Traveling often reveals as much about the traveler, and the baggage he or she carries, as it does about the places visited. In my case, traveling by train helped erase, at least temporarily, a certain regional myopia developed over years living in the South and growing accustomed to pervasive poverty that I skirt in my daily travels through the region.
It had been decades since I traveled by train. In the summers back when I was growing up in Mobile, Ala., my family, via train, visited relatives in locales such as California, Ohio, and Connecticut, via the Sunset Limited to California and the City of New Orleans and the Crescent to points north and east. Train travel was not as expensive as plane fares and, despite the sometimes bumpy ride, a more pleasant way of travel than the multiple stops and somewhat dodgy clientele that rides the bus. Through the train windows we saw the vast deserts of the southwest as well as the harrowing mountainsides of the Cascades when we took the long way to California via the Pacific Northwest.
Trains, along with car travel, provide travelers with a more up-close assessment of the areas traversed, a vantage point of not available via jet jaunts at 40,000 feet, where flyover country is crossed and ignored. From a bird’s eye view, the world, if seen at all, is more of a totality, a province of shiny, tiny pools, lines of trees, clumps of buildings, all the dust and muck of living out of sight, out of mind.
A ground level view provided me with a sobering vantage point. It had been decades since I had been to the south Mississippi/New Orleans area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, an area never known for tidiness and even glorified for the impromptu nudity, corruption, decrepitude and inebriation not limited to just Mardi Gras time. We traveled west from the Florida Panhandle through Alabama to south Mississippi and Louisiana, a change which one can feel from the bounce of the roads, as Mississippi and Louisiana have long been vying for a lousiest roads title, it seems, and even after all these years it is still a dead tie. We traveled to New Orleans to catch the train called The City of New Orleans bound north to Chicago.
New Orleans was a weekend place for Mobile teens looking for mischief, mayhem and booze. Considering it was not a gleaming metropolis back in the 90s, the ghostly city of New Orleans, particularly its east side, now reaches higher notes of dilapidation and despair than it used to, exhibited in still empty buildings, probable havens from the homeless, within spitting distance from I-10. One abandoned hotel with gaping open hotel room doors and rusting railings jutted up like an oversized above ground grave and could have had as its epitaph, “Here lies this city’s best days.” An internet search discovered that this hotel, called Grand Palace Hotel, is set for implosion in July after much legal wrangling by the property owner, according to a Times-Picayune story from 2011.
A graph from the story details the eyesore’s shady history:
“The building has passed through multiple owners and operated under several business models over six decades. It was initially introduced as a modern marvel of urban lifestyle, with apartments, offices and street-level retail and dining. Then it became a series of hotels — a Sheraton property, a Ramada franchise, the Pallas Hotel, the Crescent on Canal — few if any of them a success.”
BestofNewOrleans.com provided background of how tourists were misled into thinking the hotel provided quality, affordable rooms, as one glowing review on a jazz website attested. What greeted tourists, in review after review, was a rat-infested, poorly maintained mess that even inebriation couldn’t make less appalling. Reviews for this closed hotel are still live on Yahoo!Travel. One proclaims: “If anyone has ever seen the beginning of Terminator where the cyborgs have demolished Earth - this is what the New Orleans Grand Palace looks like.” Despite the Times-Picayune article noting that the hotel was closed since Katrina, there are reviews from as recently at 2011.