Lost In Crawdadville

Our motorhome was parked under huge oak trees hanging heavy with Spanish Moss in Lafayette's Acadiana Park when I heard about a bicycle ride called Tour D'Evangeline that was going to start from there the next morning. It's a ride put on each year by the Cajun Cyclists and Pack 'N Paddle Outdoor store as a fund-raising effort to establish and mark bike routes in and around Lafayette, Louisiana.

The next morning I strolled over to a table surrounded by dozens of lycra-clad, 6% body-fat bodies and asked the entry fee. "Twenty, which includes lunch and a T-shirt," said one of the most beautiful women I've seen in many a day in a sweet Cajun accent so thick you could spread it on hotcakes. To go along with her impressive beauty, she had the sort of body that would stop traffic and start fights. I handed her a twenty-dollar bill and it was sucked into a cigar box faster than a trapdoor spider can snatch a cricket.

"You must be an extra-large," as she handed me a shirt and meal ticket. "Don't lose this or you don't get anything to eat," she said.

"Do I get a map?"

"Don't need a map, everyone knows the way, just follow the crowd," she said as she took a twenty from another entrant and it disappeared into the Garcia y Vega box. I'd have liked to stick around and admire the scenery but I had more important and safer things to think about -- like pumping up my tires. Besides, I'm sure my wife was already aware of my somatic thoughts because she always seemed to be aware of what was on my mind even before I was.

"She certainly is pretty," said my wife as I stepped through the door.

I knew better than try to claim I hadn't noticed so I just said, "Yeah, she is."

"I noticed her when she got out of their trailer parked over there," she said pointing to the space next to us. I'm certain my wife notices a lot of things going on around her even if she doesn't mention it.

The pack of about 200 cyclists rapidly became a loose line as we rolled out of town on Pinhook Road, which seems to be the street that you take no matter where you are going in or around Lafayette. The first few miles were through woodland then past flooded fields, which obviously grew rice. I noticed hundreds of wire cones sticking out of the water and when I asked one of the local riders what they were, he replied, "Crawdad traps."

Soon the road changed to a narrow strip of pavement where sugar cane grew right to the edge. The air became heavy with a sickly sweet smell venting from the St. John Sugar Refinery, the last of such factories left in the state. Just past the steam-belching plant was a tree-lined, quarter-mile long driveway leading to the stately plantation. We crossed an arched, one-lane wooden bridge, turned right and rolled into the sleepy little village of St. Martinville. Since I was simply following the crowd, I didn't bother to make a mental note about the route.

Many small towns are lucky to have one square but St. Martinville has two of them; the courthouse occupying one and Louisiana's oldest Catholic Church the other. They are connected by a three block long main street of rickety old buildings with rusting corrugated metal roofs. The town's main claim to fame is being the place where Emmeline Labiche pined away her life waiting for her lover, Louis Arcenaux, to return. When she discovered that he was engaged to another woman, she went mad and finally died there. They buried her behind the church. "Buried" isn't the correct word because the graves are all above ground since that area is only about three feet above sea level. It's believed that she was the inspiration when Longfellow penned his epic tribute to Evangeline. St. Martinville's other moment in the spotlight was in 1929 when Hollywood came there to film a movie about the scorned lover. There's a bronze statue of Evangeline near the grave but, strangely enough, it bears a striking resemblance to the star of the movie, Delores Del Rio.

It seems that every business in St. Martinville is named for the lonely lady. There is the Evangeline Cafe, Evangeline Hardware, Evangeline Bakery, Evangeline Realty and it wouldn't surprise me that a couple blocks off main street to come across a sign above a red light advertising the Sweet Evangeline Whorehouse.

My meal ticket got me a steaming bowl of thick, spicy gumbo and a roll with a strange sausage made of pork and rice called Boudin. Jax beer to wash it down was a buck a bottle. No decent, self-respecting Cajun would ever drink beer from a can. I once saw a Cajun pouring beer from a can into a bottle just so he could drink it properly.

Several guys climbed onto the stage under the famed oak tree where Evangeline waited in vain beside the bayou for her lover's return and set up their musical instruments. There was an accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle. Another had a washtub with a broom handle attached with a string running to the middle of the bottom. He played it by slapping the string like a bass fiddle. They started playing what is known in that area as Clanky Clank and singing in a flat Cajun French. I couldn't understand a word they were singing.

Since most of the riders had seemed to settle in with Jax beer to listen to the music, I decided that I'd head back to the park, except I had no idea how to get there. I saw a couple flat-bellied hormones wearing matching race jerseys pulling their 17-pound Titanium bikes from a stack against a tree and I asked if they were headed back to Lafayette. They said they were so I thought I'd follow them. "We're in a hurry so we're taking the back way," one of them said. Half a mile out of town they shifted into their big rings, stood up on the pedals and dropped me like a bad habit. The last I saw of them was half a mile ahead when they turned at an intersection, but when I got there, they were nowhere in sight.

I followed that nameless road for three or four miles until it came to a T intersection. I had no idea which way to turn so I asked a couple guys working on a tractor just across the fence in a cotton field. "Yew want git to laff yet?" one of them asked. Then they launched into a Cajun spiel while pointing in opposite directions. While I couldn't understand a word either of them was saying, I could tell it rapidly changed from a discussion into a heated argument. Finally, each of them pointed in opposite directions from what they had indicated before.

"Merci beaucoup," I said, exhausting my entire French vocabulary and rode off in the direction that I guessed might be the closest to correct. As it turned out, it was the wrong choice because the road ended a mile later at a house. I waved as I rode past going the opposite direction. They waved back content that they had sent a lost soul in the proper direction.

A couple miles along that road I came to a guy pumping propane from a big tank on a truck into a smaller one on the ground beside a house that appeared to have never seen a drop of paint. I figured that anyone who could find propane customers would certainly know the roads. When I asked for directions to Lafayette and he answered in a thick Minnesota accent, I knew he certainly wasn't from around there. He pulled a county map from the cab of the truck, drew a route on it with a green highligheter pen and handed it to me.

"I don't want to take your map," I told him.

"That's OK, I have lots of them," he said. Then I noticed that the map was an advertisement for the propane company.

"What part of Minnesota you from?" I asked.

"Grand Rapids," he replied with a laugh. "Is my accent that bad?"

"Well, it certainly ain't Cajun."

"I froze my butt off in that place for 35 years and when the plywood mill shut down and I was laid off. That's when I decided to move to a place where I'd never see another flake of snow. Been here for three years."

"Seen any snow here yet?"

"Nope, not a single flake, but the mosquitoes are just as big as they are in Minnesota. At least there are no black flies. Them suckers are mean up there."

I followed the route marked on the map as it wiggled and squiggled along narrow, unmarked roads and eventually I could see the water towers of Lafayette peeking above the trees. I was back but couldn't have found my way there again if my life depended on it.

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Copyright 2001 by Jim Foreman