“Oh, this stinkin’ swamp water stinks!” –from the movie Swamp Women, 1955
Early on the morning of October 31st I met George Rodrigue in the garage for the two-hour drive to Lafayette, Louisiana, where we were to meet some friends from California at the Blue Dog Café. I was running late.
“What are you wearing?!” he exclaimed. “We’re going on a swamp tour!”
Dressed for the day in a skull-covered pirate dress, over-sized spider rings, and spiky heels, I hollered at him as I ran back to the house for my flip-flops and bug spray:
“Swamp tour? I thought we were going to brunch!”
In Lafayette we joined our friends the Pistos and Ricciardis, visiting from Carmel in search of southwest Louisiana’s best boudin and pecan pie, as Chef John Pisto scouted locations for his television cooking show.
We enjoyed an excellent brunch at the Blue Dog Café, with the added bonus of Cajun Swamp fiddler Hadley Castille, who sat in with the Wildflowers Band (and who also happened to play at our wedding).
From Lafayette we drove through Breaux Bridge to the town of Henderson, where we crossed the levee to McGee’s Landing and the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp.
“Great news!” announced George, after negotiating our afternoon with Captain David (pictured below) in the corner of McGee’s Bar, “We’re taking an airboat!”
Now I’ve been on dozens of swamp tours in my life, all on pontoon-type, roomy tour boats. The closest I’d gotten to an airboat was reruns of Gentle Ben (1967-1969).
“What’s an airboat?” asked our guests in chorus.
“Has Captain David been drinking?” I asked George, under my breath.
Within minutes we heard the roar of the airplane-type engine approaching the floating dock. I saw mouths moving in the shape of “Oh No!” but heard no one. Our captain motioned to our seats…
“Put the ladies in the front,” screamed George…
…as we donned our headphones and entered a silent movie.
With one life preserver and no seat belts, it was just us, a bench, and the swamp. Captain David accelerated into the makeshift waterway for less than a minute before turning hard right into the lilies, the cypress knees, and the shallow black water.
(pictured, Cajun Paddle Shop, 1985; the Cajuns traveled the swamp in canoe-type boats called pirogues)
Inaccessible to boats with underwater engines, this is a part of the swamp I’d never seen. I spoke out loud to myself in amazement at the beauty, and as I write this post I feel compelled, before recounting the chaos to follow, to get serious for a moment:
“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place – a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature.” -Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
I thought of the magnificent things I’ve seen in my life — our week-long rafting trip on the Colorado River; the birth of my nephews; the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence — and I recognized immediately such an event. I wondered at the azure blue dragonflies alighting on my shoulders, the alligators peering from among the lilies, and the herons and ducks and egrets reminding us of the shallow water as they walked near the boat.
And I thought about the Cajuns, harvesting these cypress trees in the mid-18th and 19thcenturies, trees that grow slowly, struggling after all these years to once again fill the swamp.
(pictured, Fur Trappers, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, 1974)
“In another century the trees will be back,” said George.
(pictured, George’s only painting of a cypress tree, 1969; for a detailed history, visit here)
As we sat in silence, lost in our thoughts, Captain David moved on, ‘deeper into the swamp.’
With nothing but each other to hold onto, we raced (quietly praying that the animals get out of the way and the lilies are tougher than they look) through large areas of plant life, even flying over dry land on occasion, until we grew confident in our captain’s abilities.
Yet as we headed full speed towards an eight-foot bank, I thought surely he was turning; and as we hit the mound of earth and flew straight up, I thought surely this wasn’t happening; and as we nose-dived towards the deeper black water on the other side, I thought surely (as I screamed at the top of my lungs for no one to hear) this was not the way I would die; and as the five-foot swamp tsunami barreled over the bow and into our laps and down (and up) my festive dress, I went into shock.
The motor died, the women sat dripping in slime and disbelief, and the men sat bone-dry, doubled over with cramps of laughter.
Collecting himself, Captain David approached us cautiously with his apologies and a single useless towel.
“Aw my Gawd,” said the Cajun, shaking his head. “Ladies, I am so sawry. In twenty years dat ain’t ne’er hap’nd.”
Without looking at the men, we women heard their laughter and knew that they were worthless as heroes. As I plucked the snails off of his wife’s backside, Tony choked out,
“I thought we were stuck like a dart!”
Dripping in green gradeaux,* we ladies wrung out our clothes and wiped our tears (of laughter or disbelief or some swamp disease or whatever) with the towel, while the men worried about the dead engine.
“Look, there’s the interstate,” pointed George. “This water can’t be more than five or six feet, and you ladies are already wet…”
I gave him the scariest look I could muster and then laughed some more, imagining us standing in the black swamp water fifty feet below the highway, waving down a passing motorist.
Barbara was the first of the women to speak:
“My mouth was open as we went in. Do you think I’ll get cholera?”
At last the engine caught and we sped back to McGee’s Landing, where whiskey seemed the only suitable libation to recount our adventure and toast the dry land. Barbara, Cheryl, and I stood on the deck, unable to handle the a/c in our soaked condition, and stared through the window at our husbands:
“If you look at the guys,” Barbara observed, “you’d never know that we almost died.”
“…on Halloween, covered in the monster mash,” continued Cheryl.
We could hear them, still laughing, as George told the story of him and Dickie in 1950s New Iberia, chased into the swamp by the sheriff after Dickie shot one of the Trajan brothers in the stomach with a pebble-loaded bb gun.
“We knew how to stay dry,” said George, “but that sheriff was up to his waist in swamp water before he found our tree house. Boy was he mad.”
(pictured, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, painted by George Rodrigue at Boy Scout camp in 1960)
Following the two hour drive home, I took the second longest and hottest shower of my life,* spending a good half hour afterwards cleaning the gradoux* off of the tiles.
In my dry soft cotton pajamas, I crawled into bed where next to me I found, in place of my husband, a painting.
“What’s this?” I called downstairs, where George watched the tail end of the Saints game.
“It’s a present. You were a great sport today. Happy Halloween!”
*the first longest and hottest shower of my life was following our week-long rafting trip in the Grand Canyon
*gradoux: basically, any icky unidentifiable substance
-for more of George’s paintings of bayous and Cajuns, see the links under ‘Popular Musings’ to the right of this post
-all photographs in this post by George Rodrigue, October 2010
-coming this weekend: “Women of Vision”