The Number 19 Amtrak Crescent connects New York City and New Orleans,* sweeping across the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and passing through D.C., Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham on its way. I sat alone eating unidentifiable pickled takeaway items from a place in Koreatown called Woorijib until reaching Philadelphia, when a most interesting young traveler became my seat mate. Over the next eight hours I got a more thorough and colorful image of life in a small Southern town than years of anthropological study could ever have provided. She described herself as psychic, pagan, pregnant, a real estate agent, with a husband in the army currently stationed in Afghanistan, and suffering at the hands of her cruel mother-in-law.
The lady in question not only recounted in harrowing detail many of the trials and tribulations of her 22 years, but also exposed me to some very interesting local idioms and culinary delights. Early in our conversation, when discussing our views on various life issues, she confidently declared, "Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has got one." This novel phrase was highly entertaining to me, and I look forward to employing it in my daily speech. Then, she shared her traveling snacks with me, thereby cementing our friendship with cheesy crackers and granola bars covered in caramel and chocolate.**
Late in the evening we pulled into a town called Lynchburg, Virginia, and the stately rail depot piqued our interest as to what sort of place we were passing through. With a bit of research, I found out some disturbing things about the city. First, Lynchburg was the only Southern city that never fell to the Union during the Civil War. Second, the mechanized cigarette roller and ChapStick were both invented there by a crazy man called Dr. Fleet. Third, and most likely to be dramatized in a more serious Hollywood film, is that until 1972 Lynchburg's "Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded" was home to a forced sterilization program against a vast array of handicapped, disadvantaged, or otherwise "unfit" people in the name of eugenics. Perhaps this was a town best suited to passing through under the cover of night and researching in the safety of one's train car.
My fascinating friend left just after midnight, and I was left with two seats on which to stretch. My sleep was eerily punctuated, however, with brief periods of wakefulness filled with the ominous sleep-humming of an elderly Southern woman across the aisle from me.
At dawn we passed through Gainesville, Georgia, of which nothing interesting can be said.*** By 8am we had reached Atlanta, and I celebrated this by having a breakfast of rice crackers and an amazing Polish delicacy called "Powidtla z Melodia" which is a fruit spread made with plums, walnuts, and cinnamon, and can be purchased for only $1.09 at Dollar Up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I would warn, however, against their alluring heart-shaped chocolate covered ginger cookies called "Pierniczki Apejskie," which taste like they were probably produced during Soviet rule.
I had "Filety Śledziowe w kremie po chińsku****" for lunch, and attempted to watch a film on my amazing technological device, but the "3G" reception was apparently hindered by the Southernness all around us, and a very insane woman kept staring at me and shouting unnecessary environmental observations like, "Oh my it is cold now," and "Heavens, the sun has sure gotten brighter!" so I decided to look at the scenery.
I saw my first patch of swamp around 2pm, somewhere in Alabama, and it became more predominant as we continued south. Until mere hours ago my only experience with swamp environments was their heavy handed metaphoric representations in children's films like Swamp Thing and Never Ending Story, a movie which definitely played a major role in my development as a human being. I could not avoid vividly imagining myself as a defiant young warrior of the Plains People, desperately pushing my way through the swamp with my trusted steed Artex, only to lose him in the mire and barely escape the fast-approaching Nothing.
An awesome, creepy mist descended on the magical and apparently hallucination-inducing swamp as the sun set and we approached what the locals call "Nawlins," but I avoid saying because I sound more stupid every time I attempt to utter its name.
*If you are wondering why I changed my plan from a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in Plymouth Massachusetts to a voodoo one in Louisiana, my logic is simple: After stalking the Pilgrims for weeks, no one showed any interest in a work exchange or volunteer situation for said period dinner, so to punish the entire operation for their lack of compassion, foresight, and cultural sensitivity, I decided to boycott all Pilgrims and their carryings-on for the duration. Thusly freed from holiday commitments, a friend mentioned being in the mysterious, warm Southern city of New Orleans, so I said, "Funny, that. I will be there too."
**Though I am pretty sure that by covering a granola bar in caramel and chocolate it becomes simply "candy"
***Except that it is often called the poultry capital of the world because of its inordinately high number of chicken processing plants. Oh wait, I am sorry, that is not interesting either.
****I could not tell you what this is in English, though I can tell you it was $1.49 at Dollar Up and worth every penny.