Friday, February 5, 2010

Day 78: St. Michael the Archangel

[A note of explanation regarding the timing of this and subsequent posts: I got lazy during my stay with my friends and didn't do much on the blog. Then last Saturday, back on the road, I discovered that the broadband internet thingy I plug into the computer no longer worked. This wasn't surprising, exactly, because it was a device my wife had been given by an employer she no longer works for, and we expected them to cancel the service at any moment, which they finally did. So now I'm sitting in a bookstore on my day off, catching up. At some point I'll subscribe to the mobile service myself, but in the meantime the blogging will sort of lurch along.]

Delcambre to Kaplan. 19.8 miles/1404 total

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It's early. I’m headed out from Delcambre to Kaplan, through the town of Erath and the City of Abbeville.

Temperature is in the high 40s, expected to get into the low 60s, overcast.

I’m getting an early start because I am staying with my friends John and Joyce Carbaugh in Kaplan and Joyce drove me to the beginning point of today’s walk on her way to work. I’ll be walking to their house, so there’s no need to use either of my vehicles. A real luxury.

I’ve been with the Carbaughs since Saturday night, being immersed in the local culture and cuisine. Boudin, oysters, shrimp, crawfish etouffee, cracklins, and several other delicacies. The best boudin comes from Best Stop in Scott, just west of Lafayette. (For European readers, this is strictly boudin blanc; the blood sausage isn't readily available.)

John took me down to the Gulf of Mexico and to see some of the after effects of Hurricane Rita, which came less than three weeks after Katrina and did much more damage to this part of the state. Lots of flooding—houses picked up by the water and deposited elsewhere, buildings damaged or ruined. And of course rebuilding, sometimes higher and better, and sometimes just the same as before.

John is a teacher at Kaplan High School, and on Monday I spent a few hours there talking to students and faculty about the walk. His classes have been following the trip on the blog, so they know something of what I’m doing. I got the royal treatment, including some t-shirts, and the mayor sent over a letter and some pins with the town name on them. Altogether a great time. A friendly and open-hearted group. Thanks again.

A short time into the walk I enter Erath, veering off the Louisiana 14 bypass and going into the downtown. Erath is a town of a little over 2,000 that runs along the railroad tracks, on both sides. It had its centennial in 1999, so it’s a relatively new town. It calls itself La Porte d’en Arriere, which I think means the back door. Sounds a little kinky.

Erath has a museum, the Musee Acadien, but it’s only open in the afternoon, and it’s not even 9:00 a.m. yet. Local musician D. L. Menard was nominated for a Grammy for album of the year in the folklore category back in 1993.

On the way out of Erath, under a line of relatively young live oaks, is a historical marker. Acadian Prairie Settlement. Acadians obtained land here around 1781. Even though Erath isn’t very old this is the site of the first southern Louisiana prairie community.

On down Louisiana 14 I enter the city limits of Abbeville. First thing I see is the Chris Crusta Memorial Airport. At the 14 bypass I stay to the left in order to go through the center of the city. Abbeville, a city of about 12,000, is the seat of Vermilion Parish, and the birthplace of Robert Charles Guidry, a/k/a Bobby Charles, the man who wrote such songs as "See You Later Alligator" and "Walking to New Orleans." He died only a couple of weeks ago.

The interior of the Vermilion Parish Courthouse is clean but rather drab, for my taste. It has marble wainscoting and the paint above it is an institutional blue-green. I decide not to go up to check out the courtrooms, and maybe I'll miss something, but what the hell. In the hallway is an oil painting of Father Antoine Desire Megret, 1797-1853, founder of the city of Abbeville. Several other paintings adorn the walls, depicting scenes from 19th century town life. The exterior of the building is more impressive, built in what I suppose is a French colonial style from the turn of the century, with shuttered windows and large columns.

Down Concorde Street from the courthouse is Magdalen Square. At the corner there's a handsome building housing the Bank of Abbeville. Sort of Romanesque, with a couple of turrets, painted terra cotta and cream, with striped awnings over the windows.

In the park is a statue of Pere Megret. The pedestal tells the story, in English and French. Antoine Megret was a Capuchin missionary sent to Louisiana from France in 1842, to Vermilionville, now Lafayette. In 1843 he purchased some land here, in a village called La Chappelle, and started St. Mary Magdalene Church. He renamed the village Abbeville, after his home town in France. Pere Megret pretty much designed and built the city. In 1853 there was a yellow fever outbreak and the good father ministered to its victims, becoming the 73rd and last person to die of the disease. He is entombed under St. John’s Cathedral in Lafayette.

