By the time the ambulance arrived, the French Quarter intersection was completely clogged with revelers drinking and goofily dancing to the earsplitting jazz band playing on one corner. The police SUV with flashing lights got there first, but the officers were calm, hardly seeming to notice the party around them. Then the bus arrived, covered in black paint and inexplicably filled on a Saturday night with school kids who thumped the windows with the music.
The ambulance medics wound through the crowd and brought back a man who had his eyes closed, but they too seemed weirdly relaxed about being there. A small flock of cameraman with neon-green, “TV DOCUMENTARY”-emblazoned vests tailed them. Normal traffic was forgotten at this point, hopelessly stuck outside of this bizarre tangle. Still the tuba and trombones and trumpets blasted their energetic tunes from the corner, drowning out everything but a shout, and the people danced and drank.
I hope the guy on the ambulance ended up OK, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this crazy place. Only in New Orleans.
New Orleans is a city built and fed by music, story and water. The French founded it three centuries ago to be a port for a continent, overlooking a river that drains half of the present-day U.S. The city’s grid of streets warps and turns with the Mississippi’s curves. Wetlands of cypress cloaked in Spanish moss surround the city, and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico looms to the south, bringing a bounty of seafood and a long history with hurricanes.
Hurricane Katrina barreled through here 10 years ago, flooding most of the city, fixing a blazing spotlight on its poverty and inflicting a wound that still hasn’t fully healed. I often wonder whether people should really live here. Much of the metro area sits below sea level, and rising seas and more hurricanes are on the way. Still, though my mom’s family is originally from this place, I’m an outsider, and it isn’t up to me. And like the Southern live oaks whose strong, undulating arms reach over much of the city, New Orleans’ roots go deep.
The entire city began with a small grid of streets and short buildings about five blocks wide and 10 blocks long: the French Quarter. The city is old, and here at the city’s heart, it stays old: It’s easy to imagine horses and carriages going down the narrow streets and soldiers from the War of 1812 drinking on the balconies of ornately curled wrought iron. The Quarter is home to Bourbon Street, the French Market and other well-known spots, and it was the first stop for my mom, Ryan (whom you might remember from the Great Sand Dunes) and me.
The weather was fantastic, in the 70s with low humidity, so we wandered down to the river and the nearby Audobon Aquarium of the Americas. It’s a pretty part of town. Near downtown and the tourist-heavy Quarter, it’s hard to tell Katrina ever came.
The aquarium shares its namesake with Audobon Park, a grove of those huge Southern oaks upriver. It was evening when we got there; I was on the hunt for a particularly massive oak I saw the first time I came here, but the light faded too fast this evening. We would have to come back the next morning to find the prize.
This lopsided giant is called the Etienne de Boré tree, after the first New Orleans mayor, who worked in that post before Louisiana was part of the U.S. and whose land included the present-day park. People also call it the Tree of Life, which is a little goofy. A little sign next to the tree says it sprouted sometime around 1740, making it almost as old as the city itself, and it’s huge, with knotted roots roiling the ground in a 50-foot span and branches so large and heavy they run along the lawn’s surface.
I say this about a lot of trees, but I love these oaks, and this one is just incredibly beautiful. The main limbs support growths of other plants such as the resurrection fern, named for its ability to come back to life after the harshest droughts. The neighborhoods near the park are also historic and worth exploring.
The next day started with some wandering around downtown before heading over to Louis Armstrong Park.
These interlocking bricks in the park mark the location of Congo Square, where enslaved and free black people on Sundays in the 1700s and 1800s would dance, play music, sell goods and generally keep alive traditions from their homelands. Those traditions eventually fed into jazz and hip-hop, and the area is still culturally significant to the nearby neighborhoods.
Another tradition tied to west Africa (and heavily promoted in New Orleans) is voodoo, a wildly misunderstood and caricatured system of beliefs and folklore that tells of spirits of the natural world and a single Creator god. I’m no voodoo expert, but I’ve read enough about it to know the popular image of it isn’t right. I bring voodoo up because it’s a big part of the allure of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s oldest city of the dead, where they say Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of 19th-century New Orleans, is entombed. We headed there next.
Family members are often ensconced one on top of another in this walled maze of tombs and markers. The primarily Catholic cemetery has such a history of vandalism and surprise mugging that you can get in now only with a registered tour guide or a relative interred inside. Security cameras keep constant watch, and marking the graves isn’t tolerated.
A tomb near the front has a little bronze plaque claiming it’s the “reputed” resting place of Marie Laveau. She could be there, but our guide, a fellow named Nate Scott, said he knew better. The plaque is a ruse, a diversion to keep people who want the Queen’s blessing off her trail, he said. He instead led us to what he claimed is the real one, an unlabeled, crumbling monolith covered with trios of X’s scrawled in pencil and ink – visitors’ pleas for the deceased’s help. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of the tomb to share; it doesn’t make much sense, but given its condition, I just wanted to give the thing a rest.
St. Louis No. 1 is an emblem of the city’s fog of myth and mystery. It holds several notable people, including Homer Plessy of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld “separate but equal,” as well as the mayor whose name is attached to that mighty oak in Audobon Park. But many of the graves have lost their markers, meaning their occupants’ identities might be lost forever.
Marie Laveau, meanwhile, could be in two different tombs, or in neither, for all I know – it seems best to be skeptical even of a registered guide’s word. She could have been a famous voodoo practitioner, but even then, her power or influence, like voodoo itself, probably was nothing like many people imagine. Our guide said Marie Laveau was mainly a healer and hairdresser whose reputation grew and grew into myth. It seems fairly plausible – every Marie Laveau biography I find is different, and the unknowns are fertile ground for legend.
Even the practice of entombing people above ground is clouded by untruths. Most people would tell you it’s because of the city’s high water table, but it actually has its roots in Catholic and European tradition. I’ll just say this: Bring lots of grains of salt if you visit this city.
To wrap up the day, we took the streetcars to City Park, which includes the city’s art museum and a pretty impressive sculpture garden. It was the last stop in our tourist-ing.
The next morning, we set off on the 10-hour drive back to Fayetteville. We went straight through the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta area. Flat fields of cotton, soybean and corn stretched to the horizon, criss-crossed by abrupt slivers of swamp. It’s not really a delta, but it has its beauty, especially with gems like the tiny town of Transylvania, Louisiana, and a creepily abandoned elementary school. Farmers were out tilling and burning in the fields throughout the day, making the sky hazy as dust devils twirled across empty stretches of farmland.