The stretch of expressway is only about 80 miles, but as you drive it these days you are overwhelmed by ironies. Disaster-torn streets at the bottom; a gaudy, gargantuan shopping mall at the top. Muck and mud and death on one end; a water slide park on the other. No food, no electricity, no potable water, no feeling of personal security in New Orleans; a venti caramel macchiato to go just 59 miles away.
The trip between the two cities after Hurricane Katrina "is so weird," says carpenter Paul Metzler, 46. As he talks about his escape from death and then the flooded city, he cannot really find the words, he says, to express how very bizarre it is for someone like him who now has nothing to move so swiftly back into a world that has too much of everything.
At the northwest New Orleans city limits, a little boy and an old man try to fix a car. The old man has his head under the hood while the kid dances around a bright red gas can -- a familiar symbol of the new New Orleans. They're on their way to everything, but if that car won't start, they'll have nothing.
Staci Couret, 37, is parked near the Starbucks, just one hour from the French Quarter -- when I-10 is not the bumper-to-bumper mess it is these days. She is driving a U-Haul trailer back to recover what she can from a publishing business on the outskirts of New Orleans. She has brought two co-workers. They cleared out to Houston before the storm even arrived. "We've been laughing for a week," she says. "To keep from crying."
Nearby, the parking lot of the Tanger Outlet Mall in Gonzales -- a lineup of usual suspects such as Izod, OshKosh and Old Navy -- is being used as a refueling area for military trucks, buses and ambulances venturing in and out of the fray. Piped-in music along the walkway plays Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking."
Here, at this transitional point between the wet world and the dry, between survival and surfeit, the boots on the people in camo fatigues are made for wading.
National Guardsman Eric Connor, 35, stands near a long green fuel tanker. The Shreveport mechanic has been pumping gas for days now, first in the deluged downtown and now here across the way from the Tommy Hilfiger shop.
New Orleans, he says, "is messed up. It'll never be the same."
He's concerned that his life may be the same way. He says he's being paid only $30 a day by the state and he doesn't know what he's going to do when he gets home. "File bankrupt, I guess," he says.
The first few exits coming from New Orleans are used as staging areas for evacuation and emergency vehicles. There are long stretches of sun-bleached expressway and walls of straggly green trees, mostly unfazed by Katrina.
Along about Gonzales, things begin to get strange and different. There's a billboard for boats. Then there's the outlet mall and a Chili's and an abundance of electric light and short lines at the gas stations.
Not too far from the Prairieville exit, commerce is brisk at Hebert's gun shop. Tim Mullins, 25, already has one pistol. But with all the new people coming up from New Orleans and all the desperation in the air, he has decided he needs another. He settles on a black Springfield 9mm. "You're going to have to be prepared for the worst," he says. "But hope it gets better."
Gun sales are up all across the state, according to C.J. Hebert, 55, the shop's owner.
"I've got some good defensive rounds," he says to a customer over the phone.
He's sold out of ammo already and had to order a quick shipment from Chattanooga. He even had to take fuel to the truck's driver between here and Tennessee.
"When I pull it out," one customer says of a non-reflecting model, "I don't want anybody to know where I am."
Hebert says, "The people are just scared."
Up the road you'll find Jimmy Swaggart's giant concrete World Ministry Center complex. Swaggart's name is printed twice on the entrance sign, so there's no mistaking who's in charge.
The rambling complex also contains his World Evangelism College, his Crossfire Youth Ministry and the offices of his Sonlife Radio Network. Next door is the massive Mall of Louisiana, a town-size monument to the consumption of American stuff.
Across I-10, the Center of Hope church looks like a police station. A long, long line of cop cars is parked there.
And at the nearby Highland Road exit, the roller coasters and water slides of Dixie Landin' fun park fill the horizon, bizarre reminders of what New Orleanians left behind. The park's last day was Monday. Even as evacuees fled along I-10 to the dry ground of Baton Rouge on Labor Day, kids splashed in the surging blue waters of the wave pool and raced each other down the slip-and-slide Plunge.
Pam Hoffman, who says she's "39ish," and her 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, were leaving Dixie Landin' mid-afternoon. A teaching assistant, Hoffman says her life in Jefferson Parish was a shambles. They had just spent a lot of money on a dance costume for Amanda and they didn't even know when she would go back to school.
"I don't know if I'm getting paid," Hoffman says. Her husband works for Pitney Bowes.
"We took a break, me and her," Hoffman says, smiling at her daughter, who has her hair tied back and is wearing a bathing suit and black shorts with the word DANCE on them. "We didn't want to think about everything else."
Hoffman says that as she was floating lazily along the water park's motor-driven stream in an inner tube, thinking about the storm and the stress and the life she must now rebuild, she began to feel a little uneasy. Amanda, apparently, was feeling the same way. They decided to leave the water park early. "We just didn't want to be here anymore," Hoffman says.