Stepping off the train in Meridian on Saturday, "Chef Madi" Butler was greeted with Southern hospitality.
Trading in her cooking knives and chef's hat, the 27-year-old is traveling across the country, visiting and learning about different communities.
Her 50-Day Rail Trip to See and Taste America with Amtrak started on June 29 in Portland, Maine and makes its final stop Aug. 18 in San Francisco. The trip, called Summer by Rail, is an internship offered by the Rail Passengers Association.
“I've loved every minute I've been here,” Butler said, describing her time in Meridian, where she met with former Mayor John Robert Smith, spent time with the local tourism bureau, visited The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience and grabbed a bite to eat at the Harvest Grill and Weidmann's Restaurant.
Butler said the one thing she enjoyed most about Meridian was its people, who reminded her of the friendly residents of her hometown in Kentucky.
“Everybody here has treated me like family,” said Butler, who was greeted at Union Station with a hug from Visit Meridian director Dede Mogollon before they headed off to dinner.
Mogollon said she was glad to show Butler around the city, noting that it was nice to see someone young living out their passion and sharing their story with the world.
'Meridian really surprised me'
Butler said she didn't know what to expect during her visit to the Queen City, but once she looked around, she was impressed to see downtown bustling with entertainment, arts and dining.
“Meridian really surprised me,” she said.
Butler said she liked how The Max was not just a museum, but an experience.
“It's good that The MAX is referred to as an experience," she said. "Because it's not just a museum, not just an interactive gallery, and not just a performing space. It's indicative of all facets of the arts."
During Butler's conversation with Smith, who now serves as Chairman of Transportation for America, they discussed issues in rail travel, such as accessibility, affordability, economic impact and increasing long-distance service in rural communities.
They also discussed how generations need to adapt to changes in the community, such as young people choosing to live downtown and being near accessible transportation. .
Butler said one goal of her trip is to be an advocate for rail service in rural communities, because not everyone has a car or can afford to fly. She agrees with Smith that rail travel should be available in rural communities, not just in cities.
Coming from a small town herself, she feels she can relate to the plight of many rural Americans.
Once her trip ends, Butler hopes to continue focusing her energy on the need for rail travel in rural America. She hopes her story will inspire others to make a difference where they can.
“I want to see my experience create tangible change for communities,” Butler said.