Thoughts from the Final Train Ride

I write this from onboard the Sunset Limited, crawling down the track (the train does more crawling than sprinting, I’ve learned) toward New Orleans. My 45-day pass expires at the end of today, so even though I have one of my 18 legs remaining, New Orleans marks the end of my journey. I have friends in the Crescent City–Kunal and Erin–and Aimee’s coming over on Friday to stay the weekend and drive me home to Tallahassee on Sunday. A week from today I’ll be back in front of the classroom.

It’s surreal to think of the thousands of miles of track I’ve covered, the hundreds of hours I’ve spent, the mountains I’ve passed by and the rivers crossed in these bumbling tubes of endearing inefficiency. Most the trains have run late. Most my attempts to sleep in pretzel contortions on overnight trains have proven frustrating. The overhead announcements have started to annoy me. I no longer wish to sit in the observation deck and chit-chat.

The ¬†bogs and marshes bordering the Gulf of Mexico pass by on either side. Wearing yesterday’s clothes, I pick at dried fruits and veggies from my Whole Foods grocery bag. Last night, as part of my connection from Austin, TX to NOLA, I had eight hours to kill in San Antonio from 10pm to 6am. I found a sports bar and talked Spurs basketball with the bartender until 1:30, then my waiter at Denny’s told me I could hang out after my All-American Slam breakfast and drink coffee as long as I didn’t fall asleep. I felt like a vagrant, a refugee. Soon I’ll be ready for a home, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t make a home on a train.

Me, me, me, right? Why should I focus on these meager inconveniences when I’ve seen so much excitement, met so many real Americans, had so many adventures? There comes a point, Steinbeck said, when the traveler is no longer traveling but simply going home. William Least-Heat Moon, in Blue Highways (the one book which I’ll have started and finished in tandem with my journey) warned journeyers to be wary of the trip that, rather than you taking it, begins to take you.

While I’m not ready to concede my simply going home, as I plan to do it big in NOLAYOLO; and I’m not giving up on Amtrak, our less well-endowed mode of travel; there did come a point along the way–I think it was in Emeryville, CA–where I felt the trip starting to take me instead. With one gracious act, a kind stranger in Kansas City tweaked my outlook, and since that first stop in Missouri I’ve wrestled back control from the ticket-and-hostel agenda and have had a series of soul-expanding encounters with hosts who know and represent their cities well.

I’ll chronicle these experiences over the next several days and bring everyone up to speed on stops in Kansas City, St. Louis, Austin, and then New Orleans, before unveiling the Haney on the Train Awards for superlative cities and a final post where I’ll attempt to extract some meaning from all these experiences.

Let us proceed.

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