- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

The skyscrapers of Louisiana’s party capital slowly fade away in my rearview mirror as I cross the murky waters of the Mississippi River. Leaving behind the streets of sin, bare breasts and clubs where liquor flows without end, I head off in search of old U.S. 90.

Somewhere down this road are places where old men play accordions under cypress trees in the swamps, singing in a strange local dialect of French. Many routines have not changed in decades in this area where settlers arrived more than 200 years ago,

Heading west out of New Orleans, much of U.S. 90 is built upon the original path of the Old Spanish Trail. Originally used by the Spaniards for cattle trails and trading routes between Texas and Florida, it was a hideout for pirates, a buffer zone between nations and a trail laced with history and legends. Today, this area of the highway is known more for such things as crawfish, alligator-infested swamps, zydeco and people we have come to know as Cajuns.

Just past the wooded outskirts of Orleans Parish, I pass the small towns of Paradis and Boutee. It isn’t until I look on my map that I realize the highway’s precarious location — it’s surrounded by rivers and swamps. During certain times of the year, the rising waters creep right up to the roadside, creating a long peninsula for automobiles and a land barrier for local wildlife. The corpses of raccoons, opossums, armadillos, turtles, snakes and even alligators litter the shoulders of the Cajun Highway.

Veering from the well-traveled path, I head down the side road of Louisiana 307 toward the small settlements of Kraemer and Chackbay before wandering back to the sugar-producing capital of Raceland. For miles, it leads me through the loneliness of the Louisiana swamp that eats away at the road beneath the tires of my truck.

I ride just inches from the muck and green hell of the bayous, but the road is only another example of the Cajuns’ constant battle with erosion. It seems as if every decade, the map of Louisiana’s coast gets smaller and smaller as the marshes and Gulf of Mexico slowly crawl their way north.

Coastal towns are becoming islands, and inland towns are just decades away from becoming gulf-front property. Every year, the residents of the state donate thousands of old Christmas trees to the wetlands to help create a barrier, but public enemy No. 1 — the nutria — just eats them all. Nutrias have become such a problem that the state has issued a $4 bounty on the tail of each one.

The city of Houma is the first major town to welcome me to the land of erosion. This self-proclaimed “Venice of America” lies at the convergence of six bayous where almost as many people commute to work in boats as they do in trucks.

Named after the Houma Indians — whose war emblem is a crawfish — the area was settled long ago by French and Acadians because of its geographic isolation and abundance of wildlife. As the home of sugar plantations, petroleum vessels and fishing fleets, it’s the gateway to endless miles of coastal wetlands that stretch south to the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Heading down Louisiana 55, I find communities surviving off oil and seafood, every village so isolated and secluded that each speaks its own dialect of French.

Turning onto the road toward the small Houma Indian settlement of Isle de Jean Charles, I find the two-mile passage hidden under six inches of water. As I stop to let a man pass me, he honks his horn and smiles.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “This ain’t no flood, just high tide.” In this home to fewer than 300 people in wooden frame houses, it appears as if I have reached the end of the Earth.

Just across a no man’s land of swamps and backwoods from Houma lies the thriving port of Morgan City. The elevated highway into town easily demonstrates how Cajun country was long a frontier region, isolated by geographic barriers until costly roads and bridges came along. Proudly calling itself the “Shrimp Capital of the World,” Morgan City is a port of shipyards, oil rig workers and the towering booms of shrimp boats.

Down on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, I climb aboard Mr. Charlie, one of the country’s only offshore drilling rigs open to the public. It was a monstrous creation like this that drilled the first producing oil well nearby in 1947, throwing the port into an oil boom that later subsided in the ‘80s. Much like the rest of the area, it constantly lives in fear of water — engineers predict total devastation of the city the day the Mississippi decides to change course and head down the Atchafalaya.

From the Atchafalaya River, Louisiana 70 snakes its way north up to the state capital of Baton Rouge (red stick), running along the levee of the Atchafalaya Basin for more than 20 miles before hitting Pierre Part.

Nestled deep in the swamps of Louisiana, this small French town hugs the shores of the Belle River and boasts one of the highest densities of French-speaking populations in the state. It’s home to the famous Rainbow Inn dance hall, which has been hosting swamp pop since the 1930s. I stop to observe the statue of the Virgin Mary perched upon a small island — locals say the water has never gone above her feet, the point at which the town would flood.

Just downriver, a few miles north of Morgan City, I head off to Stevenville in search of the back roads and lost trails of Southern Louisiana. I quickly find myself on rickety gravel paths, wandering treacherously through the swamps, where boats outnumber trucks as a means of transportation. I find canoelike boats called pirogues tied to mailboxes perched on cypress knees as the eyes of countless alligators peek from just beneath the water hyacinths.

A white cloud of dust fills the air as I slowly roll down the road, over the one-lane bridges, swerving to avoid crushing the mud turtles crossing my path. It all ends more than 10 miles later at a ramshackle bar and grocery called T-Man Bailey’s, the perfect place to stop for a cold beer on the way to the end of the Earth.

