By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
We cruise past dilapidated fishing shacks and bass boats, people lounging in porch chairs and congregating outside a Baptist church. All turn to watch the train go by and everyone -- man, woman, and child -- waves. The faster we move, the more vigorous the wave. Nobody waves at a slow train.
Of course, the Amtrak now slows to a crawl, then stops altogether next to a John Deere farm-implements dealership in a small village. It's a constantly recurring event, this slowing and stopping, and never with an explanation. When I look for a conductor to ask, there are none around; only the terse lounge attendant who looks up from his book to say he doesn't know what's up. We sit for fifteen minutes like this, a time that seems to stretch to hours on a train where constant motion is expected and stops, even scheduled ones, seem an unnatural frustration. The faster we move, the better everyone's mood. Suddenly a freighter whistles by at top speed, rocking our car back and forth and sucking the air from between the cars in a great whoosh.
With Amtrak owning only 3 percent of the 22,000 miles of track it uses throughout the country, freight lines who own the rest, like CSX or Southern Pacific, have an economic priority. Their cargoes of grain, truck beds, and chemicals are far more profitable than Amtrak's mere humans. So when two trains meet on the same track like this one, Amtrak usually loses, and pulls over to wait.
According to the schedule, we were supposed to arrive in New Orleans at 9:20 a.m. and depart at 12:45 p.m., enough time to take a cab to the French Quarter for lunch and a stroll. But it's just before noon when we finally pull into the Crescent City, so instead of muffuletta on Decatur Street, I grab another plastic sandwich in the station and rush back to the train to wait in vain; we finally pull out at 1:15.
After New Orleans, I wander back to the lounge car and take a seat at a booth across from a young woman wearing hiking boots, organically stressed jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. She scribbles notes in a journal between long glances out the window at the passing landscape of rice fields and marshland.
"I'm Jennifer, from New York," she says after I introduce myself.
"I'm just traveling," she continues when I ask about her journal. "I was in New Orleans for a few days, and now I'm on my way out to San Diego. I have a friend there I'm gonna stay with. I spent the last year traveling through Europe, mostly Spain and Italy, and when I got back I wanted to keep going. So I waited tables for a while in New York. I'm just gonna keep traveling until whenever. I don't really have a plan."
While we talk, Jennifer has set up shop, unfolding a piece of velvet cloth on the table and carefully filling it with a small collection of cheap jewelry -- earrings, necklaces, and rings. The passengers who walk past give curious glances, but a group of young kids, a boy and his two sisters, come right up, handling each piece and asking for prices. Finally a deal is struck and one of the girls holds up her new $2 butterfly earrings.
"Is he your boyfriend?" asks the girl, referring to me.
"Yep, for as long as we're on the train," I joke.
We talk some more, exchanging travel stories, but before I can think of the train version of the mile-high club, the kids are back and dragging my "date" off to get her guitar, while I go in search of an attendant to see about defrosting the coach car. "I'll see what I can do," he tells me.
The next morning I wake around 8:00 a.m. feeling surprisingly not frozen. But I realize we're not moving, and notice a sign outside the window that reads "San Antonio." "We've been sitting here since 3:00 a.m.," says Ron, a computer analyst, looking sleepless and exasperated. "Oh, and in case you're wondering, the a/c went out around then too." I look at the schedule and see nothing about a five-hour layover.
I'd like to get out and explore, stretch my legs and breathe some real air, but the platform agent tells me the train could leave anytime. When, exactly, he doesn't know. So I breakfast on more weak coffee and prefab muffin and stare out the window at an empty lot and wait till the train finally rolls out mid-morning, nearly six hours behind schedule.
But we're moving, and even though the a/c is broken, the conductor has opened the exit-door windows on the lower level of the train car. I take in the warm breeze and flatlands of Texas with James from California, who sweats uncomfortably in the humid heat while sneaking a smoke -- a concession the conductor seems willing to allow under the circumstances.
An hour out of San Antonio, in the middle of an empty prairie, we stop. "Man, what the hell we doing now, the conductor gonna pick more flowers again," says Hector, giving voice to the growing frustration sweeping through the car. The ennui of our motionlessness has moved us past angst to a simmering anger. It's in the strained faces of the passengers, and the besieged and helpless looks of the attendants -- the objects of growing murmurs of protest.