For a really really long time, I have wanted to go on a Zydeco trail ride. Zydeco trail rides have been around for a long time, traditionally as informal cross country rides with neighbors. Today, hundreds of Creole cowboys may join a ride, which usually ends at a big barbecue picnic with friends and family and Zydeco music.
Zydeco trail rides take place in the region of Zydeco everything, Acadiana — also called “Cajun Country.” So I left New Orleans on Friday and headed west on Highway 90. The road divides miles of flat, open space dotted with clusters of fast food joints and chemical plants. It moves along and over beloved Bayou Teche. A bayou is a slow moving body of water of almost any kind. Here, they are something very distinct, although I am not sure what.
On my first night in Acadiana, I stayed in what was once a black Baptist church. A few years ago, someone moved it to an empty lot in the small town of St. Martinville and a young man named Rien (pronounced “Ryan”) rents it out to people like me. (Rien is also a way cool Lousiana author http://www.rienfertel.com/about/) The interior feels like home but retains the feeling of the original church.
Since I arrived in Acadiana, I have been doing a lot of driving around the countryside looking for someone who knows about Zydeco trail rides, which turns out to be a great way to get a lay of the land. A few things stand out. For example, every time I ask for directions — no matter what town I am in — the helpful and friendly response is almost always a description of my destination in relation to its proximity to a Walmart. Walmart seems to be rural Louisiana’s modern equivalent of the town square. And indeed, in the little town of Opelousas, the “civic center” is next to the Walmart — and miles from the town’s residential neighborhoods across the highway.
This used to be plantation country but driving past hundreds of miles through countryside, I have only seen four farm animals and a few hundred acres under cultivation, mostly sugar cane. The best produce I have found so far is in the town square (that is, Walmart). So much of the food here is highly processed and packaged — except for the culinary pride of the region, “boudin,” a local sausage made of pig guts and rice. Oh and crab cakes. People here make a point to tell you where to find the best boudin and crab cakes.
Today, this is petroleum country. In recent years, the state government has turned over the state’s resources and environmental quality to a large number of very large oil and chemical corporations. The price for the jobs the companies provide has been substantial. For example, a few years ago, one of them created a 36 acre sink hole that left an entire community with damaged or disappeared housing and, apparently, none of the residents were compensated. The cancer rate here is among the highest in the nation. (For more information about this and so much more about this part of Louisiana, read UC Berkeley’s Arlie Hochschild’s excellent new book, Strangers in Their Own Land)
In spite of these problems and others, there is a feeling here of pride and fun. Music is a huge part of the culture. People are friendly even though they know I am not a local (The sun glasses? Hardly anybody wears them here. My pace? I always seem to be moving faster than everyone else.)
I have a long term rental in the town of Lafayette and I am not leaving until I find my Zydeco trail ride!