Category Archives: Travels

riding the rails 19

The Silver Star, or Silver Service, as it is sometimes referred to, came into existence as an assortment of early independent routes connecting New York City and Miami.  It travels 1,500 miles and passes through twelve states, and was the only train I really wanted to ride on when I bought my USA Rail Pass, twelve days earlier.  Now because of Hurricane Ian, I’d been all over the country, except for Florida, and was finally aboard the Silver Star, but only traveling as far as Washinton, DC, as the section to Miami had been suspended for repair work. 

What they hadn’t told me when they informed me about the cancellation, however, was that the train still went as far as Jacksonville.  If I would’ve known that, I would’ve kept my reservation and taken a bus the rest of the way.  Now, I was getting off in DC in a few hours, with a connection to New Orleans the next evening, too tired and confused to try to make any more last second changes to my itinerary.  If I could take a bus to Miami from Jacksonville, I could probably take one from New Orleans.  After two cancellations so far, it was like the universe was trying to send me a message, but I refused to listen.

My clothes and shoes were still wet from racing to Penn Station in the rain to catch the train.  After the café car opened, I went up to get a breakfast sandwich and coffee, and returned to my seat shivering as we passed stations in New Brunswick and Princeton Junction, New Jersey.  After a stop in Trenton, we next arrived in Philadelphia, which surprised me, not knowing how close it was to New York.  I’d gotten off the train there on a previous trip, but that had been from Boston.  If you ever want to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s grave in less than two hours, let me tell you, it can be done.

With the two sections of the Rail Pass that I’d lost crossing the Bay Bridge, and the reservations I’d made on the Crescent to New Orleans and Sunset Limited, I was now technically out of rides, unless I made some sudden changes to my itinerary or received mercy from an unexpected quarter.  I decided to try to speak to someone in customer relations, since what had happened in San Francisco really didn’t seem fair, now, or then.  I was on hold for a long time and during that time the train began to violently shake.  It shook so hard, derailing seemed like a real possibility.  Simultaneously, a high-pitched shriek started coming from the PA.  By the time a woman from customer relations repeated to me that nothing could be done, I’d been shaken into a state of acute agitation.  The whistle blew, like a demon’s trumpet, and I looked out the window and seethed.

The last time I’d been at Washington Union Station, I’d been charged nearly a hundred dollars to store my bag for a day.  By booking a room in a hostel, I was actually saving money.  Once we arrived in DC, I took my time making my way through the terminal, which is Amtrak’s actual headquarters.  An exhibit in the hallway celebrates fifty years of their existence.  There are also commemorative statues and plaques scattered around, like the one honoring all the employees who’ve lost their lives in the line of duty.  The central hall, with its statues of Greek gods and centurions, resembles nothing less than a temple. 

Like all of the classic train stations I’d passed through so far, what I saw outside the door told a different story.  Beneath the statue of Columbus out front sat a homeless woman with plastic bags all around her.  On another side of the monument was an abandoned pile of filthy blankets.  Under one of the stone lions someone had written, Think of how much you all have stolen from me, and dated it June 6, 1971.  Just across the road, you could see the United States Capitol.

The hostel I’d booked was only a mile and a half away, but seemed to take two hours to get to.  The person at the desk asked that I remove my shoes, then showed me how the code for the front door worked.  I was in the basement, in a room with six bunks, down in a lower bed, jammed between two others.  Someone on the other side had hung blankets and made a tent out of their bed.  They appeared to be inside, possibly sleeping.  I thought about calling Amtrak to see if I could switch my ticket to Jacksonville the next day, but then realized I was too spent to function.  I’d just have to hop on the Crescent the next day and see what happened between Washington and New Orleans.   Since that was going to be the situation, I went ahead and booked a hostel in the French Quarter.

It was still early, so I went out and started walking in the direction of the National Mall.  If all of the buildings in the area appeared to be fortresses, perhaps it was because I was staying less than a half mile from the White House.  I followed 10h Street past the Federal Triangle and the IRS headquarters, then crossed Constitution Avenue, walked west for a few blocks, and there was the Washington Monument.  In the other direction was the Capitol.  I decided to walk towards the Lincoln Memorial, and then visit the Capitol and a few Smithsonian Museums the next day, since my train didn’t leave until six in the evening.

