In 1995, I was working as a word processing manager for a law firm in downtown Seattle, on the 70th floor of the Columbia Center. I had only been with the firm for a few months, and as a relatively new employee, I didn't have much vacation time saved up, maybe just a couple of days. Ever eager to get out on the road, I was looking for my next fix -- a fun and totally new destination that I could get to with limited time and money. It would have to be engineered as an "early flight out" and "late flight back" kind of experience, and I would need to wedge a weekend in between departure and arrival dates to maximize my window of time. My colleagues at the firm had been talking about New Orleans and how much fun they had when they visited. Their stories were intriguing. Having never been there myself, I decided that was where I wanted to go, and I chose Mardi Gras as my target date. I would leave on a Friday and return on Monday, chewing up just two vacation days to experience the city in the midst of its grandest celebration.
February 17, 1995 - Stuck in Memphis
True to form, not wanting to waste a single minute of vacation time, I chose an early morning flight out of Seattle, with a planned arrival in New Orleans in the early afternoon. Flying out on the now-defunct Northwest Airlines, I would need to change planes in Memphis. I was very excited about seeing New Orleans for the first time, downright electrified by the thought of wandering the old streets and exploring the French Quarter; I could scarcely stand the anticipation of it. I had a short list of places I wanted to see that I had either read about or that were recommended to me by friends and co-workers.
After about three and half hours in the air, we landed in Memphis and I made my way to the gate of my connecting flight. When the departure time came and went, and still there was no plane at the gate, my exuberant mood slowly melted into a dark feeling of dread. Having so little time to spare for this getaway, I had my eye on the clock constantly. At first, all of us bound for New Orleans were told that the plane was just late for arrival, but as the hours wore on, and still no plane appeared, the crowd began to lose patience, and I began to fret about the evaporating time -- I might not get to see everything I wanted to. Some of the passengers resorted to yelling at the agents, demanding answers. It was getting ugly. The official story coming from the airline suddenly changed: a faulty part on our non-existent plane needed to be replaced and they were waiting for that part to arrive. Finally, after eight hours of waiting at the gate, the airline broke down and decided to put us all on a chartered bus and drive us down to New Orleans. It was 11 p.m. by the time we departed the Memphis airport. Perhaps as a mollifying gesture, Northwest Airlines provided us with McDonald's hamburgers as we boarded the bus -- no fries, no frills, no fountain drinks. All we got were the cheap, plain hamburgers -- no Big Macs or Quarters Pounders. I was starving. In the airport, I continued postponing dinner, not wanting to miss the anticipated announcement that our plane had arrived and was ready for boarding. I greedily devoured my meager portion.
Having left the airport, and now southbound on I-55, I could officially count Tennessee as a new state. It was the 27th state I had been to. On the bus, I got the front seat so that I could see what remained of Tennessee as we traveled south. A few minutes into our trip, we crossed into Mississippi, and the 28th state I had been to. It was also the dead of night; I could barely see anything at all of what was passing outside the bus save for the occasional red, blinking lights atop passing radio towers. The interstate cuts a narrow trough through the thick forested landscape of northern Mississippi, leaving a wall of trees on either side as the only feature of mother nature visible from the road. I was awake when we passed through Jackson, but sleep overtook me as we were leaving the city. When I awoke, it was dawn and we were arriving at the New Orleans airport. I had lost nearly an entire day of travel. I was cranky and exhausted from the long journey, and had spent the last six hours trying to sleep in an upright position on a crowded bus. I called the hotel ahead of time to let them know I would be checking in very early on the morning of the 18th. I chose a hotel in Kenner, near the airport, to save money. Hotels in New Orleans proper, especially during Mardi Gras, were completely out of my price range. After picking up my rental car, I went straight to the hotel, deposited my bags and showered. I could feel that flush of excitement returning as the last of the obstacles of transit were falling away. New Orleans was now just a short 20-minute drive away!
February 18, 1995
I had a very packed agenda for the day, and having lost some time the day before, I decided to make a quick dash through the French Quarter, taking mental notes of places I would return to later. What I had planned to do that day was drive out from the city and visit the bootheels of Mississippi and Alabama. The Gulf Shores of both states, at their southern extremes, were just a short drive away.
What I recall most vividly about that drive as I was leaving the heart of New Orleans, eastbound on I-10, was the image of poverty along the freeway. I saw houses and apartment buildings that were so dilapidated and worn down and choked with kudzu vines that they looked like they would collapse at any moment. They didn't appear to be fit for human habitation. And yet, I could clearly see people living in them. In that moment, I came to the sobering, stone-cold reality that abject poverty was a daily circumstance for some people in the Unites States. And I'm a little embarrassed to say, it was a surreal awakening for me, undoubtedly because I wasn't used to seeing this kind of urban decay growing up in the Pacific Northwest. It's one thing to know of a difficult truth, but seeing it with your own eyes transforms that ugly truth into one that is no longer deniable or escapable. I've spoken before of how certain experiences on the road can dredge up unpleasant feelings about your relationship with the world around you, and how those experiences often lead to a closer examination of your values and beliefs. This was one of those moments, and it haunted me long after my visit to New Orleans.
Less than an hour later, getting off the freeway at Slidell, I was crossing into Mississippi at Pearlington on U.S. 90.
I stayed on U.S. 90, passing through the cities of Pass Christian, Gulfport and eventually, Biloxi. I noted the presence of lots of casinos in this part of Mississippi. Here are a few photos I took while in Biloxi:
Nearly two hours later, I was crossing into Alabama, and what also appeared to be much better weather. Alabama officially became the 29th state I had been to.
