February 19, 2013
When I first visited Louisiana last summer, I panicked. For five years I had lived in College Park, just outside DC, surrounded by 5.8 million other people. Lake Charles, by comparison, has a population of 72,000, and now I’m a creative writing student here and live in an old cottage with no central heating and find that Louisiana does get cold. With my roommate gone for Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to go gator hunting, the type tourists do with cameras. I tell my boyfriend, still in Maryland, that he shouldn’t bother trying to reach me for the next several hours. The Creole Trail, the only scenic route in the state, is 180 miles long and the website suggests I give myself five hours to enjoy the scenery.
“Alligators,” he says. Born on the Eastern Shore and raised in South Carolina, he likes dinner parties, gun rights, and good grammar.
This is Cajun country, I say. You call your grandparents “maw-maw” and “paw-paw.” “To get down,” means to go somewhere. (“Paw-paw will get down to the store tomorrow.”) If you want to emphasize the subject of your sentence, you repeat it at the end: “Paw-paw will get down to the store tomorrow, him.”
The foreign vocabulary and syntax scare him. “Be careful, dammit!” he says. He gets back to work, no doubt suited-up in tie and jacket. I’m already leaning against my car at a Shell, wearing shorts and a shirt I don’t mind getting dirty.
I’ve heard several Louisiana folktales about alligators. One starts with a family of five: a mother, a father, and three daughters. The family lives by a bayou. Every day before work, the mother and father tell their daughters to run upstairs and not come down until they come home. “When you hear me yell, ‘Ma-ma-li-to, dee-tum, dee-tum, dee-tum,” says the mother, “You will know I’m home and can come down.”
Unbeknownst to the family, an alligator was listening. He repeats the mother’s melody to himself until he imitates her voice perfectly. At sunset, when the parents were to be home, the alligator crawls up the porch and yells, “Ma-ma-li-to, dee-tum, dee-tum, dee-tum.”
The baby of the family squeals. “It’s Mama!” she cries, climbing down the stairs. Her sisters run after her. “It’s not Mama!” they warn. But before they can catch her, she’s out the door and the alligator swallows her whole. He runs back to the bayou and slips into the water.
When the parents come home, they ask the daughters what happened to their baby sister. They point to the bayou and imitate the alligator’s jaw with their arms. The father, in a rage, grabs his knife and runs into the water. He finds the alligator, stabs it, and slices it open. Inside, his daughter is still alive. She is saved by her father. He carries her home.
To get to the Creole Trail from Lake Charles, I go west on I-10 until I see the exit for Sulphur, to the north, and Cameron, to the south. South is the way to go. It looks like Lake Charles for a while—gas stations, antique stores, bars offering daiquiris to go. Soon these small buildings with iron railings, balconies, and columns give way to country simplicity (wooden boards with painted-on words), then the road narrows to two lanes. I drive under the speed limit, listening to Britney Spears on a mini-radio transmitter I carry with me for long drives so I don’t have to listen to the ubiquitous Christian rock stations. I have most of Spears’s songs and lip-sync to them when I think no one is looking. Gay generations before me had Cher or Madonna for diva worship. My generation has Britney Jean Spears, who calls Kentwood, Louisiana, home.
When I was a kid—gangly, prepubescent—I danced to her songs in front of the television, unembarrassed because you don’t learn shame until you’re older. I watched MTV specials about her, listened to her albums on repeat, read about her in my sister’s Teen Bop. I printed out a picture of Britney and taped it onto a binder. When I carried it around boys thought I had a crush on her. They thought I was brave for doing it—to admit a crush. Why else would a boy tape a picture of Britney Spears on his binder? I remember laughing nervously, though I didn’t know why.
Years later, when I came out, my mother wouldn’t blame Britney. “Those books you read! They give you ideas!” she cried. My father sat in the corner, shaking his head. It was eleven o’clock at night. All the lights, somehow, were on. My face burned.
That night, I packed whatever I could into two backpacks and drove away, no longer permitted in that house.
The first town on the Creole Trail is Hackberry, population 1500, its main attraction a small grocery that the Creole Trail’s website marks as a point of interest for its food and public restrooms. I see the word “rural” on a small billboard advertising a clinic and think of how I used to call Salisbury, Maryland (population 30,000), rural because it only had a Wal-Mart and a mall with nothing interesting. Rural means places like Hackberry: one-road towns.
On the outskirts a small uphill turn leads to one of the recreational areas on the trail, a pit stop for tourists and sportsmen. There are four cars there, and everyone is fishing, coolers behind them, lines flung out into the water. I park and take a seat on the hood with the disposable camera I bought for the trip. I snap a picture then walk closer to the water. It’s brown and has a briny sting. I see dead fish: torn apart, split in half, bleeding into the water.