It was a beautiful fall day as I approached the Washington Monument, circled by flags.  It is always a strange thing to see anything so iconic, that you’ve only been exposed to in media and print images, in person, because suddenly, there it is, right in front of you, sometimes larger than life, other times, much smaller than expected.  The Washington Monument is exactly like you think it will be.  There were not many other tourists out and about.  On the grass, right past the monument, a group of young people, perhaps up and comers in the world of politics, were playing a game of kickball.  Just then a large helicopter, perhaps Marine One, passed overhead.  It’s the President, someone shouted, and they all began to wave.

Across from the World War II Memorial, I got an ice cream cone from a food truck and sat down at the base of a flag to eat it.  Beyond the pillars, arches, and fountain of the war memorial, there stretched the reflecting pool, and at the far end of it the Lincoln Memorial.  The sun was just beginning to set, casting long shadows, the last few rays of sunlight illuminating the Washington Monument with an almost greenish glow.

Walking towards the Lincoln Memorial, besides the reflecting pool, I followed a family straight into the last few pulsations of the sun.  By the time we reached the long, stone stairway, it had set.  Up the temple steps, there sat Lincoln on his throne.  For all his virtues, it was hard to say how much anyone there knew about him, outside of the fact that he’d once been president and was very famous. It is fame that has become the measuring stick of success these days.  How it is achieved does not seem to matter as much.  While Lincoln is still remembered for his honesty, these days the truth is often regarded as relative, reliant on the interpreter and how it best suits their agenda.  He is also admired for helping to heal the nation after the Civil War, but the divisions in recent years haven’t been based on ideology, and the best way to go forward as a country, as much as sheer hatred of the other.  There was only one boy I noticed reading the inscriptions above his head and on the walls, while everyone else stood with their backs to him, taking group pictures and selfies.

It was nearly dark as I walked through the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the expressions on the faces of the nineteen soldiers represented so lifelike that you actually feel like you are out on patrol with them. By the time I made it over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and walked past the wall listing the names of the over fifty thousand Americans who’d lost their lives in that war, it was night.  I sat on a bench next to a pond in the Constitution Gardens, and saw both the lit-up Washington Monument, and nearly full moon, reflected in the black water. 

Once I got up and started back to the hostel, I immediately had to use the bathroom, badly.  It must’ve been the ice cream from the food truck.  Block after excruciating block, not only were there no bathrooms, but it would’ve been a federal offense of the most egregious nature to try to improvise one.  What do you do in a situation like that?  I’d reached the point of wild desperation by the time I spotted a McDonalds and walked into to it, almost on my tiptoes.  Both relief and perspiration washed over me as I sat down in a stall and contemplated the disaster that would’ve befallen me if I hadn’t had enough money to buy a Big Mac.  When I returned to the dining room to eat it, I noticed three homeless men nursing their own small purchases, just to be able to sit at a table inside for a few minutes.

Taking a different street back to the hostel, I just happened to pass the White House, which was all lit-up, as well.  On a bench in Lafayette Square, facing the White House, sat a homeless man on a bench, a blue jacket pulled up over his head.  I walked up to the gate where a handful of visitors were taking photos, and talked to a protestor in a shack, picket signs and declamations stacked up all around him.  He and his only company, yet another homeless man, said they were waging their own war against capitalism.  Good luck with that, I told them.

riding the rails 20

When I got back to the hostel, there were two or three guys in bed already.  A Chinese guy looked up very startled when I passed him, but went immediately back to his social media account.  In the lower bunk that someone had converted into a tent, I could hear the low, persistent rumble of snoring.  There was not enough energy left in me to even react.  I lay down on the bed and reached for the copy of the New York Times I still hadn’t finished.  A few hours later I awoke, still on top of the sheet, wearing my reading glasses.  It was a long, painful haul getting upstairs to the bathroom.

The next morning, I decided to hang out until checkout time.  There was a free breakfast in the dining area, pancakes and coffee.  Later, I sat in the common room with a woman who’d been staying in DC for a month, hopping from hostel to hostel.  There was even time to go lie down again, but by now a big, bearded guy in the top bunk was making the kind of noises usually only associated with exorcisms.  It was impossible to be in the same room.  I packed my things, put my bags in the storage room, and headed off in the direction of the National Mall again.

The first thing I came to was the Natural History Museum.  Walking through the front doors, I was immediately met by a Moai stone head from Easter Island, a half-ton pink quartz crystal, and a charging African elephant.  I headed straight towards the wing that houses the mammals, and encountered a tusked walrus, leaping tiger, and resting rhino.  In a glass case, two lionesses were attacking a water buffalo.  In another, a hippo was yawning for all the world to see.  There was not enough time to focus on any one thing, so I walked quickly through the oceans section, and ended up in a hall dedicated to the origins of man. 

