Partial to Home: Bayou sojourn in Cancer Alley


Birney Imes



LAPLACE, LOUISIANA -- At 5:30 in the morning it sounds as if the motel I'm staying in has been transported during the night to trackside at Talladega where time trials are going on. Outside on Airline Highway, pickup trucks, bumper-to-bumper, are roaring east in the dark toward the refineries at Norco and Destrehan. 


The LaPlace Motel, an "extended-stay" inn with kitchenettes, is a barebones two-story block of rooms painted the color of a Vardaman sweet potato. It is the weekday home for some of these workers now speeding to their jobs. They drive full-size pickups, many of them with orange steel boxes in their beds emblazoned with the word "Rigid." Evenings the men lounge on the motel's steps talking to their wives and girlfriends on speakerphones. 


We're in the heart of Cancer Alley, the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, home to more than 125 chemical plants and refineries. The area was once called "Petroleum Corridor," but with the reporting of abnormally high rates of cancer in the late 80s, residents gave it the more explicit moniker. 


LaPlace is one of a string of scruffy towns along the river where filling stations have been converted to used tire outlets; car dealerships are now lounges and Walmart is at the center of a solar system of commerce that consists mostly of chain food outlets and convenience stores advertising andouille and boudin on hand-lettered signs. 


John McPhee in a New Yorker piece titled "Atchafalaya" called this area America's Ruhr Valley. 


In his essay, as compelling today as it was in 1987 when it was first published, McPhee describes man's efforts to keep the Mississippi River confined to its present course. 


Over the millennia the river has snaked across the landscape at will, and were it not for the ongoing efforts of the Army Corps, it likely would have abandoned its present course for the Atchafalaya basin leaving this strip of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans landlocked. Such development would be unthinkably devastating for the local, state and national economy. 


Sometime back in the winter, Beth and I drove to New Orleans by way of Jackson. Traveling south on I-55, we motored down the isthmus south of Hammond that separates lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. The elevated roadway passes through cypress-filled bayous; to the west are houses on stilts. It looked dreamy. I wanted to come back and explore in a kayak. 


Early on a recent weekday morning, I set out for Shell Bank Bayou from Highway 51, the frontage road that parallels I-55. After paddling under the Interstate Beth and I had traveled, I glided into another world, corridors lined with cypress draped in Spanish moss, a landscape thick with pickerelweed, purple and yellow swamp iris and alligator lily. Water hyacinth, water lettuce and duckweed floated on the surface of the dark water. 


Deeper into the bayou, the watery path narrows; in places I was paddling through vegetation. 


The area is dense with wildlife, much more so than on the waterways in this area. Great white egrets, blue herons, large woodpeckers and all manner of birds I couldn't identify live here. About midway through the bayou, I paused to watch two adult eagles tend to their young in a nest at the top of a giant cypress. The low-angle early morning sunlight imparted a heightened reality to the scene. This was one of those transcendent moments outside of time that only happen in nature.  


And, yes, there were alligators, shy creatures that would slide off their log or their place on the bank, irritated by the interruption to their sunbathing. They would slowly swim away, keeping an eye on the intruder with their periscope-like eyes. 


Not to generalize, but people's lives here seem more enmeshed with nature. All along the frontage roads, people fished and gathered berries and plants from the swamp. 


Earlier in the week, on the frontage road I met a cattle farmer from Amite. He was scouting the wild blackberries on the verge of ripening. 


"A woman up in Ponchatoula is selling them for $30 a gallon," he said, a hint of wistfulness in his voice. "With some waders I could get those." 


The man was well dressed and drove a newish pickup. Not the first person you would expect to be schlepping around in a swamp after wild blackberries. 


In our brief exchange, the rancher would tell of oyster mushrooms attached to the bark of willow and oak trees, a cactus found in the swamp and in response to my complaint about some not-so-sweet strawberries I bought at that weekend's rain-soaked strawberry festival in Ponchatoula, a way to sweeten up sour berries (cut off the tops, put them in a ziplock and refrigerate them for a day). 


And, yes, since you asked, I'd really like to go back. Besides, those wild blackberries ought to be ripe by now.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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