West of Morgan City off the Cajun Highway, it’s almost a 20-mile detour of rickety, shell-topped trails to Lake Fausse Point State Park. Home to one of the oldest cypress groves in Cajun country, it’s far from civilization and even further from the rest of America.

Six-thousand acres of alligator-infested swampland await visitors adventurous enough to make it out here and take in some of its canoe trails. As I lay my head to sleep that night, the sounds of countless insects can be heard along with the bellowing of gators and cries of small critters. For the few secluded people living in this neck of the woods, things haven’t changed in decades.

Heading out into the morning mist, I discover that only a handful of small, lonely shacks line the crumbling levee road between Lake Fausse and the small town of St. Martinville. It is from here, between the Cajun Prairie and the Atchafalaya Basin, that the original Acadians are believed to have dispersed into surrounding areas. Shunned by the high society Creoles, they fled St. Martinville and headed off into the endless fields. As an 85-year-old Cajun from Sunset would later tell me, “Not all Cajuns live in the swamps. I didn’t see one until I was 19 years old.”

Even today, Cajuns remain a people who live close to the land, evident in the miles of sugar cane and burning fields that line the highway. This small area of Louisiana produces almost half the sugar in the United States and doesn’t lag far behind in rice crops.

From the Konrico Rice Museum in New Iberia and the Sugar Museum in Jeanerette to the crawfish ponds in Breaux Bridge, travelers quickly realize that Cajuns are experts in the arts of survival and adaptation. After they were forced out of what is now Nova Scotia in the 1760s, poverty and a lack of food sent them into the swamps scavenging for what has become a delicacy — crawfish.

U.S. 90 slowly transforms into Interstate 49 as I near the undisputed capital of Cajun country — Lafayette. With a population of more than 160,000, it’s the largest city in the Cajun heartland, from which everything else radiates. Home to the University of Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns and the largest Francophone festival in the United States, it draws multitudes of tourists to its restaurants and zydeco halls every year.

I would discover that this is a city that loves to eat, drink and dance, holding more festivals than one can imagine — Festival Acadians, Zydeco Extravaganza and Downtown Alive are just a few. At the Cajun-themed “living museum” of Vermillionville, I wander paths around a condensed version of an early Acadian settlement complete with French-speaking costumed actors. An old man stops to pull me across a bayou on his raft, where a handful of artisans show me their trades.

Not far south of the Cajun capital, Avery Island Jungle Gardens are home to the largest egret colony in the United States. Gravel roads draw me deep into forests of bamboo and quiet swamps, where gators lurk just beneath the greenery. Six miles to the east, I find Jefferson Island, which is famous for more than just its beautiful Rip Van Winkle Gardens. In 1980, it was home to an extraordinary geophysical event when a crack in an enormous salt dome beneath Lake Peignur sucked in the entire body of water. Within seven hours, the entire lake was emptied, along with boats, piers and houses that lined its shore.

Heading back North of Lafayette, I drive deep into the heart of the Cajun Prairie, where the Zydeco Cajun Prairie Scenic Byway leads to places such as Ville Platte (flat land); Opelousas, “Yam Capital of Louisiana”; and Rayne, “Frog Capital of the World.”

Just off Louisiana 182, the quiet town of Sunset still reigns as one of the cockfighting capitals of the country — despite numerous attempts to outlaw the blood sport, it remains legal in Louisiana. Driving down the dusty roads of the prairies, I find rows of tents made of corrugated tin where fowl are hatched and raised to fight until the death. Once a month, the doors of the Sunset Game Club cockfighting pit open up as people come from far and wide to fight their birds and gamble on the outcomes.

Raised for more than just fighting, chickens are more popular than ever during the Courir de Mardi Gras (literally “running of the Mardi Gras”). Come every carnival and the week preceding it, towns such as Church Point, Elton and Basile seem worlds apart from the Mardi Gras made so famous by New Orleans.

Cajuns have long celebrated the holiday without floats, bare breasts and cheap beads, opting instead for age-old cultural traditions. Re-enacting the que la mada medieval procession of beggars, they dance their way from farm to farm collecting vegetables and food items for a communal gumbo at the end of the day. Nothing, however, excites everyone more than the sight of grown men chasing chickens during the courir.

Nowhere is this more famous than in the small village of Mamou, the farthest point from New Orleans and the virtual end of the Cajun Highway. It is here in 60-year-old Fred’s Lounge that the courir was revived by a few Cajuns who saw their traditions and culture dying before them.

Remaining one of the most famous shrines in Cajun country today, Fred’s is my final destination, a place embodying everything and anything that is Cajun. It’s just past noon on a Saturday when I enter the doors of the ramshackle bar to find everyone two-stepping to the sounds emanating from the stage. There’s a man with a guitar, a man with an accordion and even a man scratching a washboard with a spoon. It doesn’t get more Cajun than this.

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