Hello everyone, and thank you for stopping by. The flowers are coming in nicely here in East Louisana, but the weather has cooled off significantly as well. I’ve been enjoying the little cold snap though, and sleeping really well cozy-ed up in the back of my van. I had an interesting stop in Alexandria this week, a town which has definitely seen better days, but which isn’t dead yet. From there I headed back into Cajun Country for the weekend, enjoying great food, drink, music and company. I stopped off in Lafayette to get some work done and have cruised across the north of the eastern panhandle to the North Shore where I am writing to you from today. It’s been a fun week as I start to make my preparations for my departure from Louisiana. It’s always sad to go, but it’s almost time I moved on. HERE is the link to this week’s map if you like to follow along as I go.
When I left you last week, I made my way south along the Mississippi River levee, and found the river is really high. It was definitely higher than the road in a lot of places, and while the levee was doing what it was built to do, it’s still a little bit nerve racking to be driving below the water line. I stopped in a few places to just look out at the river as it flowed past. I made the turn northwest when I hit Louisiana Route 1 and headed on to Mansura for a stop at Juneau’s Cajun Meat Market. This is a spot recommended by a friend as having the best boudin (Cajun pork and rice sausage) in Louisiana, so I had to stop in and give it a go. This was a real butcher shop with all kinds of beautiful fresh meat on display - if I had a proper refrigerator I would have probably spent a fortune there. Unfortunately, I don’t, so I settled for some boudin, a fried boudin ball, and a boudin and pepperjack cheese wrap. All three were amazing and while they didn’t help my cholesterol, they were well worth the stop.
I ate them in the courthouse square in downtown Marksville and read some interesting plaques there while I munched my boudin. Apparently Jim Bowie’s brother wrote that the first Bowie knife was made nearby present-day Marksville. Also, the courthouse was the site where Solomon Northrup made his case for freedom and then headed back to New York to write his memoir Twelve Years a Slave. It’s amazing what you can learn from these state historical plaques; I’m a big fan.
Full of boudin and knowledge I headed on to Alexandria. Coming into Alexandria along Route 1 may be one of the most depressing entrances to a city in the country. It is beyond run down and really quite sad to see, with people living in truly unlivable buildings. As I made my way into downtown, my opinion didn’t change much. There were some nice churches and a handful of nice buildings, but the whole place seemed like it was crumbling and just barely holding on. I did stumble across a flyer for a theater performance that night, so I scooped up a ticket and made my way over to the Performing Arts Center. The production was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and it was a great show. There must have been 75 kids in the play and I can’t imagine the patience it took to make that work, but everyone did an amazing job. I really enjoyed the show, and the theater was quite nice as well. After it ended, I headed down the road to Finnegan’s Wake Irish Pub. This is a great pub. The atmosphere is classic, the bartenders were friendly and they had a great selection of beer on tap. I ended up having a nice conversation until almost midnight before calling it a day.
On Friday I got a bit of a late start and then tried to get some work done in the morning. The internet at the library was painfully slow though, so I didn’t get nearly as much accomplished as I would have liked to have. It was a lovely library though, so at least there was that. In the afternoon I went out to hike the Wild Azalea Trail in Kisatchie National Forest, about 20 minutes from town. I’m really glad I did. There were so many beautiful wildflowers coming into bloom along the trail, and of course plenty of the namesake wild azaleas. It was a cool afternoon and I had the trail completely to myself. I took lots of macro photos of the flowers and just enjoyed being back on the trail. Check out my photos from this hike HERE.
My hike made me hungry and it had been a few days since I had had any crawfish, so I headed in to another recommended place: Rosie Jo’s. I could tell by the number of cars in the parking lot that this was going to be a good choice. I got a big tray of crawfish and some alligator bites for good measure. Both were excellent, and the young man taking care of me was really friendly and welcoming and really good at his job. My belly once again full of Cajun goodness, I headed downtown for Downtown Rocks, a springtime concert series put on by the city. This was really fun and I enjoyed the music and seeing the locals wind down from the week. It was fun wandering around taking photos and enjoying the cool evening air while the music played in the background. I stopped into the classic Bentley Hotel to take some photos, a place which definitely harks back to better times in Alexandria. After an hour or so of wandering around, I shot out to Huckleberry Brewing Company which was having a charity event benefiting the Alexandria Zoo. I enjoyed a flight and a pint and meeting some really nice people there, and then went for one last beer at the wonderful Bayview Yacht Club. This great dive bar does not have a bay view, nor is it a yacht club, but it is a friendly place with cheap beer and good music.
I have to admit that Alexandria grew on me while I was there. The physical state of the city is tragic, and the roads are confusing and often in pretty bad shape, but the people I met were wonderful all around. I don’t think I could necessarily recommend a visit, as it’s a pretty rough place, but there may come a time when I’ll be back to see a little more of it.
Saturday morning I was up really early. I wanted to get a workout in before heading back down to one of my favorite places in the world: Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, the Cajun Music Capital of the World. If you’ve been following along with my journey, you’ll know I was just there with my folks a few weeks ago, but I was too close to not return for another round. I got there around 9 a.m. and while it wasn’t as packed as it was the week before Mardi Gras, it was still pretty packed. The whole place was rocking to a great Cajun beat, beer was flowing and smiles were on every face in the room. I really love this early morning revelry, and I was glad I had made another journey to Mamou. You can read some thoughts I wrote this week on Fred’s HERE.
