Cameryn Baker

8 Hugs

This trip was so beautiful
— Maria Camasmie

I type this from Los Angeles, having arrived and settled back down at home, officially marking the end of our Backpacking Maymester. Between going to school and going to Louisiana, I haven’t been staying at home since early January. It’s the longest that I’ve ever been “on the road.” I would have thought that coming back to my own bedroom after all of this time sleeping elsewhere would be a purely joyful sensation. But now, as I sit in that very bedroom, I find that there’s a lot of sadness mixed up in there that I hadn’t been able to predict. 

I’m going to miss being on the road. I’m going to miss being with other people from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. I’m going to miss reading on quiet beaches or in lively French Quarter coffee shops; I’m going to miss it all. 

But nevertheless, as I sit here somewhat contented, I am now able to reflect on the trip, and see what specific lessons it has taught me. I am certain that the Cameryn that came back from Louisiana is not exactly the same to the one who went; she went through unexpected character development and came back a little better. I’m sitting here, in my room, finally home, and I’m backtracking through the course, through each book, each location; and I’m finding that there’s so much I’ve learned.

miss you guys already :(
— Tara Baudry

The books we read on this course all took me a bit deeper into the culture that they described and delved into. And I took something from each book—a lesson, big or small, and the appreciation that I have for the memories from this trip will help these lessons to remain engrained in my mind.

But beyond the books were many other lessons that I learned. Like how to prepare dinner for thirteen people, or who Joan of Arc was, and how her legacy continues today. I learned how to use and navigate the streetcar. I learned how to do the Footloose dance from Tara. How to properly hold a baby alligator. How to understand and answer Maria’s riddles. How to talk in an Essex accent. How to get used to the same twelve people being around you for the better part of a day, for twenty six days straight. This last one wasn’t hard at all, perhaps even the easiest lesson to learn. 


Oh, and hugs. One of my favorite things that I learned on this trip is that one must get at least eight hugs every day. This lesson came from Tara. By the end of the trip, it had become a practice that I lived by. I’d made twelve friends by this point, and we were with each other every day, so it wasn’t hard to accomplish. This was one of my favorite life lessons that I took back home, because it reminds me of the people I went on this trip with. Reading and seeing the city and learning its history were such incredibly valuable experiences, ones that I will remember and cherish for all of my life, but they would not have been the same had I done it all alone. Surrounded by people who offered countless different perspectives based off of their own backgrounds and beliefs enriched the experience immeasurably. Their connections with the readings enabled further connections of my own, and their interests in certain aspects inspired me to dig deeper as well. When the books were heavy or personally emotional, we were all there for each other. Through the reading, we all became closer, and after twenty six days together, we all departed as good friends. 

And I’ll miss getting eight hugs from the gang everyday, now that I’m at my home and they’re all at theirs. But I’ll keep it up. And everyday when I’m keeping track of the amount of hugs I’ve had, I’ll be reminded of where I learned this valuable lesson. This trip has been extraordinary, and I am so grateful for all of the things it taught me. 

Swamp Witches™

Swamp Witches™

A Poem After Crying

Reading A Lesson Before Dying while sitting by the same river that author Ernest J. Gaines lives near.

Reading A Lesson Before Dying while sitting by the same river that author Ernest J. Gaines lives near.

The Bookpacking experience for Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying proved to be the most impactful of the trip. It was quite enjoyable to read a fictional story about vampires hunting on the lively nighttime streets of the French Quarter, where I had been spending the better parts of my days, or to read a story of a woman’s awakening while lounging on the same beach that she had. These were inspiring and pleasurable bookpacking experiences. Reading and visiting the locations of A Lesson Before Dying, however, proved to be an entirely different type of experience. It was a difficult one. It was not an easy thing to read about the mistreating of an innocent young black man, forced into a death sentence of which he has no chance of escaping, and then having to stand in the exact spot where he had lived this struggle. 

Our visit to the New Roads Courthouse Prison was a somber one. I’ve gotten used to our group being loud, always laughing, and occasionally bursting out in song. That all stopped once we had taken the tiny elevator—no bigger than a phone booth—up to the top floor of the courthouse, where the old prison cells still stand. The mood instantly changed. There was none of our usual laughter, no joking, and entirely no singing. There set upon us a silence and a sadness that could only have resulted from having just read Jefferson’s story, and the reality of his situation dawning on all of us simultaneously. You could feel the weight of the book descend on all of us again, with even more effect this time, as we saw the cells and beds that we had read about right in front of us.


I didn’t know how to write a blog about this book, or the experience of visiting the place that the majority of it had taken place in. My blogs so far have mostly been retellings of the joy I’ve experienced on this trip. This experience, however, while very powerful, was rather minimal in its joy factor.

