Monday, January 25, 2010
I'm leaving from the side of the road on Louisiana 182, heading down through Houma, staying on 182 to somewhere between Humphreys and Oak Forest, along Black Bayou.
There isn't a cloud in the sky, not even early in the morning. It's in the high 50s and will get up to about 65. Beautiful day.
After a mile or so the four-lane divided highway narrows to two lanes, and I can see a water tower that says Bayou Blue. On the map it says this is Savoie, but I don't see that name anywhere. Whatever its name is, it's a collection of buildings reasonably close together--two pawn shops, a junkyard full of trucks, another larger one filled with construction equipment and other scrap metal, and a Family Dollar store. The cottage industry here seems to be trading in things people don't want anymore. At this point I cross from Lafourche Parish into Terrebonne
All of Louisiana celebrates this morning the victory of the Saints over the Vikings, 31-28 in overtime. I watched a bit of that game myself, although I didn't have any emotional stake in the game. Part of me wanted to see the old warhorse Brett Favre win it, just because of his durability, but I really didn't care. In the end he crapped out throwing for an interception, one of the many things for which he holds the record. And everyone here is overjoyed.
The sidewalks of Houma have begun. Although I've been in this city since the night before last I haven't really gotten a strong impression of it, except the part out by Walmart. It seems to be divided into a number of different sections. I may have missed it, but the downtown doesn't seem like much. The Route 3040 business district, on the west side, has all the big box stores and other franchises that most cities have. Houma is a city of about 32,000, named for the Houmas Indians, and founded in the 1840s. It's a fairly isolated and self-contained place on the intracoastal waterway connecting the towns in this part of the state with each other and with New Orleans. It's the parish seat of Terrebonne Parish. I'm deep in Cajun country here. Some folks I've overheard sound as if English is not their first language.
Houma comes across as a functional city, without frills. It has a hospital, the waterway, plenty of stores, but no frilly Spanish or French architecture to speak of--it looks primarily southern. By far the most beautiful and stately things in this city are the live oaks, many of which appear to be older than the city itself. Usually they're wider than they are tall, and they never lose their leaves, so they tend to stand fairly far apart, providing huge amounts of shade.
At a little over 8 miles I'm down at the south edge of town, taking a right and continuing on Route 182 northwest along Black Bayou, a fifty-foot wide waterway. As I get to the outskirts of town there are two roads running along the bayou--182 on the south side and another one on the north, connected by hundred-foot-long-bridges every four miles or so. Most of the houses are in a line along the roads on the sides opposite the water. This is the high rent district of Houma, with new luxury condos and older big houses, with an occasional mansion.
Outside Houma things get more bucolic. There are sugar cane fields and cow and horse pastures, and all along, near the road, these magnificent live oaks. On the bayou side of the road are a number of cypresses, bald and otherwise, some pine trees, and other deciduous southern oaks.
Route 182 is called Bayou Black Drive. This looks more like the south than any spot between New Orleans and here did, on that long drab trek through the bleak gray swampland.
People tend to wave as they go by out here in the country more than they do up in the urban areas. It's just a way of acknowledging a fellow traveler on the road. And as a pinko, I rather like the idea of fellow travelers. I wonder what they think of me as they go by. This guy with a white goatee wearing a khaki vest like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, its many pockets filled with necessary items for the walk--camera, recorder, first aid kit, extra batteries, notebook, cell phone, bandanna, iPod, knife, food, drink, poncho. And lots more pockets for things picked up along the way. "Who is that guy? Where is he going? Do we know him? Why is he picking up that dirty stainless steel fork?"
Although I've never done it before, I pick up one of the ubiquitous six-inch pieces of sugar cane stalk that line the roads, apparently having fallen from trucks at some point (I don't even know when they harvest the stuff). With my knife I whittle off the bamboo-like outer skin and inside there's a moist pulp. I chew on it, and it is delicious and sweeter than I thought it would be. Of course I hope I'm not inadvertently poisoning myself with pesticides or something. I try my luck with another piece, but this one has begun to ferment, and tastes like vinegar.
Here's a sign for the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge. I'm at a place called Waterproof, but there is another Waterproof in Louisiana, too, as I discover on the internet, and there is nothing about this one. It's another spot on the map.
I stop in the front yard of a large house set back several hundred feet to admire another live oak. This one is about the largest I've seen so far, with a trunk at least six feet in diameter. As I stand under it, a young man comes over from the house next door and asks me if I need help. He's seen me walking along. He introduces himself as Mike Greenberg, and I tell him what I'm doing and we chat for awhile. Mike thinks this tree might be two hundred years old. I wonder if it's even older. This tree might have been here when Napoleon ruled this area, or the Spanish.
St. Luke Baptist Church, built in 1902, has a cemetery next door. This is an African American church, so the last names on the graves are for the most part not French, although a few are. I sit down on the tomb of Alicia Hawkins, a little girl who lived not quite four years.
The sign outside St. Anthony Catholic Church, put there by the Knights of Columbus, says "Mother Mary Was Pro Life. Thank Heavens." A few rather bizarre images come into my mind. The Virgin walking into a Planned Parenthood clinic and saying, "I'm not married and I really don't want this baby. In fact, I can't even figure out how the hell I could have gotten pregnant!" Or the idea of an entire religion going by the wayside because a woman in Judea gets an abortion. Anyway, the cemetery here is full of French names--Thibodeaux, Hebert, Guidry, Breaux, Boudreau, Blanchard. These are all fairly common Cajun names. Interesting that some of the most common French Canadian names aren't represented, like Pelletier, which can fill up entire pages in phone books in Maine. You'd be hard pressed to find a French cemetery in New England without a few Pelletiers and Rouliers.
I come to a historical marker for an 1840s Greek Revival plantation house, called Orange Grove. Not long afterwards I spot an orange tree in someone's yard, the first I've noticed. On the bayou side of the road there's a small group of orange trees with a bunch of large navel oranges lying on the ground underneath them. Some of them look like they're still good. I take one for later.
At the Blanchard Bridge it's time to cross over to the north side of Black Bayou. This looks like the low rent district. I think I'm in Humphreys, or near it. People sit on benches or on docks and fish. Another small stand of citrus trees on the bayou side of the road. These look like tangerines. I take one off the ground. The Louisiana citrus crop was hit hard by freezes recently, but these look okay.
As I proceed, the neighborhood becomes trashier. Unhappy-looking dogs stand tied and barking in front of trailers that shouldn't even be inhabited. On the edge of the bayou someone is burning garbage, which gives off the smells of plastic, rubber, and cardboard. By the water a small moppy-looking dog lies dead and decaying, gradually becoming one with the litter-strewn earth. An upended couch, an upside down box spring, a child's plastic toy, a falling-down corrugated metal shed, an old man with a blowtorch cutting up its pieces. Two skeletons of semi trucks. Over all of this the ancient oaks preside.
Eventually the wretched refuse tapers off to swamps and woods again. I round a few more bends and the motor home comes into view at the edge of the parking lot of the Mt. Pilgrim Church.