GulfCoast series, he describes the sights and people along the coast
between New Orleans and the Florida panhandle.
THE LAST THING WE HAD TO EAT WAS POPEYE’S FRIED CHICKEN in Slidell. We had vowed to limit our meals to food we couldn’t find back home. Yes, Popeye’s is fast food, but it’s gourmet fast food in my book. In Utah we have Kentucky Fried Chicken, but KFC doesn’t hold a candle to Popeye’s juicy goodness. We bought some extra biscuits for the road, but they were rock-hard by the time Neil Benson dropped us off at our car after our swamp adventure. The next closest towns were Waveland and Bay St. Louis, and we headed eastward on the quest to fill our bellies with authentic southern cuisine. We stopped at a little place called Catfish One at the edge of Waveland. I’m not a catfish nut, but the very thought of the platter I ordered makes my mouth water to this day.
This small fish stand is run out of a trailer several yards from a crumbling foundation, presumably the former home of its owners. The owners now live in a smaller trailer that sits behind the ramshackle stand. There were no standing homes in the area that I could see, only makeshift trailer parks filled with row after row of white FEMA trailers. A year after the storm, residents were making the best of trailer life by planting little gardens and manicuring small unofficial yards. Hurricane Katrina made her final land fall at the mouth of the Pearl River near Bay St. Louis. And although the town is the highest point along the entire Gulf Coast (12 feet above sea level), much of it was swept away by a 30 foot storm tide.
The lonely highway approaching St. Louis Bay is lined with downed timber, huge piles of debris, and gutted buildings. The lack of signage or visible landmarks rendered our map useless. We stopped to ask a gas station attendant if we were close to Bay St. Louis. “You are in Bay St. Louis,” he replied.
We never made it to Pass Christian, a small historic town across St. Louis Bay. Of Pass Christian’s 8,000 homes, all but 500 were decimated by Katrina. We had hoped to drive across St. Louis Bay on the U.S. 90 bridge, and on to Biloxi, but the bridge was destroyed and had not yet been rebuilt. We had to backtrack to I-10 to head further east. We made our way back down to the coast at Gulfport, a fishing town in a lot better shape than Bay St. Louis where we bought some sand dollars and a bottled dead shark. We then continued along the coast to Biloxi where we hoped to stay the night.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
In the West we drink “pop.” Northeasterners sip “soda.” Bostonians order “tonic.” In the South they just drink Coke- Dr. Pepper Coke, Pepsi Coke, Shasta Coke, Sam’s Choice Coke, even regular Coke Coke. Thankfully there are still different cultural dialects to add spice to an increasingly homogenized nation. Food names aren’t the only differing designations for things. Geographical perception differs from region to region as well.
In the West we think we have rivers. In reality, Western rivers are more like large streams. Easterners laugh at our “rivers.” That’s ok, because we laugh at their “mountains.” Northern lakes tend to be small to moderate sized bodies of freshwater . Deep South folk probably see northern lakes as over sized puddles, while I see their lakes as small seas or large bays. In fact, I’m not quite sure how most lakes in the Deep South actually fit the definition. The least sea-like lake in the Deep South is most similar to Utah’s most sea-like lake. Lake Pontchartrain is the second largest saltwater lake in the United States, after our Great Salt Lake. But where Utah’s inland sea has no outlet, Lake Pontchartrain drains into Lake Borgne, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico- which, going by the Deep South’s geographical definitions, could arguably be called a really big lake.
You could mistake it for a lake, too. Much of the Gulf Coast is lined with a chain of barrier islands- long, linear landforms that are technically large sandbars. These islands serve as the mainland’s primary protection from storms. They also break strong waves, which is why there are no Beach Boys songs about surfing Pascagoula. The coastal waters here are calm and the beaches short.
Biloxi looked a lot better than it did in pictures right after the storm, but it still easily qualified as a class B/C/D hybrid ghost town (rubble and/or roofless building ruins, standing abandoned buildings , and a small resident population). There was a small carnival in the center of the city, but elsewhere people were nowhere to be seen.
It was getting dark, and we passed many abandoned resorts and hotels as we looked for somewhere to stay. Since the storm, many new properties have sprung up between the abandoned ones- the new and modern juxtaposed with the old and deteriorating. Handsome new buildings with empty parking lots stood waiting for somebody- anybody to stop in and spend the night. We prepared for our usual small town motel routine: I stay in the car while my wife goes in (she’s much more persuasive than I am, not to mention better looking) and drives a hard bargain. Once they’re convinced your really going to walk out of their lobbies and look elsewhere, most roadside motels will make you the offer you were looking for. This method has worked for us from coast to coast for many years.
Not in Biloxi.
The prices at these new establishments were outrageous. They all looked clean enough, but none of them were anything to write home about. I would have had no problem paying full price at a hotel recovering from Katrina. The least we could do is pump a few dollars into these local economies. But the only working hotels were the new ones, who for some reason would rather turn away customers and sit empty than settle for a slightly lower fee. I was torn between the desire to help out a struggling city and very real budget constraints. One brand new place almost convinced us to stay until they mentioned they had no bedsheets, pillows, or hot water. “Well we just barely opened. There’s still some things we don’t have.”
