This Train Is Bound for Glory, This Train ...
Last April, The Bitter Southerner sent writer Fletcher Moore and photographer Artem Nazarov on an adventure: Ride the old Southern Crescent line from D.C. to New Orleans. Along the way, they found the new South and the old one, and learned more than a little about themselves.
I’m sitting in the kitchen of a man who says he’s died three times. Four, if you count an 85-year prison sentence he tells me he received at the age of 12.
There’s doesn’t seem to be any good reason Shawn Hubbard should be sitting here, but somehow he dodged every bullet. And now he’s across the table from me, and I’m looking into his intense brown eyes beneath the perfectly trimmed Mohawk running along the crown of his head as he tells me that he’s a second lieutenant in New Orleans’ Gypsy Wolf Pack, and that the house is well-stocked with weapons, and that he and his friends could take probably 60 attackers before succumbing themselves, and for a split second, as his girlfriend — busy making a birthday cake for their nanny — pulls a hot skillet out of the oven, I’m visited by a sudden vision of her driving its searing iron mass through the all-too-flimsy wall of my right temple.
An hour later I’m eating a big alligator sausage on a slice of Bunny Bread. Fourteen hundred dollars’ worth of meat — purchased entirely with food stamps — sizzles on a cinder-block grill the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and a dozen odd-looking people sit in dingy plastic chairs swilling beers, smoking pot, petting a series of sleepy pit bulls and admiring the tiny pink child bouncing in a Johnny jumper just above the center of the dirt yard.
I gravitate toward Neil, a comparatively plain man in a muted red T-shirt and knee-length shorts, a mass of black hair attempting vainly to escape from beneath his baseball cap. He’s intelligent and well-spoken, if roaring drunk; less inclined to fall into the litany of inside jokes and relentless sarcasm that animates the rest of the party. We discuss his journeys — he’s hopped freights and walked all over the country, from Detroit to the Florida Keys to New Orleans. If you live in a big city you’ve probably seen people like him — weather-stained leather tramps and train kids gathered in grimy circles on downtown sidewalks. His like are outcasts, by choice, but their tales are powerful.
Toward the end of the evening, talking to Neil in the dark, he tells me that New Orleans always takes something from you, but that it also always gives something back.
What have I lost? And what have I gained?
Shawn Hubbard, top, with his daughter and the extended family.
A week prior to that memorable evening, I was perched on a barstool at O’Malley’s Sports Pub & Grill, next door to the Dulles Airport Best Western in Sterling, Va., testing my capacity for IPA and tedium. Northern Virginia — the bits of it near Dulles International Airport anyway — is a cultural catastrophe the like of which hasn’t been seen since the Library of Alexandria went up in flames. You can still spot the shriveled remains of the natural beauty that made it a place worth fighting a civil war over — a horse barn quietly rotting next to a Chevron, a stunned doe peering out of a small stand of trees at the eight-lane freeway between her and the next sliver of wilderness. These dribs and drabs, however, serve only to make the total effect that much more melancholy.
Lucky for me I wouldn’t be sticking around. The following day I would board the Amtrak Crescent, bound for New Orleans, and in so doing, retrace the paths of countless other travelers over the past 140 years.
Anyone who has spent sufficient time with me knows that sooner or later I will start waxing nostalgic about trains. I loved them as a kid, waving at the engineers across the highway from my grandparents’ yard, and I love them as an adult, or I would if we still had any. Rail freight is a huge concern in the United States, but passenger service is like the Ernest Borgnine of travel options. Likely, more people downloaded the “Crazy Train” ringtone in the last couple years than actually rode a train, crazy or otherwise.
I’m not afraid of flying, but the novelty wore off when I was in my teens, and now I view it as a necessary evil, like colostomy bags. Driving isn’t a whole lot better. I don’t even call it driving; I call it nodding off and careening into a ditch. Alas, I can’t get where I want to go via rail, so I haven’t given it much thought other than the occasional lament. And that’s the way it was until this past December, when a friend came back from a trip on the Crescent and reminded me what a joy it is to simply be on a train. So I figured I’d give it a spin.
The Crescent has a long and storied history, stretching all the way back to Christmas Day, 1830. On that day in Charleston, S.C., less than 20 years after Napoleon swept across Europe with nothing more than foot soldiers and horses, people began to enjoy the first regular passenger-rail service in the United States. A primitive steam engine called The Best Friend of Charleston, looking like nothing so much as a jumbo homemade barbecue smoker, whizzed along with its load of goggle-eyed commuters at a blistering 25 miles an hour — until the boiler exploded in July of the following year, blasting a fireman out of existence and giving us a word, “trainwreck,” that still does yeoman’s work describing out-of-control drunks — and most business meetings, if we’re being honest.
The Best Friend traversed a mere six miles of track, but it was one of hundreds of lines that got hoovered up by the Richmond & Danville Railroad between 1847 and 1894. The R&D would play a major role in the Civil War, serving ultimately as the last supply line between Richmond and the rest of the Confederacy. A valuable strategic target, the railroad was devastated, but recovered quickly after the war and ultimately grew into a behemoth of the rail industry east of the Mississippi, finally comprising some 3,300 miles of track in nine states. In 1870 the R&D began passenger service between New York and New Orleans, a route it called the Piedmont Air Line, presumably because the train flew from city to city in a mere 58 hours. By the mid-1890s, the volcanic growth of the R&D proved to be more than the company could handle. Bankruptcy and receivership followed, then purchase by Southern Railway, which continued the Air Line as the Crescent, and later the Southern Crescent.
To say that the Southern Crescent was iconic is to do injustice to the word. In its heyday before the arrival of the interstate-highway system or of inexpensive flight, rail was the most civilized way to cover significant distances, and Southern Railway didn’t skimp. The Crescent was one of the great historical travel experiences, akin to those 747s with the piano bars. The dining cars were first-class restaurants, and trains came equipped with club cars, domed observation cars and even library cars for a while. It’s almost hard to imagine living in a world where people aren’t just meat to be moved from place to place as cheaply as possible, but for a brief shining moment, that was the case. The train was not just a means of transportation — it was a place to actually be.
