It was cold outside, the normal bone-chilling “wet cold” of South Louisiana in January. It had been a while since I last visited in the Winter. I'd forgotten what winter felt like there. "At last, I'm home," I remember thinking as we headed toward Baton Rouge.
It didn’t take long for the rain to start. It’s almost like she knew I was coming and waited for me to arrive. It'd be a devilish trick if I didn't love Louisiana downpours. The rain fell the entire way from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, all along the stretch of flat swampland that connects the two cities. We drove slowly and methodically, even though we knew the drive like the back of our hand.
I could barely make out the cypress trees, palmettos and moss in between the sheets of rain. Those sights always excite me, even now as I write this. I could hear him ask aloud, “why would anyone want to live here?” “Why would they not,” I mumbled.
The truth is I miss it terribly. Traveling “home” now is simultaneously heartbreaking and soothing. I need to smell this earth, to hear the sounds of Louisiana marshes at dusk and to smell the fresh green smell of earth after a summer rain. Like a mother, this land nurtures and feeds my spirit. It hurts to feel like a stranger here, but each time I go back I feel more and more foreign.
On a recent trip home, I decided to make the best of it, to try and see this familiar place through the eyes of a traveler. These are my accounts.
I'll always get a funny tingly feeling when I see the Dalyrmple Drive exit on I-10. Driving onto the Louisiana State University campus for my first day of grad school in late August 2005 will forever be etched in my mind, along with the days and weeks that followed. Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, but the storm changed lives all throughout South Louisiana.
As a young Social Worker, the sights and sounds of displaced persons on my new campus was heartbreaking. I’ll remember those moments forever, but the memories flood fast when I see certain places in Baton Rouge. The P-Mac, the LSU basketball arena, is one. The Mississippi River bridge is another. Displaced men, women and children were medically evaluated in one and bused over another, headed to places they didn’t choose to go and may still remain.
For me, Baton Rouge will always be part of who I am. I lived and worked here for 6 years after Katrina. They were good years. I learned a lot about life, growth and myself in that short time. I remember feeling lost and excited when I arrived on campus for grad school, fresh from the farm. My, how things have changed for me since then. My life has moved in a different direction, taking me far from home and far beyond my wildest expectations. But, for now, I am home.
Step Back in Time
It's morning, so a good strong cup of coffee is required. There is only one option for me, call me nontraditional. While many locals swear by Community Coffee and their CC's Coffee Houses, I break tradition and head straight for PJ's Coffee House, a New Orleans transplant in Downtown Baton Rouge. Only the super sweet dark chocolate mocha will do. And maybe a pastry...
With fuel in my tank, I set off on foot, off to explore the nearby Old State Capital. Seeing the interactive fountains alongside the Shaw Center for the Arts reminds me of hot summer days and kids trying to stay cool by playing in the jet streams. I meet a black iron fence and know I've found my destination. I find myself staring up at the historic Gothic structure, mouth agape. Many Louisiana school children, myself included, call it “The Castle”, and you can instantly see why. The stark white structure is surrounded by iconic wrought-iron fencing, hearkening back to Spanish colonial Louisiana.
I spend some time exploring the museum and grounds. Looking down the hill toward the Mississippi River I feel a little like Scarlett O’Hara, swaying in hooped skirts. Imagine the courts of Louisiana royalty held here. The expansive rooms and manicured grounds remind me of Chicago’s Gilded Age mansions, complete with gorgeous stained glass features and ornate staircases. I can almost see myself gliding down those elegant stairs and into the arms of a beau, provided that he looks like Rhett Butler.
Back outside I notice the USS Kidd in the distance. I smile, fondly remembering my visit with my young nephews who thoroughly enjoy exploring every nook and cranny of the retired WWII ship and Veteran's Museum. Seeing the sleeping quarters on the "Pirate of the Pacific" was pretty cool for the boys, but tough for me. I could never live in such close quarters. "What a fun day that was," I think to myself.
