The Southwest 1 (West Texas, New Mexico, a bit of Arizona)

This is our bugout kit. From back to front of our SUV: two 50-gallon plastic bins with lids―the left has our mobile kitchen with two-burner front country stove, stainless steel half-sheet baking sheet, cutting board, mixing bowl, 12-inch steep-walled stainless steel pan, 10-inch cast iron frying pan, sieve, small plates, grater, measuring cup, tongs, metal spatula, immersion blender, french press, single-mantle propane lamp, food scale, various food storage containers, one roll of parchment paper and one roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and a smaller container with lid opener, knife sharpener, ruler, chef’s knife, bread knife, utensils, chopsticks, silicon spatula, bartender’s tool, various nozzles, and other small tools; the right is our mobile pantry with various oils, vinegars, and other seasoning liquids, a few pounds of white rice and brown rice, various (mostly Asian) noodles, a few packs of different heirloom beans, sugars, two medium tupperwares and two gallon ziplock bags full of spices and herbs, different canned vegetables and some prepared dry foods (like mac-n-cheese), and, especially, several pounds of various dals. Wedged between the two bins are two camping chairs. Atop them we keep three duffle bags, one shared containing technical outdoor clothing and a personal bag each for our street clothes. Here, too, we’ve been wedging our front country tent. Immediately in front of the large bins is a foldable pullup bar, then a roto-molded cooler (a generous gift from our very good friends), a canvas-and-cardboard box full of shoes, and my wife’s backpacking backpack with most of our backpacking gear (inflatable pads, foam sit pad, tech bag (med kit, trowel, flashlight, extra batteries, patches, head nets, bug spray, sanitizer, compass, cord, swiss army knife, pocket bellow), bear can (inside the bear can are smell-proof bags (and my stash), bear spray, various small containers), water filter, and mess kit (one 2L pot, one 1L pot, stove, two small bowls, two small utensils, a spatula head for cleaning, two small pack towels, aluminum windscreens). In front of my wife’s backpack, two large ditty sacks, one with our front country bedding (2 older thermarest inflatable pads, 2 closed-cell foam pads, and a bedsheet) and one with our front country and assorted other camping gear (this includes our beloved two-person down quilt (used for both front- and backcountry camping), one synthetic blanket, one Costco down quilt modified (with Kam snaps and shock cord) into a one-person either top or bottom quilt (for hammocks), lightweight tarp and bug net with cordage and stakes (our backcountry shelter), a packraft, a solar shower, a 1 gallon ziplock of assorted extra cordage, stakes, bug spray, etc., microspikes, gaiters, solar-powered inflatable light, and assorted ditty sacks. In front of the box of shoes is a canvas bag (purchased at the STAX museum and branded as such) with games (Dominion plus three expansion packs, Race for the Galaxy, Morels, Sushi Go, Llama, Tiny Epic Western, and Star Realm; plus ultralight backpacking games that include Cosmic Wimpout, a paper version of Hive, and Love Letter (Adventure Time version)), two lightweight beach wraps/towels, a double-walled growler, various koozies, backpacking hammock with ultralight straps and bugnet, and two (wonderful) double-walled titanium cups. In front of that is a canvas bag full of dehydrated backpacking food, atop which we keep another canvas bag full of snacks and lunch items. There is is often a third canvas bag full of other groceries we’ve recently purchased. In front of the cooler we have one tupperware full of bath items (shampoo, conditioner, Dr. Bronner’s soap, body sponge, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, scissors, razor, comb, deodorant, a few oils and fragrances, various lotions and body products (from our good friend’s business, Little Herbal Apothecary), med kit with ibuprofen, antihistamines, bandages, a roll of Leukotape, and tiger balm) and another full of electronics and household miscellany (miscellaneous cables, two portable power cells (one of them solar powered), rechargeable nickle metal hydride and lithium ion batteries with a charger, scissors, screwdrivers, two padlocks, a small sewing kit, E6000 adhesive, gorilla tape, twine, and binder clips (one of the most useful things on earth). On top of and in front of these are my wife’s and my personal messenger bags with our computers, tablets, (for her) important documents, notebooks, postcards, satellite communication/SOS device, (for me) a mechanical keyboard and USB mouse, bluetooth speaker, my DAP (a Fiio M9), balanced IEMs, external hard drive, extra notebooks, and any associated charging cables and transformers. Floating variously atop all of this cargo is a small wool blanket (mostly used beneath our front country sleeping pads) and our tennis bag (with two tennis rackets, four cans of balls, old hammock straps with attached handles (for suspending from the pullup bar or anything else), two resistance bands, and a ukulele), and my fanny pack (with flashlight, knife, watch, and a lighter). Wedged between the folded down rear seats and the front seats are: a camera bag with Nikon D5000 with kit lens plus a 35mm prime lens and a 75mm-300mm macro/telephoto lens; a canvas bag of books; a canvas bag of liquor; a canvas bag of cleaning supplies (paper towel, disinfectant wipes, laundry detergent pods, rubbing alcohol) and propane cans, and a foldable solar shield. On our roof we have a roof box that contains: my empty backpacking backpack, a day pack (empty save for the Mardi Gras beads we’ve kept), two sets of hiking poles, collapsible raft paddle, two 5 gallon collapsible water jugs, my outback-style cowboy hat, a foam roller, an EVA foam mat, a five-tray food dehydrator, and two pillows (now lovingly cinched up in a large (and surprisingly durable) plastic bag from the Mardi Gras Supply Depot). Up front we have a road atlas, water bottles, coffee thermos, small garbage bag, assorted small decorations (an alligator bead, a red-headed bean fetish from the Dead Beans Mardi Gras parade, a small crystal, a small fake flower, a small mountain hemlock cone, and a plastic alien skateboarder my wife and I got out of a quarter machine from a China Buffet in central Illinois in the earliest months of our courtship in college and which we have always kept hanging from the review mirror of whatever car we’ve had at the time), often our phones, wallet, small notebook, our sunglasses, my wife, myself.

