Postcards from New Orleans

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Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans

In between lots of tea and one more Urgent Care stop (and Henna’s cold is just now really starting to clear up), we had ourselves a good time in the Big Easy. To us the city is equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean, Europe, and the American South. It is also rickety trolley cars well past their prime, Spanish moss hanging from the Cyprus trees, and hipsters congregating in the Lower Garden. It will not take a Voodoo spell to bring us back here.

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We were lucky to have met photographer David G. Spielman whose photos in the immediate aftermath of Katrina chronicle a very desperate time in New Orleans

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Located just outside the French Quarter in one of the oldest African American communities is Louis Armstrong Park (formerly Congo Park). Into the mid 19th Century slaves met her every Sunday to trade goods, stories, and express themselves in music and dance.

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La Bamba: Champaign, Il

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Burrito as big as Henna’s head

After a wonderful Christmas down south in Hegewisch, we are headed further south to the Big Easy. Henna does have a bad cold but the kind folks at Effingham’s Urgent Care assured us she probably will start feeling better soon. So with a menorah in the back seat and candles to burn, we are ready to begin a new adventure. First stop off the interstate was La Bamba.

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Ramiro Aguas, co-founder of La Bamba

Always open well after last call and featuring “burritos as big as your head,” La Bamba has been a fixture in Champaign since 1987. Begun by two brothers, Ramiro and Antonio Aguas, La Bamba now has eight locations spread out over four states. Amazingly, the restaurants do not use freezers or fryers which results in a very fresh product. Henna and Corey are big fans of their veggie burritos. I like their tortas. The burritos, by the way, are available in several sizes including one that is definitely bigger than even my head.

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The winter sky over the flat Illinois farm land

The days are a lot shorter in winter and hotels frown upon starting camp fires so we end up watching a bit more television than we do in the summer (which, if you ask me, involves way too much Food Network; I mean come on, how many times can anyone watch a future groom and bride fight over their wedding cake. And honestly, if you cannot compromise over a cake I’m not sure you should even get married). We also order a lot more pizza. Tonight’s pizzeria  told me that they were running low on dough so they were only making medium size pizza which would then be  delivered to us in about two hours. Our options were a bit limited so we added a salad and it was all delivered ninety minutes later without napkins or forks. The pizza, although cold, was actually pretty good. And when the ladies were not looking I switched the channel to watch some football.

 

City Museum (St. Louis)

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There I was, gravity pushing me head down into a five foot drop that ended with a concrete slab, and I could not for the life of me swing my legs around to cushion the fall. Maybe a dozen kids were stopped up behind me in the tunnel as I tried and tried and to fit my feet under my chin. And just when I was about to yell for help I was able to just barely free my feet and then jump harmlessly to the ground. Henna followed me down (she of course had no problem whatsoever navigating her way within what is essentially a giant Slinky toy) then we climbed a few steps into a stripped down airplane. While a bunch of little children pretended to fly the Junker, I looked out the window at the greater St. Louis skyline. We did not allow ourselves to become too complacent, as there was still a giant slide between us and firm ground.

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The place is not for everyone. I do not, for example, recommend that my mom venture anywhere near the museum (because she just might faint if she saw her eldest son and granddaughter stuck several stories high). And to be honest, it is not exactly the safest place around as we witnessed several people hitting their head on concrete overhangs (a wallet also fell a few feet from Corey who was minding her own business on the ground floor). But if you are not squeamish around heights (or sliding your way in and out of incredibly intricate man-made caves that extend upwards for close to a dozen stories), then you really need to check this place out.

The City Museum is the brainchild of artist Bob Cassilly and his ex-wife Gail Cassilly who purchased a vacant former shoe factory in order to sink an artistic anchor into a dying industrial part of town. Bob was relentless in this pursuit and over time he created a living, breathing art piece that doubled as a playground (the area benefitted nicely too as there now exist several condos and boutiques where once there were only abandoned buildings). Using as much discarded materials as possible as well as the remaining guts of the factory, Bob cluttered floor after floor after floor with giant turning devices, slides that only hint at where you might end up, and climbing apparatuses that allow children to coast along the ceiling and then into different floors. He also designed an amazing labyrinth of caves which both rise vertically as well as outward so that one can either ascend ten stories up or go a few yards to the side. A master of concrete, he filled these caverns with perfectly realized sculptures of animals, and mermaids, and whatever the heck else he thought would complete a subterranean dream. Outside the museum are several slides and rising tunnels that lead to things such as the aforementioned airplane. The City Museum also offers circus classes, an aquarium, an arts and crafts center, and a pretty nifty collection of recovered gargoyles and other things people threw away when knocking down classic buildings. And on the roof are a Ferris wheel and other goodies (which unfortunately for us did not open until mid May).

Speaking of closing, the place is closed on Sundays, but is open most weekends until midnight. Midnight! They even have a couple of bars, serve decent and not too expensive food, and offer gated parking across the street ($5 the day we were there). Sadly Bob died a few years ago while working on another project in an abandoned concrete factory north of town. But as long as his museum lives so does a part of him. Noel

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Along the Mississippi: Perot State Park, WI

I have to thank my friend Louie for this one.  We were looking for a place to peep fall leaves and he suggested this State Park.  Does not matter the state, the Mississippi river side is almost always one of bluffs, hills, and tall vantage points.  In the Midwest this brings welcome change from the flat countryside although the un-glaciated or “driftless” regions of Wisconsin also have elevation respite (the glaciers moved laterally through much of the Midwest and flattened the landscape my beloved Southern Illinois and large swaths of Wisconsin escaped this treatment). 

