2.21.2011

Ridin' on The City of New Orleans

video(feel free to read as you listen to the song...the slideshow isn't much to look at)

Trains, planes or automobiles.
Buses were out of the question, due to an earlier nightmare ride from "Hayo" that my daughter, Sookie and I had taken across country one time, and ONE time only. It was enough for me. If was enough for both of us.
The trip I'm presently speaking of, tho', on the City of New Orleans Amtrak, was decided upon because my daughter, the afore mentioned, Sookie, was having some major surgery and I needed to get there in time for it. I opted out of driving, because this trip was practically on the heels of another trip Cappy and I had just taken to western NY, where we ended up racing home in marathon time, dragging our camper at 70 mph and more, just in time to get Cappy back on the boat, leaving me/us totally exhausted. Hmmmm...now that's another story.
So...this time NO automobiles and no airplanes...just because.
I didn't want to make the trip by myself, (Cappy being out on the boat) so I asked our friend, Louise if she'd like to take a nice train ride with me to Rochester, NY and visit some of my relatives that she'd never met while we were there for Sookie's operation. Well, she accused herself of not getting out much, and had described to me such a pleasant train trip she had taken awhile back with her son, so she said, "Sure". She was somewhat hesitant, tho', because of the major snow storms that were taking place up north of late, but I told her that there was no real worry, because I had driven in snow all my life and had even taught several people how to drive in it.
Although it was all on short notice, we both managed to pack everything we needed for cold, freezing weather. We each carried two carry-on type suitcases, each weighing maybe 25-30 lbs. We were surprised at how heavy sweaters and thermal underwear, scarves and mittens, extra pants, etc. could end up weighing. We were not deterred, however, because the nice brochures online said that there would be plenty of people who worked at all the train stations to help us. Besides our suitcases, we each had our bulging purses, and coincidentally, we both had mid-length black leather coats, draped over our arms, that we expected would keep us plenty warm, once we got up north. I had also packed my "little" 12"x 12"x 9" thermal picnic carrier full of the foods that I could have, that didn't contain wheat or gluten, plus a quart of my special smoked chicken and andouille gumbo for my son, Thom.
As a last minute 'buy', I spotted a couple of pairs of Ugg-type boots at Sears, on sale, dirt cheap. Louise and I both take the same size everything, and it just so happened that the last two pairs that fit us, were the colors we both like. Louise likes brown, and I like the black ones. She was rather dubious about the neccesity of fur lined boots, and said that she thought her black leather sneakers would do the trick, given she would wear several pairs of socks in them. I brought the boots anyhow.
While I was making the reservations online, I thought seriously about getting us a sleeper car, because it was "only" $95....about the price of an hotel room. But, Louise, bless her heart, convinced me otherwise, telling me how pleasant the train ride to South Carolina with her son had been, and how comfortable the seats were and how well they slept. I re-read the descriptions online of the plushy-sounding seats that reclined wayyyy back allowing for relaxation and comfort for the passengers who wanted to nap. I thought we could handle that for two nights "on the road". So we were set.
Thursday Jan. 20 was a warm sunny day in New Orleans when Louise's hubby, Sam, took us to the train station to catch the "Train they call the City of New Orleans" that would take us to Chicago; the first leg of our trip. Right away in the station, cornered like rats, we got spotted for the 'newbies' that we were, as a 'lady' detained us and asked if she could have some money "for a sandwich". Well, the poor thing. I told her that I'd love to buy her a sandwich, to come along to the Subway sandwich shop right there in the station and I'd get her one. Then she said, "I really wanted to get something from across the street...the street right there. See, what I really want is some beans and rice across the street, y'know?" Hmmmm. I said,"I'm sorry, but it's a Subway sandwich or nothing; we are getting ready to get on our train", to which she just wandered away toward the door opposite the "street right there", and at which point Louise pointed out that there next to the Subway shop was a place that sold beans and rice and other Cajun food. Sheesh, we weren't even "out of the chute", so to speak, and trouble was already peeking over our shoulder.A crowd gathered in the station near one of the doors that led to the tracks, so at the urging of the voice over the loudspeaker, we joined them, lugging and trying to jockey our four suitcases, purses, bags, slippery leather coats, un-capped bottles of water, and the required tickets, unscabbarded with much difficulty. With the all the aplomb of a mother hen trying to keep track of her chicks scattering everywhere, dragging luggage underfoot, as well, the ticket-taker managed to get everyone 'clicked' and sent out the door, group by group, down the tracks with the order to "go to the first yellow box". Louise and I looked at each other...what's a "yellow box"?? We looked at the crowd fast disappearing way down the line along the big silver train, seeing no yellow anything.