~

Needless to say, it has been a very surreal couple of weeks. The coronavirus response has been so breakneck, and in the past few days we’ve been talking with friends and family and trying to think about everyone we know in their homes, taking care of their children, trying to work, cook food, and take the occasional walk―everyone canceling pretty much all of their plans, learning new home routines, and wondering how we are doing, out here (we are so grateful that so many people have been checking in with us). We are good, thinking carefully about how to be responsible during this time, considering the fact that we have no home to shelter in. Luckily we have had vast wilderness―social distancing built in, as it were―and that’s where we’ve been.

We left New Orleans (that sounds so long ago) on the last day of February, our car packed and our hangovers stabilized. We spent a few days in the Sam Houston National Forest, arriving on Saturday to a relatively busy camp full of families from the Houston area, but then spending the next few days almost completely alone, save the campground host (and on Sunday, two large family BBQs on the other side of the lake). We read, lounged in the hammock, hiked about eight miles of the Lonestar Trail, and cooked some good meals. From there we headed to Austin for a few days―a city neither of us had been to―and enjoyed taco after taco and a fantastic set from The Barfields at The Continental Club, as well as joyful voyeurism over a blues dance night at the White Horse (community dance classes seem always at my wife and mine’s periphery). Overall, though, we found Austin to be almost too familiar, young professionals in urban exuberance, sparkling new but blasé condominiums shooting up out of the rhizomes of cool old school dive bars. We were there when they canceled SXSW because of the virus, but hardly anyone seemed to know (maybe we got the news quickly because were looking it up, thinking that all the plastic wrap they wrapped on every surface near the convention center was some prophylactic against it (it turns out it’s against sticker bombs)).

Leaving Austin, we drove across the hill country on a long, bright, and windy day, arriving late afternoon at the Stillwell RV Ranch (friendliest staff!) just outside of Big Bend National Park. Our trip in Big Bend is one of the core highlights of this period, and I’ll say more about it in a moment, but let me just deposit two surrounding memories here: listening to Purple Rain on a very scenic drive, in the rain, to cache water at the Homer Wilson Ranch (the creosote bush activated by the moisture, so stepping out of the car was stepping into a wonderful charcoal aroma, clean and deep smelling); and then listening to Truckin’ after our backpack, on the way out of the Chisos mountains and into the desert, feeling each mile of that vast terrain flow beneath us―I want to say it was the first time I really felt on the road (Houston? Too close to New Orleans).

