The best part about living in south Louisiana is how many times you fall in love. With people. With places. I have a couple new crushes. One is personal, not for the pages of a magazine. The other is St. James Parish.
In the same ways that Lafayette, Abita Springs, Grand Isle, Eunice, Sunset, Opelousas, St. Martinville and St. Francisville have stolen my heart over the past three decades of my blessed life here, so St. James has won my most recent ardor.
So close, yet so far away. In time and miles, St. James Parish is just an hour’s jaunt upriver from New Orleans, just beyond two of our other regional patriarchal parish patrons, St. John and St. Charles.
So many saints here. The churches, parishes and festivals that revere them. It’s a daunting almanac for mortal sinners like me.
But the distance not covered by a cartographer’s allowance between New Orleans and St. James is measured by the generally breathtaking, sometimes distressing photogenic landscapes that reveal themselves beyond each serpentine bend along the levee that buttresses the Old River Road as it wends its way slowly, stately, steadily from the city…North.
Antebellum plantations, both majestic and charmingly decayed; Gothic oaks draped in Spanish moss as if arranged by an account exec. for a Louisiana marketing brochure; wide open pastures of crops, the sugar cane thriving.
Rusted automobiles, boarded-up roadhouses, abandoned luncheonettes, peeling paint, overgrown service stations, and nostalgic mom-and-pop groceries and diners where the neon lights flicker to fade, but commerce marches on, smokers in the back lots conjuring the savory and beloved cased meats that are the foundation of the region’s epicurean identity – boudin, andouille, hogshead, crawfish, alligator, green onion.
There is sausage everywhere in St. James Parish. The weird thing is that you don’t see any pigs there. I said to my companion: “Maybe they’re all dead now. I mean: Look at all this sausage!”
We ate good.
On the darker side of the journey upriver are the refineries, multinational corporate wastelands, lit up like surreal cosmic terrestrial cruise ships on the horizon, spewing dark, unearthly fumes, the aromas of gas and bagasse mixing a hopefully non-toxic stew. They look like petrochemical theme parks with their lights and towers and tubes and bustling activity and sudden flashes of … well, what are those flashes?
Hence the labels of the Chemical Corridor on the benign side, Cancer Alley on the malevolent. The Old River Road is an arranged marriage of blight and beauty. Nature and chemistry. Oil and water. Literally.
It’s the economy, stupid. Or the stupid economy. A deal with the devil, fingers crossed, paychecks cashed, olfactory assaults in factory towns. Conflicting and contradictory elements of life along the levee; the necessary and the noxious, symptoms and survival.
Though the Old River Road is the magic of the journey here, out on the highways and two-lanes, the exit signs on the roadway conjure less the notion of municipalities and destinations than a poetic roll call of who might be the mythical sons and daughters of some faded Confederate gentry. Gonzales St. Amant. Edgard Lutcher. Gramercy Darrow. Sorrento Burnside. Paulina LaPlace.
They sound like characters from a Flannery O’Conner short story. They are places. They are towns. They are names. They are the ghosts of the Old River Road, lost in space and time. And a river runs through it.
In St. James Parish, there is no such thing as a stranger. In fact, the stranger you are, the quicker the arms of the community embrace you.
It really is the American idol at times, populated by the kinds of clichés that nobody locks their doors and everybody lends a hand and you’re never alone — unless you want to be alone. But there’s no reason you ever will or want to be. Miles away, but still so close.
I guess I’ve developed a bromance with St. James. Wandering through the old cemetery behind St. Michael’s church, witnessing the incandescent bonfires on the levee on Christmas Eve, stocking up on a year’s worth of cased meats at Veron’s Supermarket, bunking down at the Poche Plantation, now a B&B, a much more hospitable and kinder property than in antebellum times, where snowbirds and seasonal workers encamp for winter.
Everyone my companion and I met on a recent trip upriver – everyone – invited us to their homes, introduced us to their families, gave us the “locals’ discount,” and generally made us feel like we were home. Home sweet sugar cane home. The lives of the Saints.
And a river runs through it.