“How many roads must A man walk down,
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail,
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
(Earlier) In New Orleans:
The first international step was in July of 2013. I was in university, a young, unbroken 21 year old with starry eyes at the land of opportunity. A brand new travellers backpack, a freshly minted passport, copies of every document I would and wouldn’t need, capped with a healthy dose of wistful anticipation as to the grandiose adventure I was embarking upon. The fuel that cinema had given me made fear a second option. When the tyres hit the tarmac on that midsummer texan afternoon, the sobering reality set in.
The very first city was Austin, Texas. An invariable collection of beautiful freaks of nature, living outside the realms of expectation. I was there for a convention initially, an invariable who’s who of film lovers I had taken a liking to over the years of listening to wiser minds discuss the mechanics of American filmmaking. A better welcoming party could not be imagined. Within 48 hours I had lost multiple cards, wandered into the parts of town I later found out were blacklisted by locals as the places ‘Ye do not enter’, got piss drunk on 6th street and stumbled into a tattoo shop with no care for thinning blood. Hard lessons were learned from the start, the bed looked like Carrie’s prom dress.
My wandering ways had already gotten off to an improvised start. My passport had been stamped, my body had been stamped, and I had no clue, rhyme or reason on how to fill my time from Austin on the eve of the 4th of July to the college I was heading towards in Indianapolis a month later. I still had to somehow make it to the Canadian border to change my visa at one point. A noble challenge to say the least, after all, there was no experience that I could call toward. Bear in mind, I was fresh faced, immature, drunk on celluloid, freshly tattoo’d with no real notion of after-care. Of course I was going to go to the cities I had imagined to be grander than they appear. A cinematic journey was afoot and there was no stopping a headstrong fool from pursuing his own American Dream.
I went to New Orleans for a time, wandered the streets in a stupor, searching for the Jazz bars I’d often seen in black and white. I had left Austin on a whim, one of the final nights there involved a pool party and midnight wander through questionable streets. Somewhere along the walk I had the thought of New Orleans being the next step, for whatever reason. From arriving, it was a different space entirely. The cultural shock had worn off from my first foray in international travel, the mind was catching up.
I anticipated—Hell, I don’t know what I was anticipating, I was expecting the streets to be lined with Jazz and 1920’s lifestyles, I was sadly correct in some respects. The city was its own animal in the fifty states. There was white stone and beignets in the tourist hotspots, gradually becoming more overgrown by nature the further out you paddled. The summer was at its peak, the people were beautiful, the food was amazing and the drinks were non-stop.
I remember sitting in a cafe on a tropically heated morning. I was jotting down the places I wanted to see in the city in what was to be the first of many journals. It was a sight to behold, a tourist trap wrapped conveniently in a person. I was finishing up my Eggs Cochon which was plastered on the walls as the Louisiana special. An older southern gent sitting next to me struck up a conversation as he sipped his morning cocktail and finished his newspaper. Wispy white hair was poking out of his fedora, a slightly crooked nose suggested a life of fighting or walking into walls. His white, reflective suit had become quite ordinary when contrasted with the locals and tourists inter-mixed on the cobbled roads. He sat alone with a lazy loose smile that only a julep could provide. All that was missing was a wooden hand fan and a cigar, but that would be overkill, even in New Orleans.
He was completely and utterly unbeknownst that he would be the first to dole out some road-worthy advice. We talked briefly about the city and what had brought us there. Why a “Young Fella” like myself was at a dive cafe on a Sunday morning. He was out of Kentucky, doing a little travelling in the summer as he often did, the caricature of southern drawls. “I’ve been to many places, N’awlins is my delight.” Sip.
“I’ve been coming here to watch the street performers for years.” Sip.
“You won’t find a better bluesman than on the corner here.”
His story was timed to the movement in his hand.
“I’ve been around a long time, a lot of places, oh boy and many women too.”
He ordered another round for himself and bought an extra one for me. Bloody Mary with a pickled egg. I have to admit, it was horrid, then again I had many more tastebuds back then. I’ve grown accustomed to bitterness.
The only time his gait was broken was when I mentioned my lack of experience on the road. It shook him from his position, excited to be doling out advice to someone who was willing to listen. He leaned slightly in, the sun was hitting his white suit at just the right angle to make my eyes recoil in reflective horror— to him I was simply focussed.
“You go down Bourbon Street, and some friendly looking mug might comment on your shoes.”
I do believe I naively chuckled, “My shoes—”.
“Yes! Your shoes.” Sip.
“They’ll act all friendly, they think they’re your friend sonny. They’ll ask about your shoes. Just say no, it’s a trick y’see, they can charge you money if you engage. It’s their scam, their trick.” Sip
“Y’see sonny, it counts in some Louisiana law, you call the boys in blue they’ll always back the locals.”
I was still a little amiss, but open to hearing such a specific lesson so early on. I was still learning how to be outside my own state lines. I never caught his name, but I never did forget him. I’ll call him the Colonel. I like to imagine he’s still sitting on that imprinted chair with a cocktail and doling out advice between rounds.
Later that evening I found myself drinking with a few tourists at a seedy side bar off Bourbon Street. The infamously secretive grenades were working their rumoured magic and I was an ether soaked reflection of my own Mr Hyde. The Grenade was a liquid delicacy in the southern belt. Likely a scam in itself but goddamn did they pack a hell of a punch. The recipe is unknown and kept under secrecy amongst the bars that served them. The colourful glasses are a ruse, they’re not for the faint.
