2017-11-01 09:07:07
Road Trip: How I Rolled on the Crescent: New York to New Orleans by Rail

Everyone I told said the same thing: “Oh, my God! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

The thing they had always wanted to do, apparently, was travel from New York to New Orleans by train. Or cross any considerable distance by rail — distances typically flown over in the name of expedience. Old, young, man, woman, didn’t matter. They had all long nursed, but never acted on, a wish to take the slow route.

I write about liquor. Every July, in New Orleans, there is a booze convention. I’d gone every year, always by plane. Last summer, bored with the routine, I vowed to shake it up. I brought up the Amtrak website and discovered there was a line called the Crescent that followed the eastern corridor down to Washington, D.C., and then snaked through the South to New Orleans. It took 30 hours.

I had a day to spare. All that remained was to O.K. the plan with my travel companion. “Oh, my God!” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do that!” (Or words to that effect.)

Despite our shared enthusiasm, part of me wondered if the trip was a good idea. Amtrak was regularly in the news, and not in a good way. A derailment here, a delay there. Penn Station’s “summer from hell” was tabloid fodder. Had I booked myself a fantasy (lovely scenery, atmospheric whistle stops, cocktails in the dining car) that bore no correlation to reality (aging cars, tourists, tedium)?

I admit to being a romantic. I also admit to being a cynic. This means I am suspicious of my romantic tendencies. I’ve sentimentalized train travel all my life. Yet, after three decades of Amtrak trips, I still genuinely enjoyed it, so I concluded that my romanticism wasn’t entirely self-delusion.

I had previously embarked on only one journey of the duration I was now contemplating. Shortly after college, I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, and the Empire Builder, across Montana and the Dakotas, back. I was 23 then and slept sitting up in my seat. That would not cut it this time. I was older and required comfort. A private room fit in with my train-travel dreams, but I had always assumed such luxury prohibitively expensive. I was pleased, then, to find a fare of $280 one-way. The fare included a “roomette,” the smallest private compartment on offer. (I booked way ahead of time. By my departure date, that number had more than doubled.)

We arrived at Penn Station with an hour to spare. There were no obvious signs of hell, except that we were put on the Silver Meteor, which goes to Miami. Normally, the Crescent makes the entire trip from NYC to NOLA, but construction at Penn Station allowed it no further north than D.C.

A porter directed us to our car. We boarded and were immediately funneled into those narrow hallways that remind you of old movies.

The room was as “-ette” as advertised — 3’6” by 6’8” — but well-organized, like one of those multipurpose pocket gadgets advertised on late night TV. There was a place to hang my garment bag in one corner. Opposite was a toilet; above that a sink that folded into the wall. There were towels and soap and a paper-cup dispenser on top of the sink. A cavity in the wall so high you would easily miss it swallowed up the luggage. Between the two facing, and rather commodious, seats, there was a retractable table with a checkerboard pattern on it. Switches above each seat controlled three lights: ceiling, wall and reading.

This was all fine by me. My height (6’1”) notwithstanding, I have always felt most comfortable in snug spaces. One-bedroom apartments relax me; McMansions give me the jitters.

Once we pulled out of the station, it became apparent that we not only had one long window but a second upper window, slightly hidden by the upper berth. The roomette was flooded with light.

A woman name Brenda came by and offered us bottled water. We tipped her, figuring we would need to rely on her in the future.

Train travel presents certain immediate advantages over air travel. It forces you to relax, as you have time on your hands. Even in a roomette, you’re afforded more space than on a plane. Furthermore, you can stock your quarters with items the airlines would never permit, including well-stuffed suitcases; snacks (in case the onboard fare wasn’t up to par — a safe bet); and the makings of cocktail hour.

We called Brenda for ice. Once 5 o’clock hit, out came a bottle of Pimm’s, a half-liter of ginger ale, a cucumber and a knife. Pimm’s Cups were built and enjoyed, under the glow of the coming sunset. I read some Fitzgerald and smiled, thinking of all the suckers shoehorned into seats on United or American.

The train was full, so meal seatings were staggered. We were called at 5:45. The dining car was bustling and had an appealing, quasi-art deco feel to it. There was no selecting of tables. We were slipped into booths like files. “Side by side,” instructed the waiter when we tried to sit opposite each other. “Side by side.”

