Spring break (early): road trip to New Orleans
Three weeks ago, Jacqueline and I took a lengthy road trip to the delightful cultural mecca called New Orleans. It was my first time in that city, other than a half hour aboard an airliner that made a stop at the airport there, and the very first time that either of us had set foot in Louisiana. I have now been to all of the "Lower 48" states of the Union! Traveling overland by automobile gave us the opportunity to explore the Deep South on our own, and we made the most of it. We ended up visiting nine of the eleven former Confederate States of America -- all except Texas and Arkansas -- but in one case (Florida) it was only on a "technicality."
For most of the first day, we retraced the same route that we had taken to see the solar eclipse in August 2017. We drove straight down I-81 southwest into Tennessee, with no significant stops until we got to Chattanooga. Ever since my first visit there in 1997, I had wanted to see the view from Lookout Mountain, on the south side of the city. Luckily, the light conditions were ideal for taking pictures that day. At the Lookout Mountain visitor center there is an access point to see an underground attraction called Ruby Falls, but we learned that due to covid-19, one must purchase tickets online in advance. Maybe next time? There is also a Civil War battlefield nearby, but we just didn't have enough time to see it.
The next morning there was a light rain as we drove into Birmingham, the biggest city in Alabama. We drove past steel mills (hence the city's nickname "Pittsburgh of the South"), and stopped briefly at Birmingham Southern College, where I once interviewed for a job. I then drove to see Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in America. It was built in 1910, two years before Fenway Park, and as the historical sign there says, some of baseball's greatest stars have played there, including Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Reggie Jackson. The surrounding neighborhood is rather poor, and we got our first up-close look at the impoverished conditions in which many southern black people live.
Our next stop was Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama is located. It so happens that the Alabama Crimson Tide just won the NCAA football championship two months ago, and I figured I ought to see the campus with my own eyes. By this time the rain had stopped and most of the clouds had lifted. Bryant-Denny Stadium is certainly impressive, and on the east side there is a series of statues of the past Alabama football coaches, such as "Bear" Bryant, as well as the present one, Nick Saban. Unfortunately, I was unable to maneuver my car into a good position to take a photo of the academic buildings at the university.
I was surprised that the terrain in west-central Alabama was rolling, with many pine trees. There were many logging operations but hardly any sign of agriculture. As we drove further southwest into Mississippi, I was looking for signs of changing vegetation or flat fields suitable for planting cotton, but about the only thing I noticed was the increasing prevalence of mistletoe in the tops of bare trees. At the Mississippi visitor center I saw the brand-new state flag proudly displayed. (After a commission made its recommendation six months ago, the voters approved it in November; see www.wxxv25.com.)
Louisiana & New Orleans
Just after 3:00 we crossed the Pearl River into Louisiana, and at the visitor center there we finally saw vegetation appropriate to warmer climates: Spanish moss, Live Oak trees, and Palmettos. About an hour later we arrived at our first nature-related destination: the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. We spent an hour or so there, and my March 10 birding blog post describes this visit in more detail.
We drove into New Orleans late in the afternoon, and arrived at our hotel (the Wyndham French Quarter) just as dusk was falling. This was one week after Mardi Gras, which was much more subdued this year due to the coronavirus. This trip was based in part on the availability of cheap accommodations, but the charge for valet parking was still very steep: $30 per night rather than the usual $40. As a major tourist destination, New Orleans has been hit especially hard in economic terms by the pandemic. Almost everyone we saw was wearing masks, and of course, we did too. After a brief rest in our hotel room, we took a look at the map to get our bearings, and then we hit the streets. We had dinner at a casual place called "Willies [sic] Chicken Shack," one of a chain of such establishments. The food was good (I had jambalaya), but the drinks were pricey -- I assume they are targeting the tourist crowd. It had been a long day, so we turned in early.
On Tuesday morning we wasted a lot of time trying to find a place that serves breakfast. In particular, we sought a particular local fried doughnut called beignets, mentioned in our tourist brochures. I was amazed that hardly any retail stores on Canal Street were open, and we were lucky that when we did find a place that they recommended the Cafe DuMonde -- located almost a mile away, in the French Quarter! So, after having walked a mile already, we headed east-northeast along Bourbon Street for several blocks, turning right on Toulouse Street (after which the Doobie Brothers' second album is named), and finally reaching Jackson Square at about 10:20. Andrew Jackson was the commander of U.S. forces that defended New Orleans against British invaders in January 1815. That was a strange battle, because the U.S. and Britain had already signed a peace treaty ending the "War of 1812." (I regret not finding time to visit that battlefield, situated on the east side of the city.) The coffee au lait and powdered sugar-coated beignets at Cafe DuMonde were just wonderful, well worth the effort to find the place. A historical placque there indicates that it began operations in the 1850s. After buying T-shirts and souvenirs in nearby shopes, we went strolling along the Mississippi River waterfront, which ordinarily would be jammed with tourists. Due to the coronavirus, however, neither the old-time riverboats nor the passenger ferry to Algiers point (dramatized in the 2006 Denzel Washington movie Deja Vu) were operating. Finally, we walked back up Canal Street and returned to our hotel to rest a while.
