Sunday, August 26, 2007

Southbound - Post 2 - Plus Jessie Turns a Quarter-Century Old

Today is my 25th birthday, and I'm pretty busy up here in Maine going on kayak expeditions, navigating 6-foot swells in the motorboat, eating seafood and lying around luxuriously with two of my best friends, Georgia and Julia. So this post will be photo-heavy. I just wanted to get caught up on the second half of my trip down to New Orleans.

As I came across the interstate bridge into New Orleans, I noticed an abandoned theme park - an old Six Flags, it turns out - stark against the sky.

From there I drove straight to Meredith's school to meet her, and spent some time there over the next couple days helping out in the classroom. I even got assigned the making of the "Reading Marathon" bulletin board. Here are some shots from around the school.

And this is the outside of the school they'll eventually be moving into, with the Superdome in the background.

The foliage in New Orleans has a peculiar kind of fruit hanging from the branches...

Here's my compassionate, intelligent, driven friend Meredith, in front of her house.

For better or worse, I don't have much else to show you from New Orleans - a handful of film shots, but I didn't take any shots in my driving around the lower 9th or the rest of the city. It felt obvious not to. We can talk about that later...

I headed back north on Saturday afternoon, and stopped for dinner at my favorite road restaurant.

On the trip back, I spent the night in Atlanta where my friend Fred, who's an excellent photographer and whom I've known since I was 14, lives with his sister Besha, her husband Ryan, and their little boy, Felix. We had a great night catching up, and played with Felix in the back yard in the morning before I left.

(For some reason when turned upside down, Felix felt it necessary to sing his ABC's. I don't know why he made this connection to being upside-down, but he did it every time.)

Next came one of my favorite parts of the whole trip: a Georgia flea market that kept me entertained for an hour and a half.

(Click on the picture below to fully appreciate the t-shirt on the left.)

Then it was back to North Carolina, where I spent several wonderful days with my family and with Matt, who flew down in time to see a break in the horrible drought. When the rain hit we'd just raced by car to the middle of a huge field near my farm, and ran around shrieking in the fat rain like little kids. We got completely drenched. It was one of the happiest moments I've had in years.

(No, he's not naked.)

And now here I am, on my 25th birthday with two of my favorite people in the world.

I am a wildly lucky person.

I am aware of this.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Southbound - Post 1

As I'm sitting here posting pictures and thinking about my 14-hour drive down to New Orleans, Meredith is calling the parents of her students, giving them bus schedules and routes and telling them that school starts on Wednesday. She keeps running into pronunciation issues - street names that should be pronounced one way but aren't. I could hear her having trouble getting one street name across to a parent: "Villere Street, do you know it? No? V-I-L-L-E-R-E? Hm..." I whisper to her, "Try saying 'VILL-ery," and sure enough the parent responded with perfect recognition. Apparently around here, you never know.

I hit the road at 8am Tuesday a little bleary-eyed, but happy and prepared.

I stopped just across the state line in Georgia for lunch. I know I'm not the most credible reporter on temperature, but trust me - it is hot.

I bought some peaches from a guy off the interstate who asked if he could play me a song.

And considered having a bite to eat at Dad's Restaurant ("Don't croak without Jesus!")...

But wasn't quite hungry enough for such a big meal.

After that, I just pulled over once in a while to take pictures. These are all quick digital shots, but I've been shooting lots along the way with the Holga and the Mamiya TLR.

(As I was taking those last shots, a man in a pick-up truck eased up to the side of the road, rolled down his window, and said something completely unintelligible. I said, "What?" and he said, "Ah said, whhut's thayut fo-er?" I said, "Just traveling through, taking some pictures," and proceeded to tell him my basic route. He seemed okay with this, but not before backing up his truck, taking a long, hard look at my license plate, and another long look at me.)

Around 7pm I pulled into Montgomery, Alabama, and decided to call it quits for the night. I checked into a Ramada Inn and spent a few minutes on the feeble wireless checking work emails, then headed downtown to look for dinner.

Downtown is charming enough - but completely empty after business hours. I drove around until about 8:30 trying to find a restaurant, but there were only lunch spots as far as I could tell. Suddenly I was almost out of gas, and starving, and no closer to finding anywhere to eat. Defeated, I started to ride the fumes back to the interstate when I passed a house with a little sign out front that said, "Martha's Place." I parked and ran up to the porch - damn, just open for lunch.

I started to trudge away when a middle-aged man pushed through the screen door and asked if I needed anything; I apologized and said I was just looking for somewhere to eat, and had hoped they were open, but since they weren't, did he know where I could find a gas station? He started to give me directions someplace, but then stopped himself. "Well - what do you want?"

"What do you mean?"

"For dinner! I mean, do you like fried chicken?"

"Oh - that's okay, I'll just get something near my hotel, there's lots of fast food--"

"Naw, girl, we got fried chicken, lima beans... you like scalloped potatoes?" He proceeded to drag me inside and then disappeared into the kitchen, while I read articles on the wall about Martha, whose namesake the restaurant was; she was a welfare mom with 3 kids by the time she was 21, who "turned her life around" by opening this little place. A few minutes later my new friend "Hawk" (whose real name is Edward Hawkins) came out with a heavy plate of food, include cake and a huge glass of iced tea. He offered to set up a table for me, but I declined, not wanting him to go any further out of his way; they had been closed for over 5 hours, after all. But by the time I got back to my hotel room Hawk had single-handedly warmed my heart, and therefore Montgomery had found a place in it.

(I suppose I should point out, too, that he would take no payment for the meal. I was to be well-fed and that was that.)

Here's my new friend, and a very road-weary me:

And a feast fit for kings:

The next day, I still had a fair amount of road to cover, but I took back-roads whenever I could. The bridges on the interstate, however, over swamp and marshland, were a lot of fun.

Stopped for lunch in Mobile, which is 1,000 times more alive than Montgomery (Martha's Place aside). There was a huge restaurant on the corner of the main drag called Cafe Royal, but I chose a nearby dive instead, called The Royal Scam. Seemed fitting.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, I found that I was the only idiot trying to enjoy the out-of-doors, wading knee-deep in water that would be uncomfortably warm even for a bath. I walked way out on the concrete break-water anyway, marveling at the heat.

Gulfport was the first place where I started noticing huge storm damage. Signs bent to the ground, house-less foundations, skeletal piers.

And an hour or so later, rolling into New Orleans bound for the school where Meredith is about to start teaching 9, 10, and 11 year-olds how better communicate and analyze their lives through reading and writing, my chest felt tight; the closest I'd come to this scene was during the image-rich days of Hurricane Katrina, and the aftermath which I'd followed from my distant watch.

There's something profound about spending what seem like endless hours alone with yourself in a confined space with nowhere else to go except straight on ahead. If you're lucky... you get reminded that it's about so much more than you.