Mississippi actually has the highest ratio of really nice houses to crappy little shacks of any state we've seen so far.
Louisiana has spoooooooky trees.
Spooooooooooooooooooky trees.

With temperatures now well into the thousands and the atmosphere more water than air, we stopped for lunch at Xan's Diner, which has Seaburg 160 Wall-a-Matic jukeboxes right at the booths. We experimented with the Seaburg 160 Wall-a-Matic to see if it would actually play selected songs over the restaurant music system, which it did. However, it would also play Shake, Rattle and Roll immediately after your song. Every... single... time. And if you selected nothing, it would cheerfully go right ahead and play Shake, Rattle and Roll anyway. I think I heard that song six times in half an hour. I'm almost certain that without the jukebox selections, this diner would play Shake, Rattle and Roll from opening until closing, or until an employee started ripping out the speakers and dropping them in the deep fryer, whichever came first.

We went to see Crystal Springs, because I've been told that half of my ancestors came from there. At least, I hope it was the right town; sometimes I forget details. The big surprise is that Crystal Springs is a much nicer place than I was expecting. That big white house (see photo) is there. We went downtown and stopped in at City Drugs, where they sell human hair. There are no refunds on hair "for health code reasons," though we all hope that human decency reasons also play a part in their decision not to resell unsatisfactory hair. Hair issues aside, Mississippi was surprisingly nice. Huge swaths of it were covered in well-maintained farms and beautiful plantation-style houses, and even the little houses right next to the highway were generally clean, modern and well kept. I hope no Mississippians will be offended when I say that I, and I think many city Yanks like me, kind of expected Mississippi to be a festering pit of squalor and poverty. If it is, though, they keep it very well hidden behind a facade of lush forest, rolling green hills, and magnificent country manors. There is one very odd thing about Mississippi, though: after looking unsuccessfully at four different locations for a Mississippi postcard to add to my collection, I came to the conclusion that Mississippi is trying to hide. It seems like a nice state, with plenty of scenery they might like to share in postcard form, but they don't. Selling postcards would mean that people in other states might learn of their existence, and violate the Mississippi state motto, which I believe to be "Nobody Here But Us Chickens!" I eventually found some at Wal-Mart, because those greedy bastards couldn't care less for the Mississippi Secrecy Pact if they can be making thirty cents off a tourist.

We ended the day in Baton Rouge at a hotel that had a lovely, large pool completely covered in a fine blanketing of dead bugs. When the humidity hits ninety trillion percent where you are, you can decide for yourself how important a few hundred dead bugs are. Later, we attempted to drive to dinner, a task made more challenging by the fact that the street names on the map and the street names on the actual street signs were never the same. Ever. In effect, the map may as well be labeled in Sanskrit for all the help it provides. Here's an idea for cartographers: why not actually go to the city you're making a map of? Hmmm? Get out of the office for a while? Maybe see what real people call those streets you've conveniently assigned a random number to? Maybe even make a little note of it, include that on your map? On the other hand, maybe the guys who make the road signs would like to consult one of these maps before they decide that "61" isn't a good enough name for their street? Or maybe we'll just keep on doing it this way, driving at random, swearing, and spending hours, even days, playing an endless game of Guess What Street.

We did eventually end up at Brunet's Cajun Restaurant, where ordering any one of the shellfish specials will produce enough food to make your heart throw up its tiny aortal hands and go on strike before you've even started eating. Crab gumbo, crab salad, fried crab claws, crab au gratin, stuffed crab, fried soft shell crab, crab etoufee, and then as if to mock you, a bowl of french fries and a roll. Two hours in Louisiana, and they were already trying to bloat us to death. More fried food lay ahead ... in New Orleans.

