Louisiana is unique in many ways. Although most states have their own peculiarities, no other place is like Louisiana. It’s as dark and lawless as it it beautiful and wild, and many creative writers have been inspired by its colorful past.
My first taste was on the Charlotte to Houston road trip, after which, I vowed to return, and managed to a few times. This was one of them.
We (my school friend Eamonn and I), met in New Orleans. He had driven across from Houston and I bounced in from New York on a late afternoon flight, and we checked into a hotel in the French Quarter, with rooms overlooking the street, with one of those Spanish style balconies associated with the area.
We wandered down Bourbon Street, unimpressed by the music spewing out of the clubs, strippers hanging out (literally) at the entrances and scammers trying to lure us into talking to them. We moved out of this area and settled in a quiet bar where we spent most of the night. Bar tenders in the US get a low wage and make up their income with tips, usually between 10% and 20%. Therefore, they look after, remember what you’re drinking and will talk to you if they are not too busy. The guy in this bar was new and told us that he came from another bar where the customers hurled abuse and if the staff played along, they got large tips. It was weird, but after a couple of drinks I tried it out and the guy played ball. Eamonn was nervous, saying that if you did that in Texas, you’d probably get shot. But this was the land of the free and the home of the crazy.
Our disappointment with the sleaze of Bourbon Street, was compensated by a tasty breakfast in a very popular diner, after which, we headed out for a drive along plantation alley.
Our road trip often have unplanned stops to explore unusual or striking buildings, churches and cemeteries.
Hence our first stop was the cemetery in New Orleans which was under several feet of water after Katrina swept through. This was the category 5 hurricane which destroyed large areas of the city, leaving 1,800 dead, and over $125 billion in damage.
This cemetery is very much in the French style with large family vaults and ornate sculptures and headstones. There were a lot of Irish there, with several dying of smallpox, which was prevalent in the Irish community, with most of the men working mainly in the swamps constructing canals and roads, regarded as little more than slaves.
After a second stop to investigate a church, we arrived at the splendid San Francisco Plantation, only to find it closed for renovation. The next stop was the Saint Joseph Plantation in Vacherie, We took the tour, learning the history of the place, and the lifestyle and hardships of the owners and slaves. As majestic as the plantation houses are, they would never have been built if it wasn’t for the cruel slave trade.
After St.Joseph’s we stopped at the Oak Alley Plantation, without entering. You can park nearby and walk along the bank of the Mississippi to get a good view of the path that gives the plantation its name. I did stay in one of the lodges on the plantation a couple of years prior to this visit, allowing me access to the grounds out of normal visiting times.
We carried on with our drive before heading back to New Orleans.
That evening we went to Frenchman Street, which is where you find real New Orleans, with bars and restaurants and some great funky blues. This is only a short walk, but far removed from the tourist trap of Bourbon Street.
The following morning we took in a few more sights and a couple of Trolly rides before heading out on a three hour drive to a town called Mamou, the self-prolaimed Cajun Capitol of the World.
We were driving through Baton Rouge when we hit a slight snag. Looking for a quick lunch we stopped at what is best described as a chicken shack. There was a small counter to order from and a couple of tables, with a choice of deep fried chicken and fries or deep fried chicken and fries.
Half a deep fried chicken was exactly that. It arrived in a bun, but it was so overcooked that you couldn’t tell the flesh from the bones. A strange texture and a new experience.
We realised that we were in a predominantly black area, but did not feel at all uncomfortable. After the meal, I was to drive the Subaru SUV for the first time. It was a very busy road and I had to reverse out into the traffic. Eamonn stood behind and concentrating on him, I turned the wheel too much, without checking my proximity to the car on my left. Bang, I dented it. We went in and explained this to the cafe owner, and the car happened to belong to his younger brother, who, was a very vulnerable guy, and as soon as he saw the dent started dialling his phone. We asked who he was calling when he was answered by a police operator. We launched an avalanche of NO!s. Explaining that nobody was hurt and it was not necessary. He hung up.
