Trip 33 -- TTTTTITD
Message 3: Reflections across the South
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Once I decided I was taking trains around the country, I had to figure out what to see.
On January 30, 2022, I was watching "CBS Sunday Morning." The first interview was with Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer whose organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than 130 Black people, many of whom were sentenced without proper investigation or evidence, from death row. He also established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, both in Montgomery, Alabama.
The episode then featured a story on Buc-ee's, a chain of gas stations and convenience stores based in Texas. The New Braunfels location was touted as the largest of the chain -- and of its kind in the world. Other segments covered jazz in New Orleans, Frank Gehry architecture in Los Angeles, and the daily Wordle game.
Well, there's an idea, I thought: How many of the sites from that broadcast can I visit in person?
Getting to Montgomery was a challenge, because passenger trains haven't gone there in 27 years. It seemed unfair to skip what was sure to be a humbling, moving, and educational experience just because there was no rail access, so I turned to buses. Greyhound took about four hours from Atlanta to Montgomery. To go onward to New Orleans I managed to snag a $1 ticket on Megabus, which became $14.99 when the irritating service fee (Greyhound imposes this too) and my $10 splurge on the upper-level front seat were added on. The bus would travel overnight, so I'd get a full day in Montgomery.
Sometime during my Hiiumaa trip, Megabus notified me that they had canceled the overnight service. They offered me two weeks to rebook or have the original payment refunded. I decided I'd take the time when I got home from Estonia to look at other options.
Greyhound also traveled overnight, albeit for $54.99, and so I booked their service and e-mailed Megabus to request a refund, on the 12th day after their notification.
Two days later they denied my request, saying that Megabus tickets can't be canceled or refunded.
"Reread the thread. Megabus canceled the service. Refund the payment," I replied.
Four days later they again denied the refund, saying the two-week grace period had expired. "As a courtesy," they offered, "we can send you a redemption code worth the value of your original trip."
We went back and forth again until I decided it was easier to file a chargeback with my credit-card issuer. Megabus then sent me a "Get excited for your trip!" message and an invitation to complete a survey, rating the trip I didn't take.
Back in Charlottesville, Virginia, I visited Thomas Jefferson's estate, Monticello. It was about 80 minutes' walk from downtown, the final half hour of which was a lovely gently climbing trail along boardwalks through forest. To reach its starting point I had to rush across highway access ramps after being mostly on sidewalks through the downtown area, the central street of which was pedestrianized. What a shame, I thought, that they couldn't be bothered to make those 100 meters safe and create an enjoyable car-free approach.
Thomas Jefferson inherited "Little Mountain" and 40 enslaved people from his father. Thomas spoke seven languages, including Anglo-Saxon, and he loved technological gadgets. His polygraph machine, a predecessor of a copier, functioned by means of a pen that mirrored what he wrote on the other side. He designed the seven-day clock above the entrance hall to the main house; its weights ran down the wall, which marked the days of the week. The clock was crafted before the house was built, and it didn't fit, so they drilled into the floor, and "Saturday" is in the basement.
Our third president, of course, is known for writing "the greatest breakup letter of all time," as my guide, Holly, put it: 27 complaints, which he enumerated when he was 33. He was our ambassador to France when his friend James Madison was writing the Constitution. If Jefferson had been present, he would have pushed for an expiration date, mandating a revision every 19 years, the reasonable length of time for the ideals of a new generation to become established.
The main house took 40 years to build, because he kept changing his mind. It included a wine dumbwaiter slotted into the dining-room fireplace, a swiveling door with shelves for food service, and a set of double doors in which opening or closing one automatically did the same for the other, through a rope system in the floor.
His wife, Martha, didn't live to see these modern conveniences. She bore him six children and died before her 34th birthday, long before he became president. Thomas also had approximately six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who happened to be Martha's half-sister and accompanied his daughter to visit him while he was the ambassador to France. Her enslaved half-brother, John, was already there, brought by Jefferson to learn how to cook French cuisine.
In France, enslaved people could petition for their freedom. This gave John and Sally bargaining power, and they agreed to return to Virginia with Jefferson and continue their servitude, with conditions. John would become free after teaching his learned cooking techniques to his brother. Sally would continue to serve Jefferson, but her descendants would be free, either upon their reaching age 21 or upon Thomas's death.
The Monticello tours have been receiving undue criticism of late for delving into the lives of the Hemingses and other enslaved families. How dare they put a blemish on our great Founding Father! This attitude is nonsense, of course. Holly had introduced the in-depth examination of the museum-like entrance hall and the upper floors of the house by reiterating what Jefferson himself had said: The country won't work unless the people are educated and enlightened. Education is freedom.
He was also an optimist and thought future generations would succeed. "Be here and ask if he was right about you," Holly concluded. Would Jefferson approve of today's United States?
A visit to a museum is necessarily descriptive. We are lectured to, we read, often hastily, and we move on. Rarely do we experience. So I encourage you to spend five minutes and put yourself on Jefferson's 5000-acre estate. Imagine the tobacco crops, and then the wheat and grain crops. Toil in them under the unforgiving August sun. Picture Mulberry Row, where enslaved boys learned how to make nails and enslaved women tailored the semiannually issued clothing: one set for summer, one for winter. Ration a meager amount of meat and grain for your family. You probably don't know how to read and write.
Observe the auction of enslaved people after Jefferson died in debt. Be one of the enslaved children separated from your parents, never knowing where they -- or you -- are going to be sent, or whether your life is going to be better or worse in your new assigned location.
Then ask how anyone dare strip this part of the history from our learning, at Monticello or in any state attempting to censor its schools' textbooks. And consider who should be telling the stories.
