By NATHANIEL RICH
Published: February 28, 2013
“Vickie, Alice, Lisa, Debbie, Barbara, Chris, Clair and Cootz boarded the Los Angeles-bound Sunset Limited in Schriever, La., and immediately took residence in the glass-sheathed Sightseer Lounge car. The eight women squeezed into two booths on either side of the aisle and began to scream with laughter.
With a quiet, pneumatic exhalation, the Sunset Limited left the station; it was 90 minutes into its journey, with 45 hours and 5 minutes to go. After leaving New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, its point of departure, the seven-car train had rumbled first alongside the New Orleans Arena, where the Hornets play basketball, and then alongside the empty open-air courts, separated from the tracks by chain-link fence and concertina wire, where inmates at Orleans Parish Prison play basketball. It climbed steadily for two miles before passing over the dizzyingly narrow span of the Huey P. Long Bridge. From up there, 145 feet above the Mississippi River, the river’s full double turn, like a lowercase m written in a lazy cursive, was visible; you could see why they called New Orleans the Crescent City.
Wheezing out of Schriever, the train rattled and jerked, and when I entered the lounge car, I had to grab onto the back of a booth to prevent myself from falling facedown in Clair’s lap.
“Woo!” screamed the eight ladies, as if cheering on a toreador. “Hey-ey!” “Choo-choo!” They dissolved into hysterics. It was a little past 10 a.m. They had told each other that they wouldn’t dip into their vodka until noon.
Cootz was 52 years and 364 days old, and they were celebrating. “We wanted to take a long train ride together,” she said, “but we weren’t sure how long we could last. This is a trial run.” They left their husbands at home in Thibodaux (“They’re happy to let us go,” Lisa said) and were traveling to Lake Charles, a five-hour ride, where they would check into L’Auberge Casino Resort. After gambling for two days, they would return. If everything went well, they might make it an annual trip. Why, they could go to Memphis (8 hours, 15 minutes), Houston (9 hours, 18 minutes), even San Antonio (15 hours, 5 minutes). They were dressed smartly in pearls, dark sunglasses, shawls, silver bracelets, silver watches and silver medallions with lapis lazuli. Most of the women appeared to have styled their hair especially for the excursion. Alice possessed a vaporous cloud of wavy brown hair — her husband called it “big, sexy hair.” Barbara had what she described as a gray dome. She said that when the eight of them got together, it was only so long before someone started catching the wall.
“Someone show that boy how to catch the wall!”
Barbara pulled out her phone and showed videos of friends catching the wall. There are three steps to catching the wall. First, you go down on your hands and knees on the floor, facing away from a wall. Then you jog your legs up the wall, one at a time, until you’re halfway to a headstand. Finally, with your palms planted on the ground, your feet planted on the wall and your butt sticking up in the air, you jiggle. “My stomach hurts because we laugh so much,” Barbara said between laughing fits. “It’s like an aerobic exercise. We’ll all have six-packs by the time we get off the train.”
The women were playing Pedro (“PEE-dro”), a card game popular in Cajun country, something of a cross between bridge and spades. For their trip, Cootz printed out special scorecards on which she had typed her friends’ names. They had played Pedro as long as they could remember; it was not uncommon for them to play for 12 hours at a time. While they played, they sang. Lisa led the group in a round of “Gas-Food-Lodging,” a song she wrote when she was 7. Her friends knew all the words.
Six of the women had been teachers; Clair is an office manager; and Barbara was a secretary — a “sexy-tery,” she clarified. Four were the exact same age. Debbie’s and Chris’s husbands worked together. Alice, Vickie and Cootz taught together at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School. Chris had been Alice’s second-grade teacher. (“She was extremely stylish, with her brown suede boots,” Alice said. “She’s the reason I wear boots today.”) Vickie, Lisa, Clair and Cootz attended E. D. White high school. All eight women attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. Vickie, Debbie and Chris were sorority sisters. Lisa Ford Ray and Clair Ford Lee were cousins.
