Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Making Tracks

Riding the rails from the Big Apple to the Big Easy

"You want to go to New Orleans by train?" my companion asks incredulously when I suggest we take a trip across the United States. This is followed by the inevitable "why" -- why would we want to spend a day and a half on a landlocked locomotive when we could travel the same 2000 kilometres on a plane?

I admit that in this era of speed and efficiency, it might seem like a great folly not to be tearing through the skies for a quick and easy vacation in a sunny destination. But I think it's about time more people rediscovered the joy and anticipation of getting there. "You'll love it," I tell my travelling partner. "Trust me."

We book two first-class tickets on the Amtrak Crescent, which includes sleeping accommodations and meals for the trip between New York and New Orleans. Our hotel on wheels will show us a cross-section of Americana from the north to the deep south that no other form of transportation can give us. I'm already eager for that familiar lurch of wheels on steel that will mark the beginning of a journey that will take us across no fewer than 12 states.

Does size matter?
We board the train in the somber shadows of a rainy spring afternoon in New York. After the vastness of Penn Station, it takes us a moment to adjust to the size of our accommodations. Amtrak describes its recently designed Viewliner sleeping cars as "compact comfort" and at first glance it's hard to imagine how two adults will fit into such a tiny compartment without being compacted themselves.

Once we take our places in the facing seats and our extraneous luggage has been whisked off by Eddie, our friendly cabin attendant, we find that it's actually quite homey. What this state-of-the-art chamber lacks in space it makes up for in accessories. Like curious children, we spend the next half hour playing with all the gadgets: piped-in music, a TV showing sitcoms and movies, individual thermostat, fold-down sink, overhead, ambient and reading lights and an ice-water tap.

We discover that there is also a covered toilet hidden in the room. This proves to be a bit awkward to negotiate, as one travelling partner must be delicately asked to leave the room before the other can use the facilities. Eddie also points out a shared shower stall down the hall, which, although it's spotlessly clean, bears too much of a resemblance to the "orgasmatron" in Woody Allen's Sleeper for either of us to consider using it. There's considerably more privacy and space to be had in the deluxe rooms. Even so, travelling by sleeper may be called first class but it's not exactly the lap of luxury -- you're more likely to wind up in the lap of your travelling companion. Compared to the sardine can effect of flights these days, it's a joy to be able to walk around, stretch our legs and watch the scenery roll by.

On a fast track
The train line between New York and Washington has been revamped for the new high-speed Acela service and as a result the ride is incredibly smooth and fast. In what seems like no time at all we enter the outskirts of Philadelphia, where colourful rowing sculls from Penn are docked at the marina. Locals wave at the train and we wave back, not knowing whether they can see us through the window as we glide past. It seems that almost without fail, people will stop what they are doing just long enough to watch the train go by -- it's like a magnetic pull, a vision of majesty and memories.

Soon we're passing the brightly painted three-storey walk-ups of Baltimore's city core and into Washington, DC by early evening. The capital is picturesque this time of year with its cherry blossoms in full bloom, lacey white and pink as we chug our way across the Potomac River. We take one last look at the White House and the Jefferson Memorial before realizing that the rumbling we are hearing is coming from our stomachs, not the train.

Daredevil dining
The dining car is modern but it hasn't lost that old-world charm that makes train travel so atmospheric. It's tastefully decorated with cloth napkins, cutlery and fresh flowers on each table. Eating in these well-appointed surroundings is a thrill because it seems like only magic is standing between dinner and disaster. The wait staff struggle to keep their balance under trays laden with plates, drinks threaten to spill out of glasses and somehow, the chef manages to prepare tasty meals in a long, dark, jiggling stainless steel kitchen.

The Crescent's menu is a source of pride at Amtrak, carefully selected for variety and regional flavour, representing some of the favourite dishes and products of spots along the route. We pass on the roast prime rib of beef and the Cajun stir-fried vegetables in favour of delicious Maryland Old Bay crab cakes with rice and fried green tomatoes and an order of pretty darn authentic southern style chicken. The food is thoroughly enjoyable; while not exactly hâute it's certainly hot and tasty. From the list of local wines, we decide to share a bottle of Governor's White from the Tidewater area of Virginia.


