Anyone who’s travelled with Amtrak knows that the schedule, while not quite a work of fiction, is more of a suggestion than a real timetable. So it was that I sat for over an hour in the railway station at Houston waiting for the Sunset service that runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans. It was, as old hands like me pretty much expected, delayed by having to cede precedence to freight trains (whose companies actually own the tracks, unlike Amtrak which just has access); an even older hand than me was just glad it wasn’t three hours late, like the last time she travelled.
Never mind. My first trip was only Houston to Lafayette, a journey of about 5 hours, leaving at around lunchtime. At first it’s a bit disappointing that there’s no wifi, but it doesn’t take long to get into the vibe: mining the depths of your music collection, gazing at the scenery, eavesdropping and people-watching – like the two old black men yarning away, one of them explaining in friendly tones that the other has “misconstrued” what he said; the lady sitting down in the lounge car and praying for a solid three minutes before starting on her lunch; the National Park service guys with their travelling exhibition of coyote, otter and beaver pelts, turtle shells and alligator skulls (Norbert was particularly chatty).
Time passed, as did the scenery: lots of trees, some farmland, much rice (who knew?), a huge and horrible refinery, rivers and swamps all muddy brown from recent rains and harbouring ‘gators – not that I saw any, though one man did. We stopped and waited, for freight trains, for the new crew to turn up at Beaumont, for more time to pass. The train hooted, classically and frequently. And eventually, and only an hour late, we got to Lafayette, a pretty little town of around 200,000 souls all told, which I will explore over the next couple of days. So y’all come back now, hear?