texas sky

Finally… wide-open country! And hills!

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Day 24 of the Long-Distance Dad road trip was a travel day, but that doesn’t mean it was dull. Zooming along for mile after mile, we still experienced some of the wonder of the Southwest. 

Lugging our stuff out of the room in Lubbock, Mtuseni bumped into several guys who were also leaving. Decked out in tight black jeans and leather jackets, jet-black hair, silver bracelets — they were definitely in a band. Mtuseni exchanged “Excuse me’s” with them and that was it.

As they piled into their oversized van I said, “They must be heading off to their next gig.” On the way out I stopped to get a bagel and then we bid farewell to Lubbock and its overpowering smell of fertilizer … or manure … or something farm-like. With breaks, we had a 6+ hour drive to Santa Fe.

As expected, Route 84 was two lanes in each direction surrounded by miles of flat nothing. You could practically see the curve of the earth. Occasionally we’d come up on a small town with a few houses, a dollar store, maybe a silo. They were nothing more than gas-and-piss stops on a long road in the middle of nowhere. You could drive through one in a couple minutes, then  back to the lonesome highway.

We stopped a couple times to take care of business. Then at the third place, who pulls up but the band in their black van! Mtuseni and I were more than a hundred miles outside of Lubbock. We’d stopped randomly for various lengths of time. Yet here were the only people we “knew” in all of Texas, stopping at the same nothing little gas station, moments behind us.

I don’t know what you call that — just coincidence, perhaps. But I found it totally cool. It felt like bumping into old friends. Maybe the guys weren’t in a band. Maybe they were shamans. Or spirits. Or spies. I chocked it up to the mystery and magic of the Southwest.

As we headed back on the road, with many miles ahead, I hoped we might encounter our compatriots again. We didn’t. Maybe they were headed someplace else. Maybe they just vanished in the haze and heat. Maybe they never existed.  

Just before turning onto Highway 285 for the final leg to Santa Fe, we stopped at Clines Corners for some gas and kitsch. These throwback gift shops remind me of the ones on Cape Cod where we’d spend summers in the 70’s. Most of those are long gone now. People had less sophisticated taste back then; there was a bigger appetite for cheesy souvenirs and crap.  

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clines sign

In the middle of nowhere, Clines Corners meets travelers’ needs for gas … or kitschy souvenirs.

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clines store

I love tacky gift shops. I rarely buy anything, but the visual chaos is like a drug. So many colors! So much crap!

 

clines buffalo

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After the endless flat plains of Texas we’d at least begun to experience a few small hills in New Mexico. A couple miles outside Clines Corners there was nothing but open space in all directions. I got out to look around and grab a photo of the road ahead of us, rising gently skyward toward the horizon … with untold adventures great and small on the other side. It felt like a metaphor for our trip — and for life. There’s endless possibility in all that emptiness. It’s one of my favorite photos.

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long empty road in Texas leading to the horizon

One of my favorite pics from the trip. A road stretching to the horizon … and who knows what adventures await over the next hill. #ILoveTravel

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Check out our Instagram greeting from the middle of Highway 285!

The American Southwest … It never disappoints! 

lubbock rd pair

On the long, lonesome, beautiful road to Santa Fe.

taxas thang

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Day 22 was a driving day. Mtuseni had said months earlier that he wanted to see Texas. So we headed south from Memphis to Fort Worth — and at some point, after three weeks of being on the road, crossed the mid-point of the country!

Speeding through Dallas, Mtuseni marveled at the skyline. I considered taking an extra half day to check out the city and see the book depository and grassy knoll where JFK was shot. But I figured he’d think that two assassination sites in a row was weird — and I wanted to avoid any Texas-sized traffic jams leaving Dallas. 

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mtu lobby

The lobby of the H3 Ranch seemed like a scene out of Gunsmoke.

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My mother told me to check out Billy Bob’s, the world’s largest honky tonk. (My father had worked near Fort Worth for a couple years.) But it was closed that night for a private party. (I’m the king of shit timing.) So we had dinner at the H3 Ranch, where uber-carnivore Mtuseni was in heaven. Compared to the brash colors and crowds of Beale Street, historic downtown Fort Worth felt mellow and sweet with its sprinkling of neon and quiet pubs.  I could hear The Eagles’ “Desperado” in my head. 

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ft worth night

A mellow late summer night in historic Fort Worth.

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The next morning, Day 23 of our road trip, we set out to see the famous cattle drive at the stockyards. Turning around on a side street after a GPS mishap, we came upon the Fort Worth Aviation Museum. A strange little place: probably 50 different military aircraft parked on a grassy lot. It was closed so we looked at everything through the chain link fence. I’m not a big military person, but it was pretty cool to see planes and jets and choppers from different eras up close. It would have been really neat to go inside.

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mtu plane sign

Unfortunately you can’t touch the warbirds at the Fort Worth Aviation Museum if it’s not open.

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nm jet

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Back at the stockyards, we stood on the sidewalk and watched about 14 docile longhorn steer be led down the street by cowboys on horseback. I wasn’t expecting a cinematic stampede of 5,000 cattle, but for all the build-up for the daily cattle drive — and the dire warnings of being gored — it was pretty laughable. I imagined the cattle punching out after the show and heading to their second gig at a petting zoo.

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rodeo hall of fame

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Mtuseni did manage to get in some Texas rancher experience. I’d watched the (cute!) cowboy with the photo-op steer collect money from people all morning. He didn’t ask me for money. Either he was being nice to Mtuseni or he just forgot. (If it’s the latter, I owe you five bucks, pardner!)

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mtu longhorn

No, I did not get on this thing…

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mtu longhorn cowboy

…but I definitely would have gone out with the cowboy!

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stockyards pair

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After the cattle show we poked around the shops at the stockyards. It was pretty quiet — a Monday in mid-September. It’s likely busier at the height of summer. 

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mtu hat

Didn’t make the souvenir collection. No way that thing would survive all the way back to Johannesburg!

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ft worth plates

I can imagine some of these on beat-up old pickups barreling across a muddy ranch.

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I love vintage radios. This looks like it’s from one of my favorite movies, The Last Picture Show, playing some melancholy cowboy ballad on a scarred kitchen table, flypaper swinging in a hot breeze. 

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radio

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horse ride

Never seen one of these at a full gallop! I guess soft Northeastern Yankee kids get a more sedate version.

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We did return to Billy Bob’s for lunch — but aside from the size, the place lacks something when it’s almost empty. It must be a blast on a busy night with all the bars, stage, dance floors, gaming — there’s even a rodeo ring inside!

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billy bobs

Billy Bob’s by day — the world’s biggest, and emptiest, honky tonk!

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Mtuseni kicked my butt in a game of pool. (Actually, a third grader could. I’m just not into it.) He’s good! When I asked where he learned to play, he said at college. Hmm… so that’s where my tuition money went. (I shouldn’t talk. I learned much worse in my college days!)

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pool hall

Can’t remember if Mtuseni is grinning with anticipation over kicking my butt in pool here — or savoring his victory.

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We left Fort Worth and headed to our stopover in Lubbock. We were headed to New Mexico but you can’t do that drive in half a day. Damn, Texas is big! 

This turned out to be one of my favorite drives of the trip. I love the Southwest. The starkness, the heat, the space. It just seems to vibrate with some type of energy or spirits. This was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to. It’s so different from the Northeast. 

I had tried to explain the concept of “big sky” to Mtuseni early in the trip, but he didn’t get it. In West Texas, he did. You really have to be out there and experience the overwhelming feeling of sky all around and above you to understand. It’s breathtaking and humbling and inspiring.

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texas sky

Now… finally… wide-open country!

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I was surprised to see that our last leg into Lubbock was just a two-lane road. We watched a huge thunderstorm move across the far horizon — ominous black clouds and lightning bolts hovering over the grassy plain. It was gorgeous. Cinematic. With an acoustic soundtrack playing on my iPod, I  was in road trip bliss.

Of course, we caught up to the storm after half an hour or so — and continued into Lubbock in the dark in a driving, treacherous rain. But it didn’t dampen my spirits from the long drive under the West Texas sun. The magnificent, magical Southwest awaited! 

 

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tenn sign

After New Orleans we stopped over in Jackson, Mississippi for the night, then headed up to Memphis the next morning for Day 21. This would be a mix of history and fun: our last stop on the Civil Rights Trail and music on Beale Street!

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Piggly Wiggly historical sign in Memphis

I didn’t know Piggly Wiggly started in Memphis. I’ve never been in one, but always loved the name.

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trolley

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I expected Memphis to be a more bustling large city, like Atlanta. But it’s small and looks a bit tired. We took a trolley through the old downtown shopping area. Many storefronts were vacant and there were few people; it was sad. The decline of old shopping areas in any city depresses me. Surely this stretch of Memphis was a bustling place full of life at one time. Malls were one of the worst ideas of the 20th century.

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Lorraine Motel sign, Memphis, Tennessee

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We got off the trolley at the Lorraine Motel, the site of MLK’s assassination. It was chilling and sad and a bit surreal to see the balcony, thinking of that famous photo. I have vague impressions of the event — I was seven and a half. I have more memories of RFK’s assassination two months later. It was the first time I understood that a big world existed beyond my backyard swing set. 1968 — what a year. Similar to 2020, adults must have been wondering what the hell was going on. 