Half the women were a Toups or related to one. Debbie was Debbie Toups. Chris, who married a twin Toups brother, was Chris Toups. Vickie, who was born a Toups and married the other Toups brother, was Vickie Toups Toups. The most reliable way to tell the twin Toups brothers apart was by counting their nipples. Charlie had three. (Technically, one was a birthmark.) Alice grew up in the same town as the twins, “but I have only two nipples,” she said.
“Yes,” Cootz said, “but are they same size?”
Long-distance-train passengers tend to belong to one of four categories. The first, perhaps most obvious category is occupied by people who refuse to fly, whether because of religious beliefs, fear or health reasons, but there are fewer of these than you might expect. The second category belongs to train buffs, known less commonly as rail fans, GERFs (glassy-eyed rail fans), or foamers, a term coined by railroad employees to refer to people who became so excited by trains that they seem to foam at the mouth like rabies victims.
In the United States, there are more than 100,000 train watchers, according to one estimate, a number that includes a 70-year-old retiree from Germantown, Md., named Steve King, whose first job, in 1959, was to serve as an operator for B & O Railroad. Though King identifies himself as a “transportation geek,” he doesn’t look the part: he has the crew cut, hulking build and piercing gaze of a former military man, the type of fellow who doesn’t suffer fools or Amtrak disparagers gladly. But he turns avuncular and garrulous whenever his favorite subject comes up in conversation. His train obsession has expanded his world, leading him to develop complementary interests in photography, American history and a field he calls “industrial archaeology.”
King wrote two books for publishers that specialize in train literature, including “19 East, Copy Three,” about the timetable system used to govern train traffic before computers. He collects Official Railway Guides, large, bound volumes, published between 1868 and 1995, that contain passenger-railroad schedules in the United States and Canada; his oldest edition dates from 1910. In 2002 he traveled with seven friends to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia to photograph one of the last fleet of steam locomotives still being used on major rail lines. He went in January because “the steam exhausted by the locomotives in the cold air is more photogenic.”
It was now 11 a.m. on Wednesday. King had traveled roughly 72 hours of a 120-hour trip. He began by boarding the Cardinal, which runs from Washington’s Union Station to Chicago’s Union Station in approximately 24 hours. Upon arrival, he took a suburban Metra train to Schaumburg, where he visited his daughter for lunch — his nominal excuse for stopping in Chicago — and then took a Metra to Big Timber Road station and visited a friend for lemon meringue pie. He returned to Union Station in time to board the 8 p.m. City of New Orleans, which arrived at its destination the following afternoon. After spending the night in a New Orleans hotel, he boarded the Sunset Limited on Wednesday, at 9 a.m. In Los Angeles, he would hop the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego. He was planning to visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Shortly after boarding the train in New Orleans, King found a forward-facing seat several booths ahead of the Thibodaux 8. He looked out of the window, train schedule in hand, and in that position he remained for much of the next 46 hours and 35 minutes. He paused only for sleep — he had reserved a roomette — and for meals in the dining car, during which he spoke with great passion about how unfairly the federal government treated trains. “Sure,” he said gruffly, “Amtrak is subsidized by taxpayers. It wouldn’t exist otherwise. But Amtrak gets maligned because its subsidy is a line item in the annual budget. Airlines and highways are subsidized even more heavily and in hundreds of different ways — it’s just that those subsidies are buried.”
This, in part, is why it is often cheaper to fly than to take the train, especially over longer distances. (A round-trip ticket from New Orleans to Los Angeles can be had for $320. A plane ticket can cost slightly more but saves about 85 hours.) The financial calculus can shift if you have to buy a one-way ticket at the last minute, which is why a surprisingly high percentage of long-distance-train passengers are escaping something.
Belonging to this, the third category of train passengers, was Michelle Love, who was a week shy of her 21st birthday. She had never taken a train before and was paralyzed with terror. “Trains scare me way more than airplanes,” she said. She was thinking about the “Final Destination” horror movies, in which trains kill characters by derailing, colliding with automobiles, running into each other, smacking into walls, tumbling over and splitting apart. In a scene from the first “Final Destination,” a train runs over a piece of metal, causing it to spin like a boomerang and decapitate a young Seann William Scott. “I’m having terrible acid reflux,” Michelle said, adding that death by train “was one of the worst ways to die.”
