They were driving south, keeping to the river as it made its way to the Gulf of Mexico. They had the dog with them. They had fled the bitter temperatures and ever-gray skies and were driving south until they hit 60 degrees, his personal number of temperature happiness. It took them a few days, and when the magic number appeared, he did a little dance in his seat and she laughed.
Sometimes they opened the window for the dog so that he could stick his head out. There was little he liked more than a road trip. He liked snuffing in the air of a new place, and all the places they drove through were new.
They stayed at dog-friendly motels at night, and they checked in late, so that they didn’t know what the surroundings were. She was the early riser and she took the dog for a morning walk and then partook of the free continental breakfasts.
Just as he had waited for 60 degrees, she was waiting for grits, her personal barometer of southernness, to appear on the continental breakfast buffet. When they did, she ate two bowls of them, buttered and salted. But not cheesed.
They had a trucker’s atlas with them. They were hugging the river, that was the plan, so they didn’t consult it much except when night came and they had driven their limit. Where was the next small town, and would it have a pet-friendly motel?
They knew they’d consult it more when they reached the Gulf and began the eastward trek to their destination, but for now, they didn’t have directions. The trucker’s atlas had all kinds of useful information, some they didn’t need but read aloud anyway, such as the weight limits for various roadways in various states.
It was dark when they approached Mobile and they fake-argued about the way Mobile was really pronounced and if the accent lay on the first or second syllable: Mo-beel. Mo-beel. Mo-bye-ull. Mo-bull. They came to no consensus.
The city lay before them, shining. Two onion-domed buildings made her feel she was in a new and strange place.
Traffic slowed to a crawl. Police were everywhere. Barricades blocked streets. People everywhere were walking steadily toward an unknown destination.
Far off they heard music, brass bands and zydeco. The highway ahead of them was now blocked off. Their small car had joined a car river, threading its way who knew where. And then all the cars began pulling off the road, parking wherever there was space. Ahead, the music grew louder.
Ways in and out of the city had closed down. The stream of people grew bigger.
“What’s going on?” she said to him.
She was nervous. There were many, many miles to go before they reached their destination, and it was already late, and she was already very tired.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but we’re about to find out.”
He opened the door and got out. The dog leaped after him. She followed. The three of them joined the stream of walkers, past the police roaming in pairs, the barricades, past trailers hooked up to thrumming generators, toward the steadily louder music, the lights.
“It’s Mardi Gras,” he said in wonderment. “Look.”
It was Mardi Gras. They were in Mobile, the city that they would later find out was the city of the original U.S. Mardi Gras celebration.
They joined the throngs of people standing on the sidewalks, small children on shoulders, big men brandishing beer, women swaying to the music.
Parades threaded their way through the streets of Mobile, outlandish floats and outlandish costumes and music everywhere. Was everyone they saw smiling? Everyone they saw was smiling.
Beads snaked through the air and they jumped up to catch them. Dolls and moon pies and all manner of candies came sailing through the dark air and they caught those too.
A big man standing next to her caught an enormous rag doll and looked about the crowd: “Where’s a little girl?” She pointed to one with dark hair, sitting on her father’s shoulders. The big man offered her the doll, and she took it without smiling, and then she smiled.
“Happy Mardi Gras, little girl,” the big man said, and took another swig of his beer.
The dog stood patiently between them, watching the floats as they passed by. She draped some shiny purple beads around his neck and he graciously accepted them. She draped some shiny green beads around her companion’s neck.
“This is what happens when you don’t have a big plan,” he said to her. “This is what happens when you wander your way.”
Parades. Big, strange, beautiful floats carrying dancing costumed people. Beads and moon pies and dolls flying through the air. Music rising high in the dark southern sky. Magic.