New Orleans, LA — I have a mixed relationship with swamp tours that feed the alligators. When I was about four, my parents took me to Disneyland and we waited in line for a ride called “The Jungle Cruise”. They thought it would be so fun. I was chased by all matter of farm animals growing up so surely I could tell the difference between a real alligator and a fake one rising out of the water. Nope. I screamed the entire time. “It’s a Small World After All” was the ride for me. Sorry, Mom and Dad. Now, some thirty years later, our Honey Island Swamp flatboat tour guide speared a hotdog on a stick and lured a 12-foot gator named Brutus to the boat. The thing looked like a massive curvy log but we didn’t realize his size until Brutus raised the bulk of his body out of the water and chomped the hotdog off the stick. My hands were sweaty. Lucy kept reminding me to keep my hands inside the boat.
The moral of the tour for me was: should we feed wild animals? No. But if we can contain tourists to a square mile of wild area and teach them respect for the land, maybe this is okay. Our tour guide lost everything he owned in Hurricane Katrina. The equivalent of a mountain man in the swamps, this was the job he found after the disaster. He couldn’t see himself doing anything else.
We passed under Tupelo trees, also known as black gum trees. Honey made from the nectar of flowers on the Tupelo tree the gold standard for honey. Due to the high ratio of fructose to glucose, it is the only honey that supposedly won’t crystallize. We brushed under black willow with narrow, slender leaves. Our guide explained that its bark contains a natural pain-reliever, a precursor to aspirin. The chemical salicin is metabolized into salicylic acid in the body which provides pain relief. Next to the willow, an arrow-root plant hung over the water – the roots served as a starch for indigenous people. Next to deserts, swamps had always seemed like a difficult place to eek out an existence.
Our guide floated us around a Tupelo tree to see that it was hollow on the back. He said bootleggers hid moonshine there during prohibition – I was becoming a swamp fan. Finally, the boat headed upriver past a Cajun community straight out of Beasts of the Southern Wild. (See this documentary if you haven’t). I wondered what it would be like to do social work with a community that you could only reach by boat, outside of the laws of taxes and emergency services. (Later, when I was touting the importance of saying “yes” to things people offer to you when you’re doing rural social work, an instructor told me about a New Orleans woman who laced her social worker’s coffee with LSD because she was mad at the state. I only say this to point out how, once you cross the water, you better know who makes the laws.)
The rest of New Orleans was a blur. Bourbon Street was at the height of Southern Decadence celebration and people in speedos walked around freely with drinks so we did the same (with drinks, not speedos), serving as patrons to all matter of boutiques. We searched for voodoo and treasure, paying homage to Louis Armstrong’s jazz coronet housed at the Louisiana State Museum (formerly the old U.S. Mint building) and dining on beignets from Café du Monde.
The French influence in New Orleans, I realized halfway through our visit, is partially tied to the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, one of the highlights of my 10,000 mile road trip last summer. The fortress is the largest historical reproduction in North America. Built on an ice-free harbor with a plethora of local cod (in fact, the whole place reeked of fish), the French and the British fought over this port until it fell to the British in 1758. Where did the French go? New Orleans.
When we returned to the car several hours later, we found that the man who told us we could park where we did for free was wrong. It was our second parking ticket; the first was in Savannah. We were $35 in the hole, telling ourselves that at least we were supporting the city indirectly.
The best recommendation (compared to the parking suggestion) that we received was to leave Bourbon Street and try Frenchman Street, namely a place called the Three Muses where we could hear live jazz and eat good food. If we didn’t get there by 5 o’clock, it was doubtless that we’d get a table. By some luck of newcomers (and a low-cut dress), we walked right in at 7 o’clock and ate the best food of our trip. Fried green tomatoes with crab and a bib salad with chicken breast stuffed with cornbread and wrapped in bacon. Go here.
Determined to be good patrons to the recovering city, we wandered the streets and bought a poem from a writer sitting with his Remington typewriter under an awning. The poem captured our road-trip and reminded us that we were right to not have our fortunes read on the corner. The city loved us and we loved it back, late into the night. Everyone told us to take a taxi and be safe but we were sober by the time we returned to our room. The sun followed close behind.
The next day, we left for Hot Springs, Arkansas by way of Mississippi. We found that Mississippi is home to the kindest, most humble, sweetest people we met on the whole trip. We stopped somewhere (which state were we in?) at a cotton museum and soon after, Lucy and I decided we just couldn’t beat New Orleans. Hot Springs, AR, would have to wait because we were tired and Denver-bound. We spent the night in Fort Smith, AR, after driving over the mountains in a thunderstorm. As far as we could tell, Fort Smith was an up-and-coming hub of the Wild West, and home to Miss Laura’s Social Club – the only brothel on the National Register of Historic Places. Somewhere, there are pictures. I hate to say it, but the next morning Oklahoma, while prettier than Kansas, was a slog and Kansas is a long, boring state if you’re on the highway. We were.
Lucy, the intrepid navigator, and I sped through Kansas. Looking for coffee somewhere in the middle of fields, we walked into a McDonalds. The mini-mart half of the store was closed off with a grate but a group of farmers agreed to let us take their picture. Later, we saw one of them drive off with his buddy and a tricycle in the back of his 1980s Toyota pick-up. We were back in the heartland.
Denver greeted us around 8pm, sans travel-spoon but 100 times more ready for the start of school. That night, I enjoyed a beer with my roommate who told me he’d just applied for a job in Minnesota. I told him I couldn’t talk about it at the moment. I was still recovering from New Orleans.