Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Long Drive Home

It was time to head home, but we still hadn't explored one of those iconic New Orleans cemeteries. Luckily there was one open not too far from our hotel, and we were able to swing by on our way out of town.

A sign just inside the cemetery entrance read:

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
The oldest extant cemetery in New Orleans. Established by royal Spanish land grant August 14, 1789, originally outside city limits and double its present size this sacred ground reflects the culture and history of the Crescent City. A small area in the rear was once part of a larger section for Protestant burials. The Varney tomb to the right was once center of cemetery.
New Orleans Archdiocesan Cemeteries 1972

A couple of the tombs were marked up hardcore. Lots of little trinkets were left as offerings as well. Unfortunately we hadn't joined a tour or anything so we didn't understand the significance. There were a couple of tours in progress just in the short time we were there. One of my favorite things to do is sort of linger behind tour groups to try to overhear what the guide is saying. I'm bad to the bone.

 And that was that. Time to leave New Orleans. We took a different route back to St. Louis which provided more opportunities for fun.

View Day 6 in a larger map
Well Jackson, Mississippi was smack on the way back north, and we had already established a new rule back in Baton Rouge where we have to go to every capitol building that presents itself so we stopped to take a peek. But first thing's first. We had to eat.

I had to make what could have been our last meal in the South count, so I chose Bully's Restaurant in Jackson. Bully's is very soul food, or what my limited understanding pictures it to be anyway. There were four very large portraits on the walls: Martin Luther King Jr, Jessie Jackson, Malcolm X, and Barack Obama. The people were super nice. Even the other customers were asking us where we were from and so forth. I mentioned it to Lydia and she hypothesized that maybe they were so interested in us because they don't get many white folk in there. Who knows.

Our waitress was super interested in my copy of 1000 places to see before you die in the USA and Canada. I had it out because it was what had directed us to the restaurant in the first place, and I like to check the places off as I go to them. Even after we explained what it was, she probably mentioned it every time she came to our table. At one point she finally flat out indicated that she would like to have the book. I've been writing notes and checking things off in this book for years now, so the chances of me giving it to any random person who asks for it are near zero. I thought that maybe she was interested in it because it mentioned Bully's, but when I offered to mail a copy to the restaurant for her she insisted that I mail it to her HOUSE so that it didn't get "lost". She even wrote her address down and made me promise not to forget. Lydia and I both agreed that things were getting weird, so I just gave her an overly generous tip and figured she could get the darn thing for herself if she was so interested.

I don't want the strange book-loving waitress to take away from the food though. It was really good. The sides are really the good part of soul food in my opinion, so I skipped the meat and just got four sides. Clockwise from the top left is mustard greens, fried squash, fried green tomatoes, and fried okra. Very very good. Lydia had some fried fish over there and some sweet potatoes. The cafeteria tray is much more common at these types of establishments, and I don't know why.

We had a similar strange but really nice experience at the state capitol. The lady manning the metal detectors at the entrance again asked us where we were from and so forth. I don't think there were many tourists around so we probably stuck out again. We were given little gold Mississippi pins from the information desk and another different set from a guy who just walked up to us and welcomed us; One was shaped like the state house and another like the state.

When we got up to the upper floors we found where one can enter the galleries to the two houses of the state's congress. We walked toward one and there was a guard station with another metal detector and a sign stating all of the rules. No pictures, no yadda yadda. There was no guard though. We looked around the nearby offices, and finding no one to help us and not being brave enough to just walk in, we turned to the other house of government on the opposite side of the building. When we arrived over there, there was mercifully someone manning the post. Upon approaching though, he just looked at us and didn't say a word. Finally I asked if we could enter and he said sure just walk on in. When I asked if we should empty our pockets for the metal detector he shook his head. "No, I just turned it off. It makes a lot of noise".

I thought the interior looked nice and pretty normal for a state house. Lydia, though, pointed out all of the large light bulbs lining everything. She said it reminded her of a casino or if Donald Trump was governor of a state. When I was done shuddering at that thought, I agreed. I wonder if they have some significance or they are just bling.

We snooped around Oxford, MS, home of the University of Mississippi, but we didn't find too much. After spending a bit of time driving around looking for a place to eat we gave up and continued on the dusty trail.

We tried the chicken version of pork rinds procured from a gas station. Not good.

By the time we made it to Memphis we were hungry and thinking, "Why the heck not eat at Beale Street?" I also thought it was kinda cool to have walked around on Bourbon Street and Beale Street on the same day. I feel like the latter is a tamer but more polished version of the former. It must have been decently late because I recall jogging all the way from the car to get into our restaurant of choice before it closed down.

Fried Chicken and Waffles at Miss Polly's Soul City Cafe. BAM!

We at some point finally returned to St. Louis. I kissed my dogeared travel guide goodnight and put it back under my pillow where it belongs: safe from would-be kidnappers southern or otherwise.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Swamp Tour and a 32 Foot Alligator

We started off the day back on the road towards Slidell, LA.

View Day 5 in a larger map
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world.

Our first activity of the day was a Honey Island Swamp Tour. The base of operations was located just on the outskirts of Slidell.

The tour was clearly geared toward alligator watching but in between sightings our guide gave us lots of interesting information about the plant life in the swamp. He said that Spanish Moss didn't come from Spain but was named such by the Native Americans who noticed the similarity between the plant and Spaniards' facial hair.

