Ou ce que t’es parti?
I’m glad you asked! My very good friend Cori and I just returned from a week-long trip down into Cajun country, and while I know no one comes here for my travelogues, sit through this one, and I’ll return to the pointless political griping and obscure 10%er comedy in a day or two.
We set out last Tuesday in the old reliable Chickwagon, my busted ’99 Saturn wagon, and, after loading up on a few supplies at HEB and Buc-Ees, we stopped for lunch at Luling’s City Market. Now, admittedly, I’ve missed out on getting to strap on my meat bag at places like Smitty’s or Snow’s, but I have eaten a shitload of barbeque all over this country, and I never had any better than City Market. You know when a joint has been in business for decades with only three things on the menu, they’ve learned to do it right, and City Market’s incredibly flavorful pork ribs, ridiculously tender brisket, and perfectly made beef sausage are reason enough for this state’s eternal existence.
From there, we headed up the road to Texas’ Palmetto State Park. This is one of my favorite Texas parks, not only for its natural beauty — featuring an uncharacteristically tropical environment in otherwise arid South Texas and lots of fauna found only here in all of the U.S. — but also for its buildings, constructed when the place was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s and featuring unique National Parks architecture. We enjoyed some bold ducks, fast-moving frogs, and grand views of the San Marcos River, and I read about the camaraderie and opportunity engendered by the CCC and wondered why no politician has the guts to suggest such a thing today.
Moving on to Houston, we checked into our hotel — a Howard Johnson on the outer rim of the city’s downtown area, operated by a Hindu family who helpfully stocked a Bhagavad-Gita alongside the Gideon Bible — and headed to Minute Maid Park. I hadn’t seen the post-Astrodome stadium in person; placed in the confines of the city’s old Union Station, it’s actually a very good space with fine parking, very good amenities, nice line-of-sight views from all over, top-notch climate control, and overall a new-old-style park vibe not too different from Camden Yards. The only thing I really have against it is that stupid fucking hill in the outfield, which accomplishes nothing and is a constant risk to anyone chasing down a long fly; level that thing and you’ve got a pretty solid ballpark. We were there to see the final two spring training games before the beginning of the regular season, and happily, the ‘Stros were playing my beloved White Sox. The Good Guys won the Tuesday night game and tied the Wednesday Businessman’s Special, and we had great seats right behind the visitor’s dugout, so it was a blast despite the meaningless nature of the games.
After the game, we headed east on the I-10 towards Lafayette, intending to camp out overnight in Lorrain Park, in Calcasieu Parish. Unfortunately, our directions were completely off, and despite the assistance of a couple of well-meaning locals, we were unable to find the park at all. Since it was already getting all dark-and-stormy-night up in there, and we didn’t relish the idea of trying to put up our tents in the middle of the night, we caved in an stayed at a hotel in a town with the unlikely name of Iowa, Louisiana. (There was also a very sad, minimalist-looking water park there which created in our minds all kinds of unanswerable questions. Who would build a water park in the middle of nowhere? Who would go there? Why did it look simultaneously brand new and abandoned? Isn’t southern Louisiana one big water park anyway?) The hotel was fine, but we were eager to hit the road again, and we soon ended up here.
Lafayette, the largest city in Acadiana, has a reputation for great food — in fact, we didn’t have a bad meal the whole time we were there — but the food at Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro was far and away the best. It was probably, now that I think of it, the best meal I’ve had in years. The place is renowned for its local sourcing of ingredients and new takes on regional classics; I had an impossibly crisp and light piece of fried catfish and a side of sweet corn grits that made me wish I’d had them this way my whole life. An appetizer of lightly fried pimiento cheese and a pre-meal French 75 cocktail were also tremendous, and I left feeling completely sated, which was kind of a drag, because our next stop was Avery Island, home of the world’s most famous hot sauce: Tabasco.
It’s hard to talk about the tour without feeling like you’re being a corporate shill, no matter how much you like the product (and I like Tabasco a lot). But it’s a product with an amazing history, and it’s one that does a lot for the community and the environment, even if their promotional film was a little iffy (the bit about “reorganizing the workforce” after the Civil War was pretty gross, and one can’t help but notice it’s basically the same people doing the agricultural work now as it was in 1864). The product is all-natural and delicious, and if I hadn’t been so damn full I would have gorged myself on the crawfish etouffe available at the company store. (I did get a huge bag of seeds and skins to make a shrimp boil with, though, and it made the car smell slightly and pleasantly of Tabasco for the rest of the trip.) We headed down through the rest of Cajun country, down into Houma for a rap sesh with my man Swamp Thing, and were struck by the weird juxtaposition of incredible natural beauty and a thriving, all-consuming oil industry that gives locals much-needed jobs but does its best to wreck all that natural beauty.
