Taylor Dufour

Bookpacking is About the Smallest of Things

Our bookpacking group left Baton Rouge and headed to Cajun Louisiana, specifically the city of Breaux Bridge, population 8,407.  The car I was in pulled off into a small wooded area and stopped. Wait, is this where we are staying for the next three days?

Bayou Cabins

Bayou Cabins

When I first read about Bookpacking the Big Easy in an email (thank you economics department advisers!) I thought it’d be a great way to knock a GE out of the way and explore New Orleans - the only city in Louisiana that I had any prior knowledge of. I didn’t expect this trip to be much more than reading a few books about the Crescent City.

However, after reflecting on this trip, I’ve come to realize that it’s about so much more than just NOLA. The magic of bookpacking comes with exploring the small pockets of various subcultures - specifically it’s about all those small interactions with people that come from all different walks of life.

The last book we read on the trip was Same Place, Same Things by Tim Gautreaux - i's a collection of short stories. I think it's fitting for me to share some small moments that slipped through the cracks of my longer blogs to wrap up this experience.

Boat docked on False River

Boat docked on False River

Bookpacking is about spontaneity.

When we were in New Roads, some of the bookpackers talked to a local pharmacist and he offered to take the whole group out onto the False River on his boat.  He even let us go tubing off the end of it! On the ride, I had a long discussion with him about skimboarding. In California we skimboard on the shore, where the waves gently lap up onto the sand.  However, in New Roads, they don’t have beaches as the river bed drops off abruptly from the shore, so they skimboard off the wake of motor boats! Now I have something to try when I get back to my local beach. Going on a boat ride on the False River wasn’t something that was on the course description or the syllabus, but because of the kindness of the people that we met, we were able to have such a fun afternoon.


Sheriff Bud Torres

Sheriff Bud Torres

Bookpacking is about generosity.

In New Roads we had just finished our tour of the jail and courthouse, and as we were leaving we ran into the Sheriff of Pointe Coupee Parish.  Sheriff Bud Torres, showcased his country songs that he wrote and recorded in Nashville. He described the origin and meaning behind some of the songs he wrote and told us about why he likes his specific version of country music. He spent a considerable amount of time with us even when he had other duties and responsibilities. It was a very much needed lighthearted moment after the somber mood brought about by the jail.



Bookpacking is about local music.

When we were in the Bayou we went to Joie de Vivre coffee shop and listened to live Cajun music.  One the musicians explained the difference between Zydaco music and Cajun music and even let us play his instrument: the single string tub bass.

There’s nothing wrong with west Texas, but there’s something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted the rest of her days by memories of... the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends, vibrations of the soul lost for what?
— Floyd's Girl

Bookpacking is about pride.

In that same coffee shop, I noticed that the barista had an inverted pink triangle.  I complimented him on his tattoo, and he said "it's a pride tattoo!" I told him that I knew what it was, and gestured towards myself.  We shared a smile.

Bookpacking is about religion.

A tour guide in Cajun Louisiana explained how important the Virgin Mary was to his community and how they proudly display her in their front yards - a tradition that he claimed isn't followed anywhere else. 

Grandmère, the Pope said St. Christopher wasn’t for real.” He glanced at the magnet on the bottom. T-Jean’s grandmère gave him a scoffing look. “If you believe in something, then it’s real. The Pope’s all right, but he spends too much time thinking about things instead of visiting people in grass huts like he ought.
— Floyd's Girl

Bookpacking is about stories.

It’s about hearing about the tale of Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and seeing the Evangeline oak in person - a small claim to fame by the people of St. Martinville.

Evangeline Oak

Evangeline Oak

What would that poor baby eat for supper?
Can she get turtle sauce piquante in Lubbock? And T-Jean’s grandmère thought of the gumbos Lizette would be missing, the okra soul, the crawfish body. How could she live without the things that belong on the tongue like Communion on Sunday? For living without her food would be like losing God, her unique meal.
— Floyd's Girl

Bookpacking is about food.

