It was the last weekend in October and my road trip buddy and I had decided to take in the fall color along the Mississippi River. Our plan was to spend time in St. Louis and Memphis while also touring the more natural areas along the river shoreline. We had 4 days and 4 nights to accomplish this.
We leave mid afternoon on a Friday and head south towards St. Louis, our intended first stop. Much of the midwest is given over to farmland due to it's nutrient rich prairie soil. Along both sides of the road grew amber waves of corn. We make good time and near St. Louis relatively early. It then occurs to me that the next day is Saturday and maybe not the best time to visit the iconic St. Louis Arch as it could be awash with weekend day trippers and their multitudes of small children. I suggest that, perhaps we should hit Memphis first and then work our way back north.
My travel buddy muses for a moment then replies "We could go to St. Louis, continue on to Memphis or...I could drive all night and we could go to New Orleans."
To that point I had never been to "The Big Easy" which I mentioned. After a few minutes of convincing me that he could drive the considerable distance there, and, in fact, had done it on several occasions before, we by passed St. Louis and continued south.
I like to say about this weekend that we were headed to St. Louis and missed the exit.
It took 18 hours of driving to make the journey from Chicago to New Orleans. Once we got to Louisiana we turned off at every rest stop because we had to get out of the confines of the car. The roads in the northern part of the state were lined with cypress trees. There was no moon. It was pitch black save for the double beam of our headlights. It was like driving through a tunnel. Like driving through the world's longest, darkest, most mind numbing tunnel.
We reached Lake Pontchartrain just as dawn was breaking and headed across the bridge to the city. The bridge is almost 24 miles long. From it's center we could not see land.
As I mentioned, I had never before been to New Orleans. This visit was prior to Katrina and the devastation that she brought to the city. I was unaware and unprepared for the poverty evident in the city at the time., The first words I uttered as we drove down Canal Street, New Orleans main drag, past the wig shops, dollar stores and nail salons were "It's so poor!" With the romantic vision of the city I had in my head,the conditions came as something of a shock.
The French Quarter is the New Orleans most people are familiar with. The New Orleans of postcards and photographs. It does not disappoint. It is, however, like the oldest, most historic parts of many cities a rather small portion of the whole. We stopped at a hotel in the Quarter my friend was familiar with. There was a wedding party there that weekend and they had no vacancies. Just across Rampart Street, technically the Quarters boundary, we found a 200 year old mansion converted into a guesthouse named, appropriately, The New Orleans Guesthouse. After checking in and depositing our bags in the room we headed out to breakfast prior to what we knew would be a long nap. We had traveled all night and not slept.
Just before leaving the guesthouse for breakfast I phoned my partner.
"Guess where we are."
"No further south and below sea level."
"WHERE ARE YOU???"
"YOU TWO WHOREBAGS!!!"
I hung up the phone and we left the room.
We found a small restaurant near the city's famous St. Louis Cathedral. It stood on a corner and the walls were a series of french doors open to the temperate weather outside. It was my first encounter with the extraordinary cuisine I would experience over the next two days. Crab cakes Benedict, an English muffin topped with crab cakes, instead of the usual Canadian bacon, covered with some of the tastiest hollandise sauce I have ever had. From the sounds I was making during this meal you would have thought I was having a 30 minute orgasm. In a sense I was, it's just that it was taking place in my mouth.
Returning to the guesthouse we found a sign on the door announcing "No Vacancy". We must have gotten the last room available. We went upstairs, darkened the room and fell into an exhausted sleep.