Ridin’ On the City of New Orleans

Somewhere in Colorado this summer amid a long, long pull toward Texas the radio found Arlo Guthrie’s 1972 version of Riding On the City of New Orleans. A hundred miles down the road we caught Willie Nelson’s 1984 rendition. It’s a lovely melody; the lyrics are pure poetry. Both were written by Steve Goodman, not by Arlo, nor Willie.


Preservation Hall on Rue de Bourbon
Preservation Hall on Rue de Bourbon
Beignets from Cafe du Monde (say "beg-nets", just like it looks)
Beignets from Cafe du Monde (say “beg-nets”, just like it looks)

Years ago Kat and I made an Amtrak journey from Raleigh to Florida. The plan was to visit daughter Stephanie, and part of the fun was taking the train. It was to be a night train – we boarded at 9:30 p.m. and arrived the next morning around 10:00 – and our two round trip tickets cost a third of what we would have paid to fly. There is no security to pass through on Amtrak, never a line, and the seats are indescribably roomy and comfortable. You may bring your own sandwiches, snacks, and wine. By 10:30 the food and wine was gone, and yes, “the rhythm of the rails was all we feel.” We slept well and woke up refreshed in Jacksonville. Rail is a fine way to travel.

City of New Orleans Route Map, with Sidetrips
City of New Orleans Route Map, with Sidetrips


The Patron Saint of JAX Beer
The Patron Saint of JAX Beer

It struck me that it might be possible to do a month of full-time sightseeing on Amtrak passes and maybe even save money. 30 day passes go for $679 each with up to 12 segments (boarding a new train is a segment). The diesel alone on the 5,500 mile trip from south Louisiana to Olympic National Park in Washington and back to Kentucky will be around $1,800 if you’re pulling a big Airstream. On Amtrak we would need an occasional hotel stay for showers and laundry. Night train travel is wonderful, but you can’t see anything, and there’s a lot to see out west. We can cook anything we want in our trailer, but on Amtrak you’re limited to what you carry on plus dining car offerings. Sure, we’d spend money on campgrounds, propane, and generator fuel, but from here The Blue Highways still seem to be the bargain.


The Dining Car Serves a Creole Menu
The Dining Car Serves a Creole Menu

Here are Youtube links to all three versions of the world’s best train song. Arlo’s is simple and honest, his voice with a piano and a guitar. Willie’s includes the piano, multiple guitars, plus a chuffing harmonica echoing the locomotive’s voice. Goodman sings with just his guitar, and you can hear why it didn’t sell as well as the others.


Steve Goodman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SfPyg-mGhU

Arlo   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvMS_ykiLiQ

Willie  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJMVj04lfyo


The Big Train
The Big Train, circa 1975

Goodman wrote his most famous composition while fighting terminal cancer, and his cheerful optimism in this music flat blows me away. He won that battle but lost the war twelve years later. The Willie version took the 1985 Grammy for Best Country Song, making Steve Goodman a Grammy winner.


He had passed the year before.

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