She calmed herself down by looking out the window. Trains often go through land that is rarely seen by anyone except passengers on trains. Approaching the Texas border, the Sunset Limited passed beside, or perhaps within, a petrochemical plant that looked like an alien settlement, with smokestacks coughing white smoke, platforms of intricate latticed scaffolding, blue silos and complex networks of pipes orange from rust. The ground was black sand.
Michelle’s terror of trains had one consolation — it distracted her from thinking about the reason she was on the train in the first place. A year ago, she moved from Ocean Springs, Miss., to Hollygrove, the New Orleans neighborhood where Lil Wayne grew up. Since then, she said, four people on her block had been shot to death, most recently a neighbor named Booger. Michelle was sitting on her couch one weekday afternoon when she heard the sound of fireworks. She ran outside to witness the celebration, she said, only to find a man lying face down in the street. Another man was screaming: “Booger’s dead! Booger’s dead!” Michelle said that she bought a pet rat and named it Booger.
She didn’t decide to leave, however, until several months later, after she discovered that one of her roommates had a crack problem. He stole the rent at the end of the month, and they were evicted. In a stroke of good fortune, a childhood friend invited Michelle to move to Houston. The friend’s parents owned a furniture store; Michelle could make $400 for every three days of work. “It sounded too good to be true,” Michelle said, but she didn’t really have an alternative. She bought an Amtrak ticket, which did not please her boyfriend of more than a year.
“He’s very opposed to this,” said Michelle, whose real last name is Davis. Her friends started calling her Love because she reminded them of Courtney Love. She is stuck between vampy and childish, with dyed dark-red hair and eyebrows, black cat’s-eye makeup and 10 tattoos, including a gramophone on her right bicep and an image on her hip that says “Fragile.” “Life is for yourself,” she said. “Not for your friends, for yourself. I have to do this for myself.”
She planned to spend a month in Houston; if it went well, she would stay for good. She wouldn’t cheat on her boyfriend, unless she met the “love of my life,” in which case she would drop him without hesitation. But the main reason she was moving to Houston was to achieve her dream: “To become successful without doing college.”
“How do you define success?”
She laughed as if it were the dumbest question she ever heard. “Happiness,” she said. “As in, having money.”
Houston was a “trial run,” she said. Even if the furniture store was a bust, she figured that she could find work elsewhere, because she had one highly marketable skill: airbrushing. You could airbrush T-shirts, tattoos and wood. “Airbrush,” she said, “is never going to go out of style.”
Three rows behind Michelle sat Scott Dupree, an artist from Atlanta, and his live-in muse, model and marketing agent, Suzy Lanza, who were on their way to visit Scott’s parents in Houston. Several days earlier, within three hours, each learned of a death. A friend of Scott’s in Charlotte died unexpectedly of liver failure at 36. Suzy’s friend, Adam Griffiths, 46, was on a vacation with his fiancée and several friends in Kauai. While hiking along the rocky coastline, a rogue wave dragged Griffiths’s best friend, Brian Baker, into the sea. Griffiths jumped in after him. Griffiths’s fiancée, standing on the shore, watched as they drowned. Suzy hoped the train ride would allow herself and Scott to “decompress.”
Suzy and Scott first met at Burning Man festival, where they were introduced by a man called Chicken John. Suzy worked at various nonprofit organizations, but upon meeting Scott and seeing his work — he specializes in paintings of men wearing old-fashioned costumes, standing in figurines of antiquated gondolas, racecars and dirigibles — Suzy moved to Atlanta and became Scott’s promoter, personal assistant and girlfriend. While Scott, bearded and dour, sat in silence, Suzy spoke enthusiastically about his work and her plans for it. (Later Scott chastised her, in a sulky whisper, for telling her “life story” to strangers.) “It’s the life I’ve wanted for a while,” she said.
“How long do you plan on living it?”
“I don’t have a backup plan right now,” Suzy said. “You could say I’m impulsive.”
On the platform in Beaumont, Tex., where the train stopped for 10 minutes, Michelle Love hungrily smoked her last two cigarettes. She lifted her shirt to show an upside-down leopard-print cross that was tattooed on her ribs. It was a St. Peter’s cross, and it signified that “we’re not as worthy as God.”
