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Down on the Bayou 

(Reprint from News: June 27, 2001)

June 26, 2001


Still thinking about that scratch, I left Austin and headed east towards Houston, where I encountered some pretty nasty thunderstorms.  Houston traffic can be pretty horrific even on a good day, and an intense thunderstorm at rush hour made the drive lots more exciting.  I was planning to camp that evening near one of my favorite Texas cities, Galveston, but the clouds were even darker off in that direction, so after surviving Houston, I continued on Interstate 10 and drove into southern Louisiana, a land of endless swamps, marshes, and armadillo roadkill on the highway.


Here's Buckwheat Zydeco singing Allons a Boucherie.

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Other than the fascinating roadkill, one of the things I love about Louisiana is the music here.  Many of the radio stations in southern Louisiana play Cajun/zydeco music, which, with its fast-paced accordion, fiddle, and washboard, is unlike music in any other part of America.  Some of the radio stations here even have Cajun D.J.'s ("All Cajun, All the Time"), so unless you know French, you can't understand a word they're saying.  Even if you can't understand the D.J.'s or the advertisements, though, the infectious, toe-tapping zydeco music blaring out of your car speakers is a lot of fun to listen to.


That afternoon, I pulled into a place called Sam Houston Jones State Park, north of Lake Charles, Louisiana, where I discovered a beautiful, swampy bayou filled with turtles, egrets and probably some alligators if I looked long enough.  The almost-deafening cacophony of chirping crickets and bellowing bullfrogs cracked me up that evening as I cooked up a tasty dinner of brats and beans, and I almost couldn't stop laughing.  As I sat at my picnic table and ate dinner, I enjoyed watching a wall of lightning bugs dance around the Spanish moss, just like something out of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" but without the long lines.  Camping there on the bayou was a phenomenal experience, and I decided to put Sam Houston Jones on my list of 10 Favorite State Parks in America.  Yep, this definitely wasn't Oregon.



Above left:  I have a daily ritual of loading my cooler with one bag of ice, this time in Giddings, Texas.  

Above center:  Highway 290 east of Austin.

Above right:  I crossed paths with a thunderstorm in Houston and could barely see out the windshield, even with the wipers on "High."  Driving 60 miles-per-hour through Houston at rush hour in a construction zone during a heavy downpour and unable to see... it just doesn't get any better than this!  



Above left:  My campsite at Sam Houston Jones State Park in southern Louisiana. 

Above center:  Cooking brats (pronounced "brots," as in bratwurst) on the bayou.  It was about 95 degrees here and the air was so thick you could've cut it with my Swiss Army knife... just a wee bit different from Oregon.  The South is a great place -- if you like to sweat.

Above right:  While eating breakfast the next morning at my campsite, I watched this egret looking for his breakfast.  This is a backwater of the sluggish Calcasieu ("CAL-ka-shoe") River.



Above left:  A sweltering bayou, a cooler full of ice, and thou.

Above center:  Replacing my headlights...

Above right:  ...and giving my truck a bath.  This is in Lake Charles, Louisiana.


Bon Temps in Soggy Louziana

I got doused by one torrential downpour after another as I drove across Louisiana the next day, and I had to pull off the highway several times to seek higher ground and let the floodwaters recede so my Toyota wouldn't float away.  People make jokes about how flat the Midwest is, but I think Louisiana is probably the flattest state in the U.S.  However, it's also one of the most interesting, with all the bayous, bald cypress trees, incredible wildlife, and Spanish moss... not to mention those indecipherable Cajun DJ's.


I'd driven through Louisiana several times before, but I've usually taken the coastal route on my way to, or from, the Atlantic Coast.  Instead of doing the Atlantic coastal drive this time, I decided to head north and visit Appalachia, a place that I've never really seen.  I always try to take different routes whenever I drive anywhere, and Appalachia was one of the only places in the U.S. that I'd never really seen before (along with Oklahoma -- see Previous Roadtrips).


In terms of culture and atmosphere, Louisiana is about as far from Oregon as you can get in the U.S.  A lot of my friends out west or in the Midwest think it's a bizarre place and whenever I tell them about Louisiana, their facial expressions always say, "Why would you ever want to go there?"  Well no, I don't think I'd want to live in Louisiana, but with its unique culture, it's one of the most amazing places in America -- and a fascinating place to visit.  


After a few hours, I left Louisiana, crossed the muddy Mississippi River, and drove into the stately old city of Natchez, Mississippi.  Because of cotton, the port city of Natchez became one of the richest towns in the U.S. in the early 1800s, but it fell on hard times after the Civil War thanks to soil erosion and a critter called the boll weevil.  However, visitors still come to Natchez from all parts of the country during "pilgrimages," when many of the spectacular antebellum (that's Latin for "Before Bellum") mansions are open for touring.  For some reason, most of the stately mansions here have elegant names usually referencing either women or trees, such as "Lady Victoria" or "Secret Oak," or my favorite, "Victoria's Secret."  The rest of the city really isn't that great.  In fact, it's pretty run-down and it's obvious that Natchez has seen better days.  However, the elegant mansions of Natchez have an alluring charm.


After poking around town for an hour, I hopped on the Natchez Trace Parkway and camped a few miles away at a free National Park Service campground.  I like campgrounds partly because they're cheap and free campgrounds, I think, are definitely the best kind. 



Above left:  It poured a LOT in Louisiana.  Each time a deluge started, I just pulled off the highway and waited it out.  That was wiser, I decided, than driving through a river that was formerly the highway.  The torrential downpours in the South were pretty spectacular, very unlike our drizzly weather in the Northwest.

Above center:  Looking back into my truck's bed, waiting for another Louisiana thunderstorm to pass by.

Above right:  Street scene in steamy Alexandria, Louisiana.



Above left:  Here's the Mississippi River bridge (well, o.k., bridges) in Natchez, Mississippi.

Above center:  Natchez is a city of stark contrasts, with a dingy downtown area ringed by graceful antebellum mansions, including this one named "Rosalie."

Above right:  Entering the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway near Natchez.



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