day 10: st francisville, la – new orleans, la

departure: 07.48, temp: 22c

it was a foggy morning in northern louisiana as we made our way down the 61 towards baton rouge.  there are dozens of little churches dotted along the roadside, a few towns strewn with small low bungalows.  through the town of scotlandville, the road signs call the 61 the “scenic highway”, seemingly without irony, in what had to be the least scenic part of the grr so far.  down the roads through mississippi and louisiana, you’d be hard pressed to know that a federal election is in full swing.  where roadside election signs were ubiquitous is minnesota and wisconsin, and even through iowa and illinois, they are conspicuously absent in this part of the south.  in the north, local radio call-in shows were election-fueled; in the deep south, barely a mention.  i’m not sure where the change happened – i suspect somewhere in the fields beyond our I50 shortcut through missouri and arkansas – but it is striking.

highway 61’s line of used car lots, side by side with even more repair shops, eventually gave way to new car dealers (lexus, porsche, land rover, jaguar), so we knew we were nearing baton rouge, and there must be some money in that city.  there is a busy port and several huge petrochemical refineries.  as the road bypassed downtown, and the endless string of strip malls and billboards (“villa rosa: your favorite tailgate wine!”) became quite depressing, we opted to escape the 61 for the slower crawl along the river on the last day of our southern route.  we encountered no signs anywhere in louisiana marking the grr, though we were following an acknowledged route.

on highway 70, we crossed the mississippi on the sunshine bridge (named for the “singing governor” jimmie davis’s most famous song, “you are my sunshine”) which provided a stunning view of a vast oil refining complex along the river.  we then switched to highway 18, which meanders along the riverside at the base of the levee, so that while you are aware of the river’s presence you’re unable to actually see it.  this section of the grr is billed as plantation alley:  it’s actually an odd patchwork of new wealth (oil refineries and chemical plants) interspersed with old wealth (sugar cane fields and plantations).  oil pipelines run from the river, are suspended over the roadway, then run buried directly underneath the small towns, cane fields, and grazing cattle.  the juxtaposition is disconcerting.

we stopped to visit the oak alley plantation, named for the 300 year old trees lining the approach from the river to the main house; these trees are expected to live for 300 more years, refineries and nuclear power plants permitting.  the tour of the antebellum house was supplemented with a sort of open air museum with reconstructed slave cabins containing descriptions of their living and working conditions, and a small exhibition with a video providing details on sugar cane refining.  it was an interesting, if thoroughly sanitized, picture of plantation life.

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we continued widing along the levee’s base, past our first above-ground cemetary (sitting right out front the gates to a refinery), then on to the I310 bridge back over the river, zipping across the I10 into the centre of new orleans, to find the hotel and park.  this is a downtown for walking: narrow one-way streets choked with pedestrians and potholes that could swallow my car are effective driving deterrents .  we checked in to the beautiful hotel provincial on the eastern edge of the french quarter (wink to donna: thanks for the recommendation!), showered, headed out to explore the city.  we headed first to the edge of the river, at what will be our terminus of the grr, then wandered the vieux carré, getting our bearings and scouting potential dinner venues.

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the city was heaving with tourists and football fans.  the saints had just won a home game, and fans were thronging the bars and restaurants.  we escaped the madness and returned for happy hour at our excellent hotel bar (new orleans signature cocktails today:  sazarac for me, and hurricane for irene – made from scratch, not with the sticky pre-mix stuff found in most bourbon street establishments).  our first night on the town consisted of dinner at the royal house oyster bar (crawfish étouffée for irene, blackened shrimp with jambalaya for me), and listening to the cacaphony of music emanating from the bars and colliding with the music from the street performers.  we listened to a phenomenal female duo on guitar and violin, and managed to get seats in the crowded fritzel’s european jazz club for a couple of sets with the house band featuring mike fulton and john royen, then popping into marie laveau’s house of voodoo for a quick peek on our stroll across bourbon street back to the hotel.

arrived: 13.40, high temp: 30c, traveled: 226km

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