Rain, Mud, Fire and Sauce Picante

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Yesterday while my friend Keri was driving down from Memphis, I got up at Momma’s house on Graveyard Island and sipped Community Coffee laced with eggnog. It rained off and on and looked like it was going to be a dreary Christmas Eve. Dressed in an Athleta skort and a t-shirt, I felt a bit disconnected from the Christmas spirit. They chose not to put up a tree this year because they have a rather lively puppy, it was sweaty warm, and it was so wet that even taking a walk or golf cart down the island was kind of gross.

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I heard a noise outside, and I saw a thousand cormorants flying through the fog down the river. I ran outside to get a video but was too late to get a good shot. “They’ll be back,” Daddy said. So, I sipped more eggnog and kept checking the river to see if they had returned. Finally I saw a large raft of cormorants sitting in the path of a small tugboat. I could see where this was headed….

 

My friend Keri arrived at about 3 PM. I drove down to the Spunky Monkey to pick her up since the GPS doesn’t route to Graveyard Island. We had some more coffee, and I got a message from my friend JoAnn that the Christmas bonfires were still “on” down at the levee. We loaded up into the car and headed over to Grand Point to meet my friend and crash her family’s party in the age-old tradition that plays out every Christmas Eve in South Louisiana. Click here for more on the history of the tradition. 

We drove across the sugar cane fields and flooded ditches to arrive in the middle of a field on a muddy dirt road. Hmmmm … “I don’t think this is the right way,” I said to Keri. We called JoAnn, and she couldn’t give us directions that made any sense to me so she came over to pick us up, and we followed her to her beautiful home in the community of Grand Point – which is apparently mostly her family.

We drove to the levee using the back way to avoid the traffic that was already building along the levee. It had rained for several days, and the teepee-shaped structures that would be lit later in the evening were covered in tarps and surrounded by young men trying to get them ready for the evening’s festivities. One group had a base camp set up behind their bonfire for launching fireworks. Another was being stuffed with fireworks that would automatically be exploded when the bonfire really got started. (We would later hear that one of the bonfires was stuffed with 300,000 fireworks.) Apparently, the more flashy (pun intended), the better.

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We arrived at JoAnn’s family party hungry as she told us NOT to eat. Tables were set up for guest dining in the driveway, and under the carport was a makeshift bar complete with a sign saying that you had to be 21 to be served alcohol. Another table was staffed with men stirring cast iron cauldrons labeled with signs signifying the contents. Everything was free, but a tip jar was prominently displayed for those of us who wanted to help defray the costs of this “open” bar and restaurant that was packed with people from all over the state and even the country. I asked if this was all family and was told that the family puts it on, but anyone who wants to come by can and will be served. Holy cow… you don’t see that kind of generosity everywhere.

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I saw a sign that said “Alligator Sauce Picante”, and I knew that a Midlife Moment would have to be had chatting with the chef of this delicacy. Ricky was his name, and he not only cooked the spicy thick sauce picante but he caught the gator, too. “How do you catch them?” I asked his wife. She explained that you hook them on a line, pull them in and shoot them in the head. “How do you haul them out of there?” I asked trying to imagine how you’d haul a big alligator out of the swamp. “Well you just carry them out,” she laughed and looked at her husband who flexed his biceps in response.

Ricky and his Alligator Sauce Picante

Even though I was full with the sauce picante, I sampled some shrimp pasta and red beans and rice gumbo. There was nothing that was less than delicious. We walked all the way through the house which was jam-packed with people and home-made goodies. With my tummy full, we decided to head out to the bonfires. They would be lit in less than 10 minutes, and we wanted to see it get started. A group lit early, and fireworks were already exploding amidst flames on a bonfire. As far as we could see down the levee, young men surrounded the bonfires trying to get them started after days of rain.

Timmy, the Parish President was serving up red bean gumbo

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JoAnn told us that there is a committee that regulates the bonfire celebration. They manage the safety of the bonfires and coordinate the efforts so that it is fair for everybody. The families compete with each other unofficially, so it’s a bit of a community rivalry. They can’t start building them until after Thanksgiving. But, after the turkey day meal is done, young men spend all of their weekends and evenings cutting wood, buying fireworks and assembling their doomed creations. It is a huge event for everyone that lives there, and she said the most popular place for young couples to get engaged is at the holiday bonfires.

Pumping fuel on the fire

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The bonfire nearest us was a little late getting started, but it had a complete fireworks display lined up behind it. This group seemed like seasoned professionals next to the group that started early and showed off their bravado with a literal explosion of firecrackers that went on for 15 minutes resembling artillery fire. It seemed a bit like overkill, and the smoke was so heavy that it obliterated our view of their bonfire. But they got our attention, so I guess that was the point.

