Test-Tube City: Five years after Katrina, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is largely uninhabited. The roads are filled with craters, 12-foot-tall grasses obscure stop signs and intersections, and you have to drive to St. Bernard Parish to buy groceries. But there's still plenty of activity: The area has become a hub for architectural students and philanthropists, who see the Lower Nine as a blank canvas for building a 21st century city. Brad Pitt and his organization, Make it Right, have pledged to build 150 ultra-sustainable houses just like these two (Photo: Tim Murphy).
Lafayette, Louisiana—One of the larger themes behind this trip has always been, amorphous as it might sound, to make some sense of the map. Part of that is geographical: Do these towns with the funny names on the map really exist? Did Vermont quietly leave the Union without anyone noticing? But it's cultural, too. You develop an odd sense of what a particular region is like if you spend your entire life reading about it without ever once walking its streets and talking to its people. For most of my childhood, for instance, my mental image of Atlanta came exclusively from old photos from Civil War anthologies: black-and-white, bustling with horse-drawn carriages, and prone to periodic outbreaks of cholera. Think of it as cultural autodidacticism.
So on that note, it was kind of awesome to arrive in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana and discover that, in the heart of a region possessed by a "This is America, Speak English!" nativism, you can go to a gas station, or a convenience store, or a diner, or anywhere else locals tend to gather, and with a little bit of luck, hear people speaking an Old World tongue passed down from their exiled Canadian ancestors and kept intact over three centuries. For lack of a better analogy, it felt a bit like Samwise Gamgee's first encounter with the elves.
Whether Cajun will surivive a fourth century is unclear; the handful of aging fluent speakers I talked to all had the same complaint: The younger generations just don't feel the need to keep the tradition alive. And that's probably true. But if Cajun fades away as a spoken dialect, it's at least sticking around a little while longer in musical form. In Lafayette, at the epicenter of Acadiana, we caught a twinbill show at a local bar featuring two popular Cajun bands, the Pine Leaf Boys and Feufollet (which translates to something like "Will-o-the-Wisp," I think). Both groups were young—twentysomethings, mostly—but the crowd covered a much wider range, all there to hear the distinctive accordion- and tambourine-flavored Old World rhythms.
Anyway, this was really just an excuse to post some cool (and pretty unique) music, so here are the Pine Leaf Boys:
Ferriday, Louisiana—Ever since we jettisoned our trebuchet somewhere outside Murfreesboro, we've been traveling a little light in the way of high-powered weaponry. If pressed, our first line of defense would probably be a bag of fried pig skins (impulse buy), but even at their most potent, those would take a few decades to kill you. We're toast, basically—as strangers we've met have been quick to point. Here's some sage advice we received—entirely unsolicited—from the two employees of a one-room diner in Natchez, the first a thirtysomething male named (I think) Marsaw, and the second a woman a few decades his senior.
"You're going through Texas!," says Marsaw. "What kinda gun you got?"
"Just our fists."
"You mean you're not carrying a gun?" Marsaw's incredulous.
"We like to think we're pretty intimidating people."
The woman laughs, which I'll just assume is her defense mechanism. We get that a lot.
"My dad always said, 'Always have a flashlight and a gun wherever you go,'" says Marsaw. "'That way if you need to stop and fight you won't get shot in the back.' You can pull out the .22. Protect yourself."
The flashlight seems kind of superfluous in that scenario, but okay.
The woman jumps in: "Well you can just use the tire iron [she makes a violent thwacking gesture]. You know, it's legal to put the tire iron in the glove compartment in Mississippi, from the trunk. You can just do that."
"Well they should get the .22, too."
"Yeah, but if they don't have a .22 they gotta use the tire iron."
"Yeah, .22 and a tire iron."
Done and done. Of course, if you buy a .22, you'll probably want a concealed-carry permit to go with it. Utah, anyone?
The Mighty Mississip': In Natchez, the Mississippi River is now more of ornament than lifeblood (Photo: Alex Gontar).Natchez, Mississippi—Old river towns don't age, they just fade away. Back in the glory days of the old river, when men were men and "steamboat captain" was an acceptable career choice for a 12-year-old boy, Natchez-Under-the-Hill was one of the best places in the country to get stabbed, beaten, shot, or all of the above.
Things have quieted down since then; the "riffraff of the river," as Twain called the drunken (and violent) river rats and women of the night who populated lower Natchez, left town ages ago, along with the steamboats and the Mississippi's grip on the American economy. In their absence, the city has morphed into a vacation hotspot for seventysomethings, marketing its antebellum mansions, B&Bs, and a floating riverboat casino called "The Isle of Capri." Walk just a few blocks, though, and you'll find crumbling wooden houses and businesses so thoroughly shuttered no one's even bothered to board them up.