I had my purse over my neck and shoulder, raised the handles on my two suitcases so I could roll them on their neat little wheels down the cement, then I flung the long strap with my gluten-free food case around my neck, but nearly fell over sideways on top of it, it was so heavy! How did it get so heavy all of a sudden? I guess I had been carrying it in my hand before I had gotten the bottled water and tickets, etc. Undoing it from around my neck, I quickly tried to wrap it's belt around and around one of the handles on one of the suitcases, all the while trying to move the whole mess down the 'road' toward where we were supposed to get onto the train. Louise and I were pushing and dragging our loads, panting in the heat, and nobody was helping us, when a Jeep kinda looking thing whizzed by carrying a load of snooty-looking people and their luggage. On the side a sign read, "Sleeper car passengers". I kept juggling the unwieldly luggage 'til one of us, not sure who beat whom, to a yellow square painted on the ground. "Here??" we moaned. "Keep coming" someone further up the tracks called, as he stood almost as if at attention next to a yellow step-stool. We panted and hauled, and staggered with our jumble of stuff until we got to him and then stopped in relief to pant for a second, but he looked at the ticket, tossed our suitcases onto the train and said, "Ontheleftupthestairs!!" I crawled up the stairs to the pile of our luggage and was at once totally "blonde", with Louise struggling right behind me. I asked the guy, "Where did you say we were supposed to go?" "Ontheleftupthestairs" he repeated as he heaved more luggage on top of ours and helped other people into the cramped space. Louise said, "I think he said up the stairs". I said, "Well, yeah, ...we went up the stairs...". He hollared in "Go up the stairs...Up the stairs!" (Stairs...where???) I pulled my suitcases out of the pile and started to go toward a set of doors that were labeled, "reserved coach"...that's what our tickets said. A herd was forming behind us and somebody who knew the ropes said, "See to the right...go up those stairs!" I saw a little hole in the wall by the door to the train seats, so I leaned that way and saw two or three steps no more than 2 feet wide from side to side and the back wall of the inside of the train; nothing more. The crowd behind us was getting impatient now and insisted I get on up there. Okay. I lifted one suitcase ahead of me onto the second step...man! was it hefty and awkward now! It didn't want to sit nicely on the tiny step, while I twisted sideways to fetch the other behemoth trunk waiting on the floor behind me. Smart sets of little wheels on neither of them were doing a bit of good right now, but rather, in fact, made it more difficult to maneuver. The suitcase; the one sitting high and pretty, on that miserable little slat they called a stair, kept trying to roll off toward me onto my foot, while at the same time I was trying to lug...or even lift the load behind me, to get any of them up the 'stairs'. And all the while the thermal 'tote' weighing a ton, now, with it's despicable wheat and gluten-free food, and that fragile glass quart jar of thick brown gumbo had found it's way around my neck again, of neccesity, and was cutting off my breath and strangling me. I don't know what I must have sounded like from the upstairs section of the train; I was moaning and thumping and loudly gagging and retching in the hollows of that tiny stairwell. (Like how I used to tell my kids that scarey story of the 'monster' climbing the stairs to 'get' them.) I managed to round the corner, get up a couple more stairs, turn the corner and fumble and half climb up the last two or three stairs, where I collapsed onto a soft, blue seat. Amazingly enough, nobody else was in the whole upper car! Imagine that. I left the bags right there at the top of the stairs, with my arms still attatched. The relief was only momentary because Louise and others behind her were hollaring, "Keep it moving, keep it moving!!!" I said, "Uh-uh...I aint goin' nowhere. Our bags and I am staying right here". So, I shoved everything and me into the footspace of that blessed seat to wait out the herd. Louise rode the 'wave' of humanity a couple of seats down, then 'pulled in'. The poor thing; she'd had it as bad or worse than I had, but you don't see her here complaining. We made it, and that's all that counted at the moment. We wish someone had've warned us what to expect, that's all. I didn't know Amtrak had an upstairs. I hadn't seen anything about it online, nor was I even aware that I'd purchased a seat up there. Had I only known....sighhh.

