If you want to see the edge of civilization without going to the desert, look no further than Southern Louisiana. Several versions of apocalypse have come and gone there, so I drove down to True Detective-land to see what these various disasters had left behind. Some of what I saw was beautiful and some wasn’t pretty, but it was all very interesting, and had me asking myself what comes first: humanity or nature.
Cajun low country is unlike anywhere else in the world. There may be other places where swamps, marshes and wetlands meet the sea, but none of them have the same mixture of French, Southern and Caribbean cultures that gives the place both a dark mysteriousness and the bright suggestion that hedonism can be ok if you go about it the right way. Here, colloquial French and Southern twang meet fried everything, and a general passion for hunting and fishing intersect with oil industry infrastructure. Meanwhile, the mighty Mississippi River churns by alongside, keeping quiet about the many lives it has built and taken away over the centuries.
According to the US Geological Survey, Southern Louisiana’s wetlands – or Southern Louisiana itself, as it is more or less a giant wetland – are disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 51 acres per day. That’s about 38 football fields. Bearing that in mind, I figured I’d better go ahead and see it before it vanished.
John McPhee wrote an article for the New Yorker in the late 1980s that explained how, in its efforts to improve navigation and prevent flooding along the Mississippi River, the US Army Corps of Engineers had unwittingly played a big part in the demise of Southern Louisiana’s landmass by speeding up the river’s pace and eliminating from the land the river’s nourishing sediments. But he also noted that the canals oil and gas companies had cut through swamps and marshes down that way had also quickened water flow. That swift-moving water was, and is, taking chunks of Louisiana with it.
But driving through the region, it’s difficult to tell there’s anything amiss. The further south you go in the state, the more likely it is that the roads would be just above the water level anyway, as they’ve always been whenever there were roads. There aren’t as many trees as in other parts of the state that are a little higher in elevation; mostly just flooded rice fields and marshes. Many of the houses there sit on stilts. Occasionally, you spot a low-flying crane or some other aquatic animal that reminds you how little it would take for this to transform into more watery acres in the Gulf of Mexico.
After several hours on the road, I would find myself in a bar at the end of the Great River Road, in the company of a few post-Hurricane Katrina holdouts. I would hear all kinds of stories, including one about a coked-out discount store manager known for getting frisky with younger men in a parking lot, another concerning a woman who went through husbands like they were Red Box rentals, and bits and pieces about brawlers, prostitutes and every other imaginable variety of misguided human playing out their misguided human drama in a place across the street called The Den.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There were many miles to travel before I reached the end of the world.
The obvious starting point for a trip to Southern Louisiana is New Orleans. To begin with, there’s a big international airport there. It’s also a good place to overstimulate yourself before delving into the more relaxed pace of life in the state’s soggy southern tier. The Big Easy, that hive of delicious food, brassy music clubs and inebriating regional drinks that are way too easy to guzzle, would give Las Vegas a run for its money, debauchery-wise. But it doesn’t have to. NoLa is ok with itself, and is perfectly happy to have you if you fancy a sojourn there. But desperate for your attention, it ain’t.
After imbibing as much of that cultural richness as my liver could handle (fatty foods are hard on your health, remember), I pointed the long nose of a borrowed Dodge Challenger south along the Mississippi River. Slow-moving pedestrians and rows of bright-colored shotgun houses gave way to a big bridge, some drab suburbs, and then endless levees. Once you leave the grip of New Orleans and its inevitable suburban sprawl, house sightings become infrequent, typically clustered near the docks where commercial fishing boats come and go.
The Challenger, an uber-American ‘70s throwback, is the perfect car for touring the South. Like the South, it is what it is, take it or leave it. Plus, rear-wheel drive is A-ok in a region where snow and ice are almost never an issue. A pickup truck would have been more incognito, but an American land yacht was just the ticket for a long cruise such as this.
