Gulf Coast: vol 2 – The Big Easy through Big Country

Talking with the old folks by the wall
Dreaming ‘bout New Orleans in the Fall…
-David Gray, “Gossamer Thread”

French Quarter, New Orleans

Yes, I know it’s been a while since I posted. I am back in New Mexico now, and the frantic pace of “normal” life has caught up with me, pushing me in this and that direction. So now I find the time to write about the last two legs of my journey home. Fortunately, I took notes. 🙂

For those of you who have not been to New Orleans: go. It is a gem of the South, a surprising burst of color and culture in the swamp lands. I arrived in the evening to the house of my CouchSurfing host, Hope. I’ve been a CouchSurfing member for over 7 years; I have surfed all over the western hemisphere, and hosted some amazing travelers from around the world. So when I am scheduled to visit an unfamiliar place and have an interest in exploring said locale in an authentic way, CouchSurfing is the first place I turn.

Grilled fresh Gulf Oysters. Yum!

Hope is one of those people I meet and feel an instant connection to, like we had already been friends for years. She went out of her way to show me around the area, even driving me out to the swamps of Jean Lafitte national monument to find gators. On the first day, we went to a CouchSurfing potluck at a friend’s house, where we shucked and grilled fresh oysters (yum), lamented at the embarrassing loss by the Saints that day (not that I care about football, but everyone in New Orleans does), and met surfers and local hosts alike.

Jungle balcony, New Orleans.

I had planned to be in New Orleans for only a day or two, but as often happens when one finds oneself in inspiring surrounds with wonderful people, my stay was extended. Tripled, even. I arrived on a Saturday night, and stayed until Thursday. The city itself is a vibrant, pulsing place, rich with a sort of eerie Southern mystique, yet also notably European and Caribbean. Strings of plastic beads hang from trees and power lines, the air is heavy and humid enough to feel palpable in your lungs, and jungles of potted plants crowd the ornate porches of French-inspired homes.

New Orleans Cathedral

Though I spent only an afternoon in the touristy French Quarter (think Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, etc), my experience of the city was rooted in the experiences of the people who live there and were gracious enough to share their time and homes with me. Good people, great food, engaging city. Highly recommended.

From Louisiana, I drove across the raised highways through the bayous, where I could see shanties and molding boats nestled in the patches of terra firma. Swamps eventually gave way to piney woods as I approached Texas. Next stop: Beaumont.

Louisiana bayous. With gators!

My stop in Beaumont was a brief one; a good midpoint between New Orleans and Corpus Christi. Plus, one of my favorite people from my summer in Maine, Keith Carter, lives there and I wanted to say hello. I stayed with yet another CouchSurfing host, who coincidentally studied with Keith at Lamont University. Small world. We went out for some amazing Vietnamese pho, which was probably my 5th bowl of such soup in as many days. Little known fact: the Deep South boasts some wonderful Vietnamese food, I’ve been told because there is a sizable Vietnamese population there. Who knew? Anyway, after a restful night, I went to Keith’s studio in the morning for a visit. It was so nice to see him, to chat about life, and to see his amazing studio space.

I left around noon for Corpus Christi. Only 900 miles of Texas between me and home, plus a bit of extra mileage in my detour along the coast. I drove through Houston (where I ate yet more pho – no joke), and through several torrents of monsoon-style downpour. I took back roads along the Gulf Coast from Houston, through Freeport, Port Lavaca, Rockport. Quiet, wide open spaces, flat-lands and oak savannas dotted with cattle and humble homes. Finally, whispers of the West. Big weather rolled across the expansive skies, uninhibited as it unleashed its fury upon the open landscape. For the first time in over 4 months, I felt like I was close to coming home.

Corpus Christi Bay

In Corpus Christi I visited with friends from Las Cruces who moved there only a month before. I was welcomed with an evening playing tennis at their local club, the only indoor tennis I have ever played. The weather down there was still summer hot, heavy and salty and sticky. We ate burritos from a taco stand run by yet more folks from Las Cruces, and in the morning Michael gave me the abbreviated tour of Padre Island and downtown Corpus Christi. The cityscape is an interesting mix of upscale and dumpy; two states which often coexist on the same block. I was reminded of poorer Caribbean nations, and also of Mexico. Giant belching oil refineries line the bay, while jetties and surfers can be found on the outer shores of the island.

Padre Island, Gulf side

Moving right along. Almost home, and I was getting anxious to arrive at my comfortable home in New Mexico where my man and dogs awaited. Next stop: Austin. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Austin over the years, and didn’t feel the need to stay for too long. I spent the night with a friend from the photo/art world, who graduated from UT Austin’s MFA program last year. We had an awesome mellow evening of beer and conversation, and an amazing breakfast of vegan blueberry pancakes. I picked up 3 lbs of BBQ at Saltlick to deliver to Ben at home, and my mission in Austin was complete.

Oh, the open lands of the West… how I’ve missed you!

Only 10 hours of West Texas (a.k.a. the armpit of America) between me and home. I again took back roads through the hill country of central Texas. I passed game ranches, country estates, and small towns with more taxidermy shops than restaurants. The rolling hills began to iron out, and the oak savannas began to give way to yuccas and prickly pears. Spiny, hostile signs of my impending arrival home. West Texas is unremarkable in every imaginable way, except perhaps the sheer expanse of open land. I watched big storms roll alongside me through the desert, big black columns of rain punctuated by brilliant lightning bolts spewing forth from the heavy, dark undersides of towering white supercell clouds.

I arrived at sunset. I was greeted with smiles, hugs, wagging tails, and a cold beer. Not so bad.

Home! A walk in the Organ Mountains with my sweet doggies.

So I am now finally home after 4.5 months spent in: Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michiagan, Ontario, New York, Massachusetts  Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Holy cow. What a trip. In my absence, all of the normal trappings of my life have remained in stasis, waiting to accost me upon my return. A whirlwind of details swept me away almost immediately, took me to Tucson within a week of coming home, and now finally have given me a little space to breathe. And a little space to plan my next adventure, which will commence in only 5 weeks…

Egypt, Jordan, Israel – here we come!


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