The Crescent train left Charlottesville 81 minutes late. I located an empty pair of seats and was soon joined by a man who walked with a crutch. He made his way through several cans' worth of beer, most of which found his mouth but the last of which leaked onto the floor. By the early morning a pair of seats had opened up in the next car, and I was able to stretch out and ensure a dry conclusion to the journey to Atlanta.
After mailing my Scrabble stuff home -- there was no need to carry around the 629-page word list for the remainder of the trip -- I took the subway to West End station in Adair Park for no other reason than to see whether a freight train was blocking people's access to the station.
This was one of those scenes from American life that unduly intrigue me. The 2020 version of this trip included a stop in Omaha to see a rock. The rock had been installed as a decorative boundary in a parking lot, but so many drivers had misjudged its placement and their spatial awareness that with some regularity, cars were getting stuck on it. I was hoping to camp out there for a couple of hours and see whether I could augur a fulfilling rush of schadenfreude.
But I learned some time ago that the West Maple Rock had been moved, and overeager drivers with outsized vehicles no longer face a call to a towing company. Similarly, the 11-foot-8 bridge in North Carolina has been raised, and trucks' roofs are no longer torn off sardine-can-style when their operators ignore the "Warning! Your truck will not fit under this overpass! Yes, this means you, idiot!" calls to attention.
I'm not sure what else is left of that ilk, but I had recently been alerted to a phenomenon in which a freight train routinely blocks pedestrian access to the West End MARTA station, leading people to crawl under it rather than detour 20 minutes to the next underpass. A man had been killed when the train moved. I wondered whether I could see that unfair danger in person.
There was no train on that day, and little reason to linger, so I headed to the upper end of the MARTA system at Doraville station. This was a short walk from the Buford Highway Farmers Market, reputedly an excellent source of international foods.
The walk wasn't as short as it should have been. The entrance faced an enormous parking lot, and anyone coming from the MARTA station had to walk all the way around the equivalent of a shopping mall. They also had an irritating no-backpacks policy, which meant any browsing and eating pleasure was going to be tempered by my wondering whether my belongings were safe and my need to remember which entrance had kept them.
The market would have been fantastic if I had been stocking up on ramen noodles, frozen Indian food, fresh fish (so much fresh fish), Central American-style marinated raw meat, Eastern European wines, and Caucasian savory pastries. But except for the pastries and a sushi bar, there was precious little to eat on the spot and nowhere to do it. So I reclaimed my bag, made a point of rifling through for important items just to annoy the guy who had made me check it, and went next door to an excellent $10 parrillada lunch.
The main thing I wanted to do in Atlanta was learn about John Pemberton's invention, which has satisfied my thirst and sometimes kept me up later than I intended to be. I refer, of course, to the World of Coca-Cola.
I had a timed ticket and arrived just before the hour, to join a considerable but not daunting queue. It moved slowly only because it was one of those places where people apparently tend to forget what they look like, so they take your picture at the entrance and then try to charge you for it on the way out. There was no way to bypass this curious identity-confirmation ritual until I was immediately about to experience it, at which point I walked behind the cameras and attempted to advance to the next stage.
Here there was a security checkpoint. They trusted me more than the folks at the food market and did not make me give up my bag. I opened one of the compartments and revealed clothing, at which point the guard decided that there was too much stuff in there to bother looking at, and he let me proceed.
By now I had just missed the next showing of the welcome show and screening and had to wait nine minutes for the next one. When a hundred of us were finally ushered in, a perky actress asked how we were all doing, and then she asked where we were all from.
This is not going well, I thought. I've wasted 20 minutes and paid $20.62 and now I'm being interviewed. I was expecting to learn about Coke.
She did point out one interesting artifact in the room: a white syrup dispenser from 1896. It looked like a gumball machine, and people mistake it for such. Before bottling, you'd put a glass underneath and the drink would be mixed on the spot.
Beyond this room was a six-minute film whose purpose I have yet to ascertain. It wasn't an advertisement for Coke, it had nothing about the history, and it wasn't an introduction to what we were about to learn. It was broken scenes of four groups of people going through their day -- athletes, a family reunion, and such -- and looking happy at the outcome. I don't remember whether they even showed a bottle of Coke. There didn't seem to be much plot. Strindberg would have loved it, but it wasn't what I came to see.
Once we were finally allowed to explore as we wished, there was plenty to arouse the brain, tongue, and stomach. "Like an alchemist of old," a caption read, "Pemberton used a long wooden paddle to mix the first batches of Coca-Cola syrup in a cast-iron kettle over an open flame." His was the world's first cola, a taste no one had experienced.
The beverage was introduced in 1886, and in the first year, an average of only nine Coke drinks were sold each day. Pemberton sold the company to Asa Candler two years later. Candler was approached by a pair of lawyers in 1899 to explore bottling, which would make Coke more widespread. He was suspicious and sold the bottling rights for a dollar, but that is how the world came to know Coke. Bottlers buy concentrates, add the required sweeteners and water, and distribute it.
Exhibits told of myths (that the formula came from India, that the original was green), impostors (others have tried to copy the recipe and the logo), World War II (there were Coke ration cards, and Charles B. Hall, the first Black pilot to bring down an enemy plane, was rewarded with a bottle of Coke), and the company's relationships with sports teams (its longest is with the Boston Red Sox, since 1915). Vintage vending machines from around the world were painted the familiar red and white.