My goal was to drive as far as possible toward the outlet of the Mississippi River. The road leading there, state highway 23, forms the final stretch of the Great River Road, an unofficial collection of highways and byways that follow the river along its entire length, beginning at Lake Itasca, in northern Minnesota. The US Department of Transportation thought highly enough of the part that runs through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Arkansas to designate it as a National Scenic Byway – a title it also conferred upon other majestic roadways, such as the length of Pacific Coast Highway that runs through Big Sur, in California, and, for some reason, Woodward Avenue, in Detroit.
The Louisiana stretch of the Great River Road has no such honor. I never even saw a sign telling me it was different from any other road.
I knew from a quick study of Google Maps that there wouldn’t be much in the way of beaches or fancy resorts down that way – most of those were further west – and that I was most likely to find only fishermen, oilmen and the evidence of their work, if anything at all. I passed the entrances to a few villages enroute the road’s terminus, and decided to check one of them out.
A quick right over the west levee took me down a long gravel road, at the end of which was a cluster of houses called Grand Bayou. A few people waited in cars near the dock. For what, I didn’t know. Shift change? Supplies? It turned out to be a general gathering point, this little lot. Someone drove up in an old Suburban and dropped off a group of children who had apparently just finished school. They all piled into a boat and were piloted toward the next spit of house-populated land. People shouted greetings back and forth at each other as another boat departed.
“I love you!” a lady in a wild, patch-patterned jacket called to the boat driver from the landing.
“I love you mo’!” he shot back, turning in his calf-high white rubber shrimping boots – one hand still on the tiller wheel – to wave and grin as the child-laden boat glided away.
I drove further south, observing the superstructures of big ships as they peeked over the top of the levee on my left. Sometimes, the ships were moored to landings with cars and pickup trucks parked around them. In other instances, the ships were anchored further out in the river, and seemed devoid of human activity from my distant vantage point.
A few times, I drove up on top of the east levee, parking on the service road that runs its length, to get a better look at the Mississippi River. The river is roughly half a mile wide there, and most of the ships I saw were tankers, along with a handful of cargo ships and oil platform service boats (the launches that ferry people and supplies back and forth to the offshore rigs) mixed in. Despite the fact that there are 43 dams across the river along its 2,300-mile length, the water at its southern end was still brown and silty. Once upon a time, all that sediment used to cover the Mississippi Delta during the spring floods. The river would find a new course around the deposits. That all changed in the years after the area was settled, and now most of that material ends up in the Gulf, as the land bordering the river subsides (a fancy way of saying that it is sinking). Sometimes, though, the muddy water still finds its way landward through a hole in the levee, much to the chagrin of the people living in that particular locale.
Eventually, a sign for an old army fort caught my eye and I turned in. Fort Jackson. It’s a brick star fort that was built on the Plaquemine Bend of the Mississippi River in the 1820s to defend the approach to New Orleans. Some say it was Andrew Jackson’s idea, in his pre-presidential days, when he was still a cantankerous army general. There’s an older installment, Fort St. Philip, across the river, that had seen action against the British navy during the War of 1812. But you need a boat to get to that one, so I stuck to Fort Jackson.
It was late in the day and the fortress was locked up, but the bars on one of its large gates were wide-set and easy to climb through. Inside the outer walls, a ring of brick vaults faced a central courtyard, blackness staring out from the empty arches. The setup reminded me of the creepy “Carcosa” scene from the first season of “True Detective.” Luckily, there were neither spinning black hole in the sky nor psychotic occult serial killer within, not even in the dark subterranean passageways I explored with my handy smartphone flashlight app. It was, in fact, disappointingly non-creepy, even as darkness began to fall across skies that were already an emotionless steel gray.
Thanks to my laggardly pace, Night and I reached the end of state highway 23 concurrently. A white wooden sign unceremoniously heralded the end of the public road against a black sky whose bottom edge was lined with a jagged row of cranes and other oil company equipment. “Welcome. You have reached the southernmost point in Louisiana,” the sign declared. But that’s not entirely true, as technically, the terminus of 23 is a bit further north than Grand Isle, a beach community 30 miles to the west, at the end of another finger of spongey land. But it’s as far south as you can drive on the part of the state that juts into the Gulf, so whoever had put the sign here had probably shrugged, said “Good enough,” and gotten on with it.