Ain't that America, home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me.
Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo
Son of a gun, we'll have big fun
On the bayou.
Above: Plantation        Below: Farm
The corner of Toulouse and Bourbon. These musicians are all between the ages of twelve and seventeen, give or take.
I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts!
(Saint Louis Cemetery #1: the oldest
cemetery in New Orleans)

I feel I must begin with a short excerpt from the notes I took on the seventh of June, 2002: "SO HOT OH MY GOD ITS SO HOT HERE." On the way to New Orleans from Baton Rouge, we visited the Oak Alley Plantation, which is where parts of Interview With a Vampire were filmed. I also believe it was once used for farming of some type. Nothing funny happened at the plantation.

We stayed at a hotel just off the French Quarter, about three blocks from the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets, in a room that was the exact dimensions of a queen-sized bed plus a one-foot perimeter. The room had a small safe for our valuables, which prevented anyone from taking our expensive items out. Please notice that when I say "anyone," I do not add, "except us." Once you place your valuables in the safe, the only person with access to your cash, cameras, laptop computer, etc., is the hotel maintenance guy. It's not so much a safe as it is a Hotel Maintenance Guy Donation Box. In addition to the safe problem, the room keys seemed to work or fail at random, so a couple of times a day we would have to hike down to the front desk to get our keys redone so we could get into our room. The whole "hotel" thing seemed to be an elaborate ruse to separate us from our belongings by tricking us into leaving them in a locked container. But it was at least clean and well-located, and we were able to spend most of the next three days hanging out on Bourbon Street.

So we hung out on Bourbon Street, and we ate. We ate jambalaya, crawfish pie, and file gumbo; we stood in line for K-Paul's, Paul Prudhomme's restaurant, and had turtle soup, fried rabbit, pasta with shrimp and tasso, blackened tuna, molasses rolls, and more gumbo; we ate fried shrimp po-boys, salami po-boys, ham po-boys, muffelettas, and gumbo; shrimp cocktails with Arnaut's spicy remoulade; a very, very dry cheeseburger; a very tasty cheeseburger with a fried egg on it at the Gayest Little Restaurant In New Orleans called the Clover Grill; and always, more gumbo. To accompany these delicate, wafer-thin whispers of food, New Orleans offers planter's punch, daiquiris, "hand grenades," zombies, and the ubiquitous, inescapable hurricane.

New Orleans pushes the hurricane like Vegas pushes gambling: if you don't want to try it, don't even bother coming to town. We sought out Pat O'Brians, where the hurricane was supposedly invented, and I had one of the worst hurricanes I've ever had: weak, overly sweet, and way too cherry flavored. So much for the Original. However, the table full of mature, respectable, white-collar, middle-aged, and completely drug-addled women next to us seemed to be enjoying them enormously: smiling, laughing, drinking hurricanes, taking little white pills, and posing for pictures with the long-haired, muscle-shirt-wearing pool guy whose company they had clearly arranged through a transfer of money and/or drugs. So the next time you see a fortyish woman wearing a smart pantsuit and shopping at Nordstrom's, just remember that you have no idea what sorts of things she gets up to when she's out of town.

Friday opened with a downpour, which had mostly subsided by the time the hotel guy showed up to open our safe. We went down to Bourbon Street, past the blind man who stands on the corner all day, shaking his change cup and saying "Hello?... Hello?...Hello?" The way to Bourbon Street also took us by the French Quarter Fairmont Hotel, where they have a brass plaque on one side that says "Colleague Entrance" with an arrow pointing down an alley. That's Fairmont morale: they call their employees "colleagues," but they still make them shimmy down a filthy damp alley to get to work. We bought some souvenirs, walked around, and ended up at the Big Bad Wolf bar, where to our surprise a band with a singer wearing a Superman outfit was doing covers of AC/DC, Def Leppard, and– yes, Adam– Bon Jovi. How could we not stay? All night? Listening to the Superman band play covers of 80's rock? How were we to know the front of the bar was full of drunk Georgia girls in town for a bachelorette party? How could we possibly know how easily the MC would cajole these same girls into a wet t-shirt contest? Innocent bystanders, we were! Long story short, let's just say those rumors you hear about Girls Going Wild are true. Shocking, just shocking. I think Suiciety should probably come out to New Orleans and show that degenerate band and their floozy fans a thing or two.

