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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Road Trip, July 2011

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“I’ve never really been to the Southern U.S.,” said Max, so that’s where we decided to go, despite the energy-sapping late-July heat and humidity.

We met in New Orleans on a Friday, rented a car, signed up for every available tour. On our first night, we dined at the Court of the Two Sisters, where we sipped Mint Juleps under a canopy of branches and twinkling lights. Our server told us about his continuing dispute with New Orleans police officers over the legally acceptable level of window tinting. “Y’all best get your little machine outta your car and test these windows before I show you my license and registration,” he told them defiantly. “Y’all gonna look like a fool if we have to get your CO’s ass out of bed at 3AM.”

The bread pudding was delicious.

On Saturday morning, we took a guided walking tour of the French Quarter. We learned about architectural influences, Ursuline nuns, why the Plaza D’Armas is now called Jackson Square, and about New Orleans’ long history of shifting national ownership claims.

Educational? You bet. But we had more fun on the Historic Cocktail Tour. We visited four different bars and sampled at least one famous cocktail at each stop. Did you know that the word “cocktail” originated in the city of New Orleans? It’s French, look it up. On a return visit to the Court of Two Sisters we met Charles, the bartender. While he mixed up a batch of Bayou Bashes, we asked him about a series of brass nameplates affixed to the bar. “That’s a club of rich, heterosexual white men who get together once a month to talk shit. Well… either heterosexual or undercover.” Both of which categories excluded him, Charles noted.

The tour also included a behind-the-scenes tour of Antoine’s, which was worth the price of the tour all by itself. We got to see private dining rooms (reserved for politicians and celebrities, natch), secret doors and passageways, Mardi Gras memorabilia, and a wine room that reminded me of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

At the Bombay Club, I had absinthe for the first time, prepared just like Johnny Depp did in From Hell, except without setting the sugar cube on fire. Well soused by this point, we hung out and chatted with Sandy (our wry tour guide, who clearly had some experience with the cocktails she recommended), some Brits in the employ of the Johnnie Walker Corporation, and two nice women from California. I remember nothing of this conversation.

Afterword, Max and I smoked some aromatic Cuban cigars and wandered the French Quarter until we were sober enough to drive back to the hotel.

On the following morning, we took a Cemetery and Gris-Gris Tour, during which we saw the grave of the voodoo queen Marie Laveau and also the grave seen in Easy Rider. The sunlight glancing off the whitewashed graves gave us headaches and left us dangerously dehydrated.

We also took a guided tour of Katrina-related sites, including levees and other flood-management infrastructure, destroyed neighborhoods and restoration efforts. Our guide, a lifetime resident of New Orleans, vowed to refrain from political commentary. He kept that promise, though the subtext was clear enough. He took pains to demonstrate that homes of rich and poor alike were destroyed, and urged us to note which national chains chose to keep local branches open (Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Wal-Mart) and which did not (just about everyone else).

On Monday, on our way out of New Orleans, we stopped at City Park – 1300 acres of walking paths, waterways, gardens and museums, with shade provided by thousands of somber and magnificent live (evergreen) oaks dripping with Spanish moss (not a parasite, but chock-full of chiggers). You can rest assured we climbed one of those oaks before the day ended.

Other things we saw in New Orleans: The Louisiana State Museum in the Cabildo (meh) and The WWII Museum (highly recommended).

And on to Florida…

After a one-night stop in Pensacola (not recommended) and breakfast at the Waffle House (“would you like grits with that?”), we sped east to Falling Waters State Park, where we saw what would have been an awe-inspiring waterfall, except that it was currently dry. Still, the hole in the ground where the (alleged) waterfall would (presumably) crash against the rocks was very impressive, and left us silent with wonderment.

Late in the day on Tuesday, we reached Lafayette Blue Springs, near Mayo, Florida. Our state park cabin turned out to be a peach, just three years old, all mod cons. A screened-in porch (complete with rocking chairs) circled the cabin and looked out onto a humid, screeching, fathomless wilderness. A short trail led to the spring, two deep pools of cool, clear water that flowed into the Suwannee River (as in “Way down upon the…”). At one end, the bottom of the pool suddenly dipped away to 20 feet or more, opening onto an underwater cave system. I stayed away from that side of the pool.

I had a conversation with another family down at the springs, locals who were just visiting for the afternoon. One of the two daughters expressed a desire to swim down to the cave. “Now, if you get stuck and get water in yer lungs, I’m gonna hafta give you CPR, alright?” replied Dad. “That means I’m gonna hafta massage yer chest and blow air in yer mouth.”

“Ewwww!” both daughters squealed in response.

Dad turned back to me and grinned. “These are my two gay daughters. They don’t like thinkin’ about boys touchin’ em. Heh, heh.”

Dad also shared a little-known secret: Apparently, Florida springs are just full of gold chains and other “bling” that has fallen off the necks of Black swimmers! “If I’d had my head on straight back when I could swim, I coulda gathered all them gold chains and I woulda been set for life!” Ah, missed opportunities…

On one of our days in Florida, we traveled to Ichetucknee Springs, rented inner tubes, and floated lazily down another spring-fed river (or “run”), past turtles, otters, herons, and radioactively mutated spiders. Oak trees and Spanish moss occasionally protected us from the blazing sun. I think Max and I got the majority of our (several hundred) mosquito bites from the swarms nesting in and around Ichetucknee Springs. Biting insects and heat stroke aside, it was glorious.

On Friday, it was time to head north-ish to Savannah, the last stop on our 2011 Southern Slam Tour. Downtown Savannah is attractive and welcoming, pedestrian-friendly, more genteel and less garish than New Orleans, with shaded public squares on every second block, monuments and statues beyond counting, restaurants and boutique stores of every stripe. We took one bus-driven tour of the Historic District, visited the Isaiah Davenport House, hopped a riverboat cruise, and explored the Yellow Fever Tunnel under the abandoned Candler Hospital.

I instructed Max to look at the Savannah guidebook and pick out something to do, and he chose a wildlife preserve, just across the river in South Carolina. It wasn’t the most photogenic place, but the presence of numerous sleepy alligators (in rivers and ponds completely unprotected by fences or railings) made it a worthwhile trip.

On our last day in Savannah, we acted on the recommendations of several locals and drove out to Bonaventure Cemetery. If you’ve seen the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, with the spooky marble statue of a little girl against a backdrop of swampy foliage, that’s a pretty good sample of what you’ll see at Bonaventure. Elaborate and ornate tombs, some yellowing and cracked with age, surrounded by drooping oaks and Spanish moss. We located the graves of Johnny Mercer (“Buddy I’m Kind Of A Poet And I’ve Gotta Lotta Things To Say”) and Conrad Aiken (“Cosmos Mariner—Destination Unknown”), but were unable to find the final resting place of Danny Hansford (“a good time not yet had by all”), the murder victim in Midnight. Turns out he was entombed in an adjacent cemetery, Greenwich, but we ran out of time and never found him.

Then we came home.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Guys–

    Looks like a good time was had by all…you picked some super destinations for your Southern Slam…N.O. and Savanannah are among the best. Funny commentary and great pictures, I’m glad you guys had so much fun!

  2. These are wonderful pictures. And I so enjoyed the narrative. You and Max are adorable at dinner, and everywhere else. Wish I could have shared it with you, but then it wouldn’t have been a “Dad & Max” road trip.
    love you both!

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