NOLA and back
We visited New Orleans, Louisiana in December, around Christmas time. New Orleans, that southern town known for its music, cuisine, writers, drunken reveries, Mardi Gras, Jazz and Blues music, Mississippi river, swamps, and corrupt public servants. That this town chose to name their airport after a musician tells us a thing or two about them, doesn’t it?
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We drove from Indiana to Lousiana through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. We mainly took country roads, avoiding the interstate highways because we felt that it is the right way to see the country, and because we felt some love and allegiance to John Steinbeck who wrote, in Travels with Charlie, that:
These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the card behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.
It is indeed is possible to drive across United States without really seeing much. We felt a compulsion to see the country, as much as one can see it by driving our tiny hatchback through the backroads. I would like to report that we were rather successful in that, and that we would like to do this more often. Highways are odd – they remain simultaneously boring and scary.
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We ate our rather unmemorable Christmas dinner (pizza) at a gas station. (Note to self: don’t ever do this again. You will feel sorry for the gas station employees, who really should spend the evening with their families, even if your snobby pagan self don’t care that much about Christmas festivities.)
We spent the night in a place called Southwood Inn in Selmor, Tennessee. The inn’s front desk had copies of The McNairy County News, which, on its front page, reported the story of an rescued dog, whom his rescuers called “Chip”. The newspaper said:
The vet said Chip had intention on his head and had suffered blunt force trauma where someone had apparently hit him on the head in an effort to kill him. Several of his teeth had been knocked out.
There is swelling and hair loss around his face and both his eyelids are missing from what the vet thinks is from someone pouring flammable liquids on him and setting him on fire. The tip of his penis was cut off and he is unable to control his urination. Surgery to fix Chip is estimated to cost over $2,000.
On one hand, I am glad that Chip is finally in good hands, and that a paper like The McNairy County News exists, and they are willing to give space in front page to a story like this. On the other hand, there exists humans that bring shame to our species…
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In Mississippi, we came across The Natchez Trace Parkway, the longest stretch of road we drove on, the least inhabited stretch of land we saw on our way, and perhaps the prettiest.
The Natchez Trace is an old path that that connected Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. Native American tribes used it for centuries, and then early European explorers followed. When steamboats appeared in Mississippi River, the Trace lost its prominence. These days the Natchez Trace Parkway, maintained by National Park Services, preserves the Old Natchez Trace’s memories.
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We did the touristy things (taking the streetcar on Canal Street, checking out the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, dragging our feet through French quarter, gawking at street life, sipping hand grenade while out in the street – those kind of things). We also did get to hang out with a bunch of drunk itinerant musicians, who proudly called themselves “homeless bums”.
Bob, Nick, and Mark are from Michigan, and were planning to head to Florida (for the winter months, I believe) from New Orleans. They stopped us on the street to sell us jokes: a joke for a dollar, that was the offer. We did not have any money on us, but they told us some jokes anyway. I don’t remember the jokes anymore, but I do remember laughing much, and I do have a recording of the song they sang for us.
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We took a swamp boat tour (one of the things you do when in New Orleans), where we met Henry the baby alligator.
Henry was with our swamp tour captain. Henry will be released to the swamp when he grows to about four and a half foot – as a young male, he is at the risk of being eaten by the big territorial alpha males. Our captain warned us not to mess with the part where he does his business – under his belly, between the hind legs, where the tail begins – or he might spray pee all over. He joked that they bottle that stuff in these parts and call it “gatorade.”
December evidently is not the best time of the year to get to go meet the alligators in their natural habitat, but swamps themselves are very interesting, even when no alligators are in display.
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I kept track of the route, in case if I ever feel like tracing it back someday.
We took I-69 to Indianapolis, stayed there for a night, and then headed south through the countryside: through the towns of Gosport, Spencer, Freedom, Worthington, Lyons, Westphalia, Edwardsport, Bucknell, and Evansville in Indiana; and Henderson, Dixon, Providence, Princeton, Cadiz, Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Kenlake State Resort Park, Murray, and Hazel in Kentucky; Purear, Paris, Henry, Huntingdon, Lexington, Adamsville, and Selmor in Tennessee; Corinth, Shiloh Battlefield, Tuscumbia River (after which we drove on Natchez Trace Parkway for a few hundred miles, and stopped at French Camp Academy cafe for lunch), Kosciuszko, Carthage, Walnut Grove, Forest, Bienville National Forest, Raleigh, Mize (“home of watermelon festival”), Columbia (“city of charm of pearl river”), Ford House (“first house in pearl river valley”) in Mississippi; entered LA 21S, and passed through Angie and a bunch of other towns which I missed to note down because it was dark by then; drove on Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (a world-record holding 38.35 km long bridge) to enter New Orleans.
