On New Years Day, I woke up from a long night of celebrating that ended in omelettes at sunrise with a group of out-of-towners my friend Charlie and I met on a dance floor earlier that…night…morning….whatever.
I think everyone has a superpower. Some have incredible strength. Others are really fast. I don’t get hungover.
So as soon as I got up, I called my friend, Naqi, from high school (the Sachem Flaming Arrows from Lake Ronkonkoma, New York), who happened to be visiting, and asked if he wanted to go on an adventure with me. Like a reasonable person, Naqi asked what I had in mind, and I told him we were going to scale the tallest mountain in New Orleans!
“Wait, there’s a mountain in New Orleans?”
“Yup! Laborde Mountain!” I told him. I learned the mountain is named after Ellis Laborde, who — after coming back from World War II (where he was on the second boat to land at Normandy on D-Day!) served as General Manager of City Park from 1950 until 1979. That’s a very long time.
“Wait, how tall is that?” he asked, concerned.
“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.” At 43 feet above sea-level, Laborde Mountain clocks in as New Orleans’ highest peak. This surprises many residents who still believe Audubon Zoo’s Monkey Hill, at 27 1/2 feet, is the city’s highest point. The difference is even starker when you consider relative height. Monkey Hill’s base sits on a natural levee, 11 feet above sea-level, whereas City Park’s towering alpine has a base that actually begins below sea-level.
Reading through their website, it made me laugh when I saw City Park cheekily advertising “oxygen and sherpas upon request.”
I walked out the door, excited for the climb, but promptly turned around and went back inside. It was fucking cold out there. It was in the low-30s, which I understand is “nothing” compared to what you northerners get, but relativity feels real, and humidity definitely is.
Naqi is a self-professed lover of sandwiches, and I’m a self-professed lover of donuts, so we started at the District: Donuts.Sliders.Brew on Harrison Avenue where we got sliders for Naqi and a cookie dough-stuffed topped/stuffed donut for me.
We walked the mile down Harrison Avenue’s business district, which — with its gentle footprint of restaurants, bars, banks, and bakeries — has always reminded me of a small, northern town’s center. But the neutral ground separating the light traffic, snaps me back to New Orleans. As we made our way toward City Park, passing Lakeview establishments like Mondo, Parlay’s, and El Gato Negro. we talked about our old racquetball battles on Long Island, lost love, future aspirations, and how Aziz Ansari and online apps have changed the way we date.
Also, after passing several of them on Harrison Avenue, I tried to explain what the hell these bead dogs are.
“So, how is there a mountain in New Orleans?” Naqi asked.
“It’s actually a dump!” I said. “Everything I read said it was built ‘of rip-rap left from the construction of Interstate 610.'”
“What the fuck is rip-rap?” Naqi asked the question I’m sure many have wondered.
“I have no idea.” But I have since looked it up, and found an interview with John Hopper (not the sheriff from Stranger Things, but the one who is City Park’s longtime Chief Development Officer). In addition to using material from the construction of I-610 in the 1960s and ’70s, the trail uses “crushed bricks from the base of the park’s old tennis courts” and steps utilizing old railroad ties.
But the crowning feature is the new deck and benches at the top of the hill. The inspiration for the deck, made of kiln-dried cypress from a sustainable lumber operation in Mississippi, came from Estonia, where one of the deck’s architects saw a project employing used timber to make pavement.
The landscape…architect Elizabeth Mossop said the goal was to make it blend into its natural surroundings.
“You’re taking me to a platform of dead trees on top of a dump?”
We made our way over the Orleans Avenue Canal and through Scout Island (an adventure for another day), and after walking over some other unnamed lagoon, I checked Google Maps to see we had somehow missed the trail head. Hm.
“Do you have any idea where you’re going?” Naqi asked.
I didn’t, I thought. “Of course I do,” I said. “Hold on a second.”
I looked from the sidewalk on Harrison Avenue for any sign of a trail, through City Park’s diverse collection of oak trees. “Hey! Maybe that sign?” I pointed.
It was a trail map of City Park, and revealed what seemed to be several miles of trail through City Park’s 60-acre Couturie Forest. Add that to the Scout Island adventure!
“Okay, looks like we’re on the right track,” I told Naqi.
“I’m not sure I believe you, but I have no choice at the moment,” a resigned Naqi admitted.
I checked my phone before heading into the forest and noticed a text message from our friends Jay and Liz, who also happened to be in town for the New Year. “How long until you’re ready for lunch?” Liz asked.
I took off my gloves (which were actually socks, because I had recently lost my gloves) and texted back. “I think it should take us 20 or 30 minutes to get to the top. Will text on our way down.”
We followed a dirt path from the road into a forest and, within 15 seconds, we were at a fork.
“Which way?” Naqi asked. “You have no idea.”
“I think — I think right.”
We went right along the well-maintained trail, surrounded by trees, and the rare site of our own breath on a New Orleans afternoon.
“It looks like it goes up here,” I said to Naqi, excited we were on the right track again. We walked for another 30 seconds, and could see a stone platform at “the top.”
“Did we just get to the top?”
I took out my phone and wrote a quick text to Jay and Liz: “I think we might be earlier than expected.”
“Yup, I guess this is it,” I said.
“Adventure accomplished,” he laughed. We looked at the stone platform, which actually had a beautiful map of New Orleans carved into it. From the platform, several trails split down Laborde Mountain, the basis of Couturie Forest’s larger trail network.
“Yeah, but it’s weird that it’s a rock slab instead of a wooden platform, like the article had said.” I looked through my phone and pulled up another article, documenting a fire from April 2012, the product of arson. “I wonder when they put this slab in?”
I found reporting about a horrible incident about some sort of dog sacrifice that took place up here in April of 2016, and another piece quoting City Park officials as wanting to use a granite slab instead of wood for the new platform to mitigate the risk of future fires. The timing of that article means the new platform was installed sometime in 2017.
And here we were, standing on a platform atop New Orleans, both literally and figuratively. We were on our city’s highest peak, and also standing on a beautiful, detailed map. The lookout isn’t high enough to get over the trees, but it does provide enough solitude to forget you’re in the middle of the city. Since I accidentally found Bayou St. John for the first time, eight years ago, that outlet for escape has always been my favorite part of City Park.
As Naqi and I began the not-so-long journey down from the peak, I considered that there aren’t many similarities between Adventure #1 and this one. But there is one big one, and I think that similarity will be a major theme of this blog:
No matter how long you’ve lived in a place — and no matter how many times you’ve passed by a certain point, or through a certain establishment — there’s always more we can learn if we’re curious enough to ask. Whether it be a group of South Africans at my favorite bar, a lookout atop a recycling heap, or any adventure off a list, infinite in length — I’m going to be curious in 2018.