Amtraks Across America: The City of New Orleans to Chicago

This is the eighth part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

Image

Yazoo City, Mississippi, where the author Willie Morris grew up in the company of his dog Skip. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Before leaving New Orleans, I made the long bike ride out to Chalmette, where in 1815 the last battle of the American Revolution (well, officially it was in the War of 1812) was fought between Andrew Jackson’s rabble-at-arms and British redcoats under the command of General Sir Edward Pakenham.

At this point, the British and the Americans had signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium, ending the war, but no one in New Orleans had gotten the word.

The Last Act of the American Revolution

Pakenham’s goal was to seize the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans, and partition the United States between East and West.

Ranged against him were several regiments under the command of Andrew Jackson (later the 7th American president), who decided that the best way to defend New Orleans from the coming onslaught was to declare martial law in the city.

Pakenham landed his forces in the swampy terrain east of New Orleans, and his objective was the city. On his march inland, however, he came across Jackson’s forces dug in along the canal in Chalmette, which forced the British to attack the Americans across a narrow front that on one side had water and on the other, marshy forest land.

The Americans held their revetment and poured fire across the open field of attack, killing hundreds of British soldiers, including General Pakenham, and ending any pretensions that the British had about reclaiming lost lands in North America. One witness to the battle wrote: “The victory gave the American people pride in their new nation and confidence in its future.”

Martial Law

Jackson (despite his martial law notoriety and a vindictive personality) became a national hero, and the issues of the American Revolution were settled in Chalmette, which is now a remote national park out past the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

I biked the contours of the battlefield and had a long conversation with the ranger on duty, who seemed pleased that someone had come out to the park.

On my only other visit to Chalmette, it was recovering from the Katrina flood waters, and the official entrance was closed (although a friend and I found an opening in a rear wall and unofficially toured the killing grounds).

Gone Five Hundred Miles When the Day is Done

After returning my rental bicycle, I walked to Union Passenger Terminal on the edge of the Warehouse district, not far from the Super Dome (of Super Bowl fame and Katrina shame, when those sheltering inside ran out of food and water).

I got to my train an hour before departure, thinking I might be able to pay a supplement and upgrade my coach ticket to a sleeper compartment. Instead, the Amtrak agent informed me that only by buying an entirely new ticket could I get a berth on the night train, and for that I would need to peel off $1200.

I demurred and, after waiting on a wire-mesh chair, I joined the queue for the City of New Orleans, which like all Amtrak trains now boards passengers according to their destination (and in a tone that suggests correction officers lining up prisoners for dinner).

Because I thought I would be able to eat meals in the dining car, I neglected to bring on board a bag of rations. I did have a few hard boiled eggs from breakfast and an aging banana, but that was it when I was given notice that the train only operated with a café car (best imagined as a staffed vending machine that charges Hollywood prices for reheated ham sandwiches, potato chips, burnt coffee, and candy bars).

I had imagined idling in the dining car as the train crossed Lake Pontchartrain and then headed north through the Mississippi Delta. With luck I might find a dinner companion interested in hearing my thoughts about the novelist Walker Percy and his existential novel, The Moviegoer, set in these parts. (“He is a moviegoer, though of course he does not go to the movies…”) Instead, I cracked hard-boiled eggs on the casing of my computer and drank tepid tea from my traveling thermos.

Unpleasant as it sounds, I cannot say I minded the Amtrak inconveniences. In exchange I got a ringside seat as the train made its way across the Delta, with stops in towns such as McComb, Hazlehurst, and Brookhaven.

The seat next to me was empty, and I could spread out my maps, papers, and books, like Napoleon (with his fold-out office from a horse cart) on one of his campaigns.

Yahoo City: My Dog Skip

Just before dark the train stopped in Yazoo City, Mississippi, which is at the head of a triangle that has Vicksburg and Jackson, the state capital, at its base.

During the Civil War, when the Union army attacked Vicksburg to break the Confederacy in half along the banks of the Mississippi, soldiers fortified river boats with armored plating in Yazoo City and sailed them down the Big Black River, an early approximation of a battlefield tank.

