Poor Man’s Train Ride South

My freshman year at college featured many wild times; one of the wildest was an unscheduled spring break trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Unscheduled, because my friend proposed it the day before, and, technically it wasn’t even our school’s spring break, we just called it that. Since it was too late to fly down (and anyway we were broke college kids), we took an Amtrak train on a poor man’s vacation. Little did we know, sitting and chatting excitingly in our seats as the train pulled out of Grand Central Station, that we were in for a twenty-two hour joyride from hell.

I won’t describe our glorious week in New Orleans, or even the hungover ride back to New York; I’ll only tell you what happened going south on the Amtrak Crescent Line (it runs along the coast from Boston to Georgia, then curves and follows the Gulf coast). This was back when you could still smoke on trains; as we were in college, my friend and I smoked quite a bit on that train. The smoking car became something of a safe haven, as the train car our assigned seats were in was intolerable. Here’s a brief list of what was wrong with it:

1. There were at least a dozen drunk people also headed to Mardi Gras; they occupied a solid block of the seats ahead of us and spent the entire twenty-two hours whooping and hollering. This rowdy group had apparently met on the train and were intent on staying intoxicated for the length of their trip. You’d think that my friend and I, age 22 and 19, respectively, would be part of this party; no, these people were, for lack of a better phrase, total trash. Foul-mouthed, rude, loud and smelly men and women. They got down to a sloppy game of spin the bottle once it got dark.

2. A family with a baby sat across the aisle from us. This was what you’d call a “bad baby;” it cried nonstop and pooped constantly. Instead of taking the baby to the bathroom to change it, the mother just busted open the stinking diaper right there on her lap. Anyone who’s traveled on an American train knows that they have notoriously poor ventilation. Even after this family got off somewhere in Georgia, their foul atmosphere lived on.

3. This train stopped a lot; it was a local, which meant it braked for every ragged platform from Newark to the Louisiana delta. We didn’t bring any food with us, as we were naive college kids and thought we’d just buy something in the dining car. But the only thing to eat there were burgers smaller and greasier than White Castle’s. Being a vegetarian, I stuck to dishwater coffee and chain-smoking; by the time we made it to our host’s home in the French Quarter, I was faint with hunger.

If I learned anything from this trip, it was to always bring food, water, and if possible, headphones when traveling by train. The raucous Mardi Gras in New Orleans that followed this descent into madness (i.e., entrapment on a stinky train) made the trip worthwhile, but that’s another story entirely.

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