I can't believe I'm about to cry, but there it is: My eyes well up as I face, one last time, the two Cajun fishermen. They are grizzled men, illuminated in the thin light of a new moon, standing on a wobbly dock at the end of Bayou Petit Caillou, just spitting distance from the Gulf of Mexico. We shake hands goodbye, but the gesture is decidedly awkward and grossly inadequate--and, though I dare not hug these guys, I want to . . . and perhaps they want to hug me, too. But these are working men--shrimpers--with scars on their hands and tattoos on their arms and cigarettes behind their ears. They are poor men who, on a bad day, will put in 20 hours for just 25 bucks. And yet they've given me everything they have: food, drink, shelter from storm, a ride down the bayou and a journey through a Cajun world that is as backwoods and off the trodden path as anything in America.
"What if I want to send you a letter up there in New York?" says Wayne Belanger, a man with dirty silver hair and hands as thick as encyclopedias who mixes French into his English, calling storms "tempets" and me "tee frere."
For the second time, I explain that I'm not from New York; I live outside Washington, D.C. But down here in Terrebonne Parish, La., where three-quarters of the area is water and people live on their boats for days at a time or in bayou "camps" (homes on stilts) amid a vast landscape of marsh grass and meandering streams and lakes and swamps and bushy mangroves--down here, anyone who's not Cajun and Catholic and a fisherman with mile-deep roots is, it seems, from New York, which is to say that big, foreign place that is the rest of the world.
Big Wayne Belanger, captain of the Lady Desiree, has brought me down this murky bayou by the light of a single candle flickering inside the wheelhouse of his 28-foot Lafitte skiff. Against that candlelight, I now hand him a card with my address on it. Wayne takes it with a hand whose ring finger was lost long ago to a catfish-fin wound. Charlie Broussard, the other shrimper, heads back to the boat just then, threatening once again to load me down with an absurd quantity of fresh shrimp as a parting gift. He's limping slightly on a bum right foot, having stepped on a shrimp piquant (the thornlike protrusion above the shrimp's eyes) the day before. He's tried everything to get it out, including the Cajun remedy of tying a slab of salt meat to his foot with a rag.
I protest to Charlie--again--that I can't possibly travel home with such big bags of fresh shrimp in my possession, and at last he agrees, saying the crustaceans might make it "beaucoup smelly" for my fellow airplane passengers. He limps back from the boat and extends his hand for a second, final farewell.
This is it. These barefoot and shirtless men have brought me to the end of my journey, closing out a far-fetched, yet rewardingly successful, experiment in hitchhiking the fishing boats of Louisiana's bayou country. For the past three days, I've thumbed my way down two different major bayous and past a half-dozen waterside Cajun towns lined with sun-bleached docks and hanging Spanish moss and old Catholic churches whose priests come out to bless fishing boats with consecrated water.
I've traveled aboard rigs ranging from a 53-foot "round-bottom" shrimper to a 16-foot Chaland crab boat, eating Cajun red beans and rice and shrimp boulettes cooked in tiny galleys by deckhands along the way. I've floated past old bayou swing bridges activated by hand-guided ropes and steamed out into marshland so vast it stretches beyond the Earth's curvature with flocks of roseate spoonbills dotting the sunset horizon. I've had one boat captain grab my collar to keep me from falling into a canal replete with 10-foot alligators.
All this I've done without a car, traveling only with a backpack and the loosest of plans, relying on the kindness of locals to let me into their world and onto their boats, one by one, closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico. And now it's over. From this bayou dock in Cocodrie, La. (population 25), I can almost hear the gulf breakers just barely beyond sight. Charlie limps back into view and I clasp his hand and then Wayne's hand, and then they turn and board the Lady Desiree and I watch them fade away, watch the wheelhouse candle flicker to the rock of wavelets as the old diesel engine beats a slow retreat back up into the ink-black world of the Cajun night.
