From L.A. to Louisiana: Crossing America Just Because
Even though Bodhi’s dad, Blake, and I were only acquaintances connected by other friends, in the first few hours he told me, “I don’t have a bucket list. I have a ‘f*ck it’ list; a rather long line of decisions in the past where I just said ‘f*ck it’ and did the risky thing.” I knew right then we were cut from the same cloth and the journey would be my kinda trip.
The ride in Blake’s Itasca Sundancer was my first in an RV and my first on-land experience of the route between California and Texas. (I had driven the Texas > Louisiana > Mississippi > Alabama > Florida route between college semesters enough to earn a speeding ticket in each state by the time I graduated.)
My only goal when I woke up to our first full day driving was to experiment with my (new and first ever) GoPro, and refresh my knowledge of the photography basics; shutter speed, aperture, ISO.
This was about the time I found out Blake had been a professional photographer for 15 years before going to culinary school to become a vegan chef. Twelve thousand of my questions, and a swiftly-bought gas station notebook full of his answers later, Blake and I chased down a train so I could try my hand at a scenic starry-night long exposure, because why not jump directly into the deep end?
Train passing under my favorite constellation around 9pm in the desert
What the western half of the states lacked in humidity and green grass, it made up in mental curiosity and odd sound bites for my traveling companions.
In Arizona, I felt a strange semi-relaxation in it’s smaller cities and contemplated if we humans have an internal population-density comfort set-point. Which aloud sounded like, “Wow, Phoenix is so clean! But I can’t tell if downtown feels refreshingly uncrowded, or just desolate.”
In New Mexico, while passing through the middle of absolutely nowhere, I picked up on the lack of ready-made amusement and remembered my own childhood neighborhood block parties; “This looks like the kind of town where you gotta make your own good time.”
And in Texas, I could not stop describing Fredericksburg as “cute AF, man. I mean—this town — it’s just cute AF.”
We stopped in Austin to eat and had an impromptu competition of how hip we could get in one meal. One kombucha craft beer on the dog patio of a vegan restaurant accomplished and we were back on the road. (Austin has long resided in my ‘Places to Visit’ list, but for when I have a decent stretch of time to dedicate. I was not about to attempt to cram everything in this legendary city in one afternoon.)
The seam of the US between East and West is very definite along I-10 in March: on the left side, you have desert scorched horizons, sunglasses-required blue skies, pale grass, short bushy trees, chapstick’d lips, and freezing temperatures at 6 am.
Crossing into the eastern half you can get so startled by bright green grass your brain thinks it’s neon and you can wear the humidity like a jacket.
And then, there’s New Orleans.
The first time I came to New Orleans I was eighteen and driving out to college from Florida to Texas and picked it as my overnight stop. I had no idea where to stay but after a few calls I discovered the hotels are the least expensive close to I-10 and increase in exponential increments along Canal Street to the water. (Student budget Days Inn it is!) I also had no idea Canal Street was the Vegas strip version of New Orleans, but alas my eighteen-year-old self navigated it to Bourbon Street and walked amongst the spectacle if only to tic that box, resulting in a caricatured experience that didn’t quite elicit a quick desire to return.
Boy was this time in New Orleans different.
As Blake, Bodhi, the RV, and I descended into the city from the highway, we passed roofs, trees, and power lines still coated with beads from Mardi Gras parades that had happened two weeks earlier.
Within minutes of hugging our dear friends and hosts, we were open-containering sweet tea vodka walking along Bayou Saint John in the perfect night air.
For dinner we ate at Frankie and Johnny’s where I went full-tilt tourist, incognito amongst the local neighbors; Purple Haze beer. Grilled shrimp po’boy. And chicken andouille gumbo that I still regret not ordering a second round of.
Our back porch margarita nightcap included Dobel Tequila, which was a gift from our hosts’ neighbors who work for the brand. There is a good chance that neighbor was one of the many “hi ya’ll”’s exchanged as I walked with my friend Juliane, as everyone here greets everyone, every time.
“Once I saw my neighbor’s mom get locked out of their house while visiting, and I knew which of his windows was unlocked, so I crawled through to let her in. Then she made me brownies.” Julianne explained. “We look out for each other here.”
Walking down neighborhood streets along the bayou you learn there are three things essential for comfort: a porch ready for sitting, a good breeze, and nice sounding wind chimes. For absolutely acing these three ingredients alone, I could spend all spring enjoying Bayou Saint John.
