New Orleans, LA III

Louisiana Route 23 begins in a depressing suburb of New Orleans known as the West Bank or, more colloquially, as The Wank. The Wank is a collection of large surface streets and boxy, dirty cream-colored buildings from the sixties and seventies. Auto parts stores and nail salons appear at regular intervals, punctuated by vacant strip malls. Scraggly, uneven weeds sprout up from every hairline fracture in concrete sidewalks. The traffic is thick, the sky light gray, the landscape dull and level. There is no indication that the Big Muddy snakes nearby, no evidence of what this landscape might have looked like when the French arrived in the early 18th century. In The Wank, as in all of post-World War II American suburbia, the built landscape is total and opaque.

Route 23 leaves suburbia and follows the Mississippi southeast. From maps and satellite images, the landscape appears to be a treacherous patchwork of earth and water extending into the Gulf, the only continuity provided by a narrow umbilical cord of land tracing the river into the bayou. None of this is visible from the road. A tall grass-covered levee blocks out the gigantic river to the left and thick reeds combine with intense flatness, leaving the right side of the road mysterious. Trailer communities cling next to the asphalt lifeline at fifteen-mile intervals, each with its own tiny gas station and convenience store. On this Friday evening, they are either closed or clogged with customers. A storm damaged fire station sulks next to the road. Part of the roof is gone and holes yawn in its brick walls revealing shiny red engines.

Clouds disburse, revealing the platinum light of early evening as the road sinks into the glittering blue and white salt water. The levee is gone, the reeds have diminished, and the pavement skims along at water level—sometimes a few inches above, sometimes below. The bayou extends in all directions, lone trees sprouting out of aqueous mirrors. An overturned boat is visible in the distance, its red hull at a rakish angle as it eases into the soft mud. Contractors' trucks speed down the road, plunging almost desperately into the shallow water, guided by two stubby lines of vegetation that mark the border between asphalt and disaster—a biological equivalent to runway lights. In the distance, somewhere past Halliburton Road, a skeletal oil refinery rises out of the swamp.

Venice, LA is aptly named because it is drowning, less aptly named because it is ugly and graceless. Route 23 resurfaces and makes a sharp turn into the dirt parking lot of the Venice Marina. The parking lot is full of old trucks with lift kits and fishing stickers, the bland fleet vehicles of refinery workers, and a squad of news vans covering British Petrolium's devastating incompetence. The marina is crammed with boats. Nobody is out on the water. The bar, however, is doing brisk business. An intermittent breeze fans the elevated porch where locals with craggy, orange faces talk over bottles of Bud Light as they stare out over their boats or leer at the teenage girls waiting tables. In the dining room, incongruously clean-cut news teams slurp wormy heaps of pasta alfredo from paper plates, their laminated station ID badges dangling from lanyards around their necks.