After nabbing some crazy-good Cajun jerky at a gas station right in the middle of the oil boom, we cruised into New Orleans, where we checked into the Intercontinental — a beautiful place far too classy for the likes of us — and settled in. The service in the hotel was amazing, but the service outside was pretty shabby; I had to wait over half an hour to get my car back from the valets and no one helped me take a very heavy bag up to my room — I had to get special permission from someone to borrow a luggage cart. But overall, it was a great stay. After a swell dinner of beer, hot boudin, and richly soaked deli meats at Butcher, a sandwich joint operated by Cochon‘s Donald Link, we met our pal Kevin O’Mara at Bellocq, the new bar run by the proprietors of Cure, one of my favorite joints in NOLA or anywhere. Conversation was drunk and good, and I’ve put New Orleans at the top of my list of places to let the clock run out on what’s left of my louche life. The next day was brunch at Court of Two Sisters, where the food and the jazz were both good but not great — albeit much improved by the place’s rich history. We sat next to a bachelorette party that provided endless entertainment and stuffed ourselves on local favorites. After some shopping in the French Quarter (where — you won’t believe this! — there was some kind of street festival going on, I got myself a walking stick, making me the fanciest fat man in the South, and hit the road again.
We stayed the night at the Attakapas Wildlife Management Area, camping out in the primitive grounds of yet another gorgeous wilderness area cozied right up next to an oil refinery. (Its mild glow and industrial buzz was like a giant night-light.) The backroads were pretty busy with both oil workers and local fishermen, and the nature scene gave us a nice Werner Herzog moment as we spotted a snake being noisily and slowly devoured by a snake. Somehow, I lost the frame to my tent and had to spend an uncomfortable night in the car, sitting cramped against the window and being devoured by mosquitoes; but it was a lovely night and a drop-dead beautiful morning as we headed back west. We detoured down the Creole Nature Trail, soaking in the unmitigated beauty of one of the country’s loveliest drives; stops at the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Preserve, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, and Holly Beach on the Gulf Coast (the view just a little spoiled by the presence of oil platforms everywhere on the horizon) were all hugely enjoyable and ridiculously photogenic — pictures are here if you want them. The occasional absurdities (houses on stilts, neighborhood watch associations in remote towns of a few hundred people, crass Mountain-Dew-chugging litterbugs) couldn’t ruin our enjoyment of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, just a few hundred miles away from home.
Now I’m back home and in dire need of sleep. But if I might be permitted to end this pointless entry with something slightly meaningful: folks, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but this country, which is messed up in a variety of ways, did something incredibly, indescribably right with its national and local parks systems. They’re one of the greatest things we’ve ever done as a nation, and they’re perpetually in trouble of being defunded even though they offer an immeasurable amount of enjoyment and utility for a staggeringly small amount of money. If you’re a single person, or a part of a couple, or part of a family with kids, you are cheating yourself and everyone you love if you’re not taking advantage of the parks system. And while I realize that America’s driving habit is a decidedly mixed blessing — a lesson I could hardly miss on this trip in particular — I also know that one advantage our country has over the primitive rawness of Africa, the ancient cultural richness of Europe, and the grand sweep of civilization in Asia is that we are a huge place, full of almost limitless natural beauty, that has gone out of its way to make it incredibly easy for even the most cash-strapped traveler to see as much of it as he might care to see. We are also a place of staggering, almost unbelievably diversity that expresses itself in the cultures of music, architecture, language, and food, and one of the best ways to see that is to just pile into the car and go, eschewing the flavorless sameness of the interstates for the byways and backroads. No matter where you are in this country, you would be astonished at the richness and beauty to be found only a few dozen miles away from where you live. Take advantage of the many, and free, resources available to you and hit the road as soon as you can. It’ll provide you with some of the best memories you’ll ever have, and give you an appreciation for the people who built America that’s easy to miss when you’re stuck in a hometown rut. Like it or hate it, the culture of driving in America lets us experience things that are wonderful, delicious, breathtaking, hilarious, and unique. Break away from commuter culture and you’ll see.