Friday, December 30, 2011
The Big Easy
Pete flew home yesterday after a very satisfying 3 days in New Orleans. Both of us fell in love with this town nearly immediately upon our arrival. It has been nothing but good times.
Our ride from Baton Rouge was marked by heavy rain in the morning, followed by a heavy fog during the last several dozen miles. As the Mississippi River Trail approaches New Orleans, it becomes a bike path which sits on top of the levee right next to the river for 20 miles. This path is well paved, with light pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and very gentle slopes. It was a welcome relief after 65 miles of riding through wet air on a nasty highway shoulder, full of rocks and torn up tires and debris. A warm, light breeze came our way, and I stripped down to my t-shirt for the last several miles through town. Highs have been in the upper 60s to low 70s since then.
For several days before we arrived, I had been imagining that the entire city of New Orleans would look like a big haunted house, and I was very pleased to find that it does fit that image quite well. As we rode in through the low, warm fog, industrial towers of concrete and metal rose out of the fog on the river. Willows and Oaks stretched their long, crooked branches out over pathways and streets, filtering light through their leaves onto the horribly ruptured sidewalks. Many of the trees that line the streets here are over 500 years old, and have been designated “historic,” so cannot be removed, even though their roots are ripping up every sidewalk and street. In a city where drinking is also a historic pastime as necessary to participate in as listening to Jazz and eating Cajun food, this makes stumbling home drunk an infinitely more difficult task.
The New Orleans Saints football team are worshiped on a level that rivals any I have seen. As Pete and I rode into town, the Saints/Falcons game was just about to start, and people were out in droves wearing their team colors on every manner of clothing imaginable. I realize now that this rendered an already active, boisterous town a feeling of even more excitement and celebration, and it was an enlivening atmosphere to ride through. We left the bike path on St. Charles street, and happened to have to ride through every famous historic district on our way to my friend Ted's house in the Bywater neighborhood. Giant, old mansions line the sides of St. Charles, with those 500 year old oaks hanging over the streets. A streetcar line running the length of the city also runs down the center of St. Charles, where a nice, green patch of grass struggles to keep its place surrounding the busy tracks. Most of the larger boulevards here have huge, green medians filled with grass and old trees. Even the busy streets are still wide enough for a bicycle to comfortably ride alongside the cars in the lane, even when cars are parked all along the curb. It was a great way to enter a great town. That night Ted, our host, joined Pete and I for a couple of drinks at a bar near his house where people were watching the game. We were inducted into the spirit of New Orleans football pride, and we left at half time to get some sleep after an 88 mile day on the bikes.
Since that day, Pete and I thoroughly toured the French Quarter (established in 1718) on foot, which was conveniently only a 15-20 minute walk from Ted's place. We entered St. Louis Cathedral, Louis Armstrong Park, Jackson square (with a great statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse rearing up), the French Markets and last of all, Bourbon Street. We ate Po' boys, catfish, barbeque, and street burritos, and listened to live brass bands, bluegrass, jazz, funk, reggae, and rap.
One morning, we met up with my friend Quinn, who happened to be taking her holidays in New Orleans with her family from California. We ate the necessary beignets (like small, square donuts smothered in piles of powdered sugar) while chatting at Cafe du Monde. Later that night Pete and I met up with Quinn and her sister Kelly for some good music and dancing. They were great company..
The next night was much more crazy. We had a calm morning of walking through the historic garden district, trying to help an old man who's Prius had somehow become inoperable just at the foot of his driveway (no success), and visiting historic Lafayette cemetery. We then met up with my friend Laura after an incredible Caribbean meal at the Rum House (no drinks for us, just amazing food).
Laura has been in New Orleans for several months now, after starting law school at Tulane University earlier this fall. She has just finished her first semester (rumored to be the most difficult), and was in the mood to show Pete and I a good time on Pete's last night in town. So we hopped on the street car into the French Quarter, and did up Bourbon street proper. Pete was fairly intent on sampling the New Orleans-specific drinks, so we shared some “hand grenades,” “hurricanes,” and a fair bit of good old fashioned beer. Meanwhile, Laura took us on a tour of some of the most famous locations along the strip, such as the 5th oldest bar in America (Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith shop, established 1772) and Pat O'Briens (where the “hurricane” was invented). We spent significant portions of the night in a gay karaoke bar, and then another more mainstream karaoke bar. We sang 4-non blondes What's Up, and then Pete and Laura did a rousing rendition of Lady Gaga's Poker Face. We danced our butts off and had a blast!
After several glasses of water and a good night's sleep, I woke up feeling remarkably well. Pete and I ate a tasty brunch at a hip, modern diner just down the street from Teds, and then we put him on the bus to the airport.
That afternoon, I got on the bike for a quick tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood which was most damaged during hurricane Katrina. On my way there, I crossed a large canal in which the water level was higher than the ground level of the surrounding neighborhoods. Why does this make sense?
The lower ninth ward is still very much in a state of recovery. Lots of homes have boarded up windows, crumbling foundations and roofs, or are simply gutted. Most of the area, however is simply empty. Concrete driveways lead to small piles of rubble, where houses used to be. Grass is happy and healthy, growing over empty lots interspersed with a mix of uber-modern green homes (apparently many of which were built by Brad Pitt & friends) covered in solar panels; new mobile homes on stilts, and old houses which have been or are in the process of being rebuilt. Many of the older brick buildings seem to have suffered the least, but they are few and far between.
I am now staying with my friend Laura in Uptown, and will be hiking today in the Barataria Preserve about 10 miles south of town. I hope to see alligators and other interesting critters!