My time in New Orleans has been everything. A swirling, hazy cloud of experiences, drawn in through a caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived hypnogogic stupor. A meandering, purposeless tour of a great classic city, motivated by famous food and recommended landmarks. Blending into crowds, holding court for groups curious strangers, standing as a rock in the middle of flowing rivers of intoxicated night walkers, watching the world pass by as if in stop-motion. Befriending the homeless and New Orleans uptown elite alike, walking safely through the east side and the Garden District, shifting accents and inflections, hiding behind unkempt hair and an unruly beard, alternating outfits equally fit for any and all occasions. After so much trying time spent meditating silently, enduring the punishment of a cheap saddle and a relentless sun, the chaotic routine of city life feels coddlingly impersonal.
People are interested in how I got here, but don’t ask the same five questions about the bike ride. They are stunned that their legendary dishes do not fill me up and offer free seconds (and thirds) to ensure that I leave happy and satiated, allowing me even more time to fill my notebook with musings of all sorts and to converse with proprietors and diners alike. I walk Royal Street and take art gallery cards and brochures, no longer baffled by the price tags affixed to their wares. I am tempted to trade my bicycle for a George Rodrigue signed print of his famous Blue Dog in Texas regalia, so profound is his work on my psyche. I feel a deep connection with the art of native rural Louisianans, and vow to hang some of these pieces in the same theoretical place I hope to someday hang my hat.
The street music is everywhere, and it rarely disappoints. One particularly poignant day, beneath rapidly shifting clouds and a stiff breeze, a hugely talented brass and drums band plays what may be my favorite song of all time. Just a Closer Walk With Thee, a traditional gospel that dates to the mid-nineteenth century is a song so perfect in its somber plea for closeness to God that it feels custom written for any weary listener. Though it is known most commonly as a downbeat dirge with sparse instrumentation, this particular band strikes up with joyful, triumphant horn noodling and the characteristic slack-key laid back vocal style that characterizes New Orleans jazz. The profound happiness displayed by the musicians is captivating and revelatory, and I find myself forced to sit down and don a cap to conceal the tears forming in my eyes. So many hours of aimless wandering and months of dissatisfied wanderlust melt away as I am shown the entire world in a new light. I find myself rapidly modifying the tip I am pulling out of my wallet, but I remain paralyzed on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral. My original route did not even take me through New Orleans, and now I find myself wondering what it would be like to live here. I never cease to be amazed by the places we find inspiration, but this catches me by serious surprise.
The best part about my time on this trip is that there has been no concrete agenda, no clear-cut purpose or expiration date. If I found the right job here this afternoon, I’d probably take it. If I had a terrible experience, I’d pack up my panniers and be on my way immediately. It is immensely freeing to sit on a delayed city bus, mid-day, mid-week and not fret at all. I become more comfortable with the rapidly-fading finish line and at ease with the circuitous journey I find myself on. New Orleans has shown me how to write , how to eat, and how to live. My time wandering and the people I have met have given me new perspectives and fodder for a multi-volume book series. I have never considered food critic more of a dream job than I do now, nor have I understood how good it feels to just write.
I thought I was biking from point A to point B, knowing that there would be time to think, people to meet, and things to see along the way. Though I have always loved the mantra “Not all who wander are lost”, I have only lived it on a small-scale. I am learning about what it can mean to balance wandering with a comfortable sense of home. I couldn’t fly from D/FW to Jacksonville claiming that I was just hopping on my bicycle to ride it until I figured something out, but its starting to feel more and more like that’s exactly what I’m doing. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what that something is, but the newfound clarity and confidence I feel in pursuing writing and a place to call home are worth all of the sunburns, sleep deprivation, and expenditures. The same leap of faith I took in setting everything aside to start this ride is paying dividends in unexpected places. I always felt a tentative aversion to settling down and eliminating other options in order to embrace one. There is something heartwarming about watching a city embrace its imperfection and hold as much pride as the entire state of Texas inside its levee walls, and I have learned a surprising amount of lessons from the fleur de lis.
I have so many stories to tell, meals to review, and experiences to write about in my modest attempts at artful prose. I want to do it all at once, but I also savor the prospect of an excuse to while away untold days ambling between coffee shops and patisseries, ceaselessly tweaking my words and watching the world go by. I worry that Tennessee Williams is rolling over in his grave at what has become of Bourbon Street at night, but feel that his daytime experiences are very much intact:
“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”
My time here a made me realize that rural, isolated meditation is but a very small part of the picture. I have never loved an urban experience like I have loved this one. Perhaps I owe part of that sentiment to all the time I have spent on the bike in a semi-fasting, culture-starved state of focused thinking. I owe the rest to the amazing cultural experience that is suddenly one of the dearest cities in my limited life experience. Hope ya’ll are ready to read stories, musings, and reviews about NOLA for many days to come, long after I embark on the 88 mile trek northwest to Baton Rouge tomorrow morning…