I’ve chosen instead to write a poem, trying to relate the feelings I had while standing in the prison cells. Tammy, a deputy who had been kind enough to take us upstairs to the prison, showed us the exact spot where they had used to hang the prisoners who, like Jefferson, were sentenced to the death penalty. She pointed up to a spot almost directly above me. It was at that moment that the gravity of this place, and of Jefferson’s situation, really struck me. The poem I’ve written tries to capture the immensity of this moment. 

Courthouse Prison Blues

this spot

dirty dingy room

they hung them right above me

this room

tiny hardly lit

enclosed with bars and left to rot

i wonder

standing here unchained

what crimes had locked their manacles

i wonder

had their keys been turned

with reason or with malice

i am free, i can leave

i can smell and climb the trees

so why can’t i see why can’t i breathe

Photo stolen from Annaliese

Photo stolen from Annaliese

in their shoes

i try to see

through their eyes all their suffering

in this i find

colossal truth

“we are equal” written on the wall

now i feel chained

shackled and kept

years of crime burden my mind

painful crimes

done by the hangers

and not the hanged

i now can see

sorrows suffered by

the writer of the letter signed

sincerely jefferson


Enjoying the Everydayness

I don’t find life me, books and people and things are endlessly fascinating.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer while being in its setting proved to be a similar experience to reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening while being in Grande Isle. Like the first location and book of this Maymester, I was reading the story in a place that I could find nothing but appreciation for. Grand Isle had been beautiful, relaxing, and welcoming. New Orleans was colorful, lively, and exciting. I thoroughly loved both places. And yet, on both occasions, I was surprised to find myself reading a story about a person who had been terribly depressed in those places. 

The protagonist of The Moviegoer, “Binx,” establishes fairly early on in the novel that he intends on dedicating his life to a “search,” the essential goal of which would be to find the meaning of life. Binx lives in constant fear of succumbing to “everydayness.” He is unhappy in the repetitive simplicity of his life in Gentilly, with his constant visits to his aunt and cousin in their Garden District mansion. Binx sets about trying to find something better—his life’s purpose. 

photo stolen from Cheyenne

photo stolen from Cheyenne

While this exposition excited in me the most hopeful expectations of having the meaning of life revealed to me in a single novel, I found that as the book went on, Binx was getting no closer to succeeding in his search. Instead, the burden he struggled with only seemed to get heavier and heavier, as his cousin Kate’s depression was added on to his own. There was no drastic change in Binx’s life at the end of the novel; no solution to life’s mystery. The change was only a small one. Binx becomes codependent with his cousin Kate, who also suffers from a depressive feeling of a lack of purpose in life. The two realize that there isn’t really any hope in the searches that they wage on life. They can scour for answers and meaning for all of their lives, and still come up empty-handed, or they can accept that all that they really have in life is one another. They settle for the latter, and they live their simple lives together, the knowledge that each loves the other being their only crutch to keep moving forward.

This ending saddened me a bit, especially since I had formed such high expectations for the ending when I had first started the book. I felt deeply for Binx and his cousin Kate, whose struggles I had come to form an understanding for after having read the story of Edna in The Awakening during our stay at Grand Isle. But rather than settling at the conclusion that people hurt on the inside regardless of their seemingly enjoyable environments, I took the outcome of The Moviegoer and used it as a lens to look through at my own life. The result was an immense gratefulness

There is much to say that I am grateful for in my life—in fact, there is far too much. So I will narrow it down, simply to this Maymester alone. Binx lived in discontentment, and fear of the everydayness. But despite his devotion to his search, he is left only with the small consolation that he loves his cousin Kate and that she loves him too. Even in just the short few weeks that I have been on this trip, I realize that my life contains so much more than that.

I don’t have just one Kate. After knowing my fellow Bookpackers for only three weeks, I know that I have at least twelve Kates of my own. Everyone here cares for me, and I for them, and already I know that I have twelve times the reason to carry on than Binx did. And within these short few weeks, I have ran out onto the beach at five am, to watch the sunset with these people. I have sat in cafés with them, and had playfully heated discussions about which Disney movie is better: The Lion King or Tarzan. I’ve sat in hotel rooms with them in the middle of the night laughing until there were tears in my eyes. I’ve experienced the nightlife of the French Quarter with them for the first time in my life—an outing I will never forget. I’ve gotten to know their favorite riddles, their tastes in television shows, and their dancing styles. I’ve made twelve good friends. 

Photo break from dancing during the second-line parade

Photo break from dancing during the second-line parade


And while my heart hurts no less for Binx, and the people who live in the nicest of places but are troubled by persistent and unbearable inner turmoil, I can also be more appreciative of the inner joy that I find within myself. While at the end of The Moviegoer, Kate is barely able to handle a ride alone on the streetcar, because Binx encourages her that she can do it, I can ride any streetcar to any place, fully knowing that I have my Bookpacking friends, who will all be expecting my return, so that we can go out together and have another adventure. If this has become my everydayness, then I have nothing to fear at all. 


