‘Twas a 12-Hour Drive and I Be Sleep Deprived

At approximately 5 AM, I stumbled into Fontainebleau State Park on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

Actually, I drove, but 12 hours of staring at passing lanes on the interstate made everything feel like stumbling.

I attempted to pull over and sleep, of course. But I wasn’t the savvy traveler I am today and I didn’t know about the lovely rest stop in northern Mississippi with 24-hour security. The 18-wheeler pullover spot I chose didn’t feel very cozy or safe, and I couldn’t let myself drift off.

It felt a lot like flying. Nothing lulls me to sleep faster than the white noise of a 747 engine, but my fear of snoring in public will not allow me to surrender, no matter how tired or relaxed I am. I can only dream of the supreme sleep that must come with owning a private jet. Lucky bastards.

But I couldn’t sleep because I was excited, too! I was finally going to experience the strange and fantastical place I’d been reading about in novels and hearing about from my Cajun dad. This trip would mark the beginning of my complete and utter love affair with New Orleans.

Visiting New Orleans for the first time can be a brain-bending, exhausting, intimidating, and exhilarating experience – especially for a visitor from the beige and bland Midwest. Sorry Midwest, but I was born and raised in you and I’m licensed to say this.

What follows is my best attempt at sharing that experience with you. If you’ve never been to New Orleans, I hope this gives you an idea of what it’s like and why I love it so much. If you’ve been in New Orleans for a long time, I hope you’ll find this to be an amusing perspective on the city you know so well.

Let’s back up and talk about what inspired me to go to New Orleans to begin with.

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Why Visit New Orleans?

As I mentioned, my dad is Cajun and grew up in Houma down in Terrebonne Parish. He never gave me a very clear picture of what living in Louisiana was like, but it was always clear that he took great pride in his heritage.

As I got closer to college graduation, I wanted to explore my heritage and understand my ancestry. My mother is adopted, so my dad’s side of the family was the only place to start.

I tried Ancestry.com. It turned out to be a good starting point for Cajun family trees and I traced my lineage back to the 1600s. I’m working on a post describing all of that in detail. In a nutshell, one of my extremely distant ancestors is Jean Baptiste Baudreau dit Graveline of Graveline Bay in Alabama. His son, Graveline II, was a notable figure in colonial New Orleans.

Based on his life story, he wasn’t the luckiest guy, so I connected with his story immediately. I don’t have much extended family, and this information gave me a vague sense of belonging somewhere.

After college, I found myself in a good job with a touch of money in the bank for the very first time. I grew up pretty broke so travel and vacations didn’t exist until I was old enough to make it happen for myself. I had a reasonably new car and had just bought a 100-year-old house that turned out to be way too much work for me to rehab. I was probably looking for an escape route.

I decided to take a vacation. I was used to driving to Florida from Indianapolis to visit family, so a long road trip was my first thought. I once made it down to Pensacola in 8 hours on a Sunday and I’ll never stop bragging about that.

I realized in a moment that New Orleans is only 3 hours away from Pensacola. Why not go to New Orleans?! I wanted an adventure and was willing to bet New Orleans could provide it.

I was right.

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Louisiana Beach Deer and Animal-Sized Bugs: The Magic of Fontainebleau State Park

As I said, I stumbled into Fontainebleau at around 5 or 6 AM. The sun hadn’t yet popped over the horizon and all the greenery had a faint blue cast. It was early July and all the summer bugs were singing. The sleep deprivation had me feeling a little drunk, or stoned, or both. Everything had a slight glow and seemed full of promise.

I couldn’t check into my lodgings until 3 PM and figured a state park was a good way to pass the time. Honey Island Swamp was also nearby, but I’d read there’s a swamp monster there. That’s a situation this Midwesterner is not going to take on during her very first trip down.

As I was basking in my slight disorientation and making my way to the visitor’s center, I saw them. Three deer, hanging out in the forest, eating whatever deer eat and doing deer things.

We have deer in Indiana. I’ve seen deer, and I haven’t been particularly impressed. But these were Louisiana Deer! They were obviously here to welcome me. They heard I was coming through the deer grapevine and galloped over to say ‘sup!

I stopped the car and rolled down the window.

“Hey deer! What’s up? How ya doin’?!” I called out gently but with obvious glee.

