The Old Highway
I didn’t learn how to drive effectively until I was about 22, and I didn’t drive on the interstate—ever—until after Katrina. True story. For most of my life, driving has been a looming force, simultaneously scary and inspiring and fascinating and dangerous. As a mode of transport I still think driving is for the birds, and whenever I can walk or bike to my destination without expending a ton of time or effort, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. But for thinking, crying, exploring, singing, planning, looking at beautiful things, or generally reminding myself how in love I am with the world, very few things beat the open road. (“Open road,” by the way, can be interpreted extremely loosely here, spanning any stretch of navigable land—paved or otherwise—on the spectrum between Magazine Street and the Panamerican Highway.)
I’ve definitely inherited most of my driving patterns from my dad, who along with my four younger brothers continued to patiently take me driving, year after year, well past adolescence and into my early adulthood, to places like Causeway Pets, the newsstand on Broad and Fontainebleau, and a Rite-Aid way out on Jefferson Highway almost to Harahan which is where, inexplicably, he gets his prescriptions filled. For me and my dad, driving is much more about process than achievement. My Dad will drive his car 11 blocks to a random spot on Robert Street, park, and then catch the streetcar for the rest of the much longer journey downtown to work. Why, you may ask, does he do that? (He has his reasons, which actually make perfect sense.) We are backroads drivers, me and my dad. We take pothole-filled sidestreets rather than smooth three-lane thoroughfares. We bypass the traffic and wave at the neighbors. We park far away and stroll to our destination. On road trips, we stop. We roll the windows down. And, whenever possible, we take The Old Highway.
My dad has about seven topics of conversation that never get old, at least to some of us. One--of which you are no doubt aware if you’ve ever spent any time in a car with him--is The Old Highway. “There’s the old highway, y’all,” he’ll say while you’re speeding up north on I-55. And explain how, back in the old days before there were interstates, you had to take these little two-lane roads to get anywhere. And how going on trips was a much bigger deal back then and everything took a lot longer, and when they finally came along in the Eisenhower administration and started building the interstate highway system, they laid out a lot of these smooth new mammoth roads next to all the old highways. What he never said, but what his tone always conveyed, was that maybe it’s better and maybe it’s not that now it only takes five hours to get to Memphis, instead of twelve. But one thing definitely is for certain: the old highway’s where the magic is.
It might be because I spent so much of my early life as a passenger that I grew up fascinated by roads. I pored over atlases as a kid, fantasized about skipping out on college and driving south to—yes—Chile, in a Triumph convertible filled with old paperbacks. We’d be on road trips with all the cousins and I’d gaze longingly at the green interstate roadsigns for places like Grosse Tete and Iota and think, What’s that town like? Who’d ever name their town Iota? Why can’t we go there?
When I finally got over my ridiculous and all-encompassing fears of driving, which really was a gradual process that did not entirely end until after Katrina (another story for another time), driving began to become a major source of healing and balance in my life. Some nights I just take the long way home, easing over potholes, taking in the jasmine and barbeque smells, the neighbors on the porches. Some days, though, I’ll be driving on Gentilly Boulevard and end up in the East. Or I’ll be at the Farmers’ Market by the old Uptown Square and end up way way down the River Road on the other side of the Huey P Long Bridge. Or I’ll be heading east on Claiborne and find myself clear on the other end of St Bernard Parish, almost to Violet and that End Of The World sign pitching out into the ever-encroaching Gulf. Hours later I’ll arrive back home on my street, possibly with a bait-and-tackle-shop poboy on the passengerseat, clearer-headed and with a stronger sense of connection than when I left.
