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.

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Choupique Crawfish, Louisiana

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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, LA: Click to enlarge.

My visit to Choupique Crawfish was a highlight of my trip to the South.  It is a drive-through takeout restaurant serving boiled crawfish and shrimp with potatoes and corn on the cob. After a busy day exploring the swamps of the Cameron Prairie and Lacassine refuges, I stopped for gas.  Across the parking lot I noticed a small building signed as Choupique Crawfish.  I walked in, curious to see what it was.  A fancily dressed young woman greeted me and showed me around as if I were an old friend.  She was accompanied by a young man and another woman, the owner.  The four of us chatted like family as they explained the operation and treated me to samples.  The crawfish are collected in large numbers from the family’s rice farm and stored live in large plastic and metal water tanks until they are boiled. The owner also teaches at the local school.  Customers can buy the crawfish live or cooked, and can reserve ahead of time.  To eat the crawfish, which are served whole, one must peel away the shell and tear the meat from the tail.  No one corrected my technique, so I assumed I was doing it right.

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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, LA: Click to enlarge.

The group wondered if I was fishing on the refuges, but I explained I was just hiking and watching the animals.  “I’m from Colorado and all this is very exotic to me,” I said.  When I explained that I didn’t know where to stay for the night, the young man tipped me off to Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico.  Before I left, the owner said “let me give you dinner,” and returned with a large box containing at least 10 pounds of crawfish with several potatoes and cobs of corn.  The young woman then handed me a box of beautiful cooked shrimp.  I camped near the surf, where I enjoyed this unexpected gourmet meal.

By the next morning I was still stuffed from eating the crawfish, and more than half of the box remained.  I offered my leftovers to a group of 6 senior citizens gathered for a picnic.  They were bewildered as to why I couldn’t handle 10 pounds of crawfish, plus the shrimp plate and sides, on my own.  “You must not be from around here,” a man said.  I confirmed that was true.  A grandmotherly woman told me that she had eaten a 10-pound box of crawfish by herself the night before, and still had plenty of room for a nice dessert.  She spoke in a tone that seemed to imply I was a sissy, a lightweight.  As one who usually out-eats my companions by a wide margin, I got a huge kick out of this group taking me to task.  The important thing was that they were happy to take the crawfish before it spoiled.

Cameron Prairie and Lacassine, Louisiana

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Louisiana is officially divided into 5 regions: Sportsman’s Paradise in the north, Crossroads in the central section, Cajun Country in the south, and Plantation Country and Greater New Orleans in the southeast. During a stop for gas in Crossroads, I met a taxidermist who was trying to research the prevailing prices for his services. He had just moved to the area from New Orleans, and could not locate any other taxidermists with which to compare. I observed this might be a good sign for his business, but he was preoccupied with finding a competitor. I told him where I had traveled and that I hadn’t seen any. He spoke articulately with an aristocratic tone and refined accent, and was a very friendly and polite man. His hair hung slightly past his shoulders and he was perhaps 5 feet 7 inches tall with a dark tan and lean physique. He wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a collared long sleeved shirt. This character, seemingly out of a movie, was my introduction to Louisiana.

Alligator, Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Double-click to enlarge.

Alligator, Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Located in Cajun Country outside of Lake Charles, the Cameron Prairie and Lacassine National Wildlife refuges feature sprawling swamps containing exotic birds, reptiles, and fish. I met a nice lady at the visitor center who tipped me off on the best places to see alligators and cottonmouth snakes. I saw very few other people during my exploration, and most of them were fishing. I found no snakes of any kind, but observed over 30 alligators inside an afternoon. One 12-foot gator and I stared at each other from about 2 feet away, until I stepped too close and he turned into deeper water with a sudden lunge and loud splash. He didn’t flee, but rather just put several more feet between us. In another area along a canal, 3 slightly smaller alligators were swimming together. One kept an eye on me while the other two faced the opposite direction into a flowing drain pipe, apparently waiting for fish. Turtles, some the size of serving platters, roamed the banks and shallows and moved surprisingly fast when I approached them.

Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Double-click to enlarge.

Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Cameron Prairie was full of brilliantly colored birds. I watched a large crane-type bird through my binocular that was 3-4 feet tall. Its feathers were a bright purple color over its entire body, and I was amazed that such coloration existed in nature. I watched this bird for several minutes and finally saw it catch and eat something out of the water.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Alligator, Lacassine NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Dalton Gang and The Jesus Christ Show

Dalton Gang house, southern Kansas: Double-click to enlarge.

Dalton Gang house, southern Kansas: Double-click to enlarge.

I embarked on my first trip to the Deep South via Kansas and Oklahoma.  My first stop was the Dalton Gang’s old house in southern Kansas.  They were infamous bank robbers and murderers in the old west days.  An escape tunnel runs from the house a few hundred yards down the hill, and it’s end is now surrounded by touristy mockups of old west structures supposedly on the Daltons’ property during their heyday.  The attraction was closed by the time I arrived, which simply meant that I could explore the grounds and buildings without any interference.  No gated areas here.

As I sped through Oklahoma’s vast uninhabited grasslands the following Sunday, my radio found the Jesus Christ Show.  The premise is that listeners call and present their dilemmas to the host, Jesus Christ himself.   I anticipated absurd dialogue, but the host (whoever his true identity) was quite reasonable and sensible in his demeanor and advice.  The callers greeted him with “Hi, Jesus” or something similar, with a degree of sincerity

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

suggesting they believed he was The One.  The first call was to settle a bible study argument over whether wine or grape juice was served at of the key events shortly before crucifixion.  Jesus assured the caller that it was wine, and explained that grape juice would make no sense given the circumstances.  He spoke in first person, authoritatively recounting his experiences from 2000 years ago.  The next caller wanted to know if eating meat was immoral.  Jesus advised that vegetarians are not morally superior to meat eaters, and if the animals in question are raised and slaughtered humanely that is acceptable.  He suggested the caller follow her diet of choice, as long as it was nutritious.  Next, a young woman wanted to know, in order to explain to a prolific “friend,” why the church frowned on sexual promiscuity.  Jesus discussed how this and similar stands by the church are practically relevant and in one’s best interest in the modern day; and that they are not just relics from archaic times.  And so it went for 45 minutes of radio reception.  The host maintained a kind and patient tone with each caller, and was interesting to hear.  Who do you suppose was truly taking the calls?

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

The Jesus Christ show was a light warm-up to the strong religious culture throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky.  I have never seen so many churches.  The majority were in double-wide trailers, with a few having pillar-style fancy structures and large cemeteries.

Church in rural Kentucky: Double-click to enlarge.

Church in rural Kentucky: Double-click to enlarge.