Po-boys from a fruit stand, Chinese food in the Bayou, $0.75 P&J oysters.  

Captain Tom from the swamp tour told us how to make turtle stew, a waitress taught us how to eat crawfish, and a vendor in the French Market talked to me in great detail about the difference between alligator tail meat and body meat.  Food is intertwined with culture and culture is intertwined with food - in trying new foods I was able to open up a dialogue about culture.

Bookpacking is about people.

While bookpacking was pitched in that first email as the interaction of literature with location, at the end of the day, it turned out to be the people we met and talked to who made the largest impact on this wonderful experience.


In my last blog I talked about how New Orleans has a very distinct character.  When we left the city, we left all that behind, but as we traveled further north in Louisiana, it felt like we were actually going further South - into the Deep South. 

Our hotel was in Downtown Baton Rouge.  It felt like the Finance District of Los Angeles with everyone coming in to work at nine and leaving the city to go home at five.


While our base was in Baton Rouge, in actuality we spent most of our days exploring New Roads, a small one street town just a 40-minute car ride away from Baton Rouge.  New Roads is the setting for the book we are reading, A Lesson Before Dying.  Driving up to the town you pass beautiful estates, sitting on the False River.  The estates all have a big house near the side of the road, and then land that just stretches out as far as the eye can see - sometimes filled with sugar cane crops, other times just grass.  Driving past the estates I could imagine the big house overlooking the river, the rows and rows of sugar cane swaying in the breeze, and the slave quarters a ways off - their own small community. Once slavery was abolished, many slaves (now free blacks) still stayed on the plantation lands, now earning a small wage and having to pay rent – strapped to the same land and working for the same family as before the Civil War.  Many of the estates in New Roads remained working farms up until the 1970s.  The free blacks stayed in the same little houses and lived the same little lives. The slave quarters were now just “the quarter” and it was where Jefferson and Grant, the two main characters of the novel, were raised.

New Roads

New Roads

Once you pass all the estates and actually get into town, there are a few restaurants and stores, but it is mostly silent. The heat is oppressive and persuades most people to stay indoors.

When I was in New Roads, it felt like I was experiencing two sides of the same coin. There was so much kindness - true "Southern Hospitality" - that I had not experienced in New Orleans.  A pharmacist took us on his boat for a ride down the river, and the sheriff of Pointe Coupee Parish (where New Roads resides) took time out of his busy day to show us country songs that he made in Nashville. Everyone was so gracious - such a Southern virtue. But grace is being benevolent to someone who has less power than you, who is lower than you, and it presupposes a hierarchy. That hierarchy, in which there is white, and there is not white, is the other side of the coin.

Three hundred years ago there was slavery. Two hundred years ago there were black codes and sharecropping.  Then came Jim Crow, segregation, and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.  Redlining and the War on Drugs followed, and now the prison system is used as a legal framework to maintain that same hierarchy.

The 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution makes it unconstitutional for anyone to be held as a slave. There are exceptions, including criminals.
— 13th, Netflix Documentary

When black men make up an 40.2% of the U.S. prison population, but only account for an estimated 6.5% of the U.S. population, we must ask ourselves a question. If 1 in 3 Black males are expected to go to prison in their lifetime while only 1 in 17 white males are expected to go to prison in their lifetime, we must ask ourselves: is this deliberate?

The prison industrial complex relies historically on the inheritances of slavery.
— Angela Davis

When we were in New Roads, we visited the courthouse and jail because it is central to A Lesson Before Dying.  The novel is about Jefferson, a black man - though he is only 21 and is more boy than man.  He is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and found guilty of a murder he did not commit. He is sentenced to death by electric chair. 

The courthouse was on the first floor of the building.  The jail, not a functioning jail anymore, was just used for storage and took up the second floor.  We took an elevator to go up to see the cells. “This elevator is the original elevator and even has a little compartment for the prisoners,” Tammy, the deputy giving us a tour explained.

