I’m Cajun. Well, a quarter Cajun, though I’d like to think it’s a dominant gene.
However, I did not grow up in Cajun Country and in fact, it’s been a remarkably long time since I’ve been there. My mother’s side of the family is all still there (the elder ones, anyway; like anywhere else, the younger generations have spread out from California to Maine). She talked a lot about them through the years, though, and I feel like I’ve known them in some form.
But this weekend, it was time to get to know them for real. It was Family Reunion Time.
My first foray back into Louisiana after 28 years (not the 25 I’d originally (mis-)counted) was more than pleasurable; like any road trip, it was also educational.
The education started early on. I learned that Houston, Texas, is not practically right on the TX-Louisiana state border. In fact, the state line is still 100 miles past Houston’s eastern limits.
I learned that if you want to take this trip on a Friday night, be prepared to deal with drug dealers hauling merchandise from Miami to Birmingham to Mobile to New Orleans to Houston to San Antonio. Lots of Florida and Louisiana plates from San Antonio on eastward.
Invariably, you will get sandwiched between Bubba doing 10 miles per hour under the speed limit (in the left lane, no less) in front of you, while the car behind you wants to do 20 mph over the limit and is following behind you so closely that you cannot even see their headlights in your rearview mirror.
Oh, and semi trucks are not restricted from the left lane on I-10 like they often are on other busy interstate highways–they clog. The. Entire. Highway.
I learned that Houston drivers are impressively tame and civilized, in general.
However, there are always at least 1 or 2 memorable asshats with balls the size of cantaloupes that unfairly give the whole city a bad rep.
I learned that the Texas-Louisiana state line is in the other hemisphere. Yes, Texas’s reign over Interstate 10 does not end until mile-marker 880, which means that Houston is closer to the Moon than it is to El Paso. It’s like the Energizer(TM) Bunny – it keeps going and going and going…
I learned that Pasadena, Baytown, and other such Southeast Texas towns on the I-10 corridor are places you do not want to stop. That’s OK – there are hardly any roadside gas stations on the interstate anyway. My advice: top off your tank before going through Houston.
I learned that Louisiana has a surprisingly robust oil industry. We saw just as many offshore oil drills off the coast near Grand Isle as we did off the Corpus Christi/Mustang Island coast, and Lake Charles had more oil refineries along I-10 than Houston did. (Of course, I heard later that all of Houston’s big refineries are south of I-10 on the 610 Loop.)
I saw that trees double in size once you cross the TX-LA state line. So do mosquitoes. I learned that the essential oil of Citronella really does live up to its name as a mosquito repellant. Bonus: it’s non-toxic and a tiny bottle lasts you forever, as you only need a few drops in each area.
It does not, however, seem to work on any mosquito bites you’ve already gotten; it’s a preventive measure only. But it is every bit as effective as Off!(TM), with none of the carcinogenicity.
I expected Louisiana to be a big statewide version of Lockhart, Texas–kinda rusted out and run-down. It wasn’t. It seemed like the whole southern half of the state was a giant mowed yard, and most of the houses had been remodeled (or rebuilt all together) within the last 5-20 years, even if the structures themselves were 100 years old. My relatives said that that was a positive product of the hurricanes: the hurricane damage destroys the run-down shacks and forces people to either rebuild or relocate. We were quite impressed.
I was aware that we grew cotton in Louisiana. I was not aware that we were still doing it. I was also not aware that other staple Louisiana crops included soy and lots of sugar cane.
I hadn’t realized they still played old-time Cajun music, complete with zero bass boost, zero radio sound compression, and crackly, poor quality sound. But it’s a homey humble, organic, analog sound that takes you back to 1930. The station that played it (1050 AM through Cajun Country) also had a young female DJ, and it took us a while to realize she was black. And yes, it’s OK to say “black” in Louisiana. Nobody gets offended, not even the black people.
I realized that in fact, not too much has changed since 1930 – our family still has the farmhouse and there’s still a small ditch that used to be a stream; the driveway still crosses over it, although the bridge isn’t there anymore. Momma had sat on that bridge and dangled her legs over it until one of her older cousins yanked her up onto her feet to avoid the scorching bite of a water moccasin. The fire ant hills she sat on (with unfavorable results) are different ones, but they’re still there, just the same.
I learned that my granddaddy was not born in a hospital; he was born in a bedroom of the farmhouse. We even got to see that room.
I learned that we have a WIDE variety in our family. Everyone looks different and talks differently, with wide variations in accent, from Georgia to Texas. Facial structure and features, as well as skin, hair, and eye color varied just as widely. All walks of life and socioeconomic statuses were represented. It was amazing to look out at the 50 or so people there and realize that at least half of them are blood-related.