Shrouded in shame was a brief explanation of those tense 79 days in 1985, when the company experimented with a new formula. I still remember that day in summer camp, when Eddie Max, the camp photographer and my violin teacher, announced, "The Coca-Cola Company is going back to producing the old Coke." Everyone cheered. Eddie was a master of the paper word game Jotto, which is similar to Wordle. He began every game with BLACK, SWING, FORTH, and JUMPY, and he almost always won. I haven't missed a Wordle yet by making those my starting words (though if I have enough information I don't always make it through all four).
The best part of the World of Coca-Cola, of course, was the ability to taste a few dozen of the company's 3500 beverage products across more than 500 brands: Royal Wattamelon from the Philippines, pineapple Fanta from Greece, red-apple Lift from Chile, sour-plum Fanta from China, Viva from Moldova, Spar-letta from Zimbabwe, and Delaware Punch from Honduras, to name a few. It was a delightful and crowded frenzy to sample as many degrees of sweetness and fizziness as I could before I had to head to the bus terminal. If they rotate the flavors, it would even be worth the price of admission again just to see what's on offer, if I can skip the annoying introductory shtick.
Boarding at the overheated Atlanta bus terminal was a mess. Lining up inside was straightforward; then, shortly before our departure time, we were summoned outside, where it was even hotter. Two buses' passengers were lined up on either side of a metal barrier. The other bus went. We didn't.
When our bus did arrive, ten minutes late, we learned that our service had been outsourced to a company called Sam's Limousine. They could not (or would not) accept the online check-ins of those of us who were preparing to show barcodes on our phones. Instead, as everyone else was boarding, they sent us all inside to retrieve printed tickets. We were not happy to lose our places in line, and of course this could have happened sooner. However, there were plenty of seats, and although we departed 20 minutes late, we arrived about four minutes early into Montgomery.
The Embassy Suites by Hilton was next door to the bus terminal, and it overlooked the old train station and the Alabama River. The last passenger service came through in 1979 (later service was a few blocks away), but freight trains still snaked their way along the riverbank. I found dinner at Central, one of the city's upscale places and one of few to be open after eight.
"Is anyone sitting here?" I asked one of the patrons at the bar.
"That seat is yours," he said firmly.
His name was James. He was wearing crisp black cowboy boots and a red button-up short-sleeved shirt with a white floral pattern. He had placed his wide-brimmed hat on the bar, next to his cigar.
"I like your boots," I said.
He said, "If you get boots like these, and someone compliments them, you say, 'Just think, these boots might be the last thing you see before you go to sleep.'"
I wasn't sure what he meant by that.
He had joined the army and was sent to Panama. He was then deployed in Grenada, Lebanon, and Kuwait.
"And do you know where they sent me after that?" he asked. "Afghanistan."
"I was wondering when you were going to get to Afghanistan."
I mentioned my train trip, and he said he had ridden the rails across the South from Florida to California. You can't do that anymore, as service between Jacksonville and New Orleans has yet to be restored after Hurricane Katrina. And I mentioned my music.
"You know Verdi?" he said.
"I love the 'Four Seasons.'"
I decided that someone who had faced motorcycle gunmen in Kuwait could be forgiven for confusing Verdi and Vivaldi in the moment.
"May I buy you a drink?" I asked.
"No, thank you, I must be off."
I finished my peach-burrata salad and my short ribs with grits and fried shallots. I was on to my "mile-high" meringue pie, as the restaurant was closing down, when I happened to notice the liquor bottles at the end of the bar.
They had covered the open bottles with white conical paper cups, pointing upward. This was Alabama. Were they deliberately evoking a horde of men in white pointed hats? I was horrified, but maybe I was reading too much into it. Wabi and my family members agreed that it looked creepy.
Certainly there must be a better way to keep flies out of their liquor. James was Black and may have been a regular patron. Had he ever noticed the setup?
The next day I took in four sites devoted to race-related topics in U.S. history. The Rosa Parks Museum is one of few I've visited to take me through an event in something approximating real time. A life-sized diorama of a bus and its passengers played through the conversation among Rosa Parks, the bus driver (who had antagonized her in the past), and several of the passengers on Thursday, December 1, 1955.
By the next day, the boycott was already being planned. Of 50,000 regular Black riders of Montgomery buses, only about a half-dozen rode on Monday. Carpools were set up, evolving into official routes over the next year. The shoe-repair business soared as more people walked, and holiday sales were down as people stopped going downtown.
The bus company raised fares and cut service to Black neighborhoods, which furthered the cause of those supporting the boycott. The company was losing $3000 a day. Eventually they had to give in and, gradually, segregation was discontinued.
That doesn't mean that everyone accepted desegregation. The Freedom Riders, whose story was told in the former Greyhound bus station, tested the enforcement and acceptance of desegregation as mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court. A mixed-race group, the first Freedom Riders set out from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans by bus.
They were attacked several times along the way. The first Freedom Ride wasn't completed as scheduled, but it inspired other Freedom Rides over the following few years. The Alabama governor promised protection, but in Montgomery the escort abandoned the Freedom Riders, leaving them to mob violence at the Greyhound station.
Facing continued harassment and danger on public transportation, many Black travelers took to driving. Throughout the civil-rights movement, Victor Hugo Green's guidebook contained lists of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other establishments that served Black patrons. The "Green Book" eventually expanded to an international edition. Its 1948 printing hoped, "There will be a day in the near future when this guide will not have to be published." The last edition was published in 1966.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice remembers and honors the more than 4400 Black people lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. I walked through the array of upright blocks a little taller than myself, one memorial block per county in each state, the names neatly engraved along with their lynching dates. As I proceeded, the floor sloped gently downhill, the memorial blocks lifting off the ground and starting to tower over me. The effect was that I was drowning in a sea of names; the rows went on and on.