Perot State Park is a little north of La Crosse near the town of Trempealeau.  We saw little of Trempealeau and were pretty disappointed with what we saw of La Crosse.  The Great River State Trail (an old train track converted to a bike trail) passes through this area and maybe some day we will get a chance to ride on it.  Louie said he liked it.  He also said he once saw a bear on a different bike trail an hour or two north of that one  (I’m assuming not on a bike).  Perot State Park has a great campground and many trails leading to views of the Mississippi and its valley.

We have seen much of the Mississippi, but in an altogether disjointed and segmented way (kind of like the movie Pulp Fiction).  I do not want to ruin the ending for anyone but (spoiler alert) its endpoint is New Orleans and Corey I saw it spill into the Gulf prior to getting married.  A few years later we were newlyweds and saw its beginning in Lake Bemidji.  We have also crossed it many times, usually by bridge but also by ferry both large and small (the small was a little barge that could not take more than two or three cars from St. Genevieve, MO to a corn field outside of Chester, IL.)  And it was just a couple of weeks ago we caught up with our old friend at is midway point in Cape Girardeau.  The old lady was looking good, her waves gently lapping onto the bank just east of the city sea wall.  There have been other meetings of course, some of them mentioned in earlier posts.  Don’t be too surprised if you hear us mention this friend again because each time we go over the mighty waterway we feel the pull of her power and a hint of her history.

Great Midwestern River Cities: Dubuque, Iowa

If this blog entry is ever adapted as a movie I see the town of Galena cast by somebody pretty and popular.  Maybe it would be Scarlett Johansson as the cheerleader and girlfriend to the star quarterback.  And Galena’s sister city, Dubuque, IA?  That role would have to go to the gritty and talented Lucinda Williams who would play the quarterback’s best friend with the secret crush.  The audience would cheer on Lucinda, but in real life (not reel life), the quarterback stays with the cheerleader. 

So it goes with Galena, a town of a few thousand resident and a few more thousand tourists.  And I can see why; 85% of the city is considered a National Historic Landmark.  It also was the former home of President Grant and at one time was a crucial stop on the Mississippi River between the two Midwestern saints (Louis and Paul). 

Dubuque has over 50,000 residents and a lot of seniors frequenting the casino.  They also have a world-class Mississippi River Museum that spans two buildings.  One building, our favorite, was low-key and showed off various fish and amphibians native to the river.  The other building felt a little ecologically preachy to be interesting (although for us it was preaching to the choir).  Dubuque does have National Historic Landmarks and accessible history, but unlike Galena you have to work a bit to get to it.  The downtown area was full of interesting sculptures, pristine, and completely devoid of people after 9. 

So, Spielberg, Tarantino, M Knight Shyamalan, what do you think? Give me a call and we can talk numbers.

River Towns of the Midwest: Cape Girardeau, MO

Crossing over the Mississippi into Cape Girardeau we smiled at the big sign greeting us; “Cape Girardeau, hometown of the big mouth idiot Rush Limbaugh.”  Actually I just made that up.  There was no sign that I could see, but the visitor’s guide did indicate that one could take a self-guided trip past the hospital he was born in as well as other markers to that dopey bigot.

For the same reason why I wanted to fall in love with Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, MO, I wanted to find serious fault with Cape Girardeau.  Ironically, it was Hannibal that felt worn out and offered to us only the most narrow of glimpses into its past.  Cape Girardeau, in contrast, had a friendly and comfortable feel.  Like many river towns, it was built on steep bluffs and seemed to rise up over itself with an elevated courthouse standing guard over the city.  The historic waterfront possessed a good number of 19th century buildings and just enough bars to remind everyone that Cape Girardeau is the home of Southeastern Missouri State University.  And lest you forget that Cape Girardeau is a river town, the waterfront is protected by a sturdy floodwall that tells, through colorful murals, of the interplay between river and town over the last three hundred years.

 

Northeast Iowa

When I am not road tripping I am planning future road trips.  And when I am not doing that, I like to reminisce a little about past road trips.  Over the next month or two I plan on focusing on places a day or two away from my hometown of Chicago.  First up, Iowa.

Methinks Iowa gets a bad rap.  People think of Iowa as flat, boring, and full of corn.  Yes on the last one but no on the first two.  And the north-east corner of Iowa is absolutely stunning.  There is Pikes Peak State Park (discovered by the same Pike who named Pikes Peak in Colorado), the Effigy Mounds, and a beautiful, rolling river drive that takes you past stunning views of the river, deep valleys where hawks and bald eagles soar, and some pretty lousy, but picturesque wineries.  The one winery we went to was actually in the kitchen/ dining area of a small ranch house and was run by its two elder owners.  The old man was shirtless when we rang the bell, but put a shirt on for the tastings.  You have to expect a certain touch of class at these things.  Pikes Peak State Park has a few short trails and several dramatic overlooks.  Effigy Mounds covers a very large area where one can hike past dozens of mounds in the shape of bears, eagles, and other animals.  A lot of mystery here in that no one knows exactly what the mounds were used for, but they did often house the dead.  To get there drive to Madison, WI and then take 18 east.  It took us about 6 hours.  We also got the last available campsite, so you might want to plan ahead.  Closest town is McGreggor which I think was the birth place of John Wayne. 

After taking in the mounds and the views, it is an easy drive south to Dubuque which is across the river from Galena.  Galena is a much more happening town, but Dubuque has a cool aquarium focusing on the river, a casino (did not enter but I am sure it is nice), and a very clean, built up downtown that was curiously empty when we were there.  Galena is a short drive away and offers a very historic, shop and resteraunt filled town.  I believe that most of the city is a historic landmark and one can really get lost in the beautifully restored blocks that sometimes seem to climb straight up into the hills.  The drive west on 20 is also very pretty and offers a scenic alternative close to Galena that is worth the drive.