Project 48-State Road Trip: Texas and Louisiana

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This is the second of a series of travel guides over the course of 22-year-old Tobi Thompson’s 48-state Road Trip. Read about her motivations behind the budget-friendly endeavor here.

We were parked in the UFO Capital of the World, Roswell, New Mexico, with no plan for what would come next. Our next destination had been continually dictated by where we would sleep—and on a cross-country road trip, no plan ever stays concrete for too long. That’s why, when an uncle you’ve met twice in your life welcomes you to Austin, Texas, you go to Austin, Texas.

The road from Roswell to Austin is a long, boring, eight-hour drive, in which the most exciting moments were a long field of large, white windmills or seeing other cars. A contrast to the so we got to spend all daylight in the eclectic city of Texas pride, music, food trucks, local shopping, and dogs.

But on cross-country road trips, you can’t dwell in one place for too long—especially when you know Mardi Gras is close. We soon hopped back in the car for another eight-hour drive to Ponchatoula, Louisiana, to stay at my mom’s house—conveniently about 40 minutes away from New Orleans.

Austin, Texas

Whether it’s catching flocks of bats or finding kimono dragon—and a man swinging fish hooks from his eye lids—in the Museum of the Weird, there’s no such thing as “too much” in Texas. It rings true especially in Austin.

And especially in this city’s State Capitol building—free to visitors. Austin’s tall, granite capitol is taller than the Capitol in D.C., and it is the largest capitol in terms of square feet. This capitol sees every inch of decor as an opportunity to boast about Texan pride. There are eight-pound brass door hinges engraved with “TEXAS CAPITOL,” and the lights over the House of Chamber on the second floor that spell “TEXAS.”

After touring the Capitol, head to South Congress for some shopping—and don’t come hungry. Each local restaurant, cafe, and food truck invites you to want it all: impossibly large cupcakes from a trailer that do justice to “everything’s bigger in Texas,” Sushi, crepes, New York-style pizza you can smell two blocks away. No place looks nor smells alike. Even the shopping. Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds is a large costume shop, open year round, that has seemingly every costume imaginable, from the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar to ’90s anime characters. Tesoros Trading Company fulfills all the knick-knack, international-gift needs: elephant-themed merchandise imported from India, Bolivian dolls, Brazilian necklaces, Chinese vases, Colombian jewelry. And the aptly named Uncommon Objects is packed with antiques like old skeleton keys and old-fashioned brooches, beachy, shell-covered furniture and large, early-twentieth-century cameras. Perusing it all will steal away an entire afternoon’s worth of daylight, but leaving before dusk is a must: On the Congress Street Bridge, don’t miss the nearly 1.5 million bats come out from underneath the bridge as the sun goes down.

Later in the evening, head to Sixth Street. Stroll through the Driskill Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Austin. Built in the late 1800s, the Driskill features a plethora of archways and columns standing in front of wide staircases. And Western, cowboy murals and raging-bull statues long lobby has marble floors that branch off into fine dining and a cafe, all suited with Victorian-themed furniture. If you’re lucky, you may catch the live band. But there are plenty of opportunities for that farther down the main drag: A genuine music persona exists within Sixth Street that isn’t just country. Sixth Street’s rock ’n’ roll edge pairs perfectly with the variety of inviting music-themed bars.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Everything you’d expect: purple, green, and gold. Loose beads hang from every other tree, balcony, and power line. Options for gumbo, jambalaya, and alligator bites are always near. Voodoo shops take themselves seriously. And the city’s streetwalkers are shrouded costumes of all kinds: carnival-themed, a male Tinkerbell, Steampunk fellows, Adventure Time wearers, and medieval-dawned ladies. Better to go with the flow in New Orleans.

But perhaps in New Orleans’ greatest perk is its rich history, prevalent in every store, bar, and even parade. After catching the Krewe of Zulu parade, we learned it was the first in Mardi Gras to have every ethnicity welcomed to participate, after years of civil rights battles between communities. We passed Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, built in 1722, learning later that it’s the bar in United States, just on Bourbon Street. And we waited in the long, well-worth-it line at the most famous breakfast spot in the city, Café du Monde, which has been serving up its delicious fatty beignets and rich French roast coffee since 1862. If you’re going to appreciate New Orleans for its history, a donkey-drawn carriage ride is the way to do it.

Or, you walk—because after an eight-hour drive, sitting is the last thing some of us want to do. Plus, in New Orleans, the walks and the exercise are worth it for the atmosphere: During the day, walk down the narrow streets and around the well-kept historic houses with shutter doors and cast iron balconies. Down in the Garden District, preserved mansions from the 1900s sit peacefully while the French Quarter gets rowdy. Up and down Decatur Street are loads shops with that Louisiana flare. Several stores strictly offer a variety of hot sauces—which is probably best to only choose by their names, like Slap Ya Mama and The Hottest Fuckin’ Sauce. But on Saturday morning, don’t miss the French Market, where you can barter for everything from masquerade masks and jewelry to cheeses and meats—and, of course, hot sauces.

At night, if the swarms of drunks and neon lights of Bourbon Street and the raucous atmosphere of Frenchmen Street aren’t for you, buy a ticket for a show at the Civic Theater, a venue sure to please the avid concertgoer. Civic Theater is the perfect articulation of new, contemporary lighting with the early-1900s, beaux-crafted details on the edges of the stage and balconies. Though an old building, the scene and bar is stocked with a Virgin airline feel: lavender lights and posh attitudes. It’s the perfect size for Taking Back Sunday and letlive.

LaPlace, Louisiana

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If you’re visiting Louisiana in the summer, it’s necessary to see the Cajun Pride Swamp Tour. The swamp boat travels through the light Louisianan breeze and ripples the muddy, brown swamp water. The moist-infested trees droop from the sides, with leaves and green branching like weeping willows.

Get up close to dozens and dozens of alligators, where the $24 photo-friendly tour lets you feed them in the water, outside your seat on the boat. This dedicated swampland belongs not just to alligators, but to wildlife such as raccoons (you’ll watch them eat marshmallows), cranes, turtles, and cardinals.

On the boat, tour guides keep a live baby alligator that you can hold (safely—its mouth is locked shut), take pictures with, and pass around. These tour guides have keen eyes, and know everything about swamp preservation and wildlife—which, as defining aspects of Louisiana, make this a defining experience on any trip to the state.

Survive This Trip

-On your first day in Austin, go to the visitor center. The employees are ecstatic to help you and offer a handful of tours.
-Cut out a particular budget (unlike what I’ve done) for these locations. These are definitely hot spots where you’ll want to (and should) spend money. We’ve strictly been eating out of our car, but in places like New Orleans, where the creole food is part of the experience, don’t hesitate to splurge on a few meals.
-Souvenir buying: this is where you’ll test your true will power. I caved and bought a hand mirror from Tesoros, imported from Mexico. But this, a Yellow Submarine sticker, and the Legolas lunchbox were all that I bought. Only buy the things you know you’ll regret if you don’t.
-Finding a parade in New Orleans isn’t hard, but parking might be. Take the plunge and park in a garage.
-During the day, traffic is bearable, but when the parades are over, that’s when New Orleans gets rowdy. Driving in or out of New Orleans is a long nightmare filled with tailgating on every street corner.