We rode south, high on the Mississippi levee, with views of wetlands and scattered crops running off to a flat horizon. There are very few vehicles and it is deathly quiet.
The whole parish seems to be either under water, or scant inches above it. The river is running muddy and full; it defines the landscape and it’s power constantly draws my gaze to it. I’m glad for the levee.
After about 30 more miles, we arrived at a Corps of Engineers visitors center that was closed for the season. We’d expected to get water and find camping there. Black clouds crackle with lightning in the western sky, moving our way.
While we stood around looking lost, (we’re good at that remember), a man and his wife drove up and offered to show us to the campground, also closed for the season. He showed us where there was a water pipe, and which site was the highest. They camp here often, he said. No one comes here in winter he said, and they drove away. We were alone with the rain and the big river and the dark swamp trees.
Later. The night sky to the south is clear and there is a gibbous moon.
In the west towering clouds overlap in layers of cotton and ink. Pink sheet lightning and red rippling daggers fluoresce the clouds in a staccato beat. I feel the thunder in my chest.
The air smells of rain and ozone, clean and dangerous.
A meteor plunges in from the north.
From about three the next morning, our tent was directly under a display like the one we watched from a distance the night before. High winds and lightning, thunder and three inches of rain (according to our pork-and-beans can rain gauge) continued until after sunrise. Close lightning strikes don’t bother us as much now. You’re either going to get it, or not.
The campsite the man pointed out as the highest was the only place not flooded this morning. Thank you.
All the rain we have had recently has raised the Mississippi to levels that mean diverting water to the Atchafalaya River. The Corps of Engineers does it via an system of huge ditches and dams with movable doors to release water across watersheds. Our campsite was near the northern most of the dams. Between thunder claps we heard the rumble of huge cranes moving lock doors. In the morning, a good-sized river’s worth of water was boiling through the locks toward the Atchafalaya. It doesn’t take much imagination to see potential disaster here. All it would take is the failure of one of the three control dams that we saw, and the Atchafalaya would capture the Mississippi, forever. It almost happened in the big flood of 1973 when one of the locks was severely undercut and nearly failed. Sooner or later, nature will have her way.
We packed up wet and rode south along the Mississippi levee under heavy gray skies and threat of rain. Later in the day, at New Roads, we were told there had been 80 mph wind gusts and quite a bit of damage nearby. We were lucky—again.
Further down river we found a large area of flooded trees filled with birds; cormorants, egrets, swan, herons, shorebirds, diving ducks, and flocks of starlings. I’ve never seen so many birds in one place.
We are beginning to see the classic raised cemeteries of white granite. With all the rain-water standing everywhere, the reason is clear. We crossed into Pointe Coupee (coupay) Parish, and stopped at Lettsworth for fried blueberry pie and a pint of ice cream. Good breakfast!
Just outside, young Black men worked on the road with hand tools. They wore bright orange coveralls and were tethered with dog chains attached to their legs. A White deputy stood guard with a shotgun.
A few miles further we found the Morganza Cafe and decided we were hungry again. We split the dinner special of: chicken, corn, fried okra, corn bread, and spicy red beans and rice. Oh boy. This is what we’ve been waiting for!
Between Morganza and New Roads are Nebraska-sized fields of sugar cane in various stages of growth from just planted to harvest ready. The mature cane lays a heavy and complex scent on the humid air; there are hints of the sorghum and dark sugar stages to come, and the base is green growth rich, earthy and tropical.
New Roads is a neat town on an oxbow lake abandoned by a wandering Mississippi some time ago. There are many flowering shrubs I don’t recognize, and palm trees and smaller palms. The rains have begun again and flash flood warnings are posted for tonight. Cold air is supposed to bring clearing tomorrow. We can hope.
It was cold in the morning; the temperature dropped a good 30 degrees during the night. There has been over eight inches of rain in the first three days of this month. And we thought the Northwest was wet.
A few miles west of New Roads we punctured the rear tire. No problem. We’re getting good at this:
Remove sleeping bag and tent and pads and panniers, etcetera, remove wheel, put in the recently patched tube, put wheel back on. Put panniers back on bike, and pads and tent and sleeping bag etc. And pump up tire. And pump up tire. Oops. Bad patch. Okay. No problem. We have another tube. Do it all over again. Up to the point of pumping up the tire—pump up the tire…
The pump has suffered a catastrophic failure. No air.
It’s beginning to rain. Again. We are getting cold. Shivering. We decide to walk the four or five miles to the nearest gas station with the wheel.
Willie arrives. Willie is a Pointe Coupee Parish deputy sheriff. Very nice man. Takes me to a nearby gas station and feeds the pay air-pump fifty-cents. My gauge shows only 40 pounds. Cheap pump. Not enough. Willie takes me far in the opposite direction to a real air pump and back to Claire and Zippy.
On the way he tells me about his life. Born here and never been further from home than East Texas and Florida. He is fascinated by our trip and worried for us. He gives me a big, I mean big, can of heavy duty pepper spray. We have never felt threatened, but I don’t want to reject his kindness. Something else to carry, but we’ll probably feel better for having it. Sweet man.
I forget his surname, but when he tells it to me he winks, lowers his voice and says, “Dat jus a good ol Luziane Coon-Ass name.” His speech is definitely Cajun and not Southern. His demeanor suggests Coon Ass can be a derogatory term, but that he’s allowed to share it, and that he takes pride in being Cajun.
We’re finding people very friendly in Louisiana. Lots of people honk and wave at us here, just like in Montana and Nebraska. There is a difference from the Southeast. We generally feel particularly welcomed here.
I have noticed that the non-Cajun Whites in this area speak very much like Blacks further north do, with just a slight difference in syllabic emphasis. There certainly is not one Southern or Negro or Cajun language. It changes and mixes in ever more complex ways as we move through the region. Cajun English is very distinct, melodic and rhythmic, the French influence clear.
We will be traveling without pump now for awhile. Scary. We were fixing flat number 14 when the pump failed.
We stopped at Joe’s Grocery in Levonia. It is actually is no longer a grocery, but a popular Cajun restaurant. We heard about it from a couple on the street in Natchez. It doesn’t even have a sign on the front! The fried alligator tail was Cajun-hot and wonderful.