The next day we went by the Big Bad Wolf again, but this time the guy (who turned out to be the keyboardist most of the time, anyway) was wearing a bunny suit, and the difference was clear: instead of degenerating into a melon display, the set degenerated into... karaoke. Now that's not funny. What kind of sadistic club delivers half naked, drunk southern girls one night, and karaoke the next? I mean, I expected all kinds of drunken, depraved, lewd, and indecent behavior in New Orleans, but karaoke? When you're in a Bourbon Street bar late one weekend night, consider yourself warned: you never know what you're going to get.

I feel like chicken tonight!
Like chicken tonight!
Like chicken tonight!

Artist's rendering of what I would look like if I stayed in New Orleans.

We had spent three consecutive days on Bourbon Street. While some people say there is no such thing as too much B&B*, we still hadn't seen any alligators. At least, no live ones, only the dried gator heads you can buy in every gift shop. So we went across the river and caught a swamp tour boat.

The alligator is one of the world's finest predators, a sleek reptilian killing machine with a mouth that's longer than your arm and filled with huge, pointy teeth. Only one thing can satisfy their bone-crushing jaws and slake their bloodlust, and the swamp guides aren't afraid to exploit it. The carnage begins: A gator comes into view. Spotting the boat, his cavernous mouth drools with anticipation, for he knows what gruesome treats the boat captain brings. The gator glides silently toward the boat, only one thought in his predatory mind: "Yay! Marshmallows!" Then the unintelligibly Cajun boat captain tosses a fluffy white marshmallow into the water and the damn gator glides up and eats it like a poodle snarfing a Snausage. Fifty billion gazillion years of evolution has created an animals whose jaws can crush the neck of a large ungulate, and they go all Pavlovian for a damn bag of marshmallows. I bet you could get those things to ride a tiny clown bicycle if you offered them a Mallomar. Then, when a big enough gator gets close to the boat, it's time to dangle the chicken. I can't help but feel we're breeding new generations of lazy, shiftless alligators. Why go to all the bother of catching an egret when you can just wait for your thrice-daily feeding of marshmallows and Foster Farms? I'm pretty sure refined sugar in puffy form isn't what those teeth evolved for, and we're probably giving them huge reptilian cavities. In conclusion, we saw several herons, a few raccoons, a big snapping turtle in a metal tub, and a whole lot of freeloading mississippiensis American.

On day five, we needed to make the obligatory pilgrimage to one of New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries, which I approached with a certain amount of trepidation. Consult any randomly chosen travel guide about these cemeteries, and it will fill your brain with dire warnings of the terrible, terrible peril with which the cemetery is fraught ("Do not visit the cemetery alone at any time of day or night," "Never enter the cemeteries at night under any circumstances"), which can be a little unnerving. On the other hand, I didn't really feel like paying $20 apiece for a "cemetery tour" so we could listen to a loser working for tips from fat tourists blather on about boring dead people. The obvious solution was to drive over to Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 (the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, the final resting place of legendary Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and the location for the acid scene in Easy Rider), wait for a tour group to show up, and follow them in. This plan worked brilliantly, we saved forty dollars, and the mass of sweaty tourists swarming all over the place kept the muggers at bay. It probably also helped that for no readily apparent reason, there were four police squad cars parked at the cemetery entrance. Since the most famous cemetery is New Orleans closes at 3:00 in the afternoon, and is otherwise constantly swarming with tourists and cops, I'm not sure it's really the mugger's haven that the travel guides had made it out to be. What they should warn you about is the way all the sun pouring through the damp Louisiana air is reflected off the hundreds of white tombs, and held inside the cemetery by the surrounding eight-foot wall, effectively producing the world's largest Sauna of the Dead.

