Ridin’ The Rails (Part II) – New Orleans

A while back I wrote about my train buff beginnings, describing how my Dad worked mail on the train and how I then traveled by rail as a young boy alone. So I thought it might be enjoyable to reflect on the other bookend in the set — my most memorable experience riding the rails as an adult, an event that also has a musical ending. (Although not the one you might suspect.)

Although my dad spent several decades sorting letters on the train, he actually worked for the US Post Office. However, our family was well-represented in the railroad world itself, as I had at least two uncles who were in the operating side of things. One was an engineer and the other was a conductor who had the misfortune to meet a tragic end one dark night when a train he was working around unexpectedly backed up over him.

In any case, I was always interested in the big steel beasts and although I went a lot of years without being able to ride, I always had my eyes open for opportunities. I finally got that chance back in the mid 1990’s when I made the first of what would be several trips South on the legendary City Of New Orleans — or at least Amtrak’s version of that historic train, which spent its glory years as the pride of the Illinois Central Railroad. It furnished daily service between Chicago and New Orleans, and at one time or another carried a lot of noteworthy passengers, including every jazz star around.

On the trips I made, Amtrak did a pretty good job of upholding the tradition, while at the same time furnishing a safe and clean conveyance. It’s a great way to travel and you arrive at your destination relaxed and rested, but traveling by train is something that most Americans ignore because they’re in too much of a hurry. It’s a shame because its future isn’t too bright in the US, even though in most of the world it’s a viable way to go.

It’s been a few years since my last trip, and it appears from all the Amtrak-bashing going on that the standards might have slipped, but all of my trips were enjoyable. Rolling through the countryside, relaxing in a wide, comfortable seat with a good book; or just enjoying the scenery passing by the window, then leisurely walking back to a good meal in the dining car — what’s not to like?

And then there’s the destination — in this case, pre-Katrina New Orleans. Riding across Lake Ponchartrain and into the city itself, I saw a sprawling, exotic place with a deceptively shabby look, but one that I knew had an important place in the history of American music.

The obvious choice of a song to connect the classic city with the equally classic train is that familiar tune recorded by a lot of singers, with the best known version probably Arlo Guthrie’s. However, that’s not my favorite — Arlo can’t even pronounce it right. (New Orleeens – ouch!) I’ll take the version by Willie Nelson any day in the week.

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