Train trip offers chance to reflect

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, July 22, 2012

SOMEWHERE IN THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA – We have been sitting on a side rail north of Greenwood for at least an hour. A freight train north of us has broken down and we must wait for the rails to clear before we can head north to Memphis and onward to my stop near Dyersburg, Tenn.

     It has been at least 25 years since my last Amtrak trip. A lot has changed in train travel in years in between – all for the better. With my office looking out on the tracks, over the years I have learned not to set my clock by the Amtrak time schedule. Sure enough Friday noon it was 30 minutes late arriving to Brookhaven.

     No doubt my estimated 1 a.m. ETA for Newbern, Tenn., where Amy is awaiting me, will be changed as we have Memphis ahead of us, and the City of New Orleans can only go so fast to make up lost time.

     It was Christmas Eve some 25 years ago that I boarded the train at the old depot in Brookhaven. I was heading north to spend Christmas with Amy and the girls, who were already with Amy’s family in Tennessee. To say the crowd on the train that night was interesting is an understatement. It was a different group from all walks of life. Sitting in the dining car everyone sang Christmas carols that night as someone banged on a piano that was bolted to the floor. The train was showing its age, it was tired and needing some updating.

     Amtrak has spruced things up in the years since 1987 – comfortable seats, lots of leg room – maybe not up to the level of the trains in Europe but getting there. I settled in the club car after leaving Jackson; from there I watched the Mississippi Delta unfold before my eyes. Lots of poverty in the Delta, but the bean crop looks healthy.

     The crowd this time was also interesting but in a different sort of way. I chatted with a New Orleans couple; they were doing historical essays for anyone who would listen. At each stop they would stand up and tell the history of the community where the train was stopping. They are volunteers for the Rails to Trails Conservancy with the National Park Service. In return for a free train ride, they tell the history of the communities along the way. Getting off at Greenwood, they were spending the weekend at the Viking cooking school.

     I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting nearby. She too was getting off in Greenwood and was part of the Rails to Trails program. She was a Hurricane Katrina refugee and started telling me a heart-wrenching story about her and her 81-year-old father’s evacuation of New Orleans following the levee break.

     She told of her father’s rescue from the rooftop of his house via a helicopter, walking chest deep in water and then their jam-packed bus ride to Texas with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a bottle of water and a bank debit card that would not work.

      She talked about how she and her father got split up boarding buses with one going to Houston and the other toward Dallas. She told of not knowing his whereabouts for days and her frustration with being penniless for even longer due to her New Orleans bank being flooded and no electronic access being allowed to the bank account. She looked up at me as the train stopped in Greenwood and thanked me for listening.

     As I moved on to the diner car, I was seated with a young couple and their niece. They were heading to Chicago for a week’s vacation. She is a schoolteacher in the Baton Rouge area and has been teaching for two years. He is an engineer for a chemical company. They were on their first anniversary and wanted to take their niece to join them to see the museums of Chicago. The shy 13-year-old niece just beamed!

     It was almost 2 a.m. before I arrived in Newbern where Amy was waiting – as was a large crowd getting on board and apparently heading to Chicago.

     Train travel has improved vastly since my last trip. Although not as efficient as plane travel, the pace is slower and more enjoyable.

     Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven MS 39602, or send e-mail to bjacobs@dailyleader.com.