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I watched as a couple of guys lit the bonfire next to us and simultaneously sprayed it with copious amounts of some kind of fuel. As the fuel hit the flames, the bonfire exploded with fire. One of the young men spraying fuel was smoking a cigarette, and I worried a little about the safety of this whole thing. I was distracted by the fireworks show that began at the same time that the bonfire really got going. The full moon hung low in the sky and was a perfect backdrop for the scene that was unfolding before us.

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We wanted to get a picture of the bonfires burning all down the levee, but, with the lights of the traffic and the dark, our cameras could not capture the scene. As far we could see in either direction, lighted teepees flamed into the night with throngs of people silhouetted against the fires. The sound of fireworks, laughter and crackling fires filled the humid air. Bumper-to-bumper traffic inched down the road taking in as much as of the scene as they could. It was a festival for all of my senses.

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We left with our boots covered in mud, our hair filled with smoke and our bellies full. I imagine the party was just getting started. JoAnn said the bonfires will burn until about midnight, and the parties go on all night. When asked if all of the people who live on that road open their houses and kitchens for this, she replied that if you buy a house on that street, you have to be “into” this. One of our bartenders was from this area but now lives in California. He comes home to serve others for this event. Their enjoyment is not so much in the watching of the bonfires but in watching others enjoy themselves.

My worries about the rain for the bonfires was unwarranted. It rained a tiny bit but not very much. We laughed all night about how hot it was, and it didn’t help that we were standing by enormous fires that heated up the already warm humid air on Christmas Eve. Warmth was the story this year at Christmas all over the country, and it was no different in South Louisiana. But I must say that I didn’t mind sweating all that much last night when bathed in the warmth of a community who spends over a month preparing, planning, cooking and opening their homes to strangers for a one-of-kind Christmas experience.

 

 

WTF is Up With This Weather?

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When we were kids, we always said that if our family planned a camping trip, the weather would take a turn for the worse. For some reason, the weather gods did not like Daddy, and, if we went on a trip, it would rain and storm the entire time. When we were grown, we tried camping reunions a couple of times. One morning after half of us slept in our cars – and I use the term sleep loosely –  and the other half slept in puddles of water in our tents, we decided that hotels would be a better option for family reunions. The curse lives on.

Weather Forecast for Big Thicket Natural Preserve (Turkey Creek Trail)

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We were wrong about it being a Daddy curse. Carryn and I are desperately trying to figure out where to go backpacking in a south that is filled with torrential rains for the foreseeable future. We’ve pretty much given up on this weekend. For as far as our car can reasonably travel in a day, it’s rain, rain and more rain. It will even be raining in the far reaches of Texas over by Austin. We will now drive in the rain on Sunday or Monday and head to wherever the weather looks reasonably dry. Our first choices are in the mountains… but we are open to anywhere else, too.

Weather for Langley AR (Eagle Rock Loop)

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We thought we found a place yesterday. The Hill Country State Natural Area sounds lovely, and the weather looks really clear for Monday through Friday. We could drive back to Houston on Friday and hit REI’s famous garage sale Saturday morning. When I called the ranger station, I found out that “dry” has pros and cons. The weather is dry because of the climate there, but there is no water in the park, period. We’ll have to pack everything in or go back to the car everyday and re-supply. Ugh…

Weather for Fall Creek Falls (Spencer TN)

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Meanwhile, my friend Keri and I were going to my friend JoAnn’s house around Gramercy for the Christmas Eve bonfires. We have a couple of familys to visit, and I was looking forward to a great time. Unfortunately, it’s not looking like fire-building weather tomorrow either.

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We decided we’d just meet for coffee if nothing else, and she will just drive to New Orleans from there. I’m so disappointed.

To top it all off, the air conditioner is not working at my office. Yesterday, I dressed for my regular 32 degree office temperatures, and the temperature climbed all day long. One of my coworkers came over to my office, and she was in a full sweat. For some reason my office stayed reasonably cool until about 2:30, and I never got as hot as those in the middle of the building.  I was pretty miserable by the end of the day as temperatures climbed into the low 80s with me in my sweatshirt. I’ll be wearing summer clothes today as the temps inside – and outside – resemble those on an early summer picnic. … with 100% humidity.

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Ironically, I could easily camp next week in the Chicago area on Lake Michigan as warm as it’s going to be. So, I guess the distance we go has opened up. Initially, we were trying to stay south because it was winter. But, winter has very little relevance this week. We just need to find a place without monsoon-style rain. And, we will never know about rain until we get closer to the date. We’ve been trying to chase it, but one day Tennessee looks better. The next day Arkansas looks better. Texas – after the weekend – has always looked pretty good. And, of course, we can always do Kisatchie National Forest in our home state.

