We had thought we would drive to Kentucky: Mammoth Cave, the Green River, Pleasant Hill, and points unknown. The weather, though, was not cooperating. Our friends at The Weather Channel assured us that we would be perfectly miserable in Kentucky, and we took them at their word. In fact, it was difficult to find any state in the eastern U.S. that didn’t promise rain, chill, and gloom. What to do?
We pondered that question throughout Monday. Late in the day, my wife made her case for New Orleans. West, after all, seemed like the right direction. We would drive through the rain until we found the sun and warmer temperatures. Tuesday morning found us packing the car: new family-sized tent, sleeping bags, clothes, a goodly supply of snacks.
The rain came down in sheets at times, and I-85 had nothing of interest to offer us, but there we were in our station wagon, pointed toward Mobile, snug as bugs in a rug. I myself was in a terrific good humor. There was something very satisfying about the prospect of rocketing along the Gulf Coast in the wind and rain. We had no specific destination in mind, no hotel reservation, no idea where we would be on Wednesday or Thursday. I was so tipsy from this cocktail of pure possibility, dreadful weather, and the seedy romance of the Gulf Coast that I fully expected to encounter Louisiana author Walker Percy’s character Will Barrett, from The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming, setting up his telescope at some Alabama rest stop.
We made Mobile. We found I-10. We punched through a wall of rain into the tropical green of Louisiana and sensed that we had traveled, hobbit-like, into a strange new land. We found a decrepit hotel in the French Quarter called the _____________, about two blocks from Jackson Square. Our second-floor room and bath were reached by an iron stair and a hallway so narrow that we had to close the entryway door before we could open the door to our room. The décor was übertacky. As a fellow guest said to me about our hotel, as we stood in the lobby waiting for help with our luggage, “It’s old, but it’s clean.” And then he started to say something else — I’m guessing it was “Well, mostly clean” — but thought better of it.
No matter. We were in Nu Awlins. I had cold beer in a cooler. Café du Monde and its beignets were right down the street. Not many folks were braving the cold front, so we had the French Quarter pretty much to ourselves. We window-shopped, stood outside cafes and listened to jazz, ate ice cream, soaked up the atmosphere, and met a palm reader outside Jackson Square who informed us that …
There’s eleven of those cats that live in the Square. They have it all to themselves, as soon as the gates are locked. They’re meowing now because they’re hungry. I feed them every night. If I’m not working one night, I come down here anyway to feed them. That one there is named Louisa — I’ve named most of them.
On Wednesday, after a fabulous breakfast at a bakery near the hotel, we visited the Aquarium of the Americas. It was still too cold to fully enjoy a streetcar ride and walking tour of the Garden District, so we drove over there, and decided in the end to get out and walk around anyway. Where to next? That afternoon, we drove for miles and miles along a two-lane road at the base of the Mississippi’s western levee. On our right, all that way, rose an unbroken slope of green grass, fringed at the top with the branches of trees growing along the river that we knew was there but couldn’t see. On our left, tidy little houses with tidy little yards, white clapboard churches at the edge of sugarcane fields, mobile homes clustered around tar-paper grocery stores, and the occasional two-storied, white-columned plantation house (“Laura,” “Oak Alley,” etc.).
It was hard to leave the river, and the sense that around the next curve in the road we would find another beautiful or strange scene to behold — a stand of moss-draped live oaks, or a hawk doing lazy circles over a furrowed field, or a graveyard smack in the middle of a chemical plant –but we had decided on Lafayette, and we had to get there.
As we crossed the Atchafalaya Basin on the interstate, the sun broke through the clouds and lit the cypress and willow trees in the black water. A good sign. In Lafayette, parked on a side street near the Catholic cathedral, we had to make a choice: the Hilton or a family-owned inn? The Hilton had an obvious appeal: impersonal, predictable, clean. But we chose _________ and that was a lucky thing. MV and CV run the place. He looks and talks like a younger and Acadian Shelby Foote. She is the sort of innkeeper who, on being told by my younger son that his older brother is allergic to cats and dogs, opens the front door to let a second dog into the house.
(About one of their dogs, a poodle, CV told an amusing story. He and his wife were touring Savannah, and they decided to take a carriage ride around the squares. The poodle was allowed to join them, and sat up on one of the seats. As the tour guide gestured to the right and left with stories about the houses and buildings, the poodle, with that regal air that large poodles have, looked dutifully to the right and left, for all the world like a dog with a sense of history or an interest in historic preservation.)
MV sent us off to Randol’s for dinner, where we listened to Cajun music, watched dancing couples move in a big clockwise circle around the dance floor, admired the huge platters of steamed crawfish that all the locals were devouring, and had a good dinner ourselves.
