Monday, February 8, 2010

Day 80: Silent Jennings

Crowley to Jennings. 20.7 miles/1445 total

Saturday, February 6, 2010

It’s 9:35 a.m. on a beautiful clear day, with a few friendly clouds off to the west. A bit chilly—temperature’s in the high 40s. It may get up to 60, but no higher.

I’m leaving from Bruce’s abandoned I-10 Wrecker Service, now moved to a new location, headed through a few small towns and a bit beyond the City of Jennings.

I have finally left the home of my friends the Carbaughs, in Kaplan, and am on my own again. Just me and the motor home. Last night I went to a basketball game at Kaplan High School with John and saw the Kaplan Lady Pirates defeat the Abbeville Lady Wildcats. The Kaplan boys’ team wasn’t so fortunate, but hung in there and kept the score reasonably close against a taller team.

I pass a rice storage place called Riviana, which claims to be America’s Favorite Brand. Who am I to dispute that? I’m on U.S. 90, the Old Spanish Trail. It’s a two-lane road here, with almost no shoulder, but that’s okay, since there’s not much traffic.

The first town I come to is Estherwood, or as it says on the sign, “Esther Wood.” It has an old rusty water tower to the south, with a conical roof, and a newer snazzy one to the north. Although it’s only a town of about 800, I realize I’m not going through the heart of Estherwood, just skirting it on the south side. They’re having a gumbo cook-off out in front of the One More Lounge, and people are setting up and beginning to cook. The smell is tantalizing.

Estherwood is the third name this little village has had. The first one was Tortue, after an Indian chief, and the second was Coulee Trief. Jean-Baptiste Trief was a shady and mysterious guy who was thought to have been one of Jean Lafitte’s pirates. He had a cabin near here back in the early 1800s. The name Estherwood may have come from a combination of Dr. Wood, who was prominent in the area, and Esther, the wife of a railroad magnate. I don’t know if Dr. Wood had anything going with the railroad guy’s wife or not.

The next little place I come to is Midland. The name may have come from the fact that it is approximately at the midpoint on the railroad between Houston and New Orleans. There was a prominent citizen named Charles Cowen, big in rice and land development. He had convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to put a roundhouse in Midland and was busy selling lots and developing the place when he lost a leg in a rice threshing accident and died. After that the Southern Pacific changed its mind. No Cowen, no roundhouse. And ultimately, not much of a town. C’est la vie, say the old folks.

After a few more miles comes Mermentau, another small place of about 700. In the late 1700s there was an Indian named Nementou around here, and eventually the name got corrupted to Mermentau. It was a haven for smugglers. A surveyor named John Landreth said in his journal, in 1818, that this place and ones near it were “the harbours and Dens of the most abandoned wretches of the human race . . . smugglers and Pirates who . . . rob and plunder without distinction every vessel of every nation they meet and are able to conquer and put to death every soul they find on board . . . .” During and after the Civil War there were bushwackers, robbers, and other fugitives hiding in the woods nearby. Eventually the railroad came through and Mermentau mellowed into a rice and timber center. I personally meet no unsavory characters while walking through.

On the way out of Mermentau I cross the Mermentau River, leaving Acadia Parish and entering Jeff Davis Parish. Good old Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. By the way, he was charged with treason after the Civil War but never tried, and was stripped of his eligibility to run for office. That ineligibility was removed by Jimmy Carter in 1978. So presumably after that he could run for office, except for the fact that he had succumbed to another disqualification 89 years earlier, namely, death. Gee, sorry, Jeff. And what a great idea, Jimmy.

At 16.1 miles I enter Jennings. This city of about 11,000 was named for a railroad man, Jennings McComb. Like Crowley before it, it’s laid out with very wide streets. The streets are eerily silent this afternoon, and here in the middle of the city it’s much quieter than it was out on rural Highway 90 in the rice fields and cow pastures. I could just about walk down the middle of the main street. The real action, not surprisingly, is out by I-10. There are some murals painted on the sides of buildings. Some celebrate the arts, and a few others are of aspects of Jennings history. One says it was established in 1888. There’s a railroad engine, some people harvesting rice, some oil wells. I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the absence of people on the street, but there may be a serial killer at large in Jennings. There are about seven unsolved murders of young women in this area, going back from 2008 to 2005. My friend John had a colleague of his contact the Jennings police to let them know I would be walking through, just in case. At least I think they knew about me. I waved at all the cops I saw, and they waved back. But that might not mean anything.

On up wide silent Main Street I go, past doctor's offices, banks, and the Bubba Oustalet Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership. I cut over to N. Cary Avenue, where there are some handsome large houses, and then back onto Highway 90 and west out of town a mile or so to the motor home. Once past the city limits the noise begins again.

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