In the afternoon, we took a ride westward for about three miles along St. Charles Avenue on one of the famous streetcars. ("Desire" is the name of a neighborhood northeast of downtown, but no streetcar goes there any more.) We got off the streetcar at Audubon Park, which is full of Live Oak trees, Spanish moss, and palm trees, as well as birds. It was warm and sunny, and everyone was wearing short sleeves -- in February! Just to the north is the southern edge of the Tulane University campus, which is adjacent to Loyola University (of New Orleans). Before the Superdome was built in 1976, the Sugar Bowl used to be played in the very spacious Tulane Stadium, at the north end of the elongated campus. It was demolished in 1980. (See www.nola.com for some stadium history.) Nowadays, the Tulane football team plays in the much smaller Yulman Stadium, just north of where Tulane Stadium used to be.
Next we boarded the streetcar for a ride back toward the east, passing the historic Touro Synagogue -- not the more famous one in Newport, Rhode Island, however. We wanted to see the nicer residential areas of the city, so we got off to explore the Garden District on foot, and were amply rewarded. I soon came across an intriguing old structure and decided to take a photo. I was told by a friendly local resident that it was owned by pop music superstar Beyonce and her husband Jay Z. The neighborhoods were very friendly, with nice landscaping but very little grass. Land is at a premium in crowded New Orleans! One of the major attractions in the Garden District is Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, but we were too late for the guided tour that is given every afternoon. Voodoo superstitions are a big part of the local culture, reflecting the French creole (Haitian) influence.
Boarding the streetcar for a third and final time, we got off at Lee Circle, on the west edge of downtown. Perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that the statue of Robert E. Lee that used to be there was removed a few years ago. Eventually the circle will be given a new name, but local leaders haven't decided on a new name yet. My final objective for the day was to see the Superdome, located about six blocks to the north. We were already very tired and thirsty, however, so we had to get soft drinks and snacks at a grocery store before resuming our trek. With bright afternoon sun behind me, and clear blue skies, it was a perfect stadium photo op for me! (New Orleans never got a major league baseball team, but the Superdome was built to accommodate baseball as well as football, and they used to play special college baseball games as well as MLB exhibition games there.) As the shadows lengthened, we walked several more blocks back to the hotel, stopping at Lafayette Square, which we had passed on the streetcar five hours before. It features statues of Henry Clay and Ben Franklin. Across the street is the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, of interest to students of politics and law.
In the evening, we dined at a Bourbon Street establishment called the Old N'awlins Cookery, and it was excellent: Jacqueline had the "taste of New Orleans" combo plate, I had crawfish etouffé, and we shared a scrumptious chocolate mousse dessert. Having walked over eight miles that day, I feel the indulgence was entirely justified. The biggest disappointment was not hearing any local Dixieland or zydeco music in any of the Bourbon Street bars, just one with rock music. And so, after shopping for a few more items in some of the tourist-oriented places, we returned to the hotel and slept like logs.
The skies on Wednesday morning were quite cloudy as we checked out of the hotel and drove across the bridge to Algiers, a suburb full of industries and port facilities. We headed west then south for several miles, gradually leaving behind and entering genuine bayou country. What is a "bayou"? A stagnant or slow-moving inlet surrounded by swampy land. The road began ascending a very high bridge over a ship canal (probably the Intra-coastal Waterway), and then made a sharp turn at the bottom of the south end; it was a veritable "bridge to nowhere"! After a couple more miles we arrived in the town of Jean Lafitte, named for the French "privateer" (kind of like a pirate) who helped Andrew Jackson fight the British in the War of 1812, as mentioned above. We found the destination and went for a walk around the boardwalk, a little over a mile. Aside from the birds, the biggest attraction of the day were the three alligators we saw in the bayou. It was the first time Jacqueline had seen alligators!
