Bayou Savage – December 18, 2012
Dan and I walked through New Orleans and pulled the Looksha behind us like a two-man parade. Cars stopped to stare, people crossed the street, one man shouted “you’re going the wrong way!” and pointed back toward the Mississippi.
But he was wrong. This was the left turn, the one I’d joked about for thousands of miles when anyone asked me about navigating.
“How will I get lost?” I’d say. “Just go to the Gulf and turn left.”
Then I looked at a map and realized things are never that simple. The Mississippi doesn’t gracefully exit into the ocean. It doesn’t take a bow and disappear, it cuts far into the Gulf, hangs out like a dog’s tongue on a summer day. Turn left there and you’ll have a few hundred miles of open ocean.
But I wasn’t the first person to figure that out. There’s a set of streets in New Orleans that refuse to conform to the grid. They slice off block corners, cut away intersections, and cause havoc to drivers, but they were there first, so they have the right. They were there before the city even existed.
Jean-Baptiste Bienville needed a better way to turn left, just like I did, and the Native Americans showed it to him, a high ground portage between Bayou St. John on Lake Pontchartrain and a crescent bend along the Mississippi River.
Those crooked, curving streets gave birth to New Orleans and one last portage seems right somehow, seems honest.
We passed houses and giant mansions built along the high ground. We passed sinking streets and cracked pavement. We passed gas lanterns burning in the morning light. Then we reached Bayou St. John, lowered the boat into the water and said goodbye.
An hour later, I came to the levee built on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to protect the New Orleans’ northern flank. A giant gate hung barely open, cracked just wide enough for the Looksha to slip past and out, out into the wide open water of Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf, out beyond the left turn.