Monday, June 20, 2011

Trade Winds on the Beach


"I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination."

- Jimmy Dean

One step outside and it hits you like a right hook in the gut. Heat. Sweltering, damp, oppressive heat, the kind that smothers you like a waterlogged, wool blanket. It's 96 degrees F, 85% humidity, and yes, it will get worse. You can't breathe, you can't think, it's so humid you can barely sweat--Instead of sweating, you just stick, as if someone had just applied a coat of gel on every exposed part of your sad, lifeless body.

Born and raised a Californian, my instincts in muggy New Orleans have driven me to search for a beach. Somewhere, anywhere I can catch a breeze and immerse myself in water to cool off. It doesn't even have to be ocean water. Just somewhere from which I can leave feeling crisp and refreshed, better-equipped to face an intemperately hot and humid climate. New Orleans is a city on the water, so much so, it has been a port city for hundreds of years, through which the trade winds pass. Its water is one of the reasons I moved here. So by all means, I should find my beach.

My first attempt was the mighty Mississippi River, just two blocks from my apartment. Within my first week here, I walked my dog along the levee, the "unofficial dog park" of the uptown area. He swam and fetched and frolicked in the water with other dogs. He ran with his big, goofy mouth agape, a smile hanging from his bowling ball-sized head. The water was pond-scum green, and instead of a breeze there was an aroma of barge fuel and trash. There was a homeless man swimming close by with sores covering his naked, sunburned body. It wasn't an ideal scene but I was happy to see my dog for the first time since our arrival relieved from the unforgiving swamp heat.

Common sense should have awoken me from my reverie earlier. The Mississippi flows about 2300 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana, serving as something of a sewage system for everyone in between, with New Orleans as its very last port of call. So it should not have been a surprise when my dog broke out into rashes, raised bumps and flaking skin over most of his body, leaving him almost incapacitated. He was cured only after I gave him enough antibiotics and other drugs to put out an elephant.

I end the night staying with my dog, the two of us on our balcony, overlooking St. Charles Ave. He lies on his side to cool down as I consolingly pet him, sipping the daiquiri I have picked up at the shop around the corner. We stay there for a few hours, both of us hoping his discomfort will leave as quickly as the antique street cars pass us by.

I change up my quest by replacing Mississippi River for Mississippi state. Less than an hour out of New Orleans, some friends and I pull over just past Waveland, MI. After a lunch of raw oysters and fried catfish at a beachfront bar, we walk on the white sand and over a large, unavoidable swath of oyster shells beginning on the wet sand and continuing into the water. I finally make it into the water. But once in, I realize immediately that something is not quite right.

I look around. The water, this Gulf of Mexico ocean water, is opaque brown. There is no hint of salt. It is warm. There are no waves. "Hey guys, the water is not salty," I point out to my companions, New Orleans transplants originally hailing from places like Kansas City, Chicago, and Atlanta. They all shrug their shoulders. But what do these people know of beaches?

It might have been bad karma for my California beach snobbery, but it was only me who suffered from itchy skin and rashes almost immediately after entering the water, lingering on for a few more days afterwards.

Son of a beach. Note to self: if it's tepid and you cannot see the bottom, neither myself or my dog should swim in it.

We return to my beloved New Orleans where I meet up with other friends that same evening for a glass of wine and live Gypsy jazz at Bacchanal, my favorite outdoor venue. It is a decent consolation prize.

As the temperature creeped into 100 degrees F last week, I decide to continue the quest and meet up with some friends at Lake Pontchartrain, along a little-used beach with sand. Forty miles wide and 20 miles long, with a depth of 14 feet on average, 65 feet in some spots, to the naked eye Lake Pontchartrain looks more like an ocean than a lake. And, as a brackish combination of both salt and freshwater with a small opening to the ocean, it is infinitely cleaner than the Mississippi River, as proven by fairly regular water tests. I know both Milo and I will be safe after a swim, and I decide to ignore the fact that bodies have died in this body of water without being recovered over the years. Salt. Remember the salt cleans everything, I remind myself.

But it was a hard fact to remember as my friends and I plop our belongings on the shore, only for one of us to state shortly after,

"I thing there's something dead right there."
"Right where?" I ask.
"Right there," My friend Clancy says, pointing at a mess of fur. Our friend Will walks over to aid in the inspection.
"Milo get away!!!" I shriek in undisguised disgust.
"It's either a dog or a nutria," they both decide.

Clancy and Will decide to push it on shore to bury it. In their quest to remove it by lifting it from the water with a big stick, the corpse splits in half mid-air, splashing back into the water. Eventually, the once vibrant creature is subterranean, marked with a cross made of driftwood.

Having lost my appetite for a swim, I wander onto a small peninsula comprised of broken up concrete and dirt, as dogs and friends frolic close by. The breeze is constant the entire evening, and I can almost smell salt. We dine on a picnic of grilled skewers and Japanese buckwheat noodles with fresh scallions, washing it all down with gin cocktails and light beer. The sun, so much less threatening now in the presence of a breeze, melts into the water, making pretty shadows through the concrete. Truth be told it is not a beautiful beach to look at but it all feels very pretty. The breeze changes everything.

I have a theory that if there were a white sand beach in New Orleans, I would never have to leave. But in truth, I'm not quite sure that is really what I want. In my travels, I have found white sand beaches, beautiful in their nature, and beautiful in their laziness; lazy music, lazy living, even the food is so lazy because it is so fresh, it is delicious without trying. But for a home I have New Orleans. I doubt I will ever find a white sand beach full of people as devoted to making good music and good food part of daily life as the people of New Orleans. It is a flavor of determined creativity homegrown in a swamp town like New Orleans. No antique street cars, no corner daiquiri shops, no outdoor Gypsy jazz, no Creole and Cajun cuisine will I find on the white sands of California, Florida, or anywhere else for that matter.

I am a person of the coast. Grew up in California, lived four years in New York City, six years in Anchorage, now in New Orleans. It is the port cities I enjoy. They all are places where things and people and ideas pass through, and sometimes stay, making this place a home. It is the movement and growth more than the sunbathing that captures me.

And, so, in the end, so long as I can catch a breeze on a lake, dead nutria and all, while I am perched on recycled concrete; and so long as I can continue my small time exploring every so often, I might end up doing fine as a swamp girl. A little bit of the trade winds may be all I really need from the beach.

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