We got permits for the Outer Mountain Loop, a roughly 35-mile hike typically (and as we did it) starting in the Chisos basin, heading clockwise down some 3000 feet through Juniper Canyon onto the Dodson Trail (camp 1), which then heads west for 11 miles across the Chihuahuan desert and Chisos foothills to the Homer Wilson Ranch and Blue Creek Canyon (camp 2), then north climbing 2500 feet back into the mountains and into the Laguna Meadows and western hills (camp 3), then back down into the northern basin. It was a challenging hike, a bit of a boot camp for us for our Grand Canyon trip, and it introduced us to elements we aren’t very familiar with from our time in the Cascades, mostly heat and the lack of water. It is advised that you carry in and/or cache all of your water, but we also noted a creek in the middle of the Dodson Trail (Fresno Creek), and asking the ranger she confirmed that it was flowing and that we could filter there. The advice is to carry a gallon of water per person, per day, which when you add it up gets pretty heavy. We carried pretty much that (8 liters), with the intention of stretching it for a half a day the second day to get us to Fresno Creek. That ended up being a bad, though not completely dangerous, miscalculation.

By the time we woke up (in a beautiful camp) on the second day, we were already feeling a little dehydrated. Two miles into the hike we were feeling zapped, the 85 degree heat (which I know is not blistering hot, but it is when you are hiking 11 miles in it), exposure, exertion of the hike (it looks flatish on the topo map, but it is nonstop up and down in and out of washes and over passes and foothills) and our water conservation (only about 2 liters for 5 miles for the both of us) adding up. Up and down we hiked. My shirt was already completely salt stained. We stopped at every top-out, having handfuls of snack and sips of water. By the time we reached Fresno Creek, we had half a liter left. Fresno Creek was little more than a slushy trickle, but hiking down twenty feet we found some small pools (just big enough to dunk your head―our a 4 liter water bag―into), and we luxuriated in them. We immediately drank probably 2 liters each. We washed up, and I did the full circuit―face, neck, armpits, crotch, and bidet―lounging around naked in the sun and on the rocks afterward, letting my sweaty clothes dry out while we ate lunch. We filtered and drank more water, then, after about an hour and half stop there, carried on. The remaining half was still difficult and tiring and very long, but we weren’t quite so delirious, and when we arrived the Homer Wilson Ranch was just clearing out of its day visitors, so we had the shaded porch to ourselves while I retrieved our water cache. We relaxed, then found a camp nearby in a wash.

The next day was a slow 1000 foot climb up a wash through beautiful Blue Creek Canyon, then a more aggressive 1500 foot ascent up the canyon headwall and back into the mountains. By the time we topped out, we were already nearly at our camp, and we enjoyed long hours with a big lunch and naps and games and whisky. Our hike out the next morning was a swift descent back down into the basin, and, after a lunch and some fooling around in the front country, we decided to drive to Marathon, where my wife got us a room at the Marathon Motel and RV park. Marathon is a real West Texas treat, small but with a few choice luxuries (like the quaint motel, or the nearby bar, the White Buffalo)―we enjoyed it more than Marfa, where we did laundry the next day, which was a bit surprising given Marfa’s art and literary importance. But just passing through, it felt too LA-ified indeed, the overrun new real estate almost mocking the Chihuahuan landscape and West Texas culture with its adoption. It’s an unfair assessment, and I’d like to spend more time there, maybe to write poems!

From Texas we headed north into New Mexico, which began a robust couple of days characterized by rapid changes in landscape and the quick escalation of the coronavirus response. We arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park to find the camp full (not surprising to us), but then made our way to a comfortable RV camp just outside of the Carlsbad Caverns, where we sat in the car in front of our camp waiting out heavy rains, getting pretty drunk finishing Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, Slow Burn’s season one (on Watergate), and an episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. The next day was a marvel of national parks and monuments―we went to three: Carlsbad Caverns for a stroll of the Big Room Trail, a quick couple of dunes at White Sands National Park, and then an elegant camp in the beautiful highlands of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, waking the next morning to numerous doves cooing and landing in dusty proclamations within the junipers that surrounded us.

