I’ll start with the confession. Like the rest of the herd, I got in my car and drove dutifully over the memorial day weekend, slept in a motel bed big enough for four, ate every damn thing that got in my way and burned gasoline. My wife tells me it’s the first vacation we’ve taken together in three years.
I do not do this without a measure of guilt.
Now, out of shame, and so this whole event does not become an exercise in waste and indulgence, I’ll share a little of what I saw and tasted with the rest of you.
Our destination was Louisiana. Lake Charles was home base but we saw a good portion of the Southwest section of the state while here.
First stop was Vinton and Delta Downs. Delta Downs is a racetrack, but the horses and the racing almost seem an afterthought. The track is home to a casino full of slot machines and an entertainment center; a large hotel also rises high into the air along one side.
Five out of six cars in the parking lot have Texas plates; here’s what happens when a state prohibits a form of gambling while an adjacent state offers the indulgence. Inside all is modern and clean and new: food courts line one wall and a weird, almost hypnotic blend of lights and sound beckons from the casino. People, mostly old and bored-looking stare into the neon glow of modern slot machines, mindlessly feeding them money and pushing buttons like some monkey in a dope experiment waiting for his shot of cocaine; that little burst of excitement that comes from winning.
After a few minutes I am done with this, so we go out and watch the races. We don’t go up to the grandstand where all the rich folks sit, but instead out to the apron of the track where horsemen and blue collar locals watch. I see familier faces–the trainers, jockeys and grooms–and the assortment of families and kids that come because they love the horses. For my taste, there’s not a prettier animal than a horse bred and conditioned to race: sleek and muscular with shiny coats, muscles rippling, almost an element of fire exploding from its nostrils.
I pick the winner to a couple of races without betting, then decide to cash in on my skill and promptly lose $24 on a $1 trifecta box with four horses. Like ususual, we get two of the three, but one slips in to mar our get rich quick scheme. I know better than to try to recoup my loss.
On our way to the track my sister-in-law notices a building surrounded by a parking lot full of cars. I too saw the building, but didn’t realize what I was seeing. She informs me that this is a cock fighting venue. Louisiana is the last state in the nation that hasn’t made the sport illegal.
When we get back to the motel, I look the place up on my computer and learn that there’s legislation on the books to prohibit this in Louisiana. A federal law has already been passed that makes it illegal for anyone to cross state lines with cocks bred for fighting, so they are already having a tough time of it.
The Agonist being a progressive type blog, I ‘spect you’ll be wanting me to condemn cock-fighting. Ain’t gonna happen. My internet search reveals that Abraham Lincoln got the nickname honest Abe because he was a fair judge in the cock-fighting ring and Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and others also raised fighting birds. Me being a patriot and all, I decide to indulge in a little of this noble game before my right to do so gets taken away, that is until I learn you have to buy a membership to the club for $40 and then pay $30 to get in to watch the fights. There are four of us. I don’t want to see chickens fight that bad.
A couple of blocks from the cock-fighting ring I see a fried chicken joint and wonder…
The next day we travel to Avery Island, home of Tabasco brand hot sauce and tour the factory. I think this nice, but am dissappointed that they won’t let us see the fields where the peppers grow.
On our way back we get off the interstate highway and take the southern route, passing rice, sugar cane and crawfish fields. Everywhere we go, we eat. I remember seeing a black man banished to Utah after Katrina on tv. They asked him how he liked the place and he politely said it was nice and clean and all, but that these people don’t know how to season their food. Don’t know about Utahians, but I can tell you that the folks in southern Louisiana know how to season their food. We ate craw-fish and jambalaya and boudin and red beans and rice with sausage and shrimp etoufee and…
Everyone remembers hurricane Katrina, but few remember Rita. The people from Cameron, Lousiana and Holly beach do. These two towns (or what little remains of them) lie in the southwest corner of the state along the gulf coast. The people of Houston (and the rest of us as well) should still be thanking God that storm made a last minute jog to the east. Unfortunately for those in Cameron, that’s what happened, and the eastern side of the eye passed by.
The damage is surreal, even to this day. Ripped, twisted and torn poles remain where pine forests once stood, devoid of bark and leaves, like a huge cemetary marking a time gone by. Rusting hulls of boats and ships litter the beaches, bare concrete slabs identify the spots where houses once stood. Twisted steel frames absent tin or bricks barely impede the gentle but steady breeze that blows in from the ocean.
There are signs of human life returning. All buildings are new, because all that were old are gone. I see houses on stilts, and wonder, will these someday become UFO’s? I know I don’t want to be in an elevated structure when 200 mile an hour winds come along. What are they thinking? Little camps of mobile homes have arrived, the first wave of resettlement. People fish along the inland waterways and a few people play on the beach, but you can’t come to this place without remembering, even if you weren’t here for Rita’s passing.
This place made hell look friendly not so long ago, and I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before this hell returns.
One guy seems to have figured the thing out. He built a steel frame port and parked a travel trailer under it. All he has to do is hook on to his house and drive away, assuming there’s gasoline to do so, when the next storm comes.
The people making the gasoline are still around. Drilling rigs are drilling, pumpers are pumping and refineries are refining. Hard men sit in restaurants with calloused hands and toasted skin, some from the rigs, some from the shrimp boats, and some from the fields. Their words are tainted with a French accent unique to the area.
I was glad to see Louisiana, and I’m glad we’re about to go home. Under the veneer the major highway provides, I saw real people, tied to their piece of the earth, good people. To a degree, I’m a stranger in their world, just like they’d be a stranger in mine, but I am left with a definite feeling that this place needs to be and is an integral piece of the fabric that makes this great nation what it is.
Louisiana is one fine state and I am glad I got the chance to visit.