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It's a mere 98 degrees late in the afternoon when I'm driving westward in my air-conditionless '87 Toyota pick-up truck with the Milo-dog. All the windows are down yet I am sweating like a pig and he's panting like any reasonable dog would. Traffic is a horror with construction adding another hour. As we crawl through the massive expanse of empty fields occasionally dotted with only unsightly strip malls, I ask myself why I am doing this to myself.
Eventually I find the Henderson Levee Road and circle back and forth because, as so frequently happens in Acadiana, street signs are few and far between, and googlemaps is understandably inaccurate in this sparsely populated part of Louisiana with long and winding roads. And, in true Louisiana form, the signage of my destination, "Lavelle's" makes no indication that it is commonly and officially called Whiskey River Landing.
At 5 in the evening, the only shade I can find for my dog is to park my tiny old truck next to one of the dozen brand new Ford F350's. I suck down a cold coke, give the boy some water, feed him, and leave all the windows down. He has stopped panting and at this point in the day, he hasn't the energy for much activity and falls asleep. Frankly, I haven't much energy either and am almost loathe to go in. I second guess my decision to schlepp out this way to Cajun country, about two hours west of New Orleans, deeper and deeper into swamp country and further into the sweltering dampness of the Louisiana summer.
But I am here to see a friend off, Leah, who has decided leave Baton Rouge to move back to her home state of Kentucky to get ready for law school. A tall attractive brunette, lively personality, sharp wit, and a thick Southern twang, she reminds me of an extremely beautiful version of the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, and is one of my favorite new friends I've made through the Americorps volunteer program. For her farewell venue she has chosen Whiskey River Landing, a Cajun dance venue held only on Sunday afternoons to early evenings for locals in the surrounding area including Lafayette, about 20 minutes away and the unofficial capital of Cajun country.
Walking towards the venue I see a gorgeous view of the Atchafalaya Basin. I see a large houseboat, and the venue itself is nothing more than a conglomeration of mobile home structures haphazardly pasted together, dangling dangerously over the banks of the Atchafalaya Basin. The doors of the entrance are covered with Cajun and French pride stickers, most in the French language. The stage itself is barely elevated and prominently perched on it are five black men clad in Western wear and cowboy hats. They are Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie, playing Cajun and zydeco tunes. The dance floor is packed, ages 8 to 80, and the crowd is half black half white, the majority of the patrons wearing a 10 gallon hat and cowboy boots, without a hint of irony. It is hands down the most racially integrated crowd I have seen since moving to Louisiana, or possibly ever.
I am having a hell of a time finding Leah but it doesn't take long for her to find me.
"Hey Girl!" she bellows, in her thick Southern twang. "I saw you the second you stepped in, told my friends to look for an Asian and it didn't take long!" We both chuckle, looking around at the beautiful black and white scenery.
"I'm lovin' this Creole cowboy scene. Music's great," I utter. A couple in their '80's, black male white female in cowboy hats and boots rhythmically and effortlessly sidle past us onto the dance floor.
"Oh yeah. I once had a dream that I'd leave my man for a Creole cowboy, ya know?" she says, matter-of-factly.
We make our way to the dance floor, clearly a handful of eyes on me. But as is frequently the case in this part of the world, it is a curious stare, not intimidating. There is no shortage of dance partners and I two-step a few tunes with a local shrimper, the spitting image of Ernest Hemingway. I sip a few drinks with Leah, listening to the mesmerizing rhythm driving the band to play, and the dancers to dance. It is impossible not to stare just beyond the band, into the beautiful bayou tableau showing through the dirty windows of the venue.
After a couple of hours I bid Leah farewell. We exchange hugs and already, I am sad to see her go, and even sadder to see such a lively spirit throw her life away to go to law school. Milo and I walk around for a bit to enjoy the scenery before I continue on to Lafayette. It is hard to walk away from such a vivid tableau.