The sight of the forest green Ps-4 locomotives that pulled the Crescent from the mid-’20s to the early ’50s is a breathtaking one even still. Engine 1401 resides in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, dominating the travel exhibits like the implement of some forgotten civilization of giants. The appeal of locomotives from late in the steam era is unlike that of any other vehicle. Modern diesels are streamlined boxes, all of the machinery hidden beneath a sleek hood, while for engines like the 1401, appearance is emphatically a statement of raw power and purpose. The huge spoked wheels and their heavy steel drive rods seem to have been discovered atop mountains rather than manufactured. The surfaces are all masked by a writhing tangle of pipes and mysterious cylinders. It’s difficult to reconcile these machines with the environmental problems we face today (a 150-mile run required the burning of 16 tons of coal), but it’s hard not to admire the industrial strength they radiate.
This particular engine hauled Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral train. That’s a bygone era for sure, but if I were a raging egotist with far too much money — like, say, Donald Trump — I couldn’t think of a better way to obsequiously mark my own death than to have my corpse hauled around the country in this manner.
I won’t bore you with the series of acquisitions and mergers that led, ultimately, to the duopoly on freight east of the Mississippi by Norfolk and Southern and CSX. Nor will I dwell on the gradual decline of passenger rail other than to say that despite the frequent criticism Amtrak receives from the Adam Smith posse, I for one am glad they were there to pick up the pieces. Without them there would be nothing left. It’s like the transportation version of the National Endowment for the Arts, nurturing those pieces of American culture too oddly proportioned to do well in a cutthroat marketplace but clearly possessing real value.
But what form does that value take? That’s what I aimed to find out.
The plan was to board the train in D.C. New York was the other possible starting point, but this is The Bitter Southerner after all, and not The Bitter Northeasterner. Moreover, if there’s any faith left in rail in the U.S., it resides in the Northeast Corridor, plus possibly California. Those people don’t need to be told about trains.
The South, on the other hand, has a naturally contentious relationship with rail. Despite its weird centrality to the narrative of “Atlas Shrugged,” rail is the antithesis of the individualistic spirit that so often characterizes Southern life, whether it be the cry of “states rights” that led wealthy, successful and otherwise intelligent people into a catastrophic war, or the modern libertarianism that leads wealthy, successful and otherwise intelligent people to cast ballots for Bob Barr. Rail does not allow for individual choice. Train passengers are a community literally on rails, all going to the same places at the same times, sharing tables at prescribed mealtimes and sleeping side by side in packed coaches (except the smattering of people in the wildly overpriced sleeper cars of course). Rail was once, out of necessity, the circulatory system of the whole region, but the trains are almost all gone now. Perhaps it was that Southern individualism that made us an easy mark for car salesmen.
Whatever the case, D.C. would be the departure point, and at the end of the line, New Orleans would be the destination. Along the way I’d make two stops, one in Danville, Va., and one in Meridian, Miss. I chose these two cities for reasons both historical and cultural. If you want a picture of the modern life of a venerable rail line like the Crescent, you could choose pretty much any city along the way, but Danville and Meridian loom large over the route, as you will likely agree when their stories unfold.
Lastly, I’d have a companion. The gods know that, left to my own devices, I’m prone to silence and self-isolation, so they sent me Artem Nazarov, a preternaturally talented photographer who shares my appreciation for fleabag motels and beer. Artem could charm a steak out of a cow, and his energy rarely flags as long as he’s kept jittery with coffee. He’s Russian, as everyone reminds him the moment he opens his mouth, but he doesn’t take people’s curiosity as patronizing, or at least he’s smart enough to pretend not to. Instead he uses it to get up in their faces with his camera and take those otherworldly photos he makes. I was jazzed. We were well-armed. We were going story hunting.
Coming into Danville.
The first leg of the trip was to be a short one — a mere four hours from D.C. to Danville. I boarded the train at 6:30 in the evening. Artem was dealing with an emergency in Atlanta and had missed his flight but assured me he would meet me in Danville the next day. The train rolled out of the station illuminated by a sinking sun, and until the dining car opened I sat contentedly by the big picture window watching the the long shadows creeping across D.C.’s suburbs.
Eager for a train dinner, I plunged into the kitchen by accident. A cook, legs spread wide against the rocking of the train, struggled to extract something from the Stygian mouth of an oven just inches from his face, stumbling slightly as the car’s trucks thumped over a turnout. It was like watching a gun crew feverishly working their piece on the pitching deck of a ship during the Age of Sail.
I lurched into the narrow corridor to the left of the kitchen’s pandemonium and into the dining area. Amtrak’s dining cars are still quite redolent of rail’s zenith. I was met by a gracious host who led me directly to a white-draped table, already occupied by a trim man in his late 50s with a ballcap bearing the logo of a camping gear manufacturer. I should note at this point that there are doubtless those among you who would say that being arbitrarily matched with a strange dinner companion is not a characteristic of a five-star restaurant, and that may be true, but part of the genius of train travel is the collective experience that emerges if you let it. Especially if you’re traveling alone, you are going to share a table with someone, and they are very likely to be as weird as you, and before the night is over, you will be knocking back beers with your new friend in the lounge and getting way too loud discussing politics.
My table mate was Andy. He was as good a fellow to spend several hours with as I could have wished. He was a hiker and a salesman, in precisely that order, and he was on his way to Georgia for a solid month of hiking alone in the wilderness. We conversed politely over pretty decent steaks (“good train meat,” he said), and wound up meeting again in the lounge car a short while later, where we did indeed make a good-sized dent in the train’s alcohol supply. We got loud, talking not just politics but music, salesmanship, family and trains. The latter, he assured me, was the vastly superior means of travel, not least because he could bring pretty much whatever he liked on the train with him. I’m pretty sure he was carrying a giant bag of weed. Pot would turn out to be a significant concern of a great many Amtrak riders, at least by my sampling.
I arrived in Danville at around 11:30 p.m., right on the heels of Jefferson Davis, give or take 150 years. A bit of history is in order:
On April 2, 1865, Robert E. Lee, who had spent nine months besieged outside Petersburg, Va., was finally forced to fall back. The Confederate government at Richmond, in imminent danger of being surrounded, fled to Danville by the only remaining railway, the Richmond & Danville. This was not precisely the same line as mine — at various times the R&D provided service both through Richmond and through Lynchburg, farther west. But when I stepped off the platform that night, I was following Davis.
