We left Mississippi under sunny skies on Monday morning. While we normally avoid the interstates, it didn’t look like there was much to see along the way so, travelling the I-10, we were in New Orleans, Louisiana, an hour-and-a-half later.
Photo: We entered Louisiana from Mississppi, driving west and exiting at Texas.
Settling in at Pontchartrain RV Park, we had lunch before going to get the truck’s oil changed. The all-black crew looked surprised to see us pull into the lube place in what turned out to be an all-black neighbourhood. None of them knew for sure where BC was. We had some good laughs with them though, trying to describe the geography.
Later in the afternoon we took the $5 shuttle from the RV Park to the French Quarter – what a deal. Our driver, a New Orleans city cop by night, pointed out the dangerous neighbourhoods along the way. There is still a lot of evidence of Katrina everywhere, with piles of litter on some street corners, derelict houses with broken windows and a general feel of abandonment in some areas. Not really very pretty.
Strolling around Bourbon and Royal Streets, we took in some sights that simply wouldn’t be seen anywhere else on. Of course the architecture is typical of what you’d expect, with lots of ornate wrought iron and brightly coloured facades. Not too much of a surprise there. We found ourselves underwhelmed though, somewhat let-down by all the grime and the noise. As daylight gave way to twilight a hustler appeared at every corner. Barkers beckoned from almost every doorway, doing their best to draw unsuspecting neophytes into seedy nightspots.
The art galleries on the other hand were very interesting – not your usual run-of-the-mill variety where the art is the same in Mississippi as it is in Manitoba. There were also some very unique and unusual home décor and Voodoo shops. Of course there are hundreds of restaurants, bars, strip clubs and souvenir shops.
Photo: A river boat on the Mississippi at dock in New Orleans.
Photo: Bourbon Street.
Photo: A Voodoo shop on Bourbon Street.
Photo: Another eclectic shop on Bourbon Street.
Photo: Janice gets hustled on Bourbon Street.
Photo: A liquor store in the French Quarter.
As recommended by the people at our RV Park, and the shuttle driver, we went to The Oceana Grill for dinner. We had been warned by our shuttle driver that you can get ripped off for up to $25 a drink at some clubs, and that most restaurants are vastly over-priced, so it was a nice surprise to find we could get a decent bottle of wine for $24 and our entrees, crawfish etouffee for Janice and a crab cake platter for me, at $20 each. With tip we were out of there for $75.00.
After dinner we were disappointed to hear rock and roll blaring from just about every nightclub. Isn’t this supposed to be the birthplace of jazz? Where were the sounds of Dixieland? Finally we heard an accordion wafting out of the Bayou Zydeco Club. Inside, Waylon Thibodeaux and his band were entertaining a small but lively crowd. The band had a lot of fun getting patrons to strap on the washboard and inviting them to play along with the percussionist.
Photo: The real percussionist is on the right – the girl enjoying herself so much is quite drunk. Waylon Thibedeaux on fiddle.
Photo: The guitar player on the left looked remarkably like a guitar player I used to perform with – same hat and everything.
The shuttle, as scheduled, picked us up again at 8:00pm. When we got back to the park there were about ten people partying at the outdoor Tiki Bar. We went to have a look. It turned out they were all from a small company that travels around the country painting locomotives. They were stationed at our RV Park while completing a contract. The boss, Jimmy, was buying Las Vegas Bomb shooters for his crew and insisted we join them. “Ok, just one, thank you.”
A couple of shooters later we decided to join Tom and Mary Beth back at their trailer for a night cap and a hoot. Tom looked like our friend Jack Young from Barriere and Mary Beth was a Sissy Spacek look-alike. We left about midnight. Tom had to be up at 5:00 to go to work. Ouch.
The morning after, Janice and I took a drive around New Orleans, dipping down into the Mississippi Delta, where we had lunch at Zydeco’s Restaurant. Janice had crab-filled-egg-roll-kind-of-things and I had corn and crawfish chowder. The Mississippi Delta’s farmland is overshadowed by massive oil refineries. If you were to ask us, besides the French Quarter, there’s not a lot else to see in New Orleans.
Photo: The Superdome and downtown New Orleans.
One of the prime motivators for us taking this extended trip in the first place was the loss of our long-time friend Dave (Big D) Jenneson, to cancer. His ex wife, Charlie, was also fighting her own battle with cancer.
Janice’s dad, Bill, also died of cancer last year and, while he was seventy-six years old, that age doesn’t seem so far off when you’re sixty. On his death bed, he asked if we wanted any last words of advice. Sure we did. “Travel now, pay later,” he said. While it’s not our style to do things we can‘t afford to pay for up front, we got the drift. We decided that it was better to travel now, while we still could – damn the expense.
On June 1st we hit the road. We hadn’t been on the road a month when we discovered that one of my colleagues at CFIB, Bruce Grimes, had been diagnosed with cancer. That was July 1st. We had been planning to try and meet up with Bruce at his summer place at Lake of the Woods in Ontario, but the timing didn’t work out and we missed him by a couple of days. Man, did I regret not having hung around a few more days to make that happen. A month later, we got news that Bruce had died suddenly as a result of treatments he was undergoing. We couldn’t believe it. He was fifty years young, and so vibrant.
