There she was at long last — New Orleans!
We reached our primary objective at the end of Day Two, thankfully before sundown. All the post-Katrina tourism resources we consulted in our vacation research (books, travel sites, AAA brochures, message boards with supporting posts from wary New Orleans residents) seemed unanimous on one important message: anyone caught outside in New Orleans at night will be swiftly, repeatedly murdered. Perhaps that’s not the reality, but we weren’t prepared to call Fodor’s bluff during our first hours in town. No matter how long we spent in Alabama or at stops along the way, we wanted to be in New Orleans and checked in at our hotel while the sun was still on our side.
We met our objective, and all it took was a long, nearly featureless drive through an unrelated state, braving the cramped hallways that pass for roads in the French Quarter, and cutting a major stop from our itinerary.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
This year’s trip began as a simple idea: visit ostensibly scenic New Orleans. Indianapolis to New Orleans is a fourteen-hour drive. Between our workplace demands and other assorted personal needs, we negotiated a narrow seven-day time frame to travel there and back again. We researched numerous possible routes, cities, and towns to visit along the way in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. We came up with a long, deep list of potential stops, but tried to leave room for improvisation…
By the time we officially decided we’d seen a sufficient amount of Birmingham and were ready to move on, it was past 1 p.m., much later than we’d anticipated. Our self-guided tour hadn’t felt like dawdling, but we were nonetheless behind schedule, with our primary destination of New Orleans over five hours away. The base directions were simple: From Point A take I-59 to I-10 to Point B. Presto: the Big Easy. If we kept things simple, anyway.
One casualty of the simplification process: it was with no small amount of regret that we canceled a planned stop in Selma. Considering how well I regard the eponymous Best Picture nominee, frankly, that decision kind of hurt. Anne would’ve been game to keep it in, but it’s a significant detour off the interstates and — a critical factor when I made my choice — all its most important historical locations are closed Sundays. If we had dropped by, our time in Selma would’ve been limited to walking around a lot of closed attractions (not unlike Birmingham) and a few pics of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, traffic permitting. So I mentally added Selma to our lengthy “maybe on our next trip” list that contains several vacations’ worth of regrettably missed opportunities.
With Selma bypassed, that left one major obstacle in our path: Mississippi.
The route from Birmingham to New Orleans is a diagonal NE-to-SW line that includes a three-hour stretch through Mississippi’s southeast corner. Other than gas stops, we got out of the car only once in the Magnolia State, to stretch our legs at their official welcome center.
For our first time ever being in Mississippi, we looked into all the major nearby towns beforehand to find something Mississippian to do on the way. We compiled a small list with several names on it, and crossed them off one by one because nearly all of those attractions are closed Sundays, too. It’s like the entire South thinks leaving the house on the Sabbath is a mortal sin. We found a single exception: an art museum billed as the first-ever of its kind in Mississippi. They’re open three (3) whole hours on Sundays. We reached their neck of the woods half an hour after closing time.
So much for Mississippi, which amounted to three hours of whizzing past walls of roadside trees. We’ll return to them later in the series and partly redeem them, but as far as Day Two was concerned, Mississippi was a washed-up opening act.
Then came the star of our show.
Louisiana made interstate driving cool. Behold Lake Pontchartrain, which surrounded us on all sides for a long stretch of I-10.
Our six-mile scenic drive across the lake was made possible by the I-10 Twin Span Bridge. These lanes are less than ten years old, having replaced predecessors that lasted forty years before Katrina irreparably knocked them around.
Tensions rose a tad once we exited I-10 inside New Orleans and I immediately turned the wrong way, possibly in the direction of the Creole version of Crime Alley. A quick about-face calmed Anne down and pointed us toward the French Quarter, where we had reservations for suspiciously not-so-high price. With most of our vacations we tend to stick to suburban accommodations and simply drive into the big cities for each day’s activities. This time we decided to shell out a few extra bucks (but not too many extra bucks) and go where the action is.
It was an interesting experiment that would’ve been less frightening if we’d known ahead of time that the French Quarter’s one-lane, one-way passages weren’t fit for auto travel and shouldn’t have qualified for official street names. Or if we’d known that some of them are barricaded at certain times so you can’t just drive anywhere Google Maps says you can drive. Or if pedestrians weren’t carelessly presenting themselves everywhere as potential Death Race targets, even on an off-party night. Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of every claustrophobic, barely navigable European street setting ever filmed for American action flicks, except driving more than 3 mph was impossible. The frequent potholes didn’t help. I did appreciate the copious One Way signs, which probably saved our lives as well as many others’.
Two or three forevers later, we inched toward our hotel’s parking garage, pulled in without slaughtering any large crowds, and refused to drive anywhere else for the rest of our stay in New Orleans. For the next few days we limited ourselves to walking everywhere and one (1) instance of letting someone else drive. But what matters most is we were there.
And we were relieved to confirm our hotel, the Omni Royal Orleans, wasn’t a glorified foxhole. At all. The rooms were typical built to hold two tourists, two beds, minimal oxygen, and not much else, but I’m pretty sure their lobby was bigger on the inside.
Our room window gave us a non-scenic view of another building’s boring walls, but we found a vantage on the top floor that let us see across the Quarter. Sadly, for some reason our badges were denied access to all parts of the roof, so this was the best we could do.
By the time we checked in and dropped our bags, we were exhausted and starving. We weren’t up for an all-night walkabout, lest we be accosted by jazz demons or whatever, but we needed food. That morning at our Birmingham hotel, we’d chatted at breakfast with a guy from New Orleans (taking his son to a Boy Scout event in the opposite direction) who told us that the New Orleans restaurant market is so high-cailber, so hyper-competitive, that you effectively can’t go wrong with any eatery that’s more than three months old. Any restaurateur who doesn’t have their act together when they first open for business tends to fail quickly. That advice would come in handy the next few days, but for the moment, we decided to saunter down a few random blocks’ worth of genuine New Orleans and see where luck would take us.
Lo and behold, Bourbon Street was the next tunnel over. If you’ve heard of the city’s reputation for seedy, NSFW establishments, chances are they were talking about Bourbon Street. It was the most crowded of all streets in the Quarter, seemed the most brightly lit, and looked to have the highest occupancy rate compared to some of the other areas that had all the charisma of an Old West ghost town. Bourbon Street may not be tailor-made for humble churchgoers like us, but it paradoxically felt like a safer place to hang out than anywhere else.
We were too tired to wander for long. We don’t drink and have a hard time psyching ourselves up for dining at bars, nightclubs, or wretched hives, so we settled for the first benign storefront we saw, the Court Tavern Po-Boy. My all-time favorite po-boy came from a Cajun joint at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal on our 2010 road trip. It contained spicy chopped steak, salami, andouille sausage, and endless flavor. That memory gave me high hopes. Alas, our sandwiches here were…really not that. Maybe we ordered exactly the two least Louisiana items off their entire menu, but what we got amounted to a pair of Subway subs on French bread. In that moment, as the calories replenished our energy levels despite their utter unremarkableness, I promised myself this meal would be our last culinary letdown in this city of fabled food.
And then we scampered back to our hotel before roving hordes of boogeymen could snatch us. End of Day Two.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]