Retired Austin Travelers
Ann Cabot's... "Looking for Cajun Louisiana"

My favorite trips are road trips, roaming here and there to discover the local flavor of a place. So when my adventuring friend suggested a New Year's road trip to Louisiana to find Cajun culture, I packed in a flash--clothes, camera, binoculars and car snacks.

Our route took us from Austin, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and as far east as Lafayette. Six hours of driving on Interstate 10 and one stop to stock up on famous Hruska's cherry and cream cheese kolaches enabled us to arrive in Lake Charles just at dusk. We quickly toured the historic district located on either side of Broad Street as the last light of day faded. This area is known as the Charpentier District because the houses were built by competitive carpenters without the aid of architects. Each house has unique touches in its room arrangements and exterior trim. A driving tour guide explained the history and floor plan of many of the houses. At this time of year, many were beautifully decorated with sparkling Christmas lights. I developed a fondness for Lake Charles to the point that I was seriously considering buying one of the oldies, priced under $100,000. Lake Charles is the fifth largest city of Louisiana with a population of 72,000 inhabitants, half of whom are African American. It is rated as the number one town in Louisiana to raise children although the per capita income is only $18,000.

At a local diner, that fondness increased when a personable young waiter offered to strain the meat out of the gumbo or substitute hash browns for mashed potatoes to satisfy my vegetarian diet. I so was out of my culinary element and I heard my friend's muffled laughter as I asked for vinegar for my bayou shrimp salad. I defended myself by saying I didn't ask for 'balsamic vinegar' and he laughed out loud. For dessert, the offerings were blueberry muffins, pumpkin pie, pecan pie and a three-layer brownie cheesecake, at 900 calories a slice. Our waiter boasted that he likes to put the cheesecake slice in a blender with milk and ice cream making a real heart killer.

In the morning, we returned to the historic homes--spires, porches and galleries were more visible by day--and then headed to the Creole Nature Trail, a 180 mile loop of swamps and bayous. Exiting I-10 onto LA-27, we got our first glimpse, and first scents, of the chemical plants that linger just outside the city limits. My plans to move to Lake Charles vanished.

We were twenty miles down the two lane canal-lined highway when a pink bird flew over our car. 'Spoonbill' we said in unison and dug out the binoculars. For the next few hours, we spotted Red Tail Hawks, Great Blue Herons, flocks of White Ibis, more Roseate Spoonbills, one Limpkin, Brown Pelicans, two Hooded Merganser ducks, Snowy Egrets, Osprey, a lone Red-shouldered Blackbird, six Belted Kingfishers and an unidentified blonde owl. Grasslands extended as far as the horizon, all covered in brackish waters. This was the bayou country we came to see. All the water features we could name we experienced this day--pond, lake, stream, bayou, canal, Intercoastal Waterway, ocean, bog, estuary. [Bayou refers to a slow moving river or creek on a flat delta area.] In the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, we walked to an observation tower and returned by way of a boardwalk. A hard search along the canal banks failed to locate an alligator but all the signs said they were around. Also missing were restaurants and grocery stores, so we were confined to eating the leftover road food from yesterday.

We crossed the Calcassieu Ship Channel by ferry and watched a school of dolphins cavort nearby. Disembarking, we took Highway 82 east, driving along the Gulf of Mexico with its pimples of offshore oil rigs. Some stretches of the road came within yards of the sand dunes. At the oceanfront community of Holly Beach, resolute souls have built and rebuilt houses high on stilts, and there we paused to walk along the solid sand beach and collect Angel Wing shells. As the road turned east and then north, the watery grasslands gave way to oak ridges as we drove through the picturesque towns of Franklin and Abbeville. Courthouses and lamp poles were decorated with holly wreaths and tiny white lights. I saw chain stores I hadn't seen in years--Piggly Wiggly, Rite-Aid, Rexall, Howard Johnson's and Borden's. Are these southern stores? I don't know.
We continued north on 82. The sun set and the road darkened and narrowed. We were supposed to be within twenty miles of Lafayette, our destination for the night, but each turn got darker and less inhabited and our state-issued map did not show Highway 82. My friend swore he saw city glow ahead but I was skeptical. I spotted the moon and the Orion constellation and guessed we were headed east and/or north. Not much help. One minute we wanted to turn back, the next we were sure Lafayette was just around the next curve. Finally, we lost the center line, in front of two lone houses. In a day of maps, smart phones and GPS's, we had managed to get lost. There was a bizarre humor in this misadventure, and we snickered nervously as we turned the car around. Finally, a convenience store appeared and we got directions drawn on a brown paper bag. In ten minutes we crossed the city limits of Lafayette.