The next day –this would be Thursday — after a delicious breakfast of French toast and fresh fruit (not altogether ruined for me by the presence of CV at my elbow, chatting me up, telling me all about his experience in the service, about this two very different sons, about his grandsons, one of whom is artistic but lacks confidence in his ability, another of whom is the son of __________, and more’s the pity, because his father, well, there are children present, and it’s enough to say, isn’t it, that his father is a politician, and in any case, CV made clear to his grandson that while he wouldn’t go behind his son-in-law’s back in this matter of punishment for poor grades and such, he also wouldn’t fully abide by his son-in-law’s hare-brained notions, and if the grandson would improve his grades, then he would take the grandson out of school to go hunting and fishing with his grandfather, and wouldn’t you know, he had all A’s on his next report card! …)
To resume, KV, one of the sons, took us on an adventure. We visited a bird sanctuary owned by the Nature Conservancy and saw egrets, ibises, anhingas, herons, warblers, and many other birds. He also took us on a boat trip in the Atchafalaya Basin, where we soaked up the sun, saw ospreys and owls, admired the cypress trees, looked for alligators but saw none, and were chatted up by KV, who is very much his father’s son. Delivered from the swamp, and from his extraordinary but slightly worrisome friendliness (“Now, I mean it! You just give us a couple of days notice, and my wife and I will take you right out to my house on the swamp. We’ll help you get settled, cook up a mess of Cajun food, spend the first night with you, and then leave you there to enjoy the swamp”), we drove east to New Roads, where we crossed the river via the St.Francisville ferry.
As we came into St. Francisville, we were smitten by the beauty of the Episcopal Church and its grounds. We walked through the cemetery and kept exclaiming about how beautiful the trees were, how lovely the day was. It hardly seemed fair, we said, that some people wake up every morning in such places, while the rest of us have Blockbusters, McDonalds, and Walmarts for neighbors. It was too beautiful to abandon. We stayed the night at __________, which has an air of the ramshackle, and I at least was relieved to discover that L., the innkeeper, was either too busy or too reserved to come perch on our porch and tell us her life story. After supper at the Magnolia Café, we walked through town and enjoyed peering through the dark at front porches and into lamp-lit, antique-filled parlors.
Friday morning at the inn provided amusement. At breakfast in the main house of the inn, we were greeted by an elderly Cajun gentleman who, with his wife, was passing through St. Francisville on what he claimed was a trip to buy fish upriver from his home. It seems that fish down his way are too contaminated to eat. In any case, he came and stood at each of several tables, asking somewhat perfunctorily about our places of origin, but more interested, much more interested, in talking about fish — in French, if the guest could manage it, but if not, in heavily inflected English. There he stood at our table, a small, watery-eyed man in his mid-eighties, while his wife tried to make herself invisible in a corner. “Parlez francais?” “No, I don’t, but how are you?” “Very guud, very guud, but ma chere and I are going to buy sum feesh upriver . . .” At one point, he wandered over to a nearby table — the woman there clearly intended to humor the main, but her husband was thinking of shouting, “This is my vacation, you old crazy coot!” — and broke out into song, in French, which sent fingers of electricity up everyone’s legs straight to our eyes, which bulged out of their sockets. My wife and boys fled. I cowered, but was determined to finish my coffee.
Friday was a driving day. We stopped in Natchez and stretched our legs. We drove up the Natchez Trace a ways. A beautiful road. We lunched. We aimed for Selma. We arrived in Selma. We purchased provisions. We found the Paul Grist State Park and set up our tent. I’d like to say that camping with my sons at a state park in the sovereign state of Alabama (“We Dare to Defend Our Rights”) was a big hit. What I can say is that two beers were not sufficient — no, not in the least adequate — to prepare me for having my younger son, inexplicably, decide that he was frightened to spend the night in a tent and could be comforted only with great difficulty.
Of course, he did not admit to being frightened. Instead, he wailed that the only reason he ever agreed to sleep in a tent was in order to stargaze, and as it turned out, he could not in fact see any stars. No effort to point out the dozens of visible stars was successful, even though my older son said over and over, in his earnest way, “Look right there, right where I am pointing . . .” Each fresh attempt only increased the decibel level of his sobbing. At length, an accommodation was worked out. As some fraction of his difficulty seemed to be related to the fact that he alone lacked an inflatable mat upon which to spread his sleeping bag, his mother agreed to exchange her mat for his pillow. He accepted this exchange, though I heard him mutter, “Even though I really did like that pillow, Mom,” hoping against hope, I suppose, that he might stage a real coup and end up with the whole shebang. This exchange did seem to improve his vision, too, as several stars then came into focus for the young fellow. Ah, nature! Ah, the great outdoors. My thought was only to survive until morning, when I could make myself an impossibly strong cup of coffee.
I did (survive), and I did (drink delicious coffee sludge as I watched the mist rise from the lake). The boy was in great spirits to discover that he also had survived. Homeward, homeward, and like Tolkein’s Samwise Gamgee, who says at the very end of the final book to his wife and children, “Well, I’m back,” we were back, back to grocery-shopping, clothes-washing, bill-paying, task-managing, and many other tiresome but necessary duties and responsibilities.
But it’s all still there, which is a consolation: the big, dirty river; the forgotten little towns; the county roads that must go somewhere; the osprey chicks in their treetop nest; the smoky dance halls filled with accordion-and-fiddle tunes that all sound the same; the crazy old men driving their big old cars in search of edible fish; the local gals in their hoop skirts saying “y’all” over and over for the benefit of the Yankee tourists; the tarot-card readers and the cat lady; the bored ferry workers; and all the people who live in those places and don’t think that someone might drive through and think, “Now, here’s a place . . .”