The next morning Juliane took me on a scoot on her Vespa down Esplanade to City Park (which is absolutely stunning in this weather) and then on to the French Quarter to celebrate its 300th birthday.
I took tourist communion by breaking beignets at Cafe du Monde and taking the cup of Frozen Irish Coffee at Molly’s. I hoped with this act I might be absolved of my lowly tourist state and blessed by the true spirit of the city’s saints, bacchanal and non. Mostly I prayed the weather stayed this perfect.
From there we wound up in a historic neighborhood at a warehouse affectionately known as “The Den.” Denny the Cat greeted us, as well as the owner since 1996, Ray. He and this one warehouse protect the 17 floats of the Krewe Du Vieux, the most satirical and XXX rated parade of Mardi Gras. Juliane gave me a tour and I was able to see the work she had done on the LEWD Float titled, “300 Years Cums Quick” (also known this year as “The Snatch Basin”) which she art-directed, designed, and helped build. Julianne was also the costume designer for many of the LEWD parade members, as well as the creator of the costumes for the King and Consort of the Krewe Du Vieux parade as a whole.
Tragedy may be looming on the horizon for this essential warehouse; an underappreciated staple of the parade culture and therefore New Orleans as a whole. Local sources say city council is fast-tracking motions in favor of condo developers, eliminating neighborhood meetings and stable housing components along the way.
Julianne Lagniappe, whose last name affectionately means “a little something extra” in Creole, has been a costume designer for Mardi Gras and the New Orleans costume-heavy society since moving back to town in 2015. She was born and raised here and had her trademark (and vibrantly-colored) costume-muse awoken while away in 2010 by Nevada festival Burning Man. Spending time in her home, I felt cheerfully warmed by the bright colors and unique patterns at every turn.
A selection of patterns and colors found at New Orleans Artists’ home and studio
Her client base has spread quickly by word of mouth, and the joy she takes in her work is infectious. “I get to make everyone happy- I get to know the client and how they live their life. I can make them costumes exactly like they want. I get to feel like a magician.” She has crafted wares for parades, balls, and for the client who just wants their own personal costume designer for their costume closets. Work from her Mardi Gras Krewe and local clientele takes up almost her whole year, but she still gets orders from around the country by those who find her uniquely bright creations on MadeByJulianne.com.
That afternoon, a block down from Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, we stopped in the thoroughly air-conditioned The Rink to visit local jewelry artists Maria and Patrick at their studio and storefront, “Adorn & Conquer.”
Patrick Shonk gave a tour of their on-site work studio since 2015, which rather than being a look behind the curtain that spoils the magic, made me appreciate the true craftsman nature of “handcrafted.” Live green leaves and different shades of copper resting next to a heavy press revealed the delicate necklaces I saw on display had actually been made with a literal piece of New Orleans foliage.
Maria Fomich, raised in Slidell, has been creating jewelry since 2005, and was one of the first artists on Etsy (under a pseudonym of ‘YaBettaSupaDont’ that still gets her stopped in local grocery stores by fans who recognize her.)
Unlike other stores in the area who go full-tilt fleur de lis, Maria and Patrick pay homage to their home city in stylized ways that are personal to them; the ‘Let’s Eat’ shield with crawfish, the shotgun house bracelets, and the aforementioned nature series made from pressed leaves. Maria shared with me her goal as a professional jewelry artist was to create thoughtful adornment that could be both beautiful as well as powerful. This is likely why many n’awlins locals turn to these artists for authentic custom work, and their new waveform series called “Heart Beat of the City” is a great example of their subtle approach. By etching the sound waves of a song like ‘Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans’ into a hand cut and layered bracelet, they offer visitor and resident alike a beautiful way to support both the art of New Orleans and the current local artists.
Heartbeat of the City, handcrafted by artists of the city.
Our last night included an absolutely decadent vegan dinner provided by Blake, and perfect patio cocktails provided by our hosts. I was by no means done with the city, but it was time to hit the road and continue on.
Sara Stringfellow, the daughter of a pilot and longtime adventure traveler, invites you along her journey which in the past has included Central America, south and eastern Africa, and at the moment involves road-tripping across the southern United States. Follow her adventures at “Once Upon A Passport” on Facebook and on Instagram.
All photos by Sara Stringfellow except for “Heartbeat of the City” bracelet, which was provided by the artist.