Here all the early ancestors were on display.  Until you get to Homo Erectus, most of them just look like common apes.  There were a few sculptures of cavemen, squatting on the ground, scraping at the earth with stones for sustenance.  They could’ve been any of the homeless folks I’d seen on the trip so far, sleeping on the street and digging through trash cans.  The hard, cold brutality of life hasn’t changed at all.  Though we’ve developed our technology, we’ve failed to elevate our compassion.  If it’s all of us scratching out an existence, that’s one thing.  If we let a handful fall through the cracks, however, while others are flying into space for sport, that’s just cruel.

Fortunately, the National Gallery of Art was closed for renovations, as I was already pushing my time and attention span.  I headed straight to the Capitol and got in line for the tour.  You needed to have a reservation, but there weren’t many visitors and someone explained to me how to sign up online.  Fortunately, there were some immediate openings available. 

After a short film about the history of the Capitol, the tour got underway.  There were about thirty of us in the group, and we were each given headsets to follow what the guide was saying.  After passing through the Crypt, and shorts stops at the Vestibule and Old Supreme Court Chamber, we arrived at the Rotunda, perhaps the very center of American history, in the same way Times Square is the center of its reality.  Here all the figures from famous bygone ages are present; Jefferson, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower, Truman, even Reagan.  All the momentous dates are accounted for; the discovery by Columbus, the arrival of the Pilgrims, critical moments from the Revolution, the expansion into the West. The fresco at the center of the dome, The Apotheosis of Washington, shows George Washington ascending into the clouds like Christ.  He is surrounded by two virtuous ladies, Liberty and Victory, along with thirteen maidens representing the colonies, and a pantheon of lesser gods assembled beneath him.  What the painting represents, more than anything else, perhaps, is the moment the United States became a nation unto itself, the final word on everything under sun.

Although there were still four hours before my train left, I was exhausted and depressed by the hard choices in front of me.  The decisions I made in the next twenty-four hours would be shaping my future immeasurably, and I was in no condition to be making them.  Although I’d been all over the country in two weeks, and had seen enough to fill a few bucket lists, at the end of the day I was still basically running for my life.  The walls were falling down all around me.  I knew I had to get out of the country, but to where?  If I got on my last train, the Sunset Limited, I’d probably hop off at El Paso and cross into Mexico at Juarez.  If I found a bus to Miami, there were a few more options.  Maybe I’d look into Columbia.  I needed to get some place cheap enough to buy time to find my next job.  What that was, I didn’t care anymore.  Anyplace that wanted me could have me.

After leaving the Capitol, I was basically done, but still had a few hours to kill.  From a food truck. I got a questionable gyro and sat on a wall in the shade.  When I stood up, I discovered that I was right at the entrance to the Museum of the American Indian, the one museum I probably still would’ve walked to see.  There was an exhibit going on called Indians Everywhere, about the prevalence of Native Americans in advertising and the media.  The pictures and artifacts showed Indians being used to sell everything, from sports teams, to movies, to train rides, to tobacco, to suntan lotion, to Pepsi.  The list went on and on, and the suggestion was that we’d like to remember them, not so much as victims, but as former adversaries who’d become our teachers, a brand you could trust. 

It was still pretty early but it was going to take a lot of effort to get back to the hostel and then over to the station, so I commenced, walking as slowly as possible.  It felt like something really bad was about to happen, but maybe it wouldn’t.  I’d just been smack dab in the middle of six major cities and was on my way to another one tonight.  Maybe a miracle would suddenly occur.  Even if it didn’t, I was going to Miami.  That suddenly became clear to me.  Anything after that, I couldn’t guarantee.  Making it to Miami, I could.

riding the rails 21

Once known as The New York and New Orleans Limited, and having passed through many incarnations before and since that time, the train now known as the Crescent does just that, travels between New York and New Orleans on a daily basis.  If it is not my favorite train in the world, the reason is this.  I’ve ridden it three times and have seen virtually nothing of North or South Carolina while doing so.  Meanwhile, I’ve seen enough of Alabama and Mississippi, from those particular set of tracks, to last me a lifetime.  The only reason that I was even on the Crescent once again is because my train to Miami, the Silver Star, had been cancelled two times due to Hurricane Ian.  I may have given up on taking the train to Miami, but hadn’t given up on getting there.  Time was moving quickly, however, so I’d have to move fast to make that happen.