The Legacy Museum's exhibit started with the story of another kind of drowning: the two million Africans kidnapped from their native continent who died during the Atlantic Ocean crossing. They represent a sixth of the 12,521,337 Africans bound for the Americas against their will in 36,000 voyages between 1514 and 1866.
There was plenty to read about the horrors of slavery and the slow progress toward emancipation and equality. Some of the most vivid components of the exhibit were the holograms of children asking "Have you seen our mother?" after an auction of the enslaved; virtual prison meetings with Black people who were wrongly incarcerated or jailed excessively for minor offenses; and an interview with Anthony Ray Hinton, who was on death row for 30 years before the Equal Justice Initiative was able to set him free.
"They took off the white robes and put on the black robes," he said of his wrongful conviction.
Bryan Stevenson's book "Just Mercy" details some of the ways Black people are still systematically discriminated against, incarcerated, or sentenced to death with racial motivation. A hundred years ago it was lynching. Since the civil-rights movement it's been death row without proper investigation. In the past few years...well, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just two of too many examples. Same injustice, different methods.
Let's reflect again.
I had heard that Brenda's Bar-B-Q Pit was the best barbecue in Montgomery, and I was eager to support Black businesses. Brenda's was a half-hour's walk out of town. Seventy years ago I could have taken Mobile Street southwest, but the installation of interstates 30 and 35 severed the street and the Black community it served: another deliberate example of racial oppression. Is the freight train in Adair Park a modern example? Would the problem have been solved if it weren't a Black neighborhood?
I cut down side streets and made my way around the highway junction as the rain started. It became steady by the time I was at the last block. On the corner was a convenience store; a Black man was drinking out of a can in a paper bag. He motioned for me to come over, but I was wary of approaching and indicated that I was headed down the road. He followed me at a distance. I didn't think I was in danger -- there were people around the convenience store and across the street, and even more at Brenda's -- but I didn't like that attention.
It was pouring when I got to Brenda's. That's when I learned that the place serves takeout only.
"May I eat here, on the ledge?" I asked. There was just enough room on the windowsill for my food, and an awning protected me from the rain.
"If you choose to," she said.
The guy from the convenience store was waiting across the street. He tried to wave me over whenever I looked back. I purchased a platter of pork ribs, baked beans, and potato salad and a giant lemonade. The rain came down even harder, and the guy left.
When it let up, he came back, and this time he crossed the road toward me.
I walked over to him. "Do you want something?" I asked him, gesturing toward the food window.
"Yes, I'll take a fish sandwich and fries and a Coke," he said. "My name's Jeffrey. I'm from Florida." He showed me his identification card.
When I'd first seen him, he'd looked to be about 50 years old, but now I could tell he was probably in his late 30s. His face looked shy.
I introduced myself and placed the order. Jeffrey gave me space, trying not to attract the attention of the seller, but she picked up on it and called him over.
"Are you bothering my customers?" she asked him.
"He's OK," I said.
The food came and I passed it on to him. He thanked me and walked back to the convenience store.
I had to pass the store again on my way back into town, and he crossed the street to meet me. He mumbled something about there not being fries, and he asked me for five dollars. But away from the safety of Brenda's, I didn't want to take out my wallet or get involved in another transaction.
There were other people here, on my side of the street, hanging out as some sort of gathering; I couldn't tell whether the building was a formal restaurant or bar or people just happened to be visiting. But they didn't want Jeffrey there either, and they told him he had to go back across the street.
I continued back downtown, along desolate streets with boarded-up buildings. These included the Mount Zion A.M.E. Zion Church, where meetings were held to plan the bus boycott and other events of the civil-rights movement. I didn't like that I had felt wary of Jeffrey. Other than at Brenda's, where people of different skin colors parked to collect their food and then drove away, I wondered whether people felt suspicious of me as the only white person in a Black neighborhood. I wanted to trust people, and I wanted them to trust me.
The security guard at the Montgomery bus station threw up his hands when the 11:00 departure time came and went with no sign of a bus. Finally it arrived, an hour late. I found a pair of seats on the right near the front.
"May I have a sip of your water?" the man across the aisle asked. It was an odd request from a stranger.
"You can have the whole thing," I said. From my hotel stays I'd accumulated more bottles than I needed for this ride to New Orleans.
"Gee, thank you," he said. He had been a trucker and was headed back to Mississippi. Once he got people out of his trailer, he could move back in.
I let him tell me enough and then indicated my intent to sleep; it was after midnight. I noticed that he was never fully upright; he was perpetually hunched over toward the aisle.
At Mobile, everyone had to leave the bus so that it could be cleaned. He seemed to be having trouble, so I offered to help him off.
It was too much of a task for me. I took his hands, but he was almost instantly flopped over in the aisle, as though he had no leg support. He seemed to be in hospital clothing. His socks were worn through, and he had no shoes.
He managed to inch himself forward, but now he was caught near the stairwell, and no one else could get out. He was kneeling, hunched forward, and his right foot was bent toward his body, with his toes on the ground.
"Can you pull my foot out?" he asked. "I'm in so much pain."
I tried gently, but I was afraid I'd hurt him more.
"Oh, man, it hurts so much," he said. He finally unfolded his foot and moaned in pain. He walked on his knees to the stairwell and got stuck again. "Man, now I've pissed myself!"
"We'll get the fire department," the bus driver said. "Leave him alone. We'll get the fire department."
"So many delays today," a woman said.
"What else happened?" I asked.
"I was on the four-forty from Atlanta."
