This was supposed to be the beginning of our Great Mississippi River Run, starting from the south end or as close as one can get by auto to the mouth of America’s great river and then up river to the north end as far as one can drive.
It is spring after all, and the weather is supposed to be balmy; warm days and evenings, blue skies… everything that makes human beings glad to be alive. What better time to make the great run? That was the plan.
Well seasons are a nebulous thing, especially in their definition. This year, figuring out the weather has been a challenge – like trying to nail JELL-O to the back-yard fence. We caromed from pillar to post through Texas and Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri trying to avoid the worst of it. Perhaps we did, but golf-ball hail, flash floods, thunder, lightning, biblical rain, oppressive heat and humidity, and last but not least, tornados finally convinced us that perhaps this spring is not the best time for the Great Mississippi River Run.
And as I write this in Branson Missouri, looking out the window through sardine eyes at today’s deluge, with my phone beeping out yet another weather warning, I wonder if we’ll ever be free of the thunderstorm that seems to follow wherever we travel. So now we’re headed to South Dakota, thence to the Canadian Border, then east through Michigan, where we’ll try the RUN from the other end later in the year. At the moment, it’s hard to be optimistic about this – but that’s the plan. So back to Louisiana, and a few thoughts about what we did see while there.
The Mississippi Delta is beautiful, and standing next to the deep brown river and bayous that snake in and out, you can watch the Midwest part of the United States flow by, one grain at a time. Each of those grains represents small ticks on a large geological clock. The Mississippi Delta has ticked its way out into the gulf almost a 100 miles from the Big Easy one grain at a time.
In the three hundred plus years since the French explored the area, and named it Louisiana after Louis XIV, a fair amount of history flowed by as well. Some of that history remains today, like Fort Jackson, built just after the War of 1812 and the site of Fort St. Philip across the river, built by the Spanish in 1795. Also across the river from Ft. Jackson is Bayou Mardi Gras, where the first celebration of that festival occurred on March 3, 1699. It’s now called Bayou Plaquemine.
Today, at first glance, the ravages of Katrina and Rita, the BP oil spill, and then Isaac are not apparent. However, if you stand in one spot and look, the landscape comes into sharper focus. Abandoned buildings and homes, broken windows unrepaired since 2005, power poles here and there with no power lines, trash everywhere and businesses that once thrived, sitting forlorn and abandoned, each one representing a life or lives ruined by nature’s fury.
One local told me that only one quarter of the residents in southern Plaquemines Parish returned. The population in St Bernard Parish had recovered by about half in 2010, five years after Katrina. Not surprising then to see derelict buildings and homes. If Katrina was a hard left hook and the oil spill a smashing right cross, the delta region is on the ropes – but not down for the count.
Slowly slowly people and businesses return to put a toe in the water. Traffic on the Mississippi is amazing, and we never tired of watching huge ships, moving up the river, only their superstructures visible above the levee, moving and silent like ghosts. Helicopters fly everywhere – and parking lots for oil-rig workers overflow. Fishing is goooood. Crabs too. And the folks are open, friendly, generous and genuinely pleased to have visitors. If you feel like making a contribution to the recovery in the Louisiana Delta then don’t just send money… go there. Parlay un peu wit dem Cajuns you, eat summadat gumbo, talk about the weather, where you’re from, and dat big gator you saw down on the bayou.
Fort Jackson, built in a star pattern, complete with moat and drawbridge. At right, old canon emplacement. Below, a point on the star.