Buddy Bolden and Poetry

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note...
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

It is not an uncommon occurrence that I should find myself sitting or walking somewhere, and I hear or see something and immediately feel an urge to write about it (hence, the creative writing degree I’ve chosen to pursue). It can be the urge to write about a subject as monumental as going off to college, or something as mundane as the sight of a pigeon sitting contentedly upon a train. From the significant to the everyday, the world around me seems to beg to be written about. And when it begs, I try to comply.

Since arriving in New Orleans, the world has been especially loud—especially needy. And I’ve tried to be receptive, but we’ve been bouncing from one place to the next, from one emotion to another, from one author to a different one, and I’ve discovered that it has been hard to keep up. I scratch out a few lines, about those random subjects that the world seems to make so noticeable to me, but before I have really had time to finish the lines or make them better, another subject is pervading my senses and altering the course of my pen. As a result, nothing very promising has resulted from the poetry I’ve tried to write on this Bookpacking trip thus far. 

I’ve been a little disappointed about this, but I have come to a new revelation through our studies of the jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, who we read about in Coming Through Slaughter and watched a biography of in the movie Bolden. Buddy Bolden played as he went. His music was “formless,” composed of “accidental notes,” because he was “tormented by order.” He had no sheet music to follow, nor any one tune that he rehearsed and played over and over. There is not a single, complete song that is attributed to be his. Instead, he improvised every time, playing crazy notes and little blurbs that didn’t seem to go together, but at the same time blended into one another so harmoniously that an entire new genre of music was inspired by it. People grew to love what Bolden played—those wild little blurbs of song that somehow strung together into something beautiful. I thought about Bolden’s music, jumping from one melody to the next, and, as he describes, filling different pockets of space in the air and assuming different shades of colors. It somehow reminded me of my attempts to write during this trip. I thought that, if art such as Bolden’s, which was so unconventional and so all-over-the-place, can still be praised as genius and heralded as the foundation of much more beauty to come, then maybe my poetry can be seen in a similar favorable light.

Here are some very-unfinished lines of poetry that I’ve scratched down throughout this trip. I’m trying to be more proud of them.

sleeping bag on the seashore

my ears strain to hear sirens

of both definitions

since both might remind me of home

I lie and listen beneath

a dark sky illuminated only

by the oil derricks in the distance

and not by the stars


I am miserable at sunrise

the upcoming sun

is too impressive of a sight

for me to possibly compete

I lie hidden in the dark

i watched a bird

fly through the french quarter

sent frantically a-winging

by the cry of a tenor sax

can this bird make it through the city

even in so heavy of air?

where the sounds of life float higher

than he’d ever dare to soar?

can this bird escape the iron

working balcony to sky

enclosing all life with the sound of the horns

preventing you ever from leaving?

blurry photo of Nighttime New Orleans, taken from the Ferry returning from Algiers.

blurry photo of Nighttime New Orleans, taken from the Ferry returning from Algiers.

you have an october brain

cobwebby like a corner

foggy as dawn and dusk

cheerful yes but also beware

that monsters there will snarl and scorn

should you wander into their lair

the shadows jumping from the gas lamps

compete against each other to catch

the corners of my worried eyes

Conclusion: You don’t need to follow a formula in order to produce something great. These are my blurbs. My attempts at making music. First drafts of sheet music that I don’t ever intend on using, because the best performances come when you’re not reading from a script. They are unfinished; they aren’t what they’re “supposed” to be. They are unimpressive scraps of poetry that never make a completed song…but having become inspired by Buddy Bolden and his aberrant and offbeat creation of genius, I think that might be okay.



Vampires on Royal Street?

On Thursday we walked through the Lafayette cemetery, spreading out individually so that we might take in the atmosphere at our own pace. I wandered off into a far corner, where the trees seemed to cluster, and offer the most shade. A consequence of the trees was the heightening of an eeriness which to me, exists everywhere in a cemetery. But here, beneath the trees and surrounded by dilapidated tombstones; where the air took on a new wave of muskiness and the leaves seemed to crunch more forebodingly under my sneakers, the eeriness felt amplified.


Here, I found it easy to squint my eyes and try to picture the characters from Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire sneaking around, slipping between raised graves, or crouched behind tombstones. I could envision Lestat stepping out from the darkness, an evil laugh issuing forth from his lips as he walked calmly towards his victim. The young vampire Claudia fit perfectly in this scene—I could imagine her crying softly, winning the sympathy of some passing mourner, who would kneel to comfort the innocent child, never expecting the attack at their neck that would immediately follow. The cemetery provided a perfect context for beginning to read Rice’s classic story, as we settled in for the next two weeks of living in New Orleans. 

