- Where We Started: New Orleans, La.
- Where We Ended: Vicksburg, Miss.
- Miles Driven: 323 (2,681 total)
- New States: None
- Total States: 8 (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana)
THE DAY'S HIGHLIGHTS
Joan and I have always been big fans of New Orleans. Now, that doesn't mean either of us necessarily want to live there; we don't. But it's a completely unique American city, full of great culture, architecture, music and history. I've been to New Orleans about 10 times, and never walk away sorry that I went. It's on that short list of cities that you truly see something interesting and unique on every block.
So when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, we -- like millions of others -- watched in horror, as the city's population suffered horribly while local, state and federal officials badly bungled the response. The idea of much of a major American city being underwater was just surreal. Like everyone, we wondered whether New Orleans would ever return to its former glory.
Joan and I went down to the Big Easy for the start of the first Mardi Gras after Katrina, in February 2006. We went for no reason other than to support the city. At that point, the French Quarter -- which was not as much physically damaged by the storm, as financially damaged by the migration of the population out of the city -- was creeping back to life, and restaurants and businesses were starting to reopen. At that point, visiting the damaged parts of the city wasn't advisable, and, in most cases, not yet possible.
I went back to New Orleans for a journalism conference in October 2006, and while there, was taken on a Katrina disaster tour by Dan Shea, managing editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It was heartbreaking, stunning and something I'll never forget. Block after block of abandoned homes, collapsed or half-collapsed. Homes knocked off their foundations. Spray-painted messages left by rescue teams, i.e. "1 Dead Dog." And it went on for miles, from the Lower Ninth Ward to Lakeview to Gentilly to pretty much all of St. Bernard's Parish, there was devastation. I remember thinking, on that tour, that this was a story that could not be accurately captured by journalists. It could not be told by a single story, photograph or video. Journalism is wonderfully equipped to capture a moment in time, or tell a single person's story; it's not as well-equipped to tell stories of such stunning geographical scope. The devastation that Katrina wrought on New Orleans was impossible to truly comprehend unless you saw it first hand.
All that made us keenly interested in seeing how the city was coming along, 43 months after Katrina, and 29 months after my most recent visit.
The bad news: Parts of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, still remain almost deserted, with entire square blocks lacking a single home. It seems unlikely that the Lower Ninth will ever completely recover, though it's certainly in better shape than last time I saw it, and the presence of lots of construction vehicles is a testament to some development.
The corner of N. Galvez and Deslonde Sts. in the Lower Ninth Ward. This used to be filled with homes. Now, nary a one. You can see the levee that was breached -- now repaired -- in the upper right of the photo.
The good news: Many of the neighborhoods I saw on the disaster tour in 2006 are coming along nicely. The demolished homes that once filled these areas were not only eyesores, but hosted scores of vermin that wreaked havoc on those who did try and rebuild. Those structures are mostly gone now, and more and more homes have been rebuilt and/or repaired. There was also a sense of life in those neighborhoods that I didn't feel in 2006. Now, I should have prefaced all of this with this fact: I don't live here; I'm just another yahoo doing a drive-by who's making a judgment on a limited experience. But that's how it felt. Here are some of Joan's photos.
A group works to rebuild a home in the Lower Ninth Ward.
A rusted Radio Flyer in front of an abandoned home in Arabi, La.
An abandoned home in the Lower Ninth Ward. The message on the house: "Home. This Was Home."
A lonely cyclist rides underneath the I-10 in the St. Roch neighborhood in New Orleans. This is a little bit away from where Katrina had its biggest impact, but loved the photo.
From there, we left New Orleans, and headed back into Mississippi. We drove past Gillsburg, Miss., where the plane crash that killed members of Lynyrd Skynyrd occurred. We then stopped at Percy Quin State Park to give the dogs a walk, and discovered a beautiful lake with lots of families out for some fishing.
Unfortunately, after 20 minutes, we were driven back into the car by an barrage of gnats. We then headed to Natchez, Miss., where we wanted to see Mammy's Cupboard. This place is notable for being housed in the skirt of a 28-foot-tall black woman's skirt. Turns out this incredibly politically incorrect place is only open for lunch, so we did not eat there, but we did manage to find it. I mean, how do you NOT find a 28-foot-tall statue of an Aunt Jemima-like figure in the middle of nowhere?
Mammy lords over US-61, just south of Natchez, Miss. (Photo by Jim, using the "Night Shot" function on the camera)
After dinner, we hopped onto the historic Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs from Natchez to Nashville, Tenn., and encountered the loneliest part of our trip so far. For more than 30 miles on the Natchez Trace, we did not see another car. Not one. Eerie. And, guess what? No matter how beautiful a drive is supposed to be, it doesn't mean a hell of a lot when it's pitch black. Eventually, we hopped off at US-61, reached Vicksburg about 10pm CT and called it a night.
- I love long bridges. Something about them is incredibly cool to me. And we've been on a ton of them on this trip already: The Monitor-Merrimac Bridge and Tunnel in Newport News; the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge near Manteo, N.C.; the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, S.C.; the I-10 bridge into New Orleans; and others. But nothing beats the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which we took out of New Orleans on Wednesday. At 23.87 miles long, the longer of the two spans is the longest bridge in the world over water, and the second-largest bridge over any terrain. (Thailand's Bang Na Expressway land bridge is the longest). It was a fascinating ride, seemingly endless.
