The afternoon is sunny and hot as my friend Rock guides his truck (the one with the “2006 Clearance Sale” paint in Mardi Gras colors splashed across its windshield’s passenger side) across Lake Pontchartrain towards New Orleans. It’s only a little after 1 PM, but Rock, a locksmith by trade, has already had a full day juggling a number of critical balls in the air, and frankly, he needs a break to take his mind off things. So, we’re making the trip from his home in Slidell to Grand Isle (scroll down for map).
Ya see, Rock’s house, heavily damaged by the levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina, had been getting close enough to at least start planning a move out of the refurbished pool house he shares with his wife Brenda and the two FEMA trailers housing their four children when it was discovered that the styrofoam padding beneath his floors had begun to warp and disintegrate, meaning everything had to come up, and a whole new floor system installed. Between eyeing the progress of the contractors framing what will be his new floor, Rock’s life is a constant flurry of phone calls – answering calls for service, running down the latest multi-lock brochures, assessing back-door alternatives for the house, and trying to get his regular truck fixed.
His shop, also virtually destroyed by the flooding, is currently nothing but a shell – nevertheless, he’s a got a new roof installed and a mailbox out front, so things are starting to look up. He speaks of the day when the shop is returned to its former functional splendor, but like many other business owners in the area, one’s home is the first priority, and everything else will simply have to work itself out in the day-to-day. As we walk through the shop and discuss alternative workspace arrangements, I’m amazed at his ability to cope and persevere amidst all the troubles for as long as he has (today is the one-year anniversary of Katrina), and I can’t help but wonder if it were me, whether I’d have the strength to do the same.
But Slidell and his shop are east of us now as our rolling car lot with the A/C blasting passes north of the New Orleans proper and the French Quarter. Rock’s starting to relax now, and I’m sipping a cold Bud Lite as he regales me with a crazy fishing story about him and some buddies getting lost near the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, all the while having a fish hook shaving caught in his eye. I tell him how, whenever I would go deep-sea fishing out of Salem, Massachusetts, I’d never bait my hook – content instead to drink a few beers, stare at the deep blue, and hope the fish didn’t bother me. “Ahh yes, the great outdoors”, I tell him, “frankly, its not so great…”.
West of New Orleans, we pick up 310 South and cross the Mississippi River on our way towards Houma. Heading southwest, we pick up Highway 90, and the scene becomes very blue-collar: the highway cutting through a continuous run of convenience stores, seafood restaurants, and marine repair shops situated around various bayous, all of which Rock seems to know by name. We stop at a convenience store to pick up some beers and sodas, and, asking for ice, are told, “baby, it’s outside on the left”. Not exactly the response you’d get back east in Massachusetts, or out here in Arizona for sure.
At a sign pointing towards Roseland, we turn southeast, and now the scenery slowly begins to change, as we start seeing sugarcane farms and fields. At a small bridge, Rock takes a left and then a quick right, explaining he knows a great shortcut. Shortly thereafter, we’re in a Cajun town called Golden Meadow, which, from books like Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell and Christopher Hallowell’s Holding Back the Sea, I know is home to many who make their living supporting Louisiana’s huge oil and gas industry whose offshore platforms dot the Gulf of Mexico like so many Christmas trees, or shrimping or fishing in the bayous, bays and marshes between Terrebone Bay and Barataria Bay. Rock says the town always reminds him of a beautiful girl he knew growing up who somehow ended up falling two stories and “broke near every bone in her body”. I’m reminded that one of things I love so much about Louisiana and its culture is how its people seem to all know how to tell a good story.
Slowly water and marshland begin to take over the land on both sides of us, and shrimp boats of varying colors and sizes – all seemingly with the same bow-shaped decks above the waterline – can be seen at dock or navigating slowly along the waterways on both sides of the highway. Wheat and green-colored marshland stretches out to the southeast, seemingly all the way to the horizon. Very cool. As we approach the town of Port Fourchon – again, from my reading, a town known as a commerce hub for everything oil and gas in this part of the state – seafood restaurants, fish markets, and marine supply stores begin announcing our proximity to big, deep salt water, and I’m pinching myself: I’ve always wondered what Grand Isle was like, and in minutes I’m about to find out.
We enter the town of Grand Isle and cross the bridge over to the island itself. Frankly, it reminds me a little bit of Rte. 286 just as you enter Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts – a lot of marsh with houses and businesses sprinkled along the bay. The difference here, however, is that its immediately clear that this is a true fisherman’s paradise – indeed, the primary reason why people come down here to visit in the first place. A portable roadside sign announces this coming weekend’s “Redfish Rodeo”, and camps start appearing everywhere. The Grand Isle definition of “camps” is houses of every imaginable shape, size, and name imaginable (all the houses have names here), sitting on wood and/or concrete stilts anywhere from, say, 5 to 20 feet in height; this link (click on “Rentals”) gives you an idea of what they look like. Some are lived in; most of ‘em I guess are rented out, especially in the fall and winter when the sport fishing is best.
Rock takes a left just before a camp named “Margaritaville” in pastel greens and pinks, with stilts painted to look like palm trees. At a sharp left just before road becomes bay, we arrive at Rock’s camp, the Way Cool. It’s a little after mid-afternoon, and the western sun shimmers on the bay. While Rock is checking out the property for damage outside, I give my mom a call since it’s her birthday. We talk for a spell, and I hand the phone over to Rock so he can say “happy birthday” to her as well. He asks me her name, and, after I tell her Dot (short for Dorothy), Rock talks with her for several minutes, calling her “Miss Dot” as if he had known her for years. (Thanks Rock, I’m sure it added a little Louisiana spice to her special day.) Standing on his second-floor deck, you can see the bay just across the road on one side, and the Gulf less than a mile away on the other. A soft breeze provides relief to the oppressiveness of the day, and even though the occasional oil platform helicopter intrudes upon the silence, I’m filled with a sense of peace and unbridled joy at the sights and sounds all around me.
After one last check of the camp it’s time to head back, but first Rock has to pick up some shrimp. And shrimp he gets. There’s a local wholesaler/retailer up the street that we pull in, where Rock buys 50 lbs. of Gulf shrimp selling at $2-something a pound. (If you’ve never seen Gulf shrimp, all I can tell you is that it makes the “jumbo shrimp” [my favorite oxymoron, BTW] you see in the supermarket look like M&Ms in comparison. This is HUGE shrimp – to me they look the size of a supermarket deli hotdog in length!) The shrimp are hauled onto a huge scale for weighing, then gradually poured into a large styrofoam case and layered with shovelfuls of ice. Two workers carry the box and place it into the back of Rock’s rented truck, but not before we layer the floor with newspaper first – no need to return the truck smelling like a fish pier!
We start our trek northward away from the Gulf and back towards Slidell, and the sky is starting to turn pink with the coming dusk. Rock’s pissed that he forgot to show me the state beach while we were there, but it seems fitting to leave that, and perhaps an overnight stay at the camp, as something we can both look forward to when his situation turns a little more towards normal. It’s been an exhilarating visit to a part of the world I have always dreamed of seeing, and as the talk turns to religion, my own spiritual journey and Rock’s Roman Catholic faith, I feel blessed – truly blessed – to have come to know Rock as a friend, and to have been allowed the privilege of a visit to Grand Isle, Louisiana on a beautiful late-August afternoon.