Louise and I lightly 'discussed' where we might sit, but then she deferred to my, 'well, everything is right here, so I guess we might as well (shrug) sit here' choice.

I can't tell you how proud I was of my suitcase packing ability. My carry-on suitcases have zippers that allow for me to cram in more than should ever be crammed into them. The whole thing expands. Hmph, none of that baggage being "Checked" for me. I once read that someone remarked, "Luggage is either carry-on or lost". I liked that, and thus, it's always been 'carry-on' for me. As long as they aren't more than 50 lbs each, they don't have to be 'checked'. Well, now...these two little suitcases were about 30 lbs apiece. Nobody was around to help us, so I grunted and shakily lifted one up over my head, letting gravity pull it toward the open storage space above our seats. The opening was too narrow for my fatso expanded little bag to fit into it, no matter which way I turned it, or no matter how hard Louise and I tried pushing and shoving it; it was NOT going. And that meant the other one wasn't going into it, either. Together, we brought it back down and put if in front of my seat. She said that there was a place downstairs where we could store a couple of our suitcases, but they would be unattended. We guessed that we would have to do it. We each stored one. We parked them tightly together so they could "look out for each other", and randomly went to make sure all was well from time to time. Kids and others meandered up and down the stairs at all times of day and night, because the bathrooms were downstairs...of course they would be. On one of my trips, I noticed that someone's (not ours) suitcase zipper was left open by 'someone'. I would have done my civic duty to rezip it, but then thought better of it, seeing as how things had been going for us so far, and we hadn't even left the station. It would be just like me to be caught with somebody else's zipper in my hand. Well, you know what I mean.

--->(The slideshow's music would be good started here again, kinda softly...I'm just sayin'...) Finally, we were settled in and began looking forward to our nice relaxing, rolling train ride off into the night that one often dreams about. As we slowly wandered around back yards and alleys of New Orleans, on our way out, we saw that, to our dismay, much of the City is, indeed, still 'trashed' by Hurricane Katrina, five years later. We did see some new buildings going up here and there. That was good news. Usually, when Cappy and I go to New Orleans, we keep to well-touristed and trafficked areas. We have no reason to do anything other than just that. Seeing the back streets still in such disrepair just took me aback.

When we got to an area around the Louis Armstrong International Airport, surprisingly, we had to stop and wait on the tracks for the City of New Orleans' "sister" train to pass. It took about five minutes for the 'Sister of New Orleans' to cruise on by. Once we got going again, it was nice to drive by the beautiful swamps (yes, Louisiana's swamps are beautiful) and see them from different angles. While driving my SUV, I had never noticed train tracks running through any of the swamps before, or along the southern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, but there we were now, in a big-as-life, shiney silver...TWO storied Amtrak train, whooshing right along. It was surprising how many stops a train makes on it's journey. Many's the time we had to wait for another oncoming train to pass as we sat there; sometimes one on each side of our train, so close, that it seemed a fraction of an inch closer would bring all of their cars crashing right into the aisle of our train. (Made our hair stand on end.) Seems like we'd just get going at full speed, then have to grind slowly to a halt. And wait a little. We'd go through small towns, stop at the prettiest, freshly painted, old-fashioned little train depots right in the heart of everything, and people would get on, or off. How pleasant that became. We roamed through the woods were no houses or roads spoiled the view. Coming into some villages, apparently some folks living along the rails were unaware that people go by in trains and see the garbage that they dump over the banks in the weeds. I guess they think they are "junking" things out of sight, but we got a look at it. It was kind of like peeking into people's lives without them even knowing it.