Once we had all gone up the elevator, in groups of 4-5, we started walking around looking at the cells.  “This jail had been used as recently as 1989, with no AC in the Southern summer heat,” Tammy pointed out. The cells were tiny, only about two paces by three paces, barely enough room for a bed and a toilet.  They had three solid walls, and one wall of bars – no privacy.

View Into Jail Cell

View Into Jail Cell

Our guide showed us where the inmates had their recreation time. It was on the roof.  There was no shade. It was a 15 by 40-foot strip of roofing that gave in slightly with each step.  The roof was different shades of grey only broken up with black and silver vents randomly protruding through the roofing. We quickly went back inside to get a break from the heat.

Jail Roof (Former Recreation Space)

Jail Roof (Former Recreation Space)

As we walked around the jail Tammy took us into a small room. “This room,” she pointed out, “was the only cell for women back in the day.  But seeing as there were hardly any women prisoners, it was also the room used for executions.  See that circle with the hole up there,” Tammy pointed at the ceiling. “That’s where they would put the rope for the hangings.  And look at the floor,” she gestured to the ground, “you can see they’ve welded it shut, but it used to be a pit so the bodies could drop.” I was standing right on the welding, and quickly shuffled back.

Everyone was silent, each of us wrapped up in our own thoughts. I wondered about how many people had been hanged here, each with their own lives, their own stories. I thought about Jefferson and how he had faced a similar end.

I thought about this specific quote from the novel:

“Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person.  Justice? […] They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened.  Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us white folks all, have decided it's time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.”

But then I thought about how, even from the beginning, Jefferson didn’t stand a chance.  How he had started picking cotton in the fields at age 6, and went to a black school in a church that started one month after the white schools and ended two months before the white schools ended – separate but equal?

I thought about the despair Grant, a black school teacher, had when his classes were filled with boys like Jefferson.

I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Nothing else – nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring.  They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’
— A Lesson Before Dying

I thought about the podcast I had listened to on the car ride to New Roads.  It was the episode of The Daily by the New York Times that was aired May 30, 2018 titled “Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?” Kevin Cooper is an African America death row inmate currently held in California's San Quentin Prison. Cooper was accused of four murders that occurred in the Chino Hills area of California in 1983.  The sole survivor of the attack said that the intruders were three white men, and a woman called the police and said that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer, was probably involved.  She gave the police his bloody coveralls. The police threw away the coveralls and instead arrested Cooper.

Cooper was found guilty of four counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder with the intentional infliction of great bodily injury.

This is the story of a broken justice system. It appears that an innocent man was framed by sheriff’s deputies and is on death row in part because of dishonest cops, sensational media coverage and flawed political leaders — including Democrats like Brown and Kamala Harris, the state attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator, who refused to allow newly available DNA testing for a black man convicted of hacking to death a beautiful white family and young neighbor. This was a failure at every level, and it should prompt reflection not just about one man on death row but also about profound inequities in our entire system of justice.
— New York Times, Nicholas Kristof

All this happened in California, one of the bluest states in the nation. It serves to remind us that this issue isn’t a Southern issue, and it isn’t a Republican or conservative issue.  It is a national issue.

I thought about Jefferson. I thought about Cooper.

“This place is legit haunted,” Lauryn, another bookpacker, said as we slowly walked out of the cell.

Inmaet Writing Found In A Cell

Inmaet Writing Found In A Cell

A Weekend in New Orleans

Saturday Night.

“What the hell is a virgin mint julep??” the bartender at the Voodoo Lounge drunkenly exclaimed in response to the order Claire, a fellow bookpacker, tried to place.

Non-alcoholic drinks apparently do not exist in the Crescent City.

New Orleans’ obsession with drinking culture and general debauchery is most clearly seen on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter through the eyes of Ignatius J. Reilly, the belching, overweight, "slob extraordinaire", protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces.

The city has many masks.