History Made Here
A short drive away is my old home in Spanish Town, a quaint and quirky historic district adjacent to the "new" State Capitol building and grounds. It's quiet today, but, man, you should see it during parade season. People come from all over South Louisiana for the risque and sometimes raunchy Spanish Town Parade. It's one of Baton Rouge's many Mardi Gras parades, but it's by far the best and most well-known. The Pink Flamingo themed parade is Baton Rouge's most outlandish and fun event of the year. I definitely miss my parade-route apartment and the fun times had there.
Across the street is the crown jewel of Louisiana architecture, the State Capitol Building. While walking the grounds of State Capitol Park you get a sense of the visions of grandeur that Huey P Long had for the state of Louisiana. Imagine an empty space where perfectly manicured gardens now lay. It's easy if you’ve seen how rural Louisiana can be.
As governor, Mr. Long commissioned multiple projects, including the towering State Capitol building. Standing at 450 feet tall, the remarkable structure later became the place where he would meet his fate, shot dead by an assassin. Lovely gardens now surround his tomb, a marble reminder of the tempestuous world of South Louisiana politics.
Stepping onto the giant steps of the Capitol and into the marvelous Art Deco foyer conjures feelings of growth and expansion that must have intoxicated Long and his staff. I head up to the observation deck to take in the view of the Mississippi River and the surrounding State Capitol Park.
After exploring the opulently decorated ground floor and Senate chamber, I head back outside for a long walk around Capitol Lake. I find myself in rose garden adjacent to the Arsenal Museum. Although the roses aren't blooming right now, my memories of the multi-colored blooms are vivid, and I can almost smell their sweet, sweet scent.
The arsenal reminds me that not everything here was sweet and flowery in the past. The arsenal played a key role in the Battle of Baton Rouge during the Civil War. The exhibits, the grounds and the history are a special part of Baton Rouge. “What’s that” I ask, suddenly noticing a strange sensation. I’m hungry. Lucky for me, I'm home.
Up and Coming
Having heard from friends about the newest addition to the Perkins Road development, I take a chance on City Pork, a new pork-centric deli/restaurant featuring house-made sausages and smoked meats. Stormy skies and rain clouds be damned, I shall have my pork sandwich (I opted for the excellent Big Pig sandwich) and Tin Roof beer, a local brew. You know you’re home in Louisiana when you see Crystal Hot Sauce and Tony Cachere’s seasoning blend on the tables. The smell of roast pork permeates the room, welcoming me home.
An hour later, and with a full belly, I make my way from shop to shop, checking out the local goods and South Louisiana couture. For few special gifts, I head to my favorite shopping spot in Baton Rouge, The Royal Standard. I find a few unique pieces of vintage jewelry, trinkets and La-themed home decor before heading back down the street to Bella Bella and the newer neighboring shops in search of something special.
Pride of Place
I leave Perkins Road in search of some inspiration. I drive North through the Garden District, along the Baton Rouge Lakes toward the Louisiana State University campus. I spend my afternoon exploring my old stomping grounds, gazing at the magnificent oak-lined streets and the lush green grass that carpets the parade grounds in front of the Memorial Tower. The history and strength the trees represent always reminds me of the resilience of my state and our ability to withstand disasters and challenges with a smile, a song or a parade.
I find myself hoping I can take a little of that tenacity home with me to California. I stopped in for some LSU Tiger gear at Bengals and Bandits, my go-to place for LSU goods. I think Los Angeles could use a little more Geaux.
That strange sensation is back; I’m hungry again. It feels strange to be hungry in South Louisiana, the place where all my foodie daydreams come true. No trip home is complete without friends and food at The Chimes, an local restaurant/institution on the LSU campus. Red beans and rice, blackened alligator and local beer is all a girl needs to feel warm and fuzzy in her old skin, if only for a day.
Want More Baton Rouge?
For information about Baton Rouge, head over to Visit Baton Rouge for fun facts, maps and more. Tourism is more important than ever as the city starts to recover from the terrible flooding of August 2016. Click here to find out how you can help victims of the Louisiana Flooding.
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