"You want to do what?" says Papoose Ledet, his balding head sticking out the forward hatch of a whitewashed shrimp boat. He's changing the oil of his 671 Detroit diesel engine--and that's all I see: his head sticking up out of the forward deck.
I explain, from the dock, my idea of hitchhiking on boats down the bayou. When the idea sinks in, Papoose smiles and climbs out of the hatch, wiping grime from his hands. "Sure," he says in a heavy Cajun accent. "Grab your pack. I can take you as far as Leeville, an hour and a half downstream. I'm going shrimping down there right now."
He's the first fisherman I've met, after a brief search, who's heading my way--and just like that, in the melting swelter of the south Louisiana sun, Papoose unties from the dock and we begin floating down the sleepy olive-green tea of Bayou Lafourche. I have my first ride.
"Bayou" is a Choctaw Indian word meaning sluggish, slow-moving stream, and this one, Bayou Lafourche, is maybe 200 feet wide and 10 feet deep, situated about an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans. It follows a southeasterly course toward the gulf, and as it passes through the tiny Cajun town of Golden Meadow, where I meet Papoose, it's lined with all manner of shrimp, crab and oyster vessels tied to wooden docks cushioned with used-tire bumpers. The town buildings hug the bayou banks like swimmers to a lifeline: a few modern houses, tacky trailer homes on pilings, a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, a tin-roofed oyster bar, some rope swings tied to overhanging willows.
Barely two blocks back from the water, on either side of the bayou, the town abruptly stops, giving way to an endless maze of marsh grass and open water and more marsh grass adorned with statuesque snowy egrets fishing stone-still in a pose straight out of an Audubon painting.
The boat's forward motion creates a cooling, tussling breeze that deepens the exquisite sense of freedom I suddenly feel leaning against the port gunwale, my backpack stowed away. I'm drifting through Louisiana on the boat of a Cajun I just met, going I know not exactly where. It is, admittedly, a unique feeling to watch my car grow smaller and smaller along the bayou road, not knowing how or when I'll see it again. But I try not to worry, focusing instead on rolling up my pants legs and taking off my shoes.
Shoes seem forbidden here: Papoose and his three sons are barefoot, and Papoose actually steers the boat wheel with his toes, sitting on a tall stool at the helm. All afternoon I never see his hands touch the wheel, just his toes, freeing him to operate the two-way radio mike and speak French with his best friend, Goo Goo, another shrimper downstream.
I have trouble following the conversation, not only because it's Cajun French, but because there are actually variations of the language from region to region in Louisiana.
"The word we use down here on Bayou Lafourche for turtle is the same word they use up in Lafayette for a woman's private parts," laughs Papoose, who's 42 years old and has a broad, toothy smile.
Even Papoose's English can be hard to follow. He swallows his r's and clips the "th" sound, complaining, for example, that one "ting ah annuddah" is always making life hard for shrimpers.
An hour down the bayou, Papoose announces that he's going to head west along a canal and then push north up into uninhabited Bayou Blue to do some shrimping toward Catfish Lake. This is certified back country, accessible only by boat. He'll have me in Leeville, he says, perhaps around 2 a.m. Then he asks if I like Cajun-style venison sausage with red beans and rice.
I tell him I think I do, just as pots begin to rattle atop the ship stove behind me.
I'm starting to feel seriously trapped on this 53-foot boat--and the sensation is worth its weight in gold. There are many ways to visit that lower third of Louisiana known as Cajun country, home to descendants of French immigrants expelled from Nova Scotia in the mid-18th century. But one thing is certain: America's recent fascination for things Cajun has made this a well-traveled territory where lots gets lost in translation.
Overexposure has brought "nouvelle cuisine" Cajun gumbo to New Orleans restaurants and given rise, across the state, to unfortunate "swamp tours" whose often garish roadside signs promise rehearsed hospitality from good ol' boys with trained alligators that rush toward tour boats on command to chomp jumbo-size marshmallows. And with the rise in popularity of Cajun music, who knows if that washboard player you hear in Baton Rouge is a local or an enthusiast from the Chicago suburbs who's memorized all the French lyrics?