“I’m not the crazy chick I look like I am,” she said. “I just don’t want to be like those older people who didn’t do anything with their lives. I want to have stories.” By the time the train left Houston, after having sat in the station for an hour, Michelle was still waiting on the curb next to her luggage.
Traveling coach on Amtrak is not exactly luxurious, but amenities are superior to business class on many American airlines. A person seated in coach on a Superliner — the double-decker train used on the Sunset Limited route — has access to a dining room with white tablecloths and waiter service and to seats with 15 inches or so more legroom than those in some first-class airplane cabins, as well as access to electrical outlets. But playing video games or watching movies on a phone or computer tends only to distract for several hours, and there is no Wi-Fi, so most passengers turn to a more traditional form of entertainment: conversation.
The cliché, familiar to air travel, of the nosy passenger who makes pestering conversation with his seat partners does not exist on the long-distance train. On the Sunset Limited, everybody is nosy, and no one seems to mind. There are several reasons for this. While it might be socially uncomfortable to speak with a stranger during a short trip, the scale seems to tip for trips longer than six hours, at which point it becomes significantly more awkward not to speak to your fellow passengers. Besides, if you’re taking a 47-hour train ride in 2013, you probably have an unusual reason for doing so. Train stories are much richer, more emotionally pitched, than airplane stories. And the train offers the possibility of cheap therapy: there’s ample time to relate your entire life story to a stranger, and you can do so in confidentiality, because you’ll never see the stranger again.
This kind of encounter is further encouraged by the tendency of Amtrak conductors to seat long-distance passengers next to each other, even if the next car contains 20 rows of empty seats. This policy is designed to keep rows open for passengers who board at later stops, but sometimes those anticipated passengers never materialize. The two communal cars also tend to encourage interaction: the Sightseer Lounge has open seating and is especially busy after lunch, and in the dining car, the host will combine any groups smaller than four people with strangers in order to fill every booth. Groups also coalesce at stations like Beaumont and El Paso in Texas and Tucson and Maricopa in Arizona, where the train stops for cigarette breaks. And at longer stops, like the nearly three-hour wait in San Antonio, passengers often venture out into the city together, heading to Denny’s for a midnight meal or to Alibis’ Sports and Spirits bar. Nobody on a long-distance train is ever really alone.
And so it was that Matthew Carr, who limped down the aisle to the seat that had been vacated by Suzy Lanza, found himself amid people in similar circumstances. Carr, 32, was a striking figure; a Marine veteran with strong shoulders, wary eyes and a sweep of whitish blond hair that fell across his forehead. Sitting in front of him were a 2-year-old boy, Sincere Prince Hernandez, and Sincere’s 28-year-old mother, Selena Hernandez, a large, attractive woman, six feet tall, with a round beaming smile and a royal blue kerchief tied around her head. Like Carr, Selena and Sincere were headed home, and like Carr, Selena knew that when she arrived, her home would no longer feel like home. Carr and Selena therefore belonged to the fourth, most fragile category of long-distance traveler: people who are starting over.
The previous week, Selena kicked her husband out of her house; she suspected that he was unfaithful and demanded a divorce. She feared that he would take their three children. He would stand outside on the street at odd hours, she said, watching the house. Selena decided to drop her older children with relatives and drove with Sincere and her grandmother to New Orleans to stay with family there. “Don’t mess with nobody from Belize,” said Selena, whose husband was Belizean. “For that matter no Haitians, no Panamanians, no Africans, no Dominicans. Puerto Ricans, you can work with.”
But soon after she arrived in New Orleans, Selena realized she couldn’t stay — her aunt had little patience for a 2-year-old’s antics. Then Selena’s grandmother, without warning, drove off with the car. There was nothing to do but take the train back to Los Angeles, even though Serena worried that her husband would be waiting for her. “My house might well be trashed,” she said, watching her son as he explored the darkened train car, racing up and down the aisle. Sincere, trusting and curious, was adopted by his fellow passengers, including Carr. He occupied himself for long stretches of time by serving as the train’s janitor, collecting gum wrappers, empty plastic cups and crumpled tinfoil and depositing them in the garbage basket.
