We could see them rising out of the meadows from a long way off. The land was flat here, gently sloping to the ocean, so the view seemed to dissolve into forever. They stood out like small cities etched into the blue sky, castles with towering minarets touching the clouds. The small highway that leads from Beaumont to the coast points right at these goliaths. The bridges that cross the bays and connect the pavement are cartoonish, more like roller coaster tracks, in their steep inclines to heights that allow the massive freighters access to the harbors attached to some of these giant outposts. Everyone in the truck was amazed at the oil refineries nearly consuming the landscape in the desolation of the marshes along the coast. The highway follows the coast and is positioned at times impossibly close to the salt water. For a time we kept pace with an oil ship that dwarfed our truck and cast a shadow across the highway.
The highway was a small two-lane that wound through several small towns that supplied manpower to the refineries and the ocean oil rigs that jutted up out of the water off the beaches we drove along. All the architecture here followed the post-Katrina practicality of low profile elevation. Churches, schools, municipal buildings, homes, barns, even electrical substations and RVs, were single floor structures set upon telephone poles twenty feet high. Everyone seemed to live in bird's nests built on sticks hovering above the ground. There was a solitude, a desolation, to this area, and then the road ended and the water lapped against the pavement. A small amount of panic overcame my wife as we watched the ferry chugging through the chop toward our ramp at the pavement's end. We would cross the inlet on a DOT-provided, free-of-charge ferry that connected the scenic byways. That scenic byway would turn toward New Orleans but the desolation lasted. Along the road's edge the swamp persisted and with it came the dinosaurs that made it their home. The first alligator brought screams of surprise and delight. There was a rush for the cameras and phones to capture the creature sunbathing. At first it became a competition to see who would spot them first, then came the fun of counting how many we could see, and finally the boredom of the frequency of occurrence. The giant lizards became so prolific that counting them as we passed by put everyone to sleep as if counting sheep.
We may have lost a full day to the scenic coastal byway and the highway hovering above the bayou but the views were more than worth it. Reminiscent of our overnight stop in Nashville, we pulled up to the Superdome with the night fully upon us and the giant stadium awash in colored light. By this point in our trip my younger daughter had determined that she wanted to visit every professional football and/or baseball stadium in the U.S. and the Superdome was right there on cue. New Orleans, however, quite differently from Nashville, did not disappoint. The streets were booming with people, buzzing with jazz streaming from every open cafe door. There were folks on balconies and performers on street corners. Our timing was slightly off for the age of the girls in the backseat and we decided to return during the day when the sun would chase some of the heartier revelers to the respite of their beds.
Our hotel was a short(?) jaunt across the longest bridge in the world, a twenty mile stretch across the water of Lake Pontchartrain. We dined on local seafood cooked with the traditional New Orleans spice and washed it down with local brews with Abita only a few blocks further down the road. In the morning my wife completed her business trip by meeting with her contracted collector, a guitar player turned ghost hunter with his hands in multiple media outlets for music and TV productions that somehow took an interest in collecting money as a corporate endeavor. Pontchartrain in the daylight appeared more ocean-like as we headed back to Bourbon Street to walk among the cobblestone streets and window shop our way around. The atmosphere was just as advertised and the street performers and beignets were the perfect NOLA experience. The Jackson Brewery provided a filling lunch of fried green tomatoes and crawfish and shrimp po'boys. Somehow we just could not get used to the laid back disposition of all the locals we encountered between here and Beaumont. The waiter was in no hurry, the shop owners seemed unmotivated, the street vendors moved leisurely, even the pedestrians barely walked across the street. It wasn't until the food arrived and the band took the stage to accompany our meal with jazz and the paddle-wheel riverboat slapped the Mississippi in passing bringing with it a wonderful breeze carrying all the smells and spirit of the city through the open doors and windows of the brewery that we collectively began to understand the slower pace of this place. We found it hard to abandon our perch in the second floor window, watching from above the ebb and flow of the southern street, but it was time for more miles. We had a long way to go to reach our fast paced home region, like it or not.