Danville was, in fact, celebrating the anniversary that very night, with an antebellum ball downtown. Jefferson Davis’ great-great-grandson Bert Hayes-Davis had been in town that afternoon, speaking at the Sutherlin Mansion — the home of a wealthy industrialist which served as the Confederacy’s last capital. I discovered this too late, unfortunately. I would only be able to scour the town for reminiscences of his passing.
Another passenger getting off in Danville offered me a ride, sparing me the mile-and-a-half walk through the dark emptiness of the warehouse district. So just a short while before midnight I strode into the Hotel Leland in the center of downtown, two blocks from the Dan River.
It would seem that the only person in the entire world with anything substantial to say about Hotel Leeland is a semi-anonymous blogger named Jaded Lens, who captures the feel of the place with great veracity, “If Sid Vicious had died in Danville, his body would've been found in Room 21 of the Hotel Leeland.” The place is a kaleidoscope of weirdness, and it hits you full force from the moment you walk through the door.
The lobby was a big, mostly empty room with wood paneling and inexplicable nautically themed paintings and objets d’art distributed along the walls. A couple banks of chairs lurked in various corners in case you wanted to enjoy the ambience at your leisure. At the rear of the room, to one side, was a largish wooden box with a counter and a glass window, behind which a corpulent and balding hotelier eyed me with suspicion. Behind him were an array of cubbies corresponding to the hotel’s rooms. Some had keys; a few appeared to contain telegrams — probably sent to the occupants during the Great Depression and never delivered. There was also a small black-and-white television which was unmistakably displaying a signal from 1958.
I paid $32 for the room, but $5 of that was a key deposit. The clerk told me that it was cheaper to pay for a week in advance. As I filled out the registration form, two women in billowing black antebellum ball gowns swept past me and up the stairs.
I followed them as far the third floor, where my room was located. The staircase and the hallway were both symphonies of squeaking boards, and in places, the floor gave just enough to make me wonder if I might wind up putting a foot through it. Everything reeked of stale cigarettes — indeed, amid a jumble of broken furniture stacked in the hallway was a half-full ashtray.
The room itself was another anachronism. There was neither a television nor a bathroom — this despite the fact that the hallway was simply alive with televisual clamor. There was a sink: an antediluvian porcelain bowl with separate hot and cold taps. A lonely mirror hung over it. The furnishings were a mishmash — a hulking particle-board box that served as a wardrobe, a low but extremely long dresser that did double duty as a nightstand and a bar against the door to the adjoining room, a sagging chair that looked like it’d been stolen from the waiting room at a tire store, and a tiny, very thin bed with a puke-brown blanket, two cardboard pillows, and a cardboard sheet.
I dropped all my gear on the floor, lay down on the bed, and was suddenly serenaded by the theme from “Bonanza” twanging loudly from the neighboring room.
Hotel Leeland, Danville
The next day was Easter. This fact was residue of my somewhat poor planning, but in the end it worked out. Artem wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon, so I had several hours to do what I love best — walk around aimlessly. I rose and showered in the bathroom down the hall, a room which appeared to have been constructed out of scraps of other rooms, and headed out in search of breakfast, which I was fortunate to find just a block away: A chain restaurant called Biscuit World was doing brisk business with heathens.
Fortified, I spent the bulk of the day hiking around town. Danville was silent and empty. Much of the downtown area consists of empty, dilapidated tobacco warehouses. All of the mills that used to serve as the city’s economic base are long gone, leaving nearly a third of the occupants in poverty. At 45 miles from the nearest interstate, it’s hard to see how this will ever change.
Not that they aren’t trying. I spent a couple hours hiking a pedestrian trail that runs alongside the Dan River on the north and east sides of the city. Clear blue skies and cool temperatures made the walking easy, and bright sunshine brought a vast profusion of turtles out onto logs and stones in the river, thick as roof shingles. One could almost forget that this was the same Dan River into which Duke Energy spilled 27 million gallons of coal-ash-contaminated water a year before.
At length I arrived at Dan Daniel Memorial Park. (Danville’s Dan Daniel Park. Say that five times fast.) The 170-acre park is lovely, with ball fields, trails, a skate park, a large veterans’ memorial and the ballpark of the Danville Braves — the advanced rookie affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
Where does Danville get the money to build this sort of stuff? I don’t know. Maybe it was cheaper than it looked, but one would think a skate park wouldn’t be a high priority for a city in dire straits.
Cane-pole fishing in Danville.
I returned to the Leeland at 3 that afternoon to find that I’d been checked out. Something about failing to paying for a second night. I settled and the hotelier accompanied me up to remove what amounted to a boot on the door handle. We rode a dilapidated lift stolen from an Indiana Jones movie. Exiting, we walked past the stairs into the hallway. A young black man was standing stock still about halfway up the staircase and muttering softly.
As we passed, he suddenly tumbled backwards down the stairs. He grabbed the door frame at the bottom which had the effect of redirecting him sharply through the doorway, around the corner and several feet down the hall. He crashed onto the floor, his cellphone flying in one direction and a bright green double-A battery flying another.
“Let me take you up on the lift, Ricky,” said the clerk. Ricky declined, and mounted the stairs again. Perhaps it would be more proper to say that his feet mounted the stairs, as his upper body wasn’t having any of it. He gripped the rail tightly with one hand — his other was employed holding his pants in a precarious position beneath his underwear — while his feet went on their merry way until finally he was suspended over the staircase at something like a 45-degree angle. The effect would have been comical were it not for the grim look on his face.
A second collapse being manifest, we sprang back to his aid. The hotel fellow repeated his offer of the lift, and I climbed up above him and begged him to accept assistance, but he was adamant. Whether from pride, or sheer stubbornness, or fear that something incriminating might pop out of a pocket somewhere, he was determined to make his own way up those baleful stairs. After a while I relented and tramped back down to the landing. As though I had triggered his snare, Ricky promptly fell over backwards on top of me.