Nocturnal. Licentious. A sweaty cocktail.

A stinkhole of vice.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

The cigar smoke in the air mutes the neon signs advertising 24-hour-bars and souvenir shops that are only broken up by drive through daiquiri joints and strip clubs.  It smells exactly how you would imagine.

Chaotic. Celebratory. Exhibitionist.

Beads are thrown into the air. Bachelor and bachelorette parties, their sashes dirtied, their t-shirts stained, stumble past people throwing up in gutters. Drag queens purse their lips, hands on hips, surveying the sweaty, swaying crowds. The deep bass of dance music blasts out of every storefront.

Heady. Spicy. Sensual.

There is a feeling of transgression, of stepping outside of your comfort zone, and of sexual and social deviance. On Bourbon Street one can buck the monotony of everyday life. People drink like there is no tomorrow and wildly chase after the next moment of excitement.  

This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

Decadence. Indulgence. Gluttony.

There is extreme excess in an attempt to stay in the now. But this happiness is fleeting: the alcohol wears off, the glitter is washed away, and the colorful beads lay forgotten in the street as people stumble back to their houses and hotels.

Debris. Decay. Distress.

Sunday morning.  

Compartmentalized. Syncopated. A new day.

The city is hungover and it is time to go to church.  Mass is held at St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America, serving as an ever present reminder of the French Catholicism that the city was founded on, and the Southern medievalism that the city continually hints at.  From the Rex (King of the Carnival) krewe parade during Mardi Gras, to the echoes of the medieval code that surface in today’s version of chivalry, the past invades the present.

Historic. Preserved. Memorable.

The piety on Sunday is forever at odds with the loose morals of Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras before Lent, feast before fast. (Or if you’re Ignatius, feast before feast before feast before feast.)

Mrs. Reilly looked at her son’s reddenin face and realized that he would very happily collapse at her feet just to prove his point. He had done it before. The last time that she had forced him to accompany her to mass on Sunday he had collapsed twice on the way to the church and had collapsed once again during the sermon about sloth.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

Across the street from the Cathedral is Jackson Square, a beautiful, green park lined by the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartments in America.

Jackson Square

Jackson Square

Charming. Familial. Quaint.

Restaurants, galleries, museums, and cafes line the Square, most famous of which is Cafe du Monde, selling golden brown beignets and sweet café au lait. Street performers sing and play instruments, while psychics offer advice and predict your future with tarot card and palm readings.

Colorful. Upbeat. Eccentric.

Around the Square you can hear the street musicians playing jazz.  Jazz was invented in New Orleans and in many ways the city resembles the music it gave birth to.


"The music was coarse and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour, was about bodies in the river, knives, lovepains, cockiness. Up there on stage he was showing all the possibilities in the middle of the story."

- Coming Through Slaughter

It is a city that is a melting pot of cultures and a synthesis of ideas and values. New Orleans has been owned by many different nations and entities, and through all the handshakes and deals it retains a piece of each one. However, it is also a city that reamins very separate and distinct. New Orleans fosters small subcultures in its many faubourgs (neighborhoods).  From the quaint houses in the Marigny, to the rundown shotgun houses in the Tremé, New Orleans displays the improvisational nature of jazz music.

Bohemian. Enchanting. Free.

A house in the Marigny

A house in the Marigny

Monday morning.

Melancholy. Ennui. Decay.

It is time for the city to go back to work or school.  There is a searching, or maybe it is a remembering.  It is so abstract and yet everyone in New Orleans feel it - the writers, the drunks, the musicians, the students alike all feel the a sense of melancholy press down upon them.

Perhaps I feel it most acutely this morning because this Monday morning we are boarding the van and driving to Baton Rouge.  The New Orleans chapter of the Maymester is coming to a close, and there is a sense of sadness as we pull out of the city and onto the highway.  I’ll miss the cacophony of sounds and smells of the city, the $0.75 happy hour oysters, and the distinct character of New Orleans that you can't find anywhere else. I can only hope that the journey from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is not as ill-fated as Ignatius’ Greyhound bus ride story.