Then we headed north deep into the Gila National Forest, spending most of the day trying to find a good camp (we got a decent one). The next day we hiked up into the Gila Cliff Dwellings, extraordinarily well-preserved dwelling sites in the beautiful and dry norther Gilas, then drove all the way back south into Silver City for groceries and some coffeeshop internet, where we learned that many states had ordered restaurants and bars to close their dine-in services. That’s when the virus news really hit us. People were nervous in the co-op where we shopped. We ate a solemn lunch sitting on a park bench, and the town (which struck us as a hidden gem, a small college-town hippy enclave) felt especially empty. We started to rethink our plans, but we knew we had at least two more nights camping, so proceeded up to the Cosmic Campground in the western Gilas, a dark sky site where my wife, at least, was able to stay up and view some deep galaxy textures before the moon rose. The next day we talked with many friends and family as we made our way into Arizona, where we ended up doing an offtrail backpack in the Painted Desert. This was quickly one of our favorite trips, a beautiful, fun, and accessible romp through deep washes and among badlands and copious deposits of petrified wood, fossilized old growth from the Triassic period (about 210 millions years old). We camped out of the high winds in a low wash and enjoyed the stars there, too. We felt far away from every person, and oddly, that that was a good thing.

And now we’ve been holed up in a hotel in Flagstaff, trying to keep distant from others while we wait out some weather (it snowed about 10 inches when we arrived) before our trip to the Grand Canyon, which starts tomorrow. I want to say so much about the places we’ve been―how lush the Chihuahuan desert is (my love for the whimsical sotol, the elegant play of ocotillo, yucca, prickly pear, and agave in elaborate desert gardens, and then the uniqueness of the isolated Chisos mountains with their juniper and pinyon pine), the interplay of sky (aliens, missile testing) and earth (gypsum white sands, stalagtites, stalagmites, curtains, popcorn―all the depositional sculptures of the caverns) of New Mexico, or the extraordinary erosional structures of the painted desert and how apparent the forces of time are (in erosion, unearthing of fossils, the uncanny feeling of being around huge timber in a desert landscape, knowing the terrain you are walking in is literally hundreds of millions of years old), but our trip, and the world, has changed so rapidly, and it’s all I can do to just recount this itinerary. Pictures, anyway, probably tell it better (just a few below, with the promise of more).

So we have been decided to change some plans. We are going to proceed to the Grand Canyon, though it has shut many of its services. We talked to a ranger about our trip, and he was welcoming and optimistic. We expect the park to be mostly empty, but we’ll see. We might not complete the rim-to-rim-to-rim (maybe more because of weather), and that’s fine. We are hesitant to keep traveling, but we don’t have a home, and the bottom of the Grand Canyon feels appropriately socially distant. We did change our April plans though, which was a month in Echo Park in Los Angeles. That seems like a bad idea. We were able to cancel our accommodations and have gotten new ones for a few weeks in the homestead area (every property is surrounded by 5 acres) outside of Joshua Tree, where we are going to hunker down. Looking forward to that time, actually. But first, a bit more wilderness.