I kept driving past a series of no trespassing signs, hoping for a better look at the delta beyond, but the road ended a few miles later, at an oil barge dock on a canal that ran through a big marsh. Thinking back to McPhee’s observations on the region’s reshaping by industry, it was clear that this place had been touched by the forces he had described. A manmade skeleton of steel pipes and scaffolds, wooden posts, and asphalt roads – and even the strictly defined course the river and its canals followed – forced the immutability of an estuary that would otherwise have fluctuated many times over the years.
The actual end of the Mississippi is nearly 15 miles away from there, and, like so many places in that part of the world, can only be reached by boat. There was nothing else to see, so I headed back to the last town I had passed to find something to eat.
Venice, La., is nothing like Venice, Italy, or even Venice, Calif. It’s flat and watery like the former, but there are no architectural marvels, no quaint scenery, and there aren’t many people. The only restaurant in town was closed, it’s workers locking the front door as a pickup sat idling by the front steps. About 100 yards down the road, the only apparent life in town presented itself – the lights from a pair of bars that faced one another across the highway. It seemed six of one, half dozen of the other to me, so I went with the one that didn’t have “lingerie” misspelled in its portable electric marquee. In fact, the one I picked didn’t have “lingerie” in its marquee at all, so I figured that it would be a better place to grab a bite.
The building was basically a huge aluminum barn with a bar along one wall, two small bathrooms in the back, and a row of pool tables lined up beneath the cellulose-insulated trusses of its corrugated metal roof. A woman who looked to be pushing into the final stretch of middle age walked back and forth behind the bar, smoking a cigarette. A red-faced, muscular young man with close-cropped blonde hair sat at the bar, nursing a Budweiser. Occasionally, he looked up at the TV, which was playing sports highlights with the volume turned down. He greeted me cheerily as I took a seat at the bar, a respectful two chairs away.
“In from outta town?” he asked in a Louisiana-specific Southern drawl. I replied that I was, and asked how he could tell. “It’s the vest, man. An’ they wear they hat backward here.”
The Italian-style blue suede sneakers probably didn’t help either (no one knew they were Albanian knockoffs), but I’d figured that brown dungarees and a waffle shirt would fit in anywhere, and hadn’t even considered how strange a red Patagonia vest might look to someone from a place where “outdoor enthusiast” meant “hunter/fisher,” not “surfer/skier.” I asked what people wore when the air outside was chilly, but not cold enough to warrant sleeves.
“They wear the who’ jacket!” he said with a grin, and bought me a beer and a whisky shot in an apparent sign of goodwill.
As luck would have it, the cavernous, albeit empty establishment did have food on the menu. Microwaved frozen pizza. It cost $8, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I was hungry.
When she brought my food, the bartender struck up a conversation with the other guy, who turned out to be an oil platform employee who had showed up a day early for his two-week offshore shift (I didn’t press him for further details as to why he would leave the comforts of home to end up in the bar by himself). They seemed to know each other, and skipped small talk, going straight for the subject that I would later learn seemed to be of most interest in town – The Den.
As they spoke, my mind filled with a vision of a band of surly roughnecks throwing a spindly out-of-towner through a plate glass windows before coming together in a gratuitous drunken brawl. I was told that if I wanted to go across the street – and it was getting toward 9 p.m., so it might not be such a good idea, as the boys were probably pretty well into the sauce by then – I should ditch the vest and turn my hat around. The oilman said most people in those parts wore jeans, work boots, a T-shirt, and usually a Carhartt jacket, preferably camo in color. Just like suits are are the normal fashion in Manhattan’s financial district, and military regalia is de rigueur at the Pentagon, Southern Louisiana, too, has its uniform.
“They’re pretty rough over there, honey,” the bartender said of The Den between drags. She never went more than five minutes between cigarettes. When she stepped closer to put a beer in front of me, the dim red light from the illuminated beer signs above the bar showed the cumulative damage her habit had wreaked upon her skin. She explained matter-of-factly that the The Den was the locus of all things shady in town – fights, beatings, drug usage, prositution... It was a long list that made me wonder if any of those cop shows shown on TV had ever been filmed there.