On our way back home, we stopped at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and then drove north: we passed Homochitto National Forest, Crosby, Vicksburg, Yazoo City, Morgan Break Wildlife Refuge, Matthew’s Break Wildlife Refuge, Greenwood (“cotton capital of the world”), Malmaison Wildlife Management Area, Holcomb (“home of doodlebag festival”), Grenada (ate lunch at Grenada Southern City Cafe and Grill), Holly Springs Forest, Coffeeville, Water Valley, Oxford, Wal Doxey State Park, Holly Springs in Mississippi; Hickory Valley, Bolivar, Chicksaw State Park, Medon, Jackson, Thousand Acres Lakes, Huntingdon, Paris, Fort Danielson National Battlefield, Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge, and Clarksville in Tennessee; Homestead, Russellville, Morgantown (“catfish capital of the world”), Caneyville, Falls on the Rough (stayed at the Resort Inn, where folk spoke to us in thick rural Kentucky accent), Kingwood, Irvington (sent postcards to Bill from here), and Brandenburg in Kentucky; New Middleton (stopped at Log Cabin Cafe for breakfast), Crandall, Salem, Vallonia, Brownstone, (Indiana’s Historic Pathways - North Spur), Seymour, Muskatatuk National Wildlife Refuge Hayden, (lunch at Fireside Pizza), Greensburg, Rushville, Spiceland, Newcastle, Muncie, Hartford City, Markle, and Ossian in Indiana, and finally home!
The round trip was around 1900 miles (3050 kms), and it was great fun.
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I checked out New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City by Andrei Codrescu from the library. Of New Orleans, Codrescu says:
Nostalgia is a full-time business in New Orleans, replete with manufactured glories, blessed by the chamber of commerce, and abetted by the cult of literary figures.
It is easy to romanticize New Orleans – after all, dozens of writers, including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, James Audubon, George Cable, and Lafcadio Hearn – did. They romanticized it down to its hideous summers, its muddy winters, its cutthroat streets, its gamblers, its crooked politicians, its whores. It was precisely from such corrupt gumbo that the dazzling flowers of its music – jazz, blues, Dixie – sprouted and dazzled the world. It was likewise with the telling and making of stories, the pageantry of Carnival, the complexity of dance, the subtleties of the palate. Hearing and admiring these fleurs the unwary tourist will sometime stumble into the living mud that feeds them.
On the moonwalk by the river in downtown New Orleans, a saxophonist lets loose with a melancholy rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Mood.” A few tourists gawk at him misty-eyed because he fits exactly into that jazz-musician-shaped hole in their heads that they brought with them from the Midwest. In truth, the man isn’t bad. He’s loose, playful, and knows exactly what he’s dishing up. He’s a good-looking black man in his mid-fifties, with a salt-and-pepper beard. The sax case at his feet is stickered with European decals. He’s played Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. The sax case is open and quickly filling with fives.
We have always jokingly referred to New Orleans as part of the Third World, a foreign country in the United States. We didn’t know how right we were. America either loves us or hates us. Those who love us love our music and food, a music and food that came from the depths of poverty and sorrow. The slaves sang spirituals to lift themselves up from pain and to get God’s ear. New Orleans jazz was born in whorehouses, another means of alleviating pain. This music told the stories of the poor who had no way out of New Orleans except for Jesus or gin. New Orleans has other arts, brought here by Spanish and French colonists, by pirates and renegades, by writers from other geographies of pain, and by Caribbean pagans. New Orleans has the most diverse spirituality in the whole of our quickly homogenizing states.
Did I just read a little contempt for visitors from the Midwest somewhere there? Perhaps I should feel insulted, even if I’m not quite “from” the Midwest?