I go over to the church. This version, the third, was built after the previous one was destroyed by fire in 1910. Some nice stained glass windows inside, depicting miscellaneous saints of interest to the French, like St. Louis--King Louis IX of France.

I go over to the Abbeville Cultural and Historical Alliance Museum and Art Gallery. Almost an hour later I come out, having had a great conversation and tour of the place by Cheryl Jeanfreau. The exhibits included some aerial shots of Abbeville, Erath, and Delcambre taken after Hurricane Rita, showing the extensive flooding.

Here in Abbeville, every November, they have an omelet festival, staged by the Confrerie de l’Omelette Geante, in which they set up a huge pan and use over 5,000 eggs and other ingredients to make a giant omelet. It commemorates something involving Napoleon’s army, where the town of Bessieres in France made a giant omelet for the soldiers. People from cities in other countries that also celebrate the giant omelet come and participate. The cult of the giant omelet.

I learned a good deal more about Abbeville and the local area from Cheryl. Now I must get back on the road to finish the walk. Just as cotton and sugarcane littered the roadside in previous places, I now see rice all over the place, spilled from harvesters and trucks. This a very big rice growing area.

At 15 miles I enter Nunez, a spot on the map and on the road. I stop at the Nunez Quick Stop for a little pick-me-up. Nunez has the Quick Stop and some houses. Now I’m back out in the country, going past flooded rice fields. Little red things that look like buoys stick up out of the water. These are crawfish traps. Fishermen in small flat-bottomed boats go out onto the water and collect the crawfish and reset the traps. Later, when the rice has begun to sprout, the fields will be drained. I still need to find out more about rice farming.

I walk past Kaplan High School, where I visited on Monday, and now I’m officially in Kaplan, a town of about 6,000. This town is named for Abrom Kaplan, who bought a plantation around here in 1901. He must have been rich as hell and named the place after himself.

Kaplan unfolds typically. I pass the Piggly Wiggly and the Family Dollar. A sign says “Please Elect J. J. Landry Mayor of Kaplan.” I pass the Cajun True Value Hardware and G & H Seed Company. I’m going out on a limb to guess that the initials G and H stand for Guidry and Hebert, two very common names. You heard it here first, folks. Correct me if I'm mistaken.

At the intersection of Louisiana 14, called Veteran’s Memorial Drive, and Cushing Street I turn north into the center of town. A large sign proclaims that Kaplan is the home town of Sammy Kershaw, a country music singer (only distantly related to Doug Kershaw, another Louisiana singer who had a few Cajun crossover tunes back in the 60s). Sammy ran for Lieutenant Governor in 2007.

Several blocks up Cushing I notice that on the front step of the Kaplan Police Department there’s a statue of St. Michael the Archangel. I find the presence of this religious image on municipal property so arresting that I stop to snap a photo of it. As I’m walking on up the street a cop comes out of the building and calls to me. He gives me the old “Excuse me, sir,” which I recognize as copspeak for “Hey! Come back here, now!” I oblige and walk back. He asks me why I took a photograph of the front of the police station. I ask him if it’s against the law to take a photo of the front of the police station. At first he says yes, but then I think he realizes how silly that sounds, so he just asks me again why I did it. The thing is, I really don’t want to tell him I am documenting the Town of Kaplan’s rather obvious violation of the First Amendment separation of church and state, because I know that if he doesn’t know enough about the law to know that I have a right to take a picture of the front of the police station, then he sure as hell isn’t going to know much about the First Amendment. So I ask him if there’s anything else, and when he doesn’t answer I continue on my way.

I wish to emphasize that this policeman was not surly, or even impolite. Just a little confused, I think. By the way, I gather that St. Michael is the patron saint of policemen, not that that in any way permits Kaplan to put a religious statue on municipal property. And he's no "soft saint" either. He's kick-ass all the way. Armed and dangerous, like the police.


Anonymous said...

In many countries, it is prohibited to take pictures of public buildings, army barracks etc and that has been the rule for a long time (I almost got in trouble in a North African country thirty years ago for taking a picture of a hibiscus shrub in front of the airport). Much more surprising, I was told by a security guard at Meyers in Grand Rapids that you can't take pictures inside their store... and that was before 9/11! But what would Place Saint Michel be like without its fountain and its saint ?

Peter Teeuwissen said...

I don't know if the Meijer people were on solid ground there, but at least it's indoors and it's private property. To take a photo of a taxpayer-funded municipal building from the sidewalk out front is another matter, and one of the things that separates us from "many countries."

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed talking to you while you were in Abbeville... you can take pics here anytime!!! Good luck in your travels west... hope you don't freeze.
Cheryl Jeanfreau
Abbeville Cultural and Historical Alliance Center