Now Charlie, who’s been unbelievably courageous and upbeat while fighting several bouts of cancer over the past seven- year stretch, has been told she only has a few weeks left. Thankfully we got to see Charlie when we went home for Christmas a couple of weeks ago. Janice got to spend time alone with her and Charlie was able to join us for Christmas dinner at Janice’s mom’s.
We love you Charlie.
It had rained heavily overnight but was sunny and warm as we followed Highway 90 to Abbeville, not far from Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country. Along the way we marveled at how much money must have been spent on Louisiana’s highways. In order to traverse the swamps, the highways are elevated for miles and miles on enormous concrete columns.
At Abbeville we pulled into Betty’s RV Park. We had heard about Betty’s from a neighbour in New Orleans. They described it as a unique and fun place to stay. It was exactly as they had reported, with just seventeen sites and a gathering place attached to Betty’s house called Betty’s Louisiana Room. There, Betty, a widow living on her own, hosts a happy hour every day at 4:30.
Photo: Betty’s RV Park.
Photo: A shot that gives an idea of the eccentricities of Betty. She sells t-shirts that read: You’ve Been Caught in Betty’s Web.
We walked around the quaint and historic town of Abbeville before attending happy hour at Betty’s. There we met people from upstate New York, Oklahoma, Washington State, Texas and Australia. Everybody brought appetizers and there was a lot of lively conversation.
I learned that the main crops in Louisiana are cane sugar, crawfish and rice. We saw a lot of evidence of all three on our drive from New Orleans. What I didn’t know was that the rice fields are flooded three times, each time a little deeper, and then the heads of the rice plants are cropped before chimneys (ABS pipes) are stuck into the mud below. Crawfish traps are then placed over the chimneys and the crawfish, which live in the mud, kind of like worms, are baited and crawl into the traps. The crawfish look like small lobsters.
The next day, while our laundry was going ‘round, we asked some local shop owners where we were most likely to experience some local culinary flavour. A couple of options were put forward. We decided on lunch at Shuck’s Restaurant where we split a cup of smoked duck and Andouille (spicy) sausage gumbo and a shrimp patty burger. The shrimp patty had surprisingly large pieces of shrimp in it and just the right amount of heat. The restaurant was one big, square room, but was full at 11:30. There was a lineup at the door when we left.
Photo: Shuck’s restaurant.
After lunch we drove to Avery Island, the home of the Tabasco Sauce factory and store, where we bought some East Asian Style Chili/Tabasco sauce. We had actually been to Avery Island in 1995, when we were on a six-week road trip, right after we sold our newspaper. We had been motelling it that time.
Photo: Janice contemplating a theft at the Tabasco store.
We made a quick appearance at the happy hour that afternoon – quick, because everyone else was going to a restaurant for crawfish. We declined because we’d already had lunch out, and because Janice had pork necks in the crock pot. Pork necks? Yes, they’re very common in grocery stores here so we decided to give them a whirl. When slow cooked they turned out to be every bit as delicious as the locals had claimed.
On Friday we drove to Lafayette, the hub of Zydeco music. I had my mind set on picking up a stainless steel, vest-style, washboard. They call them Rub-boards here. We had been offered one for $100.00 by the percussionist at The Bayou Club in New Orleans but I didn’t know if that was the going price or if I would be paying way too much – after all it was the French Quarter. Maybe I should have jumped on it because it was made by Waylon Thibodeaux’s dad, whom, it turns out, is more famous than I had realized. You can check him out at www.waylont.com
It was probably best I didn’t buy it from him after all. After scouting all of the pawn shops in Lafayette by phone, I discovered that the Acadiana Pawn Shop had a couple of used Rub-boards. We took the twenty minute drive to go and look. It turned out that the Acadiana is the major dealer for musical instruments for Cajun and Zydeco musicians in the area.
While we were there, the guy who had been Buckwheat Zydeco’s guitar player for many years entered the shop, accompanied by a couple of younger Zydeco musicians. The owner introduced us to all of them. They were very friendly and accommodating and told us about the hot spots around town, where we could find the kind of music we were looking for. One even gave me a demonstration on the Rub-board that I was examining. They were off that day to a gig somewhere inTexas.
The board had been well used and when I offered the owner $40 he said, “Sure” and then threw in a CD by Buckwheat’s current guitar player, Lil’ Buck Sinegal.
According to one of the Cajuns with whom we spoke at Betty’s happy hour, Zydeco is the Africanization of Cajun music. Could be. Whatever, for feel-good dance music there’s nothing else like it.
On the way back to Abbeville we stopped at Richard’s Butchery and bought some Boudain (cooked pork and rice, wrapped like sausage, which Janice deep fried and took to happy hour) and Cracklin, (fried pork fat). These are both local delicacies. Janice loves the Cracklin – I can’t handle it – too greasy.
Photo: Me, back at Betty’s, with my new purchase.