Artem arrived shortly after the hallway comedy. We were both hungry and, everything around downtown being closed except Biscuit World, we ventured across the river to the west side, which is basically one of those strips of chain stores and plasticky restaurants that surround so many cities like a band of fat around the heart. Danville has one thing going for it at least, in that its ghastly nowhere-ville is confined to that one area. Unfortunately that’s where most of the people seem to be as well. We ate at some anodyne family restaurant whose name I wouldn’t be able to pick out of a lineup. Artem complained about the taste of the water, and I thought again about that coal ash spill.
After dinner we returned to the train station, an interesting place I’d seen only very briefly the night before. It’s a small building with a central waiting area and two wings, one of which doubles as a science museum, or so the signs read. Really it’s just a big taxidermy display, and not all of animals are native to the area, unless tigers once roamed southern Virginia. At one end of the building is a small room containing a largish model railroad layout under glass, and a bunch of Southern Railways memorabilia framed on the walls. A man in his late ’60s or early ’70s was there, and we got to talking. He was a “railfan.” This is a term I’d encountered during my brief flirtation with model railroading as a kid, but I always thought it referred principally to modeling. Turns out, there’s a rather startling array of activities that fall under the rubric, including modeling but also collecting-railroad related stuff; riding — or “bashing” — which consists of not simply riding but attempting to ride entire networks or visit every depot on a network; trainspotting — which is essentially the train version of bird watching; or any of a slew of other train-related hobbies.
My interlocutor had driven up from Greensboro to watch freight in Danville. It was a good spot, he explained, because he could get very close to the tracks. His knowledge about the history of rail in general and Southern Railways in particular was staggering. He knew many of the steam engines that had plied the Southern Crescent route particularly well, and talked to me about how their qualities were matched to the grades they had to climb, especially in North Carolina. He told me a great deal about the station in Danville — that it had been moved some 200 yards from its original position to the west, that the platform had once accommodated six rails (it’s now just two). Of particular interest, he told me how diesel had devastated the economies of so many rail towns, since diesel engines required so much less maintenance than steam. The great Roanoke Shops, he told me, which produced almost 450 locomotives for Norfolk & Western between 1884 and 1953, were forced to conclude their business, and an army of highly skilled machinists suddenly found their talents worthless.
Sometimes I wonder if the world will become so efficient that none of us will have jobs.
A Danville resident with his daughter.
When Robert E. Lee and his shattered army left Petersburg, their intent was to resupply and then march southwest into North Carolina, where they would join with the army led by Joseph E. Johnson. Their combined forces would seek to defeat Sherman to the south and then turn to face Grant in the north. All pure fantasy of course — Johnson’s army was a tiny, ill-fed, ill-equipped, unpaid wreck, and Lee’s wasn’t much better. But it was on these plans that the final farce of the war unfolded.
Lee made for Amelia Court House, on the Richmond & Danville line, but when he arrived, there was no food to be had. Cavalry under Philip Sheridan had reached the line at Jetersville before the trains could get to Lee, and thus Lee’s fate was sealed. He would surrender his army at Appomattox Courthouse a week later.
Robbie Robertson of The Band — a Canadian, mind you — wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” about these events a hundred years later. The story goes that the Band’s drummer, Levon Helm, an Arkansan, took Robertson to the library in Woodstock, N.Y., so that he could do due justice to the history. It’s an awfully good song, but I’m not sure Robertson was really paying attention to those history books. The song has George Stoneman cutting the Richmond & Danville line instead of Sheridan. Stoneman was actually busy cutting the Virginia & Tennessee some distance to the southwest, as well as “dismantling the country” — as his orders read — for miles about and earning a fine reputation for himself among Confederate sympathizers as a Yankee monster. I’ll grant Robertson poetic license though — Stoneman sounds better in song than Sheridan.
On Monday morning Artem and I dropped in at the Sutherlin Mansion, which was where Jefferson Davis and his cabinet alit after fleeing Richmond. The house, as previously mentioned, had the distinction of serving as the last capital of the Confederacy, though by that point the honor was transparently honorific. Davis’ significant job duties while ensconced in Danville included eating, sleeping, making conversation with the Sutherlins, and going all bug-eyed when he was told that Lee’s surrender was incipient. At least, that’s how I imagined it as I stood in the dining room where Davis received the bad news.
The mansion is a gorgeous old jewel in the midst of a battalion of competitors — sprawling homes of sometimes breathtaking design. Many of them have been restored, but many are beset by decay, suggesting once again a certain spottiness to Danville’s wealth. The Sutherlin in any case is in prime condition, and has served as the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History since 1974, mostly housing artifacts related to Davis’ stay there. The place is understandably enthusiastic about Davis, but also hosts a startlingly sympathetic display enumerating the arguments in favor of flying the Rebel flag. The museum flies the third flag of the Confederacy — not the stars and bars. I think the intent is to temper the sharp edge of the debate, but the effect is, at least potentially, one of deliberate obfuscation. I can’t understand why they just don’t cram all of it into a display case somewhere with a nice clear caption beneath.
Anyway, we took pictures and perused the gift shop — where I found myself spending an absurd amount of money on a badly typeset book about Danville during the Civil War. We pigeonholed one of the museum’s officers, a kind gentleman of middle age with long graying hair and beard. He was the picture of a Confederate citizen except for the earrings. He knew Danville inside and out, and told us pretty much every detail short of the color of the bedrock. We nodded politely, gandered at the various bits of furniture where Davis had done this or that, and, once we felt our brains would hold no more information about who owned this house or that one, when they sold it and to whom, we fled, like Davis himself.
Museum officer at the Sutherlin Mansion.
We spent the balance of the afternoon wandering through the national cemetery with its hundreds of lonesome white stones standing at perfect attention like the soldiers buried beneath them, and shooting photographs of the empty warehouses and the rail yard near downtown. Artem hit the road around 4 p.m. with the aim of getting himself and his car back to Atlanta in time to get a few hours’ sleep before meeting me for the ride to Meridian. I had seven hours to kill, so, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I whiled away the hours with beer and pizza in a little place downtown.
