I’m eating breakfast in the dining car of the City of New Orleans express train when, out of the blue, an elderly lady bursts in and announces to the carriage, “I kissed you!” The chatter in the dining car stops as, one by one, the diners, me included, crane their necks to see the lady, who has spotted the object of her affections. She strides over to my table and stops, looming over the man I’ve been eating breakfast with.
“I kissed you! In the night!” she says to my breakfast companion. He laughs politely and shares some awkward pleasantries with his new-found amour before a friend of the old lady drags her out of the dining car. “You looked so peaceful, I just wanted to give you a kiss,” the old lady yelps as she’s bundled out of the carriage.
My breakfast companion is a man called Noah. He’s a computer engineer from Chicago and he’s travelling the 930-mile train trip to New Orleans – with his girlfriend and her daughter – for a family wedding. He tells me that while he was asleep in his seat in the early hours of the morning he felt someone kiss him on the cheek. By the time he woke up, all he could see was a silhouette walking away in the dark along the aisle of the train carriage.
With the mystery solved we finish our breakfast of pancakes and go our separate ways, as the train continues to weave its way to the city that gave this railway line its name. It’s March 2013 and I’m on a kind of farewell tour of the US; I’ve lived here for the best part of two years. I’ve opted to spend my final 28 days in the country sitting on a train and soaking up as much of the US as I can.
From Washington DC I’ve whistled north and my American bucket list beings to get whittled away. Drinking an old fashioned at Al Capone’s former Chicago watering hole? Check. Watching the legendary march of the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee? Check. Then there’s music and peanut-butter hamburgers in New Orleans, deep-fried Twinkies at the Houston Rodeo and a run-in at a theatre in Los Angeles with a man who once wrote gags for Orson Welles.
But the novelty of this trip isn’t mine alone. Most of the Americans I meet on my travels have never taken the train before, or can count the number of times they have on one hand. The beauty of that is that most people on the trains I take are actually going somewhere. There’s a lady on the train to Dallas who’s going to see her first grandchild, born a week ago, for the first time. Then there are funerals to go to, vacations to begin and new lives to start – and the characters I meet as I weave my way through the US are doing it by train.
Amtrak, the rail operator in the US, revealed that July saw more people travel on its trains than ever before. With the cost of plane tickets on the rise and gas prices continuing to choke this car-loving nation, the train is stepping in.
Meanwhile, back on the train to New Orleans as the sun goes down outside, someone tells me there’s a song written about this journey:
“And the sons of pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep are rockin' to the gentle beat,
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”
Tomos Lewis is an associate producer for Monocle 24.