Rambles and Revelations
The Complete Introduction from Louisiana Rambles
When I first moved to New Orleans in 1999 I fell into an instant, headlong crush with the city. It was an easy love, one that over time would prove its substance and resilience through adversity but nevertheless one that registered at first sight. My relationship with Louisiana was much slower to start. It was one that took years to burn in, one that revealed itself in stages, and one that opened doors to beauty and experience that, at least in the beginning, I didn’t even realize were waiting right in front of me.
I was raised in Rhode Island, a place I adore with all my heart. But a few years after I finished college and returned home, the romantic travel bug attached itself to my imagination. The notion of New Orleans loomed large as a place apart from what I’d known, and I fantasized about it as a foreign city within my own country. From afar it seemed just that exotic and colorful, and the first impressions I gleaned during a few weekend visits as a tourist were no less enthralling. I found a city where people spoke English and watched the same television programs but where the local culture boomed out with unbridled Caribbean flair set amid a framework of distilled Old World otherness. I found a mysterious place, decadent but also drenched with traditions that I didn’t know and that I couldn’t take for granted. New Orleans seemed like the antidote for the normality of home, and I wanted to experience it while I was young and had no commitments tying me to one place or another.
So at age twenty-five I decided to embark on a brief dalliance in Dixieland, as I then envisioned it. I asked my friends, my family, and even my employer not to change too much in my absence, because I was sure I’d return home in a year or so with plenty of wild French Quarter tales to blow away my Providence friends when I resumed New England life.
Once I began exploring New Orleans, however, the clichéd expectations and stereotypes I’d held about the city began to fall away, replaced by the infinitely more interesting, complex, sometimes infuriating but ultimately rewarding realities. As I delved further, logged more time, met more people, and discovered more layers, my life here grew richer and the prospect of ever leaving grew increasingly remote.
Even as I got to know my new home, the whole place remained different and intriguing to me. I had never experienced a community as powerfully influenced by black culture and politics. Nor had I ever lived in a place with such specific vocabulary. I learned that counties in Louisiana are called parishes, so that I lived in Orleans Parish as well as the city of New Orleans. Restaurant menus were filled with words from the French culinary canon—courtbouillon, sauce bordelaise, remoulade—signifying Louisiana preparations no Frenchmen would recognize on his plate. And I soon began my first struggles to understand the word Creole, with its myriad and seemingly contradictory local applications. So much of what I experienced here came through a cultural filter that was new and fascinating, and one that was unique to this peculiar place.
As if there were any question about moving elsewhere someday, I would later meet and fall in love with my wife, Antonia Keller. She is a New Orleans girl with a huge New Orleans family. For a transplant to this city, marrying such a girl is generally viewed as the demographic equivalent of Cortez burning his boats on the New World coast. There is no turning back.
I now have friends who grew up in New Orleans hearing from their parents that they did not live in the South, but rather that they were citizens of the northernmost port of the Caribbean. Even during my nascent explorations I felt I could relate to this attitude. I began to look at New Orleans as an island city-state. The core of the city is surrounded on all sides by fortified floodwalls and ringed by river, lake, and canal, or by swamps that are passable only on causeways. With the exception of the tiny, old two-lane River Road hugging the Mississippi River levee, the city is accessed entirely by a series of bridges. There is a definite sense of departure and arrival when people here come and go by land, though I found that I myself rarely left. For years, I was content to sit within the city’s walls and moats and explore its beguiling ways. In a sense that was a confirmation of my growing New Orleans identity, because one of the accurate stereotypes about people from New Orleans is how rarely they feel compelled to leave home.
I had a hazy awareness of south Louisiana outside of New Orleans, and periodically I would take a road trip down the interstate to some specific destination in Cajun country. But as much as New Orleans seemed to stand apart from the rest of America, it also felt distinct from the rest of Louisiana. I had only the sketchiest idea of what made up south Louisiana between the highways. It was as if I lived in Vatican City but couldn’t find my way around Rome.