We headed back out to the ever growing evening crowd. Eventually as the various establishments along the street overflowed—the street itself became another bar. Open bottles, long fruit filled drinks and frosted beers spilled and splashed across the crowded flowing waterlines. The dusty road kicked up by drunk shoes and beads. I turned away for a moment and found myself alone once again. I was enamoured by the spectacle of it all, street performers were every which way, it was an alcoholic circus with the animals replaced with us, the real animals.
I cannot deny that I had lost my ways once again, the fresh tattoo was beginning to itch with the dripping tropical heat. I had begun following the sounds from one bar to the next, on the hunt for any place that wasn’t injected with seven ounces of ibogaine. I was clacking glasses with random revellers and taking heroic sips with every new beat I was dancing to. Wait a minute, how did I get another drink…Where was I. I can see Channing Tatum’s name sprawled across one of the bars, hell had I lost my mind.. No, no, calm down, find an alleyway, settle off.
I stood next to an alleyway leading nowhere and watched the cavalcade walk by. I noticed a few older looking gents waltzing through, they stood out as locals, they had the walk and talk. Late 30’s, likely older— looking across you saw less and less hair as the shirts got looser. Their attire suggested it wasn’t the first day wearing them. Torn tropical clothes with lazily unbuttoned shirts showcasing different shades of tanned skin and jewellery. Their smiles were on display, the full tooth grins, full of cheese and thinly veiled trust— you’d be forgiven for thinking they were about to sell you a fine used car with three wheels. They danced through the crowd with ease, somehow knowing the exact rhythm of the street. They were stalking their prey, scanning the eye-lines, looking for a victim.
For some unknown reason their eyes found mine. Likely because I was yet to discover the rule of travelling, adapt or die, blend in and watch from the inside. It was too late for that, the big kahuna approached me, his partners waltzing behind him. As he got closer I could see the gold lining in his false teeth, his hair was the longest and he had a voice dripped in ash and blues.
“Hey, Nice shoes man!” His eyes were down there for a split moment before meeting mine again, “Can I guess where you got em?!”
I couldn’t help but let out a laugh, imagining the old man saying it one more time with his minty smile and gin soaked breath. This sounds all too contrived but I assure you life is stranger than fiction. Hoping my laughter would be chummed up to drunken shenanigans I shook my head in a confusing and exaggerated wobble and tapped on my pockets with a shrug of my shoulders simultaneously. I was aiming for the pantomime of ‘Sorry boys, the mines tapped out’. It ended up being more akin to ‘Who the fuck are you. Where am I’, a genuine confusion coated in overconfidence and pure ethanol. They didn’t bother trying for the hard sell and moved on to the next rube. The pickings are never slim on Bourbon Street. I had to thank the Colonel the next time I saw him.
I squinted across the parade and saw a painted wooden sign with the sprawling “Grenades Here”. I looked at the empty glass I was still clutching from a bar I didn’t visit, maybe it was time to find that jazz bar the Colonel mentioned.
I woke up back in the room with an empty grenade glass, a few sets of beads and my laptop open, it seemed I had been on a podcast. Not exactly the one night stand I was expecting. I wandered to the toilet to find I had tried to wash my clothes by soaking them in a bathtub with soap. I looked at myself in the mirror for a while, contemplating the possible pattern that led to this conclusion.
I never saw as much as I wanted to in the capital of Jazz. All the more reason to head back out there I suppose. I could continue to blame my naivety and youth as the reasons why I was so reserved and averse to exploring further out. I’ve seen people younger than I was going for bolder choices, I was a late bloomer in that respect. Luckily this infantile stage was not going to last for long.
There is no right way to travel, there are many wrong ways. I learned some valuable lessons early enough—notably the value of relinquishing control.
I was on the pier one anonymous morning. It was quiet enough to be a Sunday. I still had some time before I’d have to change my visa, a process that would lead me to be detained on the border for a brief period, but that’s another story. I had no plans or earthly idea on where was to be next. The ocean was calm and the crowds were not as dense this close to the water. I sat there for a while, the mid-afternoon breeze was kind. There wasn’t a time where the breeze didn’t have a distinct smell about it. I began to ponder, New Orleans is a place I would have to come back to when I had grown a mite more. I had to try somewhere different, somewhere with a beach, somewhere with little memory. For some reason, I thought of Miami. Without much of a second thought, or a first thought, I headed back, packed my bags and booked the next bus to Miami. I was gone by sundown.
If I was to make a beast out of this journey, to make my celluloid ancestors proud, I needed to go hell for leather and ride the wind until I found what I was looking for— whatever that was. There’s a distinction between the traveller and the tourist that took me longer to learn than I care to admit. The first lesson is usually the most vague and encompassing. Pre-conceived notions are a dangerous foundation to build on, listening to the gut, surrendering to the void, finding an answer in the wind is not the finest way to live, but it’s honest.
Those few days in Louisiana did enough to shake up the blueprint of how I’d approach a new place, already I could find myself growing into the walking shoes. Looking back now, after a few more years and scars—I imagine the stories that would’ve come from a more seasoned traveller. Alas, I needed to crawl before I could walk, the only way to find the edge of a thing is by walking off it. The training wheels were coming off.
As I staggered onto the bus to Miami I could already feel that innate sense of fire of what was to come. Call it foresight, call it hindsight—either way, the next week in Miami was where I learned a more valuable lesson that I am still yet to live out seven years later— If you See Her, Say Hello.