Having fallen behind schedule, we drove quickly back through New Orleans without making any stops until we reached Bayou Sauvage, a nature area about 15 miles northeast of the city. The road to get there takes you through some economically distressed areas, with garbage, discarded mattresses, and abandoned houses. There was an old amusement park, with a roller coaster and other rides falling into disrepair. Since we drove past the low-lying Ninth Ward, where the flooding in 2005 was the worst, this was the only time we saw direct evidence of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The return trip
We then said goodbye to Louisiana and headed east on Interstate 10. Almost as soon as we entered Mississippi, an amazing sight caught our eye: a large Saturn V first stage rocket on display (horizontally) just to our right! We took the next exit in hopes of seeing it, but were disappointed that the visitor center was closed due to the coronavirus. The John C. Stennis Space Center, a few miles to the north, is where NASA assembles rockets that are then put on barges and shipped to Cape Canaveral in Florida, to be launched. Late in the afternoon we took a slight detour south so as to see the Gulf of Mexico -- the first time for both of us. The white sand beaches on the Mississippi coast are very attractive, and I remembered that Pass Christian (which appears very prosperous) is the home town of ABC's "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts. We saw a lot of shrimping boats, reminding me of the movie Forrest Gump, and later on, some distant large cranes for handling cargo. At a casino and large dock complex in the city of Gulfport we turned left (north), and soon got stuck in a terrible traffic jam, wasting over a half hour before we got back on Interstate 10 eastbound. We spent the night near Mobile, Alabama, where we had a nice dinner at Wintzell's Oyster House.
Early on Thursday, February 25 we decided to forego my original plan of driving straight east through northern Florida to the Atlantic coast (way too ambitious), and instead headed northeast along I-65. But first I took a brief detour through the town of Perdido (which means "lost" in Spanish, ominously) for a sly and perhaps frivolous purpose. I drove south on Pineville Road and soon found Jones Road, which coincides with the Florida-Alabama state line for a couple miles. I backed into the driveway of a house on the Florida side, and just for the record I took a photo of a neighboring house at 8371 Jones Road, McDavid, Florida. It was quite cloudy during the one minute or so that we were in Florida, contradicting the "Sunshine State" moniker. The last time I was in Florida during spring training (March 2017) I actually saw a baseball game; this time I wasn't even close. Then I drove to nearby Atmore, Alabama, and we resumed our northeasterly course.
As we approached the capital city of Montgomery just before noon, I noticed a Hyundai automobile manufacturing plant, as well as many billboards for lawyers. Litigation seems to be one of the biggest businesses in Alabama. We exited the Interstate in Montgomery to get gas, and so that I could see the state capitol building as well as historical sites related to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
It so happens that a historic church is located within a block of the Capitol building: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from 1954 until 1961. (It was then that he moved to Atlanta, the city where he was born.) As fate would have it, a woman named Rosa Parks defied the segregation rules in the Montgomery city buses in December 1955, and King came to her defense. In back of the church is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Legacy Center, and across the street from it is the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial, the front side of which features an engraved quotation from a speech King made when he began the civil rights movement:
Until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream
Perhaps too hastily, we departed Montgomery and headed east on I-85. In the early afternoon we crossed the Chattahoochee River into Georgia, and about 90 minutes later arrived in the Atlanta metropolitan area, where we experienced major traffic delays on the I-285 bypass west of the city. Actually, this worked out to my advantage, as I had been planning to get off the Interstate anyway, so this gave me the perfect excuse to do so. I drove on various suburban thoroughfares in Cobb County, trying to bypass the clogged bypass. As described in my March 9 baseball blog post, Jacqueline was completely surprised when Truist Park (the new home of the Atlanta Braves) suddenly came into view. Another successful sly maneuver on the road by yours truly!
Later in the afternoon, we crossed a reservoir into South Carolina, saw the road signs pointing to Clemson University (Alabama football's arch-rival) and soon realized that we would have to stop for the night. We found a motel in Spartanburg, and had a nice dinner at Willy [sic] Tacos, which serves fancy Mexican. (It was odd that two eating establishments during our trip were named for a guy named "Willy," but in both cases the names use an incorrect form of the possessive.)
We got going early on Friday morning, and soon passed the prominent landmark Kings Mountain, where a Revolutionary War battle was fought. My grandparents on my mother's side once lived in the nearby town of Kings Mountain, NC. Otherwise the terrain in that part of North Carolina was quite flat. We approached the city of Charlotte but took the exit onto I-77 north before reaching it. A couple hours later we crossed the state line into the Old Dominion of Virginia, and after resting a while at the welcome center, we began a large ascent across a mountain -- the Blue Ridge! We had to refill the gas tank, and the stop at that location was fortuitious because I learned that that was the birthplace of Stephen F. Austin, one of the leaders of the movement for Texas independence in 1836! The rest of the trip northeast along I-81 past Christiansburg, Roanoke, and Lexington was familiar and uneventful. After nearly a week on the road, there was still snow on the mountains and in some shady spots. It was a melancholy sight to behold, but the memories of the warm and wonderful time we spent in New Orleans served as a balm, and will continue to do so for a long time to come...
The Chronological photo gallery (2021) page includes the above photos, and many, many more. As noted above, separate recent blog posts featured narratives and photos of baseball stadiums (March 9) and wild birds (March 10).