The turning point came on the eve of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm would clearly be very bad for New Orleans, so with great dread I made the decision to leave the city about eighteen hours before Katrina’s landfall. At that time, I drove a 1971 Cadillac, a rust-pocked relic which was in good enough shape for cruising around town but which would never endure the rigors of inching evacuation traffic as the entire panicked region poured onto the interstate. My answer was to try the River Road, that thin, paved trickle hugging the levee and leading upriver toward Baton Rouge. So into the old heap I heaved a backpack of clothes and my stoic yellow Labrador, the Amazing Dr. Watson. We set off to wend a series of city side streets until we found the River Road and broke out to the alternating rural and industrial areas upstream from New Orleans.
While hundreds of thousands of people hit the highway, the dog and I had this nearly forgotten route practically to ourselves for long stretches. Though I was consumed with angst for the coming storm, I also took note of all that we passed on our journey. There were landmark antebellum plantation houses and tiny, tin-roof cottages, little roadside barrooms and restaurants, modern refinery complexes, and one small, old Louisiana town after the next—St. Rose and New Sarpy, Convent, Burnside, and Darrow, all of them situated by the river. Together it made a picture of Louisiana much different from the orderly gray and green vistas I knew from interstate travel between cities. Even as I drove through the parishes closest to metro New Orleans I felt that I was seeing a different side of the state, and I found it fascinating.
As the old Cadillac rumbled upriver, I vowed, with a Labrador as my witness, that if Katrina left anything standing in south Louisiana, I would get out and experience it. For all the recent hurricane damage, the BP oil disaster, and the ongoing, less dramatic but constant changes here, south Louisiana is still standing, and this book chronicles the fulfillment of my evacuation vow.
A few years after Katrina, as the New Orleans recovery hit its stride and my own once-devastated Mid-City neighborhood began to thrive, I charted an itinerary of daytrip exploration. I sold the Cadillac and bought a ten-year-old Toyota RAV4, a glorified station wagon with better ground clearance and much better fuel efficiency, and I set off on the weekends and whatever weekdays I could steal away from work.
I did not attempt to travel all of Louisiana but instead stuck to the southern end of the state. This made for manageable daytrip journeys from New Orleans, and none of the destinations in this book are more than three hours driving time from the city. But more to the point, south Louisiana is where the state’s defining Cajun and Creole cultures developed and thrive still.
This travel itinerary took me up and down the Mississippi River from the rolling hills just north of Baton Rouge to its brown outlet at the Gulf of Mexico, and it led me along the bayous of southeast Louisiana and up through the Cajun prairie, stretching west toward Texas. The Atchafalaya Basin, with its diligently controlled river and enormous swamp, cuts this range roughly in half, and so it provides the framework for this book with the “East of the Atchafalaya” and “West of the Atchafalaya” sections each covering destinations and experiences on either side of this grand divide.
There are no mountain ranges or canyons in Louisiana, and sweeping vistas are hard to come by in this flat, most alluvial of states. Yet I soon grew enamored of and enthralled by the quiet geographic drama here. It’s something that comes from the massive, mechanically constant dynamic of water moving through land, from rivers looping around cities and towns, and from rich plains kneeling at scarcely discernible gradients into protean marsh, where land and water, plant and animal seem part of one enmeshed whole rather than separate actors distinct from each other.
In some parts of this south Louisiana territory, roads and towns cling to narrow ridges of riverside land, the ancient linear deposits that rise above the terrain and give way to cane fields, then to swamp, then to open salty Gulf. In other parts, ranchland and endless acres of rice stretch on for golden miles until a water tower and dark green cluster of oak tops materializes around a bend to announce a town.
