In Pursuit of a Chicken
Carnival at full gallop
This is an update to a story I wrote for this magazine back in 2015. Back then it was a memoir, a story of the past. Now it’s my life again.
The topic is the Courir de Mardi Gras, perhaps the most overblown and over-written cliché of all matters Mardi Gras. Most anyone of reading age in Louisiana knows the ribald stories of drunk Cajuns on drunk horses chasing (presumably sober) chickens through the vast prairies and rice fields of Acadiana, reveling in their own singular and insular celebration of the Carnival season.
Writers love stuff like that – the raw energy and earthiness of an indigenous culture expressing itself unbound by the constraints and judgment of the outside world. Untamed aggression, unfiltered ritual. Photographers love it even more, because the participants are dressed out like psychedelic Klansmen riding wild ponies, playing out a centuries-old tradition both nostalgic and profane.
I did a search through just this magazine’s archives and found a trove of stories about the event, the spectacle, each one straining over the years to say something new or enlightening about it. But it’s hard to say anything new about it, anything everyone doesn’t already know.
And there’s nothing enlightening about it.
Key search words: Painted horses. Drunk Cajuns. Cheap wine. Saddle dancing. Terrified chickens. Accordions and boudin. Bloody noses. Universal condemnation from PETA and most anyone else with any sense of decorum. But nobody has ever accused me of that.
Decorum, that is.
I had heard about the Courir years before I got a job in New Orleans back in 1984; the rawness, revelry and savagery of it all. It wasn’t on my bucket list when I moved here. It was my bucket list.
And so I rode for seven years, until I got married. And marriage often changes a man, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, as the saying goes. But through the decades of raising kids and growing older – and presumably wiser – it was always in the back of my mind every time Carnival season came around.
And now it’s a new life. And a new life partner. She is a Navy veteran, foul mouthed, prodigiously tattooed with a fondness for cheap booze and constitutionally incapable of taking shit from anybody. And she knows how to ride a horse.
My kind of girl, it turns out.
I told her last winter about the Courir I used to ride out in the town of Eunice; how people get drunk, get rude, get hurt – but also about its swelling, nearly overbearing sense of hospitality to newcomers. And about the gumbo they serve at the end.
Let’s ride, she said. And so we rode.
I called up the same guy I rented horses from all those years ago, a gentle, one-eyed Creole cowboy named Darryl Guillory – Cowboy D, as he is know locally. He’s an actual black French cowboy who still drives cattle and still mends fences and tends to the needs of local ailing livestock – more informed and experienced than anyone with a veterinarian degree from LSU.
He secured us a couple of ponies, put us up in his guest bedroom and made sure we were up by sunrise to make it to the party on time. It was – as it almost always seems to be – the coldest day of the year on the Cajun prairie. Cold as bitter hell. (A metaphor that makes no sense at all.) And I fell back down the rabbit hole. Le Courir. It’s like riding a bicycle. Or a horse, more precisely.
In a region resistant to change, it was just how I remembered it. Wild. Crazy. Scary. Barely legal.
But I am older now. I don’t chase the chickens anymore. That is the folly of young men. And I don’t stand up and dance on my saddle anymore.
I might get hurt.
But damn, its still the best possible way I know how to spend Fat Tuesday, the Lord’s true day of rest – because if he was watching this, he would smite the whole process, recognizing it for what it is: The most unbridled (pun intended) and decidedly most decadent Mardi Gras tradition in Louisiana.
And that’s saying a lot.
And so, we’re going back this year. This year and the next. And then probably some more. Until I forget how to ride a horse. Just because it feels right. Because it feels like the home where I wasn’t born, but probably should have been.