Sunday, July 13, 2008

Around the U.S. By Train - Part 3

My tablemates at dinner tonight include a demure middle-aged lady from South Carolina and a couple from Houston. The husband was originally from Alabama and still has a heavy accent. His only interest in life appears to be NASCAR and he keeps the conversation going in that direction, reeling off the names of drivers and alternate drivers and lead mechanics and every other conceivable bit of racing trivia. He keeps it up until, finally, the lady from South Carolina gently but firmly corrects him on several points he has just made. There is little doubt that she is right and, mercifully, he lapses into a sullen silence for the rest of the meal.

At 8:45 – we’re running about two hours late now – the train slows to cross the Pecos River. The bridge is several hundred feet high and it's quite a spectacular sight. As we trundle across, my roomette glows from light reflected off the cliffs on the eastern bank, golden in the setting sun.

San Antonio comes and goes during the night and Tuesday morning, the start of my last day aboard the Sunset Limited, finds us once again crossing a flat landscape. This is different, however: it’s all green, with a soft mist settled over the low spots.

It’s already quite warm as the train comes to a gentle halt in Houston. This is another refueling stop and we’ll be in the station for a half hour, a long-awaited opportunity for smokers, one of whom leaves an uneaten breakfast in the diner to dash for the platform where he madly puffs his way through two cigarettes.

Just after the Sunset gets underway and as we’re still rolling through some Houston suburbs, the conductor announces that the Union Pacific Railroad – we’ve been running on their tracks since leaving Los Angeles – is sending us over a different routing for the 80 miles between here and Beaumont. This, he says, will cause us to fall another 30 minutes behind schedule. He does not sound pleased and emphasizes that this is not Amtrak's doing, but is the result of a decision by the UP dispatcher.

We cross into Louisiana while I’m enjoying quite a nice chicken Caesar salad in the diner. I’m eating light this noon because tonight, for my one evening in New Orleans, I intend to visit Irene’s Cuisine, a superb restaurant my wife and I enjoyed during a visit to the city two years ago. We’re currently running two and a half hours late, but the timetable has almost an hour-and-a-half of padding and we should be in New Orleans no more than 90 minutes behind our scheduled arrival time of 4:00 p.m.

When approaching New Orleans from the west, the Sunset Limited crosses the Mississippi River on the Huey Long Bridge. This amazing structure is some 4 ½ miles long and the train is 280 feet above the river at the highest point, which is that section of the bridge you see in the background of this photo.

I called ahead to Irene’s from the train for a 7:00 dinner reservation and I make it on time, even after checking in and having a quick shower at the Hotel Provincial, which I have cleverly selected because it is located just around the corner from Irene’s.

And now ... bon appetit!


Mike said...

Jim, I'm really enjoying these recaps of your trip - thanks for posting them. I've never been to N.O. - seems to get mixed reviews with the exception of universal agreement regarding the great cuisine!

JIM LOOMIS said...

I've been there several times and have found the French Quarter to be very enjoyable. The food, as you say, is outstanding. The D-Day Museum is also in NOL and is worth the trip all by itself (and is also worth a post, which I will try to get to in the next few days). Strangely, when we there there two years ago, we had trouble finding anyplace -- other than Preservation Hall -- where we could listen to New Orleans jazz. My only criticism of the town is that there can be a lot of very loud hell-raising by younger visitors who think you can't have "fun" unless you get staggering drunk. Unfortunately, that seems to be especially true of Mardi Gras.