Southdown Plantation, Cajun Country, Louisiana

My plan for a boat ride through the swamp was foiled by a merciless rainstorm.  I awoke to a thrilling barrage of thunder and lightning and the downpour began soon after.  I had never seen rain of this magnitude in my life, but the locals in Houma acted as if it was no big deal.  Every lawn was under water.  Streams several inches deep ran down the better drained roads, and in some sections it was deeper.

The day’s entertainment was thus an indoor tour of the Southdown Plantation manor house.  Beyond the expected opulence of the mansion were stories of people ranging from sugarcane tycoons to a prominent senator, all of whom had lived in the house. The sugarcane fields had long since disappeared with town development.  My guide, Ethel, volunteers at Southdown once every two weeks.  Luckily I came on her day.  Ethel grew up on a working plantation herself.  The childhood experiences she related put her age near 100, but she didn’t look it.  “I think I’m in pretty good shape,” she said, smiling, as she moved up and down the staircases like a champ.

When another tourist went to touch an old table, Ethel stopped her with the utmost of grace.  “We ask our visitors not to touch.  The oils can harm the furniture.”  Ethel carried herself with a rare level of enthusiasm, politeness and dignity, and presented a wealth of interesting history about the area.  During the talk on sugarcane processing, the term bagasse (raw material) was used frequently.  The spectacle of aristocratic Ethel speaking authoritatively about “bag ass” was too funny, and I could not suppress my laughter.  She would have been justified in correcting me, but she did not.  As one who is typically bored senseless by artsy activities, I felt my time was well spent here.

After the house tour Ethel and her friend invited me into their office and tried to help me find an afternoon swamp tour.  This was fruitless because of the rain, but in the process we all had a great conversation.

Houma, Louisiana: Cajun Country

I pulled into Capri Park, my camping spot for the night.  I was assigned a site on the bayou at the far edge of the trailer park, touted by the manager as isolated and peaceful.

I met a permanent resident, Chad Meau.  He offered me a ride in his boat anytime, explaining that “I’m retired, I don’t do anything.”  He looked rather young for retirement, but he had the tan for it.  Chad told me he did not own a car, because there was no reason to.  He could easily get everywhere he wanted to go simply driving his boat through the bayous.  Chad, like many people I encountered in this area, spoke with a strong Cajun accent.  He repeated his last name 3 times before I understood him.  When he found out I was camping in earshot of the water pump, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good luck.”

I spent the next few hours exploring the Terrebonne, a 30-mile stretch of bayou country extending south of Houma and ending on the Gulf of Mexico.  This area is known for its Cajun families that stretch back many generations.

Driving into the town of Chauvin, I stopped at the Lapeyrouse Seafood Bar, Grocery & Campground.  Sheila Lapeyrouse immediately greeted me with a smile.  The Lapeyrouse family goes back over a hundred years here, and Sheila was kind enough to tell me about her great, great, great grandfather’s original store and house, and where to this day I could see the ruins.  This establishment is a relatively new addition.  Her father still owns it, but she runs the operation as he no longer works full time.  In hindsight I wish I had camped here.

Sheila left the area at a young age to work for Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and was hired by Sam Walton himself.  She opened the Aurora, Colorado Sam’s Club near my hometown. After about 20 years with the company, she retired from a professional-level position and returned to Chauvin to run the family business.

Sheila presented me with a plate of fried fish, caught out of the bayou across the road that same evening.  It was delicious.  My next stop was the Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery some distance south.  This is another of the family businesses, and has been around much longer.  The store sells everything from groceries and cookware to hand tools and car parts in a cramped yet orderly and comfortable floor space.

I continued south to Cocodrie and the Gulf.  The town largely consisted of a sprawling complex of rustic beach houses on 20-foot high stilts.  These all appeared to be vacation homes, and most were adorned with names and mascots.  One could see a high water line on the stilts.  There were many “For Rent” signs and a few “For Sale” signs.

Upon returning to Houma I stopped at Boudreau and Thibodeau’s for dinner.  Here I discovered beignets, now my favorite dessert.  It is a pita-shaped pastry coated with a seemingly impossible amount of powdered sugar.  I never pronounced “beignets” to the waitresses’ satisfaction.