"I took that yesterday!"
"And they outsourced the ride to another company."
"We were getting on the bus, and the guy wasn't nice at all. He said we had to go inside and get paper tickets."
"Same thing happened to me!"
"Well, we all went in and got the paper tickets, and when we came out, he said, that's it, it's full."
"And he was really rude about it."
"So we had to go inside and get new tickets for the seven-forty, and then that one was delayed, and he couldn't get on," she said, referring to the poor man in the stairwell.
I had no idea how he had boarded. I thought about how livid I'd have been if I'd been barred from boarding in Atlanta after getting my paper ticket.
The fire department came. A pair of muscular men tried to lift the man.
"Wow, let go of my ass, it hurts!" he cried.
"We're trying to help you!" one of them snapped.
They eventually removed him from the bus and got him into a wheelchair. The rest of us went into the station building as ordered. The man started wheeling himself away from the building. They tried to redirect him, but he never came inside. I don't know what happened to him.
When we got back on the bus, I saw that there was still a coat on his seat.
Being late for a 5 a.m. arrival into New Orleans wasn't a bad thing. I hung out in the station until it was daylight, and then I walked over to the Roosevelt Hotel. They kindly let me check in at 6:30, and I slept for a few more hours and then ventured outside.
It was Sunday. I knew I was going to eat well and see jazz. Bourbon Street was fetid in the late morning, perhaps still sloughing off the effects of Saturday night. I'd found a Cajun-Korean place for brunch, and I walked the half-hour. There was a long line outside at Morrow's, but there was one seat available at the bar.
I had the gumbo ramen: noodles in a moderately spicy broth with sausage, shrimp, and crab. I ingested every drop, along with pineapple and mango mimosas.
The restaurant is Black-owned and at the time of my arrival, I was the only non-Black customer. People were dressed up. One woman had a pink hat and large pink sequins. Another had a rainbow hat, another a rainbow dress. Many had hats on or had long, braided hair. Everyone was in a good mood; no one is uptight in New Orleans.
There was no pianist at the Blacksmith Piano Bar, but people were sitting around the shell of a piano anyway. I talked with a couple of women from Dayton, Ohio, who were slightly older than I. I told them about my trip around the country.
"I want to go to Alaska," one of them said. "But either it's a cruise, and I don't swim, or it's a train, and it goes on those high cliffs. And it's two miles from Russia," she added nervously.
I took the St. Charles streetcar to Napoleon Avenue for dollar oysters at the Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar. I arrived well into the happy hour and thought I'd have to wait, but there were plenty of seats in front of the shuckers. They told me the mollusks were from a place called Area 19, which was a little unsettling, but they were big and tasty, if not as briny as I like, and as of now I still have all my hair. I had 37 oysters -- my third dozen sported a bonus one -- and could have probably had twice that many, but it was time to head to Preservation Hall.
The 45-minute set was just as uplifting as a Preservation Hall experience should be: trombone growls, steady piano, an expressive clarinet, an energetic trumpet, and a bass and drums that shone through on their own without getting in the way. The first and last songs were the best: "If I Had My Life to Live Over" and the theme song to "Treme." Bourbon Street somehow smelled better in the evening, with the neon signs on and people wobbling around with tubular drinks, and I partook of a couple before heading back to the Roosevelt and getting ready for the train to San Antonio.
The Sunset Limited goes from New Orleans to Los Angeles three times a week. In San Antonio, it links up with the Texas Eagle from Chicago. The Crescent heads to New York around the same time of the morning. When I arrived, 15 minutes before the Sunset Limited's departure, the waiting room was full of people.
There were two posters on the wall leading to the tracks. The poster advertising the Sunset Limited was next to one door, and the poster for the Crescent was next to another. But these were just advertisements. The door near the Sunset Limited poster had a sign saying, "Train #20 Crescent Boards here." And the door near the Crescent poster had a sign saying, "Train #1 Sunset Limited Boards here." The former door was blocked off. The latter was accessible. Clearly the Crescent had boarded and my train was delayed.
"Last call for the Sunset Limited!" they announced. "Passengers for the Sunset Limited, please make your way through gate A."
Gate A was the one with the Sunset Limited poster -- and the Crescent boarding sign. The mismatch had fooled them. I hastened through gate A along with another passenger bound for San Antonio. The attendant seated us together, but I spent the whole ride in the observation car.
The best scenery was just outside New Orleans, when we crossed the Huey Long Bridge over the Mississippi River. The car lanes span not much more than the river, but the rail bridge curves around to the north after the westbound crossing, making it 4.36 miles long and the second-longest passenger rail bridge in the country. If I'd ridden the Crescent into New Orleans instead of taking the bus, I'd have experienced the slightly longer Lake Pontchartrain Bridge.
The curvature of the route provided a good view of the bridge's brace-shaped span. And then we sat, waiting for freight traffic. It's a feature of Amtrak travel outside the Northeast Corridor that freight has priority, which is one reason passenger trains are so often delayed.
The Sunset Limited makes just six stops between New Orleans and San Antonio, with a lot of time built into the schedule to allow for freight traffic. The 82 miles between Beaumont and Houston are allotted two and a half hours, an average of 32.8 miles per hour. An expert biker could go faster. The distance between Houston and San Antonio is 210 miles and given five hours and ten minutes, among the longest stretches between two consecutive stations on the Amtrak system.
The observation car never filled up. A group got off at Beaumont, where we stopped for almost an hour. "We'll be here just a little longer than we planned," the announcement came, "so you're welcome to step outside, smoke more cigarettes if you want to."
