(Written Saturday, October 26th at 10pm)
Total Days: 23
Total Miles: 5,700
A couple weeks ago we were driving around Montana and South Dakota alone, camping on forest roads and looking for hikes. Those days are long gone. Nowadays we’re visiting the people and places we have missed in the past few years and exploring some great cities…mostly by eating their food, drinking their alcohol, and dancing to their music. In just one week we visited my friend Dana in Chicago, my friend Kenny and his fiancé Abbie in New Orleans, and my cousins and extended family in Lafayette, Louisiana. We are now on our way to Austin, Texas to visit some more of Don’s family, which means I have about 6 hours to reflect on this last week and share about a hundred experiences with y’all (my Lousiana family is rubbing off on me).
Our time in Chicago was short-lived, but still memorable. We got into town an hour earlier than we planned because of the time zone difference so I walked Don all around the Irving Park neighborhood, pointing out highlights, like the Bourgeois Pig Café and Kingston Mines, that I remembered from the two years I spent there after college. We met up with my good friend Dana for lunch at Potbelly’s sandwich shop (a sandwich I had been craving for about 3 years) and then drove to her house to unload and catch up. From there I took Don on a driving tour of the homes I lived in and my old stomping grounds; stopping at Goose Island for a beer of course. For dinner that night we had to hit up the Icosium Kafe for crepes. We then took the “el” downtown to Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar, a place I remember being a lot more fun and a lot less obnoxious. I suppose I’ve grown up a bit in the last 4 years. We ended the night on a positive note at the Owl, a bar in the same building as my friend’s house. The next day was nice and relaxed. We started the morning with a visit to the Caribou Coffee where I spent hours upon hours grading and planning as a teacher, and coincidently my favorite coffee shop in the world. After resting at Dana’s for a bit we went to lunch at Feast in the Wicker Park neighborhood. It was hard to say goodbye so soon, but we knew we needed to hit the road in order to make a dent in our long drive to New Orleans. I showed Don the schools I worked at as we drove through the South Side of Chicago, and then about 30 minutes outside of the city we pulled over and napped for an hour in the car. Fitting in so much in so little time is fun, and we think important, but it means we are always a little short on sleep and can take a nap in any place at any time. We ended up making it to Rend Lake in Southern Illinois where we set up our tent in the dark and crashed for the night.
We woke in the morning to a police officer at our tent door. It turns out it’s illegal to camp where we did (despite any signage) but he was a nice guy and let us off with a warning. The abrupt awakening was worth it, because when we got out of our tent we realized just how scenic our site really was. We hit the road quickly and spent the rest of the day driving south. We did make a lunch stop at Uncle Lou’s in Memphis, Tennessee, which I can confidently say is the best fried chicken and biscuits I have ever had in my life (Don agrees). I found the restaurant through Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and we were so happy with our find that we might have to plan another trip to Memphis someday just to get more. Trust us, it is phenomenal. We made it to New Orleans in time to park in the French Quarter and walk around in 75 degree weather as the sun set. It was Don’s first time in the city and he quickly fell for the place. Once my friend Kenny got home from work we went over to his and his fiancé Abbie’s home and then all went out to Coop’s Place for some exceptional soul food (everyone was a bit jealous of my Cajun alfredo pasta with crawfish, shrimp, sausage and more). We went to bed full and happy. And woke the next morning ready for a big day in the city.
Kenny is quite the tour guide and in our two days we spent in New Orleans we saw enough of the city to feel right at home. On our first morning there we were required by Louisiana law to get beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde and eat them overlooking the Mississipi River. We then walked through the French Quarter to Canal Street and caught a trolley that took us toward uptown on St. Charles Avenue. The rest of the day consisted of lots of walking and a ridiculous amount of tasty food. I got ice cream at the Creole Creamery while Don enjoyed a chai sno-cone at Snowizard. We ate lunch at Dat Dog; Don got a crawfish sausage and I had duck with blackberry jam and lots of other tasty ingredients on top. We had a beer at The Avenue Pub, followed up by a dozen raw oysters each for only $3 per dozen at the Blind Pelican. After rolling ourselves home and resting up a bit we went out for some impressive live music. We saw Kermit Ruffins (a local jazz trumpet celeb) play at Bullets and then went to the famous Frenchmen Street for even more music, this time some lindy hop, at the Spotted Cat. The next day was equally as eventful. We enjoyed coffee across from Kenny’s house in the morning before a thorough driving tour around the city, including Uptown, the Lower Ninth Ward, Lake Pontchartrain, and City Park. We had delicious Vietnamese food at Dong Phuong and even swam in the lake and basked in the sun. After another lovely afternoon nap we fulfilled Don’s wish and bought tickets for The Mortuary, a haunted house in downtown New Orleans. The night ended on Bourbon Street, of course, where we reveled in the city’s crazy, fun, and unique nightlife.
We took our time getting packed up the next morning before driving 6 hours to my cousin’s house in Lafayette. Spending time in Lafayette is a wonderful cultural experience. The Cajun lifestyle is alive and well and my family is wonderful about preserving and sharing our ancestor’s history. One and a half days is not enough time to enjoy it all, but we saw this trip as the first of many, and a chance to show Don a little about my family’s story. Our first night in town we met up with my cousin Brittany and then joined the whole family for dinner at Bon Temps Grill. I got swamp legs (duck and alligator) and this time Don sprung for the Cajun pasta. It was so fun to be around my friendly, proud, and happy Comeaux family. We then went over to my Great Aunt Piney’s home to visit with her, and ended the night at a great bar and music venue called Artmosphere. We got to see The Pine Leaf Boys play and danced the night away to the accordion, fiddle, and guitar. The next morning we got in a 15 mile bike ride with my counsin’s boyfriend James through fields of sugar cane and past old mansions and plantations. We of course had to try some Meche’s Donuts after all our hard work. After another visit with Aunt Piney we had a legit Cajun-style lunch at T-Coon’s, made complete with beignets for dessert. We then went on one of the best “tourist activities” I have ever experienced. We took an airboat tour of the Atchafayala Basin and saw tons of cranes, basically floated over huge beds of water hyacinth and hydrilla, and even watched our guide kiss an alligator! It was a very memorable experience and a great way to see the swampland up close. After the boat ride we drove through the town of Breaux Bridge and stopped at The Fruit Stand when we saw a sign out front about boiled crawfish. We were told by everyone that it was not crawfish season, but we were lucky enough to show up on the shop owner’s first day of crawfishing for the season. We were likely the only people in the world eating crawfish in October and we loved every minute of it. We spent the evening at Britt’s house drinking hurricanes, cutting up sugarcane, and hanging out with the family.
It was hard to say goodbye when we left Lafayette this evening. This morning we checked out James’ bike shop before joining the family at “Food Day”, a fun and educational twist on a farmer’s market. We ate homemade tamales, listened to more live music, and played with the ridiculously cute Gabriel (my cousin Allison’s two-year-old boy). After a stop at my Aunt Piney’s house to say goodbye, we bought admission into the Black Pot Festival, a huge Cajun music and food festival that happened to be taking place while we were in town. The afternoon was spent standing in the sun, sampling all sorts of gumbos, eating squirrel, rabbit, and cracklins, and dancing to a bunch of live bands (most of which utilized the washboard). It’s not a shabby life they live in Louisiana. We finally took our leave at around 7pm and took off for Austin, making lots of promises to come back soon with more time to spare. Now we’re back on the road and gearing ourselves up for more fun adventures and more wonderful family.