I'd just finished an awesome breakfast at the Bywater Bakery, and on my way out I ran into Nalin who was waiting for a friend. Originally from San Francisco, he'd moved to New Orleans a few years ago and absolutely loved his city. A recurring theme that I noticed while in NOLA was that while the residents seemed to love both their city and community, they didn't have much faith in their public servants, who Nalin told me were 'corrupt as hell'. We joked about the quality of roads, which were probably the worst I'd ever seen in my travels, life as a recovering alcoholic in New Orleans and the current state of politics in the country. "On a day to day level, I don't really see the racism, either I'm just so used to it I don't notice, but most people are just trying to make it through each day." Nalin is a good dude, and someone whom you can't help but think is making the world just a little better place after meeting him.
Often times the bike you ride becomes an extension and expression of who you are, what you're about and what matters to you. This is pop's bike.
Heading out of the Jazz Fest, I came across a cool old biker named 'Pops' who was setting up for a crawfish boil as well as his friend, who introduced herself to me as 'Cougar'. We talked bikes, crazy rides we'd experienced and great roads to roll through. They invited me to come back for the boil later on, but I'd already gotten tickets for a show later that night and being a vegetarian it was a bit of a hard sell. Cougar had been riding for over 20 years, and some day I hope her and I run into each other on some ashphalt somewhere. I bet she's a hoot to hang out with.
When I pulled into my Air BnB, I noticed a band setting up and since I'm a curious cat, I asked the coolest looking dude standing outside what was going down inside. The dude gave me one of the most hilarious and excellent sales pitches about the funk I was about to experience, that I couldn't not check it out.
The next day I ran into the same cat in the Gospel Tent, and we talked about the show the night before and how much we loved this style of music. We talked about some other bands on the line-up that day, and I told him about this band called Hiss Golden Messenger that I'd started really getting into, so much so that I stopped my bike to play their song 'Heart Like a Levee' on my headphones while I rode through the bayou.
Turns out I was talking to the guitar player for this band, Phil Cook. Nice guy, his latest solo album rocks and remember that you read it here first that Hiss Golden Messenger are one of the best bands you can catch live going right now. Seriously, just look them up and give them a listen and know that their records do not do their live show justice.
I hope I can run into Phil again, buy him a beer and talk music with him.
I'm not entirely convinced that I didn't just meet Bill Murray who was deep into a character study. Approached in the bathroom line by this legitimately odd cat looking for a smoke and a light, he apparently was painting his boat and decided to finish early and come to the Jazz Fest. "Do I have any blue paint on my face?" - I told him he only had a little bit but it made him look distinguished and then backed away slowly. In a different situation, I would have probably stuck around longer to see where things went and how entertaining they got.
One of my favourite songwriters, Isbell's music has stayed with me for the past fifteen years like few others have. His most recent album, 'The Nashville Sound' was a key part of the soundtrack to last year's summer, and my wife and I consider his tune "If We Were Vampires" to be our wedding song. Sober for the past few years, it seems his work is only getting stronger and more prolific, and I can't wait to hear what new music he has coming over the horizon. The show, weather and crowd were perfect, and when he finished his encore with the above mentioned track I got misty for the second time that day. "
"Maybe time running out is a gift
I'll work hard 'til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn't me who's left behind" - Jason Isbell
It would be difficult to explain the cultural history and significance of the Mardis Gras Indians in a short paragraph, other than to say that the backstory is both incredibly interesting and a creative cultural response to some of the darkest moments in American history. The culture, immortalized in the song 'Iko Iko' was almost completely devastated by Katrina, but as I looked at the vibrant costumes, I was struck by the resiliency of the city and it's people.
"See that guy all dressed in green I-ko, I-ko, un-day
He's not a man, he's a lov-in' ma-chine jock-a mo fee na-né" - Crawford/Hawkins
A retired teacher from Dallas, Texas, I had to speak to her because of the shirt she was wearing. We talked politics for a bit and she proposed marriage if I could get her into Canada where we are apparently much more sane. I assured her I was already married and not to idealize Canada too much as we're not perfect here either, but that on the balance things are pretty ok in Toronto at least. "I never thought I'd see us slide so far backwards so fast."
Wanting to avoid the oppressive heat, and because I always find that the best stuff at music festivals go down on the side stages, I walked into the Gospel Tent, and I got touched. Maybe I didn't find god the way that I was supposed to, but the music was certainly celestial, so good that I couldn't help but cry. Until you've seen a legit, real-deal gospel show (and I've seen enough to know the difference), you've got no idea how good and powerful the music is. The talent level was sublime, and I wasn't sure I was going to leave the tent for the rest of the festival. If this guy preached in my hometown, praise Jesus I'd go to church every week.
On my way into the Jazz Festival, I passed a police officer greeting concert goers with hugs and handshakes. I know it doesn't make everything right, but so long as you have hope, you've got a chance.
