If you have a spare eighteen hours
......take the train. You can depart from the centre of the city, the check-in takes two minutes and you’ll have a maximum of three fellow passengers. The first catch of my journey was that the train from Austin to San Antonio was running fifteen hours late (fifteen….) so I was bundled onto a stinky replacement coach instead.
In San Antonio there was a two hour stretch before the train left for New Orleans. Amazingly they were paying for taxis to take people to Denny’s for something to eat. I declined out of laziness mainly, though they do serve up a good pancake there, and munched on my slightly melted trail mix instead. The leisurely pace of proceedings and small number of passengers significantly increase chances of interaction. I debated with a lady sharing my church pew in the waiting room about whether the floor was shaking. I didn’t think it was.
Amtrak trains are double-decked, just like buses in London. There is something really exciting about going upstairs to your seat. There you will find that your feet don’t even reach the seat in front of you, that yours extends back to a horizontal position and that you are guaranteed two seats to stretch across because the whole train only has about eight passengers on it.
The train to New Orleans left on time, but for the first hour shunted back and forward in the station. For a whole hour, back and forth, back and forth. No clear reason why. This was 1 AM. I woke up from a reasonable sleep at sunrise…. 6am….in Houston! Still in Texas! A pink sky dramatically pierced by networks of freeways riding over the traintracks. It is quite amazing to me the untapped potential of train travel in this country, particularly coming from a European perspective. Strange to imagine how this country was once crisscrossed by a dense network of railroads now recorded by forlorn dents in the landscape in every small town you pass through. Odd to think that I could have once travelled from Newbern (my ‘hometown’ in Alabama) to Greensboro (my project site at the Rural Studio) by train. Honestly I think it is a tragedy that this country is not at the forefront of pioneering train travel. That said, the poetic sadness of the beautiful old brick warehouses and rusty silos and abandoned rail cars along the disused railroads is one of my favourite, surreal landscapes in America.
As a devoted fan of the Southern landscape travelling this route could not have been more thrilling. I sat glued to the window, alternating between sketchbook and videocamera. Still camera turns out to be completely inadequate for recording the experience. The train along the Gulf Coast gives you insights into the vast expanses of landscape between cities that you are denied by car travel (landscape equals fast food and gas stations for miles on end) or plane (landscape equals clouds or interesting abstract patterns of landforms). Because the train travels so slowly you have ample time to soak up the patterns of inhabitation: oil fields outside Beaumont, swamps and cypress trees in the Bayou, pine logging and cattle grazing, sparse settlements of trailers, enormous piles of scrap metal and fields of rusting cars, huge abstract forms of magnificent silos, giant sci-fi-ish powerplants, historic downtowns and church spires peeping over roofs in the distance, fields of yellow texas wild flowers, sudden openings onto wide brown murky rivers and the awkward beauty of industrial bridges that carry the trains across them, a dramatic fire outside Lake Charles filling the clear blue sky with menacing, billowing curls of black smoke.
I considered dropping all my Branner plans and dedicating the year to making an enormous linear drawing of the passage from Los Angles to Jacksonville Florida, which are the extents of the Sunset Limited (?) route I was travelling and collecting stories of lives along the railroad as I go. I can’t imagine a more thrilling way to spend my time than sitting in the sun drawing a magnificent silo while the amazing 50 car freight trains trundle onto their destination behind me. Trains turn me into a hopeless romantic. If anyone thinks I should do this instead please email me.
As we eventually pulled into New Orleans, snaking our way back and forth across the river past parking lots of FEMA trailers and neighbourhoods blanketed with blue tarps, conversations in our carraige turned to Katrina. One woman, perhaps a returning native kept saying ‘those levees man, they’re tripping me out, I thought they was big dam like things, but they just little five foot bumps they think they can keep the water out with”. She had some opinions on the government too. “If they gave people some materials and some food to eat for two weeks, their houses would be back up in no time, but they ain’t doing nothing”. Another man related a story of how his cousin knew he was alive only once he saw him on TV helping his grandmother into a helicopter harness from the roof of their flooded home. I also made friends with a guy who is commuting in from San Antonio every week to repair roofs. He gave me his card lest I meet anyone who might require his services.
I thought this was surely the best possible way to arrive in New Orleans for someone who has come to investigate the rebuilding process.