The Main Deer, who was eating a leaf, popped his head up and looked at me. He chewed.

I know that in his mind he was like, “Hey Kim! Welcome to Louisiana! Have fun!”

And then he dove back into his leafy buffet.

I cannot describe the joy I felt.

An Adult Deer Peers Out of the Fontainebleau State Park Forest
The adorable deer that welcomed me to Louisiana.

I drove deeper into the park after finding that the visitor’s center was closed for construction.

As I passed around the ruins of the old sugar mill, those famous oak trees dripping with Spanish moss came into view. I had only seen these behemoths in photographs, and they made the entire experience feel even more surreal.

I parked the car and headed toward the tree that is my favorite to this day. It stands directly across the park road from the sugar mill, to the right of the memorial bench. It is the perfect tree to spread a blanket below and kick back with a good book. They all are, truly, but this was my first oak and it will always be special to me.

Live Oak Tree at Fontainebleau State Park
My favorite oak tree in Fontainebleau State Park, across from the sugar mill ruins.

Under this oak tree I discovered two things:

  1. Louisiana has lizards.
  2. Louisiana has legit animal-sized bugs.

These were pleasing discoveries but also a bit startling and I just thought you’d like to know ahead of time.

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Fontainebleau Beach

After I’d had my fill of chasing lizards and gaping at huge, neon-blue straight-up prehistoric-looking dragonflies, I looked up to discover a beach.

I’ve learned I’m more of a forest person than a beach person, but I will always believe that both at once is ideal. Which just means that I think lakes are really good. Luckily, Louisiana has a very big lake called Pontchartrain and it gave us this beach.

The beach is incredible. It is a movie beach. We have Lake Michigan up north, but it is not a movie beach. Look at this beach!!

A view of Lake Pontchartrain from the Fontainebleau State Park Beach
Lake Pontchartrain is safe to swim in — the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has worked hard to clean up the lake and make it healthy for recreation. It’s best to wait 3 days after a rain, though.
A view of Lake Pontchartrain from the Fontainebleau State Park Beach
Lake Pontchartrain from the Fontainebleau State Park beach. This was a particularly swampy spot, but there are much more “swim-friendly” areas that make it easy to get into the water.

Maybe you would call it a swamp beach, especially with all the moss. All I know is it’s the most perfect beach I’ve ever seen.

More joy.

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Checking in to Holy Cross

I chose an Airbnb in Holy Cross. It is a double privately owned by a couple who rent one side to finance their retirement. They definitely live in the other side full time, and they still have a valid rental license today.

If you don’t understand why I spelled that out, check out my upcoming post on how to lodge ethically in New Orleans. New Orleans residents have a complex relationship with short term rentals and it’s important to make smart choices that are respectful of locals.

This neighborhood was the perfect introduction to New Orleans. The experience more low-key and local than staying in a tourist trap or Quarter hotel. Because I was down for the 4th of July, I got to experience the holiday with neighbors and meet some amazing people.

My bicycle was stolen off the front porch because I was stupid enough to leave it there unchained overnight. A typically dumb tourist mistake with consequences I can’t argue with. I was bummed because it was a great bike but I shrugged and moved on. It was a yellow 1970s Schwinn if you ever see it rolling around. I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.

Aside from that, I didn’t feel I needed to worry much about crime. I don’t go wandering around at night alone pretty much anywhere, even here in Indy. I used my common sense, found Holy Cross to be full of warm and welcoming people, and never once felt unsafe.

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Notable Places in New Orleans

The exact and precise sequence of events throughout the trip is somewhat blurry for three reasons:

  1. At the time of this writing, this trip was two years ago.
  2. I lost my phone at the end of the trip and hadn’t synced it to iCloud, hence the poor quality of some of the photos in this post which are screenshotted from my Instagram.
  3. Alcohol + insane July heat and the guaranteed dehydration of sweating non-stop.

Not syncing and then losing my phone were also major mistakes (among many) that I made as a first-time tourist in New Orleans. If you’re planning your first trip to New Orleans, make sure you read my upcoming post about the ridiculous mistakes I made that you can avoid making, and keep reading for a short list of some of the dumbest crap I did.

