Approaching the Louisiana bayou meant approaching memory lane for me, as I spent my first few adult (read: out of college, on my own, and therefore memorable) years in this part of the country. Not in New Orleans per se, rather a few hours down the road in Pensacola. But road trips to New Orleans were a fairly common thing due to the pace of Navy Primary Flight Training at the time. More on that later though…
I wanted to take the off-the-beaten path route to New Orleans from Houston; here’s how that looked.
That area has always fascinated me for several reasons. One is the way in which the landscape so gradually becomes the Gulf of Mexico. Miles upon miles of swamp / bayou with what I would imagine to be essentially un-mappable shoreline due to the tides and continually shifting mud and sand. And then there’s the whole Cajun culture that’s so different from anything else in the country. I had read a few books in which people were plopped into that region through various circumstances (one was an ejection out of a fighter jet if I remember correctly), and basically found themselves in another country, almost completely cut off from anything familiar. I wasn’t sure we would be able to get a taste of that through traversing the area by road, but I was hopeful. And part of me was eager to convince the family to buy a whole mess of crawfish to boil up with some corn and maybe some andouille, to feast on that night. (Spoiler alert: nope. I’m the only crawfish fan in our clan.)
The drive ended up confounding my expectations, both for the scenery and for how not backwater it seemed. I was expecting to find an area frozen in time, and it didn’t appear that way at all. I also remember from previous drives, signs like this everywhere, advertising various things: chicken fried steaks, mudbugs, girly shows, bail bonds, gumbo by the gallon… This time I’m not sure I saw even one of them. Evidently they’ve fallen out of favor. Bad luck for whoever makes them, but probably good luck for the rest of us.
Really, it was just a pretty drive. Green and lush, cypresses, vines, lots of water, people fishing on the side of the road… One thing that stood out was how every building, from houses to schools to libraries, was built on high stilts. You’d imagine that flooding was common, but it did make me wonder exactly how common.
The one section of road that sat right next to the Gulf’s coastline was a bit underwhelming. The water was brownish, multiple oil rigs loomed just offshore, and there was no real beach that you would want to hang out on. It was our first ocean sighting since the Pacific and as such was slightly momentous, but the actual sight of it netted only a half-hearted “oh yeah, right, cool” from the kiddos, likely due to the scene I described. So I didn’t make a big deal of it. I also remembered that the prevailing current in the Gulf flows counter-clockwise along the shore, which sends the runoff from the Mississippi (along with God knows how much fertilizer and random pollutants) in this direction, creating a massive “dead zone” along and out from Louisiana’s western coastline. So the water’s being brownish and unvisited made sense.
We did cross a river on a ferry at one point, which was unexpected. Fortunately it was free in our direction and they’re used to taking big semis across, so our 50’ of RV/car was no big deal at all for them. I did not want to have to backtrack.
We stayed in a state park just west of downtown New Orleans called Bayou Segnette, and it looked the part due to our arrival after a full day of torrential rain.
I learned a few days later that the various airboat tours through the bayou that are advertised in New Orleans take place right next door on the waterways along which we walked and jogged, fortunately uninterrupted by gator sightings. I found it gorgeous, and loved the fireflies and the sound of the thousands of frogs that night. The bugs weren’t bad yet, nor was the heat/humidity, allowing us to spend maximum time outside. We had to walk on a raised wooden path over the swamp and through the woods to get to the bathroom/showers. As luck would have it, the mulberry trees were hitting peak ripeness as well, and any bathroom walk resulted in shoe soles stained dark purple.
Unfortunately I had a trip to fly, so had to abandon my family to the bayou for a few days the morning after we arrived. When we returned, though, they picked me up at the airport and we drove directly to the French Quarter.
I love the French Quarter – who doesn’t? Sure, there’s the sleaze factor and by no standard could you call it “clean,” but that’s all part of the charm, and the live music, food, and general vibe are unmatched. I’ve had many, many great days and nights there. But that leads to sort of a predicament: How do you do New Orleans with kids? It is definitely one of those places where what you do as an adult, particularly as an early-twenty-something adult, bears no resemblance to what you would do there with young ones.
Fortunately one solution presented itself almost immediately when we parked – we exited the car to find that the riverboat Natchez was departing for an hour-and-half-long cruise on the Mississippi within 15 minutes. We considered that a target of opportunity and quickly jumped aboard.
That was undeniably cool. After touring the whole boat and checking out how the huge paddlewheel works (as well as introducing the kiddos to Cajun red beans and rice – hit!), we found some chairs on the lower deck and listened to the live New Orleans jazz band playing upstairs. Woodsprite and Firebolt launched immediately into energetic dancing, with Firebolt in particular appearing to feel the music deep in her bones. It’s so satisfying to see her in her element like that.
