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June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi) < Previous News  |  Next News >



Intolerance in a Tolerant City

After spending four days in Austin getting caught up with my website and visiting with Ace, Joan, Julie, and Lou, I said goodbye and left on a warm and humid morning.  After I got in my truck, though, I decided to drive into downtown Austin to visit this beautiful city.  I strolled around the downtown area for a half-hour, walking up Congress Avenue to the State Capitol building, and then got back to my truck just before my meter expired.  


One reason I like Austin is that, unlike the rest of Texas, it's a pretty easy-going place.  I've traveled through Texas and the South many times (see Previous Roadtrips), much more than the average Texan or southerner has traveled through the Northwest, Midwest or Northeast.  And while I usually have a good time visiting Texas and the South (due in no small part to the widely, but not universally, embraced concept of "Southern hospitality"), I definitely wouldn't move to either place because of the intolerant attitudes that I've encountered there during my numerous visits.  While I enjoy the South, how the concept of "Southern hospitality" can freely intermingle with the heightened levels of intolerance that are common in the South is a paradox that I've never figured out. 


Through my travels around America, I've noticed that friendliness is more polarized in the South and in Texas than anywhere else in the U.S.  While almost everyone in Oregon is fairly friendly, you don't meet a lot of people on either end of the "friendship spectrum," being either overly friendly or hostile.  On the other hand, while most people in the South are very warm and friendly (much more so than in Oregon), a small handful are also extremely obnoxious and intolerant (again, much more so than in Oregon).   Nevertheless, as much as I appreciate Southern hospitality, when it comes to religion, politics, or anything else, I've never liked people telling me what to think, what to read, and what to believe, which is one reason I enjoy living in the Northwest. 


During my previous visits to Austin, I had always thought of the city as an oasis of friendliness and open-mindedness in a general sea of parochialism.  Before I left, though, my attitude about Austin's tolerance took a big hit. 


Here's Austin's own Nanci Griffith singing about intolerance.  This is It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go.

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I stopped at a grocery store to buy some food on my way out of town and sat in my truck for a while with my window rolled down, writing up a list of things to buy.  As I made up my list, an old, clattering station wagon pulled into the space facing my truck.  The driver, a grizzled guy with a ponytail who was about 40, sat in his car and listened to the radio, which I thought was a bit odd but I continued working on my list.  A few minutes later, he started muttering some pretty nasty things about gays.  I wasn't sure if he was directing these comments towards me or to someone else, but I didn't acknowledge him because he was obviously unbalanced.  


I finished my list, went into the store and bought my groceries, then returned to my truck.  That's when I noticed a 2-foot long scratch in my door that someone had intentionally made with a key.  Yep, I'd been "keyed."  I knew who had done it and I angrily looked around for the station wagon, but it was gone.  The only thing I can figure is that this guy saw my very colorful Oregon license plates and assumed that I was gay (which I'm not, but not that there's anything wrong with that). 


I've frequently read about this kind of thing (or worse) happening, but it's different if it happens to you.  This was the first time that my beloved truck had ever been vandalized and I was really, really ticked off.  It's pretty scary to think that there are people with so much fear, arrogance and hatred running around -- although it's not too surprising when you look at the current Administration, which is also from Texas (hmmm, is there a pattern here?)   I waited for a while there in the hot, steamy parking lot, hoping that he'd return.  I finally gave up though and, still fuming, got into my truck and left.  Goodbye, Austin.



Above left:  Downtown Austin is a mixture of old and new, the South and the West.  It's also home to the University of Texas and has a great music scene.  And, of course, Austin City Limits is taped here (though, disappointingly, on the top floor of a tall building).

Above center:  The Texas State Capitol building, former home of George W. Bush.  He lives somewhere back east now...

Above right:  Downtown Austin.


Down on the Bayou

Still thinking about that scratch, I left Austin and headed east towards Houston, where I encountered some pretty nasty thunderstorms.  Houston traffic can be horrific even on a good day, and an intense thunderstorm at rush hour made the drive even more exciting.  I was planning to camp that evening near one of my favorite Texas cities, Galveston, but the clouds were even darker off in that direction, so after surviving Houston, I continued on Interstate 10 and drove into southern Louisiana, a land of endless swamps, marshes, and armadillo roadkill on the highway.


Here's Buckwheat Zydeco singing Allons a Boucherie.

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Other than the fascinating roadkill, one of the things I love about Louisiana is the music here.  Many of the radio stations in southern Louisiana play Cajun/zydeco music, which, with its fast-paced accordion, fiddle, and washboard, is unlike music in any other part of America.  Some of the radio stations here even have Cajun D.J.'s ("All Cajun, All the Time"), so unless you know French, you can't understand a word they're saying.  Even if you can't understand the D.J.'s or the advertisements, though, the infectious, toe-tapping zydeco music blaring out of your car speakers is a lot of fun to listen to.


