Before the Big Easy: Atchafalaya

September 20, 2018

We were relieved to climb from the tollway out of Galveston back to I-10 and putter due east towards New Orleans, where our oldest daughter Laura lives. Laura is our visionary/techno-wizard, who’s using her blogging skills to post these little travelogues.

This stretch of Texas-Louisiana is among the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, with refineries and other oil and natural gas-related facilities extending from Galveston to Baton Rouge. The bridge over the San Jacinto River, if I’ve got that right, reminds you of the highest roller coaster you’ve ever taken. Sandy held her breath and closed her eyes.

The heavy truck traffic thins as you move into and through this western sliver of Louisiana, through Lake Charles and Lafayette, and the French heritage names show up: Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Butte La Rose. Suddenly you notice you’re on a bridge, or a causeway, spanning miles of bayou or bog, and you enter the Atchafalaya River Basin, a National Heritage Area devoted to preserving one of the country’s most fragile ecosystems. Atchafalaya truly is huge—it occupies parts of 14 Louisiana parishes—one-third of the state.


Atchafalaya is a river, but — as we learned from a gent at the visitor’s center — it’s also a series of backwater lakes, bayous, and marshes, that form America’s largest swamp, some 150 miles long. It’s home to 270 bird species, 85 fish species, as well as bald eagles, egrets, alligators, raccoons,  and black bears. They inhabit a wilderness filled with upland pines, cypress, and hardwood forests. The vast area extends to the Mississippi to the east, the Natchez Trace Parkway in the north, and reaches the Gulf to the south.

Being a Yankee, even one married to a Southerner I plead guilty to not knowing much (actually, knowing nothing) about this complicated stretch of nature. Sandy, anyway, hails from southeastern Tennessee, a world very different from this one. But after all, we visited the Grand Canyon, on the extreme opposite pole of environmental wonders. So there we were at the visitor’s center, learning.  The bridge/causeway we were crossing stretches 14 miles. The brochure describes Atchafalaya as “America’s Foreign Country.”


We sensed, as new visitors to the region must, that we were entering a very different place. The hundreds of square miles of Atchafalaya swamps seem intimidating and inhospitable, but people do live there, of complicated European, African-American, and Native American ancestry, who created the mysterious (to us) Cajun culture of carefree music and tangy, spicy cuisine. Others come to camp, hike, observe the abundant wildlife, bike. Bug spray would be important.

We left Atchafalaya knowing something about it, without the time to change our itinerary to understand its hold on visitors. But we began to appreciate the vastness of this complicated green, hot, living place on the underside of the American continent, a strange, wild place—that like many others, drives us to keep moving, keep traveling, and then stopping, when we can, to learn more about the natural mysteries that surround us.


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