RIVER ROAD IS A NARROW RIBBON of asphalt winding alongside the Mississippi River for 90 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Actually, it's two roads, one on each side of the mile-wide river, connected by the occasional bridge or ferry. These ran through one of the strangest human landscapes in America, a chain of rural parishes that bring together the nation's great shortcomings: the legacy of slavery, the gap between rich and poor, and the cruel greed of some of its largest corporations.
I traveled River Road for the first time on a quiet Sunday in January, a time when southern Louisiana still basks under a balmy subtropical sun. I got on the interstate, a most impressive network of infrastructure. It whisked cars and trucks up and over the high levees protecting New Orleans from the twin flood threats of the river and the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico. It carried them on stilts for miles above uninterrupted cypress swamps and over the muddy, brown Mississippi before gently setting them down on the spongy eastern bank. I took the first exit and--180 degrees later-- arrived in another time, another world.
The first few miles were not unusual. I passed through fields and small stands of wood, modest wooden homes with aging pick-up trucks in the driveway, sleepy main streets of one-street towns. Most of these were on the left-hand side of the road. The road's other shoulder tended to hug the base of a steep, three-story tall, grassy