Thursday, March 10, 2011
9 – 3/10/11 – Mardi Gras! (literally translated to “Shrove Tuesday,” the end of “Shrovetide” a traditional time of merrymaking before the Christian period of Lent)
This expedition entered Louisiana under a dark cloud, literally and metaphorically. Our last day in Texas was unpleasant (except for the great seafood lunch, consumed al fresco behind the restaurant, with the dogs – Texans get less bent out of shape about dogs in restaurant spaces). Man met nature, industry was ubiquitous and the state route we were on took us through depressing town after depressing town, remarkable only because of the unbelievably huge industrial plants and the ever-present national chains and small box stores. It was unpleasantly hot and humid. We were chased from the campground by mosquitoes big enough to ride and left every member of this expedition uncomfortable. I skirted around Houston and ended up on Interstate 10 toward Beaumont and Louisiana. The traffic was thick and the drivers fast and aggressive. The Beast (bless her) can’t go much faster than 62 mph and for folks driving the limit (70-80 mph) or higher, she’s a hazard. This makes driving, in high congestion areas, unbelievably difficult and stressful.
After the dark day in Fresno, in which I almost had to turn back, my trip mantra is now: have a strategy (intention – traveling, the research) and plan one day at a time. Big plans, made before one is aware of the realities of actually putting a plan in motion, sometimes need to be revised (maybe this is also a good practice for public administration? Have a strategy; plan one day at a time?).
My big plan to travel along the perimeter of the country, more or less, is not doable. If I focus on the big plan, I end up not being present to where I am in the moment because I'm thinking about where I need to get to, or be, by a certain time/date. I’m thinking about the destination instead of the journey. Also, I simply cannot countenance extended driving in high traffic/dense situations. The Gulf Coast in Texas was enough for me – I didn’t need any more Gulf Coast experiences. So, the plan changed.
Another reason why the plan, at least the Louisiana plan, needed to change is because this past week was Mardi Gras! Who knew? Well, apparently, everyone in Louisiana and the bordering states knew. And, apparently, anyone who has every lived in these areas knew. And, apparently, everyone who has any Cajun or Creole in their family lines knew. And, Christians fixing to celebrate Lent knew. But, I had no idea.
A good portion of this trip, so far, has turned on chance. I didn’t plan to enter Louisiana on the Friday before Fat Tuesday (which is the unofficial beginning of Mardi Gras). But I did. I learned what was going on as soon as I tried to find a place to stay for a night or two. There were no rooms (metaphorically speaking) in any RV parks/campgrounds anywhere in this part of Louisiana! I was in Lake Charles, it was dark, I was lost, my GPS wasn’t working and the dark cloud that had been over my head that day got darker (it later literally exploded with massive thunderstorms, tornado watches, etc – this weather pattern followed us through Louisiana and is now wreaking havoc in the Midwest/East, bringing more snow your way,sorry).
By luck, we finally found a Walmart in Lake Charles, at which we could overnight. Most, not all, Walmarts allows RVers and truckers to overnight for free in their parking lots. It’s a smart move. Walmart parking lots are usually so big, shoppers only come close to filling them on a couple days of the year. The rest of the time, an appreciable number of folks like me overnight in the lots and, usually, spend some money in the store before we leave. This policy has me thinking differently about Walmart (well, this and seeing that it is the Dollar stores that are everywhere in small town America, not Walmart).
We know that big box stores, malls, etc., engineer their parking lots based upon maximum load (so to speak). For most stores, the maximum load day (yes, only one day) is Black Friday. Christmas shoppers will get close to maximum load, but never fill up the parking lot. The rest of the time, all that impervious pavement is not being utilized, creating year-long unnecessary storm water problems, etc. At least most Walmarts are putting these acres of asphalt to some use. Catherine Horiuchi says that some commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area actually “live” in Walmart parking lots during the week.
So, Walmart parking lots became my “home” during most of my stay in Louisiana. Thank you Walmart.
When folks get their Mardi Gras on, they get it on!
I did find a spot in a state park for one night and will write about the great folks I met there in my next blog (a shout out to my new young friend, Chase, who wants to travel for a living when he grows up – Chase, maybe you should become an anthropologist)
Big strategy, daily plan: I did not head down to New Orleans; instead I headed a bit north and then east. Part of me is very sad over this new direction – north/northeast. No disrespect intended for the parts of the country that are in this direction nor the loved ones who live there, but I am leaving the south and it’s getting colder.
I was also sad about not heading down to the New Orleans/Gulf area because one of the things I most wanted to experience in Louisiana was a bit of Cajun culture. Yet, I knew Mardi Gras was NOT the time to be poking along in Gulf Coast Louisiana so I headed for Highway 190. It looked like a nice route that would allow me to eventually skirt around Baton Rouge and head toward the Natchez Trace National Highway, my next destination.
Imagine my surprise when I found that Highway 190 is the Acadiana Highway and runs through the heart of Cajun country. At the heart of the Acadiana Highway is Eunice (where the Cajun cultural center is located), the town to which someone sent me for “the best BBQ you’ll ever have.” I had the best BBQ I’ll ever have and took the girls for a walk in the charming neighborhood around the restaurant. I heard music a few blocks up and went to investigate. And, what do you know? The girls and I happened upon the start of Eunice’s Saturday (children’s) Mardi Gras parade (see the photo of the girls strutting their stuff in their Mardi Gras beads). We stayed for the parade, had several great conversations with folks and learned about the traditional Cajun Mardi Gras practice of a “run” that takes place on Fat Tuesday (folks run from house to house, begging for something to put in the “pot” – a chicken, some okra, etc – and they a fantastic supper is prepared with whatever is given during the “run”). The woman who told me about the run ran it last year 9 months pregnant; her daughter was born 1 week after and the baby was at the parade this year celebrating her first Mardi Gras.
We ended up spending Fat Tuesday at a RV park in Vidalia, Louisiana across the Mississippi from Natchez, Mississippi. It was a dark and stormy day and this expedition stayed indoors (the girls are traumatized by thunderstorms). On Wednesday, we saw plenty of evidence in Natchez that a great party had taken place the day before.
Next entry: Southern Conversations and the Natchez Trace National Highway