Louisiana is nothing like Texas. The bluebonnets lining the roads have been replaced by long grasses and reeds, and BBQ road signs have gradually changed to ones advertising cracklins and boudin, which we later learn means sausage. In Texas, the state parks posted signs on Easter Sunday reminding visitors that cascarones, hollowed-out eggs filled with confetti, and pinatas are not allowed in the park. Here in Louisiana, the parks post signs prohibiting crayfish boils and detailing the many different species of spiders, snakes and mosquitoes we should avoid (many different species of mosquitoes?!).
We drive over bridges (so many bridges) and along raised stretches of highway, most of which are in disrepair and busy with truck traffic; there are few alternative routes to I-10, since so much of this state’s southern border is water. We pass rice fields and processing plants, the occasional Waffle House and Popeye’s, First Churches of a lot of places and people, casinos with names like the Cypress Bayou, very large pro-life billboards, and even larger ones marketing “men’s clubs” and adult superstores. Louisiana feels like equal parts sin and prayer.
After all of the grand and majestic views we’ve had along the trip, Louisiana’s beauty seems subdued, a mysterious blend of pleasure and sorrow. The people we meet at the campgrounds are friendly, including a woman living in a small segmented room of a much larger trailer parked across from us. “You wanna be a carny like me when you grow up?” she asks Elian with a smile. A young man with a t-shirt covered in flames that reads Jesus Will Save You From the Hellfire, her co-worker I guess, hands her a soda and gives us a dismissive glance but she keeps chatting away. Half the year she’s home in Tennessee, she says. But her home is here now and she says it’s “all fine” and that her boss is okay. “Did you see the bunnies?” she asks, pointing to a cage full of rabbits that she explains are prizes for the “pluck-a-duck” game at their next stop. Her room is more like a dank compartment, the kind of “tiny home” that doesn’t get featured in any articles and, with no power, plumbing, or windows, can’t be nice to live in. The next morning, the couple camping next to us tells us they figured that was a “worker trailer” and are glad they are fair workers and not part of the “man camps” that are cropping up in and around their town of Westlake. Some big South African chemical company, they explain, bought up a bunch of land here and now needs places for all their temp workers to live. Evidently, these “temporary housing solutions” are an important part of big international business plans here and in other parts of the country.
The campgrounds in both Sam Houston Jones State Park, outside of Baton Rouge, and then St. Bernard State Park, just beyond New Orleans, are spacious and lush with green grass and trees. A short walk to the lagoon behind us at our first site (we still don’t know the difference between a “lagoon” vs “marsh” vs “swamp” since they are all used interchangeably here) is enough to make us realize how overgrown these woods will be in the summertime. At our second site at St. Bernard, we are only steps from swampy waters and for the first time in a long time we are swatting at mosquitoes (which species, we don’t know). At the edge of the campground, plenty far from our site, we spot a small alligator perched on a log. Then another, and another, until we’ve counted five.
A sign in the state park office shows the high water mark from Katrina, at least a foot over our heads. The young woman working in the office tells us this whole place and most of St. Bernard Parish was underwater (even without flooding, all of this southern Louisiana region is below sea level and considered to be one of the fastest disappearing land areas in the world). Then a junior in high school, she left with her family to Arkansas and then returned to start working. It would be my high school reunion this year, she says, but most of those that left never came back or got into trouble. “My friend and I wonder what happened so that we’re okay and they’re not,” she says. “A lot of them are dead, locked up, or in Texas.” She’s serious and sad but then smiles and hands me a map and suggests we try Cafe Dumond on Decatur Street. It’s French Quarter Festival weekend and we’re heading into town to eat (gator, beignets, po’boys!) and hear some jazz.
The French Quarter Festival wasn’t part of our plan, but it’s a nice bonus. The streets are blocked to car traffic and every few blocks there are groups of musicians gathered to play. Audiences crowd around a dozen music stages near Jackson Square, which has been transformed into a festival scene of artists and performers.
We escape for an hour into the Louisiana State History Museum, a beautiful old Spanish colonial building called the Cabildo. The outside noise now muffled, we wander the quiet halls and read about the different people that give this state one of the most interesting populations imaginable, including Cajuns (descendants of French-speaking Acadians from Canada) and Creoles, which are explained as a mixing of French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Indian people. We read about French and Spanish rule, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the War of 1812, and other military and political battles. Of course, at the center of the state’s story are the markets that made it’s economic development possible: sugar, cotton, and humans. By 1840, New Orleans had the largest slave market in the country.
On our way to New Orleans, we drove along River Road, famous for its plantation homes and called “a most home-like and happy-looking region” by Mark Twain.We are there to see the Whitney Plantation, which just opened last year and is said to be the only plantation museum with a focus on slavery in a nation and state that can’t fully face this brutal part of its history. A brochure by the Louisiana tourism board features the “Plantation Parade” of the Great River Road, describing four plantation tours (not the Whitney, perhaps because it is new) where you can see “breathtaking gardens,” “hand-painted ceilings” and experience “the beauty and dream of our rich antebellum past.” The presence of slaves is carefully noted in each description (e.g. “to understand the lives of the workers whose labor made plantation life and its luxuries possible”) but the summary of the brochure is startling in its superficial characterization of “long ago.” For centuries, it reads, the sub-tropical air was filled with the sweet smell of sugarcane, as wagons rumbled from the fields to the docks. The muddy Mississippi established Louisiana’s Great River Road as the symbol of wealth and culture and, in doing so, forever claimed the title ‘River of Riches.'” At the Oak Alley Plantation, you can “witness the slave quarter exhibit” just after the Civil War interpretive visit and before you grab a bite in the cafe. You can also book an evening in an overnight cottage on the property, or plan a wedding or corporate event there.
At the Whitney, the iron sugar kettles are not used as flower pots and there is no talk of the sweet scent of sugar wafting through the air. The most prominent building is a church once used by freed Blacks and moved here to feature sculptures of slave children inside. The fields now have a dozen or more monuments with the names of slaves inscribed. There is a “big house” on the property but it is positioned in the back, so it can be viewed through the rusty metal bars of the slave jailhouse. While we are there, a gentle breeze is blowing through some weeping willows and G says she wants to say it’s beautiful here but knows she shouldn’t.
As we drive away, we pass sugar cane fields and small pockets of modest homes, some with crumbling porches, where its residents sit and watch us drive by. The nearest town of Wallace is listed by the census as “fringe rural” and its school population is listed as 100 percent minority. It feels a little ridiculous to be driving through this community in the Woodebago, with our car carrier now covered by tourist stickers. But of course we are indeed tourists here so we just sit quietly and drive on. We will leave Louisiana tomorrow and head into Mississippi and Alabama, where we’ll be talking more about the Civil War and Civil Rights battles from history and still today.