After my time in New Mexico, these little journeys feel like celebrations. So much of my work and my heart and my sense of who I am is about where I come from; not just our people but the land itself. I guess it makes sense that my healing and renewal come from being consciously connected to this land: being on it and in it, breathing in the river and the bayous, feeling all the water in this air. I’ve written a lot here about how I find solace at secondlines and parades, the hope and the ridiculous impractical optimism that rises up above everything else when we are out among our people, moving, moving, connected not only to each other but to this land that has held us for centuries, made us who we are. The driving, in the end, really isn’t so different: we move and move and move; we dance and sing and celebrate, but where we arrive in the end is just that deep home-place we’ve always come from.
And so, during my time in Acadiana (don’t you love that word, by the way? Doesn’t it sound like I just got back from a whole ‘nother country?), I spent hours on the little roads, buying kolaches and satsumas and andouille from bait shops and the backs of people’s pickup trucks, and singing and dancing and visiting Cajun dancehalls, but mostly sitting behind the wheel while the cane fields and the orange trees and the fishing camps and the moss and the brackish bayous all flew by. And of course there were also the utterly unexplainable and random and beautiful-in-their-own-way things you find in little towns, things you’re dying to know the story behind: not just the billboards with names and pictures of National Merit semifinalists and beauty pageant winners, or the skinny streets coming off the River Road with names like Big Boy and Tip Top (I swear to God), but the entire town of Patterson, blanketed in now-tattered strips of toilet paper; or the shop window outside of Crowley somewhere, busting at the seams with purple suits, and aqua suits, and red-and-white paisley suits complete with matching handkerchiefs, and an enormous banner in front that said, “Dapper!”; or the gargantuan American flag in Broussard, Louisiana, which was at least eight stories high and suspended by a crane over the main street, inching through the town while being ceremonially escorted by a phalanx of police and firefighters. On, like, a Wednesday morning.
Which cracks you up, but ultimately it’s the heart-splitting beauty that stands out more than anything. The strands of silvery mist rising up from a sugarcane field in an orange evening. The trees hanging low over the bayous, moss dipping into the green waters like it’s been doing for centuries. An entire field of nothing but sunflowers. A flock of graceful egrets, rising up over a highway. The Saints banners festooning an entire town—it’s rare to see such exuberant Saints hysteria in LSU country but I guess we’re all believers these days—with golden ribbons glittering in the setting sun. The graves, oh, the graves everywhere: tucked under trees and behind churches and next to barns, or lining the whole highway for miles at a stretch, all covered with blazing flowers and wreaths and, in some cases, Mylar balloons.
Driving past all those vibrant graves, all over Cajun country, I felt the deep cord that connects all of us South Louisiana people to each other. Down here, people talk about how bayou Cajuns and Lafayette Cajuns and New Orleans people—oh, those crazy New Orleans people—are all so different from each other, and it’s totally true: our food and our language and our accents and our dance steps and our music are unique to our teeny-tiny corners of the world. And we make fun of each other and criticize each other and sometimes fear each other. But at the bottom of it all, we are a people who live deep, who put balloons on the graves of our ancestors, who dance at funerals, whose strong abiding impractical faith has us planting, and building, and making art and music, and dancing and raising babies, on a beautiful but ultimately doomed land. Our lives are marked by tragedy, in the past and, yes, in the future. We know this, and we continue to root deep in our land, to make our world beautiful, day by day, even as the very land we live on disappears into the water that surrounds us.
One of the best things was: I finally made it to Iota. Which was, if you can believe it, just as amazing as I’d always imagined. Enormous pawprints (ostensibly of a bulldog, the high school mascot) are painted on the highway that guides you into town, and there are little stores with murals painted on the sides, and one or two places selling amazing-looking smoked meat creations, and this circle of slightly gory lifesize Jesus statues, commemorating each one of the stations of the cross, arranged in an almost pagan-looking circle. You get a little closer to the statues and you realize they’re all kind of covered in blood. Which kind of freaked me out a little bit but, you know, that’s cool. I sent my dad a text picture while I was there, which didn’t really do the town justice but I thought he would’ve gotten a kick out of it. “Greetings from Iota and The Old Highway!” I wrote.
“That,” he texted me back, “is so awesome.”