From five thousand miles away, wielding Internet magic, I watched with interest the news of Amtrak’s recent trial stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the rolling out of red carpets in towns interested in seeing a new era of the Sunset Limited. Given my own experience in Amtrak travel, I imagined the big, lumbering rail cars barely slowing for the Coast’s municipal politicians to jump off, wave to the crowds, and extol the economic benefits of Amtrak as the train rumbled on down the tracks nary noticing their absence.
I love trains. This shouldn’t be surprising considering how much time I spend in Europe. Should you visit the old country, train travel will surely account for much of your wandering. Sleek TGV and ICE trains are marvelous, but I enjoy the good-ole compartment trains where you might be locked in with a sweet-looking old lady who doesn’t speak a word of English. Or maybe a dour swarthy guy from “somewhere south”. That’s the excitement of foreign travel. You can still find these old clunkers here and there in Italy and Central Europe. And I am generally a sucker for nostalgia.
Passenger trains have click-clacked their way along the Gulf Coast’s CSX tracks for a century, carrying people back and forth to New Orleans and further. I’m just old enough to remember the dying years of “real” passenger rail on the Coast, back when my Papa (it’s what grandpas are called in the Ros family, myself included) could come visit us in Gulfport from Pascagoula. Those tall passenger cars with hard wooden benches and expanses of windows that could slide open in the Mississippi summer heat are some of my earliest memories.
Papa came to visit us for a week or so after Camille. Even though he was into his seventies and would live only a few more years, he and my Dad labored to dismantle the wooden fence that lay in pieces in our backyard. They did this while my brother and I played amongst the nail-ridden boards as if we had no care in the world, which we didn’t until we stepped on one of those nails. What I remember most about that time, though, was putting our Papa on the train back to Pascagoula. As if it were yesterday, I can still picture him sitting in that train car’s big window as we stood on the platform in Gulfport. He was crying. I never knew why, but I think it was his last time to ever ride the train over to visit.
I saw an old train like that again just a couple of years ago. We were standing on the platform in Carlisle, England waiting for our train to Glasgow when it came by. It was pulled by an old steam engine, puffing clean white steam noisily into the air, punctuated on occasion by a whistle. It was delightful. It made me think of my Papa. If you ever come to England you can ride an old steam train with passenger cars with wooden benches and big windows. Just for the nostalgia.
I do so hope the Sunset Limited comes back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And if it does, maybe it will bring me home one day.