“Whatever I have given, I have gained.” ~ Leonard Nimoy
One of the things about slow travel is you discover places that might not have ever noticed because you were driving through too quickly. That’s what happened to me when I arrived on Pecan Island in SW Louisiana. Who knew?
I left Cameron Parish on a beautiful sunny day. I had a long ride ahead of me but I felt well rested. Around noon I stopped for lunch at the Grand Chenier Public Library. They had picnic tables in the shade under the building and I read my kindle and ate a leisurely lunch. Afterwards I went up and into the library to use the bathroom (better than squatting in the rushes) and I made use of their free WIFI since I found I had no service in this remote stretch of land.
I took off again and made steady progress – it was supposed to be a forty-six mile trip. After awhile I came across a gas station/convenience store. I stopped in looking for something I could bring to my next host’s house as a contribution to a meal, but there really wasn’t anything appropriate. This is the thing with being in fairly remote, under-populated areas – the grocery options a severely limited.
I went on and eventually came to another gas station/convenience store. I stopped in, once again finding nothing interesting, but by this time I wanted a snack so I got an ice cream bar and an iced tea. The cashier was a very old woman. She asked if I was riding a bike. Yes, I was.
“Y’all staying with them people down the way who take care of riders?”
“Yes, I am.”
“What’s her name again?”
“Yes, that’s it. I hear tell she’s a real good cook.”
According to my mileage computer on my bike I was about 5 miles from my destination so I enquired about how far, five miles?
“Oh no, it’s at least twenty miles up the road.”
That’s not what you want to hear when you think you’re real close.
I went out and sat on the bench and ate my ice cream. About ten minutes later a truck pulls in and a guy walks up the stairs and says to me, “Hey you’re that bike rider from Seattle, huh?”
I was astounded. “Why yes! How did you know?”
He put out his hand, “I’m Chris, Juanita’s husband. I’ve been keeping my eye out for you.”
“Is that a truck you have there?”
“Yep. Throw your bike in.”
Turns out Google Maps is wrong – they are off by about twenty miles on that address. And I was glad for the lift and having a local – born and raised on the island – to show me the local sites. Not that there were many. Pecan Island also suffered a mass exodus after Rita and Ike. There used to be between 200 and 300 permanent residences, now there are only forty two.
Chris and Juanita live on ten acres she inherited. Her great grandfather once owned a big portion of the island. The plots have been divided over the years between grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins. Juanita has four or five plots of land, but the homestead is on this ten acres between two of her uncle’s plots. They had seven dogs (six now), four cats, five ducks, four ducklings about twenty four chickens (it was hard to get a firm count, and the number was variable, depending on the day) and 2 roosters, and eventually 10 chicks.
I was only going to stay a night or two. I stayed almost five weeks. I fell in love with the place, the critters, and the people.
There were projects to do – one being the re-building of the hen house. And when that was done I painted a rooster/chicken mandala on it, making it the “prettiest hen house in all Acadiana.”
There was time for writing, time for cooking and teaching and learning new recipes. There was hanging out with the chickens and gathering eggs, a task so satisfying in so many ways. There was the great thrill the day the chickens were finally used to me, and instead of scattering when I came out, they came running, and I was surrounded by the clucks and squawks and fluffy chicken butts of the flock.
There was the morning I was painting the hen house and a hen hopped up the steps and stood next to me looking at the progress, clucking in approval.
There were other bicyclists passing through, discussing trips and routes and strategies. Exchanging names and emails. Then there was the waiting on the highly anticipated arrival of Mike the monk. Mike had been cycling through Pecan Island three years earlier and as he went by Juanita’s house, she called out: Stop here! I’ll feed you!
He did, and she did. He stayed a few days and they became dedicated pen pals. Mike arrived a day before expected. We really thought we’d be going into town to pick him up, but he found a ride to the island. He is a very interesting guy with the kind of stories that only a world traveler with very little money can gather. He is an avid birder and was constantly stopping work on a project to grab his binoculars. His first morning he was up at dawn and out on the road picking up aluminum cans.
Picking up cans is one of the regular things that Juanita does. She is a forager and a scavenger. She has a pile of recyclable metal that will go into town to the recycle center one day soon. She has a pile of found wood, in perfectly good condition that she will be using in her building projects. She got eighty pounds of gleaned rice from a field one day. She picks oranges and grapefruit regularly; they catch catfish and crawfish; she has fresh eggs daily; a freezer full of grass feed beef from her own heifers, she has honey and venison sausage that she traded for, and she has a pantry full of amazing preserves.
One day a neighbor gave her four roosters. She put them in separate pens to see who the ladies liked. The clear winner was a black and white speckled sir who she named Winston. The other three, plus one young one she already had got sold to a Vietnamese lady in New Iberia. That day we picked up the ten chicks and the four ducklings. She is trying to build her chickens back up after raccoons tore into her hen house and decimated her flock. With the new hen house and hen pen she is well on her way. As long as she keeps an eye out on her dog Mikey, the chicken killer. Mikey killed two chickens while I was there. If the hens are out foraging, Mikey always has to be on a leash now. It’s impossible to cure a dog who has a taste for chickens.
Juanita and I found we have much in common. We were close in age. We both grew up in California. Both of our mothers were nurses. We liked to cook and make preserves. Most of our politics were at the opposite ends of the spectrum, but that really doesn’t make a difference. I learned a lot from her. I understand when she feels the way she does about some things. And that was one of my goals on this trip, to get to know people who were different, and to have an understanding rather than stand in judgment. Her life is different than mine. She has survived two major hurricanes with devastating effect. She has dealt with the highly inefficient and red-tape ridden FEMA. (No judgment zone here – this does not reflect on my friends who work for FEMA, it’s an institutional thing, not a people thing.) There is a reason her opinions and politics are different than mine. It doesn‘t mean we can’t be friends.
Here is the thing about traveling. When you travel, you often only meet other travelers. I found that out when I went to India with my friend, Kellie. We met people from England, Belgium, Malta, Israel, Australia… we rarely met Indians. You need to stay in a place in order to meet locals. Oner of the easiest ways to do that is to stay with locals. I might have spent thirty-six more days than I intended with Chris and Juanita, but in that time I learned about stuff I would never know if I hadn’t. And I came away with lifelong friends.
Oh yeah, and a place to go when the shit hits the fan! It’s nice to know folks with survival skillz!