“Traveling is a brutality.”
— Cesare Pavese
Indeed, traveling is a practice in fearlessness. There is so much unknown, and the unknown is strange. It requires a leap of faith, and trust in strangers — which is exactly why I love it.
This holiday season, my family booked tickets to visit New Orleans, and added a trip out to the Atchafalaya Basin, a National Heritage site in Louisiana that is also the country’s largest wetland and swamp area.
We loved our time in New Orleans. The architecture is awesome, the jazz is cranking and heartfelt, and the food is, well, sumptuous. My family and I ate our fill of huge local oysters, po’ boys, gumbo, and, of course, beignets from Café du Monde.
New Orleans itself is filled with transplants from New York and Chicago, plus tourists in town from all over the world. So I felt like the real ‘strangeness’ of our journey began once we got in the rental car and skipped the city limits.
We drove west toward Baton Rouge on a stretch of road along the Mississippi River dubbed “Cancer Alley,” named for the petrochemical plants that line it and the possibly related above-the-national-average cancer rate in the area. I had no idea what to expect as we approached our rental house nestled along a canal outside the city of Breaux Bridge.
Turning onto the road our house was on, we passed a tiny store and then many small plots of land dotted with mobile homes, or metal carports housing RVs. There were lots of trucks, and signs that announced the name of the “camp.” Our rental was a sweet khaki-colored prefabricated house, decorated quaintly with deer heads. It had an enclosed porch overlooking the canal, where my boys slept, and where you could hear the occasional gunshots ring out from the wetlands just across the waterway.
Without thinking about it, we chose to vacation in the heart of deer-hunting country. Guns were de rigueur — and if the regular blasts heard from our back deck did not drive that home, the signs at the local swamp-tour outfit we visited, which declared things like “We don’t call 911” over the image of a gun, definitely did.
Before our airboat through the Basin embarked, I spent some time perusing the gift shop, stocking up on the essentials: cheap alligator keychains, and a pen designed to look like a pelican sitting on a piling. As I paid for the trinkets, I chatted with the sweet lady behind the counter. I mentioned a friend here in Brooklyn who keeps a secret gun stash, but told me never to speak of it.
“People in Park Slope … well, they wouldn’t understand,” I told her. She laughed. “Well, we all have guns here, and no one’s hidin’ em.”
Our airboat tour was led by a man named Tucker Friedman, whose family for years had lived in houseboats along the swamp. One look at that tight-knit, floating neighborhood, and I was green with envy. It seemed far simpler and friendlier than home. I was stereotyping, to be sure, but I liked these people.
Tucker graciously handed us blankets and noise-cancelling headphones as we boarded his open-air vessel. Suddenly, we were zipping across the bayou, dodging Cypress trees, the wind whipping our faces until he slowed to introduce us to a gator friend, whom he spoke to in a deep Cajun drawl. Fishermen cast their lines from boats idling nearby, sitting quietly in their camo gear waiting for a bite.
“Welcome to my living room!” Tucker exclaimed as he waved his arms gesturing to the magical, water-covered woods he’d brought us to. It was a far cry from the book-lined parlors of Brooklyn Brownstones, but Tucker easily helped us imagine what it might be like to live there amidst the gators.
A bit later, after a post-tour meal of local crawfish whose flavorful flesh coated in Cajun-spices made our lips burn, we stopped by a small market. Feeling ever more connected to the place, I loaded up on regional delicacies: Jambalaya, boudin — the area’s much beloved, pork-and-rice sausage — frozen biscuits, and a pecan-pancake mix.
Another lovely lady behind the counter recommended the cane syrup that came in a yellow can to my husband. It was a far cry from the fancy glass-bottled syrups we tended to favor at home, but he went for it.
The next day, we stopped at a gas station on our way to Avery Island, the headquarters of Tabasco hot sauce. Shopping for snacks, I again attempted to buy local: Elmer’s New Orleans Chee Wees Cheez Curls, and Cane Fire Pork Jerky from Louisiana-based smokers Cousins Smokehouse.
My son, always embarrassed by my enthusiasm, denied the possibility of real ‘local’ snacks, so I turned to the cashier, whom I hoped would back me up. But the slightly disinterested young woman simply shrugged when I asked her to verify the nibbles’ origins.
“They all come here in a truck,” she said.
I didn’t give up. I started reading the names of the places the snacks were from, and on one, she lit up.
“That’s the boudin capital! It’s right down the road, toward Texas,” the cashier exclaimed, noticeably licking her lips as she thought about the sausage she spoke about.
“We made boudin for breakfast!” I exclaimed in response, excited to relate. “And pecan pancakes, with this real cane syrup — ”
The cashier interrupted me mid-sentence, clapping her hands together as she became slightly airborn with joy.
“The kind in the yellow can?! Oh, y’all did it right!”
And then we high-fived. “Be safe now, y’all,” she said as we left. ‘Be safe’ was a goodbye we heard over and over again in Louisiana.
The salutation made me think about the gun signs, and the ways different people feel they need to protect themselves. There is no shortage of ways to live in this world, and our trip gave us the chance to encounter some people who lived differently — to meet them, try to understand them, and bond over what we had in common … like a love of boudin!
That’s why travel, even if brutal, is an essential component of living fearlessly. It provides that common ground that humanizes others who might otherwise seem so other.
On our last day, as we drove out the same road we came in on, the strange “camps” we’d passed — even the gunshots — felt normal, homey. Our friends in the South had welcomed us, and shared their culture, leaving us all a bit fuller as we headed home.
Or maybe that was just all the boudin?
Stephanie Thompson’s “Talking to Strangers” podcast can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.