For minute or two, I actually wondered if I might be missing out on some gem of local culture by avoiding the place. One of two things was likely to happen there, I reasoned: in the first scenario, I’d get beat up by a mob of drunk roughnecks; in the second, nothing would happen at all and there would be two or three guys passed out at the bar, and maybe another one or two drinking alone, staring at the wall and wishing they were at home. Then again, maybe there would be a frustrated novelist, a nature photographer, and two roughnecks active in their local church’s flood victim relief group. How the wheels of my mind did turn wondering which one it would be.
The bartender told me that the town had been much more alive before Hurricane Katrina. The storm had eviscerated its population and economy. Some of the few who had stayed behind had lived in FEMA trailers. But she said that even after they had rebuilt their lives, the town was a shadow of its former self. The data available from the U.S. Census Bureau backs up her story in more concrete numbers. The 2000 census listed 2,200 residents in the Bootheville-Venice, La. census designate place. Ten years later, the total population between the two neighboring towns of Boothville and Venice had dwindled to 1,056. But it had already been on a bit of a decline by 2000. The 1990 census showed a peak population of nearly 3,000 for the area.
Business, the bartender said, had taken a hit since the storm, and other than the two bars, a restaurant that was open only occasionally, a discount store, and couple of other little shops catering to oil platform workers, sport fishermen and commercial fishermen, there wasn’t much going on in the Venice part. She suggested that the area’s social fabric was in a generally poor condition.
“Mah maynager at the discount store used to get drunk and do co-cayne at work,” she volunteered. “Sometimes, she passed out in the bathroom and we hadda drag her ass back to work. She got fired, though. Thank gawd I don’t work there no more.”
The errant manager had also been caught giving a young man oral favors in a parked car at The Den on at least one occasion, I was told. Our bartender rolled her eyes in disgust at the recollection, then used the story to segue into a related topic – The Den.
“We hadda take the locks off our bathroom doors, ‘cause guys was takin’ prostitutes over here from there,” she said.
Just then, the front door of the bar swung open and a thin, dark-haired woman strolled in, accompanied by another, much, much thicker dark-haired woman.
“Git me a DRANK!” the thinner newcomer almost yelled, launching into a string of profanity-laden commiserations with the bartender, who turned out to be her sister. The two sisters began telling stories about their father, who they said owned the bar. They were responsible for taking care of him in his old age. But feeble as he had become, they admitted to being resentful of the duty, as their father had been physically abusive when they were young. They shared many details from their unfortunate upbringing, but I’ll leave them to your imagination.
Later, after the sister had departed for the evening – leaving behind her portly friend behind to suck down cheap beer by herself – the bartender explained that her sister had a bit of a drinking problem. The oilman and I were also informed that the sister had been married four times, and was trying to get out of number four to go for a number fifth round of matrimony.
“She just thinks he has money,” the bartender said, adding, “I ‘ve only been married three times. One guy around here wants to marry me. I wanna go to Vegas so we can have a threesome with a Eh’vis impersonator.”
No one talked about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I didn’t bring it up. But stories about other people’s drug-fueled mishaps gushed forth like oil from the difficult-to-cap head of that ill-fated well. I made the rookie mistake of asking, out of simple academic curiosity, which drugs were most popular there. I wanted to know if it was a meth place, a crack spot, or what. The portly woman, who, earlier, had mentioned offhand that she had considered coming to the bar in her bathrobe and slippers, looked at me wide-eyed, her lips tightening across her mouth. Her expression complemented her oversized T-shirt in a way that reminded me of a bullfrog caught in the glare of a flashlight beam. I think she suspected me of being an undercover federal agent or something. In an instant, with one ill-conceived utterance, my welcome had worn thin.
I left just as the party was getting started. The beer was flowing and the jukebox was blasting – mostly corny pop songs like “Do You Believe in Life After Love,” not the classic Merle Haggard tunes I had expected. I never did go to The Den.
