In Louisiana, Four Stops to Start a Road Trip

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Downtown Baton Rouge, La., is sleepy enough that Poor Boy Lloyd's, a catfish-frying, shrimp-boiling, po'boy-making restaurant whose walls are adorned with L.S.U. knickknacks, doesn't even bother opening for dinner during the week.

But it was late Friday afternoon when I arrived in the city, the starting line for my through-the-heartland summer road trip that would eventually take me to Fargo, N.D. Within a few hours the restaurant would be serving dinner -- and, according to its Web site (poorboylloyds.com), offering live music. It was hard to imagine that entertainment at a place called Poor Boy Lloyd's could possibly be bland, so I headed over, grabbed a table for one, ordered a shrimp remoulade salad ($7.75) and promptly got winked at.

The winker was also the evening's star, "Ms. J.J. Johnson" (real name: Janice H. Johnson) who at 60 rocked a sleeveless flame-orange blouse as she belted out Motown hits to the crowd of a few dozen as if the room was 20 times bigger and she were 20 years younger. I soon realized I was not the only recipient of a wink; this woman knew how to work a crowd. "Someone asked me what the 'H' stand for in my middle name," she said between songs, "and I told them 'Hot mama'!" She then proved her point by launching into a spirited rendition of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," accompanied by a band of three tucked into the corner. I stayed until closing, thinking that if the rest of my trip went like this -- fortuitous timing, local spirit, minimal cost -- it would be quite a summer.

I had mapped out a northwest route through Louisiana for the next two days, with four stops over about 250 miles, each with a hoped-for (and budget-friendly) theme: Mamou for music, Lecompte for pie, Natchitoches for history and Shreveport for art.

The next morning I got up early (Poor Boy Lloyd's closed at 10, so it was hardly a burden), stopped for breakfast at the Red Stick Farmers Market (redstickfarmersmarket.org), and by 9 a.m. was on the road, headed out on U.S. 190 toward the legendary (and legendarily boozy) weekly Cajun hoedown at Fred's Lounge in Mamou.

Mamou (population, 3,000), is another pretty sleepy place -- if it's a more than one stoplight town, I didn't see the other one. It's hardly where you'd expect to find people partying, let alone on a Saturday morning. But at 11, I arrived to find festivities behind a brick facade on Sixth Street, which had been pulsing with accordion-based Cajun music for the last three hours. (From 9 to 11, a local AM station, KVPI, broadcasts the free show live.) This was Fred's Lounge, where couples of all ages strutted on the dance floor, and around the bar wallflowers downed $3 beers and mixed drinks for $4 to $5. At the center of it all was Tante Sue, the widow of the former owner; at one point she led a Cajun conga line out the front door of the bar and back in through the rear.

Nursing a Jack and Coke, I became fixated on one older couple, dancing slowly but elegantly, and I imagined their story: they had met here decades ago, and have danced every Saturday since. Ever nosy, I introduced myself to the woman, whose name was Willie (actually Willie Mae, but she doesn't like the Mae), and my story turned out be accurate except for one rather vital detail: they had met at Fred's not decades before, but less than a month ago.

"My husband died three years ago, and I've just started going out," she said over the din of the band. I asked if her husband had danced. "Oh, no," she said. "He was from Oklahoma" -- as if that explained it.

Needing to get back on the road and lacking a designated driver, I tossed most of my drink, got back in the car and headed up Louisiana Route 13, listening to the Cajun music show (and French-speaking D.J.'s) still on KVPI. Next stop: Lea's Lunchroom (leaslunchroom.com) in Lecompte, population, 1,200. A Twitter follower had provided the tip, noting it was "a must for pie and the best ham sandwich you'll ever have." Little did I know he was leading me to the town declared "Pie Capital of Louisiana" by the State Legislature in 2000. At Lea's, a hard-hitting editorial from the local paper on the subject -- "Lecompte Deserves Pie Capital Status" -- hung on the wall.

The ham sandwich, served on a pressed round roll, was fine, and might have even been the best I'd ever had, though that would not say much as I have had few ham sandwiches in my lifetime. The pecan pie, topped with appealingly crumbled or chopped pecans, was excellent.

My next stop was Natchitoches, which was founded 299 years ago in an era that apparently predates rational spelling: the town's name is pronounced "Nakatish." It was certainly the most touristy place I'd seen so far: the gussied-up historic center, set along Cane River Lake, is full of gift shops, bed-and-breakfasts and flowering trees and was a primary location for "Steel Magnolias." The highlight is probably Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile (oldhardwarestore.com), an expansive store that has changed little since the building was erected in 1893, except in the products it sells. The cash register dates to 1917.

My plan had been to spend the night in town, but the bed-and-breakfasts were out of my price range, and a couple of independent motels had dreadful reviews online. Though when I set off on the trip I had vowed to opt only for local, not national, brands, I caved, staying at a Days Inn ($64, including tax, via Priceline) located in a soul-draining cluster of franchise hotels five miles out of town, near Interstate 49. It could have been anywhere -- just not anywhere interesting.

I vowed to return to my antichain initiative in Shreveport the next night, no matter what.

The next morning, I stopped by the Cane River National Historic Park (nps.gov/cari) to visit Oakland Plantation, a well-preserved complex that includes an elegant Creole-style main house; slave quarters; and a whitewashed, elegant 1820 pigeonnier, a building where birds were raised to become squab on toast. Then it was up to Shreveport for my final Louisiana stop, where I had booked a room at the Shreveport Downtown Hotel, apparently not part of a chain, and therefore conducive to my vow.

Shreveport is known for its casinos, but if you ask me, it should be known for two other institutions: the R.W. Norton Art Gallery, with its its collection of art of the American West by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, and Cajun Daiquiris, a small chain that serves liquor through a drive-through window. For those who, like me, see fit to couple their visit to the museum with a visit to the stand, two pieces of advice: don't miss the gallery's 40 acres of gardens out back, they're gorgeous; and don't get the sangria swirl, it's nauseatingly sweet.

I still had not had a memorable meal in Louisiana, which seemed criminal, but had one more shot: an outlet of a small local chain called the Southfield Grill (southfieldgrill.com), with adorably friendly waitresses, walls decorated with retro Coke and Barnum & Bailey ads, and tables covered with condiments like Slap Ya Mama Cajun Seasoning. Its daily specials go for $7.99, including three sides and corn bread.

The Southfield Road location was out of beef tips that evening -- which I would not have cared about had not the couples at both tables next to mine told me that the beef tips were the best. But no matter, pork chops would suffice, and my waitress, Katrina, helped me choose three side dishes -- turnip greens ("add some green pepper sauce," she said), broccoli and cheese casserole, and barbecued beans, and relieved me of the decision between regular corn bread and hot-water corn bread by offering to bring me both. She also refused to take no for an answer when I said I didn't want a complimentary unsweetened tea to go: "You're going to leave, you're going to go to the Circle K, you're going to spend a dollar on another one," she said.

All that was left was to check into the Shreveport Downtown and finish my Louisiana trip in independent style, erasing the soulless Days Inn from my mind. But when I pulled up, I noticed something downright odd: an enormous Holiday Inn sign atop the roof. It turns out the company had been a Holiday Inn franchise, but had recently been stripped -- temporarily at least -- of its association. "You could say we're in timeout," said the receptionist, and I could see why: my toilet didn't flush, my door needed to be slammed to close, heavy deodorizer could not hide a cigarette smell in the room. It was a setback, but there would be many nights yet to go, many theoretically clean sheets to sleep in, before I got to Fargo.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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