Posts Tagged With: Travel

Drugs & ghosts: eclectic history in the French Quarter

The inside of the Pharmacy Museum offers a myriad of canned cures.

Though the buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter retain the look of their historic times, they have been put to new uses as bars, restaurants, stores, and homes. At 514 Chartres Street, however, one façade retains an interior much like its historic one.

The front windows of the Pharmacy Museum display clear glass jars filled with colored water that pharmacists used to use to indicate their place of business. Inside, both walls are lined top to bottom with shelves holding countless containers filled with liquids, powders, and herbs historically employed to treat illnesses. The blues, ambers, and yellows within them brighten the dark wooden walls and the charcoal gray stone floor—the latter apparently the original made from what was once ship ballast.

In front of the shelved walls are display cases containing artifacts of historical medicinal practices: pills and powders with their original packaging, the first (cringe-worthy) hypodermic needles, tools for therapeutic bloodletting (including a jar labeled “Leeches”). Except for stopping to pay the attendant for entrance (a mere $5), I felt as if I’d walked into a business simply abandoned by its owner.

A hauntingly real pair of eyes in the ophthalmology collection.

Upstairs, where the pharmacist had made his living quarters, there is a more museological feel. A collection of eyeglasses explains treatments of vision problems and displays a pair of fake eyes that appeared uncannily animated. The other exhibit highlights medicinal and experimental uses of liquor (in case reveling tourists need an excuse for excessive imbibing).

Back outside, dusk was beginning to fall, so I headed over to the voodoo store to meet up with a haunted history tour. The guide promised a mixture of history and horror simply in his attire. He wore a blue collared shirt with sleeves rolled to just below his elbows and, over it, a beige suit vest with silk back. With a canvas messenger bag swung across his body, he looked like a Depression-era newsboy—save for the bright blue sneakers that stuck out beneath the cuffs of his baggy brown pants. Though he showed no apparent limp, he walked with a wooden cane that was tipped at the base with brass, and with which he seemed to deliberately beat out a tempo as we walked.

The guide told of ghost encounters in several buildings. People have been known, he said, to feel a child’s touch when walking past a burned-down orphanage. Others feel a chill at an intersection where dead bodies were once piled waist-high during an epidemic. On the balcony of a building once owned by Nicolas Cage (who refused to spend the night inside), he told us that some people have reported seeing a French woman chasing a child slave. His apparent cynicism seemed to disparage those who would believe in ghosts, even as he admitted to having taken part in paranormal investigations.

A haunted balcony in the French Quarter.

Though he was clearly trying to fit the role of “New Orleans haunted history guide,” he came off as rather ridiculous. Sure, I imagine a ghost guide to be a bit quirky, but I did not anticipate pretention. In addition to his outfit’s bid for some sort of historically-inspired hipness, his narration was a mélange of historical details, reported ghost encounters, and measured skepticism. He mentioned several times his research in “the archives” and derided the city’s requirement for tour guide certification, implying he never learned much from their “required books.” His talk seemed inappropriate for a tour guide; he spent more time trying to impress us with his critical perspective than in bringing the past vividly to life.

As a historian myself, I felt put out by his cynicism. If you are going to give a ghost tour, the least you can do is believe in ghosts! His skepticism was akin to giving a history tour and constantly questioning whether the events you’re interpreting even happened. When asked directly, the guide would not admit to ever encountering a ghost himself. Which is fine; I don’t expect ghost encounters to be a requirement for all haunted history guides. But don’t break the spell in which tourists are wrapped. Even practical-minded historians are looking for a little magic in New Orleans.

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Reverence and rowdiness: on trying to love Yellowstone

As I paddled into a cove along the shores of Lake Yellowstone’s West Thumb, the clouds that were threatening at a distance moved swiftly overhead. Thunder began to add its eerie sound to the silence of the landscape. Lightning could not be far behind.

Paddling the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone. (Photo by author)

Seeing a rocky island beach, our tour leader motioned for us to paddle quickly to it. The last kayaker to shore literally jumped out of the water as a flash and crack of lightning hit the glassy lake. Here I was in what I had been told was the most culturally infected of our national parks—Yellowstone—having a most unusual encounter with nature’s unpredictability.

I had always thought of Yellowstone as the “safe” park. Our young guide seemed to think the same. While he saw the clouds approaching, he continued to paddle along though there were several beaches we could have landed on for safety. His inexperience continued to reveal itself over the course of the overnight paddle. He seemed to possess all the outdoor skills of a Disney Jungle Cruise guide. Did he view his job as backcountry guide with the same false sense of safety with which I approached the park?