Looking back, I should have just stuck around until closing time. As it was, I had picked up word from a poster sighted in a shop window that the Danville Model Railroad Club was meeting around the corner. Leaving my stuff, I dashed off to check. I met a man outside the building where their meetings took place and he assured me that they’d be there until 10. So I returned to the restaurant, paid the bill, gathered up my things and headed out. This time, even though it was only a quarter of an hour later, the building was pitch dark and not a soul was to be seen. I called the number he’d given me — it led to a disconnection message. In my frustration and mystification, I then managed to drop my phone on the sidewalk. A thick spiderweb of cracks spread from one corner across every inch of the screen.
Vexed, I stomped off to the train station. I was something like two hours early, and the waiting room was inexplicably locked, so I camped out in the old caboose they had sitting out back as a novelty and spent the time watching “Spinal Tap” on my wounded phone. To make matters worse, the train was a good hour late, so by the time it finally arrived, the warm influence of the beer and pizza was a long distant memory. I was exhausted and feeling quite put upon by the universe.
I was perhaps not in the best state of mind for what came next.
When I think of train travel, I tend to think of Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion.” Everybody is overdressed, sitting in positions designed to maximize their physical appeal — yet they never experience any discomfort. There’s no stretching or squirming around in the seat. Nobody has greasy hair or is wearing three-day-old shirts. Nobody is pulling wedged underwear out of unmentionable crevices. Nobody is lurching around the car in a vain quest for the bathroom.
Maybe it was like that in the old days. I don’t know, but it sure as hell isn’t like that now. I hate to be the one to spoil anyone’s fantasies, but the honest truth is that in many regards Amtrak is running buses on rails. And I was about to spend an entire night on one.
On boarding, I was placed — via Amtrak’s incomprehensible seating scheme, which forces everyone to sit clumped as closely as possible — next to Jesse, a tattoo artist from Danville. He was returning to Gulfport, Miss., having come home to Danville to visit his family. We talked briefly. I asked him about all of Danville’s improvements, and his only remark was that improving Danville was like painting poop.
As the train got moving I noticed that there were a lot of empty seats behind us. Jesse was decent company, but why, I thought, should I not just grab an entire empty pair and stretch out a little bit? So I did.
Inside of five minutes a porter was asking me if I’d been assigned that seat. I figured lies would be the best policy, so I replied, innocently, “Yes.” He fiddled around with some papers and walked away. Ten minutes later another porter stopped by to ask me the same question. “Yes,” I stated flatly. Another 10 minutes, another porter. I prepared to continue my fiction, but instead of asking me anything, he proceeded to harangue me, “I didn’t assign you to this seat.” I shrugged. He told me that if a family got on he’d have to move me. I shrugged again, but I was starting to feel like an asshole.
No families boarded the train that night, but in Greensboro a large Native American man sat down next to me and immediately began to snore loudly.
It was a horrible night. Maybe it’s just me — I simply can’t sleep in a non-horizontal position. Every 20 or 30 minutes I would slump sufficiently far enough in one direction or another to put myself in danger of either asphyxiating or breaking my neck. Even when I managed to get semi-comfortable I tended to wake up periodically with a sudden start out of a fear of sliding into my neighbor’s lap.
So the entire night passed as a series of short, shallow naps. Every now and again the train would arrive at some station and the porters would come through as loudly as possible to unload old passengers and load new ones. It being North Carolina, I remember being vaguely aware, during the brief, delirious periods between dozing, that I was probably missing some of the best scenery on the whole route.
At some iniquitous hour even the Amtrak people seemed to realize I wasn’t really going to sleep, so they abruptly switched on all the lighting in the car and shouted over the intercom that it was breakfast time in the dining car. Craving a change of scenery, I went. On the way I noticed that Jesse had managed to keep my vacated seat and was stretched out across both of them, snoring contentedly.
I breakfasted with another ball-capped single man – a retired dentist this time — who also groused about the wretched condition of these United States, especially as concerned the legality of marijuana. He was a nice enough fellow, but much more standoffish than Andy. I suppose a night spent bent into the shape of a question mark shape with your face pressed against a window or hanging over an armrest will do that. I enjoyed the conversation well enough, and the food was, once again, not bad for train meat, but I was quite ready to put a cap on it as the Atlanta train station trundled into view.
Artem wasted no time belittling me for my complaints about the discomfort of the previous night. For whatever reason, almost everyone got off the train when he got on — I’m sure it wasn’t personal, but the cars were sparsely populated all the way to New Orleans and back. He marveled at the comfort and legroom of the coach seats and promptly took a nap in one of them, probably out of pure Russian spite. I set up my “office” in the lounge car — laying claim to a whole table and spreading my notebook and other odds and ends across it — and proceeded to watch while western Georgia and eastern Alabama scrolled past the window.
For scenery, this was the best part of the journey. Once the suburbs and seedier towns in Atlanta’s dingy penumbra were gone, the land crumpled into steeply wooded hills blanketed in last year’s leaves. Every now and again a river or creek would appear underneath the train, and on the sharper curves I could see the cars ahead of me glittering in the dappled sunlight. We passed through a series of hamlets which each betrayed their rail-centric history with a strip of businesses facing the tracks — Villa Rica, Temple, Waco — and then, after crossing the Alabama state line, we dove into the Talledega National Forest. An idyllic field split by a creek in a stone race. Steep ridges and plunging ravines. Untrammeled creek valleys. Six deer in a meadow, regarding us with static intensity.
The passage was too quick. In no time at all we were passing a band of heavy industry west of Anniston, then the creepy steel musculature of the Anniston Army Depot, and then long stretches of tin-roofed houses with heaps of disintegrated consumer debris in the backyards. The Sloss Furnaces rolled past like some Southern version of the La Brea Tar Pits. Birmingham and a smoke stop for Artem.
We had lunch with an older black man who was a retired chemical worker. He was riding home from Atlanta, where he’d been visiting his kids. Why the train, we asked? Tired of the hassle of airport security.
We talked to a man from New Orleans who works on a turtle farm — 20,000 turtles per pond. I don’t know how many ponds, but even one would be more turtles than I expect I’ve seen in my entire life. He told us he preferred the train for the cost.