We are bound and determined to get away over the holiday. “I didn’t spend all of this money on hiking and camping gear to stay at home and look at my four walls,” Carryn said yesterday. Worst case, we are thinking of stopping in at REI in Houston and camping in their tents on the showroom floor. Surely they’d appreciate some folks doing a camping demo on a post-Christmas weekend!

Have a Merry Christmas, y’all. Don’t forget your rain gear. It’s going to be a wet one. I apologize that I planned a camping trip over Christmas. Looks look I ruined it for everybody.

P.S. Does anybody know a way to break a family rain curse?

Walking in the Land of Steel Magnolias at Christmastime

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Jo Ann, Me and Susan

I’m writing to you from the Kingdom of the Steel Magnolias, Natchitoches LA. Interestingly enough, I caught the end of Steel Magnolias a couple of weeks or so ago. Over the years, when people would hear I was from Louisiana, they just knew that I was familiar with the little town that provided a sweet backdrop for the super talents of Dolly, Olympia, Julia, Sally, Shirley and Daryl. I’m sure I must have come here at some point in my childhood, but this is first time I remember being here. Well, we dashed through the downtown area on a business trip awhile back, but I hadn’t actually stepped foot onto the soil of Natchitoches until yesterday.

2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the city of Natchitoches and the 25th anniversary of the movie Steel Magnolias. The city of Natchitoches was the first city founded in the Louisiana Purchase. Yes, it is even older than New Orleans. Natchitoches is translated to mean ‘chinquapin eaters’ according to an article in The Natchitoches Times. A tribe of Chinquapin Indians lived here, so I hate to even speculate as to what that name implies. The article leaves that mystery unaddressed. Whatever it was, I hope it wasn’t nearly as violent and brutal as the movie Unbroken that we saw yesterday.

Apparently we came on the wrong day for the Christmas Festival activities. Although the town was indeed lit up with a fabulous display of Christmas lights, the 26th is not the day to come for festivities. The festival takes place downtown and goes on for at least a month. The lights decorate the main street and the Cane River Lake. Food trucks, bandstands and children’s rides dot the landscape on the sidewalk down by the water. Lat night it was quiet, but I imagine it gets pretty crowded. They had a children’s play fest set up on the river, but no fireworks or music was scheduled for yesterday. We still had a blast shopping and eating at some of the wonderful places in Natchitoches. We had lunch at Mama’s Oyster House. I had a small bowl of shrimp and corn soup which was delicious but not worth the $9.99 price tag. However, Jo Ann and Susan had so much leftover on their plates, I had plenty to eat. I would have been better off just taking their leftovers. And the oysters were divine.

I finally found a hat that I can wear. I’ve been frustrated because my afro looks ridiculous in all of my cute hats that I’ve collected over the years when I had really short hair. Some of them won’t even pull down over my hair. They just sit atop the huge dome of curls like a hat floating in a barrel of water. Others scrunch it down, but the curls bulge out like they are trying to escape. I’ve just skipped hats altogether. But, yesterday, I discovered that I can wear hats that pull down over my ears and only leave the bottom of my prolific curls showing. I was thrilled with my hat purchase and the cute little knitted one my sister gave me for a Christmas present. Yesterday was a banner hat day!

We ate dinner at The Mariners. I have to say that this is one of the best meals I have had since I’ve been down to Louisiana, and Louisiana is known for its food. It’s apparently staffed by students of local Northwestern State University. The restaurant is huge. We drove up, and I asked my sister if the place was big inside. If it wasn’t, we weren’t getting in to eat for awhile. So we parked next to a herd of white pickup trucks and took a chance. We were seated immediately. I had the stuffed flounder, Susan had the seafood pasta, and Jo Ann opted for the crab cakes appetizer and a stuffed potato. It’s a toss-up whether the stuffed potato or the flounder were better, but I tried to eat every bite of both, and I came pretty close.

We went back to the local Hampton Inn for the night and settled in for a little girl talk. Well, Susan went to sleep pretty quickly, but she did enthusiastically wake up to tell us about the Escape from Angola Triathlon. At first I thought she was having a sleep-talking dream especially when she mentioned a triathlon at Angola, a storied prison seated in the middle of a swamp. But, a Google Search revealed that on 3/29 of next year, any adventurous tri-athletes can participate in an event where you can actually spend the night in the prison the night before. Even my friend Jascia said she didn’t know if she wanted to swim with the gators and snakes. I may have to head out that way to watch the race when the time comes.

For today, Jo Ann and I are having a snack before we venture out to The Breakfast Nook, a little restaurant we discovered last night serving up omeletes, bacon and other breakfast fare. I’d love to find a Steel Magnolias landmark. It’s 60 degrees, so my hats will not be worn today. That’s okay. I’m sure we will have lots of girl talk and things to laugh about.

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