By the time we had left New Orleans (recently named America's third-sweatiest city), I was so grimy that I couldn't take it anymore and had to change clothes in a Taco Bell bathroom in Biloxi, Mississippi. So the next time you think it's hot and humid, ask yourself, "Is it so hot and humid that I must pull over at the next available Taco Bell and change into drier, less disgusting clothes?" If the answer is "no," then shut up. Biloxi is nothing but casinos, and just outside of town I was hassled by The Man for using my car to make a completely legal U-turn. He "let me off," which is what they call it in Mississippi when they don't give you a ticket for not doing anything. We continued through Mobile, Alabama, a place tantalizingly close to the sea, yet where every seafood dish is a generic deep fried white blob. We anticlimactically ended up in Pensacola, Florida, a town so inconsequential that I'm kind of sorry I even bothered to mention it.

*Booze & Boobs

The store selling these inflatable rafts had an American flag taped up on their front door. Pick a side and get back to us, would you?
Hey! Dairy Queen has a family!
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of that sign and the red light, which were just down the street from a nuclear power plant. I wonder what kind of dream they had in mind?

Let me explain. No, is too much; let me sum up. Woke up in unmentionably insignificant town, lunch at Blimpies, drove along the coast. Or at least, as close to "along the coast" as Florida will let you get. Some stretches of the gulf coast have long bar islands running just offshore, and they have filled every one end to end with 20-story hotels. Those stretches without bar islands have just put up alternating stretches of huge ugly hotels and huge ugly luxury homes between the road and the gulf. You can actually drive almost the entire coast of Florida without seeing water. We eventually had to pull over in Sunnyside and walk past some of these hotels to see the Gulf of Mexico. Once you get in the water, though, it's really hard to want to leave the clear, warm, blue water just so you can get back in your car and sweat some more. We only got as far as the very small town of Apalachicola that day, which was about 160 miles, or about what we normally do before lunch. On the way we stopped in Panama City, and if you're ever in Panama City, you should eat at House of Chan, where they have a full Chinese menu upstairs, a very reasonably priced and tasty Mongolian barbeque downstairs, a full bar, and a view of the Gulf. The only other town I made note of on the way to Apalachicola is Port Saint Joe (Saint Joe? What is that, the patron saint of casual nicknames?), because the whole town smells like a hot dog in the sun. We stayed at the lovely if not exactly discount-priced Rancho Inn, where the housekeepers had left a rather curious note asking that guests "Please don't mess up the towels." Since it seemed inappropriate to dry myself with the curtains, I went ahead and used the towels, making a special point not to take them outside and rub them in the dirt, as I am otherwise wont to do.

The next day we made up for our sloth by hauling ass all the way down to Naples, which is something on the order of 450 miles from Apalachicola if you take the shorter route along the secondary highways. Some observations from Florida's west coast:

  • Most of the road goes nowhere near the gulf, but along the parts that do you will see dozens of wooden posts sticking out of the water, each topped with a pelican. Resist the urge to throw rocks at them, for the pelican is also known as "Nature's Slingshot."
  • Florida has beetles the size of mice, and don't mean little field mice, I mean the kind of mice that scientists breed so they can study obesity. Imagine pulling into a gas station and finding the air thick with huge, fat, armor-wearing mice, flying around frantically with the brainless malevolence that only insects possess. That's Florida.
  • I think Florida must have gotten sick of all the geriatrics driving 20mph below the speed limit, and simply lowered the limit to match the drivers, because nobody puts a 45mph speed limit on a four-lane road in the middle of nowhere.
  • If you want to learn about manatees, you can tune into Manatee Radio on 1610 AM. All manatee, all the time.
  • A stretch of Route 19 through Tarpon Springs was adopted by Noell's Chimp Farm.
  • The secondary highways are littered with dead armadillos. I don't know if armadillos live in Florida, but they sure do die there.