It wasn’t all that late – maybe 10 p.m. – but Highway 23 was just about empty of traffic. Occasionally, a pickup truck would appear on top of the levee, having come from an oil company facility or boat dock on the riverbank. As I was driving, the myriad lights from a huge complex of pipes and tanks loomed into view, next to the road on my right. Above the front gate of the cyclone-fenced facility, a floodlit, super-size American flag flapped briskly in a chilly northwest wind. It was striking, so I stopped to take it in.
I’m not sure what kind of facility it was, other than that it was probably associated with an oil company. The pipes and tanks stretched for a ways in both directions of the flag, which was mounted atop a pole that was at least 70 feet tall. The rippling of its fabric was the only sound audible above the low hum of machinery. I looked at the oil pipes for a while, then at the car, considering for a moment the circuitous connection between the two. It was time to keep driving.
I didn’t make it far before the monotony of dark, empty roads got the best of me and drowsiness set in. I had spent a while at the oil facility staring at its huge, rippling flag and wondering if tourists ever made it far enough south on this road to behold such a sight. It was after midnight, and I didn’t feel like driving anymore. I had brought a sleeping bag and a camping pillow for such an occurrence, and the Challenger’s back seats folded down to make a comfortable bed (if only because I’m not that tall).
I remembered seeing the beginnings of a subdivision nestled against the levee on my way down 23. A looping road had been built between the levee and the highway, but no houses had ever been built there. It looked something like a small, unbanked oval track, and also seemed like a nice quiet place to park for a few hours of sleep.
My repose was short. At about 3 a.m., I awoke to yelling and banging, and experienced a moment of sheer terror as my eyes opened to reveal the dark, aggressive silhouette of a man holding something heavy-looking above his head. For a moment, I thought I was a goner, the next in history’s long line of blunt trauma victims, and shrieked like Travis Okulski that time Jeff Gordon made him think he was being held prisoner by a fugitive.
It was only the friendly neighborhood Plaquemines Parish sheriff’s deputy, wondering what I was doing there, and if I was drunk or on some kind of drugs.
“Sorry,” he said once he had examined my bona fides and his suspicion had faded. “It’s just that we don’t get too many people over here. Especially at night. You never know, sometimes people pull off the main road to blow their brains out next to the levee.”
I assured him I had no such intention, but he still seemed confused as to why I – a native of a faraway place who did not work for an oil company – had traveled to his neck of the woods. I told him about Fort Jackson and how cool it was, and he acknowledged what I was saying. But the concerned half frown never left his face. He said he was most concerned about safety, and let me crawl back into the car for a few more hours of sleep.
Although I had only meant to sleep two, maybe three hours longer, I knew I’d blown it when I saw bright light seeping in around the edges of the sleeping bag when I awoke. I’d wiggled down inside the bag while I was sleeping, and probably looked like a pile of laundry to the police officer who was fiddling with the car’s door handle as I emerged into consciousness. How did I know there was a cop out there? I could hear unmistakable hum of a Crown Victoria’s idling engine several feet away, along with the occasional squawk of a handheld radio.
Aw shit, I thought. Not again.
Yes, again. The concerned deputy from the night before hadn’t counted on me sleeping through my alarm (happens all the time), and decided it would be easier for everyone if he didn’t file a report with headquarters. So I had to explain myself all over again.
“You have any drugs or weapons?” the deputy asked eagerly, to which I replied that I did not. “You mind if we search your vehicle?”
I politely declined.
“Alright,” he said. “You’re well within your right.”
I had breakfast at Captain Larry’s Seafood Kitchen, a little restaurant nearby that the cop had recommended. As I munched on a Louisiana hot links and cheese sandwich doused in Louisiana hot sauce, I watched men in soiled jeans, plaid work shirts and white shrimping boots come and go from the counter, ordering shrimp sandwiches to bring with them for lunch on the job. I was in Port Sulpur, and it wasn’t an oil place like Venice. Most of the off-to-work crowd looked like fishermen. Still, none were wearing Patagonia vests and suede sneakers.