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Balcony at Lorraine Motel, in Memphis Tennessee

Like a moment frozen in time, the end of one man’s path toward a dream shared by many.

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rooming house

The rooming house where James Earl Ray took his shot is just across from the motel. Such evil in an unassuming place. Chilling.

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Having seen MLK’s birthplace in Atlanta, churches he preached at, and the site of his “I Have a Dream” speech, it felt like we had come full circle, tracing the arc of his life. I’m glad Mtuseni was interested in all of it. When we were in Cape Town we saw the balcony where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison. Locations of historic events like this just give me goosebumps.

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am a man

A fitting last photo for the Civil Rights Trail leg of our road trip.

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We passed up going in the Civil Rights Museum; the line was long and the heat was cranking up. Luckily a woman downtown told us about Central BBQ, right behind the Lorraine. I’m not a huge meat fan but ate every bite of a pulled pork sandwich the size of my head. Mtuseni polished off a rack of ribs; the bones looked like they’d been bleached white in the desert when he was finished. When in Memphis, you gotta do BBQ!

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central q inside

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central q sign

Thanks to the woman on the street for the tip on this place. I didn’t have to do BBQ research!

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After lunch we walked past the entrance to Beale Street. It was mid-afternoon and I knew it would be more lively at night. There didn’t seem to be much else to do, so we headed over to a park along the Mississippi River. And this is where my big meltdown occurred.

We’d had three weeks of temps over 90 degrees… every freakin’ day. You know it’s bad when Southern weather forecasters talk about record-breaking heat! There was no respite in the park, not one tree. I sat in a thin strip of shade next to a wall of the visitors center — which was closed for a wedding. I was tired and cranky and done. I wanted to cancel the hotel that night and immediately head for Texas in the air-conditioned car. I was like a four-year-old having a whiney tantrum.

Mtuseni found another shady place to sit, away from my bitching. At home he doesn’t have air conditioning. Or heat. Or electricity. If it’s cold, he’s cold. If it’s hot, he’s hot. Not that he doesn’t complain when he’s home. (I’ve heard it so many times over the years!)  But in his community, you just live with stuff.

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river boat

The view from my heat stroke induced meltdown… the mighty Mississippi.

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After a while I snapped out of it and we headed over to Beale Street — and had a blast! We checked out BB King’s store, people watched, and marveled at all the neon. We were so full from Central BBQ we didn’t want dinner.

 

beale st mtu day

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B.B. King's Company Store in Memphis Tennessee

Cool store. I could have bought a ton of stuff but didn’t want to carry it all night.

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stax shirt

I really wanted this t-shirt but it was sold out. I wanted to see the Stax Records Museum, too, but it was a drive from downtown and had odd hours.

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beale neon crowd2

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We ended up watching the Redemption Day Band in a small park for free. The band was so tight, playing blues and funk and R&B. The leader and singer was in his 70s, and he never stopped. We watched for over two hours, had some beer and wings, singing along. (Well, I did!) And they just kept going. The guy’s probably still singing! 

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band dancer

This old guy had a good ol’ time dancing much of the night, sometimes convincing a young woman to join him. Music keeps people young!

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The vibe was so happy and mellow, everyone enjoying music and laughing and dancing on a late summer night. When the leader asked people putting tips in the bucket where they were from it was all over the world! Then a woman who’d been dancing up front by herself for much of the night dropped in her dollar. The guy asked, “Where you from, darlin’?” She said, “Up the street.” Everyone laughed. By then it felt like we were all part of the neighborhood.

Check out our Instagram for a hello from Beale Street!

I’m so glad I didn’t bail and leave Memphis early. We had such a fun time. It was a great send off as we set out for a trip milestone the next day — crossing the mid-point of the country. And thankfully leaving the southeastern heat and humidity behind. 

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blues sign pair

So long from Memphis!

nola marker

For our first full day in New Orleans we made the pilgrimage to Cafe du Monde. We weren’t impressed; they taste like fried dough you get on Boston Common. Even the obscene amount of powdered sugar they’re buried in can’t hide that. I told Mtuseni it was just something you had to do, like having boerewors in South Africa. The best part of the experience was the trio playing some snappy jazz right outside the cafe — a great way to perk up the morning.

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beignet big deal

The requisite beignets at Cafe du Monde. We didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I knocked most of the sugar off mine, I wanted to keep my teeth through the day.

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du monde pair

Yep, we’re at Cafe du Monde. I’d prefer another trip to the Waffle House.

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We crossed over to Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, which is stunning. For someone who attends church in a strip mall, Mtuseni doesn’t get the opulent church thing. Growing up Catholic and ringing gold bells as an altar boy, it’s old hat to me. I lit a candle and sat for a few minutes and talked to my father, who passed a few months earlier. He would’ve loved this trip.