We followed that up with a stroll through the Quarter and some Cajun food (More oysters! More jambalaya! More red beans and rice!) before heading back to Bayou Segnette.
Our accommodation plan was actually to spend our final night or two there in the French Quarter; it turns out there’s a slightly swanky RV park right at N’awlins Ground Zero, or at least just outside. Location location location indeed, with the price to match. It must be quite the place during the various festivals. I couldn’t justify staying there for more than two nights (and actually it turned into one, which was just fine), but wanted to be able to amble into the fun. That also turned out to be less important than I’d anticipated – I suppose I was conflating memories of New Orleans with present realities.
The truth is, we ran out of things to do pretty quickly in the Quarter. There’s certainly more than a little crisis of creativity involved therein, but what we realized before long at all was two-fold: many things there start up after sunset (and continue until sunrise), and the kids had no business being there after sunset. We brought them by Pat O’Briens at 4PMish, hoping that they could get a whiff of what the French Quarter can be about without having to be immersed in it, but the doorman intercepted us before we even got close, letting us know that this was 21-and-over only and there was an associated restaurant down the way that we might enjoy. Of course it’s 21-and-over, what are we, nuts? Preservation Hall next door for some live heritage jazz was another bright idea we had, but passing by it reminded us that oh yeah, you need to line up at least an hour ahead of time to get in. Plus the venue just isn’t that kid friendly.
Firebolt does complement the scenery though!
So yes, in hindsight we would have put more focus on some of the other neighborhoods – the Garden District, etc… and maybe done a bayou tour or something like that. There’s also an extraordinary World War II museum there, which we missed. Next time.
Miscommunication played a bit of a role as well, though, and led to a bit of frustration – the first real “pressure cooker” moments of this latest phase of traveling. Tacco and I haven’t quite been on the same page with respect to planning. During the first phase of travel there was no concrete “planning” page for us both to be on… we were both equally clueless. This time we know to reserve ahead religiously, most crucially over weekends and at popular destinations. Consequently we now tend to have our accommodations teed up for at least a month. She’s been much more busy than I with ongoing commitments, and I’ve had the advantage of a few work trips in which I didn’t have much to do other than plan our travels. That’s good and bad. Good in that I can handle it and have the planning/reserving done before she has to be concerned about it, less good in that if we don’t brief plans for a particular visit thoroughly, it becomes easy to have widely varying visions for what a particular stay will look like.
We didn’t brief New Orleans particularly well. The details are uninteresting (and actually a little vague), but ultimately we left a bit unsatisfied that we hadn’t “done” New Orleans as well as we could have. I came back from my work trip assuming that they had seen and done everything they wanted to in my absence, and more or less took over the agenda. I got my crawfish boudin in the French Market (which they had already visited) like I had envisioned, but in general the execution and coordination were sloppier than they could’ve been.
We did have an amusing experience in the French Market. The girls found a vendor making personalized name bracelets and we had one made for Firebolt (Woodsprite’s was already pre-made). While we were waiting for it, Keeper and I decided to check out some hats. As I’m always attempting to make him cooler than I am/was, I suggested he try on a few that I figured he could make work, including a pretty snazzy-looking black straw fedora (it looked better than it sounds). As he reached for it, the vendor, a middle-aged, slow-moving African American woman who stood about 4’9”, began to butter him up a little like only a lifetime N’Awlins denizen like her could: “naah, that, son… that looks sharp… here naah, take a look in this heah mirruh…” [slowly holds up the mirror] “Ya see? … But… wait naah just a second… if you REALLY wanna kill the ladies… whatcha need ta do…” [reaches slowly toward his hat, at which point Keeper, already rosy cheeked but quickly reddening further and trying to stifle laughter, also realizes that he looks pretty killer in the hat, but is slightly embarrassed at the attention and not sure how to deal with this] “Now son… I’m gonna need ya to relax for me heah…” [she then slowly and deliberately slides the hat forward and slightly off-kilter on his brow] “y’all take a look now…” At the same time, another guy who appeared to just be walking guy stopped and remarked “you know, he really could pull off a fedora…” Perfect. Why we didn’t buy the fedora I have no clue – if I had it to do 10 times over again, I’d buy it every single time. But ah well, Keeper does have the story, which may be just as good even without the fedora.
I’m pretty certain our kids will be back to New Orleans some day. Hopefully we planted a few seeds that will allow them to enjoy it responsibly and in moderation. Or, you know, something… (ha!)
And hopefully we’ve learned to align our expectations a little better as well. We really only have a few months left of this; it would be a shame to leave more cool cities saying “we could’ve done that better.”