And then, "This is Beaumont. If your stop is Beaumont, this is your stop. This is Beaumont, Texas. If you're going to Beaumont, Texas, this is the stop for you." Perhaps someone needed convincing.
For the last few hours, two friends were in the observation car a few seats away from me. One was wearing a T-shirt whose color can be described only as "MAGA red." He claimed to be both a trucker and an alcoholic, and he had, to his surprise, been picked up in Boise for a handgun-related infraction he had committed somewhere in the South. He was excited, during the two-hour San Antonio stop, to take his friend to a bar that served 100 different shots. They had already consumed much of the cafe's supply of vodka.
Despite freight-related delays, we arrived in San Antonio only 33 minutes late. I headed straight to bed, for I had lots of walking to do on Tuesday.
In order to see the world's largest combination convenience store and gas station in New Braunfels, Texas, naturally I had to get there somehow. No trains or buses go nearby, although Amtrak makes an inconveniently timed stop about 15 miles north, in San Marcos. I was ultimately headed to Austin after New Braunfels.
I discovered, after some digging, that the distance between the northernmost local-bus stop in San Antonio's system and the southernmost stop with service to Austin -- an express run from the San Marcos Premium Outlets shopping mall -- was only 35 miles. I could cover that in two days and spend the night in New Braunfels.
The first walking day was the longer of the two, and my body courteously woke me two hours earlier than I'd planned to be up, giving me a head start. The bus fare was $1.30 and I had two quarters and two pennies. I asked the receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express whether she could make change that included a nickel.
"We have only quarters and pennies."
"Will the bus take pennies?" I didn't particularly want to carry around a couple dozen pennies, but I would if I had to.
"They will," her coworker said.
"How many do you need?" the receptionist asked.
She gave me three pennies.
I took the number 9 bus (it was a through-running service flashing the number 43, but it magically changed to a nine as it approached) from the intersection of Flores and Dolorosa streets in downtown San Antonio to a place called Naco Perrin on the northeastern outskirts of town. I headed north along Nacogdoches Road, which was lined with car-repair shops and taquerias. The latter did look appetizing -- a brain or tongue taco would have hit the spot -- but I needed to make progress.
That progress was quick; for most of the day I kept to my target of ten minutes per kilometer. The sidewalk ended, oddly enough, just past an elementary school, but there was a wide, grassy ditch suited to the purpose. That petered out as well, but thanks to a construction zone, traffic was backed up for miles in the oncoming lane. The speed limit was fifty; they were going five, when they were moving at all. It was no problem to walk at the edge of their lane.
This road veered to the right, toward the highway; I continued straight, onto Old Nacogdoches Road. This was the most unpleasant stretch; the nearby quarries meant a lot of truck traffic, although most all the drivers were polite and made room for me by dipping into their oncoming lane when possible. Finally I turned onto a residential street that was peaceful except for a few suspicious dogs, and I walked the short distance to Celaya's Mexican restaurant, where I more fell into a chair than sat. The temperature was around a hundred.
Suitably refreshed and fed, I walked a few minutes to the Animal World & Snake Farm, originally a small roadside attraction that now houses some giant mammals: white lions, American bison, cougars, and hyenas, to name a few. Snakes of the venomous and nonvenomous varieties, such as a green tree python and a Sri Lankan pit viper. I exchanged hellos with a white-necked raven. I petted a baby alligator. And I was envious of the six-banded armadillo, who was basking on its back; I still had almost two more hours to walk.
Those hours were along the Interstate 35 frontage road. The asphalt bumped up the temperature, but the traffic was light, and there was usually a wide shoulder to walk in.
I got to the last mile -- I could see the Travelodge of New Braunfels across the highway -- and the pads of my right foot decided they had had enough. Now tender and sore, they unleashed a sudden and severe pain that caused me to moan with a force strong enough to startle the white lions way back at the zoo. I paused briefly, shifted my weight, and limped over to the Travelodge.
It was laundry day. I'd found a place a ten-minute walk away, but I was delighted to see that there were guest laundry machines at the Travelodge. A mere 20 steps from my room and I was in business. There wasn't much to inspire for dinner in the immediate area, but it was the late-night happy hour at Chili's, and their fajitas and margaritas fit the bill.
I was on the same side of the highway as Buc-ee's, but it seemed safer to cross over and walk facing the traffic along the frontage road. This was a gas station, after all; I didn't expect them to cater much to walkers. I wondered whether anyone had ever arrived there on foot from San Antonio.
After I passed the 120 fueling locations, a statue of the Buc-ee's beaver mascot welcomed me into the store, along with a sign indicating the rates of pay for new hires (a minimum of $16 an hour and three weeks' annual paid time off). I entered through a section of clothing, and I soon came to the food.
The focal point was the "Texas Round Up" island, where if it had been later in the day I'd have seen employees in red shirts and yellow cowboy hats hacking up brisket. At 10 a.m. it was only breakfast sandwiches, alas. (Americans are resolutely stubborn in offering only "breakfast food" for breakfast. I can't be the only one who'd eat a slab of ribs at 9 a.m., can I?)
The pecan bar was in full swing, though, and the cookie-dough station was stocked. Nearby was the jerky counter, with teriyaki, cherry-maple, lemon-pepper, and perhaps 15 other varieties, for $29.98 a pound. The soda dispensers offered flavors to rival those at the World of Coca-Cola (but these were Pepsi products).
Buc-ee's also produced its own packaged barbecue sauce, trail mix, salsa, and pretzels, displayed in rows of flavors, of course. It is probably the only convenience-store chain to make its own playing cards, coloring book, shot glasses, and surfing shorts. It sells decorative house ornaments and hunting supplies.
