Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, and Cajun Country

Despite the underwhelming Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and our ambiguously anti-Semitic encounter outside its doors, it was very cool to be in the Delta region. Leaving Clarksdale, we passed the Riverside Motel, where Bessie Smith died, and the notorious “crossroads” where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Driving down the famous Highway 61, we eyed the gathering storm clouds nervously, and somewhat frantically listened to tornado warnings on the radio. The darkest clouds on the horizon were to the south and west, and so were the names of the counties mentioned on the radio, and so was our destination, Greenwood—where Robert Johnson died, and supposedly (always supposedly) was buried.

Greenwood, Mississippi.
 After rushing through the storm and staying the night in a little town called Belzoni, we tried and failed to find an apparently now-closed museum about Casey Jones, the famous train conductor. A bit frustrated, we decided to hop on the Interstate and book it for Jackson. Ever topical, we put on Johnny Cash, live at Folsom Prison. I promptly got a speeding ticket for going 87 in a 70 mph zone.

We didn’t spend too much time in either Jackson or Vicksburg, where we did enjoy a nice picnic on a bluff over the Mississippi. We met a nice gentleman there who grew up in the vicinity and claimed the river was in his blood. He said he proposed to his wife some 50 years ago in the parking spot next to Mortimer. He pointed out to us some of the spots relevant to the 1863 Grant campaign. When we told him what we’d already done in Mississippi and what we planned to do, he said we were “on the right track.” As someone who chronically worries that whatever route he is taking is not the most authentic route, this was nice to here.

We camped that night at a free campground off the Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic byway that runs several hundred miles from Natchez to Nashville, roughly along the route of old Native American trails. Built, like most good things in this country, in the 1930s, the Trace is certainly one of the best drives in the country for its combination of historical importance with unadulterated natural beauty: its entire length is completely free of power lines, billboards, or any commercialism whatsoever. Driving any portion of it is a privilege, and it feels like one.

Natchez Trace Parkway.
The next morning we toured two portions of the Natchez National Historical Park: the first was the Melrose Estate, just a basic old plantation, while the second was a house in the city that once belonged to William Johnson, a black freedman who, interestingly, eventually went on to be a successful businessman himself, owning most of the prominent barbershops in town and even several slaves. We learned that this was not so rare as you might think: if I remember correctly, about 12% of free blacks in the South before the Civil War owned slaves.
Later, on the drive down through plantation country in Louisiana towards New Orleans, we visited the Oakley Plantation, where a young John James Audobon tutored the mistress of the estate, and painted the first 30 of his Birds of America series. The grounds were beautiful and the tour was interesting, but Brahna and I were slightly taken aback when the tour guide, an inoffensive character in himself, proclaimed: “We actually treat our slaves quite well here at Oakley. We allow them to own cattle and even some land.” While I always find creepy the way that historians, professional and amateur, speak of things past in the present tense (i.e. “Grant needs Vicksburg to open up the Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two…”), hearing the tour guide speak in such a manner about slavery, as if, even if only colloquially, owning for himself that moral abomination, was more than a little weird. It led me to question the entire pastime—and that’s what it is in the South—of visiting old plantations and lamenting, implicitly, their bygone glory. As Brahna noted, the basic narrative is something like this: “Life in the Old South was easy, breezy, and rich, and here’s this beautiful house, and, oh yeah, here’s the slave quarters.” The connection between the leisurely lives of the plantation owners, memorialization of which is always the raison d’etre of the museums, and the existence of slavery is almost never directly and explicitly drawn. I started to feel as if just visiting these places means being complicit with an entire historical narrative with which I am deeply uncomfortable. While this is surely an exaggeration, the discomfort is real, and one faces it everywhere on a journey through the South.

Only in the South.
This was my fourth time in New Orleans, but my first since achieving sovereignty over my wallet. Thus I was mildly surprised to find, in place of the moneyless paradise of my memory, a city, and especially a French Quarter, overrun with $4 croissants and a Café du Monde line stretching the whole width of Jackson Square. While on the previous trips—a train trip with my father and two high school Katrina-related spring breaks—I had relied directly or indirectly on my parents’ funds, this time I was forced to be more budgeted. Suddenly, the city seemed less “eclectic” or “unique,” or any of the other words I had used for years to evangelize for New Orleans, and the Quarter itself much less “quaint” or “grungy.” This time, New Orleans represented itself to me as more similar than not to so many other cities I’ve visited—Portland, Denver, San Francisco, Austin—and not quite the non-commercialized weirdos’ haven I had held it to be. It was a little sad to realize that my idealization of New Orleans was more the effect of youth and inexperience than any radical differentness intrinsic to the city itself.