When I left the restaurant, a deputy’s cruiser appeared in my rear view mirror, lingering in view until I had reached the edge of town.
My eventual goal was a small, slightly rural suburb just west of Lafayette, a place I’d been told was mostly populated by people who worked for oil companies. My grandmother and one of my uncles live there, and I had planned a visit into my trip. The easy way to get there from New Orleans is to drive along Interstate 10, or, from Venice, on Highway 90. But I took a slower route, absorbing miles of water-level roadway and stopping in Houma to visit the Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum.
Houma is a place frozen in time. It’s one of those small American towns with a main street that looks like it was plucked from the 1950s. But it’s a version of the 1950s where, other than the advent of the automobile, not much had changed since the 19th century. A stern gray stone courthouse presides over a more cheerful square, and is flanked by two rows of live oak trees planted there in 1886 by one of the parish’s leading families. A few of the trees had been replanted, but by a member of the same family that donated the originals.
The displays at the museum were a wealth of information about the area. Anyone who’s seen “Forrest Gump” knows that Louisiana is a shrimpin’ state. But did you know that it’s still the top dried shrimp producer in the world? I also learned the general progression of industry down that way: the ante-bellum cash crop was sugar; red fish, oysters and shrimp had become big business by the 1930s, and there had been a pretty brisk trade in cypress trees and alligators before those resources were depleted. The cypress trees are all gone, and alligator overkill had caused a spike in muskrat and nutria populations (both are gigantic, wet rats and look really gross up close) that led to a big decline in marsh grasses that then contributed to coastal erosion. Louisiana ‘gators – whose hides once provided boot leather for Confederate soldiers – were nearly annihilated by the 1960s, but a 12-year moratorium on hunting them improved their lot considerably. Nowadays, hide and meat ‘gators are raised in farms.
Another interesting fact I gleaned from the museum was that there was a significant influx of Vietnamese immigrants to the Gulf Coast after the Vietnam War. Apparently, Southern Louisiana’s climate is similar to Southern Vietnam’s. Anyway, since their arrival in the ‘70s, the Vietnamese-American population has been a significant force in the fishing and shrimping industries.
Terrebonne Parish is the most Louisiana of places; a locale were many people spoke Cajun French and lived on boats until recently. Some still do, of course, but, along with Corps of Engineers projects and the river’s ceaseless flow, modernity had also changed things. The museum celebrated the region’s culture, but also warned of the many problems the state faced after years of heavy resource exploitation. The biggest problem it noted was erosion. Terrebonne may be French for “good earth,” but it is also one of the parishes most at risk of disappearing.
It takes forever to see the eastern half of the Louisiana coast, because there isn’t a single road that runs along it. To get as close as possible to the Gulf, you have to execute a series of out-and-backs on dead-end roads. On one, there might be a village of stilt-mounted houses, like Cocodrie, where tourists go for sport fishing. Along another road, there will be more oil company facilities and boat docks. Further west, after I took a ferry (along with a number of energy industry pickup trucks) across the mouth of Lake Calcasieu, route 82 changed names, leaving behind the marsh-bound Creole Highway moniker to become the Gulf Beach Highway. If I didn’t know what I was looking at, I could have mistaken the beach towns over there for similar ones in Florida, Alabama or Mississippi. There were the requisite sandy beaches and stilt-mounted vacation homes. So I sampled some of the local boudin (an awesome-tasting sausage, the ingredients of which I did not care to know) to make sure I was still in Cajunland.
Just as I reached the Gulf’s white sand beaches, it was time make a choice: keep driving along the coast toward Texas to see the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, or head north to see my grandmother. Seeing how my grandmother was 92 and the coast was fading into the Gulf, I reasoned that either one could be gone the next time I visited. Neither nature nor relatives are replaceable, but engineers can often patch up our damage to nature to an extent that most of us can’t even tell the difference. That doesn’t mean the result is anywhere near as good as the original, but those master problem solvers haven’t yet found a way to keep humans going forever, so, like many other people, I chose humanity over nature and turned inland.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston