Follow our musical journey on our ever-expanding “roadtrip” playlist:
Howdy ya’ll. We’ve seen a whirlwind of musical and historical cities (Bristol, Asheville, Nashville, Memphis, etc.), so we caught our breath at my family’s tranquil farm in the woods of northern Mississippi and then kept flying south to New Orleans.
Tolten: A Family Tradition
We drove down through the countryside, home only to the occasional farmer and family. The nearest “town” to my family’s farm is Lodi, home to only 9 people, an abandoned gas station, and an empty shed for them to vote in once every two years.
Sage contemplated the endless fields of cotton sprawling out from the road. After months of explaining cotton production to Smithsonian visitors from a history cart, it was odd for her to see it growing in a field for the first time.
We made it to Tolten – my family’s affectionate name for our 1840’s shotgun house – and were finally able to rest. The house and surrounding forest have been in my family for nearly 100 years, and the rooms and gardens silently preserve many memories, conversations, and secrets from innumerable holidays and reunions.
The upstairs hallway is covered in old family photographs, including this eerie one which I’d never noticed before, but which Sage discovered through her enviable powers of observation. Notice the small white shepherdess in the bottom picture, inexplicably staring straight at the photographer. Any idea what’s going on? (Please comment below.)
We also explored the history hiding in the woods around the house. Timmy, who’s been my friend and mentor my entire life, enthralled us with story after story about this countryside. Dating back to the 1800s, the gravestones went up to people in my own life. Timmy and I reminisced about Clark and Cora Campbell, a couple who worked at Tolten for decades. I can still smell the syrupy pancakes and crispy bacon Cora spoiled me with as a child.
I didn’t just talk about pancakes though; Sage and I got to devour them, thanks to Peggy–who’s continued cooking buttery, southern feasts for every meal at Tolten. Sage is one of my only friends with whom I’ve shared these traditions and memories. And more than just memories, Peggy, Timmy, and Chris give life to Tolten now. They’re each so dear to me, and now Sage calls them friends too.
We spent most of our time writing, reading–and in Sage’s case, fiddling!–on this breezy porch.
Tolten is inseparable from the wilderness. While we didn’t go on a customary coon hunt, we did see deer, raccoons, toads (in and out of the house) and Sage saw her first armadillo. Too bad it was DEAD.
On our departure, we stopped at the Jackson house of Eudora Welty, a southern writer famous for her ability to depict the dialect and place of Mississippi. She was the first living author published by the Library of America, placing her in a pantheon of such greats as Melville, Twain, Emerson, and Faulkner. Welty once remarked:
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” – Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
Welty reminded us to look for stories in even the smallest, seemingly insignificant moments of our trip. Sage and I are constantly surprised by the history we stumble upon when we treat our drives as destinations in themselves.
New Orleans: Dance of the Dead
But “listening for stories” got much easier when we arrived in New Orleans–where stories are practically shouting at you from the alleys, bars, and trombones.
The French Quarter was particularly layered with centuries of stories.
Appropriate for a city obsessed with death and ancestor worship, we began our first day winding through Saint Louis Cemetery #1, opened in 1789. It’s the final resting place of Homer Plessy, whose “separate but equal” legacy we’ve followed throughout the south, and Marie Laveau, renowned voodoo queen, to whom locals still leave offerings.
In 2010, actor Nicholas Cage–whose second wife was Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie Presley–built this modest pyramid to house his talented remains.
We visited a far more expensive, high-tech tribute to the dead at the National WWII Museum. While I know Sage respects those who lost their lives in this war, she didn’t have much respect for the museum itself.
While exhibits encased us with behemoth bombers, reconstructed battlefields, dramatic newsreels, and animated maps, the content was too overly simplistic and celebratory to leave us with any deeper connection to this history. It was a good reminder that flashy, fancy museums are no substitute for thought.
This National Park Service Visitor Center exhibit, on the other hand, was stuffed with so much shocking, imperative information that Sage was crawling on her hands and knees to absorb it all.
Instead, walking tours were our best way to meet New Orleans (we did three!). Established in 1816, when the city was overrun with Yellow Fever and plagues, this French Quarter pharmacy was the first licensed apothecary in the country. But don’t think these cures were better than the diseases themselves! Our tour guide promised this museum was more bloodcurdling than any ghost tour.
While Sage experienced this morbidity as perpetual Halloween, I needed to reaffirm life by gorging myself on muffulettas (A Sicilian sesame loaf stuffed with olive salad, mortadella, salami, ham, mozzarella, and provolone.) This famous bar gets its name from New Orleans 1812-1815 mayor Nicholas Girod–who offered this residence to Napoleon in 1821 as refuge from exile (we’re still waiting for his response).
Why is New Orleans obsessed with death? Well we think their first mistake dates back to the city’s very founding, when in 1718, this fellow, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, selected the city’s site.
“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver […] that ten thousand River commissions […] cannot tame that lawless stream […] cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.” – Mark Twain, Life On the Mississippi 1883
We learned more about the environmental dangers to the city when we visited the nearby wetlands for ourselves.
These alligators aren’t the real danger to New Orleanians. The levees and canals built to protect New Orleans from flooding are actually creating far worse problems. For example, they dump waste-filled water into the Gulf of Mexico, creating algae-filled “dead zones” as large as 7,000 square miles where nothing can survive.
Our refusal to accept the natural flow of this landscape has resulted in the rapid loss of Louisianna wetlands, which are disappearing at the rate of 33 football fields a day.
Why should you care? First, because these alligators are adorable.
Second, because wetlands are a “speed bump” for hurricanes, and protect the city. But even if we give up on New Orleans’ future, you might care that these wetlands provide 30% of the nation’s energy needs, and, more alarmingly in my opinion, 31%(!) of the nation’s seafood.
Sage also let me stop in this bookstore, since William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson once roomed together in the second story (occasionally shooting passersby on the street below with BB guns, earning extra points for hitting nuns). Nevertheless, he still managed to write a couple novels here, so mom: don’t worry, all this road tripping will pay off! The book I’m holding–a rare signed first edition copy–is worth $9,500.
Therefore, in the New Orleanian spirit of taking advantage of what little time we had in the city, we decided to embrace new experiences.
We found alligator (sorry) to be salty, spongy, and tasteless, but worth trying once.
We also shared a “sazerac,” New Orleans’ official cocktail, notable for the absinthe-coated glass and use of bitters (a local invention).
Bourbon Street was also worth trying… once.
While people-watching, we speculated on how the city’s perpetual awareness of mortality can lead to lawlessness in the pursuit of pleasure. But it can also lead to great music.
For example, Storyville–the red light district shut down after WWI–was the birthplace of jazz.
We also got to hear music in Louis Armstrong park, which encompasses Congo Square, the space where African Americans have been performing since slaves gathered there on their Sundays off from work in the 1700s.
This awareness of death doesn’t only lead to musical creation. At the Backstreet Cultural Museum, we learned how African Americans in the Tremé district defied adversity by affirming life and community.
“Collaborative creation is what gives the suit its efficiency, [so] once it has been worn, it has served its role and a new one must be constructed.” – Backstreet Cultural Museum
Mardi Gras Indians not only wear these costumes to compete, but also to bind neighbors together and prove their communal strength. Sage is already color-coordinated enough to be next year’s Mardi Gras Queen!
When discussing our time in New Orleans, Sage brought up how there seems to be a necessity to its music, a defiance and resilience against despair. Music often grows out of awareness of and respect for the dead, but thereby works to sustain and rebuild surviving communities. Whatever threatens this city, its soul lives on through its sounds.
“There stretches a long line, a long unbroken line honoring their peers… [we] laid them to rest as they lived / by their music. This music…so overriding of all else that families, faith, and frailties, day gigs, politics, and justice, Love, Hate / All else, comes after.” – Backstreet Cultural Museum
We made so much of the time we had, we were exhausted and more than ready for our next destination: my homeland, TEXAS. Look out for our next post, where I show Sage the history, music, and landscape of the Promised Land!