I know I went to Galatoire’s that night:

Galatoire’s

I made this reservation as soon as I decided to take the trip. The Mayfair Witches series by Anne Rice, which I grew up reading thanks to my mom’s book collection, establishes Galatoire’s as a popular destination for the old and notable families of New Orleans. The restaurant has a miles-long history and is the perfect place to brush napkins with well-connected locals, if that’s your thing.

There’s a dress code and it definitely qualifies as fancy-schmancy, but the people are always singing, laughing, drinking boisterously and making you chuckle despite yourself. The floor is classic white Victorian hexagon tile with a green and cream color scheme. The ceiling is dotted with fans spinning so slowly overhead they look drowsy from the July heat and humidity.

The décor is dated, but if it were changed, I’m not sure it would feel like Galatoire’s anymore. I think it might just feel like any old restaurant. And I don’t want just any old restaurant – I want Galatoire’s.

Galatoire's Dining Room
A photo of the classically delicious restaurant Galatoire’s, my favorite place for steak and bourbon.

I’m seated at a table along the mirrored wall and given the best damned bread and butter I’ve ever had. I melt, thinking “even the butter is special.” This butter is fresh yet historical. The bread is maddeningly crumbly and destroying the suave persona I’m trying to create because I do not feel fancy enough to be here – but it’s warm and yeasty. I forgive it completely.

Sonny is a great waiter. I think he’s been my server nearly every time and has a way of making me feel very satisfied with myself for choosing the Filet Mignon with Brabant potatoes and an Old Fashioned. That’s pretty much all I’ve ever eaten there because it is crazy delicious. Their chef just knows how to hang with steak. They’ve got it down.

I chat with a tourist couple at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone afterward, drink a little too much (but not too too much) and call for a ride home.

Anne Rice’s First Street Mansion (the Brevard House)

As I mentioned before, most of the particulars of New Orleans I’d learned from books more than family. The Mayfair Witches series featured the most haunting and eerie version of New Orleans I knew. I wanted to stand under the same tree as Lasher and rest my eyes on the “keyhole doorway” of the Mayfairs’ famous Garden District Mansion – the real-life Brevard house, alternately known as Rosegate, at 1239 First.

So, I hopped in the car the next day and made my way to the Garden District. I’ve always found there to be plenty of street parking in the District, so it’s very easy to travel to and within. There’s more shade here thanks to the trees and gardens lining the sidewalks, and a walk through this neighborhood is a relaxing escape from the chaotic French Quarter. Watch your step here – the roots of the oak trees have done a number on the sidewalks, especially at the First Street mansion.

Stop by the Craft Beer Cellar on Magazine for a cold brew you can take to go – in fact, I don’t think you can drink in the store, so you’ll have to take it to go. Sidewalk drinking is a way of life in New Orleans; embrace it.

Anne’s house is a little surreal, but the entire neighborhood is a little surreal. We have some interesting houses in Indianapolis, but nothing as collectively grand and sprawling as the Garden District. My photos of the house turned out appropriately creepy despite the sunny day – Anne definitely got that part right.

Anne Rice Garden District Mansion at 1239 First Street
Despite the sunshiney day, my photos of Anne Rice’s Garden District mansion at First Street came out appropriately creepy. This mansion is the inspiration behind the Mayfair house in The Witching Hour.

I try hard to feel intimidated by the house, to feel a creepy sense of foreboding like I ought to, but the current owners have landscaped and maintained the property so meticulously that it’s hard to imagine the dilapidated jungle we see in the beginning chapters of The Witching Hour.

It’s no longer the lavender color Anne describes, but something sandy like tan. The plants make it difficult to see the pool in the back, and this is someone’s home so I don’t want to peer through the bushes like a creeper. I grab a quick glimpse and back off.

The glimpse reveals a tidy backyard with a table and chairs in just the right place by the infamous pool. I can’t see the tree, but I kind of don’t want to. I know I won’t see the word Lasher carved into the trunk and I want to go on imagining that it’s there.

I still visit this house each trip – last October, work was being done on the plaster with some of the brick revealed beneath. Can’t wait to see if it’s finished.

The 4th of July on the Holy Cross Levee

It seemed everyone in Holy Cross gathered on the levee to watch the “dueling barges” – fireworks shot off the top of two barges on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. There’s no better place in New Orleans to watch that show, in my opinion.