After a long late morning nap, I got up and headed on down to Eunice for the afternoon. I stopped into the wonderful Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, where I got some information on the next day’s World Championship Crawfish Etouffee Cookoff. It must have been my lucky day because I even got to see a cooking demonstration in their kitchen. From there I headed out deep into the Cajun countryside to D.I.’s Cajun Restaurant south of Basile. This was an amazing place with great food, live music and a fun and family friendly atmosphere. When you’re way out in the boondocks and a place is completely packed, you know it’s worth the stop. They apparently even have a small landing strip out back and people often fly in for a meal. I’m definitely glad I made the trek out there as it was a great experience all around. I’m also glad that Cajun tradition, food and music is still going strong in the region, and that venues continue to book live bands and cook their traditional ways.
Sunday dawned cold, wet and chilly - perfect weather for some etouffee, but not such great weather for a festival. Thankfully the rain stopped before the festival began, and the wind died down for the most part as well. This was a truly great local festival, with wonderful music, dancing, and some really great food. Etouffee is an interesting dish. If you’ve never had it, it is more or less a thick Cajun gravy chock full of seafood and veggies and served over rice. It can be very open to interpretation though, and it was wonderful and fascinating to try so many different takes on this classic Louisiana dish. I really probably had too much, but it was Sunday and I knew I would be back in the gym in the evening so I went for it. My favorite was probably from the local firefighters which was both tasty and appropriately spicy. I had a great time photographing this event as well. I am a pretty shy person, but I find I can talk to people easier with my camera in my hand, and capture events and people really well. Check out my full post on the event HERE.
I was pretty satisfied with my photos and my etouffee intake by early afternoon, so I set off for a nice drive through Cajun country. I enjoyed my drive past saturated rice paddies, with their crawfish traps lined up all in a row. There were dozens of cormorants and egrets out in the fields, and at one point two dozen egrets flew along side me in a quiet, graceful formation. KBON 101.1 was on the radio, playing Cajun and Zydeco classics and today’s best Swamp Pop. There were lots of dirt roads headed off into the country, and yellow and white wildflowers lined the way. It is such a pleasant and satisfying place for a Sunday drive.
I called in on Church Point, a neat little town well off the beaten path in the country, to take some photos and get out and walk a bit. As I was on my way out of town, I saw entirely too many cars parked at a place called Cajun Country Lounge, and I had to stop and take a closer look. What a great place this turned out to be. There was a great Zydeco band on stage and plenty of room for people to dance and enjoy their Sunday. I wasn’t there for long, but it is definitely a place I will be back to in the future. Then I headed south to Rayne, the “Frog Capital of the World” to take some photos of all their frog-themed murals and statues. This was fun, but they really do have a LOT of frogs around town. From there I felt prepared for a quick hop, skip and a jump into Lafayette, where I stopped into the coffee shop to catch up on some work.
Monday was a work day and I spent pretty much the whole day in the library. I found a wonderful library in Lafayette and it was open until 9, so I figured I should take advantage of it while I could. I did pop out for a couple of hours to have lunch with my friend Parisa though. Parisa and I taught together back in 2007, and helped re-open the New Orleans Public School System after Hurricane Katrina. It was a difficult time for us, for our students and for the city. It was great to sit and talk about the old days and to catch up on where each other has gone from there. It seems unbelievable that I haven’t seen her in over a decade, but I guess time really does fly.
Tuesday I headed back to the library in the morning for a few hours, and then took off from Lafayette after lunch. I stopped in nearby Breaux Bridge for a quick wander and then headed off down the road. I thought it was cool that Breaux Bridge has a message wall at one of the major intersections where community messages and birthday greetings were all posted on hand-written poster-board signs. I thought that was a fun idea.
From there, I hopped on the interstate (ugh) for a while before getting off on Route 77 and heading north through Rosedale and Maringouin to the 190. Then I turned off onto Route 1 which ran along the fascinating False River to the cute little town of New Roads. There, I picked up the 10 and drove past some beautiful old plantation houses on my way to historic St. Francisville. While the town there was established in 1809, it was built on an old French settlement called Bayou Sara, once the biggest port on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. Many of the buildings in St. Francisville date back to the antebellum period when it was a major center for the plantations in the area, and many have been beautifully restored. It’s a small town, and quiet on a Tuesday, but I really enjoyed walking around and taking photos, especially at the old Grace Episcopal Church and Cemetery. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Mississippi River is really high right now, and this was very evident in some of the lower lying parts of town along the old Bayou Sara. The water was up to the porches of some homes down there, and the locals told me it’s actually receded some in the last few days. I stayed until dusk, enjoying the cool evening air surrounded by history and then headed down Route 10 to spend the night in Amite City.
Today I cruised out to the far eastern part of the state, on the “north shore” of Lake Ponchartrain. I’m going to finish up this post here at the library in Mandeville and then go for a pint at the Abita Brewery up the road. I’ve got my podcast almost done, and it should be up and running by this time next week. Other than that, I’m making my way back west towards Baton Rouge for the weekend. I’m going to be working at the Third Street Songwriters Festival there this weekend, and I’m pretty excited about that. From there it’s off back to New Orleans for a couple of days to catch my breath, which is probably where I will be at this time next week. And then I’m off to Alabama!
Have a great week out there y’all. I hope you’re getting some spring weather wherever you are and you are getting out to enjoy it. Summer is swiftly approaching, and I want to enjoy the in-between weather as long as I can. Thanks, as always, for reading, and I’ll see you right back here, same time, next week!