the remote end of the Mississippi
Saturday, February 21 2004
setting: St. Vincent's Guest House, New Orleans, Louisiana
We took one look at breakfast prepared by the crack St. Vincent's staff and beat a retreat. As we were checking out, the manager-type apologized for our room, the infamous room 50, which he conceded wasn't the "choicest."
We made the mistake of visiting a museum on empty stomachs. The museum in question was the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. There was a short film which introduced the exhibit in the context of Southern Culture generally. As expected, the part about Jim Crow and the KKK was shorter than the part about the importance of family. Unless a loser (in this case, the South) accepts his losses (the Civil War) then he just keeps on losing (Jim Crow).
We were starving when we left, but at least we had a good idea of where we'd be eating: Juan's Flying Burrito. It was a punk rock burrito joint featuring a wide variety of burrito options, many of which were vegetarian. I ordered the Veggie Punk, which is a vegetarian alternative to the beef-containing Gutter Punk. For Gretchen, it was the first good meal in New Orleans. And we were just about to leave town.
Our next destination was Venice, a small town way out on the remote peninsula stretching 80 miles southeast from New Orleans along the lower Mississippi. The only reason this peninsula exists is that the Mississippi enjoys being a river and decided to build banks on either side of itself well out into the Gulf of Mexico.
We stopped at Barataria Preserve along the way and went on a self-guided walking tour of the cypress, red maple, and palmetto swamp. The ranger at the main office showed us where on the map we should go if we wanted to see alligators and armadillos, although he wasn't sure if it was warm enough for alligators. It was useful information, but as he talked I had difficulty ignoring the grape-sized tumor on the side of his face.
Interesting, most of the animals we saw were reptiles: lots of turtles, six or seven snakes belonging to at least three different species, two lizards, and at least four juvenile alligators. We also saw a rabbit, a squirrel, several white cranes, and blue herons.
A convocation of turtles at Barataria Preserve.
A black-colored snake in the water.
A juvenile alligator, perhaps two feet long.
A snake (perhaps a ratsnake) in a tree. He might be four or five feet long. People on the trail talked more about this guy than they did about the alligator. To them he was like some sort of horror movie.
A treeless part of Barataria, probably logged for cypress back in the bad old days.
A fork in the Barataria bayou.
Me and Gretchen at Barataria. This is about as 70s as my hair gets.
Root snorkels in the Barataria forest.
We hoped to see some armadillos on another stretch of trail, but the things in the distance that might have been sleeping armadillos turned out to be a log, so we turned around and went back. Along the way we passed a guy with a marble-sized tumor on the top of his bald head. He was holding hands with his wife as they strolled in the pleasant spring weather of Gulf Coast February. "I'd seriously consider wearing a baseball cap if that was me," Gretchen observed. "Either that or make the next available appointment with a doctor who could saw that thing off." I agreed. Then, as usual, I thought of something really disgusting that I couldn't keep from telling Gretchen. "Perhaps it's the head of his shrunken Siamese twin, a twin whose legs and body dangle down into his brain."
Also along the trail, we inevitably ran into a frazzled overweight mother and her two little children. The principle enjoyment the kids seemed to get from the swamp came when they beat on plants with sticks. It was behavior typical of the children of religious fundamentalists, who generally lack basic (that is, instilled during childhood) respect for nature. In confirmation of this subconscious thought, moments later I saw the family gathered around their SUV. Its bumper was covered with religious stickers and a fish that did not have legs. It's a lot easier to beat on plants and stomp on ants when you don't believe they are your 200 billionth cousins.
Later on we were heading down Louisiana Route 23 in earnest, passing vast cow pastures on the right and occasional orange groves on the right. There was evidence of perennial flood danger everywhere, with many buildings perched atop stilts raising them an entire story over the ground.
We stopped to buy a big three dollar bag of oranges at a roadside fruit stand. For whatever reason we just assumed the Hispanic teenager staffing the place couldn't understand English, so we didn't bother asking about any of the fruit. We were about to buy a bunch of lemons that looked exactly like oranges when the girl spoke up to warn us (in English). She didn't have any more of an accent than I do.
As we put more and more distance between ourselves and New Orleans, we began to wonder about the loneliness of the people living out on this remote peninsula. What do they do for fun except get drunk, stick objects up their assholes, and screw? We passed a few heliports and Gretchen thought maybe they take helicopter rides for fun, but I figured those were for the even sadder stiffs who are flown out to the further isolation of offshore oil drilling platforms.
We checked into out home for the night, the very nondescript Venice Inn Motel. Most of the people staying there were fishermen. Gretchen immediately began watching Law and Order: Special Victims' Unit (her favorite show these days) while I called up the Venice Inn's restaurant and ordered a fish po boy to go. When I walked over to the restaurant, it had a certain classroom-style dreariness to it that I remembered from a restaurant in a remote Icelandic fishing village. I wonder if all little fishing villages are the same on some fundamental level.
When Gretchen was hungry, we drove back north up Route 23 to a Pizza Inn we'd passed on the way through Buras. She ordered a plate of spaghetti and we both ordered salad bars. I asked what beers were available and waitress said simply "Budweiser" in something close to a yawn. This was the first time in my life I only had one beer option at a restaurant. So I ordered a Budweiser. When the waitress brought it out to table, I was suspicious of how pale it was. Then I tasted it. It had obviously been diluted with water. But I couldn't really complain - our bill came to about $12.
Back in Venice we had an idea of maybe going out to a local honky tonk bar, so we drove as far as the streets would go, past huge oil refineries and small harbors. At the very end we parked the car and jumped onto some sort of mid-sized vessel anchored at the dock. At about that time we began to smell a horrible rotting fish smell. Then we saw it, a pile of fish parts and several enormous marine fish, including one that we mistook for an alligator until we shined the car's headlights on it. We never actually went into any of the bars we saw, mostly because Gretchen dreaded the prospect of being the only woman in a bar full of lonely oil platform dudes.
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