Bayou is a word that sounds French but is in fact of Choctaw origin, deriving from bayuk, meaning “small stream.” The word can be said to refer to any slow water in a marshy area, if not dead water perhaps sleeping water, or dreaming water.
Home Ground: A guide to the American landscape. Barry Lopez ed.
“Do you want to buy the insurance in case someone hits the car? Or jumps on it?,” asked the rental car agent in New Orleans. Sure, I said. That was probably a good idea. My friends Kiki, Micky and I were headed out of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Mobile. I had never seen the Gulf of Mexico and I’d never been to a bayou. Both seemed as exotic to me as Timbuktu.
We drove out of New Orleans due east along I-10. I heard a joke that New Orleanians define “Yankee” as anyone living north to I-10, which hugs the Gulf Coast to Florida. As we drove Kiki pointed out East New Orleans, which used to be malls and office parks, but was now completely abandoned after Katrina. We entered an area of low scrubland and tidal flats. I looked at the map. “This is called the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. What do people do out here? Get mugged?” “You know, I grew up in Slidell and have driven this road many times and I had no idea until you just said it that this was a national wildlife refuge. I just thought it was a swamp.” Kiki said.
We crossed the Lake Ponchatrain Causeway, one of the longest bridges in the world. “This was completely rebuilt after Katrina,” Kiki said. At Biloxi we stopped at the beach so that I could put my feet in the Gulf of Mexico. This coastline was pummeled during Katrina. It was pretty much cleaned up now but you could still sense something was missing. Many of the antebellum houses had been taken out, along with casinos which were moored on barges offshore.
We stopped at the George Ohr Museum of Modern Art, which was designed by Frank Gehry. The story goes that they had begun building this museum in the early 2000s, then Katrina hit and a casino barge ended up on the property. Today the museum buildings are almost complete except for the silver, twisted Gehry-esqe buildings out front.
Up the road from Biloxi is Ocean Springs, an artistic community–home to Shearwater pottery and the Walter Anderson museum. Walter Anderson was an eccentric local painter. His works is realistic with an abstract bent. I was especially drawn to the murals he did on the walls of the civic building.
We were tired when we pulled into Judy’s place outside of Mobile. I had never meet Judy before, she is an old friend of Micky’s. She is a southerner with a broad Gulf Coast drawl and a sense of hospitality that makes most of us northerners seem icy. I immediately felt at home. Her house sits on Halls Mill Creek, an offshoot of the Dog River–a bayou. “Do you have gators?” I asked. “Oh yes.”
She showed us around her gardens, which were strewn with whimsy, just like her house–wrought iron here, glass orbs there and mobiles made with local drift wood hanging everywhere. Trails lead through the woods from one garden to the next. She took us to one garden which was neatly appointed with Buddha heads. “This is my EOG. My Ethnic Oriental Garden.” Then she showed us her outer house–Judy’s place she called it. A small shack that was half green house and the other half Hobbit house with a small fireplace, rocking chair and more kitsch than I could absorb at a glance. I wanted to move in immediately.
That night Judy put on a shrimp boil for us. Or “bawl” if you’re going to say it with a Gulf Coast accent. It’s the easiest meal in the world. You boil potatoes, onions and corn with the shrimp boil spices. Then remove the vegetables and add the shrimp. When everything is ready you pour the whole lot in middle of the table, open a beer and eat it with your hands while you listen to Judy’s stories.
“Did you evacuate for Katrina?” I asked. “I sat on the front porch with my daughter and we watched the storm. We told ourselves that if the water got to the house then we’d evacuate.” Where would they go in the Bayou? “The water came up really fast and it flooded my living room, ruined my hardwood floors. You can still see the marks on my furniture.” “How long was your place flooded?” I asked. “The water went back down instantly.”
In the morning we had to return to New Orleans, we had to load our beads onto a Mardi Gras float. But I didn’t want to leave, I felt deeply grounded here. Maybe it was Judy and her southern hospitality, or maybe it was the bayou itself– a landscape completely foreign to any place I’ve ever lived. I knew I would have to return some day.