Towards the earth’s floating edge

3 February 2012, from Acadiana

Heading south out of Lafayette, the city turns to suburbs in that way that all American cities do, in that awful numb slog of strip malls and parking lots and traffic that goes on for miles of generic sameness. Eventually, though, the road becomes a pretty parkway, that wonderful old highway form in which the two ribbons of blacktop offer shelter to a wide green swatch of no-man’s land. It’s an old, calm model, now largely obsolete in the rest of the country, what with high-density planning. Here, I can still imagine Model T’s slowly chugging along the roadways.

The shopping centers disappear in favor of individual buildings, the usual array of semi-rural businesses: hairdressers, tractor dealers, cleaners, churches, sandwich shops, and the occasional tavern. Out here beyond the sprawl, houses are generally small and modest, widely spaced, their grassy yards large and mostly empty. Most buildings are raised a foot or two on pilings, stem walls, or even small hills, presumably to avoid the regular flooding that must occur here. Concrete statuaries are strangely common in front yards, ranging from Virgin Mary’s to faux cisterns to Zen pagodas looking quite out of place. Around the houses are fields, maybe rice or sugarcane.

I pass first through Vermilon Parish, then into Cameron Parish. (Parishes are similar to counties in other US states.) It’s a tranquil land, mostly farmland and small stands of forest, overlaid with a light grid of small roadways and small towns that pop up every ten miles or so. Highway 35 takes me from Abbeville over to Kaplan, where I catch Highway 82 down to the marshland that is quickly being eaten by the Gulf of Mexico. Before this road was built in the 1950s, any settlement here was isolated, reachable only by boat.

The further south I drive, the higher the houses rise off the earth: first three or four feet, then up to eight feet and even higher. Many are manufactured homes, making the landscape look like a strange elevated mobile-home park against the cloudy sky. Even large buildings are elevated: the entirety of the South Cameron high school (‘Home of the Tarpons’) is raised a full story above the ground, the void below apparently used for nothing but the expectation of disaster.

A succession of hurricanes have raged against this very coast, from Audrey in 1957, to Rita in 2005, and then Ike following soon after in 2008. Many of these small towns that dot my map have now disappeared in the cataclysms. (The town of Grand Chenier is listed in my mid-1990s guidebook as having 1000 residents; when I drove through it, there was nothing left but a lonely sign with the town’s name.) No wonder the area’s residents have decided to elevate themselves, remove themselves from the shifting earth and fickle sea.

Occasionally I see the obvious evidence: concrete slabs where once were buildings, other structures still standing but distorted, as if still water-logged. Steel girders holding up a roof above a vanished restaurant are bent and folded, as if a great hand had angrily swept the chess pieces off the board. But this evidence is rare; more common is simply the space where people once lived and worked, and now have left empty. The unoccupied space seems almost holy, untouchable, haunted. Perhaps the newest homes here are prefabricated, minimal, utilitarian, because it is assumed that everything will change again.

I stop for lunch near the edge of this swampy, fragile world, just south of the invisible town of Creole, and only a mile from the Gulf of Mexico. T-Boy’s Grill perches here at the end of the world, the only gathering place for miles around. I order a can of Coors and a half-basket of alligator, watch country-music videos on the TV, and listen to the other table of diners talk about a wedding. It takes me a while to realize they’re talking not about some local couple, but celebrities, thousands of miles from here.

The alligator, it turns out, is deep-fried, which unfortunately hides its potential taste in a thick batter and oil that’s been cooking too many other critters today. But it’s not bad: chewy, earthy, topped with a sauce I can’t quite identify.

I look out the windows of the diner, across the road, to the marsh and the Gulf beyond, and I think I hear the sound of a long, muscular, and scaly tail, swishing through the tall reeds.