Sunday, August 31, 2008

Day 27: Through the South Coast Swamps. Flying Through the Universal Ether

August 10: Ocean Springs to Slidell to Avery Island to Houston

Soundtrack: Zydeco radio, Pirate 101.3 (Sulphur, LA), Gulf Coast Rock, KTRU

When I started this narrative, I knew that sooner or later I would have to have a go at Texas, and I dreaded it. I could have by-passed Texas about as easily as a space traveler can avoid the Milky Way.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

Glenn Miller’s job at the drawbridge required him to rise before dawn. I followed his car out to the bridge at 6 a.m., and for the first time saw the little watchroom where he had worked for years, a concrete bunker up metal stairs with a panoramic view of the little inlet lined with trees. He was lucky. Of the five bridges over the bay by Ocean Springs, his was one of 2 that survived the hurricane. His last word to me was The Word and his concern that I hadn’t been sufficiently “born again.” Though I had my own ideas about religion they were never One Way Jesus enough for Glenn and he was always concerned for the salvation of my soul. I was working on it.
Driving out into the gray dawn, I found Interstate 10 and the bridge over the state line into Louisiana; the gas gauge dinged and demanded I look for a gas station. When I finally found one near Slidell, I had a hard time getting back to the Interstate again and drove around the streets lined with piles of rubble, the huddled jobless and their FEMA trailers, past closed schools and hospitals surrounded with chain link fences and reconstruction signs. That weekend, Dr. Phil was hosting a fundraiser with all the usual Crescent City suspects performing for Katrina relief, but I was expected in Houston and would miss it; I wished them well on the way out of town.
Through New Orleans again, down shady streets of quaint shops, familiar from past trips but not yet open because of the hour, west on Highway 90, through Houma, which Steinbeck called “one of the pleasantest places in the world,” Morgan City and the courtroom where I weathered Hurricane Carmen in ‘73, and on to Avery island where we always stopped to buy tabasco sauce. Ann Fudge on radio said, “There is no turning back, only going forward.” This was some of my favorite landscape: drawbridges and towers, truckbed Mardi Gras wagons parked in vacant lots, long front lawns of plantations shaded with mossy oaks, and ubiquitous slow-moving bayous along the sides of the road. While I listened to Gospel 94.9 the Praise New Orleans Inspiration Station, signs advertised the Cajun Men’s Swamp Tours and Henry Miller’s beloved Shadows-on-the-Teche; a church in Humphreys declared “Mother Mary was pro-life – thank heavens!”
After shopping the McIlhenney's company store for the obligatory souvenir towels, pralines, and logo items and many varieties of hot sauces - they even had a tabasco ice cream now - I took a little extra time for the self-guided driving tour through Avery Island’s “Jungle Gardens:” 200 acres of ponds and woods and meadows that promised alligators and deer and a variety of birds. Once again the totem heron made an appearance, as well as snowy egrets and black ibis, but I saw no alligators. The nesting frenzy was over, but one surprise was a shrine with a thousand-year-old stolen Buddha on a platform up some steps in a stand of bamboo. I endured 5 quick mosquito bites taking the trail to see the outsize figure, part of a Chinese-themed garden, and then drove on, listening to the funky radio of Cajun country, ears sharp for announcements of live music. But it was Thursday and it seemed all the bands were playing tomorrow. Too late for the Acadian Memorial and too early for bar-hopping, I stopped briefly in the shade of the Evangeline Oak, but didn’t take a picture like most visitors. I thought of my daddy who read Longfellow to me when I was 3 and forever implanted iambic and dactylic rhythms in my budding consciousness. I never understood the story of Evangeline, but somehow knew it was sad, the landscape of backlit oaks, “bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,” dark and dramatic like George Rodrique paintings.
I was lost for awhile on backroads and found myself abruptly back on the interstate, headed for Houston, without a taste of crawdads or gumbo; I was expected by the relatives, driving into the sunset like some cowgirl heroine. I got off the 10 for gas and was lost again looking for an antique shop advertised on a billboard. When I made it back to a gas station, they had “Stage Planks”, a nostalgic form of gingerbread I remembered from my poorgirl days in the Quarter. Drawn into the embrace of Texas Radio and the Big Beat, John Hiatt and Chicken Skin Music, I nibbled the pastel-iced cookies all the way to Greg Lacy’s, where there would be parties, perhaps not so orgiastic as Steinbeck’s, but typically Texan, on the horizon.

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