I had the privilege of accompanying a group of 13 motorcyclists for a two-week road trip into the heart of the Cajun culture. I travelled in a Dodge Ram pulling four motorcycles that was part of a convoy heading south. We changed drivers every 300 kms. This was the first time in my life that I drove a pickup truck pulling such a large trailer.
We met in the gravel parking lot of the Harley-Davidson dealership in Jackson, Mississippi. On that day, in the blazing sun, we unhooked the dozens of straps and released the motorcycles. We left the vehicles behind at the dealership and began our nine-day road trip.
The Natchez Trail
On the first evening, we relaxed over cocktails and supper at the Olive Garden in the neighbouring mall that turned into a parking lot party at the Motel 6 along I-55. The next morning, we took the Natchez Trail Parkway, a road that stretches from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi, commemorating the old Natchez Trace from the 17th and 18th centuries. We only travelled the last section and arrived at the City of Natchez.
By the end of the morning we reached the gigantic Americana Queen, one of the many steamboats that ferry tourists along the Mississippi, and stopped at the Hilltop Club in Natchez, the bar where Jerry Lee Lewis played his first piano concerts. That night we slept in Baton Rouge.
Crazy New Orleans
The road between Baton Rouge and Louisiana’s most festive city ended with the long and stressful crossing of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, a 38-km bridge. Unable to see the other shore, it felt like we were moving but getting nowhere. With the violent gusts of wind and abnormally low guard rails I thought I had a greater chance of ending my day in the cold waters of Lake Pontchartrain than sipping a Hand Grenade cocktail in the French Quarter while collecting bead necklaces.
In addition to its impressive above-ground cemeteries, Superdome, voodoo dolls and the world’s best ham sandwich at Mother’s, New Orleans is synonymous with carnival and Mardi Gras. Partygoers are welcomed day and night in the hottest neighbourhood in the city, which intersects with Bourbon Street. Musicians were everywhere, infusing every street corner with a youthful and contagious energy. For 48 hours, the 13 bikers and I blended into the crowd in a maze of karaoke, cheap beer and bead necklaces. Let the good times roll, as they say.
The End of a World
After a rainbow of good times in New Orleans, the plan was to ride to the southernmost point in Louisiana accessible by road. After crossing the Mississippi, between countless factories, we came to a narrow road that wound through the muddy waters. We were expecting a belvedere on the ocean, a breathtaking vista over the golf, a gift shop and a hot dog stand. We were all a bit disappointed. We found a rowboat in the tall grass, an abandoned boat-house and an old sign that informed us that we had arrived at Louisiana’s southernmost point.
After an official photo, we made our way to Venice. If at first glance we seemed to have arrived at a vacation resort, with luxurious condos and offshore fishing boats, we are disenchanted when the waitress at the town’s only restaurant suggested that we eat indoors rather than on the terrace because “the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, pushing the smell of garbage from the dump this way.” We looked off to the right and, yes indeed, three bulldozers were working on an enormous mountain of garbage. Still, we ate here and I had the best tuna steak of my life.
Next we headed toward Houma. Highway 23 was in very poor condition and proved too much for the axle of the small trailer of one of our group members. Thanks to the driver’s nerves of steel and the samurai-like reflexes of those following him, disaster was avoided. However, here we were, stuck in the heart of Louisiana with a trailer missing a wheel. All fourteen bikers were looking for the wheel in the ditches, a fireman in a pickup truck stopped to help, a welder interrupted dinner with his family to open his shop, the day was cut short, the wheel was repaired and the fireman’s father invited us for a drink at his nearby bar. Typical Louisiana hospitality.
Police and Cajun Spice
En route to Houma, a quick stop at Gretna to enjoy a different view of New Orleans from the other side of the Mississippi, changed our plans for the day. An off-duty policewoman offered to escort us to Jean Lafitte Park, a destination that was not part of our original itinerary. This stop would mark our first steps into the Louisiana Bayous.
We had our first taste of true Cajun cuisine at Boudreau & Thibodeau. The colourful restaurant on the outskirts of Houma sits among dilapidated trailers and mobile homes, remnants of a previous hurricane. Although it is way too expensive and way too rustic, we did justice to the buckets of crayfish, the alligator stew and platters of meats seasoned with the famous orange spice mixture before heading to New Hiberia for the night.
The following day, I hoped to visit a Tabasco factory on Avery Island but I was outvoted so we headed to St-Martinville to take photos of the Evangeline Oak. The small town, complete with a Mardi Gras parade, kept us captive for two hours. Along the route, families prepared drumsticks and ribs on homemade barbecues to a transcending hip hop beat. The air was heavy with the aroma of grilled meat. Curious to see us arriving in their town, people greeted us and children would come running asking us to take pictures of them.
Mr. Leblanc and Jacqueline
We stopped at Martin Lake to meet the man they call Mr. Leblanc. Almost 90 and speaking French with a strong Acadian accent, he took us through the bayous on his boat, had us taste his killer Moonshine and took us up close to alligators the length of a car.
He suggested lunch at Chez Jaqueline, the only restaurant for miles. It was mid-afternoon and the owner was closing up for the day, but she told us she would re-open if we let her prepare us a meal using the leftover ingredients in her kitchen. This woman, who came to Beaux-Bridge over forty years ago, recounted her childhood in Versailles, but was never clear as to why she left her native France. She prepared soups, fish, and poultry, and we had no say in what we ate or how much it would cost. Her bill was clearly exaggerated…
Convenience Store Food
We needed to survive a cold and rainy morning to reach the Texas border via Highway 82, along the Gulf of Mexico with beaches closed to the public because of oil and its many offshore drilling platforms. Frozen, soaked, exhausted and starving, we stopped at a small convenience store in Cameron where they served take-out pizza. We settled in comfortably between the chip aisle and the motor oil for a good hour, to regain our strength, warm up and eat. The poor cashier didn’t know what was going on.
We then stopped in Beaumont, Texas, where everything is larger than life: enormous steaks, colossal tires on pickup trucks, steer horns on bumpers and tri-coloured cowboy boots.
General Lee Meets Big Daddy
On our way back to Jackson, we stopped in Alexandria to visit the famous pawnbroker: Big Daddy, of the Cajun Pawn Stars reality show. Generous with his time, the man with the windproof hair spent two hours telling us about his most impressive items, all for sale at prices you couldn’t believe. Our visit ended with a view of the “original” General Lee, which he agreed to bring out of the garage despite the rain. We took turns getting our picture taken at the wheel of the 1969 Charger from the Dukes of Hazard, while Big Daddy chose a CVO Breakout belonging to one of our group for his souvenir photo.
We took the magnificent Highway 84 back to Jackson driving the final miles on the freeway. Thunder storms and unseasonably cold weather slowed us down but we needed to reach the Harley dealership before closing time to retrieve our pickups. That evening, the group prepared for the trip back to Montreal.
You can visit Louisiana for its history, its cotton producing past, the Mississippi River that flows through the entire state, its bayous and its alligator burgers served with a bucket of bright red crayfish.
But that’s not all. With hearts as big as the Gulf of Mexico and the enormous pride they have in their part of the country, the people of Louisiana were always ready to join us on the road. After nine days of travelling through Louisiana on our motorcycles, we came to see that the main reason for visiting this southern state was the people who, one by one, made history with us.