We’ve met a few lovely people this month. Pete (a later post will include the “Three Petes”), a school bus driver originally from Paradise, CA, who drove busloads of children (and recounted it so nonchalantly) to safety during the devastating fires there (he drove literally until the tires melted). A group of brothers/friends in Sam Houston National Forest who offered us their Korean BBQ (we still cringe at having to decline, being vegetarians). An extremely nice park ranger at Petrified Forest National Park. But mostly we’ve been to ourselves. I figured I’d close with one specific person we met, though, Harris, a gentle young man (early twenties?) stationed at Fort Bliss outside El Paso, whom we met in the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks. He was scheduled for his first deployment, a 19-month tour in Afghanistan where he was going to drive convoys. The deployment was canceled because of the virus outbreak. I am an unashamed pacifist and have disagreed all of my adult life with most of our military actions. But I couldn’t help but feel for Harris. He had spent months and months and months mentally and logistically preparing for his deployment, and I could see the evacuation of that energy clearly within his eyes. He had already hiked all the high trails at Organ Mountains, and yet he still, after our long conversation, was pacing around the camp restlessly in long loops. What he knew and was planning for was suddenly interrupted, forcefully, chaotically, with little leadership or communication. He didn’t know what to do, how to be. It was the most outward expression of how everyone must be feeling, if they are affected financially or not, if they are closed up in their homes or, like us, in a tightly packed car and then empty-of-people landscapes. I bristle at the term “social distancing”―apart from the pandemic, this is exactly what we don’t need and what part of our trip was trying to break through―isolation, estrangement, and mediatized interaction. It’s now the remedy, the order, and I accept that―we will hunker down and make the best use of the time we can. But I worry about its effects, our stamina, our energy. Standing above the “bottomless pit” in Carlsbad Caverns, I jokingly noted that it triggered like five different phobias, of heights, the dark, the unknown, of closed in spaces, and wide open ones. I still sort of feel like that.

―Flagstaff, AZ, March 20, 2020,

A smattering of media here, followed by a link to a fuller set of photos:

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Looking down the Juniper Canyon into the Chihuahuan desert in Big Bend National Park

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Early morning in our camp on the Dodson Trail, Big Bend National Park

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Exhausted, looking back over the Chisos foothills we’ve just gone over.

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Friendly sotol stem pointing the way up back into the Chisos.

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A jumble of depositional structures in the big room of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

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The vast dunelands of White Sands National Park.

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Our pretty camp beneath a juniper in Organ Mountains Desert National Monument in New Mexico.

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Cliff dwellings in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico.

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A petrified wood deposit near Angels Garden in the Painted Desert of Petrified National Park, Arizona.

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Sunset on the badlands of the Painted Desert.

View a fuller set of photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/ITQq94qzSrGTvGmsZT3mBg.kV9tgnd4QgsNzJU1p3yf-g

Mardi Gras

I first noticed the ulcer on my tongue in City Park in New Orleans on the third weekend of Carnival. I was sitting down with friends to little paper bags full of beignets and powdered sugar, next to cups of chicory coffee mixed with milk, at an outpost of the famous Café du Monde. I noticed the powdered sugar irritating the right side of my tongue. Beignets are already a little bit awkward to eat, and I found myself going at them more and more askew, increasingly favoring the left side of my mouth (where many years ago I had a molar removed and never replaced), slowly working the dough into a mash soft enough to swallow. It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience of beignets, though the warm, creamy coffee provided some succor. I knew right away that a canker sore was coming, forming as a little polyp on a spot where my tongue met my teeth. By the next day, at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, I was avoiding the right side of my mouth completely, softening the fried okra and delicate red beans with copious amounts of iced tea. I was starting to talk with a lisp, and I was grateful that my friends were leaving that afternoon, not because I was eager to see them go, but because it meant I could sit silently and watch movies for the rest of the day, drinking little cups of whisky. When I woke up the next morning opening my jaw and pulling my tongue away from my teeth felt like ripping duct tape off of sutured-up sunburn. I teared up a little bit, hurrying to the bathroom to gargle some water. The sore was grayish-white and nearly a quarter inch across, alarmingly deep. Little bubbles of spit foamed in its concavity. I stared at it in the mirror while construction equipment―tractors and backhoes and such―passed by outside, softly quaking the house.

I quickly began a regimen of saline gargles, avoided sugar and salt dustings (up until then, I was delighting in coating everything in a Slap Ya’ Mama, a simple and delicious (if unfortunately named) cajun seasoning found widely throughout Louisiana), and began with a full-on Daffy Duck slur, trying to keep the canker sore completely outside my dental complex, which made for some amusing conversations with my wife. By evenings, my tongue was tired and strained from the altered biomechanics. Eating was so laborious I lost my appetite; kissing was painful and made me feel like a mutant; I was getting humidity headaches; anything carbonated (mostly, beer) stung sharply, as did anything acidic (mostly, wine). Whisky was the best relief, and I bathed my tongue in it, enjoying the numbing effects with a giddy I haven’t felt in what must be at least a decade. I had absurdly little time to convalesce, mere days before eleven of our friends would arrive in waves for Mardi Gras weekend. My wife and I took it easy, running errands and getting the house cleaned up; the weather shifted around restlessly and you could feel the city and its traffic in kinds of high-intensity intervals, a start-stop arrhythmia that felt anxious and unsure. I was irritable but mellow. I tried very hard not to move my tongue, for any reason whatsoever.