We met a Franciscan monk from Cullman, Ala., complete with a heavy brown robe and a chunky wooden cross around his neck. He stood out somewhat from the crowd. He was heading to Slidell, La. to pick up a used vehicle that had been donated to his monastic community. Why the train? Well, I almost didn’t need to ask. How in the hell would you fly from Cullman to Slidell?
Convenience and cost. What a utilitarian nation we inhabit. It was exceedingly rare to hear anyone say they liked the train because it was a throwback to a simpler world, or that they liked the languorous unspooling of a trip, the sense of being someplace rather than just going someplace.
But then, most the people lonely enough to engage us in discussion were single men, and probably not the type given to poetic musings.
The train yard in Meridian, home of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.
Meridian is the quintessential railroad town. It emanates from the rail yard like wings on a butterfly — the quaint downtown grid on the north side, a band of light industry and chain businesses on the south. Like Atlanta, Meridian was born at the intersection of two major rail lines: the Southern Railway and the Mobile & Ohio. As such, Meridian was of significant enough strategic value during the Civil War to entice Sherman to march out of Vicksburg during a few spare weeks in February of 1864 and burn the place to its foundations. The Meridian campaign is considered by many to have been a warmup for the March to the Sea that Sherman would undertake across Georgia nine months later. In any event, it didn’t endear Meridian to the man, and to this day it’s no challenge to find Meridians who haven’t quite gotten over it.
We checked into a cheap motel on the south side inexplicably called the Astro, where I enjoyed the civilizing effects of a hot shower before we caught a cab back into town. It took forever to show up (there are exactly four cabs in Meridian, and they will be on the far side of town no matter where you are) and when it finally did the driver had the stereo turned up so loud that any conversation was impossible. He dropped us off near the train station, and we began investigating.
To the extent that Meridian is withering (and my admittedly brief visit suggested it was), it seems to be withering from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, as so many cities do. There’s a small core of vibrant activity just around the train station, a few lively bars and restaurants and stores. Beyond this center, it drops off sharply. The downtown possesses many beautiful but sadly empty old hotels in a semicircle a couple blocks out from the station. But after no more than a quarter mile the hard poverty begins to set in. Somewhere out there, in Meridian’s suburban hinterlands, lies Peavey, the musical equipment manufacturer whose name has been synonymous with the city since the 1950s, until now. Even as we visited, Peavey was busy closing down its manufacturing facilities and relocating to China, landing another body blow to a place that may not be able to weather many more.
Yet Amtrak and the freight yard continue to pump blood into the heart of Meridian.
Mississippians seem to recognize this — that rarest of breed, the Republican rail booster, is fairly common in the state. Meridian itself can say that a former four-term Republican mayor, John Robert Smith, also served as chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors. God knows the cards are stacked against the place, and against Mississippi in general, but in this at least there’s a glimmer of hope. The people we met in that small pocket of life were mostly young — many of them students of Mississippi State, no doubt — and almost defiantly cosmopolitan. They are a seed in the throes of a terrible storm, and I couldn’t help but root for them. I would go back to Meridian just to hang out with these people and drink their beer, I truly would.
Meridian at sunset.
Once we realized we couldn’t spiral out very far, we spiraled back in and hit Weidmann’s for a drink. Weidmann’s bills itself as the oldest restaurant in Mississippi, and whether or not that is a fact, I liked it. It’s an oak-paneling-and-mirrors sort of venue, with high ceilings and walls festooned with framed photographs of famous visitors, significant Mississippians, and historical images of the restaurant.
We ate dinner at the Brickhaus across the street. It was a bit cheaper, a bit more on the fried side, and it came with a bar sporting 63 taps. So we polished off the evening with a couple beers each at a table out front while the bartender periodically amused us by stepping out to take a drag on his homemade vaporizer, emitting six-foot long columns of smoke like some bearded, bespectacled dragon.
By the time we got back to the Astro, I was positively exhausted. It was about 10:30, and I recall turning on the TV and seeking out baseball. I sat on the bed, took off one shoe, and the next thing I remember was waking up in the same position to find the ballgame finished. I checked my phone. It was 12:30. So much for being unable to sleep in a non-horizontal position.
The next morning we made a beeline for the Jimmie Rodgers museum, located a couple miles north of downtown in Highland Park. We took another cab, which entailed both the staggering wait and ear-stabbing stereo levels. It must be a Meridian thing. Along the way, we discovered the other aspect of the city — row upon row of rotting hovels like dead mushrooms, with vegetation growing up around them and threatening to swallow them whole. The poverty set in like a cancer almost immediately past the compact downtown and didn’t let up until we reached the park.
We arrived early, so we killed a half hour checking out the Dentzel carousel that is housed nearby. Manufactured by the Dentzel family — which was pretty much to carousels what the Stradivari family was to stringed instruments — for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, the carousel was moved to Meridian in 1909. It’s one of a kind, for reasons that will impress nobody but carousel junkies, but whatever its provenance or the historical qualities it may possess, it is manifestly a wonderful fusion of engineering and art.
Aside from the expected menagerie of zebras, horses, camels and lions, it features a wealth of original oil paintings all around its top. These are more weird than beautiful, but compelling in any case — they consist mostly of images of animals in their native landscapes, but also images of famous landmarks such as the canals of Venice and the Great Pyramids. The animals are often depicted in bizarre action poses — a bear fighting a giant snake, for example, or an alligator chomping down on a swan — and none of them appear to have been done from life, but rather from slightly inaccurate period secondhand sources. The effect is phantasmagorical.
The carousel is belt-driven off of a big electric motor inside a chunky cast iron case. It goes pretty fast and lurches somewhat as though it’s not quite true on its axis. But we were game. We each mounted an animal, spent a few minutes spent hurtling in circles whooping and hollering a bit, and then, thanking the carousel guy, we headed back to the museum.
Jimmie Rodgers, of course, is a towering figure in American music. He’s often referred to as the Father of Country Music, but his influence extends across many genres, including blues and rock. In his day job as a railroad worker on the Southern Railway, he learned his musical craft from other railway workers and hobos. His music is heavily influenced by the blues, meaning he (a white man) was basically Elvis-ing long before Elvis was even born. Rodgers was from Meridian, and the museum devoted to his life and his music is one of the highlights of the city. So we weren’t going to miss it.
