Stateside Travel: From DC To CA Via The Southeast
From DC To CA Via The Southeast
I left DC on a Sunday evening just as the front edge of a winter storm hit the District, bringing cold rain that by the next day would be tinged with sleet. In sunny weather, you normally wait just a few minutes before one or a half-dozen taxis cruise by looking for fares, but once the rain sets in most of the taxis going by are already taken, so I lucked out when one dropped off a passenger next door to where I was staying and I was soon at Union Station, my bags checked through to Houston, where I’d be catching a plane back to California.
::DC to New Orleans::
Amtrak’s Crescent service goes from New York to New Orleans, and my companion until Culpeper, Virginia, is a sprightly 82-year-old who’d been visiting her son in Connecticut and had boarded in New York, having been driven there through the snowstorm that had already hit further north. For the rest of the 26-hour trip, I have the two seats to myself, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas not being a busy time for travelers in the US.
We pass through Virginia and the Carolinas at night and by the time the sun comes up it’s a cloudless day outside, the redgolden light in the autumn trees as we come into Atlanta, Georgia, at 8am just glorious. The Viewliner trains that run in the East are single-decker because of the low overpasses they have to go under, but they’re just as comfy as the double-decker trains that run west of the Mississippi and have one big advantage: power outlets under the window at every pair of seats. Most people these days travel with DVD players or laptops so they can watch movies, but I preferred to read a book, watch the world go by, and listen to local stations on the radio I’d brought with me.
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A station in Pine Belt country.
By the time the sun is low in the west, casting a yellowgolden light on the trees of Pine Belt country—Alabama and Mississippi—the airwaves are dominated by stations belonging to American Family Radio, an evangelical Christian radio network, but there’s country, rock and soul stations too. As we go through a town with a huge mural on the side of a warehouse where Mississippi Music Inc is housed, Rock 104FM is playing Deep Purple’s smokin’ live version of Smoke on the Water, and I am in Old Hippie Heaven.
The ad played after that uses cartoony voices and sound effects to ply the services of a title loan company that lends you money on your car if you fully own the title to it. According to the ad, the company is housed in the old Salvation Army and Thrift Store building, which also houses Midas (brakes) and another auto product store—just exactly where a predatory lender will do well. Have the Sallies gone out of business in the Southeast, I wonder, or did they need to move to a bigger location? Earlier, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we had passed a flea market with an annex, perhaps an indication that poverty is alive and expanding around these parts.
The 5pm drivetime show on Kicker FM, a country music radio station further south, is called the Ride to the Ranch and plays requests, including a very dubious song about two boys finding a box of old photographs and “seeing momma before she was momma in a string bikini in Tijuana.” That is “absotively” why he’s destroyed all the old photos of himself, the host says, moving on to play a song about a young man selling turnip greens off the back of a truck and being asked directions by a blonde in a sports car with Hollywood license plates. Another station near an Air Force National Guard post plays the kind of heavy metal heard blaring in Bradley armored vehicles in Iraq.
The Crescent makes good time and by 6:30pm we’re heading into New Orleans, where—even in the dark—I can see debris piled on streets and boarded-up houses, some with trailers beside them where the owners are still living more than two years after Katrina. As we come into the railyards, the air being blown into the coach smells musty—or is that just my imagination? I’d refreshed my memory of August, 2005, by viewing some Internet videos and each concrete bridge we passed under I wondered if it was the one where the convicts were herded together, or where dead bodies were left to rot in the sun, or where the young disabled man was shot by police.
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The arena where Katrina survivors flocked is just yards from Union Station, which is home to both Amtrak and Greyhound.
::New Orleans to Houston::
I spent a day in the Crescent City, catching the Sunset Limited to continue my journey at noon on Wednesday. The Sunset is a double-decker Superliner, with a Sightseer Lounge Car, and goes from Orlando, Florida, all the way across the continent to Los Angeles. The New Orleans-Houston section of the trip is the one hundreds of Katrina evacuees had taken when they were moved to the Superdome in Houston. Along the way, sawn-off fallen trees beside the track still mark the havoc caused by the hurricane’s winds.
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Across the Mississippi (just visible at the top of this photo) from New Orleans downtown, some houses in low-lying Jefferson Paraish haven’t yet been repaired, while others have been rebuilt.
After crossing the Mississippi, the route first heads south through Bayou Country, home to swamps and herons—white and blue—and fields of sugarcane. Sugarcane has been grown in southern Louisiana for more than 200 years, but because it’s naturally a tropical crop rather than a subtropical one it’s had to be greatly hybridized, and the growing season is only nine months. Nonetheless, three crops can be cultivated within that time, so the train passed by fields that had just been ploughed, small plants, and full-grown crops. Louisiana State University has posted an interesting history of the sugarcane industry at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/exhibits/sugar/contents.html
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Field of sugarcane in Louisiana. Much of the cultural milieu—not to mention the tiny “shotgun” houses—of New Orleans is a result of sugar plantation owners and harvesters moving to France’s Louisiana colony from Haiti following a violent revolt by slaves and free people of color against the French planters there in 1791.