The next morning we drove south into Bayou Teche country to see the Great Wall of Morgan City. Since the city is smack on the confluence of the Atchafalaya River, the Bayou Teche and the Intercoastal Waterway it has protected itself from floods by building a twenty-one foot tall wall along the waterfront. It also boasts the title 'Shrimp Capital of the World' and site of the first offshore oil well in 1947. We passed up the shrimp for moist little cupcakes with cream cheese filling. Yummee. We were keen to see the Atchafalaya River because it will be the future course of the Mighty Mississippi if ever the manmade restraints fail. We had to drive into a boat launching area to see the actual river because levees obscure the view from the highway. The river was wide and flowing gently, with mossed cypress trees standing guard in the center.

We turned north on Highway 182, the scenic route, to Franklin. Sugarcane fields lined the highway for miles before we reached town. This crop has sustained the area for decades and every fifth house was a grand plantation home, some well-maintained, others vacant and deteriorating. It became a game to spot the next one. The city is on the Bayou Teche which was the main course of the Mississippi River some 3,000 years ago. Today it is a sweet and slow-moving stream, gracing the backyards of antebellum homes. We drove through Franklin's historic district, ooh-ed and aw-ed over more grand homes, and then continued north to New Iberia.

Now we were in the heart of Cajun and Creole country and hoped to hear Cajun French (since the guidebook said it was spoken by 25% of the population). We crossed a narrow bridge and my friend volunteered to hop out to take photos while I drove on and parked on the other side. Two seconds later a white pickup truck pulled alongside him and, I was told later, the driver turned off the motor and began conversing about: the bad carpetbaggers (those that arrived 150 years ago), shrimping in the river, owning a plantation home, the decline of French speakers, the negative impact of oil men and Mexican workers, and the difference between Creole and Cajun French. Meanwhile, I watched in amazement as oversized sugarcane trucks moved to the other lane and squeezed by him. At the end of thirty minutes, this descendent of LaSalle named Mike, issued an invitation to come to his farm and gave his phone number. My friend glowed for the rest of the evening. It was quite a coupe.... for an anthropologist.

Also in New Iberia, we toured the restored antebellum manor house called Shadows-on-the-Teche built in 1834 by a wealthy sugarcane farmer. It had outside staircases and no interior hallways, a design which kept the rooms cooler.
As dusk approached, we took a quick detour to Avery Island to see the salt dome there. We were turned away at the entrance since it isn't really public lands and were too late to visit the Tabasco factory and the rice mill. However, the timing allowed me to take some beautiful photos in the warm, late afternoon light. Then we headed back to Lafayette, passing through St. Martinville to see its elaborately decorated courthouse. Dinner was a delicious Indian meal of curries and basmati rice--we had given up on meaty Cajun food.

Our final day began with an easterly drive on Interstate 10, to the Atchafalaya River Welcome Center. The river forms a gigantic watery basin that takes 20 miles of highway bridge to cross. At the welcome center, we just missed a swamp tour into the basin and consoled ourselves with a detour right to the edge of the water, between the eastbound and westbound ribbons of I-10. Right there with the fishermen, we watched highway traffic whizzing overhead.

To see more of the basin's swamp lands, we visited Lake Martin State Park. Boardwalks wove through the cypress trees and Nature Conservancy paths lined the lake. We walked them all, accompanied by two Great White Herons and a few local fishermen. The tranquility of this place took hold of us.

With time passing all too quickly we did a quick detour through St. Martinville to visit the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site. Here we were given a tour of a two-story, restored Creole home by Mary, whose grey hair and piercing eyes said this was her country. The house was built of cypress heart wood, which takes 200 years to mature and is no longer available due to over-harvesting.
An adjoining section of the park had Cajun houses that were much smaller with only two or three rooms. These French speaking cultures, one born in Louisiana--Creole--and one from another French colony in North America--Cajun--did not get along. The Creoles considered themselves to be high class and regarded the new immigrants from Nova Scotia as backward and poor. Ironically, today the term 'Creole' has a poor connotation and it's the Cajun culture that has survived although just barely.

For our last Cajun town, we traveled north along Interstate 49 to Opelousas, the third oldest town in Louisiana. We used the free guide to see the historic attractions and ate at the Palace Cafe. Built in 1927, it is the oldest diner in town. I ordered a crayfish combo dinner and was thrilled to try crayfish etouffee, crayfish bisque (a bit spicy for my taste) and tender fried crayfish. My strict vegetarian friend had his standard grilled cheese sandwich with fries. Then we had a pleasant surprise. 'Listen' he whispered and I strained to hear the conversation behind me. The cook was speaking to the waitress in Cajun French, very clipped and rapid. We listened spellbound as long as he spoke. It was the best finale we could have ordered for this trip into Cajun Louisiana.