ve never visited. We wound our way through Hattiesburg and Meridian this morning, and Tuscaloosa just about ten or fifteen minutes ago, en route to Birmingham. The morning has been persistently dark and dreary, threatening rain at every turn. Muddy brown swampy water and thick trees were all that I could see for a while. I opted for an early (kind of) lunch at 12:30 pm, making my way to the train car.
Train travel is such a fun thing because you get to meet so many different people. Steve and I had a great run on our inaugural Amtrak trip together in 2013 when we traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief. Now I still believe that’s true, but today has dampened my spirits a little bit. My companion for lunch was a white haired lady from Athens, Georgia. She was very perky, and overflowing with stories and anecdotes about Georgia, her two adult sons, and how education these days doesn’t teach people how to connect with nature. I mostly asked questions and listened while I worked my way through a pretty good angus beef burger and kettle chips. For $12.50, it’s slightly better than highway robbery, but I have no problem with it – it’s slightly better quality and the same price you’d expect to pay at a football or baseball game, after all. And served at forty-miles an hour. My companion just had a side salad, but midway into our dinner, the server came by, and dropped off a plate of macaroni and cheese, which my companion then started eating. I didn’t think much of it, but a few minutes later, the server stopped by and asked if she had ordered the dish. She confessed that she hadn’t, and the server was a little bit upset that she’d simply started eating a dish that she hadn’t requested. The woman bristled at something that she saw as being the server’s fault, and I politely declined to say anything about it. When the bill came, they generously did not bill her for the macaroni and cheese, but the woman made a few comments about it anyway, and a different server who presented the bill pointed out, “But you didn’t say anything about it and went ahead and ate it.” The woman huffed and puffed, and declared that she didn’t like the way it was said to her, and told the server so when she came. The server apologized again, and I waited until the woman left to tell the server I thought they were in the right, and not to worry about people like that.
When I came back, another woman was sitting in my seat! I had left my backpack under the seat in front of me, and my neck pillow in my seat, and she had simply moved it all over. Without apologizing, she shifted herself when I appeared. After a minute, I decided to move myself to the pair of seats across from her, which was very much empty. I said absolutely nothing about the whole thing. After all, just because other people lack manners, there’s no reason to neglect my own. Now I won’t generalize these people that I met today into any categories, but I will say that I think there is never too much courtesy in the world!
In front of me, a girl probably not out of high school is sitting next to an older man. Their five minute conversation has been a really interesting and exemplifies what Amtrak conversations can be like. He started off asking about what she’s working on (some beading) and she told him how she’s interested in doing something artistic for a living. She was shy. He was being genial. The conversation shifted to cooking and her interest in being a chef, and he gave good advice on practice and getting different experiences. Within minutes, the conversation drifted to personal topics, and he admitted that he and his wife of thirty years are getting divorced. “If it don’t work, it just don’t work.” She shared that her father left their family when she was only five. A few minutes later, they drift into silence. Just like that. You get to be a little friendly, then share something personal, and before you know it, the awkwardness has taken over again. It’s interesting and like no other experience where you end up sharing space with a complete stranger.
It’s now completely dark. The scene outside my window had been becoming steadily darker and darker, but all of a sudden, I looked outside to realize I could only see pinpricks of light from the streetlights along the road. I guess that’s all I’ll see of Alabama from here on out. In a few hours, we should arrive in Atlanta. I’m biding my time (probably until 6 pm) for dinner, because I feel like I’m not too hungry, and I’d like to avoid Athens Lady if possible. After that, I’ll probably sit in the lounge car and keep writing about our vacation.
Finishing up the day
Dinner was a lot better than lunch. At dinner, I was seated with a guy, and the servers came by to tell the man he would need to be nice to me because my lunch companion was terrible. I laughed, and had to explain my story. He turned out to be a special ed teacher in New York City who was reading Dune, so we spent most of our ride talking about books, music, and movies. It was a very agreeable way to spend some time, and the ride passed much more quickly for it.
At the end of the journey, we ended up being about forty-minutes late getting into Greenville. I waited in trepidation in the darkness and quiet, as the entire coachful of people started falling asleep. Finally, we got off in Greenville, and I found Steve in the crowd. It was great to be reunited. Now I’m back in Greenville for a few short days before I go to Columbia to join a school research team. It’s been a pretty tumultuous vacation, but a few weeks of travel are the perfect thing to round off the year. Here’s to 2016!