So how much were they be willing to knock off the price for lack of these essentials? Nothing. Suddenly the Garden Center at Wal-Mart didn’t sound half bad.
Somewhere between Biloxi and Pascagoula I reluctantly had to stop for a Red Bull. Normally I don’t drop $2.50 for a small can of something that tastes like brake fluid, but I hadn’t slept since Salt Lake and it was either that or fall asleep at the wheel. I gagged it down and we continued eastward along the quiet coast. We were hoping the motel entrepreneurs in Pascagoula would be more reasonable than their Biloxi counterparts. Thankfully they were, and we were soon sleeping soundly at the Best Western.
I’ve always dreamed of walking along an endless white sand beach dotted with palm trees, crystal clear waves lapping against it- the kind of beach you see on desktop wallpapers and in frames hanging on the walls of travel agencies. The Great Salt Lake is ok to look at, but no way am I taking off my shoes on those alkali shores, and no way would I ever dive in. The Pacific ocean is the closest to home, but the water is cold and murky, and if you go in after a rainstorm, you might just come out with a few extra bacteria in your system thanks to Mexico’s pipe-free sewer system.
That’s why I was so excited to finally reach Pensacola, the first European settlement in what would be come the U.S., and home to the whitest beaches I’ve ever seen pictures of. We would only have one day there, so we woke up early and got on the road. It was about time we checked some email and payed a few bills, so we drove to the Krystal, a hamburger chain whose claims to fame are its Krystal burgers and its free wireless Internet access.
After sitting for a while in the parking lot, I figured I better go in and at least buy something to repay the good owners for letting us jump on the net for free. I wanted a breakfast combo and I wanted to try the Krystal, a mini hamburger served in bulk quantities. Not wanting a sack full of hamburgers with my grits, I made the mistake of asking if it was possible to buy just one.
“A single Krystal?” the lady asked, causing the other cashier and the cook to glance at me in total confusion, the same way the servers at Mexican restaurants look at me when I ask for no lettuce on my combo plate.
“This guy wants a single Krystal. Do we even sell a single Krystal?”
“He wants what? Just one Krystal? Are you kidding?”
“Nobody ever asked us for a single Krystal,” the baffled cashier informed me. “I don’t even know how we’d sell you just one.”
They were either completely annoyed with me or trying not to fall on the floor laughing- I’m not sure which. They definitely thought I was some kind of idiot- a white boy in flip flops and a car with California plates trying to order a single Krystal. One customer had been sitting in a booth with her face buried in her hands. The conversation perked her up and she added in a just-woke-up voice, “You realize the Krystals are very small, don’t you sir?”
“She’s right, they are extremely small.”
“Ok, ok,” I said. “Just give me how ever many you normally give. I didn’t realize-”
“Oh now he wants a whole order.”
Finally a managerial-looking woman walked up from the back with a single Krystal all wrapped up special for me.
“Here is your single Krystal, sir,” she smirked, on the verge of laughing uncontrollably. “On the house.”
I was too flustered to remember the breakfast combo, and I can’t imagine the laugh they had at my expense when I walked out of there.
Moral of the story: If you want to liven up your trip to Mississippi, walk into a Krystal and order just one.
My single Krystal down the gullet, we drove straight through Alabama and over the Florida border to Santa Rosa Island, a 40 mile barrier island off of Pensacola Bay. I spent so much time looking at that island on Google Earth that I could have driven there with my eyes closed.
My wife hates the ocean. Hates it. She’s scared to death of it. Probably from watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. She has no desire to set foot on a beach, let alone swim in the ocean. She was perfectly content to drop Coulter and I off at one end of the island and drive back to explore the city. I strapped the boy onto my back and made a beeline to the water. It was clear that the beaches had been damaged by Katrina, which washed some sand away and increased the beach’s slope. But it was nice nonetheless. The sand was a brilliant white and it crunched under my feet. The water was warm- somewhere between the temperature of a heated pool and a hot tub.
And it was crystal clear. The geography of the Gulf Coast changes significantly between southern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle. At the waterline, beaches in the panhandle gradually slope for about 20 yards before suddenly dropping off to depths of up to 200 feet. The drop is very visible on the surface, where a turquoise morphs abruptly into a deep blue. Since the water is so clear, you know exactly when you swim past the drop off. This is where swimming off the California Coast has it’s advantages. You have no idea how deep the water is or what creatures may be swimming beneath you. Here various sharks and rays were clearly visible from the surface, so Coulter and I stayed shallow. We strolled for miles along the beach, watching dolphins, playing in the sand and picking up shells along the way until we reached the pier, where we watched the sunset. It was then that I realized just what good buddies Coulter and I were. And while I initially had reservations about bringing him on this trip, I wouldn’t have traded this day with him for the world.