March 1, 2013

Werner Braun: Riding to the city of New Orleans

— It’s often said that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

On a recent trip to New Orleans with my wife, I decided that there’s a great deal of truth to that.

It’s pretty de rigueur these days to plan a vacation, hop on a plane and then rush around from place to place taking in the sites and gorging on native cuisine.

But how often do we make the journey itself as important a part of the trip as we do the final destination?

The last time I remember taking a long train trip was in 1963, when I rode from Indianapolis, Ind., to Austin, Texas, to start my freshman year at St. Edward’s University.

It was at least a 24-hour trip, with numerous stops in small towns along the way and a “train change” in St. Louis. In the impatience of youth, I found the whole experience to be rather long, tedious and far from luxurious.

But the trip we took from Atlanta to New Orleans on the Crescent last weekend was nothing short of luxurious, and it factors in, for me, as a major highlight of the whole trip.

I guess I’d forgotten how civilized travel on a train like Amtrak really is. We’ve gotten used to the inconvenience of air travel, of standing in long lines, waiting for our turn to go through security where one almost has to disrobe to be allowed to board the plane.

Train travel tends to feel much more laid back. You don’t have to be there until 30 minutes before departure. There’s virtually no hassle, there are no long lines and the seats, unlike the ones you find even in business class on an airplane, are huge.

While we were riding on the Crescent, Mary was able to read and sleep and I was able to do a little work. Cellphone coverage was steady throughout, so I was able to make both business and pleasure calls. But the best part of the trip was being able to look out of the window and take in the landscape.

I’ve never really traveled much through Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana, and I was struck by how beautiful I found the countryside. Traveling along rail routes is kind of like peeking into other people’s private lives. You often see the backyards of houses, instead of the front, and you get a sense of what life is like for the people who live along the way. It provides an interesting perspective that you don’t get when traveling by car.

The whole experience reminded me of a song Willie Nelson recorded several decades ago, “The City of New Orleans.”

In it, he sings about “passin’ towns that have no names” and seeing the “graveyards of rusted automobiles.”

From that standpoint, times haven’t changed all that much. We did pass towns that seemed to have no names, and we saw plenty of junkyards piled high with rusted cars and trucks.

But we also rolled “along past houses, farms and fields.” In short, we had a bird’s eye view into the rural landscape that makes up the fabric of this great land.

And throughout our journey, we were treated to amenities that no longer seem to be available when traveling by air or practical when traveling by automobile. The club car was open during the whole trip providing drinks and snacks. The dining car was elegant, and I was struck by the quality of the food we were served. The meals were delicious and had been prepared from scratch.

When you sit down for meals you get seated with total strangers. Since you have time to linger over your meal, you also have the opportunity to talk to your table mates. We met a charming couple from Cape Cod that had traveled to Houston and Austin to visit their grandchildren. We also met a man who joined the Job Corps when he was a young man where he learned to be an auto mechanic. He’s now in his 70s, still working in the same field. All in all, we sat down with strangers but parted company with new friends.

I’ll have to admit that it was pleasant to not have to buckle up during the journey or to deal with what pilots have begun to call “rough air.” Our ride was smooth, not like train travel of yesteryear. But perhaps the best part of the trip was being taken care of by the helpful and friendly staff, who provided great service all along the way.

In the last stanza of “The City of New Orleans” is the line “this train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.” I realized during this trip that this relaxing way to travel may actually disappear, at least in the United States, in the not-too-distant future. The generations to come, our kids and grandkids, may not have the opportunity to experience the pleasures of train travel.

That’s a sad commentary, but it seems to provide an even more compelling reason to enjoy the luxury of train travel while we still can. For me, this recent train ride turned out to be one of the best parts of what turned out to be a “just about perfect” trip.


Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.