At the San Antonio station, the train was connected to the newly arrived Texas Eagle, which originated in Chicago. Two passengers got off the train and went to a bar; when they returned, one was bleeding from the face. San Antonio Police arrived and escorted the men to jail.
After 2 a.m., the Rodriguez and Escamilla families boarded. There were eight of them — aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents of a boy who was celebrating his 1st birthday in Phoenix. After the child’s party, they planned to head straight to Las Vegas to gamble. They chatted loudly, laughing, oblivious or indifferent to the fact that Sincere was writhing exhaustedly in his mother’s lap and Matthew Carr was trying to find the position in which he could sleep with minimal pain.
The Sunset Limited was inaugurated in 1894, but its name comes from a pre-Civil War route: a train that departed Harrisburg, Tex., at sunrise would arrive at the route’s terminus in Columbus, 80 miles away, at sunset. Today it takes two sunsets, and two sunrises, for the Sunset Limited to reach its destination — provided there aren’t delays. When the sun set in Houston, the train was still in the South; by sunrise it had unmistakably entered the West. The bayous and flooded forests of southern Louisiana were replaced by a vast, sandy expanse interrupted by the occasional exclamation of a yucca plant, its pinkish flowers rising from an asterisk of spiky leaves. Rough dirt roads led to stables with horses dappled the same colors as the landscape: dark brown, cream, chestnut. In the distance marched a succession of flat-topped, sloped and nippled buttes. A canoe lay overturned in the dirt next to the track. The Sunset Limited had been in Texas for 16 hours; the New Mexican border was still more than 6 hours away.
The Rio Grande, which marks the border with Mexico, was now less than a mile from the train’s south-facing windows, and it was to Mexico that Carr had planned to move shortly after he returned home to Tucson. He was a mechanic by training and had made preparations to open a hydraulic shop in Agua Prieta, right across the border from Douglas, Ariz., where he planned to repair mining equipment. “The E.P.A.,” he said, “is not big down there.” But in Houston, where he spent the previous week at the V.A. Medical Center, he received bad news. A doctor told him that the femur bones in both of his legs were “dead” and beginning to “collapse.”
A year ago, while trying to lift a giant block of wood, Carr tore a disc in his back. Doctors at the Houston veterans hospital gave him a prescription for steroids, but the pain intensified, and one morning several months later, he awoke unable to walk. Three Tucson hospitals were mystified. It was not until he saw a doctor in Houston that Carr’s condition was diagnosed as avascular necrosis, a condition caused when blood is unable to reach bone tissue, which he suspected was related to the steroids. The day before he boarded the Sunset Limited, his doctor informed him that his femurs were beyond salvaging. He needed double hip surgery and, he was told, 20 to 30 years from now, both of his legs might need to be amputated. The longer he put off the surgery, the longer he would have use of his legs, but meanwhile the pain was constant and nearly unbearable.
“There’s nothing they can do,” he said, in a tone of disbelief. “My life’s over as I knew it.”
Sincere, staring up at Carr from the aisle, addressed him unintelligibly, with great feeling. Carr shook his head. He doubted whether he could start his new business. He had horrific visions of a legless future.
“You can get prosthetics,” Selena said. “They make really good ones now.”
Carr shrugged. He doubted any woman would want to have kids with a double amputee.
“Psh,” Selena said, laughing. “Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t mind a stump.”
They were interrupted by the sight of two pretty, pale-faced young women and one much older woman advancing down the aisle. The three women wore nearly identical full-length, hand-stitched cotton dresses, buttoned from neck to waist, in checkered patterns of blue and white, with matching aprons and capes that hung over their shoulders. Each woman kept her hair up in a bun, which she covered with a sheer white cap that tied in a bow beneath her chin with a ribbon. The only pieces of clothing they had not made themselves were their black sneakers. The two younger women blushed pink when they noticed the stares. “People talk to us because we look different,” said Sharon Douglas, who at 31 was the older of the two sisters. “And we do look different.”
