It’s been another night of thunderstorms, and it’s still raining when I wake up. But I’ve got a long way to drive to my lunch date in Lafayette, so I need to get going. No need for breakfast, that’s for sure. A quick cup of coffee, and I’m ready to say goodbye to Texas. But something holds me back—I haven’t really given Port Arthur a chance. I have a map of sights from the hotel, so I detour through the city. A Buddhist Temple is evidence of the Vietnamese presence here. The route takes me past some historic Victorians along the waterfront, and a campus of Lamar State, then back in the dying downtown. The web says Port Arthur is poised for downtown redevelopment, it certainly needs it.
As soon as I cross the bridge to Louisiana, there’s nothing but miles of wet and green—rain on saltmarsh, water above and below. It’s three miles into Louisiana before I see my first tree. Another mile brings me my first gas flare. Highway 82 to Cameron is quiet and lonely on a rainy Saturday morning. The road periodically brushes the beach, one stretch with extensive nearshore armoring, clearly to protect the road, a shrimper in the distance. Herons and egrets are everywhere, and even a few roseate spoonbills, one of my favorite birds. Was that a muskrat or a nutria than ran across the road? The oil industry is everywhere. I approach what looks like a small refinery of some kind, with a strange boat. Then I recognize it—a menhaden purse-seiner, at an Omega Protein menhaden plant. The NOAA statistics say that Cameron lands the 8th largest amount of fish in the country, over 150M pounds, mostly menhaden. Menhaden are worth so little that it only ranks 59th in value. I’m glad I decided to exclude menhaden factory towns from the road trip.
The highway ferry to Cameron can hold a lot more cars than the three of us, but I don’t have to wait long before it crosses the outlet (canal?) of Calcasieu Lake. There are shrimp boats in Cameron, not too many, smaller and rigged differently from the big boats in Texas. These must be inshore boats, perhaps the skimmers I’ve heard about. It’s at Cameron where I really notice the evidence of hurricane damage. I don’t see any piles of wreckage, just empty concrete slabs at the end of driveways, some with a trailer parked next to them. Now attuned, I notice a pattern of prefab houses on stilts, along with the occasional abandoned house. Hurricane Rita was the culprit here, Cameron close to ground zero. It looks like the recovery is going to be long and slow.
My route continues through mile after mile of largely empty marsh, with occasional small beach towns (all houses on stilts) and the occasional fisherman on a bridge. It’s midday before I reach ground that’s high enough for houses to be merely up a foot or two off the ground (protection from normal water). With all my driving along the coast, I’ve come to view elevated houses as normal. I end up in actual traffic as I approach Lafayette (Saturday mall shopping I learn later), which is also a bit shocking after hours of emptiness. Soon enough the GPS detours me around Lafayette, the biggest city in the area (over 120,000!), although I’m not happy it routes me briefly on I-10, which I’ve avoided until now. On the north side of Lafayette I hook up with my former colleague Simon Mahan for lunch, on a highway that will take me straight south to Dulac in the afternoon.
After lunch, I slowly make my way around the other side of Lafayette as I head south. I see signs for places I’ve heard of in songs: Thibodeaux, Louisiana (Amos Moses) and Lake Charles (Cripple Creek). I’m planning on a detour to Avery Island, home of Tabasco Sauce. There was a time when Tabasco Sauce was the only hot sauce available in the United States, and it was used sparingly. (A joke from what seems like an ancient history text: “They’ve been married so long they’re on their second bottle of Tabasco Sauce.”) Now of course supermarkets have hot sauce sections. I’ve actually been mildly surprised to see all the Tabasco Sauce bottles on restaurant tables on this trip. The factory is modest in size considering the quantity shipped by the McIlhenny Family (the sixth generation is in charge), and I don’t have time for the tour.
I do have time for a detour to Morgan City, which is just off my route. Morgan City features prominently in the Mississippi River section of John McPhee’s Control of Nature. Only the constant vigilance of the Army Corps of Engineers is keeping Morgan City from drowning by the Mississippi, which desperately wants to reach the Gulf via the Atchafalaya River instead of its current route past New Orleans. In fact, only an elaborate levee system prevents the Atchafalaya from having already drowned Morgan City. I’m having a hard time finding my way around, and it’s raining again, but I do see part of the levee system before I push on.
After fighting through the endless traffic lights on the one road through Houma, I finally approach Dulac, LA. I start seeing shrimp boats everywhere, parked behind houses or at landings along Bayou Grand Caillou. The town of Dulac itself has no discrete port, just a slightly greater density of boats along the bayou. I follow the directions I’ve gotten from Gary Graham to David Chauvin’s Seafood in hopes of catching him. But it’s after 5pm and it’s closed. Although I’m tired, I decide I need to see the end of the road at Cocodrie (crocodile), LA, mostly because I love the name. The drive takes me through salt marshes that are uncannily like those around Smith Island, MD, past fishermen cast-netting for minnow bait. Cocodrie is another small town on stilts, with an outpost of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. There’s evidence it’s been discovered by recreational anglers with money. (I later learn the most expensive property in Terrebone Parish is in Cocodrie.) It’s getting to be dinner time, so I head back to the only restaurant in Dulac for dinner.
May 12, 2012
Avery Island: http://www.tabasco.com/avery-island/
John McPhee on the Mississippi and Morgan City: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1987/02/23/1987_02_23_039_TNY_CARDS_000347146
Amos Moses: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7GyLr7Cz2g
Cripple Creek (RIP Levon Helm. Garth Brooks on lead bullfrog.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EisXJSsULGM
The end of the road, Cocodrie, LA