This is not to say that genuine, down-home Cajun culture no longer exists. It does. You just have to work harder to find it. Or not work at all. You could, for example, simply hop on a boat. Just now, as Papoose pulls out the venison sausage and I grab my map to see just where in the heck we're heading, I realize I've tumbled into the committed traveler's ultimate dream: complete cultural immersion. This boat is a floating capsule of Cajun bayou life, and I can't get off. For the next three days, I'll go where Cajuns go, eat what they eat, do what they do, talk about what they talk about--all because I've traded my car seat for deck space below a maze of overhanging shrimp nets.
That evening, an imposing sunset finds us motoring up serpentine Bayou Blue, shrimp nets in the water. We're surrounded by a magical, wide-open landscape of golden-green marsh grass stretching as far as the eye can see, dotted only occasionally with the distant outline of other shrimp boats.
A summer thunderstorm has come and gone, interrupting a sumptuous dinner with raindrops seeping through the old boat's leaky roof. Porpoises now rise and fall in the bayou water around us, chasing speckled trout just as a rainbow plunges toward the eastern horizon and the sun sinks toward violently bruised clouds, billowy in hues of dark purple, indigo and pastel pink.
In the wheelhouse, Papoose scans the two-way radio and we overhear fishermen speaking Cajun French and Cajun English. We hear the twang of Texas oil workers heading out to offshore rigs and the exotic language of Vietnamese shrimpers who've fished these waters since 1975, drawn to America's own elaborate version of the Mekong Delta.
Cajuns have a flair for colorful names, and over the radio the nicknames go flying--Tattoo, Rooster, Gator, Dirt. As darkness descends over our slow crawl up Bayou Blue, Papoose tells me he got his own nickname after being born extremely premature. His mother has a photo of him sleeping inside a shoe box, he says. So common are nicknames along Bayou Lafourche that phone books are of little use to many people since a person's real name may be completely unknown to others.
Papoose tells me all this with a chuckle, but soon stops laughing as the first catch of the evening is dumped onto the back deck. It's a slim take, signaling an unproductive night ahead. Papoose's son Cody ices down the shrimp, then washes off the deck with a bucket tied to a rope and lowered into the bathwater-warm bayou, dark as tar just five feet below us.
Around midnight, I drift off on a bunk bed inside the cabin.
It's 4 a.m. by the time I leap from Papoose's boat onto a dock in Leeville, population 62. I find my way, backpack in tow, through deep darkness to Boudreaux's Waterfront Motel, taking a tin-roofed room on 10-foot pilings. My window overlooks idle shrimp boats whose movement against the dock makes my entire room shake.
Unable to sleep, I cross two-lane Louisiana Highway 1 to Griffin's Restaurant, right on Bayou Lafourche. Leeville is a collection of frame houses (most on pilings like my motel room), sea-shell driveways, scattered palms, annoying sand flies, two gas stations and Gail's Bait Shop, offering chicken necks and cigar minnows. Most of the townspeople are fishermen, and most come to Griffin's for morning coffee. I pass the stuffed alligator head by the front door and go straight to the help-yourself coffee pot.
Java in hand, I count seven people in the restaurant and suddenly realize they're all speaking French. I'm the only "Anglo American" in the room, and I wonder if I'm really still in America at all. Everyone here is older than 45, which is roughly the cutoff point down here. Cajuns younger than that speak only English. Sadly, these fishermen with deep tans and dirty baseball caps and cigarette-stained fingers are relics who'll take the Cajun language with them to the grave.
I place my order in French with a cheerful cook named Louella, pausing only to ask for the Cajun word for grits (la grue). Around me hang breathtaking wall photos of past hurricane damage to Leeville--Hilda in '64, Betsy in '65, Juan in '85. Louella points to the spot just below the cash register where Juan's flood waters peaked. People this far down the bayou don't dare keep family photographs or other irreplaceables in their homes, stashing them instead with relatives on higher ground, away from the next, inevitable, disastrous hurricane tide.
