Saturday, May 10, 2014

My trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles on Amtrak

The train was pulling out of New Orleans early Wednesday morning on January 1, 2014.  I had slept very little on New Year’s Eve, I party in Mobile, Alabama like it was 1999.  I watched  the bands playing country music, the crowds flocking to the various New Year’s Eve events.  No one knew me in this town, I was incognito, I was having a great time.  I did not want this evening to end. I had some conversations with complete strangers, people in the South are very nice and easy to talk to, they are "real". When the MoonPie dropped from the RSA BankTrust in Mobile, the fireworks light the sky in a thousand hues. People applauded, kids danced around the park as if it was the 4th  of July. Then when the fireworks subsided everyone dispersed.  The climax of the night was over, it was now a new year.

I was excited about taking the train, it was something I always wanted to do.  Unfortunately Amtrak does not stop in Mobile, therefore my options was either take the Greyhound to New Orleans or drive. I decided to drive. I let my exhausted daughter Taunji sleep while I did the driving, it seems like old times, when as a child she would always fall asleep in my Toyota 4 X 4 truck, on our various adventures. We arrived two hours later.  The New Orleans Unions Passenger Terminal as it is called; is bustling with both Amtrak and Greyhound passengers trying to get home or wherever they are going.  It was opened in 1954 as an ultramodern station and rebuilt several times.  It lacks the size of New York Union Station or the history.  It is an airy building with lots of ambient light, there is a mural on the wall that is beautiful, depicting the history of New Orleans.  Your food options are limited to a Subway sandwich place and a cafe that serves typical American food.  The station is interesting, the people that traverse to their destinations are an ecliptic mix of well dressed people to those who have their belongs in black trash bags.  Some are waiting for the train, others are waiting for the Greyhound bus.  Some people are just hanging out at the station because they are homeless and do not have anywhere else to go on New Years Day.  Finally the announcer announces it is time to board the train, I checked in early and I was able to find a nice window seat.  I was hoping to have two seats to myself, unfortunately the train was sold out. I had a guest next to me, a nice young African-American man who had his Android phone plugged into the wall outlet next to me.  When I moved my leg his phone would get unplugged and he would have to reach over me to plug his Android phone back in, he would never have that problem with an iPhone I told him.  He got quite and went back to texting, that’s what they call “iPhone envy.”

The train leached forward, building speed.  I watch New Orleans through my vantage point, it is raining.  The rain drops dance on the window, leaving streaks.  I wish I had a chance to spend time in New Orleans, it looks like an awesome city.  About a half hour later I made my way to the observation car, it has windows on all sides as well as the ceiling.  There are dinette tables and benches, individual swivel seats and plenty of plugs so that you can charge your portable devices.  The observation car is a favorite spot for people to hang out, families, couples and individuals such as me, are mesmerized by the scenery as it changes by the second.  New Orleans gives way to the country side, there are rivers, and small towns.  There are people going about their business unaware of “us” from the train observing them for a moment.  Cars and trucks wait for the Amtrak train to pass at the various crossings.  There are car dealerships and cafes, there are post offices and a main street  with a general stores and numerous  other types of establishments.  The scenery never got boring.   When you fly, one just cannot see such details far below, one is sitting in a cramped seat, with limited room to move.  On a train you can walk around, meet new friends, eat at the dinning car or the snack bar.

I decided to catch up on some business, I organized all of my receipts and entered the receipts into my various spreadsheets.  It is never a fun task, yet it is a vital task of a business person such as myself.  An older man sits down across from me, reading a paper, a family of four are mesmerized by the scenery unfolding in front of them.  An elderly lady works on a crossword puzzle.  Two young cowboys chat with each other from the swivel chairs. A nice looking  fashionable dressed woman walks by; the cowboys watch the woman as she passes by, she gives one of the boys a smile. I grab my iPad Air from my computer bag and check my e-mails, my Facebook status and the read the Los Angeles Times.  The man next to me is impressed with my iPad and engages me in a conversation about the new technology.  The conversation last about an hour, in the end I convinced the man to try an iPad out at the Apple Store.  