The rocking of the rails was soothing and lulling; that is, until we had to walk to the bathroom or elsewhere. Oh. I forgot to tell you; the guy in the snack bar, or dining car...whichever...made the best announcement ever. In the finest Naw'lins style he welcomed everyone aboard, told us what he had in the way of refreshments, and said for us to come on down and see him. I wish I had, had a tape-recorder or something to get it all on here. He was tooooo cooool, and that kind of coool is only found in New Orleans, Yall. We were headed for Chicago, and we were "bringin' it wit us". Louise got up and went. Now that girl can get around. She explored the whole train, I think. She tried explaining to me where everything was, upstairs and downstairs, how many tens of car lengths to get where, but I wasn't 'getting it'. My first trip back down those dreaded stairs was about that...the car shifted and I about tripped and fell down the stairs. I hollared and grabbed the handrail in the nick of time and the wall of the car banged me upright...whew. Wobbledy-legged I tentatively took each stair the rest of the way down, hanging on for dear life, as we tilted left, then right, then left then....I walked along the downstairs hall like Frankenstein lumbered; arms spread out ahead of me, legs stiff, far apart, and taking one big clump of a footstep, then another. When I got to the bathroom, I clung to every wall I could get my paws onto. Now this might be "TMI", as they say, "too much information", but I'm going to tell it anyhow. When it comes to toilet seats, when it's only for a brief visit, this dame prefers to "hover". Hovering got my head banged several times on the wall in front of the potty as we lurched back and forth, and I almost got upended into the darned thing. I had to rethink, regroup and come up with a better strategy...and pronto. Regaling you with all of that would be "TMI". Everybody else seemed to have no problems walking along at what seemed a regular stride. I tried finding the elusive snack bar, about four cars forward, and a flight downstairs, as I thought Louise had described it. I got lost, lost, lost. I tried trudging along slowly and almost got thrown onto sleeping people, who were sitting placidly in their comfy seats, slung back for more relaxation. So then I'd tip-toe along, desperately grasping each seat back as I came to it, disturbing more than one person, who looked up to see what 'nimrod' had suddenly grabbed ahold of their chair, to which I'd smile apologically, release my grip, then, staggeringly, I'd go on to the next 'victim'. I told Louise that I was going to stretch my legs and would bring us each back a bottle of water. I was gone about an hour. I had found an older gentleman to talk with, whose name escapes me, but he is retired, and is part of the railroad commision. Because of his position with the agency, he travels the rails frequently and comes to our town often for Knights of Columbus meetings. He was even familiar with the railways and train stations in western NY ie, Olean, NY's old "Pennsy" station. Fascinating gentleman to talk with. ....but then I had the dreaded long trudge back to my seat. I opted, this time to try to 'run'...or at least walk as fast as I could, amongst the, by now, sleeping passengers, as it had gotten dark and kind of late. I "ran", I lurched, I careened, I stumbled, I SAID I was SORRY, and I eventually made it back to Louise, who knew I had run into somebody else to talk with...or to...or at.

