401 Miles in: Back-Bayou Louisiana

Patrick M Hoey
nola

It's eerie out here. The bayou forest sucks up sounds like a vegetative sponge. Even the Teutonic gnash of a 5.5-liter Mercedes-AMG V-8 sounds small. Trees covered in creeper vines and pale green moss stretch over this thin excuse for a road.

We've just crossed into Louisiana from Mississippi, and our 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG looks like it popped out of another universe. Clad in Miami white and with bits of carbon fiber, 530 hp, and a folding hard top, it carries an as-tested price of $167,950.

And two worlds collide.

Louisiana is a state swamped in mythology. There's a sense that you could get lost among the choking greenery and never quite get found again. All the cliches -- bayous, gators, True Blood towns, endless crawfish bonanzas -- are evident. But those expectations are soon twisted, too.

Less than ten miles after we zero the trip odometer crossing the state line, we take a bad turn: Highway 66 dead-ends with armed guards and razor wire. We've stumbled onto Angola, Louisiana's massive, storied state penitentiary, the inspiration for the movie The Green Mile.

There are a few buildings just outside of the guarded gates, including a shack selling po' boys and boiled shrimp and a modest prison museum. Top sealed and doors locked, the car sits tight as we head into the museum and take in its collection of shivs (the inmates'), Tommy guns (the guards'), and Gruesome Gertie, the state's retired wooden electric chair. A quick reverse and we roar south, the freedom of a road trip suddenly seeming a lot more free.

The plan is to Huck Finn down a collection of local roads that shadow the Mississippi River until it spills into the Gulf. This tangle of byways is known as the Great River Road. But the river, she is coy -- a tease even.

We're spiriting down a lonesome country road, and the nav system shows the Mississippi just off our starboard side. There's no hint of it, though, as the river is hidden by a massive levee of raised earth to stop flooding. Eat your heart out, David Copperfield.

The land is otherwise flat, but the road is nicely curvy. Banish enough of the SL63's overly vigilant safety systems, and the roadster finally shows promise. The rear nudges out on sharp corners, and the basso profundo of the torque-drunk biturbo V-8 makes your sternum vibrate like a tuning fork. Big engine, lots of rubber, good times.

This car gobbles miles, and we gobble Louisiana's bounty of food. Mile 45, a muffuletta sandwich in Saint Francisville; mile 80-something, a shrimp étouffée among Baton Rouge's orderly streets. Roadside joints selling boudin sausage, bowls of jambalaya, and turtle soup (yes, with turtle meat).

Louisiana is not Average America. Manmade structures are at war with water; witness all those above-ground cemeteries and raised roadways hovering over swampland. Then there are the plantations, such as the Allendale Plantation just off the river. A future Louisiana governor bought the land, and 125 slaves, in 1852 for $300,000. Wandering among its back roads, we turn onto Old Quarters Road -- as in slave quarters. It's dirt and runs past hollow-eyed shacks that slump between railroad tracks and a freshly planted field. People still live and work here.

The road is muddy, and too late I realize that the SL is sinking. Turning around is a dicey, slow affair as mud cakes the Michelins. A reminder that history can still suck you down.

Later, we drive the Mercedes aboard a ferry, the only way to get a look at the mighty Mississippi up close. (A sign says, "Your ferry is now on Twitter!") I lean over the deck and brown foam sprays into my mouth. Too up close.

The sun slinks away just as we arrive in New Orleans, original home of sin. The roadster tucked away safely, we dive into pulled-pork sandwiches at Sylvain, a French Quarter gastropub in a 1796 carriage house. Then, the late-night purples and magentas of jazz and cigarette smoke and bleats of horns on Frenchmen Street.

The next morning arrives too soon and we're on the road, gunning south. The road is Texas-straight, and a bored foot translates into triple-digit speeds. At its core, the 530-hp SL63 is a muscle car with an overly engineered roof.

Alongside is the damned levee, once again hiding the river. The only sure sign that we're on the right track are the petrochemical factories, siphoning water and burning the sky with smoke.

We travel to the end of the earth, or this bit of it, anyhow. A sign reads: "You have reached the southernmost point in Louisiana. Gateway to the Gulf." This is also the end of the Mississippi, where it endlessly vomits black silt. It is not beautiful: too many factories and too much junk floating in the black water, including a half-sunken Chevy Avalanche.

There is a seafood joint, though, called CrawGator's. Its logo shows a creature with a crawfish head and claws with the back legs and tail of a gator. Looking around, I'm pretty sure it could happen.

LOUISIANA PURCHASES

Sylvain, 625 Chartres Street, New Orleans, 504-265-8123, sylvainnola.com
Located near the edge of the French Quarter, this gastropub retains the warmth and detailing of the original 1796 carriage house in which it is located. The small bar brings an eclectic local crowd and unpretentious, superdelicious vittles. A good place to make new friends.

The Myrtles Plantation, 7747 U.S. 61, Saint Francisville, 225-635-6277, myrtlesplantation.com
They say the place is haunted, and you can also sleep here. Even if you don't see the ghost of Chloe (a slave and murderess, apparently), the spirit of the antebellum South hangs heavy. Rocking chairs, mossy oak trees, and quiet rooms. Two hours northwest of New Orleans.

CrawGator's Bar & Grill, 237 Sports Marina Road, Venice, 54-534-9357, venicemarina.com/10_restaurant.htm
When you finally reach the end of the Mississippi and the Gulf, you'll be hungry. Luckily, you'll find this rather colorful joint right on the water, serving fresh-caught shrimp and fish.

Marc Hamady
It looks nice
Klein
very good
Miles Krasic
The car is ugly beyond any measure.
Noah Feldman
Gorgeous Star!!! ;)

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