Eamonn offered his insurance details and we ended up following him on a 30 minute drive through Baton Rouge to get a quote from a repair shop.
Continuing the drive, we were looking for somewhere to get a cold drink, when we drove past a diner. From the outside it was nothing special, but inside it was one very long counter with lots of chrome and padded seats. We were the only customers and I ordered a milkshake from the only person working there. I watched as she added ice cream and milk to a large metal container, before lowering the mixer blades into it. She poured the liquid into a tall sundae glass, its foam rising above the top, but not spilling over, and placed it in front of me. I hadn’t realised how thirsty I was and drank half of it without a taking a breath. The lady then placed the metal container on the counter in front of me, indicating that it was all mine. It filled another two glasses, which at any other time, I probably would have ignored, but on this very hot day in north eastern Louisiana, I enjoyed every last drop.
We arrived in Mamou, which is a typical one-horse town with a population of around three and a half thousand, late that afternoon On checking into the hotel, the manager said that only had one room ready and was almost put out that we needed two. He was an odd guy, and had two fingers missing on one hand. We had a beer while we waited, and a second one an hour later, when we went back to eat.
People in the bar were smoking, although it was banned, I believe that some states made allowances.
I was woken the next morning by a bell ringing. I learned later, that this was to summon the volunteer fire crew.
It was Saturday morning and the town would come alive at 9am when the Fred’s Lounge bar opened and the Cajun experience, described to me by a newspaper reporter on a plane, a few years prior, would begin.
We entered the Crazy Cajun Cafe, the only place open for breakfast, which was a small cafe with only a few tables.
There were two young girls serving, but there was something odd about them, although they were friendly enough. I was reminded of them a few years later when we stopped to buy food from two Amish girls setting up a stall near the Shiloh battlefield in Tennessee. In their case we put it down to in-breeding.
Breakfast was great, I had a large cheese biscuit (English scone) with a fried egg in it, and Tobasco sauce.
We talked with a guy who was cycling around America to raise funds for charity. He started in California and was on his way back, and had been on the road for a month and it would probably take him that long to get back.
After breakfast we walked around the town, which didn’t take long. We cut through a rough side street where a dumped police patrol car was left to rot. It was in reasonable condition, with bullet holes in a side window. On passing the front of the Police precinct, two guys in orange suits were chained to a bench. One of them looked up and smiled at us, revealing a row of gold teeth.
We entered Fred’s Lounge at 9.30 and to our surprise it was already very busy, with several people dancing to the lively tunes played by the band. The average age was about 40, with ages ranging from 18 to 80. We grabbed a couple of low alcohol beers, as it was not only very early, but we had to drive back to New Orleans that afternoon. It was a memorable experience and offered an insight into Cajun society. We went outside for a break and struck up a conversation with a guy who had lived in Mamou all of his life. He described the lawlessness back in the 1960’s, when gambling was illegal and card games were won or lost with the aid of a gun. “It was easy to get shot around here”, he told us. He also said something that started me on an investigation. The daughter of the owners of the Fred’s Lounge had a boyfriend living near New Orleans. The relationship developed towards marriage, and her parents were invited to meet his. They drove up to a secured gate and were let into the grounds of a large mansion. The father turned out to be Carlos Marcello, head of the Louisiana Mafia and a principal suspect in the assassination of President John F Kennedy. By this time, he had legitamised his businesses and moved away from crime, and his previous associates such as Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.
There were a couple of dozen large motorcycles parked outside, some had been customised. The riders all knew one another and had ridden down from another state. From talking to one of them, the majority were retired police officers. Not exactly a Sons of Anarchy crowd.
We stayed for a few hours, alternating between the music and the fresh air, before heading out after lunch.
Eamonn dropped me at New Orleans airport for a late flight back home, and continued his drive back to Houston.