~

We spent 29 days in New Orleans, pretty much the entirety of the Carnival season. We had 15 different guests, went to 9 parades, saw (I estimate) 20 music shows (not counting street musicians or marching bands), drank 6 liters of whisky, 15 or so of wine, and caught around 80 pounds of beads. These aren’t necessarily impressive numbers (we also watched, easily, 30 hours of television), but I mention them to satisfy a weird desire to quantify our time in New Orleans. Because while we spent an entire month there, it was an artificial month. It was Mardi Gras, and we don’t have jobs, and our experience as longtime tourists ran messily against the complexities of the city, which were so present around us, so unhidden.

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Beignets and chicory café au lait at the Café du Monde.

I want to say it right away: I think New Orleans is the most American city in America. True, New Orleans is pretty singular, quite unique, but many cities have their unique qualities (New York, as the center of the world, is also uniquely New Yorkish (though perhaps long in the process of losing that)). True, New Orleans is on a far-flung edge, the Gulf Coast, the Deep South. But it absorbs these regional qualities within an American way of being that is much larger than them. It unites the north and the south (in politics, sensibility, accent), the urban and rural (and suburban), the extravagant and the impoverished. Its roads are complete shit (and the remnants of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel remain in its skyline), but there’s fat, salt, and sugar in damn near everything. It has brand new parks and age-old sewage. It’s very segregated on one hand and yet famously integrated culturally. It bears the ineffable time stamp of a catastrophe (Hurricane Katrina) in a way few other cities do, and yet this time stamp powerfully exemplifies the contemporary catastrophes that have defined all of America in the past decades (9/11, the 2008 economic collapse, mass shootings, political upheavals). It’s artsy and fratty. It’s touristy and proudly local. It’s full of violence and love. Mardi Gras, its most famous indulgence, is predicated on abstinence. Its grand metaphor is jazz.

I say all of this casually, and as I’m wont to do in these writings, please take the caveat that I don’t mean to offer anything definitive―indeed this is the impression of an unrooted tourist doing little else for the city than spending money there. These thoughts are contextualized by my own baggage. Which is to say: New Orleans did far more for me than I could ever do for it. All of this complexity was, for me, a needed affirmation of a true reality in a time of bewilderingly hyperreality (this will remain a theme of these writings). This is true even of the masquerade of Mardi Gras, which I found remarkably devoid of mediatization, remarkably old school, as it were. It is alive and well and fully in the streets and real gatherings of real communities, buoyed by the efforts (and dollars) of thousands and thousands of people, numerous organizations (krewes and sub-krewes), and around two centuries of traditions. It persists unapologetically, and I say that because there is plenty about it at which to be aghast. Even forgoing the stupidities of Bourbon street, an outsider might notice the incredible excess of plastic in the parade throws (shout-out to the Arc of New Orleans, one of the only organizations with a bead recycling (combined with job rehabilitation) program―this was the final destination of most of our 80 pounds). Or one may pause in front of the masking, some of which has racist echoes, like the eerily klan-like masks found in many of the larger krewes or the signature black makeup―which many outsiders might construe as black-face―of The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (this is, by the way, one of the very best parades in all of Carnival, taking place the morning of Mardi Gras day). Yet the the complex of these moral confusions among all of the other (less troublesome) signs and motifs and fetishes of Mardi Gras amounted to a tremendous reassurance for me. Somewhat like our experience of the Everglades, Mardi Gras felt completely its own: tenacious, proud, bold, very, very alive. That I want to analyze it feels mostly useless.

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A float in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade on Mardis Gras day.