When the train boarded at Washington Union Station in DC, there was a young guy sitting next to me, traveling back to see his girlfriend in Manassas.  He’d recently graduated from college and had gotten a job and apartment in DC.  As we talked, he suddenly got nervous, and began searching his pockets and the paperback book he was carrying for his ticket.  He couldn’t find it anywhere and was taking it hard.  It seemed to me they’d scanned our tickets when we got on the train.  I thought he’d probably be fine.  Then I grabbed my backpack and retrieved the keys I’d inadvertently lifted from a hostel back in New York.  See, I showed him.  It happens to the best of us.

After he got out, I had a long time, hours really, to listen to the old man in front of me, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Scatman Crothers, in both appearance and voice, regale his seatmate with tales about his conquests in sports, both as a student and later as a coach.  The seatmate led him on, sharing a few of his own stories about playing high school football, but eventually couldn’t get a word in, and became the living definition of a captive audience.  All at once I grabbed my phone, found the site for Greyhound, and bought a one-way ticket from New Orleans to Miami, leaving the day after my arrival.  There, that was settled.  Now all I needed to do was to cancel my reservation on the Sunset Limited and see if I could still use that last section of the Rail Pass at a later time.

I’d just gotten a hold of a representative, when the train stopped in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The agent couldn’t seem to handle a simple cancellation and had transferred me to one of her superiors.  Just as the woman got on the phone, a guy showed up to claim the seat next to me, totally wasted.  I tried to make room for him, but he waved me off and went looking for beer.  It took a long time, but finally the woman, who complained that she should not have been contacted for such a trivial matter, admitted that there was a glitch in the system that wasn’t allowing them to cancel the reservation.  She said that instead, I’d be issued a voucher that I could redeem at a later time, as long as the travel was completed before the 22nd.

When my new seatmate got back from the café, he was wanting to bump fists all night long, letting me know he was cool like that.  He’d been visiting his father in Virginia and was on his way back home to Fort Lauderdale.  For some reason he was taking the train to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then getting off and flying the rest of the way.  When he heard I was heading to Miami, he got out his phone and tried to show me some of the best bars in Fort Lauderdale, like the Elbow Room and Hard Rock Café.  At one point he got up to use the bathroom, and I leaned back and pretended to be sleeping.  It took some effort, but was easier than keeping up with him.  My feeling was that he was looking for any reason to get offended, and things would escalate quickly once he found it.

It was a relief when we arrived in Charlotte and he finally got off the train.  No one else got on, so for a few hours I was able to bend over and sleep on both seats, a technique I’d nearly mastered by now, even with a fractured tailbone.

When the morning arrived, Scatman Crothers went from snoring, straight back to reminiscing, and his seatmate, who by now I’d learned was a pastor, continued to egg him on with exaggerated gasps of wonder and mild-mannered chuckles.  We passed through Gainesville, Georgia, with the coach rambling on about the speech he’d given at some hall of fame event, where the players had been urging him to wrap it up. That was probably the sentiment shared by anyone on the train who’d been sitting within three rows of him.

When we got to Atlanta, there was a half-hour layover.  The coach and pastor were both getting off, and the pastor asked if maybe they could pose for a picture together.  I’m assuming that it happened.  In the meantime, the crew got ready preparing the train for the next set of passengers.  There was a good chance that this would be the last leg of my big train trip.  Even with the voucher they’d just given me, there was nowhere I could get to from Miami.  Chances were, I’d be flying to my next destination.  Colombia kept popping into my mind.  I did a quick search on Expedia and found a number of cheap flights from Miami to Medellin.  Now, there was a thought.

The guy who got on in Atlanta and sat next to me got out knitting needles right away, and then groaned in exasperation when a baby began to fuss.  He asked the conductor if there were any window seats open, but was told that the train was full.  By chance, however, he happened to know a guy with a backwards baseball hat and sparkly jacket who was sitting two seats behind us.  It turns out that they’d graduated from the same school, only a few years apart.  Having someone to talk to cheered him up considerably.  At one point a group of them went back to the café car and when I walked through later, saw the guy in the sparkly jacket with four empty cans of White Claw in front of him.

When my seatmate returned, he was glowing, possibly because he’d had such a social time so far.  The guy in the sparkly jacket got off in Anniston.  Either he was drunk or was just in the habit of hugging strangers.  My seatmate explained how they’d both escaped from the same small town in Alabama, him to Atlanta, the other guy to Colorado.  When the church he’d grown up in had found out about his lifestyle he’d been excommunicated.  Recalling it, even now, seemed to choke him up.  He was just traveling to New Orleans for one day of work, and was hoping his boss wouldn’t be mad that he was taking two travel days to get there and back.

