Rambling – Louisiana was the perfect state to launch my gap year. We had already planned a family gathering to attend VoodooFest, a three-day long music and art festival held the weekend before Halloween. When we left New Orleans a week later sated and exhausted, Linda and I ventured through Cajun country and then on to Mississippi. 1,000 miles later we were back at the Louis Armstrong airport heading home for Thanksgiving and a countdown to my first cross country trip that will start the week after and likely last three months.
There is no way to convey the profusion of experiences from this first trek but I’ve highlighted what I wouldn’t want to miss below, included books I read in the sidebar, and detailed the route on this planning site (see the map on the righthand side).
A great joy of rambling is simply staring out of car windows at the landscapes that you pass. Louisiana’s bayous and swamps offer enchanting images and jumping on a boat in the bayou is worth a detour. While your first thought may be of alligators and Spanish moss draped over cypress trees, swamps and bayous have a graceful and quiet beauty. Fortunately I did not read this article from NatGeo before our tour – Beware in the Bayou: Alligators and Crocodiles Can Climb.
Lacking that beauty were the massive heads of lawyers staring down from billboards every few miles pitching their courtroom finesse at getting a large settlement for your injury and the casinos attached to truck stops every few miles. More fascinating was the sugar cane. I had no idea sugar cane was still so heavily cultivated in this region but large harvesters were cutting cane throughout central Louisiana and trucks were transporting the yield to massive processing plants. We stopped abruptly at the sight of one of these plants and watched in awe at the scale of the production facility.
Listening – I’m still struggling to find ways to move past a tourist experience and learn more about the states where I have the privilege to travel. I am gobbling up any books that are recommended and reading newspapers to get local context. In Louisiana, papers offered tips that led us to a small-town church festival we attended with phenomenal Zydeco music and home cooking and recounted myriad accusations and indictments for embezzlement and other forms of sleaze for minor and prominent politicians. I’ll leave it to you to draw lessons from the latter.
Celebrating – But if there is one thing Lousiana knows how to do it is to celebrate. You can’t help but jump up and dance with all the Cajun, Zydeco, and brass band music. It is so energetic and joyous. And New Orleans has to be one of the most magical places on earth with its cross current of cultures, the rich and complex history, its musical traditions, pain and triumphs, . . .
For me, much was encapsulated in one of those chance opportunities that arise – a second line to celebrate the life of Fats Domino who had died at 89 a week before. Starting in the Bywater and marching to his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, you saw the devastation that remains from Hurricane Katrina but your primary experience was of an exuberant cacophony of people, sounds and music celebrating the life of this music pioneer. If you have never joined a true second line, make sure you look for one when you are in New Orleans. WWOZ, a fabulous radio station, offers a wonderful resource on second line and Mardi Gras Indian events.
Of course, the real celebration was having our daughters, their boyfriends, and family from England and North Carolina join us. We rented a house in Mid-City, a wonderful part of town which placed us within walking distance of VoodooFest, in the midst of some of our favorite local neighborhood bars and restaurants and a short cab ride to the French Quarter, Garden District and other tourist locations.
VoodooFest offered an array of music from Kendrick Lamar (who dominated the stage), to Black Pistol Fire, Chicano Batman, Gnash, Durand Jones and the Indication, Afghan Whigs, LCD Soundsystem, Nightmre . . . Don’t worry I hadn’t heard of many of these groups myself but with four stages you always had something to choose from (even if you didn’t have any place to sit which got VERY tiring for the 12 hour days).
We made it down to Frenchmen Street three times including on Halloween ending our All Hallow’s Eve at 2am at Oz on Bourbon Street. You can imagine the costumes and party atmosphere. The day before we had taken a Haunted History Tour through the French Quarter (which tied nicely into an American Horror Story season we watched when in need of a break) preceded by at Pat O’Brien’s of course.
Linda and I followed the musical muse out into Cajun country where we ended up on stage with the band at the end of the Rendez-vous des Cajuns, joined the Holy Ghost Creole Festival in Opelousas, stumbled into a club where the Cajun French Music Association Chapitre de Lafayette was two-stepping, etc.
And food – you can’t talk about Lousiana without the celebration your taste buds enjoy. I’ll leave the list of some favorites below but would be happy to offer many many more recommendations. (Actually just invite me down and I’ll be your personal tour guide in NOLA.)
Reflecting – With all of this what became clear was that I have a real challenge ahead. How do you immerse yourself in a state, a community, a culture while on the move? One phrase I just heard on a podcast from a buddhist/meditation teacher (more on that side of this gap year later) stuck with me – “follow the pretense of accident.” Like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which was inscribed on a beautiful old compass some colleagues at Pew gave me on my departure, it is subject to differing interpretations.
On this trip, I found that it was through a strange mix of planning and spontaneity that I stumbled on what felt genuine. When I walked into Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ simply because it was the closest church near our rental house (I plan to attend a service from one community of faith or another each week since they are welcoming to strangers and offer unique insights on the world and their community), I found a truly diverse congregation, a fluid order of service with congregants weaving in and out, quirky elements such as their sole commitment to acapella music (no instruments allowed), and a deep engagement with individuals and neighborhoods in need. That intention to attend weekly service combined with a decision to follow my feet to whatever house of worship was first on my path led to a wonderful experience. The same could be said of our decision to walk through the Treme neighborhood to the Backstreet Cultural Museum at the hour when the ailing founder, Sylvester Francis, was there to share his stories and further down the road in Breaux Bridge to open the door to a somewhat intimidating local club, La Poussiere, only to walk into the warm embrace of Debby who promptly led Linda onto the dance floor. One way or the other, there will be adventures ahead and some of the best won’t be on any of my spreadsheets.
Don’t miss (This blog post can only cover a snippet of the many great restaurants, music clubs and experiences on this journey. Here are a few I wouldn’t miss on my next visit to Louisiana.)
In New Orleans
- Backstreet Cultural Museum – a small but loving tribute to the African American culture of New Orleans with a special emphasis on jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians, and second lines parades
- Breakfast at Biscuits and Buns on Banks – everything was fabulous but fried chicken on a homemade biscuit with andouille and chorizo sausage gravy – oh my
- Drive through daiquiris throughout Louisiana – so wrong and yet so right
- Frenchmen Street – so many music clubs to weave in and out of with your drink in hand
- Fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Treme neighborhood
- Meat pies at Bourree
- National World War II Museum
- Po Boys at Parkway Bakery and Tavern
In Cajun Country
- Boat tour through Lake Martin Rookery and cypress/tupelo swamp with Champagnes Swamp and Bayou Tour
- Gumbo at Buck and Johnny’s in Breaux Bridge – and of course the music
- Holy Ghost Creole Festival in Opelousas —a small town church fair of Holy Ghost Catholic Church (a primarily African American congregation) that features Zydeco music and Creole food.
- “Rendez-vous des Cajuns” Cajun music radio and TV show in Eunice –weekly Cajun music performances recorded live from the historic Liberty Theater
- Two step at La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge – down home Cajun dance hall
- Next time I have to make it to Fred’s Lounge in Mamou.