Riding on the City of New Orleans
Updated: Jul 5
“Good Morning America, How are you?
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.”
Early morning Memphis. My bag checked in, but train 59 is delayed. The City of New Orleans train left Chicago yesterday afternoon and headed south through the night. AMTRAK services are often delayed though, but as long as you aren’t in a hurry it’s a great way to travel. The shiny silver giant finally arrived in Memphis and I made my way to my Coach Class seat. If you haven’t ridden AMTRAK, the seats are in a pitch barely imaginable in Europe. Square-backed seats and roomy as heck, they recline seemingly close to horizontal, with foot and even leg rests to enable full long-distance relaxation.
No such horizontal reclining for me though. Too much interest out of the window as we made our way through the state of Mississippi. It’s a great journey through sleepy southern cotton fields and towns forgotten by the modern world, but it’s also along a route that brought the Blues from humble backwaters to the world. Hazelhurst was the birthplace of Robert Johnson and McComb was home to Bo Diddley, according to the informative AMTRAK route guide. Finally we cross into Louisiana and the highlight of the journey for me as we enter the bayou, an other-worldly landscape of swamps and contorted cypress trees. The vegetation and the climate had changed dramatically as we made our final sweep hugging Lake Pontchartrain and into the Big Easy, the Crescent City, New Orleans.
My hotel was positioned with an entrance onto each of New Orleans’ two most famous (or infamous) streets, Canal Street and Bourbon Street. I checked in, dropped off my bag, then headed out through the door to into Bourbon Street. Into a kaleidoscopic corner of colour and craziness. The top end of Bourbon is a bit of an eye-opener and if I’m honest I felt a wee bit uncomfortable. This was the Big Easy in your face big time and with no filter. I walked briskly on, deciding that I’d have to find a different route for our genteel customers through the French Quarter and back onto Bourbon to miss out the racier bit outside our hotel door, which up to a point would remind European visitors of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
“Hey man, do you want some snow?”
A guy in a hooded top was now walking alongside me as I strode up Bourbon, wittering on about the weather. Now we Brits supposedly delight in talking about the weather, so I felt very much at home, telling him about the snowball fight I’d had the previous day in Memphis. Such unusual weather for the time of year in Tennessee. My new-found friend looked puzzled though.
“Do you want some snow, man, or not?”
My partner in precipitation-related conversation seemed to be getting a little agitated, almost as if he wasn’t actually referring to the unseasonal weather further north, so I disappeared into the familiar, the soothing surroundings of a record shop.
My evening was spent on board the equally comfortable surroundings of a Mississippi paddle steamer, plying a tourist route along the river. Although the scenery isn’t sparkling, it is an interesting trip. You always get a different perspective of a place from the water, plus the touristy experience involves dinner and jazz, an obvious choice for visitors and rightly so.
The following day was the start of the working week and my chance to visit a number of potential hotels, the highlight of which was probably the Hotel Monteleone in the heart of the French Quarter, but I admit mostly for its revolving circular bar that looks like a carousel. I also managed the time to take a guided coach tour that took in the ornate tombs and mausoleums of New Orleans’ cemeteries, also covering the devastation, human suffering and hardship left behind in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. The Big Easy is a sobering mix of music lovers , thrill-seekers for whom every visit is mardi gras but also of people trying to make a living any which way the possibly can.
After tucking into my new found Louisiana favourite, red beans and rice, at Café Maspero down on Decatur Street, I headed back along Canal Street for my final nightcap in NOLA. Coming towards me from the opposite direction was a big guy, well dressed, and I presumed his wife, also nicely attired, with broad, welcoming smiles on their faces.
“I bet you I can tell you where you got them shoes?” exclaimed my next French Quarter street conversationalist.
“Yeah right,” said I, knowing immediately I should have just walked on.
“I’m a shoe-shiner by trade. If I give you the wrong answer I’ll give you a free shoe-shine. If I’m right you’ll pay for the shine.”
I don’t think I even spoke, knowing I was being mugged. Whatever the answer would be, I had just fallen for a classic reserved only for the most naïve of tourists.
“You got that shoe owwwn that foot and the other shoe owwwn the other foot,” proclaimed the smiling assassin with delight.
A squirt of polish was applied to my Doc Martens and a rudimentary shine took place. I’ve rarely felt more uncomfortable than those few seconds on Canal Street. Not only was I being done over good and proper but, even more embarrassingly, picture a white liberal European tourist stood in a public place with an African American guy crouched down, shining his shoes. Finally the ordeal was over. This was the gentlest of muggings, I suppose, and I was informed that the cost would be ten bucks. The hotel contracts negotiator in me (and skinflint Yorkshireman) automatically kicked in and the bill was reduced to $5. On reflection I should have just given the guy what he asked for. As I wrote earlier, the people of this city have been through times that are difficult for us to imagine. In the Big Easy there are those that need to hustle to survive.
The Crescent train departs New Orleans Union Station early morning bound for New York City, arriving the following day in the early afternoon. My journey would take me as far as Atlanta, back where this trip started, arriving in the early evening.
The big highlight of train 20’s journey has to be the 6 mile crossing of Lake Pontchartrain, just after departure from New Orleans. A single track perched on a trestle surrounded by water, it’s the longest railroad bridge in the United States and crosses the second largest saltwater lake in the country. It’s a sociable experience travelling on AMTRAK and I enjoyed the company for a few stations of a guy who told me he was from Leeds. “Me too,” said I, although we were of course referring to two different cities. Meridian, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, we rolled across Alabama and back into Georgia. The sound of Georgian Otis Redding’s Stax classic “Sittin’ on the Dock of a Bay” was ringing in my ears as we pulled into Atlanta, a fitting end to my “tracks of the Deep South”.