It also won the award for the country's best bathrooms in 2012. I counted 33 urinals, and the stall contained eight rolls of toilet paper, all of which might be useful if you've consumed jerky, brisket, cookie dough, and all those soda flavors. On the way to the restroom were paintings of horses and other Texas themes for sale, making it the first restroom I've seen that doubled as an art gallery. As in every modern restroom, the automatic paper-towel dispenser responded only to ridiculous amounts of gesticulating not unlike that used in conducting a late-Stravinsky ballet.
After examining all that Buc-ee's had to offer, I bought none of it. The owner has given millions to Greg Abbott, and he wasn't getting even the last quarter I still had in my pocket.
I kept going up the frontage road. I was prepared to divert slightly to Hunter, where the Happy Cow restaurant was to open at one, but upon further exploration I discovered that food would not be available until five.
I stopped at a more traditional gas station and did some calculating. The buses to Austin from the San Marcos Premium Outlets left at 2:10 and 4:25. I'd prepared to stop for lunch and take the later, but if I hustled, I could make the earlier.
I needed water, a liter bottle of which was over $2 although a gallon at the HEB supermarket was $1.08. It would have been more cost-effective to dump out most of it than to buy only a liter. Instead I took a $2.05 42-ounce cherry Coke from the gas station, guzzled it, and then refilled it with water and ice. An employee wished me a good day and, as she did, looked down at my midsection. I'd sweated through my shorts, which gave the impression of incontinence. I hoped she'd give me the benefit of the doubt as I left.
Then I hustled.
It was another hour and a half along the frontage road, with temperatures in the triple digits. My feet were cooperating again. A construction crew had kindly blocked off a lane but weren't working on the road, so I had my own protected walking lane for half the journey. I made the turn onto Center Point Road and even had time to pick up a sandwich at Schlotzsky's. I'd rarely been so happy to see my bus arrive.
In Austin, I had a giant barbecued beef rib at Terry Black's; saw the thousands of bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge as they do at every sunset; had fantastic soft tacos at Vaquero Taquero; indulged in short-rib hummus and eggplant-wrapped lamb leg at Aba; and visited the Museum of the Weird. The exhibits included the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins; the skeleton of a two-headed baby; an example of the Feejee Mermaid; a pickled two-faced pig; and the Minnesota Iceman. Sideshows toy with our brains: Real or fictional, and does it matter?
The main thoroughfare through downtown was Sixth Street. Building plaques made the street's history come alive. Joe Lung operated a Southern restaurant and was an interest-free moneylender. Albert Leslie Cochran dressed in G-strings and heels and heckled passersby, inspiring people to "keep Austin weird." Cactus Pryor trained to be a TV and radio personality by spouting jokes while keeping things running at the Cactus Theater.
Sixth Street was lined with bars and became a pedestrian zone at night. Two piano bars seemingly had different intended audiences. Darwin's catered more to the musical-theatre crowd and played Billy Joel and Elton John. At Pete's Dueling Piano Bar, they sang "God Bless the USA" and "Save a horse, ride a cowboy." Both were great fun.
The announcer on the Texas Eagle train up to Fort Worth was practicing her standup routine. "Good morning! How's your train ride going?" she asked, as if expecting a response. "Good? Here's one for you. What do you call a market that only sells beans?"
The passengers behind me groaned. They must have been on since San Antonio.
"What do you call a market that only sells beans? Think about it. Are you ready? A gas station! Now that I have your attention, the cafe is open. They take cards and cash. If you use a card, the machine is going to ask you three questions. You can only enter your credit or debit card after you answer the three questions. Otherwise the train will shut down. After thirty seconds, the machine will tell you you can take your card out. Now we want to hear your jokes, too. So if you have any jokes, tell 'em to your conductors. They'll get 'em where they gotta go."
The platform at Taylor was short enough that the train had to make two stops, to allow passengers at opposite ends of the train to embark and disembark.
"What concert can you go to for forty-five cents? Fifty Cent, featuring Nickelback."
She actually said "Fifty Cents." But even I know that the name is one of those plurals that appear in the singular, the way you might say "fifty sheep."
"I'm back!" she said as we approached Fort Worth. "How's your train ride going? Good? We will soon arrive at Fort Worth station. But first, why did the bicycle collapse?"
I started getting ready to depart.
"Why did the bicycle collapse? Because it was two-tired."
The world's only Texan-Ethiopian restaurant, Smoke'n Ash of Arlington, Texas, can be reasonably reached in a day by public transportation from Austin via the train I had just left, three local buses, and a 52-minute walk. I had heard about the restaurant from a Tweet that popped up in my feed a few months ago, and I had decided that a meal there must be incorporated into the trip.
I had planned the entire Baltimore-to-Fort Worth section with a slightly quicker pace than I desired in order to get to Fort Worth on a Friday, because the third of those three buses doesn't run on weekends. I had even called the local bus company in about April to make sure that bus, which shuttles between Tarrant County College's two campuses, would run throughout the summer. And I had called the restaurant to make sure they'd be open normally on the day I would be in town.
The first bus, the 5, took me to a place called the Sierra Vista Transfer Center, where I transferred to the half-hourly 54. It brought me to Tarrant County College's south campus well in time to make the 4:05 departure of the 67X.
The bus stop was a covered shack with a few metal seats. It was more refreshing to wait in the open air, under a tree, and catch the breeze.
The 4:05 hour came and went. One other person was sitting on the bench.
"Are you waiting for the sixty-seven?" I asked.