While I was alarmed to find such a cavalier attitude towards nature with a permitted guide service, I was not at all surprised to find it near the park’s main attractions where my impression of the tourist-ed Yellowstone landscape was reinforced. As I drove along the scenic Grand Loop Road, I encountered a dozen cars pulled haphazardly to the side of the road. I fell in line to see the attraction (for I, too, was a tourist). There, in the dry grass that nearly camouflaged its russet fur, browsed a small grizzly bear.

Cars block the road as visitors spot an elk along the Grand Loop Road. (Photo by author)

At first glance, the grizzly seemed surreal. I had never before seen a bear in the wild, and had not expected my first encounter to be roadside. But before enjoyment could set in, a crew of baseball-capped men piled into the back of a red pickup truck rowdily yelled towards the grizzly, teasing it with fresh-caught fish from their stash of ice chests. Thankfully, the bear ignored the ruckus. I could not.

Old Faithful loyally erupts for a constant audience. (Photo by author)

I still find it difficult to separate the image of the bear from the foreground of noisy tourists. I’d like to see Yellowstone again, but I’m afraid to try. While its wilder parts promise serenity, crowds frame its icons. I have, however, found camaraderie with strangers in other national parks. At an overlook in the Badlands, a tattooed and bandanna-ed biker headed to Sturgis and I exchanged words of wonderment as the setting sun cast shadows over the crevices of the landscape. At the top of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain, I marveled with fellow hikers at the view from fourteen thousand feet as we passed around a bag of celebratory trail mix.

But Yellowstone seemed to attract a different tourist—one who may or may not hold reverence for nature. People here treated nature as amusement, and behaved much like tourists at Disneyland. I don’t know whether it is the park or the people who visit it that make Yellowstone feel more amusement venue than wilderness. I enjoy Disneyland—just not with my nature.

This is the second installment in my series Wandering the National Parks in honor of National Parks Week, April 16 through 24.


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Glimpsing the tamely wild in Glacier National Park

As I threw down my pack, my shoulders momentarily rejoiced. If shoulders could talk, they would have used the privilege to sigh, “Ahh.” I unzipped the top compartment of my pack, grabbed my water bottle and filter, and sat on a flat rock at the river’s edge.

Beargrass in bloom in Glacier National Park. (Photo by author)

The waters of Glacier National Park are beyond blue. At a distance, lakes shimmer like iridescent gemstones. Here at the river’s edge, the water obscured nothing beneath it. Only the ripples of its flow masked swimming fish. As I screwed the filter onto my bottle, the sparkling water mimicked me. Do you really need to filter such perfection?

But I did. Despite its role as a place of escape, wilderness sometimes reminds us we don’t quite fit in. Somehow we have become ill adapted for natural places. (Or, as is usually the case, we have made natural places ill adapted for ourselves.) This river was so clear filtering hardly seemed necessary, but this is a ritual of wilderness, and one I quite enjoy. After walking along rocky trails weighed down by a backpack, the slow, smooth arm movements required to lift water from its source are a welcome contrast. As I pumped, the world slowed. I looked off into the distance and took in the tiny details of the landscape: the pebbles on the river’s bottom, the towering evergreens, the deeply blue sky.

I had just crossed over the Two Medicine River on a rustic log bridge (an odd but welcome sight in the midst of wilderness). As I fell into my meditative-pumping state, something moved in the bushes off to my right. I sat just two feet from the log bridge, with my back towards it and, before I could even process the rustle in the bushes, something squat and dark and fluffy moved towards me, hopped onto the bridge, and ran across. Its bushy tail followed animatedly.

The log bridge (sans wolverine) over Two Medicine River. (Photo by author)

As it passed me, I caught a glimpse of the animal’s face. I could hardly believe it. It was a wolverine. I marveled at how unafraid it seemed. Perhaps it was waiting for me to finish pumping my water and lost patience with my slow contemplation. Or maybe it didn’t care at all about the human presence. It didn’t go for my pack, which was nearby and contained food, or for me. It simply went about its business as usual. (Though it did seem to enjoy the human intrusion of the bridge.)

As I turned to watch the animal saunter over the log passageway, I was reminded of documentarian Martin Johnson’s idea that wildlife in remote regions are “tamely wild.” That is, they show no fear of humans because they have not been taught to fear them. They are tame through unfamiliarity. This wolverine had no reason to fear me in this remote area of the national park where it enjoyed a refuge from guns and cars. Nor did it have any reason to ransack my stores of food in the plentiful landscape. For both me and the wolverine, Glacier delivered the promise of the National Park System “to provide for the enjoyment of [scenery and wildlife] in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This is the first installment in my series Wandering the National Parks in honor of National Parks Week, April 16 through 24.

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