The building that houses the collection is modest, and you’ll probably have to crank your understanding of that term down several notches to really get the gist of what I’m talking about. Picture your living room full of Jimmie Rodgers memorabilia.
Of that there is quite a lot. Guitars, old photographs, copies of old albums, dishware with Rodgers’ face on it. There was a sizable collection of furniture, confirming that Rodgers sat like the rest of us. The guitars were interesting, in particular a beautiful old Martin with Rogers’ name inlaid in mother-of-pearl on the fretboard. It was absolutely pristine, and kept so by a climate-controlled enclosure built into an old bank safe. My fingers itched to play it.
Probably the best thing about the place was the woman running it that day. An older woman with short grey-white hair in a bob, she wore a T-shirt with a picture of a man on skis in a cotton field. “Ski Mississippi,” it read. She was enormously enthusiastic and helpful to a fault. When Artem became fixated on a CD recording of Marty Stuart playing Native American music, she cut the package open and put it on the stereo. And so we sauntered around for a while listening to drums and chanting and other non-Rodgers-esque sounds.
Most of the time we were in the building she busily sifted through piles of paper and old binders, looking for interesting material for us. When I mentioned that we hadn’t had a chance to get any breakfast, she dug out a couple of packages of Pop Tarts. She reminded me of nobody so much as my own grandmother, God rest her soul.
When we expressed interest in the grave of the Gypsy Queen, Kelly Mitchell, buried there in Meridian, I’ll be damned if she didn’t drag us right out to her car and drive us there. We admired the half-dozen gypsy royalty graves, of which Mitchell’s is the most obsequious. It was liberally mounded with beads, wine and liquor bottles, pennies, candles, hair ribbons, smokeless tobacco containers, jewelry, ashtrays, rotting fruit, plastic cups, beer cans, lighters, cigarettes, innumerable bits of unidentifiable trash, and rising like a monument in the middle, a five-gallon jug with a foam microphone windscreen over the mouth. It looked like the site of a particularly out-of-control party.
I hope I’ve established that the museum lady was kind and friendly, and that I bear her no ill will. For those reasons and more, it was acutely painful to me, when our discussion ranged to Meridian and its many ills, to hear her tell me in a hushed voice, that Meridian “had had problems with the blacks.”
Another brief history lesson: In 1871 Meridian was the site of a series of race riots which began with a fire that burned down a large section of downtown. This same area had only recently been rebuilt after the destruction Sherman had wreaked seven years prior, and people were understandably upset. Unfortunately they let their passions get the best of them. The Republican mayor was blamed, and some days later, at a trial involving several of his political allies, a gunfight broke out in the courtroom, in which the presiding judge and several others were shot dead. The Mayor was driven from office, and over several days some 30 African-Americans were killed. The Meridian riot was a signal victory for Southern Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan. Mississippi would see the rise of other groups similar to the Klan, and ultimately, the reinstatement of Democratic politics. By the time Reconstruction ended in 1877, the tide was running strongly against the cause of freedmen. Indeed, their progress was set back significantly — almost a hundred years, as it would turn out.
So, if Meridian “had a problem with the blacks,” I think it’s fair to say that blacks had a problem with Meridian.
Anyway, I’m not sure which is more distressing: hearing this sort of thing spoken aloud, or witnessing myself pasting a strained, tight-lipped half-smile on my face in response. It’s as though someone with a serious illness just threw up on my shoes and I pretended it didn’t happen. Years ago, Eddie Murphy did a short film for “Saturday Night Live,” in which he dressed in whiteface and went out to discover what life was like for white people. When a white newsstand owner gives him a newspaper, a light goes off:
“Slowly, I began to realize that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free.”
There’s some truth in this. Even today, some folks will let down their guard when they think they are among their own, and out comes the little racist monster. I don’t know what it’s like to be black, but in moments like that, I don’t want to be white.
Like all Americans, we as Southerners get to choose what to keep and what to discard from our lives. We are free to throw out heirlooms that are dangerous or foolish, and we are no less Southern for doing so, anymore than our ancestors risked losing their identity when they chose to lay steel rails across their land. We could all stand to do this. We could get rid of white flight, racial profiling, and the rebel flag. For my own part — in the interest of being the change I’d like to see — I’d be happy to get rid of that awkward politeness, a facet of Southern hospitality, that restrains me when white people try to give me things for free.
We ate lunch at Weidmann’s that afternoon, and struck up a conversation with our waiter Stephen — a black man who was waiting tables until he was able to go back to music school in Hattiesburg. He was a bassoonist.
“I’ll bet,” I said to him, “you know some Stravinsky.” Without hesitation he sang the bassoon line from “The Rite of Spring” in a perfect, buttery smooth baritone. Stephen was tall, handsome and charming, intelligent, talented and with a good sense of humor.
Who wouldn’t want to live in his South?
The ride from Meridian to New Orleans was blessedly brief and uneventful. We passed through Laurel, Hattiesburg, Picayune and Slidell, all of which are names that hold a certain fascination for me — they all sound deeply Southern. I always imagine that visiting them will involve a lot of sweet tea, cotton and blues on the front porch. I used to think the same things about Tishomingo, Corinth and Tupelo too, but I visited all of them and found them to be mainly like everyplace else — McDonald’s, Walmart, Autozone and all the rest of it. I’ve never understood how people can defend all manner of crimes in the name of heritage and yet remain silent while this junk colonizes our storied towns and cities. Walmart isn’t anyone’s heritage.
Crossing Lake Pontchartrain was the highlight of this leg of the journey. The sun was sinking and the lake was lit in gold. To the west the shore was not visible — we could look out of the right-hand windows of the train and plausibly pretend we were at sea. To the east the shore was just the merest suggestion, but the I-10 causeway could be seen at a distance of 1,000 yards or so. The motion of the train and the low angle of the sun combined to make the water’s surface look like a solid block of bronze.
Crossing Lake Pontchartrain, view from the window of the Amtrak Crescent.
As always with the best parts of the ride, it was over too quickly. The railroad causeway crosses at the neck between the big part of the lake on the west side and the small bulge to the east. It’s the narrowest point. In no time we were passing through New Orleans, through the neighborhoods of Little Woods and Gentilly; through the city park and Greenwood Cemetery, like a city of the dead; and finally, slowly, into the Amtrak station just southwest of the French Quarter. End of the line.