Riding a train is an adventure, one really gets a chance to see America, I bought my camera with me and took some pictures and video of the places I was passing.  If you go to iTunes Amtrak provides a podcast for each of their train routes, almost like a guided tour.  I found the information very informative.  The map on my iPhone/iPad was helpful too, it helped me know exactly where I was and what was around me.  I love virtual maps.  I would zoom in and out, the only time it did not work was when there was no cellular service in parts of New Mexico.  I do not understand why Amtrak did not have Wi-Fi on this train, Amtrak has Wi-Fi on their California trains.  

The biggest challenge is sleeping, if you are one of those rare individuals that can sleep in a chair then sleeping will not be a problem.  I could not get comfortable no matter what position I slept in, the next morning my back was aching.  My advice, get a bed or a room, it is worth the cost especially on long trips.  If you book in advance, the cost of a bed or a room is reasonable, an added bonus, your meals are free in the dinning car and on some trips there is wine tasting or other extras you will not get in coach.

Texas is a big state.  It seemed most of the trip we were stuck in Texas, mile after mile of Texas.  From the green part of Texas (Houston) to the brown part of Texas, San Antonio west and beyond.  Yet, I was never bored, there was always something to look at or someone to talk to. Case in point this guy who I met on the second day, he was on his way to Brazil, he was going to take the train to LA, then take the Amtrak Surfliner to San Diego, the light rail to Tijuana, Mexico, hop on a shrimp boat to Acapulco, then somehow walk to Brazil.  I did not know if this guy was insane or he was telling the truth.  He told me he was a wanted man, and he needed to find a country that did not have an extradition treaty with the US.  I did not want to know anything else about this guy, I listened, I smiled and hope he would forget this conversation with me.  I sure hope he made it to wherever he was going.  The two young cowboys, they were an interesting characters.  I could not tell if they were for real.  One claimed he was a clown in the rodeo and he just lost his house to foreclosure, the only problem he was only 19.  I know few nineteen year old guys who own a home, most are in college or flipping burgers at McDonalds.   The other "kid" was sixteen, he had an accident the other day and total his parents cars, his dads truck one day, his mothers car the next day, talking about bad luck.  Eventually the cowboys got kicked off the train for rude behavior to a female passenger.  The red hair fellow, with the wide eyes who was probably hooked on meth was taken by ambulance to the hospital, an overdose of whatever he was using.  

The trip back to Los Angeles was uneventful after we lost our savory characters.  Though the guy who was going to Brazil, his stories got more colorful.  Personally I think he should had changed his trip to Hollywood, he would had made an awesome screenwriter.  I still wonder what happen to him. I was tempted to give him my business card, though I was afraid he would get caught by a "coyote" or the authorities and somehow my name would get me indicted for some crime I never committed or my fingers sliced with an axe from the “coyotes”.  

It was the dreaded evening again, I decided to make a bed for myself in the cafe.  It was a lot more comfortable than my chair, though it was narrow and I was afraid I would roll off of the sofa.  I got up around four in the morning and took refuge in the observation car, along with all the other poor souls who could not sleep.  We look like characters from the "Walking Dead" TV show on AMC channel.  At 5:15 we arrived in Los Angeles.  The commuters were slowly making their way into Union Station.  A train station that has been in numerous movies, commercials and TV shows.  Union Station is iconic in many ways, it represents the old and the new.  The old, passenger rail service, the new the subway, Metrolink, Amtrak and the Pasadena Streetcar use the station as their gateway point.  I took the subway to North Hollywood, then a good friend pick me up from the subway station and took me home.  This was an awesome trip.  

A footnote, I ended up going back to New Orleans three more times this year.  I will do a future blog about my trips.

Mobile New Years Eve


Lous Armstrong New Orleans Station

I can't sleep in a chair.

Crossing the mighty Mississippi

Inside the observation car

The Cowboys and the Old Man

Having some fun on the train

New Mexico

El Passo, Texas

The other side of the tracks-Mexico