The Wonder of Meander

Many people planned exactly where they would be on New Year’s Eve 1999–at a grand hotel gala or a backyard cookout with friends. My husband, Michael, our 13-year-old son, Madison, and I did the opposite. We left San Antonio a few days before the holiday to wander around in southern Louisiana. For four precious days, we would not have to be anywhere in particular at any given time.

Our plan: Each day, one of us would make all the choices–where to eat, what roads to turn on, where to sleep. The others had a pleasurable respite from responsibility. Anyone who argued with the chooser would lose privileges for his or her own day. Driving east, we felt exhilarated. How often do we do anything without specific schedules or destinations? How often do we just–meander? Everything seemed lit by possibility.

Just across the Texas-Louisiana border, Madison (who got to choose for two days) suggested we swing south toward the Gulf of Mexico on the Creole Nature Trail, a quiet road passing through the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. There were no billboards and few cars. Brilliant pink cranes ruminated in water ditches by the roadside. Turtles sunned on rocks.
At Holly Beach, an oddly vacant coastal town of shanties and trailers tossed up against the waves, we wandered along the sand, picking up fluted shells. We thought we could rent something cheap in this place, but didn’t.

We drove on east.

Waiting for a ferryboat, we swatted giant mosquitoes and chatted with people from other cars who said the alligators were hibernating for the winter. Michael, who had brought a tape recorder, asked a boy, “What are some thoughts you have about the world right now?”

“I think people fight too much,” the boy answered, his Cajun accent irresistible.

In Cameron, Louisiana, we ordered fresh shrimp and broccoli at an immaculate Chinese restaurant. Fishermen kept popping through the screen door to gamble in a closet. At our raggedy motel, the proprietor said the world would definitely end on January 8. Her towels smelled like propane.

Michael’s Day
In the morning we drove past the mysteriously silent Rockefeller National Wildlife Refuge, U-turning once to park for an hour. We sat on the ground under luscious, moss-draped trees, hoping the unseasonably warm weather might wake an alligator. Then we drove north toward Abbeville, past rice fields, old-fashioned frame houses, boats, bayous, and piers.

A small French café on Abbeville’s main square served up stunning fresh shrimp po’ boys. We were the last lunch customers. Our kind waitress raved about the terrific buffet we’d just missed. I felt an urgency to return and eat it someday. How is it we can feel such sudden allegiance to towns we’ve never heard of till we arrive in them?

Michael was seized by a wish to interview the mayor. We wandered over to City Hall in our rumpled blue jeans. Three minutes later we were ushered into the office of the friendly, velvet-voiced Mr. R. Brady Broussard, who uses the gavel his grandfather used during his own three terms as mayor.

Mr. Broussard planned to see in the new year at his duck-hunting camp with his grandchildren and sons, “a-huggin’ and enjoyin’ one another. I think we should all show our love more! Let it out!” He loves his town the way a mayor should and shared some of his happy mayoral victories–raising salaries of city employees, giving everybody health insurance, restoring old buildings. In a swoop of hospitality, he gave Madison a golden key to the city.

Then we interviewed beautiful old ladies at the nursing home. “Always help one another,” they said. “It’s the best advice we can give.”

In New Iberia, three different motel clerks urged us to eat at the Seafood Connection, an unassuming side-road place utterly jammed with diners, serving the most succulent shrimp, catfish, and oysters we ever had. Madison said, “Haven’t we eaten shrimp for like five meals in a row?”

Madison’s Day
Last day of 1999. The newspaper was packed with surveys, memorabilia, quotes, predictions. George Harrison had been stabbed.

“South!” Madison declared. We traveled past vintage plantation homes, huge churches, pungent sugar refineries–the road cluttered with sugar cane stalks that had fallen off trucks. We passed through Jeanerette, Franklin, Pat-terson, all perched elegantly along Bayou Teche. I could happily have stopped in any of those towns, but Madison directed us to Houma (pronounced HOME-a) and Dave’s Cajun Cuisine.

A woman in a red suit with a long strand of black plastic beads entered the restaurant. Nearly every table was full. She scanned the crowd, focused on us, and marched toward our table. She circled it, kissing each one of us enthusiastically. “Happy New Year, darlings!” Madison looked stunned.

She sat down with us. “And where you fine folks from?” she asked pleasantly. It struck me then–we were the only people in the restaurant she did not recognize. She loved it that we had come to Louisiana just to look around.

We wandered the town plaza, inquiring about swamp tours (“wrong season, come back”), scouted for churches, and poked our noses into vintage barbershops. Without an itinerary, every moment felt equally ripe. Madison noticed the sky darkening. “Let’s drive south,” he said, suddenly urgent. “Come on.”

“More south? We’re about as far south in this state as you can get!”

“No, I noticed a single road on the map toward the town of Cocodrie.”

We found it–a skinny finger of land pointing right out into the gulf–and drove past shacks, fish camps, and shrimp boats, between bayous of shining water, ducks and cranes flying overhead. The sky intensified, rumpling rich pink layers of clouds.

“Let’s get out,” Madison said. We stood by the glistening water in silence, staring west, a huge glowing sun dropping like a coin into a water bowl. Farewell–a lump rose in my throat.

Coming back into town, we passed a white wooden church, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, en route to Mr. Ronnie’s Doughnut Shop, where the glazed doughnuts are hot when the “hot sign” is flashing. As our last meal of 1999, the doughnuts were a fitting splurge for people who eat flax seeds and drink soy milk at home.

Back in Houma, Madison selected a chain hotel next to a big field. (I was secretly rooting for the tackier Sugar Bowl Motel right downtown.)

Meandering around the central square, dazzling with strands of white lights, we saw a young man sitting alone on a bench with his head in his hands. Just a block away, we peered through the windows of a fancy café where elegantly dressed, smiling diners in tuxedos and sequined evening gowns lifted their glasses to one another.

When the clock struck midnight, we were standing in a small circle in the dry field next to our hotel as a mysterious fog engulfed us. Bursts of fireworks crackled in the distance.

Naomi’s Day
Finally it was my day, the first day of the century. Thick fog still hung outside the windows. “Happy New Year!” I proclaimed to the groggy attendant at the desk. “Can you believe it? It’s really here! Do you have this fog often?”
“Never,” she said.

We drove north on the old plantation road along Bayou Teche, stopping at a cemetery to bask in the beautiful fresh light. We went to see the gnarled oak tree Longfellow made famous in his poem “Evangeline.” Then we drove to Avery Island, which we’d been hearing about for years from bird-watchers and Tabasco sauce addicts. The sauce factory was closed, but the parking attendant gave us each a tiny bottle of Tabasco.

We hiked under the moss-laden trees onto the winding paths of a vast natural preserve. Nutrias scrambled out of the water and stared at us. Birds twittered in a garden of old roses. We were mostly alone in the most beautiful acres imaginable, breathing deeply, completely alert.

Back in Texas, we slept in a rotten motel and ate in a Waffle House whose staff seemed perched at the edge of a collective emotional breakdown. So much for my choices.

Then we drove home to calendars and answering machines, to school and work and fitness clubs. We drove home refreshed, filled with impressions, images, flavors. When I think about this trip, the word swerve comes to mind. Not swerve as in avoiding a dead animal on the highway, but swerve as in what would we find right now if we swerved off the beaten trail of our own days? How many ways might we go?

Excerpted from Aubrey Organic’s Organica (Summer 2000). Subscriptions: $1 (4 issues) from 4419 N. Manhattan Ave. Tampa, FL 33614

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