The menu had a section titled “ACAT Inspired Special.” ACAT stood for Amtrak Culinary Advisory Team. Only one such item, a “vegetarian Asian noodle bowl,” was available. I opted for the “Field & Sea Combo” instead, based on the waiter’s recommendation. It was composed of steak, seared shrimp, baked potato and mixed vegetables. It came quickly and wasn’t bad, though it wasn’t good, either; about on par with what you might find at Ponderosa.

At Washington’s Union Station, we changed trains. The Crescent was right across the platform. Our new roomette looked exactly like the old one.

We asked Pat, our new attendant, for more ice, and I poured out pre-mixed martinis I had smuggled aboard in a flask. We sipped contentedly. “The only problem with this train is not enough martinis,” my companion said.

As darkness fell on northern Virginia, Pat set up the berths. The limited machinery that effected the change was too much for us. Pat, stout and short, did it in a second. She bid us a good night and added, “Let’s see if we get through the Carolinas.” Why wouldn’t we?, I wondered.

The bottom berth, amazingly, accommodated my long frame. Sleeping on the upper, said my companion, felt like getting an M.R.I. But we both slept well. My expectation that the train’s motion would rock us to slumber had not been bunk (as it were).

We woke in South Carolina. Red clay lined the tracks. The rising sun made the pine trees look burnt yellow. Mobile homes and country lanes drifted by. Washing up and shaving in the shower down the hall required agility. The lurching train threw my body from wall to wall. I felt vaguely like an Army recruit.

In Atlanta, I detrained for the first time. Raised on the train stations of the northeast, I expected something as grand. But the station was a remarkably meager affair. There was a small waiting room with wooden benches and a few vending machines. An older Amtrak employee discoursed to some customers about past civil rights achievements of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

At lunch, we were seated opposite a Birmingham family returning from a jaunt to New York. We ordered one of those ACAT culinary specials, a “Thai-spiced pulled coconut pork slider.” The Boston-based chef Jamie Bissonette was the supposed author. The table quieted when the dish arrived. For a slider, it was as big as a burger. The gray meat inside resembled dog food. A few bites were all that were needed for us to plead for the Hebrew National hot dog my companion had spotted on the kids’ menu. The frankfurter was split open, grilled and served with relish. It was delicious, easily the best thing we ate on the trip.

Outside the window, I saw thick foliage, small country post offices and handmade signs advertising boiled peanuts. Mmm, I thought, boiled peanuts.

Shortly after lunch, the train stopped outside of Birmingham. I had been napping off and on, so I didn’t notice until an hour had passed. It was then that Pat communicated the cruel secret of the Crescent. Beyond the northeast corridor, Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks it runs on. By law, Amtrak trains must be given priority. But, in practice, it doesn’t always work out that way, resulting in regular delays. In this case, a freight had stalled. We sat still for three hours. (“Let’s see if we get through the Carolinas,” Pat had said.)

The charm of train travel lies in constant motion, minute-by-minute adventure. When that motion ceases, the charm evaporates. Alabama was the longest state. There were two more delays, as we played less-precious cargo to loads of grain, chemicals and coal. I no longer felt smarter than plane people.

Around Tuscaloosa, we had dinner. The dining car didn’t have the style of that on the Silver Meteor. Nothing on the Crescent did. However, the Field & Sea Combo was strangely better, the steak juicier, the shrimp well grilled. Our waitress, Ashley, said they had a good chef on board. I found the idea of an Amtrak chef being good or bad, or even existent, highly suspect. But maybe there were differences from train to train.

We finally crossed into Mississippi, then crawled to Louisiana. I lost track of the delays — none were announced — and of Pat. Many of the passengers had disembarked at Birmingham. The Crescent felt like a ghost train. Were we the only ones foolish enough to pay full passage?

The train had been due at 9 p.m. We arrived in New Orleans at 2 a.m. I stumbled, nearly hallucinating from exhaustion, onto the platform and into a taxi. We told the driver our tale of woe. He was not moved. “Last night, it got in at 4.”

People were still impressed when we told them how we got to New Orleans. When pressed for details, I demurred and muttered darkly about Birmingham.

Would I do it again? Maybe. My romanticism hadn’t been entirely crushed. But I’d try another line. And check beforehand who owned the tracks. And smuggle in more martinis.