Grande Coteau, La., May 22 – We spent last night at a tiny truck stop in Westwego, a small town in Jefferson Parish on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
We crossed the river after dusk, officially closing our five-day stay in New Orleans. We had breakfast in City Park, drove back to the Treme to say goodbye to Miss Jessie Vardano, then returned to winsome City Park for a farewell picnic.
Westwego, as the name suggests, was a significant crossing point on the Mississippi in the late 19th century. The former Salaville likely was named by railroad executives a thousand miles away in New York.
We didn’t see anything of Westwego but the truck stop and adjacent Huddle House. After a typically slow morning, we steered the Behemoth out onto U.S. 90 west.
Before long we were in Des Allemands.
Des Allemands struck me as an absurd name for a bayou hamlet. It translates from the French as The Germans, Louisiana. Why, it’s as unlikely as the Utah Jazz.
Perhaps I give too much weight to stereotypes. When I think of Louisiana, I think of Latin licentiousness, not Prussian pragmatism.
Des Allemands first settled by a German expedition led by a man named John Law. What else can I say?
We stopped at the post office to mail a card. The woman behind the desk, who wore the dour expression of a bureaucrat, seemed put out by my request for help locating a zip code. We drove the main street, went over an old concrete draw bridge and turned left on Easy Street, which soon ended at the cemetery.
Easy Street. That’s more like it.
We stopped in at Frank’s grocery store, across 90 from the post office. We bought some nails at the Ace hardware emporium
Then we took a little country drive along 306 which led into Bayou Gauche, which appears as if it were ready to be reclaimed by the sea.
The cows were laying down. The side of the road bordering the bayou was under water. A man in a houseboat named Tranquility watched a large, plasma screen TV. A Rebel flag hung from the eaves of another houseboat. The image of an assault rifle was superimposed on the flag with the message: “Come and take it.” We passed a series of dilapidated houseboats and a petroleum platform.
I pondered the low-lying road. Raindrops splatted on the windshield.
The sky was brooding, a blanket of gray laced with hints of blackness. One more good storm might wash us into an alligator-infested backwater, a consummation devoutly to be avoided.
The water, it’s coming. The oil and gas executives want to get the money out of this ground before expensive, deep-sea drilling becomes necessary.
I had no desire to wait around for the storm. We got the hell out of Bayou Gauche and continued a misshapen trip.
Back out on 90 in Des Allemands, we spent a few minutes watching as Louisiana troopers pulled over cars coming off the east-bound bridge and reacting too slowly to the drop in speed limit from 65 mph to 55. They were shooting alligators in a goddamned barrel. Didn’t seem fair.
As we moved farther west on 90, the sky took on a spectral glow. It looked like I was wearing sunglasses, but I wasn’t.
The weather was bad somewhere out there. Better there than here.
An hour later we exited 90 at Morgan City, in desperate need of gas.
We pulled into a Shell station. Everything was strangely quiet. The pumps had all gone dark. A portly young man, his hair dyed red, his torso covered by a baby-blue Halliburton polo shirt, offered an explanation.
“No fuel,” he said. “Power’s gone. A couple tornadoes came through here a while ago.”
Tornadoes? I figured this as hyperbole.
I looked behind me toward a man in shorts and T-shirt. He said nothing. Instead he just made a funnel sign with his right index finger.
Halliburton said we’d have to go to Patterson or maybe back to Thibodaux for fuel.
Fuck. Thibodaux was more than 30 miles away. We might not make it.
We drove a half-mile back and found an Exxon station in perfect operating condition.
I celebrated by filling up with 89 octane at 3.549 per gallon. I grabbed the receipt and went inside. I grabbed a newspaper and asked Tania, the young woman at the register, if it was true about the tornadoes.
“My eyes are probably still puffy from crying,” she said.
She lives in Amelia, 10 miles to the east. As she approached Morgan City an hour ago, the sky opened up with a terrible fury.
She got stuck on the 90 bridge.
“Hail was falling, tree limbs were breaking off and I was crying.” she said. “I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know if I was going to run into the concrete barrier.”
She took a deep breath, then looked over her shoulder at a co-worker.
“I was on the phone with her, crying and screaming, ‘ice, ice, ice.’ I was freaking out and couldn’t think of the the word for hail. I was praying. It was horrible. I never want to see anything like that again.”
Jesus. We just missed it.
A mile down the road, I stopped at the Dollar Tree to get AA batteries.
Kat at the counter was taciturn, but friendly. I asked her about the weather.
“Morgan City,” she said.
Not far from here?
“A stone’s throw,” she said.
She said she heard a twister knocked a trailer into Lake Palourde.
Those spoilsports at the National Weather Service. The folks at Morgan City thought they’d seen a tornado, but they didn’t.
“It was a downburst, with straightline winds, and not a tornado in Morgan City,” said Lance Escude, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Lake Charles. “They can tell by the damage path. If damage is in one direction, without a rotational signature, it’s not a tornado.”
I’m sure that was good news for the guy at Lake End Park who had to fish his RV out of the water.
We were nonetheless edgy. Our relief at having missed out on 75 mph winds and a terrifying downburst was mixed with panic about what might be ahead.
We drove into New Iberia, which sits along the Bayou Teche, the twisting waterway that brought the Acadians to this area. But we weren’t in the mood for cultural or historical exploration. No, we circumnavigated New Iberia till we found TJ’s Daiquiri Depot, and loaded up with a 44-ounce strawberry concoction and headed back on 90 toward Lafayette.
Sadly, we drove right on past Lafayette and pulled over just shy of Opelousas. We were going to drive through the heart of Cajun country one more time without immersing ourselves in its piquant wonder.
We missed out on the faux twister, I guess we can survive missing out on boudin and two-steps.
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