Shortly after I arrived here, I showed the friend who was kind enough to give me a place to stay -- and make me a delicious bowl of pasta and spicy red sauce -- some photos I'd taken during my journey, including downtown Atlanta, which I was excited to see for the first time.
Because he went to graduate school at the University of Georgia, he had an immediate visceral response to those latter shots. "I hate Atlanta." I understand that quite a few people do, whether because of its traffic or the region's politics. I explained to him, though, that I had been delighted to drive through, after missing the bypass, because I like to cross new places off my list.
That's why I was glad that my route took me through Alabama, the last southern state in which I had yet to spend any time. Now I just need North Dakota, Oklahoma and Ohio to have finished my ambition to have been in every one of the 48 continental states. But the thrill I had driving through Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama -- where I also missed the bypass -- wasn't just a completist's pleasure.
The South and West are so big and filled with so many rural stretches seemingly devoid of human habitation that coming upon a real city always feels like a little bit of a miracle, like that first vision that Dorothy and her companions have of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. That effect is hard to come by in the densely populated portions of the Northeast, where I grew up, so my excitement also derives from the reminder that I'm in that other America, where the relationship between the country and the city plays out in distinctly non-European ways.
There's also a jarring transition when you drive into New Orleans. I made a wrong turn driving into the city last night, after five hours of uninterrupted rural driving, and suddenly found myself in a maze of highly irregular cobbled streets. If an American city were ever going to be classified as "European" in feel, it's New Orleans. The tourists might undermine that impression, but there are plenty of Americans clogging the streets of Europe as well, acting like fools, often of the drunken sort.
As sharp as the contrast was between the tree-lined interstates of the rural South and the way that Atlanta and Birmingham looked driving through them at 60 miles per hour, the dislocation I experienced in New Orleans was ten times more intense. I rarely get lost, but managed to do so twice on the way to my friend's house. Once I had made it to his house, though, and settled into the old-town vibe, I was a lot happier to be in New Orleans than I would have been in Atlanta (or Indianapolis or San Antonio, for that matter).
I was too wound up to sleep right away, tired as I was, so he and I parked near the French Quarter and walked around for a while, ending up with hot chocolates and a bag of beignets from Café du Monde which we consumed sitting on the rocks down by the MIssissippi. Even though I would normally have been fighting to keep my eyes open, I felt energized by the food, the river and most of all the ambient sounds of a city that really doesn't sleep. All of those factors, though, were only manifest because I was moving through New Orleans on foot. To its credit, it's a city that only gives deceptive impressions of itself away by car.
Hey, I just realized that it's 10-10-10, whether you abbreviate dates the American or European way. And I'll be spending my time on Interstate 10, once I hit the road. I hope this convergence is an auspicious one. I have a good feeling so far. Well, it's time to think about doing what I have to do before I leave this fair city. Wish you were here. . .