A father and son have three fishing lines lying on the dock, plus two more they’re holding. When one of them shakes, the father runs over to check on it. He wears tall rubber boots and moves clumsily. “It’s good exercise, running back and forth,” he says to his son. He pulls up the line. There’s nothing. He throws it back.
“What’s he doing?” asks the boy, talking about me.
“Some people take pictures,” says the father. He goes over to his truck and takes a swig of beer.
“You see me drinking on the job?” says the boy.
“This ain’t my job,” says the man. “I got a real job to let us come out here and do this.”
After taking more pictures, I learn they’re not fishing, but crabbing. “Only in Hackberry would you catch crabs!” says the father.
I want to tell them about the one time I went crabbing with my boyfriend. But crabbing—or fishing—is an intimate thing. You fish with someone you want to talk to or someone you can comfortably stay silent with. You fish with friends, fish with family. Rarely do you fish with strangers with a camera and an out-of-state license plate.
“I want crabs!” the boy says, and the man keeps saying, “Shit.”
After half an hour, I haven’t seen any gators, so I start the car. Gators are what this trip is about, and gators are what I will find. A few stops down the road, I think I’ll have my chance on a walkable trail. A sign tells me to keep my eyes open—I might spot a fancy bird, an armadillo, or an alligator. I walk the trail, continually looking back until my car is out of sight. A few yards in I begin to wonder what will happen if I do find a gator? I’ve read you should never run from one. They have small legs but can run up to 35 miles per hour. They don’t usually attack humans, but the mere rustle of bushes terrorizes me. Any second, I think I’ll find what I’ve been looking for—pointy teeth and Herculean jaws. And despite the folktales, the gators probably wouldn’t have the courtesy to simply swallow. They’d bite, chew, rip off pieces. They’d have a feast on my bones.
I chose Louisiana because it was the strangest place I could find myself. The people don’t quite belong anywhere else—Acadians forcibly transplanted, mixed-blood Creoles, displaced immigrants. Later, I would learn that Cajuns trace their roots back to French Canada of the 1600s. In 1710, the British—high on colonialism—exiled nearly 12,000 Acadians from their home. Many of those who didn’t die of disease and hardship migrated to the French colonies in the Caribbean. Finding these areas too hot (they were Canadians after all), many came back north to Louisiana. There they started a new life as Cajuns.
A man is hunting in the woods of Louisiana. Seeing something in the woods, he reaches for his musket, but there is a hole in his bag of shot, and the lead balls are gone. Eating a peach on the way home, he passes a lake with an alligator resting on its shore. The hunter thinks only of the alligator skin—of what can be made from it, of how much it can be sold for. He finishes his peach and loads the pit into the musket. He aims, shoots. He hears the pit hitting the alligator, but the alligator rushes into the water and disappears.
Years later, the hunter returns. On the bank of the lake, he sees the most beautiful peach tree he’s ever seen. He goes to pick a peach, but the tree moves away. He runs toward it, and again it moves. Then the tree swims out into the lake. He realizes it’s the same alligator he shot years before, but a peach tree has grown from its head. He sees it swimming out further. He sees it floating—a beautiful peach tree atop an alligator.
The Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge is the last chance I have to find a gator. Unlike other refuges, this one urges you to stay in the car. This is the best way to see nature, the posted signs tell drivers. The road narrows, and the dirt becomes gravel.
There are two cars behind me, but I speed ahead and they disappear in my rearview. After a mile of driving I see something move, a splash of water. I brake, back up the car.
Its eyes are just above the water, floating, watching. I roll down the window. “Hey!” I yell. It’s the first word I’ve spoken in hours, though I’m not talking to anyone. It’s only the gator and me.
I text my boyfriend: “I’ve found one!” I tell him it’s as big as my car, or at least I think so. I send him a blurry picture with the phone.
Immediately he texts back: “Drive home!”
Planting my feet on the driver’s seat, I hover outside the window, using my knees to hold onto the door. I aim the camera. I begin to whistle.
The alligator moves. Its snout protrudes from the water and floats closer until it touches the edge of the bayou, brushing grass and mud. Its eyes watch me. I whistle more until my air gets so thin I can barely keep it up anymore. I hover outside my window, taking more pictures, and send them all to my boyfriend. “I’m whistling and the gator is coming closer!!!” I text my boyfriend.
“Go home!” he texts back. “They are dangerous and will attack.”
He calls. “Where are you?” he asks, voice frantic. I imagine him in the hallway of a government building in DC, cupping his hand around his mouth and whisper-yelling to his well-intentioned but dumb boyfriend, the one who moved to Louisiana (out of all places!) to study writing (out of all things!).
“He’s looking at me,” I say. “He’s just in the water. Looking at me.”
Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.