New Orleans! Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores!
If you want to go to hell you should take the trip
to the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Mississip'!
– The Simpsons
U.S. customs officials let us pass after giving our van a once-over and its inhabitants a healthy glowering. They stowed the nine of us in a tiny room and concluded that our grapes ("no soft fruits") couldn't enter the country. So we ate them in the room and were on our way.
Drove through the night sleeping sporadically. I woke up just north of Omaha and spent the day witnessing the spectacle that is the American heartland: Iowa, Kansas City, Missouri – this is what I refer to as Billboard Country. Billboards for tattoo removal. Billboards for fireworks outlet stores and gun shows. Some billboards that say Jesus Completely Saves (as opposed to?). Other billboards that simply say Jesus. There is not a speck of nature left to see from I-70 between KC and St Louis.
By mid-afternoon we reached St Louis and stopped for lupper. It's a beautiful sunny day and the snow has disappeared – to a Winnipegger, this may as well be Mexico. Had a sampling of local beers at a place near the Mississippi (yummy!) and made a quick go around the Arch (loopy!) before heading to Memphis, which we reached after dark.
After what well may have been the Greatest Sleep Ever, we got stuffed at an IHOP and took the Cheapskate's Tour of Graceland (a perusal of tacky gift shops and a free glimpse of the estate from across the street). My stars, this is the home of kitsch.
By noon we had hopped into Mississippi en route to New Orleans. Everyone here has that accent I've only heard on TV, like Harry Connick Jr. And because the CD player in the rental van is busted, we absorb a healthy chunk of classic rock on this part of the trip – only here it somehow fits, unlike at home where I shudder at every rusted Firebird blaring "The Boys Are Back In Town".
It was good times until we hit a brick wall of gridlock still miles from New Orleans. It was only then we realized it was Friday night and half the country was funneling into town. Naïve as we were, we assumed we could pop into any motel and nab three rooms. In possibly our greatest single moment of sheer dumb luck, the first place we checked had a large group cancel on them – so their rooms, maybe the only ones left in town, were ours.
Leading up to Bourbon Street, we obediently answer the call of a shouting man shouting "Hurricanes to go" and receive the prerequisite buzz before hitting the madness. A throng of dudos with videocams watch the body-painting shop. I get on my knees and pray for beads from a woman in a balcony, which turn out to be the finest of my collection. We turn left on Bourbon and instantly find out what it's like to live in China – if all of China lived in a broom closet. The vibe is sweet, but the crowd is crushing, the footing difficult from busted beads and trash, all plastered with the scent of a thousand different colognes. It's a shoulder-to-shoulder human stew. Girls flash and you hear it a block away. Trinkets dropping from the sky. One bar had a bouncer to guard the restroom – a hot commodity, especially for the ladies (I shudder at why the men's line is so short). A once-in-a-lifetime experience to be sure.
Looking like nine Mr. Ts with our beads, we walk to the Café du Monde for a nightcap. Nearby, John Brown the Sidewalk Astronomer (son of N.O. jazzman Pud Brown) shows us the rings of Saturn through a giant telescope while fending off a blubbering drunk girl ("I don't need to see no Saturn, I got a satellite dish at home!") and catcalls from the street ("Saturn?! Saturn is full of sh*t!" – my new favourite quote).
The sun is out. It's warm. By noon I've forgotten it's even February, and isn't that what a good holiday is supposed to do?
The afternoon parade on Canal is a sight to behold. Folks lined up five rows thick to receive a bombardment of free junk tossed from floats full of Elvises, aliens and people dressed as cows. Music blasting. Liquor flowing (constantly). Afterwards, people flood the street and it's like the apocalypse – I've never seen so much trash blowing around in my life, and I pass a landfill every day to work. Some of us stick around for the big-ass evening parade (featuring Gene Simmons and Marisa Tomei as ambassadors), but I'm dead on my feet. Kerry, Jason and I head to a Cajun bistro, munch and relax.
We all meet up at John Brown's telescope and trot a few blocks to a strip of clubs where we watch St Louis Slim and his four-man band play a super set at the Spotted Cat, and a dancing fiftysomething man in a G-string, bra and see-through teddy only adds to the scene. The place is packed, and between Naked Man and the smoke we take in as much as we can and call it a day.
Day Four & Five
At the Barataria preserve we geek it up on the boardwalks – bear in mind these are mostly nature interpreters I'm traveling with, plus I loves the birds myself. A cypress swamp is a sight to behold, with moss hanging off every branch and bird calls penetrating the forest. Great egrets slink through the undergrowth. Cardinals sing. Owls hoot. Hard to believe we were on Bourbon Street only hours ago. We failed in our quest for gators, but spotted a little blue heron, a red-bellied woodpecker and a white ibis.
Our final stop before the long, long, long haul to Winnipeg was the picturesque Oak Alley Plantation further up the Mississippi. Flanked by giant 300 year-old oaks, we joined a tour and viewed the interior of the 11,000 square-foot manor. Beautiful, but exorbitant and a little cold considering the place was built on slavery.
Our prized Cajun dinner destination – Prejean's in Lafayette, Louisiana – was closed because of another little American to-do called the Superbowl. Damn! So we gorged at another buffet, came close to getting lost in Shreveport (The "Bitch City", as Petra puts it later) and drove non-stop through a rainy, foggy, treacherous night in the Ozarks. Saw a possum. Safely made it to Kansas City by morning and the grand loop was complete. This final day was a blur, as we entered in and out of consciousness crossing the Dakotas and finally getting home at around 10:00, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for work the next day.
Photos (top to bottom): The Affle House; me and Kerry outside the gates of Graceland; Petra up close; Jason and his ginormous Heinie; one of those human mannequin performers; the bayou at Barataria; Oak Alley Plantation.