By four in the afternoon, we’re nearing Lafayette, second-to-last stop in Louisiana, and I’m amused to see a cluster of blue Santa cut-outs on the outskirts of town. Is Santa a Democrat? (Alarmingly, as we’re crossing Texas, one radio announcer refers to him as “KK”—short for Kris Kringle, one hopes, though sounding suspiciously like one K short of a Klansman.) Between Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Beaumont, Texas, we pass by many oil refineries, the fat, short red flares coming from their stacks totally unlike the tall orange flares from the natural gasfields I grew up around in Taranaki.
Near Beaumont, there’s plenty of country music stations to choose from and I fondly imagine that Reuben James—with his faded shirt, furrowed brow, and calloused hands upon the plough—lived somewhere round these here parts, though it could have been in any of the red-soil states I passed though on the Crescent as well. A Family Radio network station has a strong signal, and so does Mix 104.5, which is playing solid Christmas music by request. A military wife calls in to say her husband and father of their two small children has been overseas for three months—mysteriously “not in Iraq, but somewhere near there”, where “he totally believes in his mission”—and the show’s host, Delilah, plays Someday at Christmas for her.
The Sunset Limited has lost a lot of time along the way. Because the tracks aren’t owned by Amtrak, we always have to stop in sidings to let freight trains go by and our scheduled 9:31pm arrival time is pushed out by two hours. The station in Houston is pretty much just a shed beside the freight yards, but Amtrak has efficiently stored my two checked-through bags there while I was in New Orleans, and by midnight I’m on my way in a cab out to George Bush Intercontinental Airport thinking that I’ll check my bags through to Oakland early then go back into the city by bus when the sun comes up and explore until my afternoon flight is due to leave.
::Houston to Oakland::
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The sculpture in the old terminal at Bush airport features a cow of such imperialistic leanings that it prefers to plant the Texas flag on the moon than to jump over it. BTW, did you know that the original Ku Klux Klan hood was in the shape of a bovine head with horns on it? Seriously.
Alas, my blissful trip on Amtrak has lulled me into a false sense of travel providers offering a service to the traveler instead of the way the airline industry operates, which is to make as much money with as little effort as possible on its part. After waiting three hours for the airline desk to open, I’m told: No, you can’t check your bags until one hour before your flight. With nowhere to leave them, I decide to pay $25 to change my flight to the one leaving in an hour.
No, sorry, you’re only allowed to check two of them for free, the other two will cost you $80 each. This despite the fact that they’re four very small bags which take up far less space and weigh less than the two huge ones I’ve seen other people checking. Oh, well, lesson learned. At least I have my laptop safely stored in a trundling carry-on which I can stow in the overhead bin. Wrong again! This is the first time I’ve flown with US Airways, and I’d booked the flight through Orbitz because it was the cheapest, then didn’t read any details about what sort of service they provide.
“This is a commuter plane,” the attendant says archly as I find I can’t even trundle my carry-on up the narrow, narrow aisle let alone get it in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of me. Like the radio host in Beaumont, her name is Delilah, but unlike Reba, the attendant on the Continental flight I’d taken from Houston to Boston back in August, who bore an uncanny resemblance to her country music namesake, this Delilah doesn’t look like she’s been cutting many strongmen’s manes in recent times.
Which is a bitchy, insensitive thing to think, I know, but it’s 5 in the fricking morning and I need some help, which she ain’t giving. The other attendant sees the problem and takes my bag to be yellow-tagged and thrown in the belly of the plane for me to reclaim in Phoenix and go through the whole process again for the flight from there to Oakland. The seats are cramped together and have no padding in the cushions. By this point, the only thing I’m thankful for is the view of city lights spreading out like the veins of some translucent crystal on the desert floor somewhere just before I manage to fall asleep, freezing cold, huddled under two jackets for comfort.
This is such a cheap airline, I discover, that at Phoenix they can’t afford a food service truck to load the plane, so there’s one attendant down on the tarmac handing up the bottled water and tiny packets of mini-pretzels to the other attendant, who is leaning precariously out the cabin door trying to grab hold of them. When we get to Oakland, US Airways doesn’t even get a skyway, and we have to walk down steps to the tarmac then up two flights of concrete steps to get into the terminal. I ask to use an elevator but one person in their ground crew says she doesn’t think it’s working and another at the top of the steps has to be yelled at to get him down to help me up with my bag.
Look, really, I wouldn’t mind if they’d just said somewhere on their ticket that their airline isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’ve been flying since the days of DC3s taking off from grass airstrips, but nowadays if you’re going to use an elevated terminal and can’t provide an easy means to get into it, you need to be at least a little apologetic instead of acting like you’re doing passengers a favor just by standing there looking at them struggling. On the plus side, all my luggage is there to be claimed at journey’s end.
Air travel in the US just isn’t worth the candle, beginning with the surliness of the Transportation Safety Authority employees at the security checkpoints, who seem to have been crossbred with cattle dogs, judging by the way they bark at and herd people. The public service announcements at Bush actually include a warning not to make jokes or be rude to TSA workers or you’ll be arrested, so I’m guessing I’m not the only traveler who has been sorely tried by their behavior.
Damn it! My taxes pay those people’s wages and my airfare pays the wages of those airline workers. Can’t a gal get some respect so she doesn’t have to have a cow?