St. Louis Cathedral exterior in New Orleans

St. Louis Cathedral looks a bit like Cinderella’s castle with the multiple spires.

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Painted ceiling and altar at Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

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Altar in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

The altar reminds me of my grandmother’s church, Our Lady of Czestochowa, in Massachusetts.

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The beignets weren’t a very substantial breakfast — we were used to filling up on free hotel buffets. We scouted someplace for an early lunch and the Johnny’s Po’Boys sign drew me in. I’d been craving a fried oyster po’boy since we crossed the Louisiana border. But the recent hurricane had stirred up algae — no oysters! I got a tuna po’boy that was as big as my arm (not my intention). I gave half to a homeless guy sitting in front of the cathedral. 

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poboy shop

I love old sandwich shops like this. Kinda got the diner thing goin’.

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Johnny's Po-Boys sign in New Orleans

I swear my tuna po’boy was not much smaller than this guy’s!bb

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We strolled through the French Market until the heat again became stifling, so we popped into the Jazz Museum. I had no expectations other than air conditioning, but I was totally impressed! Well-curated exhibits, tons of cool photos, artwork and mementoes: they pack a lot into what looks like a small space.

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good jazz sign

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jazz mural

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Louis Armstrong's first cornet in New Orleans Jazz Museum

Louis Armstrong’s first cornet. I remember seeing him on the Ed Sullivan Show as a kid. “Well Hello Dolly!”

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Mtuseni immersed himself in an exhibit on Professor Longhair. He listened to every recorded narrative and song clip — and was fascinated that he taught himself to play piano on a broken one he found on the street.  We ended up meeting the professor again at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland weeks later. He was a cool, talented cat!

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longhair better

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We even got to see a free jazz concert by the Nicholas Payton Trio in a sweet little studio. Great show, great talent! The museum was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening break from the heat.

Check out video of the Nicholas Payton Trio on our Instagram!

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concert stage

Great space for a free concert at the Jazz Museum. Mtuseni doesn’t know jazz — but he loves live music.

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After dinner we took the trolley to Frenchmen Street for a little more live music and a little less crazy chaos. Weeks of togetherness and relentless heat finally got to us: We had a sidewalk screaming match that entertained and spooked the tourists, but then hugged it out and watched a great band in a little bar, sitting right up front. You can’t be angry too long in New Orleans! 

Check out our Instagram for some music from Frenchmen Street!

The next morning we had breakfast at The Governor — a great spot with caricatures of Louisiana politicians from times past… and their criminal exploits. One young woman’s job seemed to be just going from table to table asking people if they’re happy. She was like sunshine moving through the room. NOLA felt like our first taste of real Southern hospitality.

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governor pair

Good breakfast. Great, friendly vibe. We loved this place — and we’re not big smilers in the morning!

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After breakfast we took a trolley to the Garden District to check out the pretty homes and lush streets. We walked round a while but — surprise! — it was super hot! So we hopped on the trolley back into town and just strolled the streets, enjoying the architecture. The ornate balconies reminded us of Long Street in Cape Town, a similarly lively and fun street in Mtuseni’s neck of the woods.

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pearl oyster balcony

This image could be from Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa!

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fern balcony

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Far down Bourbon Street I noticed a building that looked much different from the others in terms of age and history. Sure enough, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was built in the 1770s — and is one of the oldest bars in the country. It looked like the Hobbit lived there! 

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Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar in New Orleans

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar — tell me a hobbit didn’t once live there!

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blacksmith bar sign

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blacksmith hearth

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Inside you could sense the old blacksmith doing his work at the brick hearth. I would have easily sat and enjoyed the ambiance and a beverage or two. But our time was winding down. Mtuseni could see how smitten — and a little bummed out  — I was, so he convinced me to get a frozen purple voodoo cocktail to go. It was so cold. And so good. And so strong! Thank god we still had a little walking to do before we took off.

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purple drink

Damn, two sips of this voodoo cocktail and I look drunk. It was the heat, I swear! I tried to save the cup; it didn’t last the trip.

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We returned to the French Market and got some souvenirs. Mtuseni got a hat that said “laissez le bons temps rouler”— once I explained to him what it meant. We did have good times — great times — in New Orleans, and were sad to leave. Mtuseni says we really celebrated his birthday there, since Montgomery was such a bust.

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french mkt

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We took one last look around the city from the rooftop where the car was parked, then headed down Canal Street and onto the highway. Next stop… Memphis.

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I loved this photo from the Jazz Museum. It seems to capture the energetic, laid back, fun vibe of New Orleans.