There are some on the Autism Spectrum in our family, too. I learned that just as I suspected, my family has a long history of involvement with the Tabasco Sauce industry. Some still work at the plant!
I learned that Catholic people can indeed be somewhat evangelistic. Their love of Christ and service to God are synonymous with life on earth and although my own spirituality takes on a hugely different form, I could understand and respect their devotion. But never have I heard Catholics speak so openly and almost fundamentally about religion. I reckon they assumed they were in 100% like-minded company. Can’t blame them for that. In fact, it was semi-endearing.
I learned that it takes a hell of a long time to traverse a healthy chunk of the State of Louisiana if you do 50 mile per hour the whole way. It takes almost as long, even if you do 70. Be careful; the speed limit on most highways is 55, and Louisiana State Police love to write tickets to out-of-state travelers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I learned that the humidity in Louisiana is wayyy different than the humidity of Texas. Although just as wet, it’s lighter and less stifling. The wind is calmer and stiller. The grass really is greener (literally). We traded in our Hill Country Monarch butterflies for huge dragonflies. A Louisiana weather forecast starts out in the mid-Atlantic, keeping a watchful eye for the slightest twisty turbulence that might translate to a hurricane on our side of the world.
I learned that I can drive for half an hour and get a stiff neck if we’re just trying to barrel down the interstate, especially in traffic. I also learned that I can drive for over 4 hours the next day and be completely loose, as long as I’m following a Louisiana native who knows where she’s going and is in no hurry to get there.
I learned that getting older doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down or developing an illness. Momma’s cousins are in their 80s and have plenty of energy, mobility, mental clarity, and stamina. They move a lot. They talk a lot. They do a lot. They travel a lot. And they pray a lot. The wonderful lady we stayed with sat with us on the beach and well after sunset, after she’d finished fishing off the shore, she said, “hey, let’s drive down to that other fishing bridge”. We didn’t get back until well after 9pm.
Speaking of fishing, I learned that if you’re trying to reel in the line, and it sticks (won’t budge), don’t try to force it; you’re probably twisting the fishing line around the outside of the reel. I also learned that if you do this, your partner will be behind you, with their camera and tripod anchored in the sand, catching you on candid film.
I learned that shrimp boats move very slowly and can come surprisingly close to the shore. I learned that they also work at night, with big headlights. The ones I saw weren’t big at all.
I learned that a cell phone signal can reach to the end of the earth; we were there, on the beach, by the ocean, talking on our cell phones and updating our Facebook statuses. It’s not that we were pathetic tech-addicts. It was the sheer novelty of being able to say/type: “Oh, we’re sitting on the beach. In the dark.” Admit it, it’s awesome.
I saw a bayou for the first time. These are beautiful little creek-looking ponds that snake up from the ocean. I couldn’t begin to tell you whether they’re salt-water or fresh-water, but they’re calm and pretty. They don’t flow; there are no rapids; they just sit peacefully. The little state highway we took all the way down snuggled up to one long bayou the entire length of the trip.
I learned that when you cross a bayou, you often pass over/under a lift bridge, the scaffolding of which extends fairly high, with large gears at the top that seem to act as pulleys. Some bridges even have gigantic chains (not just long, but huge, and you feel like you’re one of the shrunken kids in “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”). The photographic opportunities are quite rich. In fact, Louisiana is full of bridges, many of them big, beautiful, rusty, and historic.
I learned that Louisiana is not one consecutive land mass; the whole southern end is made of a mesh of marshes, wetlands, and island/peninsulas. It is surprisingly un-polluted. It didn’t smell (except for fish/crab carcasses every so often), nor did we see much oil wash-up or dead birds/fish with plastic rings around their necks or coated in oil or anything.
We waded right into the ocean…which, by the way, is just across a small neighbor’s yard and a tiny 2-lane road from the house in which we stayed.
I learned that the sun rises earlier in Louisiana. This is because they’re in the same time zone, but (much) further east.
Louisiana and Texas nod to each other in a tiny strip of blended cultures – Louisiana has a Longhorn Motel near the state line and not far into Texas, there’s a Cajun Cafe.
I learned not to make this road trip without new truck tires and proper alignment.
I learned that you can shrink an 11-hour drive into 9.5 hours. But you have to do 75-80 the whole way and it will cost you your neck, shoulder, and back muscles. Oh, and you can’t really stop except to top off the gas tank and grab quick munchies.
I learned that it’s better to go through Houston between the morning and evening rush hour times.
I learned that it’s nice to see San Antonio again. But I also learned that try as you might to get back into the swing of things the next day at the office, your mind drifts back to the Cajun get-togethers and Bayou Country and the beach and part of you is still back there. On a lawn chair. In the dark…
…With or without a cell phone.