The scenery outside the window darkens as we enjoy a romantic supper for two. Once the plates are cleared and the last glass emptied, we look into each other's eyes longingly and think of what awaits us in our room -- bunk beds! Fitting two people on the lower berth is completely out of the question, so we decide to head to the lounge car for a nightcap and yet another view of local culture in the form of our fellow travellers.

Local colour
If you are entertained by human nature, you'll find hours of fun eavesdropping in the snack bar area, where discussions run from possums to poker to politics. There's a real mix of passengers aboard: families visiting relatives in another state, pleasure-tripping tourists, long-winded conventioneers and the southern twang of travellers joining us for a short ride between small towns. There's a lot of talking and joking and, by end of the evening, the liquor is flowing and some of the card games are getting quite heated. Even with staff keeping an eye on the antics, we're happy to beat a retreat to the relative tranquility of the sleeping car area.

While we were gone, Eddie had prepared the beds, complete with mint on the pillow. Both the top and bottom berths have their own reading lights, storage areas and set of windows. Once all the lights are off we can just make out the landscape hurtling by, taking us by Virginia's famous Civil War sites of Culpepper and Manassas. A relaxing evening behind us, we fall asleep easily as the Crescent continues its inexorable passage further south.

Morning glory
The train rocks us to sleep and rolls us awake again as it careens through the Carolinas. We are roused several times during the night, but the swaying motion and repetitive rumble of the tracks lulls us back to lala-land. It's a pleasant reminder that someone else is doing the driving and all we have to do is eat, snooze, catch up on some reading or look out the window and follow the train's progress on the map.

Well rested, we make our way to the sun-filled dining car for breakfast just outside Georgia. The Crescent's chef cooks up a delicious and whopping breakfast worthy of any fine American restaurant: grits, Virginia ham, French toast, pancakes, cereal and coffee in your own individual pot.

Soon the train is leaving the Georgia forests and Atlanta skyline behind, heading inland towards Birmingham, once the great steel centre of the South. It's not the most scenic route ever, but we do enjoy candid snapshots of the other side of the tracks. We whizz past the backyards of good ol' boys, through the trees we catch glints of chrome, rusted pickup trucks and vintage cars on blocks. One moment kids are playing a game of softball in a field, another moment paint is peeling on an old wooden building in a whistle stop town.

During the summer, volunteers from the National Park Service give on-board talks on Civil War history as well as local flora and fauna. We are too early in the season for this, but find that Richard, the affable director of onboard services, is more than willing to fill us in on local folklore. One topic of conversation is kudzu, a weed brought over from Japan to stop erosion of the rail beds. Like something out of Little Shop of Horrors, it grows up to six inches each day, taking over the countryside at a rapid rate.

Crescent moon
After a great diner-style hamburger and a catfish po'boy for lunch, we settle in for the final leg of our trip. As we descend towards sea level, we feel the air changing and the foliage becomes even more lush. It has been 30 hours and we are still enjoying the anticipation of reaching our final destination. Although the train hasn't been running with the precision of a Swiss watch, it looks like we will be on schedule for our 8:20pm arrival. While we pack up our belongings, Eddie gives us a few last-minute suggestions on restaurants and clubs in his hometown.

Sunset casts a pinkish sheen on the never-ending horizon as the train finally makes its way slowly across the trestle bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, seemingly floating into New Orleans. It is the perfect way to arrive in a city where time seems to stand still, like travelling back in history. My companion is looking out the window, face aglow. "Our vacation is just starting and I feel like we already had one!" he tells me. I agree -- it feels good to know that I can look forward to the return trip as a buffer between holiday and home, easing us back to reality at its own pace with the reassuring sound of that constant clack clack clack.


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