The City of New Orleans is a train that runs once a day from Chicago to New Orleans, taking about twenty hours for the journey. It is also the subject of a song by the late Steve Goodman, recorded by many, many artists but most famously by Arlo Guthrie. I have always loved the song since I first heard it in 1972, when pop music was my raison d’être. We had, years before, been to Mendocino in California because I so loved Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s song ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino” (‘closing my eyes I hear the sea’ -aaaah, bliss). It was a very, very long drive to celebrate a song, but we had liked it well enough; you could, of course, travel America forever visiting places celebrated in songs and indeed we had already been to Chattanooga where there is, in fact, no longer a Choo Choo but where there is the Hunter Museum of American Art and the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum, both of which we visited…..
So it was only natural that when Mr F and I were travelling in the southern states, I should insist that we rode on that train which,
‘…pulls out of Kankakee and rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ graves that have no name, freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles.’
It doesn’t sound like an advert from the US Tourist Board, and in any case we were hundreds of miles south of Chicago, but we were able to pick the train up during its lengthy early morning stop in Memphis and ride it to its final destination, Union Station in New Orleans.
Mr F, not being an early riser, was not chuffed at having to be in the Amtrak station at 5.40 am. It was very cold in Memphis, and with only the two passenger trains coming to the station every day, it was a cheerless place in the darkness and there was no coffee. However, once the train got going, and we established that there was a supply of good food and drink, and we found that the seats were very comfy, and that there was a glass observation car from which to watch the country go by, we entered into the spirit of the journey and the big train slowly made its way south.
We had plenty to think about – the previous day we had visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is situated in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King had been shot fifty years before – it was three days to the anniversary, and the place was crammed with people paying tribute at this most thoughtful and respectful and cleverly curated museum. The extensive and beautifully presented stuff on MLK himself was reason enough to be there but the stories of less well known – or not known at all – people moved me to embarrassing tears. Mr F had also enjoyed the ducks in the Peabody Hotel where we had stayed – they are brought down from their ‘duck palace’ on the roof in the morning to splash about in the fountain in the hotel’s lobby, then taken back up in the late afternoon. This is a major tourist sight in Memphis and very curious.
So we sat in the observation car, alternately dozing, reading and looking out the window. From Memphis to New Orleans, the train mainly passes through rural Mississippi. Mississippi was a bright green blur, a colour made unreal by the sunshine; a long continuous swamp punctuated by elegant white birds, apparently flightless, and little towns which were achingly poor. Often, in the middle of the country a few trailers would appear, or cabins with old women sitting outside watching their dogs pursuing smaller animals. They, and their grandchildren would wave to the train; I was mainly alone in waving back. I wanted to get off for five minutes and breathe their air, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay. This is how it was for the tourist in the South – you went to all the places you should go, but you were never very far away from poverty – the panhandlers on the pavements of Atlanta and old black women in the green middle of Mississippi raising their hands in greeting as the train rolled slowly past them at the same time every day.