The Haney Train rolled to a stop in New Orleans a little over two weeks ago. I detrained on the evening of the last eligible day to use my pass, August 21, with one nontransferable travel leg to spare. The end of the line.
Used to be the train kept going from New Orleans, on through Gulfport, Mobile, Tallahassee, and ended up in Jacksonville. But as my trip began with a rally to reinstate the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Jacksonville, it ended at the closest station to home.
Several years ago, my friend Erin from high school boarded the Sunset Limited in Phoenix, AZ, thinking she’d make it all the way home to Florida. When Amtrak spat her out in NOLA, she decided to hang around for a few days. A few days turned into a few weeks, a place to stay, and a job. Now, a few years later, she still lives in the Crescent City. My scheduling annoyance turned out to be a pivotal and fortuitous happenstance in Erin’s life.
My other friend from high school in NOLA, Kunal, moved there recently for a job marketing space walks, those inflated bouncy castles you find at kids’ birthday parties. When he offered to let me sleep in the recliner at his apartment in the west side of the city by Tulane University, I cancelled my hostel reservation and saved $70 for the three nights (yep, hostels really are that cheap).
Kunal picked me up from the train station and, honestly, I was okay with saying so long for now, Amtrak. Amtrak carried me over mountain and valley, plain and desert, through big city and bumpkin town. The train put me in contact with a wide swath of Americans each bespeaking individuality and regional identity. She taught me how to adapt for sleep, twisting myself into a pretzel, or claiming my own few feet of surface in the lounge car, on overnight trips. I had a rich and enriching experience on and assisted by the Amtrak. I wouldn’t trade any moment of the journey. Hell, if given the chance, I might have kept going forever. But I also realize that each journey has a beginning and an end, or at least a point where your methods of travel must change, internalize. With my money running short and the first day of the semester just around the corner, it was time to say farewell and see where my experiences will take me in my writing.
Besides the immediate experiences I had in each moment, the weight of near-200 hours of train travel affected a gradual elongation, like elastic worn thin, on my understanding of travel time. Whereas the first three-hour ride from Boston to NYC seemed a long endurance, the trip across Missouri from Kansas City to Saint Louis six weeks later seemed a short jaunt. I didn’t even take my shoes off. And while my first long-endurance ride – 36 hours from Chicago to East Glacier, Montana – still resides in my mind as an extended series of episodes, the final 28-hour jump from Austin to New Orleans seems like a blip on the seismograph of time.
Soon after Kunal picked me up, we trekked down Bourbon Street toward Frenchman Street, heading for the live music, and met Charla, a friend from my program at FSU, and her boyfriend Chase with whom she’s been on a worldly sojourn this summer. Not much later, Erin joined us and – wow! – three circles of friends collided there around me in NOLA. To celebrate, we stayed out I can’t say how late, but ended our night at the 24-hour bar that was also the last stop on Anthony Bourdain’s bar crawl around NOLA.
The next couple nights were a bit more mellow, but I enjoyed walking through the Garden District where gnarled, baroque oak trees less grew from, more erupted from, shattered and overthrown sidewalks, hovering and thrusting their limbs and boughs over Spanish-Catholic estates with ornate, metal lattices and banisters. Statues of Mother Mary spot the neighborhood, and I found the restaurant where my father used to work, Commander’s Palace, across from a cemetery behind whose above-ground vaults peek out over the stone walls.
I also rode the street car down St. Charles Ave. with its polished wooden seats, reversible depending on which way you want to look. I walked along the Mississippi River, met students from Loyola talking trash about those from Tulane, got the sampler plate at Coop’s Place including, as the menu says, “A cup of Seafood Gumbo, Shrimp Creole, Cajun Fried Chicken, Red Beans & Rice with Sausage, and Rabbit & Sausage Jambalaya.” Oh that rabbit and sausage jambalaya. I went into Congo Square and genuflected before Louis Armstrong’s statue, walked all through the French District apprising the street performers, the revelers, the artists, the narrow corridors with French balconies and colorful Mardi Gras banners. I had café au lait and beignets at Café Du Monde. I waited for Aimee to get there.
When Aimee arrived, we did some more. We saw a gypsy band on the sidewalk with a washboard, accordion, and two dogs. We walked up and down Magazine Street, eating poor boys and going in and out of costume shops. We met Erin and Kunal at Midsummer Mardi Gras and felt under dressed. Man, people in New Orleans know how to get dressed up, throw some booze in a backpack, and party. We held each other. We slept. We turned on the television. I wrote my last batch of postcards. And after staying for two nights, Friday and Saturday, in a hotel in the French District, Aimee drove me home to Tallahassee.
But five nights in New Orleans – three with Kunal, two with Aimee – placed the Big Easy high atop my list of favorite cities on my journey, places where I could comfortably live. Like Portland and Austin, New Orleans features local shops, bars high in personality, and independently owned restaurants all throughout the city. Its tourist economy influences acceptance throughout the city. And whatever reputation the city has for violence and danger just isn’t true in the parts of the city I hung out in.
Two days after Aimee and I hit I-10 for the stressful and claustrophobic activity of highway travel (my biases run strong right now), Hurricane Isaac hit new Orleans. Besides flooded communities, compromised levees, and power outages, damn it, I went back to teaching freshman composition and missed the hurricane parties.