In the lounge car they claimed the booth in front of Steve King, who was still gazing out the window, train schedule in hand. On the other side of them was a somewhat menacing-looking lone male traveler, in a black tank top, with an athletic build, shaved head and tattoos on his arms, chest and face. He called himself Mark and said that he was 37 and that he had fit all of his worldly possessions into a single carry-on bag. Mark was starting over: upon arriving in Tucson, he would walk into the desert, where nobody would bother him, and make camp. He was reading a copy of the Bible, which he raised in the direction of the caped women; they nodded and blushed. A middle-aged couple asked the women whether they were Amish or Mennonite.
“We’re German Baptist,” Sharon said, looking up from an old hardcover novel. “We have similar values but different beliefs.” Her community values self-sufficiency and eschews most conveniences of modern life, including electricity. Sharon, her sister Lynn and their grandmother lived outside of Dayton, in a small community of German Baptists. The women of the community all wore similar handmade dresses; the men wore broadfall pants, suspenders and straw hats. Sharon operated a rug loom and sewed caps and bonnets; during the summer she worked on a farm, harvesting sweet corn and melon. They use horses and buggies for transportation, though a dispensation has been made for tractors, buses and trains. They are permitted to ride in an automobile if necessary, provided that they do not themselves drive; the Douglases had paid a boy they knew in town to drive them to the train station in Indianapolis.
“German Baptist — that mean you’re of German descent?” I asked.
Sharon smiled uncertainly. “We feel,” she said at last, “that we’re descended from Jesus.”
In some sense, the German Baptists overlapped with each of the four dominant categories of long-distance train passengers. They didn’t fly for religious reasons; they were not quite obsessed with trains, but they were fascinated by sights of a country otherwise invisible to them; like the Thibodaux 8, they were escaping home while knowing that they would soon return to their looms and their sweet corn. Like everyone else on a long-distance train, they were in-betweeners — in transit, in other words.
The train left the El Paso station, skirting the chain-link fence that traced the Mexican border; to the right were glass office buildings and parking lots; to the left, sloping downward, were Juarez’s sandy roads and its orange, lime green and white shacks with laundry hanging from clotheslines over dirt yards. Lynn and her grandmother played the card game Set, which has its own set of cards — they forswore standard decks in order to avoid the temptation of gambling. At the end of the car, the Rodriguezes and Escamillas were betting on hands of poker — five-card stud, Follow the Queen, No Peek — in the same two booths where, 24 hours earlier, the Thibodaux Toups played Pedro.
The German Baptist sisters were visiting relatives in Benson, Ariz. Their grandmother would stay there, but they would return to Ohio, taking the long route in order to see more of the country: the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight to Seattle, the Empire Builder to Chicago and the Cardinal back to Indianapolis. Lynn, six years Sharon’s junior, was engaged. Upon returning to Ohio, she would be married. Sharon was single.
“It must be difficult to find a suitable match in such a small community,” I said.
“Not really,” Sharon said. “There are 40 other young people in our community. More than half of those are male.”
She returned, blushing, to her book. It was a first-edition hardcover copy of a 1951 novel, Argye M. Briggs’s “Hem of His Garment.” Sharon’s mother gave it to her for the journey. Sharon didn’t find the novel particularly exciting. It was about a young woman whose religious devotion was tested by a difficult marriage and the tribulations of rural life. The heroine’s name was Sharon.
Sharon was soon distracted by the scenery outside the train. The Sunset Limited was approaching its second sunset; it had traversed the Continental Divide and the Arizona border. The desert was reddish and brown; the Dragoon Mountains scraped the underbelly of gray clouds. Sharon didn’t want to miss anything — train travel was her only opportunity to see the country, after all, and when the sun rose, the train would be in Union Station.
Sharon and Lynn had a four-hour layover in Los Angeles, and they already knew how they were going to use it. They would catch the Big Blue Bus’s Rapid 10 line, which ran express to Santa Monica. They would debark at the last stop and walk together to the end of the Santa Monica pier so that they could see the Pacific Ocean. And there they would remain, standing at the edge of the continent, staring at the sea, until it was time to get back on the Big Blue Bus, which would take them to the Coast Starlight, which would take them to the Empire Builder, which would take them to the Cardinal, which would take them to Indianapolis, where a boy with a car would be waiting to take them home.”