I ask around for a fisherman heading down to the town of Port Fourchon, 10 miles away, the last settlement on the bayou before the Gulf of Mexico. By mid-morning, I meet 17-year-old crabber "Tee Tim" Melancon (as in petit Tim), who tells me he has crab traps strewn halfway to Port Fourchon and he'll take me the rest of the way for a little gas money.
We launch his 16-foot flat-bottom Chaland from a wood-plank ramp built directly below his family's three-room "camp," which is perched right over the bayou. The Melancons are poor Cajun shrimpers, and Tee Tim has had to crab since age 12 to buy his own clothes and pull his weight. He literally grew up on the water, tied with a rope to the family's shrimp boat winch so he wouldn't fall in as a toddler.
Tim Sr. and Phyllis, Tee Tim's parents, wave goodbye from the bayou bank as we pull away. Tim Sr. has "T+P" tattooed on his arm, something he did himself with black ink and a sharp needle before they were married at ages 16 and 14. Later that day, sitting inside the Melancons' house, which features only a butane heater to keep the family warm in winter, Phyllis will apologize for the cramped quarters.
"We're poor," she says. "Sometimes, when shrimp prices are high, we're middle class for a few months. But then we're poor again."
This doesn't keep her from preparing me a generous, drop-dead-delicious meal of boulettes des chevrettes: ground fresh shrimp mixed with onions, peppers, garlic and other spices, then fried in patties.
The trip down Bayou Lafourche is dazzling but tedious, with Tee Tim, dressed in yellow slicker overalls, lifting traps every few minutes and sorting blue crabs and stone crabs into wooden crates, then rebaiting with pogie fish. I pass the time with cool dips in the bayou water, swimming sometimes within 300 feet of porpoises.
Port Fourchon, when we finally arrive, is an unappealing oil-industry facility full of tugboats, tankers and crew ships, some rising four stories out of the water with names like Fast Cajun and Miss Molly. With no reason to stay, Tee Tim makes a quick U-turn and we retrace our path through the vast marsh country up the bayou. It is this area that makes the trip special, with bird life as prolific as anything I've seen in the Amazon.
But just south of Leeville, the outboard engine sputters and Tee Tim starts fussing and cussing. We've run out of gas. He paddles us to shore, then sets off on foot along the grassy bank for his cousin's house up the bayou, leaving me alone to ogle two dozen white ibises sailing overhead through sunset light and across an endless profusion of marsh grass and mangroves. On one small island covered with orange snake flowers, I count 15 roseate spoonbills, as pink as flamingos.
Yet the longer I spend in bayou country, the less I'm able to enjoy such natural treasures. The reason is simple: It's all disappearing. Tee Tim, like every single fisherman I meet on this trip, points out repeatedly that this mammoth estuary system is vanishing at the astonishing rate of an acre every 15 minutes.
The problem is that the Mississippi River, controlled with massive levees built in this century, no longer floods, thus ceasing a 7,000-year flow of sediments that built up these marshes and the land under towns like Leeville and Golden Meadow. Unreplenished, the land is now compacting, sinking and being washed away by gulf waters that pound barrier islands and make a direct assault on much of this enormously delicate ecosystem.
From where I now sit on the bayou bank, I can just make out the old cemetery in the town of Leeville--a maze of headstones and above-ground tombs in the distance. Shockingly, the cemetery is half submerged in water, as are the roadside telephone poles leading into town. By 2040, unless massive mitigation efforts are undertaken soon, much of the ragged edge that is the sole of the Louisiana boot will simply be gone, completely gone, an area perhaps the size of Rhode Island, taking with it a proud Cajun water culture that has thrived for generations amid a paradise of fish and bird life.
Such are my unhappy thoughts as Tee Tim's cousin, Sean Paul, motors up after sunset with gasoline in his own small crab boat. In the gathering darkness, over Sean Paul's shoulder, I can still make out the tombs of the Leeville cemetery, slowly tumbling, brick by brick, into the ever-widening bayou.