Mobile was as far as I had planned to travel that day. I got off the interstate via a downtown exit and drove around the streets of the city center, pleasantly enjoying some of the older neighborhoods and admiring the architecture. As I was winding through the city's core, I turned onto a street that lead right into the middle of a Mardi Gras parade. To this day, I don't know how I did it, or why there were no barricades or people to stop me from crashing the parade, but there I was, in my rental car, slowly rolling along a downtown street, sandwiched in between floats and marching bands. The cheering multitude clung to the street’s curbs and watched me as I slunk down in the driver’s seat. I was mortified. I needed to get off the parade route, and fast. It seemed like it took forever, but in real time, it was probably just a minute or two. I found a break in the barricades and fled the parade, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. My story of being in Mobile, though an embarrassing experience at the time, was a humorous one that I still love to talk about.
Back on the interstate, I followed I-10 all the way back and stopped to get this picture at the Louisiana state line:
Having returned to the city, I found one of the grand cemeteries I had heard so much about. When you visit New Orleans, you really must find one to visit, either on a guided tour where you will pick up a lot of history, or as a solo adventurer. Some cemeteries will only allow you in as part of a tour group, so you may have to scout around to find one that is open to the public. The Garden District has many public cemeteries like this. These cities of the dead are extraordinary and unique, filled with ancient, above-ground crypts and burial plots. So if you're wondering why they bury people above ground, you're not alone. I had the same question. It all has to do with elevation. Half of New Orleans is at or below mean sea level, and because the water table is very high, burials presented a challenge for early settlers. Dig a few feet down, and the grave becomes soggy, filling with water. Caskets would literally float. The solution was to bury the dead in above-ground chambers, like these:
February 19, 1995
New Orleans is truly a city like no other in the United States. Culturally, the city sits at the crossroads of many different linguistic, ethnic and musical influences: French Acadian (or "Cajun"), Spanish, and Haitian, all fused together in the milieu of the American Deep South. The collision of diverse ethnic groups and languages created a distinct culture noted for its own brand of cuisine (Creole), its own unique dialect (Cajun English) and its many musical genres (Jazz, R&B, Zydeco). You'll experience this wonderful blend of culture as you stroll through the French Quarter (also known as the Vieux Carré). For me, this was the focal point of my visit to New Orleans.
Before diving headlong into the Vieux Carré, still bound by the pact I recently made with myself to visit every county in the Unites States, I took my rental car and picked up as many new counties (in Louisiana, they are called parishes) as I could, all the while never straying too far from New Orleans itself. In total, I checked three off my list that day: the parishes of Plaquemines, Jefferson, and St. Bernard.
The French Quarter
The Quarter is a very distinct neighborhood -- the oldest in the city -- and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. It is bounded on the west by Canal Street, on the east by Esplanade Avenue, on the north by Rampart Street, and to the south by the Mississippi River, encompassing a total of about 78 city blocks. The streets are narrow, one-way, and sometimes cobblestoned channels through the tightly packed houses and buildings. Creole townhouses, the most iconic architectural feature of the neighborhood, dominate the street views with their two-, three-, or four-story construction, wrought-iron balconies, and Spanish-influenced details. They usually feature shops below and residential spaces above, with brick or stucco exteriors and arched windows. The Quarter is filled with many great shops and restaurants, and some of the best food I've ever had.
Even though Mardi Gras wouldn't officially begin until February 28th that year, celebrations in the city had clearly already begun. The French Quarter was alive with tourists and revelers, artists and street musicians, filling the narrow streets to capacity. People were packed into the bars along Bourbon Street, and music could be heard everywhere.
The beating heart of the Vieux Carré is Jackson Square, which is a large, open park frequented by artists and musicians, and dominated on its north end by the soaring spires of the majestic St. Louis Cathedral. It sits right on the northern banks of the Mississippi River, although you do have to climb the levee in order to peer into the lazy waters flowing by. Interestingly, if you are in Jackson Square and spot a ship passing by on the Mississippi, it will look as if it's floating on air.
At the corner of Decatur and St. Ann Streets, you'll find the Café du Monde, famously known for serving warm, delectable beignets. They are so popular that, depending on when you arrive, you may have to stand in a long queue to get one. They are, without a doubt, entirely worth the wait. Walk a little further east along Decatur Street and you'll come to the entrance of the French Market and Dutch Alley where you'll find scores of vendors selling gifts, souvenirs, flowers, handmade crafts and some of that famous New Orleans cuisine (gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée). The city's unofficial motto can be found printed on t-shirts, souvenir coffee mugs and magnets, and dozens of other items sold in the French Market: Laissez les bons temps rouler ("let the good times roll").
Later in the afternoon, a small Mardi Gras parade was underway along Canal Street. I got this shot of the Krewe of Carrollton as it was passing by. People atop floats were tossing strings of gold, purple and green beads, plastic cups and gold medallions at spectators who had gathered at the edge of the street. By the time I left New Orleans, I had a pretty good collection of beads to take home as souvenirs.
That night, on the recommendation of a friend, I decided to have dinner at the Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. I was seated at a table alone, but it didn't take long for a nearby group of people to invite me to join them for dinner. They ordered a plate of crawfish which they generously offered to share with me. I was honestly a little reluctant to try it. I'd never eaten these strange-looking little crustaceans before, but as I was in New Orleans, and craving an authentic Louisiana culinary experience, I let my new friends feed one to me as they took this picture. As it turned out, I really enjoyed the crawfish!
February 20, 1995 - Going Home
My flight was scheduled to leave in the late morning, which didn't give me much time to continue my exploration of the city. I dropped off my rental car and went straight to the gate. Fortunately, there were no mechanical issues with the planes that day, so travel was problem-free all the way back to Seattle. I had thoroughly enjoyed my brief stay in New Orleans and vowed to return to that great city one day for a longer visit. I wouldn't get another chance to do that until October 2017.
Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!