Besides, we were there to party. And party we did. It was, in two words, absolutely amazing to have so many friends come join us. We stayed in Bayou St. John, a block off the Lafitte Greenway, which made for an easy walk through the Treme and into the French Quarter. We caught early parades like Krewe Bohème and Krewe du Vieux in the quarter with some of my oldest friends from childhood, feeling high and giddy afterward among the incredible (almost all homemade) costumes at an after-party at The Black Penny on Rampart. We saw some of the larger family parades (Carrollton and King Arthur) on a relaxed weekend in uptown with a poet-friend and old colleague following an extensive and what ended up being private tour of St. Louis No. 2 cemetery. We had a mega crush of guests for the Super-Krewe parade Endymion, before which my wife and I danced to Bruce Springsteen covers at their Samedi Gras street party and after which we hosted an impromptu party at our house in a sea of beads and blinking trinkets (our defacto niece was fully wound up). We triangulated the routes of Red Beans and Dead Beans to catch them nearly at their intersection, finding their goofy and brilliant designs (all made out of beans) a lovely alternative to the more gaudy (and again, insanely plastic-heavy) conventional parades.

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A very crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras day.

And, impossibly, after weeks of parades and nights stumbling the quarter or Frenchman street or the Bywater, we woke up at 8am on Mardi Gras day, smeared some stale grocery store King Cake into our faces, packed whatever beers we had left, and made it to the sidewalk side of Zulu just blocks before its terminus at the Social Aid and Pleasure Club in the heart of the Treme. We were there for nearly six hours, screaming in adoration, dancing to fantastic marching bands, drinking warm tallboys of Highlife and snacking on anything that was available, many of us paying to use a nearby porta-potty. After the parade we walked through the massive street party on Claiborne under the I-10 overpass (also the gathering of many of the Second Line parades (it should be noted that before the highway was constructed in the 60s, this used to be a beautiful, live oak–lined street that defined the Treme, one of the most important black communities in America; to hear horn bands echoing against the concrete is to hear a kind of defiance, a tenacity). From there we headed down into the quarter, buying (surprisingly good) pizza on Bourbon street, then making our way to Marigny in search of what we remembered to be a relaxed and delightful bar (the Royal Street Inn), hoping for crowd-respite there but of course, in our uninformed tourism, finding instead the massive gathering of the Society of St. Anne walking parade, a true locals parade characterized by elaborate costumes of various themes (eighteenth century French court life remains a persistent one, via krewes such as The Merry Antoinettes; we were within fifty feet of a powdered wig for most of Mardi Gras night; and yes this is a pretty stark “white” contrast to the Zulu parade). From there we split up a bit, and a smaller group of us went club hopping on Frenchman street, in search of a good brass band, eventually finding it at the Blue Nile, where the Marigny Street Brass Band took the stage at 9pm.

Musically, for me, one of the best traditions of New Orleans music is the Second Line–style brass band: usually tuba/sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, a snare player, and a bass drum and cymbal player, with maybe a guitarist or keyboardist, but not necessarily. It’s parading music as much as it is dancing music, and it has a mix of tresillo shuffle, swing, and funk that I find absolutely intoxicating. Talk to a New Orleanian and they might mention the Rebirth Brass Band as a fundamental group. I heard it everywhere on loudspeakers but seemed always to miss it in its live forms, save the occasional street ensemble or a distant, undefinable echo. I think, probably, I wasn’t staying up late enough most nights. But Mardi Gras I did, and it felt like my holy New Orleans grail to see such a good band, dance so freely, clutching my Zulu medallion beads to keep them from snapping free but also, of course, in a kind of communion, as best as I could be allowed. My tongue still hurt, but it only made sense―that organ of appetite and expression, overwhelmed by a city engaging both at the fullest.

 

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The rumored real tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis No. 2 (affectionately called the “Faux Laveau”)

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I got into taking these tableaux of parade litter

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Charlie and the Tropicales doing their Monday night set of French Caribbean tunes at the wonderful Bacchanal in the Bywater.

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Under the I-10 overpass, Claiborne Ave, after the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras day.

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St. Anne and other masqueraders in the Marigny on Mardi Gras day.

 

More photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/PCR1VNMrTKi17y7TlQ-OPg.5EcyHaGaVmX4sIVqgcmkIZ

―Sam Houston National Forest, March 02, 2020