A one-armed shrimper with a hook for a hand waves goodbye and says "Don't worry!" as I float away with Monsieur Charlie Broussard, captain of the S.S. Minnow. Charlie's vessel is an ancient, tumbledown "Lugger" boat that resembles the African Queen after it's been dragged through Hell, replete with chipped paint and rotting gunwales. "But she ain't gone down yet," says Charlie, shirtless and barefoot in wraparound sunglasses.
It's Day 3 of my bayou odyssey and I've switched rivers, jumping over to Bayou Petit Caillou, 20 miles west, having reclaimed my car (via conventional overland hitchhiking) and driven through swamps and past sugar cane fields to the town of Chauvin. My goal now is the town of Cocodrie (French for "alligator"), where Petit Caillou meets the Gulf of Mexico. Charlie says he'll take me almost halfway there with a detour into nearby Lake Boudreaux for shrimping.
Charlie's limping from that shrimp piquant in his foot, and to help dull the pain we stop for a six-pack of Budweiser at the Dixie General Store. The store's waterside dock leads past a cliche of Spanish-moss-cloaked oaks and up to an interior thick with the smell of crab-cake sandwiches and New Orleans-style pecan pies.
But the beer, iced down back on the boat with the same ice brought for the shrimp, can't seem to dull Charlie's other pain: separation from his 6-month-old son. Before the shrimping season began in May, Charlie was the primary at-home care-giver while his wife worked at the local Family Dollar. Now, as we motor through Boudreaux Canal and out into wide-open Lake Boudreaux itself, Charlie shows me a wallet photo of the little guy. He does this again an hour later. He's miserable without that baby.
The shrimp aren't filling Charlie's nets, so we make an escape into a series of obscure canals north of the lake to Charlie's favorite resting place: a grassy bend in the middle of nowhere where three idle shrimp boats are already tied together, including Big Wayne Belanger's Lady Desiree skiff. Wayne is a beautiful man with a trim beard and silver hair. Over his shoulder, atop the wheelhouse, sits a large blue-billed heron so close it looks like Wayne's pet.
By necessity, these Cajun shrimpers leave home for days at a time, living on their boats in distant waters. They take rests by tying up together in groups of three or four boats in the shelter of remote back-country bayous, cooking big communal Cajun meals and drinking beer and talking about shrimp and helping repair each other's boats and talking about women--and that's basically what we do for the rest of the day, hour after unhurried hour. An overflying plane would have seen a knot of dirty boat decks and shirtless men surrounded by a watery world of Everglades vastness with interconnecting bayous and canals and marshland set ablaze in the gleaming reflection of late-afternoon sun.
I, lucky traveler, am here, too, sharing in a fellowship that is almost completely gone in America: the company of working men in a wild place. They live under the sky, these men, coaxing a living from the land--and with no bosses but themselves, they love their jobs as few do. Though burdened with worries and great responsibilities, they most closely approximate that state poets and dreamers and you and I have always aspired to: unhindered freedom in a breathtaking landscape.
Late in the afternoon, a four-foot alligator swims past the boat, and Wayne tells me there are lots more around here, some reaching 12 and 14 feet. Last year he got a five-footer caught in his shrimp net. These coldblooded reptiles, Wayne explains, hatch their eggs by ingeniously piling big mounds of grass and leaves over them, then letting the heat of decomposition incubate the eggs. People around here still legally hunt the adults each September by tossing out raw chicken parts on huge hooks, then selling the skins and eating the meat (it's good; I had some).
I start dropping hints to Charlie that I need to get back to Bayou Petit Caillou, the main waterway south, and Wayne says, "I'll take you." Neither Wayne nor Charlie plan to shrimp till late that night when the tide changes. Plus, Charlie's got a sister who's a restaurant cook down in Cocodrie, and he hasn't seen her in a long time. So the two volunteer to take me all the way down the bayou in Wayne's skiff while I, in return, spring for more beer at the Dixie General Store.
