Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Swamp Women


“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 refocused, however, as we watched the sun set over the Atchafalaya Swamp.

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!”

Wendy

*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”


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21 comments:

  1. kind of reminds me of the time we went moss rock sliding in the Chattahoochee river, only to find out afterward, we were covered in leeches.
    and I do remember that shower afterwards for 30 years now.
    Note: new favorite word,
    Gradoux

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  2. Wendy,

    I loved this story but glad I was not a participant. You truly are a good sport and beautiful inspite of being covered by lots of gradoux.
    Love,
    Marti
    Carmel and SF

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  3. I wouldn't worry about cholera, but be on the look out for the amoebic dysentery. Y'all are good sports! So where is the best boudin and pecan pie? The only thing that would've made the story better is if a gator had flown into the boat.

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  4. I fished in that swamp until I left La. in '74. It sure is a beautiful place and I have lots of memories. I remember GR bringing the Creature Painting to school one day! Now that some memeories, mae yea sha!!! Looking at the rings on does fingers and dat necklace, sha you wooda sunk ta da bottum!!!!

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  5. Wendy, I don't think I've had such a good laugh in a long time! Thank you for sharing. You sucked me right into believing this was going to be some deep philosophical insight, and then WHAM! like an airboat hitting an embankment, you had me in fits of laughter.

    Great piece! And seriously, a dress on a swamp tour?!

    Tim

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  6. Great story! I really enjoyed the laugh. Glad you are alright.

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  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone! And bmxmom - Best Boudin: Poche's in Breaux Bridge; Best Pecan Pie: The Blue Dog Cafe, of course! (however, I should note that they, along with half the restaurants in south Louisiana seem to have had a rush this past week, as everyone was sold out!)

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  8. LOL! I've long been fascinated with the Cajun culture (which is how I came to be a huge Rodrigue/Blue Dog fan). Years ago, my best friend and I took a trip from Tampa through to New Orleans and then onto Cajun country to Lafayette for the Festival Acadiens. She made me promise her not to take a swamp trip exactly for the type of accident you described!

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  9. Hi Wendy!
    I so much enjoy reading your musings! The Swamp Women one is the BEST! Bill and I and another couple went on a swamp tour in May of this year on Lake Martin. When I read your blog it brought back many memories! I have to say our outing was "tamer" than yours! We only got stuck once. Thankfully, all ended well for you guys! Keep writing! It's a joy to me, as I'm sure it is to many others.

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  10. ...Are you sure Dr. Tony did not plant a incendiary device under the boat to kill the motor at the precise moment to propell the 3 women into the "witches brew"...?
    Only he would have the wicked sence of humor to yell out Happy Halloween!!!....lol

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  11. I've been swamped BARBIE (oh, and tony)November 3, 2010 at 5:29 PM

    As a participant in this beautiful and very daring adventure of which one part was very reminiscent of that infamous flying scene from "Smokey and the Bandit", I think next time one of those Cajun pirogues (canoes)would be my choice of travel. Captain Dave would have to sit that one out. All in all though the laughter and conversation is still very fresh and the beauty of that swamp cannot even be described. Thanks again Guys!!!(I think)

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  12. Wow, what a story! And a big YUCK. Don't get that slimy stuff on me! Those pix of the swamp were really fabulous. What a beautiful place - but much better to fly over than to get on yourself. I'm glad you all survived in one piece although a little worse for wear.

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  13. Thank you Everyone! We're all STIll laughing about it!

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  14. What a great story! Thanks for the laugh, it felt great.

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  15. Thanks Jedd! I so appreciate your reading and commenting-

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  16. I've been on swamp tours, too, via McGee's, but nothing as heart-stopping (!!!) and hilarious (well, not at the time) as what y'all went through! I laughed so hard I could hardly see the words...you have brightened our day by penning this story of hilarity and beauty (the photos are amazing).

    In '96 we took my mother from Seattle on a conventional pontoon-boat tour, at McGee's, and I do believe Dave was our Captain...no heroics, but the day (1st week in December) was cold, clear and the scenery was spectacular in the Basin...we went to McGee's landing for lunch, but she (being from Seattle) couldn't quite "get it" about eating Crawfish, and when I mentioned that most Cajuns "suck the heads" she gave me the *funniest* look...I had to do some fast explainin' that it was a common practice to "get the fat" out of the crawfish head....she still didn't look "convinced" though....the next time she visited Lafayette, she stuck to Lobster...

    PS I still remember my father's "boating adventure" in Montana when I was about 14; we went on a rowboat, that barely held my father and mother, and my sister and I...the lake was calm one minute, and the next minute, a huge Montana gusty-wind rainstorm hit...the waves got to be 3 to 4 feet...and my father had zero boating skills...how we made it to shore, I do not know, but I never heard my mother yell like that before....

    Richard

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  17. Hi Richard - What wonderful stories! I tend to forget the uniqueness of south Louisiana, and then I tour the swamp with a group from California or am reminded of the challenges of explaining 'sucking the heads'!

    I'm glad you and your family lived through that rowboat ride-

    Thank you so much for writing in-
    Wendy

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  18. When you quoted Captain Dave saying "“Aw my Gawd,” said the Cajun, shaking his head. “Ladies, I am so sawry. In twenty years dat ain’t ne’er hap’nd.” It reminds me of the story my friend tells of her 70-ish year old father, very Cajun, relating to his family of the time he went to climb a ladder to pick grapefruit in their favorite tree!

    He said it like this "I went up 'da ladah, and sawt 'dat purdy red grapefruit...tried 'ta reach fur it and mah panses fall downt...aw mah Lawd, what would mah three sistahs thenk...here I stuck on da laddah, and I still want dat purdy red grapefruit..."

    His daughter relates that by the end of the telling of this hilarious tale, that there was not a dry eye left amongst family and friends, as they burst out laughing, when he told them that the "purdy red grapefruit" they had just ate, had been put in his consons, to "hold" it in place, as he "went down 'da ladah"...

    Thanks for sharing your adventure in the Basin, Wendy!

    Richard

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  19. Now that's hysterical, Richard! I look forward to sharing it with George (in my best fake Cajun accent) later today- Thank you again- Wendy

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  20. Thanks...I still haven't stopped laughing, about our mutual "adventures" on boats...and I haven't even got to the story about my first trip on my father-in-law's boat, two weeks after eye-surgery, and how he got "stuck" on a sand-bar, and had to have the Coast Guard come rescue us....and I turn to my wife of a year, and ask, "Is *this* any sign of your father's "boating skills" to come?" She said, "just wait till you see how lost he can get just *getting* to the right road to get to the boat launch."

    A year later, I was to find out just *exactly* how true that was, re: he having zero sense of direction and said "easy short trip to boat launch" turned into an eight-hour ordeal of many wrong turns...and no, we did not go on the boat that day...it was already 9pm...and as to further "boating adventures" with him? Well, let's just say the power-boat was sold, after his son put the wrong type of gasoline in the motor...the boat surged off, he fell off the boat, along with the family dog...all were rescued, the boat was a loss, and he "downsized" to a rubber raft, about 10 feet long...

    His last boating "event" was with said rubber raft; a family member "attempted" to hand him the ice-chest...icechest and he both fell overboard, as he'd forgotten that a rubber raft (unlike a conventional boat deck) will "give in" and tilt wherever the most weight is...that was the final straw for his boating days....

    Richard

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