Later in the day we walked around Abbeville some more.
Photo: The graveyard at Abbeville, (in the south they call them Memorial Gardens) at St. Mary’s Church – almost all of the older graves are above ground because of potential flooding.
Photo: St. Mary’s Church, which is enormous for a town the size of Abbeville.
Just before happy hour, we took a drive to Suire’s Grocery & Restaurant because we’d heard at happy hour that it was the place to experience true Cajun cuisine. It’s a tiny, run-down looking place at a very rural crossroads but its been written up by several major publications, including the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, for having the best and most authentic Cajun food anywhere. We’re going to stop on our way out of town to eat there.
Photo: Suire’s Restaurant.
On Saturday morning we drove to the small town of Breaux Bridge, just outside of Lafayette. Our destination was the Café Des Amis, one of the recommendations of the Zydeco musicians we’d met at the pawn shop. Starting at 8:00am the restaurant serves breakfast, accompanied by a live Zydeco band. In this case it was Corey Ledet and his Zydeco Band. They literally had the place jumping. If you’ve ever been to the Commodore Ballroom and experienced the suspended dance floor, that was what this felt like. People of all colours and stripes, from four to eighty-four were smiling, jostling and dancing with abandon. It was a splendid, rollicking atmosphere.
Upon arrival, patrons are given an electronic coaster-like-thing and, when your table is ready, the thing flashes and buzzes – it was a great idea because there’s no way you could hear the hostess’s voice over the din – a combination of the music, the shuffling of feet, tapping of toes and the overall excited state of the crowd.
Our table never came up until an hour after we got there, but the food was excellent. We enjoyed shrimp with honey aioli and pecans as well as corn bread smothered with crawfish etouffee.
We struck up a conversation with the neighbouring table but, due to my tinnitus and the decibel level in the building, I could only pick up the odd snippet. Soon Janice was taking Zydeco dance lessons from one of the dapper gentlemen seated there.
I bought a Café Des Amis t-shirt and, still, the entire bill was $27.96. We couldn’t have wished for a better experience. The band had just released a new CD that I bought on the way out, for $10. On the way home we heard one of their tunes on the radio.
Photo: The Café Des Amis.
Photo: The band had the Cafe Des Amis rocking, at eight in the morning! Cary Ledet on accordian.
Photo: Dancers from 4 to 84 kept the place jumping.
Photo: Our excellent meal at Cafe Des Amis.
Photo: The laughing lady spotted in a gift shop at Breaux Bridge, which I probably would have bought had it been a lamp that glowed from within.
Photo: Some typically rustic looking Breaux Bridge buildings.
We took the back roads from Breaux Bridge through a small town called Erath in order to take in the annual Gumbo Cook-off. We paid $2 and got to try a couple of samples, which were all we could handle after the late breakfast.
Photo: One of the contestants in the gumbo cook-off at Erath.
Later we went to the jam session at Calvin Touchet’s at Maurice, another small town about five minutes from Abbeville. Touchet’s is famous for their strictly Cajun jam sessions that they host every second Saturday. In the off weeks the jam moves to Erath. Drinks were ridiculously cheap – a red wine and a beer cost $3 for both and, there was even free beef stew later, with rice, salad and bread.
Photo: Tim jamming with a bunch of regulars at Calvin Touchet’s.
We love Louisiana. It’s not much to look at but the people, the food and the music make it truly memorable. According to our camp host, Betty, the people from the north observe the people of southern Louisiana thusly: “You Cajuns don’t worry your money like we do. You’re too busy living it to save it.” Betty claims, “An dat’s da truth – fo sho.”
Anybody wanting to take a unique week-long holiday should consider flying to Lafayette, picking up The Times or visiting the Acadiana Pawn Shop to see what’s happening, and then seeking out some of these colourful Cajuns in their authentic hangouts.
It’s Sunday morning and we’re hitting the road again, destination southern Texas. We’d love to hang around here some more but Janice claims it’s going to make her fat if we do.
We stopped at Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant on the way out of Louisiana. We had the Turtle Picante, which the New York Times described as the best anywhere. Turtle meat is dark and lean. If blindfolded, I’d bet that most people would guess they were eating beef. We also had Texas Toothpicks – deep fried strips of jalapeno and onions, as well as Pistolette, a bun injected with crawfish and then deep fried. It all came on one big dish, accompanied by a small helping of potato salad and chocolate cake.
People were lined up, mostly duck hunters, for both take-out and eat-in, the whole time we were there. You’ve never seen so much camouflage clothing in one place.
Photo: The lineup at Suire’s. It doesn’t give much idea of all the camo clothing, but try to imagine that this lineup never goes away.
We followed Highway 82 along the coast, passing through the immense and swampy Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, from where we had to take a short car ferry at Cameron. Along the way we witnessed a lot of destruction left behind by Hurricane Ike. Any rebuilt structures, including mobile homes, look silly elevated on ten-foot stilts.
We continued on Highway 82, past some beautiful beaches to Sabine Pass where we crossed the Port Arthur Bridge into Texas…