The journey down this last narrow bayou has the feel of an epic storybook drawing to a close. I sit atop the cabin roof, legs crossed, shrimp nets overhead, following the flight of French ducks with Wayne's "captain's" binoculars as the sun lowers over mythic features: overhanging trees, glass-smooth water, intermittent Cajun camps made of rusting corrugated tin. I later slip down to the wheelhouse for an ice cold beer while Wayne lights a candle in the swelling darkness.
The tourism bureau of this great Southern state has a slogan--"Louisiana: Come as you are. Leave different." Well, I certainly didn't have blistered, peppermint-red arms and legs when I arrived three days ago, nor did I have these extra pounds of flesh from all the rich Cajun grub.
But below the surface, who was I when I came? A cynical traveler convinced it was no longer possible to fall completely off the map in America, to get lost in an unfamiliar land among people barely recognizable as my countrymen.
Traveling in the bayou country atop boat decks has changed all that for me. It's changed me. It's allowed me to be closer--in every imaginable way--to the Cajun people through whose world I've journeyed, and in the process, I've come to care deeply about them and their land.
I've gotten emotional. Maybe the emotion is just me saying goodbye to one of the last interesting regional cultures surviving in a nation once full of them, harking back to a time when "diversity" was more than just a hip slogan we mumbled on the way to the same melting-pot mall.
So, yeah, I get misty-eyed on the dock in Cocodrie, bidding farewell to Wayne and Charlie. Maybe I've inflated them to heroes in my imagination, but they feel like friends, people I respect, people I'd swap lives with, maybe. And I feel somehow left behind as they motor back up into their bayou world in the glow of that one cabin candle.
And different is certainly the way I feel as I make my way up to a bar in the town of Cocodrie, unprepared for what I find. This small settlement turns out to be a gathering place for sports fishermen from all over America who come to splurge on expensive gulf charters.
Sitting on my bar stool, unshaven and salty with sweat, my backpack stained with grease and smelling of fish, I survey the crowd of CEO drones dressed in chinos and yuppie pastel shirts. They're gathered around the bar's ridiculous indoor thatch roof, drinking light beer and listening to Garth Brooks, while next door an upscale bait shop chimes with the beep of bar-code scanners.
"Hey, man, did you walk down here?" the bartender asks me, noticing my backpack.
"No," I say. "I hitchhiked." I leave it at that, not sure I believe it all myself.
Hours later, I wonder how Wayne and Charlie are doing as the tide gets just right and they lower their hand-repaired nets over wooden gunwales, into the deep darkness of the bayou.
Mike Tidwell last wrote for the Travel section about the pleasures of major league baseball in Montreal.
DETAILS: Bayou Country
The best way to get your bearings in Cajun bayou country is to visit the newly opened Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum in Houma, La. Houma, about an hour southwest of New Orleans, is the de facto capital of the bayou country. The 7,000-square-foot museum features 66 interactive exhibits that highlight the natural and human history of the bayou region. Thefacility relates how water--rivers, lakes, marshes, the ocean--has affected the culture,economy, cuisine and folklore of the Cajun people in this rich but fragile estuary system. Admission to the museum, at 7910 Park Ave., is $3. Call 504-580-7200.
GETTING AROUND: Cajun fishing people are some of the most hospitable I've met anywhere in the world. Hitchhiking the bayous on Cajun boats is relatively easy as long as you have a backpack and know when and where to go. The greatest boat traffic--and hence the greatest number of potential rides--is during the brown shrimp season (late May to early July) and the white shrimp season (August to December). All the bayous south of Houma will put you in the middle of Cajun water culture--Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Petit Caillou, Bayou Grand Caillou. Simply drive the two-lane bayou roads till you see a boat crew loading up, then ask. When it comes to getting back to your car, however, you're on your own.
For more information on visiting Louisiana, contact Louisiana Office of Tourism, 1-800-334-8626 or 1-800-633-6970, www.louisianatravel.com.