"No, I'm waiting for an Uber."
Her car came, and then another person arrived and sat down, and then his car came. At 4:20 I spoke with the bus company. "I just want to ask about the sixty-seven 'X,' which was supposed to depart fifteen minutes ago."
"Let me see what I can find out," she said. She came back after a moment. "They said all the buses went out. He should be there."
"You don't have a way to track it?"
"No, we don't. But he must be on his way."
"OK. Well, I hope I don't have to speak to you again, but thank you for your help."
The following 54 bus showed up, a half-hour after I'd started waiting. I asked him if he knew anything. "Probably just traffic. It's rush hour. But he'll be here."
The next 67X wasn't until 5:35. There were few people on the campus, and nobody else wanted to take the bus. Why would they run it? And would they?
At 5:32, a 67X finally appeared. It was less of a bus and more of a paratransit vehicle.
"It's good to see you!" I said to the driver. "The four-oh-five never showed up, but I'm glad you're here. Now I'm going to need the last bus back, at eight fifty-five."
"That'll be me," she said.
"Well, thank you for that," I said. She made me confident that I wasn't going to be stranded for the night at Tarrant County College's southeast campus. "I appreciate you."
We sped off, a couple of minutes early. "You don't sound like you're from around here," she said.
I started explaining my trip around the country. I wasn't ready to let on that I was headed to a restaurant. Maybe the route was intended only for purposes related to the college. I was the only passenger.
"I'll tell you what," she said. "Where are you headed? Since you've waited this long, maybe I can get you closer to where you're going."
"That would be fantastic!" I did a quick map search. "I'm going to the intersection of Matlock and Harris."
Harris was a bit too far down, but she could take me as far as Sublett, slashing my 52-minute walk to about 15. "Just between you and me. I sometimes take a different route anyway, if the traffic is bad," she said as we encountered a slowdown on the highway, and she took the next exit. Maybe it was to my benefit that the bus couldn't be tracked.
I finally let on that I was headed to a Texan-Ethiopian restaurant. She had never tried Ethiopian food, and I gave her the summary I usually do: that it's well-spiced but not necessarily spicy; that it's served on a spongy bread made from teff, called injera, that you tear off and use to scoop the food, as with pita; that it generally consists of hearty stews and wonderful vegetarian dishes such as chickpeas, lentils, and collard greens; and that my favorite dish is raw ground beef marinated in clarified butter, called kitfo.
She was especially interested in the collard greens. "Do you have a phone?" she asked. "Can you take a picture of the food and show me?"
She brought me even a few blocks closer than Sublett, leaving me with only five minutes of walking. "See you at eight fifty-five."
Smoke'n Ash is in a small strip mall next to a car wash, and the signs advertising ribs, baked potatoes, chicken, and fish didn't give a clue that I was about to experience flavors of fusion that far exceeded my expectations. A server shyly guided me to a booth under a television set that was showing HGTV.
The menu consisted of three pages: one of Texas barbecue, one of traditional Ethiopian food, and one of fusion. I skimmed the first two -- if I spent enough time in Fort Worth I'd try everything -- and focused on the last. How would they combine these two hearty cuisines?
I had to start with the loaded injera nachos. Instead of tortillas, the foundation was crisp pieces of injera. On top of that were two cheeses -- melted yellow cheese and the feta-like Ethiopian food called ayib -- and Ethiopian chickpea stew (shiro), pico de gallo, and bits of jalapeño. Above all this I could choose a meat, and I picked the smoked brisket.
This was one impressive plate. The gooey shiro, crumbly ayib, and soft yellow cheese contrasted brilliantly in texture and degree of salt and spice with the pico de gallo and jalapeño, and this symphony marvelously supported the meat, like an orchestra supporting the soloist in a concerto. I had a Coke to accompany it but then switched to unsweetened iced tea; there was no traditional honey wine (tej), alas.
I knew I'd be stuffed, but I had to try something else. Of all the meats, I estimated that the best for picking up with injera would be the pulled pork. As a side dish, I chose the macaroni and cheese enhanced with berbere (a mix of coriander, garlic, ginger, and other spices). By now one of the servers knew I liked kitfo and he brought out a sample of their version, made with cauliflower to cater to vegetarians. It had more of a kick than I expected, and the smoked pork provided that spicy darkness in my throat that I always love in Ethiopian food.
There were platters for two that included rib-tip Ethiopian-style stir-fry (tibs), smoked chicken stew, beefy collard greens, spicy ribs, and Texas toast. I wish I'd had the stomach space -- or a dining companion.
I bought two slices of their berbere-spiced pecan sheet cake -- one for me for the train, one for the bus driver -- and walked the 52 minutes to the all-but-desolate parking lot of the southeastern campus of Tarrant County College.
"I bet you're glad to see me!" she said when she pulled up. We continued our conversation from before. She was probably around 60 years old; she had worked in avionics for a quarter-century and lived in Georgia for three years before coming back to be with family. She had an enormous plot of land, on which she kept horses. She hadn't been to New York or Boston but hoped to visit both. She thanked me for the dessert.
We sped along the highway toward the other campus, where I was going to transfer to the 54 and then back to the downtown bus. "Where are you going?" she asked.
"My hotel is downtown."
"I'm headed to the depot," she said. "If I let you off by the train station, would that help?"
"That would be amazing!" It would save me two transfers and an hour of traveling.
"You screwed me up good tonight," she said.
I was afraid they had found out she had let me off somewhere other than a designated stop, or maybe she hadn't done the next run on time. "What happened? Were you late?"
"No, not that," she said. "From our talk before. I started to second-guess my life."
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