For seven years, I rode a painted pony through the cornfields and rice paddies of Cajun Country on Fat Tuesday in the annual unholy ritual called Le Courir de Mardi Gras.
It is a celebration without peer; an Acadian original born on the prairies of southwest Louisiana; a tradition of equal parts revelry, intensity and savagery.
The ritual begins at sunrise when some 400 or so riders assemble at the National Guard Armory in downtown Eunice. Each rider’s costume is inspected and, once approved, the rider is given a shot of warm brown liquor with which to toast Le Capitan, the man wearing the purple, green and gold cape – the only rider without a mask – who will lead the unruly horseback revelers into the countryside, where the fury will be unleashed.
Those whose costumes are deemed lacking in effort are sent home.
Le Capitan is trailed by a white van filled with hundreds of cases of Budweiser and two men who will spend the day throwing cans to riders who beckon them with raised arms. No catch, no beer.
The van is followed by a trailer in which a four-piece Cajun band has set up. They will play the same four songs throughout the entire ride – all eight hours and 14 miles of it – over and over.
Chanky-chank, chanky-chank goes the triangle and the high-pitched cries of the fiddle drift out over the flat, cold prairie; a sound so winsome and proud that it stings the eyes.
The riders follow the band, a colorful cavalcade of revelry riding horses streaked with paint, carrying saddle bags packed with Boone’s Farm strawberry wine, Crown Royal or local moonshine.
Easy Peace, they call it. It helps negotiate the bracing wind that slaps like a wet tail across the prairies of St. Landry Parish on most Fat Tuesday mornings.
Le Capitan leads us in procession out of town. Hundreds of townsfolk line the route, wishing us a good ride, shouting “Hey, Mardi Gras!” and children run alongside the horses begging for coins and trinkets.
We make a long, circuitous route around the town, stopping at about two dozen farmhouses along the way to do our own begging. We ask for sacks of rice and baskets of peppers and onions and celery with which to make a gumbo after the ride.
And chickens. We beg for chickens.
Mardi Gras is not a good day to be a chicken in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
The riders gather in fields next to farmhouses where proprietors have welcomed us to their property, and they raise chickens over their heads before releasing the poor fowls to their unfortunate fate.
The riders dismount and break into a sprint after the chicken. The men give chase, falling, tackling and fighting to get the prize. Catching a chicken at Mardi Gras is a rite of passage, a badge of honor, a ceremonial initiation into adulthood for young men on the Cajun prairie, like a first kiss or a first car.
You don’t want to be a guy who never caught a chicken on Mardi Gras.
“Don’t kill the chicken!” Le Capitan calls at each stop along the way, but many do. The young men on the ride are rugged and game-faced, adrenaline and testosterone coursing through their bloodstreams.
“Don’t kill the chicken!” Le Capitan calls out to ears that often don’t hear, nor abide, the well-intentioned but often fruitless appeal for civility.
For eight hours and 14 miles we ride. We stop for hot boudin links at midday, nourishment that will sustain us until we arrive back at the Armory, where massive pots of hot gumbo will be prepared from the bounties of rice, produce and fowl that we’ve begged along the way.
As we ride back into town at the end of the day, there are now thousands of townsfolk lining the streets, cheering us, welcoming us back home, shouting “Hey, Mardi Gras!”
Inevitably, several horses in the pack have no rider upon return. Impossibly, it would seem, several riders lose their horse somewhere along the trail every year. A pickup truck is dispatched at the end of the day to gather the lost, the fallen and the drunk from the fields and roadside ditches along the route.
After my seventh ride, my partner said to me: “That was fun. But this is no place for a lady.” And she was probably right.
I never rode again.
And I never caught a chicken.