It’s February 22, 2020. After a 9 hour drive that started after Billy got home from work at noon, we are faced with setting up camp in the dark. Even with a time zone change, we are just hoping to be off the road before the gates close at 10.
So when we pull into the campground and start the slow crawl to our reserved spot, we get only glimpses of the other sites: RVs packed together, decked out in green, gold, and purple lights; Spanish moss casting eerie shadows in our headlights; a field of campsites, unoccupied due to excessive flooding from recent rains.
We have reserved a site in the “unimproved” loop of Fontainebleau State Park in southern Louisiana, knowing we’ll be in a tent and just need it for sleeping, okay paying less to get less. With each site closer to ours, the flooding does not seem to stop, and when we finally pull in, there is maybe one area that isn’t underwater where we can have pitch our tent.
Four days earlier, Jordi texted me that they were driving to New Orleans to spend the weekend with her family for Mardi Gras. She knew it was last minute, but it would be great to see us if possible. My first thought was to try and work out a chance to hike with her somewhere along their drive. My second thought, was to check Billy’s work schedule, and when he had an opening shift followed by two days off, I sent him a text asking how he felt about a road trip.
We don’t observe Lent, and we don’t have family in NOLA, so Mardi Gras never felt like a holiday we had much claim to. But getting out of the rainy Chattanooga winter and going a few hundred miles south, seeing a city we’d never been to, and hanging out with friends at a giant street party? I wasn’t about to say no. Of course on such short notice, finding a place to stay was difficult. Hotels were either booked or astronomically expensive, and all the campgrounds on the New Orleans side of Pontchartrain were full (or, as we found out, flooded). Fontainebleau State Park was our best choice, about 45 minutes from the city, and would hopefully give us a quiet night.
I get out of the car, headlights shining into the trees, and look for a path to the seemingly dry spot. I find one–ish. Most of the ground is swamp, water coming a good two inches up the picnic table legs. I hop over a particularly deep “puddle,” and the dry spot is not so much dry, as just not submerged.
Pro–there is room for our tent. We have a tarp, and will probably stay dry during the night.
Con–we have to get all of our gear and two kids over all of the surrounding water, any nighttime bathroom trips will almost definitely result in wet feet, and there is no guarantee our combined weight will not cause this one area to sink into swamp as well.
The kids ask what we are going to do. They are tired. They are excited. They wanted to see their friends tonight, and are disappointed we said we were going straight to our campsite. They wanted a campfire, and there is no way anyone is building one, not when the fire ring is underwater and dry wood is a joke.
I laugh. When I went to Alaska, I had this picture in my head of sleeping in the back of my rental car. A picture of me, cozy under a blanket, while I ate a dehydrated meal next to my tiny camp stove, a view of the Denali range from the windowbox hatch of an SUV. It was the perfect boho-chic, instagram-worthy image. Instead, after over 12 hours of traveling and arriving to foggy, rainy, 50 degree weather in July, I got a hotel room in Anchorage and enjoyed the hell out of a hot shower and extra blankets, and didn’t mind a bit that my only view was another hotel and a cracked parking lot.
“If we take the car seats out, we can fold the back seat down and sleep in the car,” I say. Billy is enthusiastic. The kids are incredulous. But it’s what we do. We move as much as we can up front, leave the car seats on the ground and pray it doesn’t rain, and make a bed out of our sleeping bags. It isn’t instagram-worthy, but it is definitely cozy. We eat a snack, brush our teeth, and snuggle together, and I think, this is a story worth telling.
Mardi Gras is everything and nothing like I expected. There are no women flashing for beads. There are no throngs of people trampling each other for the front row. In the residential area where Jordi’s family lives, it feels more like a small town Main Street parade than Carnivale—just with much more elaborate floats. People park trucks in the street and families hang out in the beds. Some drag ladders out so the kids can see over people’s heads. It is a party atmosphere for sure, but a very family friendly one. Neighbors are barbecuing in their driveways, people are sharing the throws to make sure kids are able to get stuffed animals or foam balls. Everyone is smiling and laughing and there is so much joy, a glittery purple, green, and gold veneer that almost masks the truth.
Here we are, readily welcoming single use plastic, covering trees with paper streamers, leaving behind a mess on the street as children move on to play with their spoils and the adults around them get drunk.
Here we are, a party of thousands, tens of thousands, gathered together while a deadly virus lurks in other parts of the world. I think, for a moment, even in late February before the US saw its first spike in Covid cases, that if someone here has the virus, if its transmission is as rapid as the news made it out to be, we will all have it by the end of the week.
Here we are, the proletariates, shouting with joy to be recognized by the bourgeois. We gratefully accept our baubles, just happy to be a part of the fun, while the masked oppressors flaunt their wealth. (This is intensified at night, and disconcerting more than celebratory, with the fog and low lights casting sinister shadows. It feels like Sorceress Edea’s inauguration. Applauding as Senator Palpatine is granted emergency powers.)
Here we are, applauding our own role as pawns.
But I only see through it in waves, participating nonetheless.
We eat. Some of the best food I have had in my life. The next day, we visit the French Quarter, going into hoodoo shops where cultural appropriation and sacred tradition exist in the same square foot. We gorge ourselves on crawfish. The kids laugh when a firetruck drives by, the firefighters blasting zydeco and dancing and laughing and bouncing through open windows, and they squeeze my hands more tightly when I steer them across the street from the homeless man, having a loud and passionate and expletive-laden argument with someone the rest of us cannot see. The weather is warm and we don’t want to leave, and I understand why so many gothic novels are set here, because there is timelessness and placelessness in the French Quarter. There is opulence set against decay. There is exhilaration that spreads like a blanket over the unease. The city gets into your blood, once you have been there, and it’s easy to understand why it might be home to vampires; for that insatiable thirst, the city promises fulfillment.
Billy’s friends are shocked, when they ask what he did with his two days off and he tells them we went to Mardi Gras. “The real Mardi Gras?” They ask. “Like in New Orleans?”
People who know me are not surprised, with a mixed bag of indifference and admiration. My response is usually a shrug of the shoulders. “The timing worked out,” I say. “And who knows if we’ll get that chance again.”
It is three weeks, before the WHO declares a global pandemic, and quarantines begin. Trips to the grocery store become a risk, trips out of state an impossibility. We are not to gather in groups larger than 10, as if that is the magic number below which a virus cannot transmit.
And a year later, still in a pandemic, still largely quarantined, and moving almost 2000 miles north of the Gulf Coast, I am so glad we made the trip. For the flooded campground, the long hours driving, the panic of losing Sebastian for half an hour after the parade, the neck cramp from sleeping in the car. For the food and our friends, for our kids experiencing adventure, for tasting the ancient magic flowing out of the bayou and over crumbling mausoleums, weaving through wrought iron porch railings, charged by a people who have risen over and over again from the floods. For hiking under live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and over boardwalks through (supposedly) gator-infested waters.
For seizing opportunity, right before we all were quickly reminded that opportunity may not come again.