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Amtrak: Travel is best when shared

Travel is best when shared. At least that’s what the latest Amtrak ads say, and I’d have to agree based on a certain train ride my husband and I enjoyed a while back.   

Our trip began at the still-new train station in Brookhaven, a sunshiny space swathed in yellows. There, natural light pours in through tall walls of windows onto concrete floors stained the color of honey, and wooden benches with a history are re-finished in a light amber. For sure, Godbold Transportation Center (the station’s proper name) is a pleasant place to begin a journey.

Riders like David and Pam Eames of Ferriday, Louisiana, have known this for some time. As they waited for the 12:15 train to arrive, they told us of quarterly trips to New Orleans, all starting at this platform under the gabled canopy.

“We prefer catching it here,” Pam said, noting the nice depot and safe parking area. The farming couple called riding the rails “something different, an adventure.”   

Adventure is a good word for a trip on what may well be America’s most legendary train. Thanks to Arlo Gutherie, the City of New Orleans became the fodder of folk songs in 1970, bringing forever fame to its Illinois-Louisiana line. One hundred twenty-nine miles of that track cover the distance between Brookhaven and the Crescent City, and the Eames and others aboard told us there’s no better way to go.       

According to Amtrak statistics, more than 4,00 passengers utilized the station on North Railroad Avenue in 2017. Assistant Conductor William Hardy attributed a steady rise in ridership in recent years to gas prices. Kenya Butler, an attendant, pointed to airport security issues as another reason their steamliner’s five cars — with 78 passengers each — are often filled.

Amtrak strives to be accommodating, with roomy coach seats that recline and offer a convenient footrest. Roomettes come with a variety of sleeping arrangements, and passengers who may only be on the 30-minute hop to McComb still have access to the dining car, on-board cafe, and sightseer lounge. The main draw, however, isn’t an asset under Amtrak’s control. It’s the cast of characters who put their bags overhead and watch the passing sights that give this form of travel a flavor like no other. 

Riders around us read, slept, ate, and pushed their views concerning how to barbeque ribs. Serious experience seekers, though, all headed to what the industry calls the sightseer lounge, or observation car, where the windows are wide and seats are mounted toward the view. That’s important because there are things to see, like the dirt crossing at Fernwood and a cotton gin at Magnolia, people waving from the Salad Station, and houses — a hundred years old — built to face the cross ties. Some sights seem invasive, though. During the brief stop at Hammond, I found it nearly impossible to turn away from a good-bye scene between a mom and her son. She looked anxious. He looked ready, a pair of new boots in his hand.

Further south, three gentlemen near the snack bar pulled out guitars and start strumming. A rumor began to circulate that the dark-haired player, Richard Leigh, was a Grammy-Award winning songwriter from Nashville. Even the train attendants stopped to take photographs with him. The crowd hushed — the engine’s whistle, too, it seemed – when Leigh treated us to his biggest hit, Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” He finished, but the couple dancing in the aisle did not.   

Before long we passed Middendorf’s, as well as bayous full of fishing boats and eagle nests. Children like 4-year-old Silvano DiPietro of Miami were told their “choo choo ride” would soon be over. Friendships that developed among travelers during the two-and-a half hour trip ended where the track does, at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.

For a family from Memphis, it was time to put their cards away. The mother explained why she chooses to take the train: “It’s inexpensive. We can relax and play games, and we don’t have to worry about parking a car while we’re in New Orleans.”

She stopped to clear their booth of an empty bag of Zapp’s.

“And besides all that, it’s a great way to meet new people.”   

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.