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Adventures on the Louisiana Back Roads

BY BRENDA WEST

As far as I know, there is not a drop of Cajun or Creole blood in my veins, so it’s not easy to explain my infatuation and love for this proud and mysterious culture and region. I can’t get enough of the music or food, and the friendliness of the people and the unique landscape all combine to make my imagination run amok. All I have to do is just play one of my many Cajun CDs, and while not understanding one word, find myself caught up in another world, only six hours away, but like being in another country.

After a delightful spring break week in Oxford with twin granddaughters, we met their parents in Shreveport on a Saturday afternoon and sent them on their way home to Texas. Too tired to head home ourselves, we spent the night in a casino with a first-class spa service, and then slightly rejuvenated, we decided on Sunday morning to take a back roads drive down to Lafayette. Just outside of Shreveport, we found desolate Highway 1 which followed the Cane River down to Natchitoches. Arriving there hungry as churches were letting out, we were lucky to find a table at The Breakfast Nook, a small friendly restaurant that served delicious thick bacon, eggs to order, and light, fluffy pancakes. Natchitoches is a lovely town and we plan to soak up more of its history on a future road trip.

More rejuvenated after this stop, we were eager to explore other back roads. This was our first exposure to the Creole culture in the Cane River region. I was surprised to learn that tobacco was one of the first cash crops here. My mind was on cotton and sugarcane. Our timing was off for the tour of Magnolia, the site of the National Park Service’s Cane River Creole Historical Park, but thanks to the beautiful backroads and our trusty roadmap, we mapped out our own personal tour.

Approaching Alexandria, we were forced to leave the quiet back road and skirt around this larger city on the interstate. Our destination for the night was Lafayette and we chose a route through the tiny town of Mamou, the Cajun Music Capital of the World. Not much was shaking on this sleepy Sunday afternoon, so we drove on to Eunice, where we hoped to visit the Cajun Music Hall of Fame Museum. Sadly, it was not open but the thousands of acres of crawfish ponds brimming with baskets of delicacies waiting to be harvested just tempted our palates for our next meal. Eunice calls itself the Prairie Cajun Capital of Louisiana, and just having read about the Creole culture a few miles north, it gets a visitor confused.  Seems that every town we had visited so far was the capital of something wonderful and mysterious.

Our 200 mile journey from Shreveport to Lafayette had only taken nine hours! Luckily, we got to Randoll’s in time for the special happy hour bucket of crawfish just pulled from one of the farms we had seen between Mamou and Eunice a few hours earlier. A three pound bucket of fresh crawfish for $15 seemed like a good deal to us! Our friendly server explained how the crawfish were being harvested in the same fields that would next grow rice. We had no idea these two delicious products shared the same space!

The Zydeco band cranked up a few minutes later and we were surprised to see the dance floor filled with young folks, perhaps students from a nearby college. Of course, they had to share the floor with a few matures which did not include tourists like us who were intimidated by the smooth moves of the locals gliding across the floor. The music made everyone happy – didn’t see a person without a smile – those dancing or those just tapping their toes.

Monday was to bring a special treat that made my heart really sing. A few years earlier we had heard an amazing singer/songwriter on stage on Thacker Mountain, our little town’s live radio show. Luckily, I had bought Helen Boudreaux’s CD, “Pour Tout Ma Famille,” which had her contact information on the back, and after telling her how much I loved her music, we exchanged a few notes. When we realized we’d be in her neighborhood, I sent an email to see if by chance she would be singing in the area while we were there. “No,” she replied, “but you must come to my camp in the Atchafalaya Basin!” She said we could walk around her swamp home, but I was a little concerned after she mentioned snakes and I had no real shoes, only sandals. Even though she said she hadn’t seen any snakes yet, I was not ready to find her first one of the spring in open toed shoes. We decided the next stop would be a boot store before we headed to her swamp in Butte LaRose. Both of us sporting new boots, we passed through Catahoula, home of one of our favorite jockeys, Calvin Borel. A huge sign in his honor greeted us on the outskirts of town. This was also our host’s hometown and she wrote “Ma Belle Catahoula” which was playing as we drove up to her camp house: “my trees and branches are gone now, but my roots and my heart still belong.” It was a beautiful arrival.

Helen Boudreaux is an amazing woman. Waiting for us just past the pontoon bridge leading to her camp home, she greeted us as if we were old friends or family. She invited us in and told us stories of her home and her truck driving days, shared the sorrows of a son who called while we were there, and then she removed her baseball cap. She had stuffed it full of elderberry leaves that morning to ward off a headache. Walking out back to the bayou which bordered her back property line, she pointed out dozens of elderberry bushes that she was fertilizing to insure healthy growth. Back in the house, no snakes spotted except the skins of several she had in a jar on the porch, she told more stories and then asked if she could sing us a song. Surrounded by Hank William’s photo in a large frame, she sang “Wedding Bells Are Ringing in the Chapel” and allowed me to video it with my phone. What a magical way to take a piece of this lovely culture home. Of course, she sang in Cajun French, but I recognized the tune and she sang the last stanza in English in a voice that reminded me of Kitty Wells. Hearing Hank in Cajun French is a sound I’ll never forget. I now have all of her CDs, one being “Truck Driving Cajun Mama.” I could have stayed for days. Oh, and she’s a faith healer. She assured us that she doesn’t heal, but God heals through her hands. Louisiana Public Television has done a documentary on her that we must find. A visit to her website reveals her passion for recognizing women’s contributions to Cajun music. Sadly, we said goodbye and headed back to Lafayette, across the pontoon bridge, via more back roads following the levee.

Totally rejuvenated now by the food, music, new friends, and amazing culture, we were ready for the next adventure in Edgard, but that’s a story for another time. We’ll take up where we left off as our back road series continue.