The St. Louis Cathedral from the Algiers ferry.
It didn’t take long to get over this realization, and to begin to enjoy New Orleans for what it actually is: a major modern city that does indeed have a certain unique spirit to it, and one that has made immeasurable progress recovering from a massive natural and manmade disaster, the reminders of which were still evident on every block when I last visited about four years ago. Gone were the water lines on buildings showing where the flood reached and remained for weeks after the levees failed. Gone, too, the boards on Canal Street shops and, for the most part, the windowless, hollowed-out high-rises around downtown. And though the difference between the investment in downtown and the Ninth Ward remains insultingly obvious, even that neighborhood—a ghost town just four years ago—shows serious improvement: most of the buildings now seem livable at least, and life has returned to its still dilapidated and potholed streets.

We stayed with Noa, a friend of one of Brahna’s sisters, whose house uptown gave us a really comfortable and welcoming base of operations for both exploring the city and getting some much needed R&R. Our first full day in the city we did the requisite AAA walking tour of the French Quarter, catnapped in Audobon Park, and tried some local delicacies at a street festival. This was also when we drove around to find what was left of hurricane damage at two places I remembered seeing some particularly brutal devastation: on the Lake Ponchartrain waterfront and in the Ninth Ward.
We took the next day pretty easy, as we were starting to feel the very real brunt of such persistent travel, and maybe a little of what my father calls “vista fatigue.” We combatted this with a very slow morning on Noa’s sunny back porch: Brahna wrote her last blog post and I read A Confederacy of Dunces (my reading habits while traveling are pathetically topical). Later, we did the AAA walking tour of the Garden District, took the ferry over to Algiers and back again, and then caught some live jazz on Frenchman Street. Tipsy and tired and in no mood to endure the long trek via streetcar back uptown, we nonetheless convinced ourselves to dip in for the obligatory Café du Monde beignets and café au lait. It was kind of pointless.

Cafe du Monde.
We left New Orleans the next morning and headed for Lake Fause Pointe State Park, in the heart of Cajun Country. We pitched our tent in a picture-perfect spot on the banks of a bayou, and finally got the chance to open up our new double hammock and really unwind. We had had no food all day, however, so we headed into the nearest town (almost 20 miles away) for groceries, gas, and firewood. A man working at the gas station (which had pumps dating at least from the 1950s) directed us down a few country roads to a private house where he said we could knock on the door for firewood.

It was outside this house that we met Gerald Judice, an amazingly kind Cajun man who has made it his job to haul massive chunks of ancient cypress wood out of the local bayous, dry it out for about five years, and shape it into bowls, paddles, chairs, and anything else he cares to. He gave us a tour of his wood findings and his creations, and showed us around his orange orchard, picking off samples from every tree for us to try. Gerald sent us home with a shopping bag full of various kinds of oranges, which we are still trying to get through. As Brahna said later, of Gerald and so many others like him that we’ve met, their kindness is truly humbling.

The next morning we rented a canoe for $5 and explored some of the bayous surrounding the park. Our constant vigilance for alligators turned up only a few babies and many turtles, until, crossing paths again with two old ladies fishing off a dock (we’d gotten tangled in their lines the first time around), they pointed to an adult gator nosing through the water. 

Bayou Benoit near St. Martinsville, Louisiana.
This post is already way too long, but I also want to mention Ian and Sue, a couple we met at the campground. They are a middle-aged couple from Vermont who have taken six months off to travel around the South by RV. As they have both more time and less ground to cover than we do, Ian and Sue have been able to go much slower: they, too, had traveled around 4,000 miles since leaving the Northeast, but they left just after Christmas. Ian said that they had learned the lesson long ago that by trying to see too much, you end up seeing very little. 

I appreciated the wisdom of this, and began to feel bad about all the up-and-down movement Brahna and I had submitted ourselves to on this first leg of the trip. I began to feel tired, or finally realized I was tired, of putting up the tent one night only to take it down the next morning. While obviously you always have to makes compromises—on a trip like this, choosing to see something is always an implicit choice not to see something else—I began to worry, as I’m always wont to do, that we weren’t doing the trip right. Maybe two nights in one place is better than two nights in two different places. Maybe we’re being too ambitious. Maybe we’ll have regrets.

We both realize that these things are always held in a fine balance, and that the important thing is not to be fearful that we’re doing it wrong. Nonetheless, I’m excited as we head into the West. With so much more space between what is so appropriately called “attractions,” I think this next leg of the trip will be something else entirely.


Next up: Houston, Austin, San Antonio. Tonight we’re camping at the Amistad reservoir, which straddles the Mexican-American border.

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