For those of you who know me, you know that I like music. A lot. Seems weird that halfway through this trip, the first show I'd catch would be spent mostly sitting on the stoop of my spot in New Orleans. Vaughn's is a tiny bar, and somehow they packed one of the deadliest 8 piece funk bands I've ever heard into that space and let them blow the roof off the mother. I was pretty beat from a long day of ridin', so I took advantage of New Orleans liberal open container laws and enjoyed the show sitting on the steps of the shotgun. Corey Henry & The Treme Funktet, damn those guys can play. What a first day, and introduction to New Orleans. This photo was taken the next morning on my way to the Jazzfest, but seemed fitting for this yarn.
Outside of the vintage store, Nicole was running a food pop up and cooking up a storm. I've had tamales plenty of times, but I've never had tamales as good as the ones that she made me that night. Originally from Pennsylvania, she seemed to embody everything that I would discover and love about New Orleans. It wasn't a hustle to get rich, to get famous or become the next big food thing for her, but instead, it was about living a life that she could be passionate about. She'd recently come out of a bad relationship, and her optimism about her cooking and life, in general, was infectious. I just hope that I get to eat some of her food again.
On my way to my room in New Orleans, I passed by a vintage store that somehow seemed to beckon. The fact I was starving and there was a food pop up going on outside also certainly didn't hurt. The shop, Independencest was run by Nathan, coincidentally also my name, and as he and I got to talking it felt like I'd met a southern (and Jewish) version of myself (or vice versa), as we had eerily similar interests in music, vintage guitars, denim and design. Trying to pare down the discussion we had about American culture into anything less than a thousand word article would be difficult, and he was one of the most interesting, thoughtful and passionate folks I met on the entire trip. With that being, he made a comment about New Orleans that I felt was very prescient. "We've got to work together here, Black, White, Hispanic because we know no one else is looking out for us so we've got to do it ourselves." I liked Nathan, I hope our paths cross again.
Finally made it to New Orleans, 3096.5 kms on the odometer since the start of the trip six days ago, and more than a few stories in between. "Where you've been is good and gone, all you keep is the getting there." - Townes Van Zandt
As I approached the city limits of New Orleans, I noticed a number of derelict but still operational casinos on highway 90. I love the iconography of the signage, and the way that once proud establishments still retain a degree of regality as they slowly fall into disrepair.
After leaving Slidell and on advice from Caelleigh, I took Highway 90 through the Bayou into New Orleans. She was right, that it would be a much more interesting ride and I was shocked by how few vehicles were on the road as the highway slithered its way into New Orleans it seemed as if nature was slowly enveloping the road. It was gorgeous.
For the entire trip, I'd been going into vintage and antique stores, hoping to find an old high-quality knife. A wrong turn had me pass this shop, and there was something about the signage that made me want to stop in. Turns out I visited one of largest knife stores in North America. Caelleigh was incredible, both with her help in finding me a knife that I've used every day since owning it, and also offering some great advice and routes in and around New Orleans. I was concerned, given the type of shop that when the conversation turned to politics that things might go sideways, and then she said "my husband is Mexican." You should never make assumptions.
As I knew that my seven-day streak of eating Mexican food in the states would come to a screeching halt in NOLA, I wanted to get one more enchilada into my system before rolling through the bayou. Of all the places I ate, El Paso Mexican Grill in Slidell, Louisiana was hands down the best spot I dined at. My server Josue got super excited when he saw my camera, and I learned that he was actually originally a photojournalist from Guatemala. One of his last assignments, he took some photos of the wrong people, and after barely getting out of that situation with his camera, memory card and life, he booked it to the United States. I hope that Josue and I get to cross paths again in the future.
On the boarder of Louisiana and Mississippi is the Stennis Space Center, I don't know what happens there, but I'm sure it involves space which I've been told is rather large. Since I figured that taking photos of a space station is a good way to find spontaneous group accommodation in a secure environment, I thought I'd take a photo of my bike instead. The United States amazes me, that amidst the grinding poverty, the discrimination, anger and bigotry, it is a country that is also capable of singular greatness. As frustrated as I am with the current administration, I refuse to turn my back on the land that produced Lincoln, Whitman, Dylan and Kweli. The music that pulled me through some rough times mostly came from the southern states, made by men and women who experienced far more suffering and hardship than my lilly white ass ever will, just as my other passions, pinball and motorcycles were produced in this great country as well. America doesn't need to be made great again, it already was great and I stand with Brother Ali, writing a letter to his countryman acknowledging his lands "beautiful ideals and terrible flaws."
After consulting my phone for the cheapest accommodation in Destin Florida, I pulled into the Motel 6 and met Kayla. She's been one year sober, and just regained custody of her kids. After a rough childhood and early adulthood in Indianapolis, her and her partner promised each other to leave the city, move to the beach and go straight. Most of her coworkers are immigrants, including her boss whom she credited for saving her life. "We're all just trying to get by each day."