Earlier in the day, as we had watched the scenes go by outside the window, I mentioned how the sky looked dark toward the north and that we might get some snow by the time we got to Memphis. Louise said, "I hope I get so see some snowflakes on this trip", to which I kind of chuckled, "Yeah, I think you just might". At dusk, as luck would have it, while she was up front somewhere in the train, we passed thru a 'mini blizzard' of sorts. But...she missed it. We did enjoy lights of any kind that night outside our window, golden, most of them, highlighting small towns, and big cities. The farther north we went, we did see some patches of snow on the ground, which made us feel more snug and cozy there in the darkened train car. We felt like giddy little girls giggling about silly little things on our trip out into the big old world. Finally, since everyone else had laid back and gone to sleep, we decided we should probably, too. A few people wandered the halls in the semi-darkness, but it didn't really affect our rest one way or the other. I had my feet parked on top of one of my suitcases, which made things somehow a little more comfortable, but I wish my seat would have gone down more in the back. It was a kind of sort of sitting/half lying down position. I had ferreted out my two favorite little pillows and tried to snuggle in for the rocking night. Unfortunately, Louise's seat didn't even go down as far as mine did; it stayed standing upright by about another 9 inches. She was having a rough time of it. I KNOW I should have been a more gracious hostess than I was and offer her my seat...(forgive me, Lord)...but I didn't. Mentally, I cursed those snooty people in the sleeper cars, who were probably already fast asleep, and thought, "Boy! Next time, that's gonna be us!!" Presently, the train stopped and picked up a couple more passengers, and amongst them: The Giant. (If you've read in this Blog of ours, you may remember reading about "The Giant". It's always been "The Giant's" goal to hinder any pleasureable occasion of ours...Cappy's and mine. "The Giant" can take most any form and almost always joins the party long after we had forgotten to expect it. For example; we go to a party or ballgame or movie...or anything early to get a good seat. Once the game or movie begins...and no-one has been sitting in the seat ahead of us, somebody HUGE comes and plops right down, completely FILLING our line of vision. Happens every time. By then all the good seats are taken. Or some kind of loud racket or constant interruption, ruining the whole thing...whose nose, maybe it happens to you, too... you get the picture. Soooo, here goes...) After awhile just as we were about to succumb to the rocking motion of the tracks and nap a bit, without fail, "The Giant" bumps and bangs up the stairs right next to our 'bed', slogging luggage and talking loudly on a cell phone, totally oblivious of all the sleeping passengers. And where does she sit?? Right behind us...it wouldn't be irony, if she hadn't. We could hear her laying out a picnic spread back there and our mouths began to water at the pungent smell of a fresh orange being peeled. Someone joined her and she began to tell them the story that we would hear over and over again, embellished and embroidered "six different ways to Sunday" over the next twelve hours. Apparently she was an highly educated school teacher on her way to Chicago, who had gotten into some kind of altercation with some poor sap, Willie, I think it was, who quickly learned the error of his ways and knuckled under, by the time she'd gotten through with him. Louise and I pounded our pillows, trying to get more comfortable, thinking eventually she'd quiet down back there and go to sleep like the rest of us were trying to do. But Noooooo....not "The Giant". She talked loudly on into the night until the person sitting next to her somehow fell asleep, or just stopped talking, anyhow. So, then, she got on her cell phone and proceeded to retell the same story, that anyone within earshot, was by now, familiar. It must have been around 1:30 in the morning when we got to sleep. Suddenly, there in the dark we were all startled awake by what I thought was my phone. I thought it had gone berserk because it was ringing so loudly that the interior walls were about to start peeling off...how embarrassing...I HATE that ringtone anyhow. I started fumbling for my purse to smash the despicable beast, when we heard "The Giant" sweetly answer her phone..it was her phone...and away we went with the same story, which, each time took at least 15 minutes to tell...but then with all the frippery and frills adorning the tale, it grew in length. And her phone continued to ring like that off and on all night long! We kept waiting for somebody to start complaining, but nobody did. I guess none of us were willing to 'take her on', given what she had done to poor ol' "Willie", there, who had unwittingly crossed her. I think I dozed for a few hours, but I'm not sure. Louise said she hadn't been able to. Come daylight, through the drone of "The Giant's" lastest version of the story, we heard a chirpy male voice announcing that anyone wanting to order breakfast needed to come make reservations in the dining car. We looked out the window onto a bright and shiney new day, and lo', there before us was a vast expanse of snow-covered beautiful flat land dotted with farms, miles apart. How breathtaking! A little while later the conductor broadcasted that we were coming into Champagne, Illinois. What a lovely town that was on this crisp, clear morning. Dining room customers, laden with white foam containers scrambled back to their seats and we smelled the food as they passed by. Louise and I decided that we'd wait until we got to Chicago to get our coffee. Instead, we each ate a wheat and gluten-free muffin from the thermal tote, and drank our bottled water to wash it down. The next town was "Kankakee, Illinois". Kankakee..Kankakee...what a fun name to say, we said. My phone rang, in a reasonable decible and when I answered it, it was Cappy, wondering how the trip was going, and if we had spent an enjoyable night together, then laughing, asked, "Are you and Miss Louise at each other's throats yet?" Since The Giant, just behind us, was silent, I was afraid she'd hear what I really thought of the whole experience last night, so I just mumbled to Cappy, "Uhhh....I'll tell you later". He said, "Awwwww...well, that's too bad; I guess it's not easy to expect that two people like you and Miss Louise wouldn't get along the whole time; I just thought it would take longer than this for yall to get tired of each other". I had to kind of chuckle, but I quietly repeated, "I'll tell you later". So we hung up. Now, Louise and I were fine. We were more than fine. We were still laughing and having a merry time, despite the lack of sleep.

About an half an hour before our arrival, the train announcer cautioned us that during the night, tempertures had plummeted and that Chicago was expecting the wind chill to make the weather that was about to "greet us", right outside those doors, to be "minus 29 degrees" (29 degrees below zero), so for us to 'prepare' for it. Before we actually saw any evidence that we were coming into town, we pulled on our leather coats, and gloves, (but mine were lost somewhere in one of the overstuffed suitcases) scarves and hats. As nice as the ride on City of New Orleans was, we were ready to embark on a new adventure in the City of Chicago!