This was to be our big night off, so after we settled into our rooms at the Empress Hotel — a place considerably more dreary than its name would suggest — we ditched the tools of our trade: Artem his cameras, I my notepad and a pocket full of pens. We found a bar in the French Quarter that served a superb bowl of red beans and rice. We ate and talked Coen brothers movies with a guy named Max. Max was a musician — a drummer who had relocated from Seattle in hopes of becoming a professional jazz player. He was a good conversationalist. I found myself reaching for my notebook.
We moved around through a series of bars on Frenchmen Street, listening to a procession of terrific bands. The ability of New Orleans to produce so much good music in such a small space on a Thursday evening cannot be overstated.
Above, buskers on the streets of New Orleans; below, New Orleans as the sun goes down.
At the end of the evening we retreated back to the hotel. As we walked the last couple blocks we spotted a wiry figure dotted with tattoos and sporting a Mohawk. Next to him walked a woman, short and stout, wearing glasses and a pink T-shirt. She bore no signs of any social ties with him other than a small tattoo on one calf.
“Do you think he picked her up tonight?” Artem asked. Their proximity said they were a couple, but they didn’t hang all over each other.
“No,” I replied. “They’ve been together for a long time.”
“Let’s find out,” he said, and then, to them, brandishing his Russian accent like a lasso, “Hey guys, what’s your story?”
The guy stopped and turned, eyes flashing. This, I thought through a not-inconsiderable alcoholic haze, is a good way to get knifed. But Artem was talking, and countenances softened, and before we knew it, we were invited to a barbecue.
And now you know how I wound up, the following night, in the kitchen of a man who has died three times.
Shawn Hubbard and his family.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that our trip ended with a group of people who have spent serious time riding freight trains. It’s hard for me to endorse their lifestyle: living in squats, panhandling (some of them worked straight jobs, but panhandling is definitely a part of the life), and above all, fighting. I guess I’m a boring conformist like anyone else. I like owning a house, I like earning my own money, and I like not being stabbed.
Call me crazy.
Yet, a part of me admires their strident self-determinism. These are people who actually practice what I preach: Keep what they need and discard what they don’t. My choices would be vastly different, but they’ve done something most of us don’t. They’ve actually made choices.
And where their choices really cut me to the quick regards trains. In case I haven’t been clear, I want trains. I want to see the South thickly crisscrossed by rail once again. It’s the most civilized way to travel, and by God, it is as much the future as it is the past. Look no further than Japan for proof of that. Yet rail in the South hangs on by the slenderest of threads — namely the glorified bus that I’d just spent the last week riding for 1,000 miles.
And then, damned if I don’t run into a house full of people who refuse to acknowledge the death of passenger rail in America. They just climb aboard the nearest freight and ride it like a bunch of 21st-century hobos. It’s illegal and it’s dangerous, but I can’t help but thrill at the notion of people hacking new paths through the cultural and technological wilderness they inherited.
Earlier in the day we spent a half hour sitting on a curb watching a group of young musicians. There were at least seven of them altogether — a couple guitars, string bass, banjo, fiddle, lap steel and harmonica. None of them looked terribly clean or well-fed; I would guess they were living in situations not dissimilar from Shawn and his crew. Squatters probably, making their living entirely through busking. But they were cheerful and exuberant, and they spent their days simply playing music. No matter their problems, they spend most of their time doing something many people dream of.
We ran into a kid named Derek who was dressed like a cross between Huck Finn and Ruby Rhod from “The Fifth Element.” He was an art student from Baltimore, looking to break into fashion design. I generally dress like I just found a pile of clothes in a parking lot, but this guy was charisma made flesh and I wish him well.
Walking through the French Quarter I was accosted by a corpulent old man who looked like nothing so much as Santa Claus straining the seams of a pair of dirty black nylon pants and a barf-colored T-shirt. Spotting my Boston Red Sox cap and my Bitter Southerner shirt, he remarked in a booming voice, “Better to be a bitter Southerner than to be from Boston.” Fair enough.
Like any large city, perhaps more so, New Orleans is full of unique people making their own unique ways. They’ve all recognized, consciously or otherwise, that a good life is just a question of figuring out what you really need and what you don’t. It doesn’t have to be what Shawn chooses, and it doesn’t have to be what a bunch of street musicians choose. It doesn’t have to be what Derek or Max the Drummer or Ignatius J. Reilly choose.
But it damn well isn’t a prix fixe menu.
So what did I lose and what did I gain in New Orleans? Well, I lost my sunglasses somewhere, and in fact I did get a replacement from a Chevron booth at the French Quarter Festival. I suspect that wasn’t what Neil was talking about, but the truth is, as much as I love the city, I’m hesitant to ascribe magical qualities to it. I spent most of a week either in tiny, quiet towns I'd probably never have considered visiting under other circumstances, or in a squealing steel box. Along the way I lost the old me. And I gained a new me — the difference between the two is expressed in the words you've read here, plus a couple dozen other stories for which I don't have room but which will leak out gradually at bars and dinner parties, probably repeatedly as I grow senile. I'd own just a fraction of that new me had I just driven from D.C. to New Orleans and slept at Marriott, though I'd have gotten there quicker. On the whole I'd say I came out ahead.
The ride back was anticlimactic, as return trips almost always are. It was a long day — some 13 hours spent entirely on the train. But the cars were almost empty, as though it had been a one-way trip and we’d simply gotten a behind-the-scenes view of the whole thing resetting to a new experience for the next group of adventurers.
There’s not much to be said about that ride — Artem and I were both drained and I was urgently ready to be home with my family. But we did receive a last gift from the weather, which sent us a light rain as we recrossed Lake Pontchartrain. I watched the drops of moisture stream down the windows with the gray lake behind them, and each one seemed to refract the view of another person who had made the journey before me. Whether for purely pragmatic reasons, or for the romance of it all, or — stretching back far enough — because it was simply the only way to cover the distances involved, we all shared something distinctly American, distinctly Southern and unique in both its joys as well as its warts:
The Southern Crescent.