Outside the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

The Magic of Bookpacking

After getting settled and unpacking the first day, my SoCal native self wasted no time rushing to the beach and diving headfirst into Kate Chopin’s The Awakening on my second day on Grand Isle.

Growing up just 25 minutes from the beach, I was not unfamiliar with the activity of lounging on the shore, book in hand.  However, I had never read a novel that was explicitly chosen because of its connection with the surrounding locale.

I noticed the difference immediately.

I began to compare every description of scenery in The Awakening not only to my own past experiences but to what I was experiencing in the exact moment that I was reading the text. Sitting there on the sand, sun overhead and salt in the air, I began to lose myself in Kate Chopin’s world.  I imagined that I was feeling the exact same breeze that the children in the novel felt as they played on the beach.

The sun was low in the west, and the breeze soft and languorous that came up from the south, charged with the seductive odor of the sea.
— The Awakening

Edna, the protagonist, went for a stroll on the beach, and so did I.  Robert attempted to teach Edna how to swim and I showed Eric, a fellow bookpacker, how to do heads-up freestyle.  Mr. Pontellier complained about his work as a cotton factor, and I complained about my grades on Blackboard. I was completely captured by the similarities between the scenes described in the novel and the one I was viewing through my very own eyes, right in front of me.

As Edna retired for the day in the Lebruns’ house, she described the heavy heat that seemed to cling to the walls.  With that passage I suddenly became aware of the low hum of the AC in the background, blasting cool air into Gulf Retreat (our aptly named cottage by the sea). I noticed the worn out recliner I was sitting in, the iPhone I was listening to music on, and as I looked up I saw my reflection in the screen of the powered-off tv - a black mirror.

I couldn’t stop seeing all the differences between Edna’s life and mine. Her wealthy, privileged place in society, her leisurely lifestyle, her duties as a mother and a wife. And more broadly I began to see how, while resistant to change, even Grand Isle itself was changing with the times.  Once a vacation destination for the very well off, it has now become a getaway spot for middle class Americans. Boasting of $39/night motels and small food joints like JoBob’s (which offers both gas and grill), it felt like a different Grand Isle than the one Kate Chopin wrote about.  

Dinner at Jo-Bob's

Dinner at Jo-Bob's

The fluorescent t-shirts sporting slogans like “nutin but good” and the looping JoBob’s promotional video now seemed kitschy rather than cute. I felt utterly disconnected with Kate Chopin’s world.  

As we were driving back from JoBob’s, our small dinner party pulled off to the side of the road to take a look at the sunset.  The view I saw before me was breathtaking. The sun was a bright red ball hanging low in the sky. The sea played with the colors of the sunset, twisting and reflecting them into something that was somehow warmer and gentler.  I could see the silhouette of crooked pillars of wood, remainders of a structure long gone, protruding out of the water in the distance. In that moment I realized that I was experiencing the same view, the same Grand Isle, that Edna had in the novel.



I began to come to terms with the fact that the Grand Isle I was experiencing now was different than that of Edna’s, but those differences didn’t take away from me experiencing her world. I suddenly remembered something Andrew had told us in seminar.  He told us that when Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening in 1899, Grand Isle had just been ravaged by a hurricane that destroyed much of its infrastructure.  Andrew explained that she wrote the novel as a way to remember and connect to the Grand Isle of the past, rather than a direct reflection of its broken reality.

I have to remember that while the world is always changing, stories like Chopin's can allow me to travel back in time.  Through backpacking I can connect these worlds, past and present, through moments like these: a group of people on the side of the road staring off into the sunset.

The simplicity of this fact, the fact that the act of standing in silence while looking up at the sky can conjure up a whole different world for me, a world that existed decades ago, is the true magic of bookpacking.  

I can’t wait to see what other worlds I will be able to experience by bookpacking the Big Easy.