Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 6, 2005. Water World.

I’m definitely not in the south west any more. Gone are the wide open spaces with nothing to block the view for ten miles. Gone are the bridges over “rivers” that are just dry wadi beds – or washes, as they call them in the southwest. Gone are the stately dancing cactus, the spiny attack plants, the elegant fans of shiny green leaves, the tall sticks with brown podded flowers on top. I’m in water world now.

I parked Matilda outside of Dulac, Lousiana, a tiny town that is itself south of the county seat, Houma. I’d seen a few roads on the state map spreading out like fingers south of Houma, and figured smaller ones would connect them, so I do a nice loop bike ride from town to town.

Wrong! The few roads on the map are it. That part of the world is water. Where there’s a solid strip of land, there’s a road, with houses and fish processing plants and a few scrappy bars and convenience stores running along it. Beyond them there’s bayous, marshes, pools, lakes, and bays. Very easy for parking your boat by your house, but on land you’d better plan on retracing your steps or you’ll be swimming a lot.

I began my ride by heading west to Theriot, one of the small dots on the map. The road was flat, and as I passed I startled herons, egrets, and lovely pink roseate spoonbills from the marshes next to it. I stopped often in an effort to photograph the birds, but even from way across the water they noticed my presence and took off effortlessly into the air, gliding above me and gleaming in the sun. The pelicans were easier. They perch on logs and pilings, their big bills tucked into their necks, their heads bowed over. The pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, and as common as blue jays or cardinals in the north east, but I still find them a wonderful creature, so ungainly in appearance, yet so graceful and powerful in flight.

Theriot is a small village, where it looks like retirement homes and tourism are slowly replacing fishing as the predominant activity. A tiny battered general store sold good, gasoline, and fuel for the boats docked everywhere. “Carol’s cabins” was a long shed-like building, small rooms or cottages built over the shoreline, the first floor a “garage” for small fishing boats, fancy power boats, party boats, and the like. The cottages were weathered and peeling, but the cars in front of them were fancy; this watery retreat may have been here for decades, but it’s providing a haven for the well-heeled now, if their toys are any indication.

Across a narrow channel was a new housing development, modern three-story homes with boats nestled underneath in the water. It seemed terribly out of place in this run-down down. Riding around to get a better look, I saw that it was a gated community, a secret code required to open the gate that let cars in and out. I leaned my bike against a pole and hopped the fence to talk to three elderly

men launching a small boat, fishing gear in hand. One was from the area, he said, he lived in Houma. Another had moved down from New York, when he retired from the NYPD and married a Louisiana woman. He loved living there, he said. It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, he’s right on the water, and he loves to fish. Naah, it’s not too hot in the summer, he said. But his friend corrected him, yeah, it’s really hot in the summer, steamy. I remarked that the locals from Theriot must find this fancy gated community rather incongruous. No, they replied, this one is small. I should see the places elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, huge complexes of houses and channels and boats. This was just a modest spot.

They took off in their boat, and I on my bike. A few miles down the road they passed me in the bayou, and waved cheerfully.

Back at my van, I stopped for a bite to eat and a drink of water. A man rode up on a battered bike, saying he’d seen me pass him down the road a bit. He’d been looking over a bike that had been lying for quite a while outside the house across the way. The rim was bashed in, though, not rideable. He lived in a house down the road, he said. It was his house. Well, it was the family house, it had belonged to his parents, but he’d inherited it and now it was his. He was supposed to be helping a friend tie some nets this morning, but he’d gotten real drunk the night before, and hadn’t gotten up in time. He’d said he would be there by eleven, maybe he still had time to get there. Was I traveling alone? he asked. No man with me? Not with me, I replied. Should have said my partner was meeting me at lunchtime, I thought later. Finally I started making motions to get going, and he took off on his bike. He stopped on the bridge and watched for a while, as I sat in my van waiting for him to be off. When he moved on at last, I loaded my bike and drove Matilda to a different parking place, by a bridge on the road to Theriot where a few folks were fishing and the drawbridge operator would always be nearby.

I resumed my ride on a road heading south from Dulac, towards Cocodrie at the end of the road. Dulac is a small town, and soon it was just me, the water, the birds, and the occasional fisherman sitting beside his car. It was simply glorious, the open marshes, the sky, the birds, the passing boats, and the endless water. I wondered about living in this bit of the world. I’m sure I couldn’t – no coffee, bookstores, libraries, wifi, or people in any way like me - but to pass through it for a day would sparkle in my memory for a long time.

The wind was against me as I headed south, but just enough to require a bit of effort to ride, and to anticipate flying back when I returned. After a few miles, my empty road merged with a bigger one, and I was riding past houses on either side of me. Some of them were big and elaborate, some were just

trailers. All were built on stilts, with boats on trailers below them. The trailers looked funny, winched up to rest on elaborate scaffolding, some with corrugated tin shades over them to reflect the summer sun and make it easier to keep them cool. Many had for sale signs, and I wondered how much it would cost to own a little pied-à -terre in southern Lousiana.

Cocodrie is the end of the road, and felt a bit like the end of the world. I had hoped I could get lunch there, but nothing was open, so I made do with the fruit and bread I’d thrown into my bag. According to the man I asked, the season doesn’t begin till March, so the few places in town were still shut for winter. It was 75 degrees that day – I wondered what people were waiting for, if this wasn’t weather to bring them out to the water.

Cocodrie is home to the Louisiana University Marine Consortium, or LUMCON, a center for study and research open to any students in the state. I stopped in to use the bathroom, but also had a look at their modest exhibits on wetlands and marine conservation. A tank full of jellyfish was set in one wall. They were star-like, their fine tentacles and veins glowing white in the blue water as they slowly pulsed and swam around their tank. I tried to photograph them, but couldn’t capture the incredible elegance and grace of their movements, a slow motion dance, tentacles drifting against the current, like the most delicate of Christmas displays in the bottom of the sea. The most beautiful things have to live on as memories alone, along with the feel of the wind and the calls of the birds and the smell of the water.

As I’d expected, the ride back was fast, but it was also nerve-racking. I rolled over a rock in the LUMCON driveway and dented the rim of my wheel. I couldn’t find anything broken, so I headed out on the bike rather than try to find a ride back to my van. For fifteen miles on the road, I watched the rippling rim with an eagle eye, afraid that it would collapse quite in the middle of nowhere and I’d have to replace the whole wheel instead of just getting it trued.

But as I headed back, I also sensed that this ride was a gift, a jewel of a day in a world that I find exhilarating. The open landscape, the sweeping water, the brown marshes, the twinkling light, the sense that this is place where one lives on water, not land, fill me with elation. I lingered on a drawbridge as I neared Dulac, taking pictures, and talking with the local woman who operated the bridge. She'd grown up in the area, lived ten miles away. We enjoyed the sun and the warm weather, as she kept one ear out for voices on her radio telling her that a boat was coming her way. It was hard to make myself move on, I wanted to stretch out the day and make it last as long as I could.

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