The train we were on seemed determined to blow its whistle all the way to New Orleans.  We passed through the Talladega National Forest, where vultures hung above the pine trees.  Every small town seemed to have a water tower, a red-brick church with a white steeple, and a Dollar General Store.  As we approached Birmingham, I noticed two characters had tagged their names on the side of an underpass, East Coast Mike and Biker Joe.  Don’t say we don’t have the best outlaws.

It seemed it took half a lifetime to get through Mississippi.  I’d been to Meridian before, the home of the Singing Brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers.  From there we passed through Laurel and Hattiesburg.  I was trying to control my mounting anxiety by meditating, which had never really worked, but counting my breaths at least helped pass the time.  We wouldn’t be arriving in New Orleans until after nine o’clock, and now I was worried about that, not sure how late the streetcar would be running.  The walk from the station to the hostel looked pretty dodgy on google maps.

Sometime close to dark we arrived in Picayune, and a short while later were crossing Lake Pontchartrain.  I looked for a hopeful sign outside, but only saw black water.  About a half hour later the conductor came down the aisle and it was like a scene from a movie.

Slidell, she shouted.  Slidell.  Coming into Slidell.

riding the rails 22

Everything I’d feared so far, had mostly not come true.  In only two weeks I’d ridden trains from Los Angeles to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, Seattle to San Francisco, San Francisco back to Chicago, Chicago to New York, New York to Washington DC, and DC to New Orleans, all for five hundred dollars.  In every city I’d arrived in, except for Los Angeles, where I’d started from, I’d found a hostel for around fifty dollars, meaning I hadn’t spent more than a thousand dollars to see a huge portion of the country and some of its most famous cities. 

Still, I’d spent most of the trip worrying, often paralyzed with terror.  Small things, like my trains to Miami getting cancelled, or losing two sections of my Rail Pass, had upset me greatly, causing me to curse my life.  Yet here I was in New Orleans, I’d just bought a bus ticket to Miami, so I was going there anyway, and the UPT streetcar was sitting right outside the station door and could drop me two blocks away from my hostel.  I went to get on it and the few people waiting on it seemed friendly.  In a few minutes the driver jumped on and we went lurching down Loyola Avenue.

In my early twenties, I’d spent about eight months in New Orleans, thinking I was there to make music, but mostly drinking and lying in bed depressed.  At one point, desperate for a job, I’d gone to bartending school and gotten a job in the French Quarter, at a famous restaurant called Antoine’s.  The place that I was staying was just two blocks from Bourbon Street, so as soon as I checked in and got my things put away, I headed over to the Quarter.  Back then, it had easily been the most exotic and intimidating place I’d ever been to.  By now, it was just another place.  A mobile DJ had parked a party bus on Canal Street and was leading a line of women through a booty-shaking dance.  Right past him a guy was selling gold balloons and bunny ears.

I walked past the Bourbon House and the Cigar Factory.  Two guys were playing chess on the sidewalk.  Some group had hired a brass band for a private party and were dancing in the middle of street, lifting white umbrellas and scarves, as a man on stilts, in a top hat, looked down and waved his hands.  There was Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and Voodoo Blues.  A kid playing a plastic pail with two drumsticks berated me for taking a picture, and then just glared when I only dropped loose change into his can.  I saw Big Daddy’s Topless, still in business after all these years.  Then, there it was, just down Saint Louis Street.  I walked half a block and stopped outside of Antoine’s.

We never know what will make a good memory or story.  Back in the day, the job had been just another grind.  I’d been making five dollars an hour, with no tips, mixing drinks for the waiters in the kitchen, but how many times had I brought up working there since.  I’d worn my small apprenticeship in the city like a badge of honor for over thirty years.  Now the evening shift was ending, and the employees came streaming out the side door.  A lot of them were just kids, about the same age I’d been when I worked there.  I waited to take a photo of the sign above the door, but two couples had posted up there, and seemed to have no place better to go.  Neither did I, so I just waited.

After finally getting my picture, I headed up Royal Street, behind the cathedral, home of the famous Touchdown Jesus, then walked around to the front of Jackson Square.  A few fortune tellers were still doing business, but outside of the homeless rolled up outside the church in their makeshift beds, it was empty. It wasn’t late by New Orleans standards, but it was late for me.  I walked as far as Armstrong Park, and then started back up Bourbon Street. 

A woman on a balcony had some beads she was looking to unload.  I walked up right beneath her, and she shouted down to lift up my shirt.  I did, but only went so far as to flash one nipple.  That was good enough, apparently.  She tossed down a necklace of gold beads, and I put it on and continued into the night.