“New Orleans is one of my favorite sleepless towns, so I’m certain you are in good company. It’s Las Vegas with a Southern drawl, softer edges, sultry history and Spanish Moss.”
It was with that text from a friend that I landed in New Orleans on Friday after 30 hours of flying through five airports across numerous time zones.
Believe it or not, it was my first trip to The Big Easy, and while I could have used a long nap before hitting the bricks in search of my first non-airline/airport meal since breakfast on Thursday, I was at least aware that there’s no rest for the weary in this city. So, despite being a bit blurry-eyed and burned out, I laced up my cushy trainers and hit the town running.
Running from my hotel in the French Quarter, I was immediately struck by the kaleidoscope of colorful characters out on the streets. Wide-eyed, crooked-walking tourists smelling of booze tend to stick out against the bevy of slow-moving, cool-handed locals, bohemian artists, street urchins and semi-professional pickpockets, but when you head out to get in 5 easy miles at dusk (a.k.a., Happy Hour), they all blend into an unpredictably swaying maze of humanity.
In that way, running the French Quarter is very similar to running along the Las Vegas Strip. What sets N’awlins apart is its history. Founded by French colonizer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718, the city has a proud heritage of commerce, culture, characters and cuisine. However, there is no getting around the unsavory (yet very intriguing) ambiance the French Quarter fosters.
While there is an openly sleazy vibe evident on Bourbon Street, the thing you notice most while running, walking or stumbling through the French Quarter is the ever-present stench hanging in the air. At best, it is a blending of the comforting aromas of fresh beignets, fried oyster po’boy sandwiches, spicy gumbo, shrimp creole and chicory-infused coffee, but it more commonly a musty mixture of cigarette smoke, burning incense from a palm reader’s table, fruity daiquiris, pungent street food and spilled beer that’s been soaking into the floors of the 18th century townhouses and cottages since, well, the 18th century.
Combined with the staccato rhythm of street corner jazz bands and brightly colored Mardi Gras beads, it’s not hard to feel the titillating but very desperate joie de vivre that emanates from the French Quarter. Especially when you’re running sober through the streets. They celebrated Mardi Gras here 11 days ago, but, really, every day is Fat Tuesday in these parts. A T-shirt hanging in a local shop sums it up: it depicts the smirking face of a red devil saying, “God is busy. Can I help you?”
On my run, I saw pecan pralines being put on racks in the window at Southern Candymakers, heard a brass band playing outside the packed Café du Monde and watched a nervous tourist take a seat at Electric Ladyland Tattoo Shop. I ran next to historic street cars, through a few dimly lit back alleys and along the crescent-shaped curve of the Mississippi River. And while running past Woldenberg Park adjacent to Steamboat Natchez (the last authentic steam-powered paddle wheel ship on the Mississippi), I came across elite Ethiopian runners Meseret Defar and Gebre Gebremariam doing some post-run strides and stretching.
The elite runners are here, of course, for the Rock ’n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon and Half Marathon, along with Mo Farah, Martin Lel, Brett Gotcher, Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and about 15,000 other runners eager to experience fast race courses set against the backdrop of an exciting weekend in the Big Easy. The courses start on the edge of the French Quarter and send runners down historic Peters Street, or as it was formerly called, “rue Saint-Pierre,” before meandering through other parts of the urban grid and finishing in City Park.
As I finished my run at the corner of Canal and Bourbon streets, darkness had fallen on the city, but the French Quarter was just starting to come to life. I covered my 5-mile self-guided tour in about 45 minutes and returned with a new appreciation for the beauty, history and vibe of this unique part of New Orleans, not to mention an enormous appetite.