I went to Yazoo City in 2005, out of curiosity about the writer Willie Morris, who grew up there and wrote several memoirs about the town, including My Dog Skip and North Toward Home.

Skip was a joyful and intelligent Jack Russell Terrier who could play baseball and football and who was Morris’s alter ego as he navigated his teenage years between grade school and college, not to mention desegregation and the end of the Old South.

Morris writes: “Like all dogs, Skip was colorblind. He made friends easily with people of all races and origins. The town was segregated back then, but as we know, dogs are a whole lot smarter than people.”

North Toward Home

North Toward Home is the memoir of a making-it northern media celebrity remembering his southern roots. It begins:

On a quiet day after a spring rain this stretch of earth seems prehistoric — damp, cool, inaccessible, the moss hanging from the giant old trees — and if you ignore the occasional diesel, churning up one of these hills on its way to Greenwood or Clarksdale or Memphis, you may feel you are in one of those sudden magic places of America, known mainly to the local people and merely taken for granted, never written about, not even on any of the tourist maps.

It echoes the opening passage of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which begins (more fatally) in the Louisiana hamlet of Mason City (home to Willie Stark):

You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of your neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course.

Warren, Morris, Percy, and William Faulkner all grew up in the shadows of the north-south Illinois Central rail lines, on which Chicago was the end of the line—and the object of many dreams.

Main Street

Even if I only had a view of it from an Amtrak observation car, I was happy to be back in Yazoo City, although what I could see of the main street made me sad.

A lot of the storefronts looked boarded up or empty, and in the fading sunlight the town had the feel of abandonment, as if most of the business and residents had skipped off to the mall or moved north (as Morris did when he got out of college).

To be sure a town never puts its best face forward to the railroad tracks, but I could see enough of the neglect to understand that Main Street America is becoming a lost civilization.

I’m Not Going to Graceland

Later that evening the train stopped for almost thirty minutes in Memphis, long enough for me to search for food around the once-elegant station. I didn’t want to get too far from the train, as with Amtrak you can never quite be sure of its comings and goings.

I found a few things to eat inside the Central Station Hotel, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection (“hand-picked hotels with distinct charm…”), which has risen above the remains of the Illinois Central station.

Normally I don’t much care for station transformations, since all most towns ever get for their millions in subsidies is a visitor information center and maybe a bar. But this renovation struck me as elegant, especially as when I was last in Memphis, heading to the nearby National Civil Rights Museum at the former Lorraine Motel, the station was on its way to ruin.

At the new station and hotel, one could get impression that Tennessee is building a new railroad culture but Memphis is the only Amtrak stop (once a day in each direction) in the state.

Illinois Sunrise

I cannot say I slept well in my seat, but I did save $1200, although a contortionist might have found more comfort in repose.

I woke up as the train glided to a stop in Champaign-Urbana, where the University of Illinois has its main campus. I had dozed since Mattoon, Illinois, trying to forget that I was “sitting up” for the night in an Amtrak coach.

Turning in the night, I thought often how easy it would have been (instead of fighting forever wars, for example) for the United States to have assembled a rail networks of elegant sleeping cars, especially those with roomettes.

Pullman’s America

The roomette was Pullman’s gift to solo travelers, combining in one compact but efficient compartment a window, toilet, sink, closet, and easy chair, plus a comfortable bed that, come nighttime, folded from the wall.

Amtrak does now have something similar, but it is so cramped that the bed feels like an ambulance gurney, and to get dressed you have stand out in the hall.

If Amtrak’s business model were dedicated to corridor service (for example, Cleveland to Cincinnati), it could dispense with sleepers and compartments. But since its business model is largely overnight trains across the continent, why are there not affordable berths instead of staterooms priced like those on cruise ships, at about $600-900 a night?

In Russia, China, Iran, and India—the countries that the United States loves to revile, and often for good reasons—nearly every train is a long line of sleepers, all of which are affordable. Even third class in China means easier sleeping than nights on Amtrak, which for most are spent wedged into an airline-ish seat.

In his book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux writes:

The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character.”

I wonder what it says that the most important feature on Amtrak is the proximity to junk food.

Next: Chicago. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.