And it is even harder to remember that it is this fertile land and swamp life that drove people to modern-day, strip mall-laden Lafayette, which even today is still flanked by this scenery. In Lafayette I meet up with my friend Jefferson, where we enjoy a nice meal in the River Ranch shopping center, and sip a few cocktails.
The next day, we stop for the perfect Cajun meal for the perfect Cajun afternoon; a link of boudin and a small baggie of cracklins, and wash it down with 32 ounces of daiquiri from one of the drive-through shops. He takes me to some property owned by his family. I contemplate a large farmhouse, maybe an acre.
Instead, the three of us stroll for half a mile or so, past an old decrepit structure with a ping pong table, perched over the Vermillion River. Dozens of oak trees with Spanish moss dot the property with barely a neighbor in site. Crawfish fields flank the other side of the property. We walk along the river itself, and Milo goes for a dip. Surprisingly and thankfully the water is not odiferous.
It is easy to imagine why Jefferson's ancestors from France and other French mostly from Canada chose to settle along the banks of the Vermillion for the last 200 years, over the distance of 72 miles, forming towns and farms from the fertile river and bayou. So named for its waters which were once brightly colored with the red mud, the river became the site of Vermillionville, which eventually changed its name to Lafayette. With its proximity to water, Lafayette's economy was mostly agricultural, until the discovery of oil and gas in the 1940's.
The home of a major Louisiana university, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, it manages to retain much of its youth population, and there is a noticeable revival of French Acadian music by local musicians in their 20's, mentored in the arts by their elders. This is only enhanced by the vernacular cuisine which is distinct in spices and and flavor, and ubiquitous in the area.
To the naked eye driving through, Lafayette and its Cajun surroundings look like dozens of normal American towns across the country. Strip malls, highways, large tracts of land with box stores. There is no reason to know, unless you do, that there is a saloon and a couple of dance halls where great Cajun music is played weekly on traditional instruments, in this place where people care about the language their ancestors spoke and the food they grew and ate.
And there is also no reason to know that 15 minutes from downtown you can find a stretch of the Vermillion River, privately owned but uninhabited, except by a broke down truck, and a shack with a ping pong table, and dozens of oak trees and Spanish moss. It is 2011 and I am a stone's throw away from a nice restaurant and some cocktails, yet right at this moment there is nothing in my view to indicate that it isn't 1850 rural America on the bayou.
We walk around for a little while longer as I think about my recent visits to Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami. At the same time, I inhale the air, fragranced with foliage, and continue to absorb the scenery. I feel lucky to be able to live in New Orleans, and only drive a few hours to capture this as well.
"I like living in the South," I tell Jefferson, who also has seen the world, lived in other places, and decided to return to his homeland.
"Yeah, it's classy," he utters, chomping on a cracklin.
I laugh in response, not because I disagree, but because I think of all the people I've known and met in the Northeast and West Coast who would use different words to describe the South. But in fact, I agree with Jefferson. Of course I and the entire world know of the South's historic faults, its tension with its own history with slavery, racism, and entrenched wealth. But since moving here I've observed a certain level of integrity in Southern-based identity that I never encountered before living down here. The easy pride of being Cajun, the music, the cowboy hats, the food and drink and dancing, the hospitality. And of course, the beauty; the willingness to let acres of land stay wild, to let the river run and the bayou be, or at most, grow some rice or crawfish. There is some elegance to that. It is classy.
Walk along a river and a bayou, eat good food, drink good alcohol, dance with friends, and be merry, be it in a saloon in downtown Lafayette or a couple of double-wides on the Atchafalaya Basin with air conditioning conduit tacked to the ceiling. Deep down inside, really, we all want to be Vermillionaires.
Do try this at home...
The place I went to: Whiskey River Landing. Do give them a call for directions if you decide to go; googlemaps just can't do it for you.
The music I saw: Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie
Theme track to my visit: Valse D'Automne by the Lost Bayou Ramblers