June 2012 / Amtrak's Sunset Limited Update
Amtrak's Sunset Limited has changed its schedule and now leaves Lafayette for New Orleans at 5:12 p.m. A good time for after-workers in pursuit of an easy ride to Big Swamp City charms.
But nothing is harder for this old man than change. A universal feeling? Perhaps. Surely it is why retirement is sometimes ghastly. (And why you should begin it soon as you can. I began mine during college -- it was the fabled Sixties.)
We are suspicious of night trains because at night scenic Louisiana Swamps and Rivers are indistinguishable from Los Angeles' concrete arroyos. They are all reduced to your reflection in the window glass.
Can travel have a greater disappointment than crossing the iconic Mississippi River and not being able to see it?!
Arriving in New Orleans just before 10 p.m. is bad enough. Arriving at 2 a.m. would be intolerable. But a tragedy very possible given this train's deplorable on-time record.
I know it is not Amtrak's fault. Between Los Angeles and New Orleans Amtrak's hobbled Sunset Limited is often delayed by pig-iron laden freight trains shouldering it off the main line so their un-human cargos can arrive on time. Once off-schedule it is hard to get back on it.
"Rail Freight Barons and Mitt Romney agree, freight is people too," L. A. Norma said, crushing her Camel Cigarette with her heel.
We wanted to avoid sitting an hour near the bridge outside Avondale peering darkly through the Observation Car's mirrored glass at shadowy mounds of post-Katrina landfill (known by train regulars as Mount Katrina), while a freight train full of fresh chemicals lumbers past.
We bought a Greyhound Bus ticket. It was $5 more than Amtrak, but reliable.
Alas, the shiny new Greyhound Bus put upon us must have been talking to the airlines. It was very, very cramped and not at all comfortable.
"More-seats must be people, too," Norma grumbled.
After Hurricane Katrina the bus was our only way back to New Orleans. We learned the rigors of bus travel and even came to enjoy it. The seats were bigger then, and we met a driver who would update us regularly on his personal Road Home struggle in New Orleans East.
Before each departure the public-address crackled with his instructions not to smoke anything, " . . . including Marijuana and crack cocaine!" Fun. And there were perfect thirty-minute stops in Baton Rouge just a short walk from a Popeye's where the chicken was always freshly fried. Still, the return of post-Katrina Amtrak was welcomed.
Now this schedule change. Our Greyhound Bus arrived spot on time. And during the Baton Rouge layover we shared a packet of cashews with a sweet young woman from New Orleans East. She knew the bus driver we had met before, and said he had retired and was living back in his old home. She was attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and she wore sandals with turquoise stones set in the straps. She had been in elementary school when The Storm hit.
In New Orleans we learned Amtrak arrived nearly an hour early. We bought train tickets home.
One wet afternoon at the Sazerac Bar in the Hotel Roosevelt we relived giving flowers to bemused tourists in Union Square. Later, we had a world class dinner at Susan Spicer's Bayona. Another day, we listened to Bo Dallis and the Wild Magnolias doing a Thursday afternoon concert in Armstrong Park, where neighborhood vendors sold us a half dozen char-broiled oysters for $5. The Greatest!!!
From their San Francisco bartender our old friends brought us word of a great new New Orleans bistro, Sylvain, on rue Chartres (where the French patisserie, Le Marquis, used to be). Talk about a coast-to-coast buzz. The food was very good. And, dare we say it, a better Sazerac than the Roosevelt's.