That afternoon, I pulled into a place called Sam Houston Jones State Park, north of Lake Charles, Louisiana, where I discovered a beautiful, swampy bayou filled with turtles, egrets and probably some alligators if I looked long enough.  The almost-deafening cacophony of chirping crickets and bellowing bullfrogs cracked me up that evening as I cooked up a tasty dinner of brats and beans, and I almost couldn't stop laughing.  As I sat at my picnic table and ate dinner, I enjoyed watching a wall of lightning bugs dance around the Spanish moss, just like something out of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" but without the long lines.  Camping there on the bayou was a phenomenal experience, and I decided to put Sam Houston Jones on my list of 10 Favorite State Parks in America.  Yep, this definitely wasn't Oregon.



Above left:  I have a daily ritual of loading my cooler with one bag of ice, this time in Giddings, Texas.  

Above center:  Highway 290 east of Austin.

Above right:  I crossed paths with a thunderstorm in Houston and could barely see out the windshield, even with the wipers on "High."  Driving 60 miles-per-hour through Houston at rush hour in a construction zone during a heavy downpour and unable to see... it just doesn't get any better than this!  



Above left:  My campsite at Sam Houston Jones State Park in southern Louisiana. 

Above center:  Cooking brats (pronounced "brots," as in bratwurst) on the bayou.  It was about 95 degrees here and the air was so thick you could've cut it with my Swiss Army knife... just a wee bit different from Oregon.  The South is a great place -- if you like to sweat.

Above right:  While eating breakfast the next morning at my campsite, I watched this egret looking for his breakfast.  This is a backwater of the sluggish Calcasieu ("CAL-ka-shoe") River.



Above left:  A sweltering bayou, a cooler full of ice, and thou.

Above center:  Replacing my headlights...

Above right:  ...and giving my truck a bath.  This is in Lake Charles, Louisiana.


Bon Temps in Soggy Louziana

I got doused by one torrential downpour after another as I drove across Louisiana the next day, and I had to pull off the highway several times to seek higher ground and let the floodwaters recede so my Toyota wouldn't float away.  People make jokes about how flat the Midwest is, but I think Louisiana is probably the flattest state in the U.S.  However, it's also one of the most interesting, with all the bayous, bald cypress trees, incredible wildlife, and Spanish moss... not to mention those indecipherable Cajun DJ's.


I'd driven through Louisiana several times before, but I've usually taken the coastal route on my way to, or from, the Atlantic Coast.  Instead of doing the Atlantic coastal drive this time, I decided to head north and visit Appalachia, a place that I've never really seen.  I always try to take different routes whenever I drive anywhere, and Appalachia was one of the only places in the U.S. that I'd never really seen before (along with Oklahoma -- see Previous Roadtrips).


In terms of culture and atmosphere, Louisiana is about as far from Oregon as you can get in the U.S.  A lot of my friends out west or in the Midwest think it's a bizarre place and whenever I tell them about Louisiana, their facial expressions always say, "Why would you ever want to go there?"  Well no, I don't think I'd want to live in Louisiana, but with its unique culture, it's one of the most fascinating places in America.  


After a few hours, I left Louisiana, crossed the muddy Mississippi River, and drove into the stately old city of Natchez, Mississippi.  Because of cotton, the port city of Natchez became one of the richest towns in the U.S. in the early 1800s, but it fell on hard times after the Civil War thanks to soil erosion and a critter called the boll weevil.  However, visitors still come to Natchez from all parts of the country during "pilgrimages," when many of the spectacular antebellum (that's Latin for "Before Bellum") mansions are open for touring.  For some reason, most of the stately mansions here have elegant names usually referencing either women or trees, such as "Lady Victoria" or "Secret Oak," or my favorite, "Victoria's Secret."  The rest of the city really isn't that great.  In fact, it's pretty run-down and it's obvious that Natchez has seen better days.  However, the elegant mansions of Natchez have an alluring charm.


After poking around town for an hour, I hopped on the Natchez Trace Parkway and camped a few miles away at a free National Park Service campground.  I like campgrounds partly because they're cheap, and free campgrounds, I think, are definitely the best kind. 



Above left:  It poured a LOT in Louisiana.  Each time a deluge started, I just pulled off the highway and waited it out.  That was wiser, I decided, than driving through a river that was formerly the highway.  The torrential downpours in the South were pretty spectacular, very unlike our drizzly weather in the Northwest.

Above center:  Looking back into my truck's bed, waiting for another Louisiana thunderstorm to pass by.

Above right:  Street scene in steamy Alexandria, Louisiana.



Above left:  Here's the Mississippi River bridge (well, o.k., bridges) in Natchez, Mississippi.

Above center:  Natchez is a city of stark contrasts, with a dingy downtown area ringed by graceful antebellum mansions, including this one named "Rosalie."

Above right:  Entering the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway near Natchez.




Next News

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)



Previous News

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington) 


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Home > Travels (2001-02) > U.S. Trip > June 27, 2001