The swamp people houses were another big highlight for me. Many of them were in disrepair and had been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina.

After another crawfish laden meal in Slidell proper, we took yet another last minute detour before returning to New Orleans. I enjoy the quirky-crafty flavors of Abita Brewing Company, so when I saw Abita Springs on the map I was practically obligated to go and check it out.

Well it turns out that the brewery has since moved to nearby Covington (sellouts!) but the brewpub where the magic began is still in operation. They had even crazier beer flavors than the few you can buy in St. Louis. We had one made for springtime that tasted like strawberries.

Speaking of quirky, most definitely the weirdest place we saw on the whole trip was the Abita Mystery House. It was completely packed full of mysteries.

One room was completely filled with odd little moving dioramas that told the story of Louisiana. 

This one was my favorite. I would have totally got an A in 7th grade history class with this baby.

When the aliens crash landed right next to a giant bassigator, things really got weird.

Why not make a wall by cementing glass bottles together?

"Devil Dog Bar-B-Que Sign. Both barbecued meats and a firm belief in the existence of hell are staples of Southern culture. Hot, spicy foods can't help but get associated with the Lord of the Underworld. With a fine eye for the Southern scene, set artist Dave Kelsey made this sign to appear with Tom Cruise in the film Interview with a Vampire--The Night Shift Historian"

32 feet. Get it?

Back in New Orleans we headed to the Garden District by trolley.

It's a bit hard to tell from this picture but many a tree and power line were completely drenched in beads from the frequent parades.

We saw a really cool cemetery but it was already closed. Womp womp.

The Garden District was so named because there were only a couple of fancy houses on each block surrounded by large gardens. The short version of the district's story is that the existing Creole inhabitants of New Orleans didn't like the influx of rich Americans and resisted them moving into to the established parts of the city such as the French Quarter. So the rich newbies just built their own neighborhoods in order to properly thumb their rich noses. We took a nice little self guided walking tour of the houses, but strangely enough I thought the fences were the best part.

Corn stalk fence. Never has there been a cooler fence.

I noticed some trees that had a lot of these little resurrection ferns hanging out on them. They can tolerate extremely dry conditions by getting all brown and crinkled and then pop up back to life when it rains.

Precursor to the chain link fence.

Run out of places to put fences? Doubtful.

We shopped around quite a bit for our last dinner in New Orleans. The French Quarter is just so crowded with tourists. The places that looked good had long waits and there were lots of places that didn't look very authentic. I recall vetoing at least one Italian restaurant. We finally found this nice place called Olivier's Creole Restaurant In the French Quarter. I had to fight the urge to order the rabbit. I recall the food being good and the waiter was super nice, which came in handy later. Unbeknownst to us there was a massive group upstairs that had the kitchen at an apparent standstill. I like to think I am pretty patient so the hourish-long wait for our food would not have bothered me incredibly. I was on vacation and in a good mood after all. But the waiter felt bad so he brought us free salads. Then a free appetizer. Then said pretty much just order whatever drinks and dessert you want on the house. More than one hurricane was consumed that night. They washed down the bread pudding nicely.

The nightly craziness on Bourbon Street was fun to watch but I wasn't much in the mood to participate. Especially on a Tuesday. Too much adventurin' to do!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Baton Rouge and New Orleans

We said goodbye to charming and crawfish inhabited Breaux Bridge and continued along the highway toward New Orleans.

View Day 4 in a larger map
We hadn't really planned on visiting Baton Rouge (Red Stick), but such is the magic of the road trip; the detours are often as much fun at the final destination. The landmark that piqued my interest was the state capitol building. Far from the played out domed structure, the Louisiana government headquarters looked very modern and reminded me of the Empire State Building.

A couple glass cases full of memorabilia stood in the hallway where Huey Long was assassinated. I of course had to read all about him on Wikipedia and the like. He was a US Senator during the Great Depression and had Presidential ambitions. He was apparently even more populist and leftist than FDR. FDR apparently told one of his aids that one purpose of the Second New Deal was to "steal Long's thunder". Pretty cool.

The whole experience was so unexpectedly cool that we agreed that we should try to visit the capitol building of every state where we have the opportunity.

The view from the top.

Finally we arrived in New Orleans. What a place. Our hotel was in the French Quarter so we headed there first. Bourbon Street during the day felt kind of like when its closing time at a bar and they turn all on the bright lights to get everyone to leave. All the crazy neon signs are without their magic and the bartenders all look very bored. At night though, it was rowdy even in the middle of the week.

Jackson Square, with its hero of the battle of New Orleans Andrew Jackson looking triumphant. St. Louis Cathedral in the back completes the postcard. 

The architecture and people watching were interesting enough that we spent most of the day strolling and soaking up the sights.

The Cafe Du Monde was really a required stop and was well worth it. I believe the menu only had two things, coffee and beignets. The beignets were awesome and some plates had so much powdered sugar on them that you couldn't see the doughnuts hiding underneath. I like the idea of a place doing just one thing really well for a really long time. Cafe Du Monde branded coffee and beignet mix cans were probably in every single gift shop in the whole city. I passed though. No way could you make them like that at home.

A little promotional video featured on their website. There's even a mention of Du Monde in Jimmy Buffett's "The Wino and I Know":

Well the coffee is strong
at the Cafe Du Monde,
And the donuts are too hot to touch;
But just like a fool, when those
sweet goodies cool, I ate 'til I ate way too much.