- Horrible story told, via spray paint, on the side of a building in the St. Roch neighborhood in New Orleans. So sad.
- First, Joan tells me she's never been to a Hardee's. Then, last night, after we discovered Mammy's Skirt was only open for lunch, I suggested Shoney's. She said, "I've never been to a Shoney's." I said, "They're similar to Denny's." She said, "I've never been to a Denny's either." I'm starting to think Joan is a foreign spy; no one can spend this much time in this country and never have encountered a Hardee's, Shoney's or Denny's. Right?
- By the way, some commenters have expressed concern that Joan might be a picky eater. Let me remind you, Joan was the one who was obsessed with McGriddles on our 2003 trip. She's a devotee of KFC, and -- even though she may a hardass when it comes to rating restaurants -- is a big fan of any meal she doesn't have to cook. We do both agree, however, that Roadfood has let us down a lot so far on this trip. But it served us well in 2003, and we're sticking with it.
- We had a canine health scare in New Orleans. Fred was sitting on Joan's lap when I made a sudden turn. Fred took a tumble onto the passenger-side floor, but seemed fine. But when we stopped at London Park a few minutes later to give the boys a walk, Fred didn't want to put weight on either back leg. Of course, that's not possible, so he just stood there frozen, lightly tapping the ground with one leg and holding up the other. Now, since this beagle has had more work done on him than Joan Rivers, we were immediately worried he'd re-injured himself. So we carried him back into the car and nervously discussed what we'd do if he was really hurt. Soon after, we stopped at Lakefront Park, and Fred happily hopped out of the car and was his normal disobedient, ornery self. Later, Joan found a burr attached to Fred's leash; we now think the park we stopped at had burrs in the grass, so Fred didn't want to walk there. Whew.
- Speaking of health, Joan is scouting canine acupuncturists on the road ahead so we can get Fred a tune-up sometime soon. But he's shown no sign of any issues, and unlike Hank, has not made a habit of yakking all over every nice hotel room we've stayed in.
- Random iPod shuffle song of the day: "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," by The Beatles. I do have a lot of Beatles on the iPod, so the fact they are showing up again is no surprise. Since I already did Beatles favorites, here's my list of five overrated Beatles songs: "Ticket to Ride," "She Loves You," "The Ballad of John & Yoko," "Old Brown Shoe" and "Lady Madonna."
- Most-played albums: We started the day in a more somber mood, since we were doing the disaster tour, so we listened to John Williams' spare score for "Saving Private Ryan." Seemed appropriate. Later, when we'd left New Orleans behind, we were more upbeat and did shuffle play from our Party playlist.
- A few New Orleans music notes: We did listen to the Arlo Guthrie version of "City of New Orleans" on the way out of the city, even though the song isn't about the city, but about the train of the same name. Still, a great folk song, though I didn't know until today that Guthrie didn't write it; it was penned by Steve Goodman.
- Lunch: Central Grocery, New Orleans, La.: Joan came up with the brilliant idea to head to Central Grocery early in the morning, requisition two muffulettas and store them in the hotel fridge until lunch. Mission accomplished, and even after an hour in the fridge, the sandwiches were perfect. Central has the bread down perfectly, which is a key element in a muffuletta. Jim Nutrition Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5). Restaurant Rating: 5 stars (out of 5).The first perfect score of the trip.
- Dinner: Shoney's, Natchez, Miss.: I mentioned earlier than Joan was unfamiliar with Shoney's. What I didn't mention is that she was trying to convince me to stop at the KFC Buffet next door to the Shoney's. Her argument was spare, but powerful: "How can you NOT want to stop at a KFC Buffet?" Now, the only strong nutritional choice you can make at a KFC Buffet is to not eat at a KFC Buffet. So I pleaded for Shoney's, and won. And guess what: Joan had a fresh salad, and a very good baked chicken dish. I also started with a salad, and had a very good blackened chicken with rice. Jim Nutrition Rating: 4 stars (out of 5). Restaurant Rating: 4 stars (out of 5, on the fast food scale). We will definitely give Shoney's another shot.
- Fries Boycott: Now, at three days and counting.
- And, Finally... The Weigh-In: 246! So down another half-pound since last week. At this pace, I'll make it down to my goal of 210 in approximately 72 weeks. Happy to not have gained, but I must do better.
- Quality Inn Vicksburg, Vicksburg, Miss.: Perfectly acceptable hotel. The TV works. There's a soda machine close by. We were able to park pretty close to the room. The hotel is right on I-20, so we do hear some traffic, but it's also right next to Vicksburg National Military Park, where we plan on spending a good chunk of Thursday. Bonus: Hank did not barf or pee in the bed. Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).
Let's do a change of pace here. For the next few weeks, I'll link to books we've brought along on this trip (or used in the planning), in case anyone else wants to take a similar trip. The first one:
- National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways: This is a great book that points out the most beautiful drives from every state. Great source for finding non-interstate routes and lots of photo ops.
COMMENT OF THE DAY
- Today: Vicksburg, Oxford and Tupelo, Miss.
- Tomorrow: Memphis and Little Rock, Ark.
- The Day After Tomorrow: The Ozarks and eastern Oklahoma.
BONUS BEAGLE PHOTO