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  • Writer's pictureW.M. Tarrant

The Disappearing Railroad Blues

Recently my wife and I took a trip to New Orleans where we stayed at a boutique hotel in a quiet corner of the French Quarter and took several guided walking tours. We enjoyed our stay and learning about the history and the culture of the area, but the trip was more than the New Orleans sites as the rails were part of our travel experience. The train was more than just transportation to a destination, but a way to watch the country unfold from the cornfields of Illinois to the flat, dusty delta region of Mississippi to the low bayou country of southern Louisiana. The view was different than that of an interstate highway, that dull, uninviting expanse of concrete and asphalt that shuttles people mindlessly from Point A to Point B. Oftentimes the view from the train offered a backdoor peek into communities and rural homes, a not-always pretty view, but one that is real, a view far different from the beckoning signs and neon lights and sanitized tourists stops just off the interstate ramps.

Why did we choose to go by train? Go back 50 years when Arlo Guthrie made famous the Steve Goodman song “The City of New Orleans.” After hearing the song while in college in the early 1970s, I knew I had to ride the train someday. One line in the song states, “This train got the disappearing railroad blues.” The original “City of New Orleans,” operated by the Illinois Central Railroad, indeed disappeared as Amtrak took over intercity routes in 1971. Ten years later, in a shrewd marketing move, Amtrak resurrected “The City of New Orleans” name for their train that runs from Chicago to New Orleans, hoping to capitalize on Goodman’s song.

This was not the same train Arlo sings about as there is no mail car or club car and there were way more than the “15 restless riders” referred to in the song. A couple hundred passengers is more accurate, though many of them were restless.

We opted for a small room referred to as a roomette for the 19-hour journey. Private, cozy, comfortable, it is a bit on the small side when preparing for bed. Once the seats are laid flat to form the lower bunk and the upper bunk is lowered from the ceiling, room to stand is at a premium. Picture changing clothes in a telephone booth. Remember telephone booths? We older folks do.

Once in the bunks, unless a person is very tired, sleeping is not easy unless one enjoys the clatter of the steel wheels on the steel rails and the rocking and swaying of the car. I was so tired I fell asleep quickly. My wife, on the other hand, did not sleep much. Apparently, the clatter of wheels and the rocking and swaying did not lull her to sleep as it did me.

For my wife, though she was fascinated by the changing scenery rolling by, the train still was just transportation. As for me, the trip was a 50-year nostalgic dream fulfilled as Arlo’s voice played in my mind as we passed along “houses, farms, and fields, passing trains that have no names, and the graveyards of rusted automobiles.”

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