And yet, as I progressed further into the story, I was surprised to find that the cemetery setting where I could so easily picture a vampire in the night was not actually the true setting of the novel. On the contrary, Anne Rice places her two vampire protagonists in an apartment above a store on Rue Royal—one of the most lively streets of the French Quarter. We visited Royal street as a group. The buildings were of a great variety of vibrant colors, and with beautiful balconies designed with careful iron work, and people bustled happily down the sidewalks, snapping photos and wandering in and out of every store they passed. I tried to picture Louis and Lestat, the vampires who were written to live here, and found it much harder to envision them here than it had been in the cemetery.

taken from Google images of Royal Street

taken from Google images of Royal Street

Why, I wondered, had Anne Rice strayed so far from the traditional perception of vampires hiding out in some dark and creepy setting, prowling through the deserted night like an animal in search of prey? Why place monsters in so lovely a location—in one of the brightest and most bustling streets in America?


I found a solution while reflecting on our time in the cemetery. The notion that I have always had of cemeteries has generally been a negative one. I associate it with death, and the sadness of having to bury and leave behind someone with whom you share memories of being together and joyous. I have always interpreted that cemeteries connote sadness; each tombstone signifying the end to something that had been good. 

But as I reflected on that somber walk across the cemetery grounds, and having looked through the photos I had taken there, I began to see spots of beauty in an otherwise morose setting. Many of the graves were covered with little artifacts that represented the deceased people who lied beneath them. There were flags pinned to tombs, crosses erected, even a few worn pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises kept safe in a jar—a tribute to a deceased person who had likely lived by the novel’s inspiring themes. I was touched by all these trinkets. They seemed to be an invasion of light into a place that up until this point I’d only seen the darkness of. Objects that preserved a lasting presence of the person just below them; reminders that they had once lived an entire life and that it had contained happiness. 

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The result of my reflection was the consideration that there is no unsurpassable barrier between death and life. Of course, one cannot float freely between the state of living and the state of being dead. What I mean to say is that death is not surrounded by solely sorrow, nor is life free of its tinges of darkness. A tombstone is decorated with beautiful flowers and flags and crosses and novels; allowing the former existence of that deceased person to still resonate joyfully in the world of the living. A vampire buys an apartment on Royal Street, and a bustling center of human activity is now invaded by the living dead. Life and death are interchangeable, in small ways—like the adorning of a gravestone—and in shockingly major ways—like the hidden presence of a monstrous being among unsuspecting humans. Having developed my understanding, it now seemed less odd to me that Anne Rice should place Louis, Lestat, and Claudia in a cute little store-top residence on the lively Rue Royal. And I can better understand the style of New Orleans funerals, which Louis describes as “a festival…a celebration of death.”

A disclaimer is necessary, I think, in defense of the vampires who I claim to be death-like figures who invade the beauty of Royal Street with their darkness. After my revelations about cemeteries having their share of beauty, and the lack of perpetual separation between death and life, I read further into Interview With The Vampire and found that the vampires (disregarding the sadistic Lestat) were difficult to hate. Again having formed preconceptions of vampires based off of the traditional legends, I had made the assumption that the vampire in the novel would be a “bad guy.” And while Lestat, and sometimes Claudia, easily fulfill that expectation with their ruthless murders and absence of remorse, Louis does not. He is unhappy with the role he must play as a vampire. He kills regretfully, always lamenting that he has been forced into this existence, out of which nothing awaits him but damnation. And in his idling hours, he sits and thinks of those many beautiful things in life that deserve appreciation. He is “in love with color and shape and sound and singing and softness and infinite variation.” Again going against the traditional conceptions of vampiric nature, Anne Rice creates a sympathetic character in Louis; a vampire who dislikes his evil nature and upkeeps a gratitude for the aspects of mortal life that are beautiful. Louis in himself is another example of an assumed setting of darkness being infiltrated by beauty; like flowers in a cemetery.


Reading The Interview With The Vampire in New Orleans allowed me to better understand Anne Rice’s characters and their behaviors. Visiting the cemetery and Royal street revealed the disconnect that existed in my mind between death and beauty. I had thought that cemeteries were strictly morose; that Rue Royal was only fun; that vampires were monsters incapable of empathy. But reading the novel while living in its setting helped me to see that boundaries are not always so strict. Beauty goes where it will, as does darkness; each following its own intuition with disregard towards our expectations. Each can go wherever—into a grave or into New Orleans. I continue on this trip, and in every place, my eye is out for beauty, knowing now that it can pervade any space—even the heart of a vampire.