My favorite moment of the entire trip was just before the show when a bunch of teenagers dropped what they were doing to carry a senior and his wheelchair up the hill to the top of the levee. It was hot and everyone pitched in to make sure they had water and snacks.

This was pre-bike-theft so I was able to cycle just a few blocks up to the levee. If you ever visit New Orleans during the 4th of July, watch the fireworks from the levee in Holy Cross. You won’t regret it. I haven’t felt such a strong sense of community since I was a small child growing up in downtown Indy, back in the days when we had drive-ins and local fireworks shot off the Kroger roof.

New Orleans Steamboat Floats Down the Mississippi
The view from the levee in Holy Cross: a steamboat floats down the Mississippi River with the New Orleans skyline in the background.
New Orleans Dueling Barges Fireworks
A view of the dueling barges fireworks against the New Orleans skyline at dusk — I wish my old iPhone 5 had been able to capture the scene better.
New Orleans Skyline from the Holy Cross Levee in Black and White
Another shot of the New Orleans skyline during the dueling barges fireworks show — my long lost Schwinn is featured.

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The Mistakes of the Naïve Tourist Resulting in the Losing of the Phone and the Superfluous Spending of the Cash

This all sounds great so far. You’re waiting for that inevitable touristy “Oh No!” moment. Here you go:

On the day I checked out to leave, I made the mistake of deciding to go shopping a bit in the Quarter before I headed home. This was a bad decision for these reasons and probably more that I haven’t thought of:

  1. The July heat and humidity, when paired with alcohol, can be a total mind eraser. If you don’t drink tons of water to replace the fluids you’re sweating out, any alcohol you drink is at least twice as strong.
  2. I’m pretty sure I drunkenly purchased fake George Michael Tribute Show tickets from a guy on the street. DO NOT EVER purchase tickets of any kind from anyone on the street in New Orleans. I still have these tickets and keep them as a reminder of my stupidity.
  3. I know I drunkenly purchased about $150 of skincare products from Trésor Rare that I don’t want. I eventually forgave myself a bit and let those go into the bin. Those sales people are devious.
  4. I lost my phone and didn’t sync it, so I lost all the pictures I hadn’t already posted to Instagram. About a year and a half later, my waitress at Chartres House looked at me funny and then exclaimed, “I remember you!! You left your phone here!” I never knew where I left it. The amazing thing is that, even after serving potentially thousands of people since then, she remembered me! I must have been extremely embarrassing to stand out that much. Glad I don’t remember.
  5. Earlier in the trip, I thought I had lost my debit card and had it canceled. On this last Day of Mistakes, I ended up spending all my Trip Home cash. I had to wait until the bank opened the next day to get cash to drive home. Please know that there are no Chase banks in Mississippi, not one, and I learned this the hard way.

So truthfully, by the time I drove out of New Orleans with no phone and therefore no GPS, as well as no cash, I was cursing myself and the so-called Big Easy. All I wanted was to get home. I really did that last day wrong.

If you’re about to visit New Orleans for the first time, please memorize the list above and learn from my stupidity – not that you, wise reader, could ever be this ridiculous.

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I Got Over It and Now New Orleans is My Second Home

I was able to grab cash the next morning and use Wi-Fi at a rest stop to get directions home on my laptop. And that’s the story of my first trip to New Orleans all by my naïve, lonesome, Midwestern self!

By the time I got home, I could brush off the frustration of my final day and reflect on the good points of the trip.  So, I planned another trip for that September. 

My upcoming trip this July 2019 will be my 8th visit. When I go to New Orleans now, I feel like I’m going home. I hope to move to New Orleans in the next 5-10 years and make it my forever home. Retiring on a farm and rescuing animals on the North Shore like my friend Peggy is my ideal future.

Here’s hoping you enjoyed that rather long and twisty account. I have at least twenty more blogs planned, so stay tuned for more! I’ll also be sharing posts from my trip next week, July 21-26. I’ll be staying at Peggy’s farm in Covington followed by a night at the locally-owned and historically haunty Hotel Villa Convento in the French Quarter!

Published by Word Lady

A writer's journey all the way from Indianapolis down to beautiful New Orleans.

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