Even in its rural distances, though, south Louisiana always seems able to evade monotony and offer the curious traveler something rewarding if not downright extraordinary. It could be the restaurant or dancehall that sits quietly in country seclusion until opening time, when it becomes a pulsing showcase for the region’s food, foot-driving folk music, and heart-on-its-sleeve hospitality. It could be the dead-end road that leads to a boat launch and the rambunctiously fecund Louisiana wetlands. It could be the sleepy-seeming, rundown farm towns where entire communities still gather for traditional celebrations that are more in step with medieval Europe than twenty-first-century America. It could be a relic from the dark history of slavery or a lingering cultural vestige of European colonial power plays, or it could be some incomprehensibly huge apparatus of America’s unsightly but essential petrochemical industry stuck against a river or buried in the swamp.
While richly diverse, these areas all share more in common with each other than with the rest of Louisiana and, while indisputably southern, they still stand uniquely apart from the South. This is why I call the area covered in this book America’s Cajun and Creole heartland, and I hope what follows in these pages will encourage people to experience these cultures at work while that is still possible.
South Louisiana faces an existential crisis as the Gulf of Mexico consumes its land. The southern end of the state is being converted to open water at a rate that experts estimate is about equal to one football field each thirty-eight minutes, or twenty-four square miles each year. Erosion and land loss are global concerns, but local advocates say no landmass on earth is vanishing faster than south Louisiana.
There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest factor is the Mississippi River and its role in Louisiana as the spout draining about 40 percent of America. Without a serious change in the way the country manages the business end of this river and its monumental power to alter landscapes, south Louisiana is doomed. Creeks, streams, dams, mighty rivers, and irrigation and industrial discharge programs from thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces impact the Mississippi and fundamentally direct life in south Louisiana. Sediment carried along in the river builds and sustains Louisiana’s land, and fresh water from the river recharges and balances its coastal wetlands. Currently, most of that sediment and fresh water is sluiced straight out to the open Gulf.
Government policy and industrial lobbying dictate the way Louisiana as we know it will die or persevere. This has been well known for many years now. But the tipping point for land loss is near. If serious, obvious, and large-scale change does not materialize within the next few years, many of the areas covered in this book will be degraded beyond redemption. Some will disappear completely into open water while others will surely face radical change as their roles and identities in a rapidly dissolving state are reordered. I wouldn’t wish this fate on anyone’s home, but it seems especially cruel that it’s happening in an area where the culture is so rich, so unique, and so expressly tied to place.
One of the clichés frequently trotted out about Louisiana is that people here “love to have a good time,” as if there are other places where people just love to sulk. But there is something to the cliché. South Louisiana isn’t just an interesting place; it also is a relentlessly, extraordinarily fun place. The difference, I believe, is how ideas of what constitutes a good time here more often spring from tangled history, family traditions, and specific Louisiana geography than they do from pop culture. People here don’t just share a culture; they use it hard and they use it together. Everywhere I traveled, I found a mixing of the generations. I didn’t visit nursing homes and I didn’t visit frat houses. But in the places representative of south Louisiana culture—the dancehalls and parade routes, the horse tracks and marinas, the waterways and the festivals, the places I recommend for finding Louisiana culture in action rather than on display—people of different generations mingle deeply, and everyone seems to have a blast.
To me, nothing sums up a quintessential Louisiana good time quite like a scene combining young people and old people in a distinctively local setting. It adds up to something nontransferable, something that speaks to this area’s originality, allure, and endangered value.
“Nothing in this state is done to spec,” the Baton Rouge writer Alex V. Cook advised after I told him about my plans for this book. At that moment we were standing inside Teddy’s Juke Joint, a tilting blues bar practically lashed together by strings of Christmas lights and sitting in a soggy field north of Baton Rouge.
“That’s in good ways and bad ways,” Alex said. “But you just have to know that going in. Everything will be a little off.”
I nodded, thinking I knew what he meant. But I had no idea what was in store, nor could I imagine just how often his words would ring in my head during my rambles. Here is what I found.