Louisiana over Thanksgiving, 2006
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(A written account beings after the pictures; go do directly, click here.)


Near the Red River. Next.




The Red River.




The levee along the Red's right bank.


Manson Road, in the forest.


Clear cut.


Butchery.

 

 


Along the highway near Coushatta.


The first morning in Atchafalaya swamp. The cold put ice in the waterbucket but had no effect on the mosquitos.


Pure swamp.


As good as gaiting ever gets.

 


Aquarelia was departing while I contemplated this scene.


First one of these spooked Aquarelia, but the next half a dozen she saw were no problem.

 


I'd rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log.


The trail led deeper and deeper and became less and less distinct, until we were simply alone in the middle of the swamp.

 


Trophies, I suppose.


Downed by Katrina.

 

 


Early morning on the Wild Azaela trail. No horses allowed.


I don't know what these berries are but they were all over the unswampy areas of the state.


The handicapped ATV trail in the swamps near a Mississippi River oxbow.

     The Saturday morning before Thanksgiving I got into Shreveport on the redeye, cabbed out to Dreamcatcher Stables, put Aquarelia’s Peruvian saddle and sidepull on her and set out across the cotton fields in the direction of the Red River. She danced around a bit crossing the road at first, but soon we were gaiting along.
     We went through the cotton stubble and alongside an overgrown creek, swinging past a natural gas well in the middle of the first field. Beyond, coming up on the road on the far side, the dirt track led between low houses. Black children watched from the yards and doorways, and one called to us. I waved back and kept on. Check off one item on the fantasies-to-experience list.
     We were eventually turned back by strips and blocks of impregnable virgin bottomland forest. We looped back alongside a paved road that skirted the first pecan orchard I’ve ever seen. Pecan orchards are spectacular: the trees are so extraordinarily tall and so broadly spaced across the flat mowed ground that at first I took the orchards as pastures that hadn’t been fully cleared of the biggest trees, and when we came upon an elderly black couple who were picking something out of the roadside grass and putting it in bags, I had to ask what it was that they were getting. Late November is pecan season; other times we saw whites gathering nuts beside the road, and in little towns and roadside establishments there were sometimes handlettered signs saying, “We buy pecans.” The newspapers said it was a good year for pecan prices, that buyers were paying 80 cents a pound.
     It was Aquarelia’s first ride in a month, and she got very lathered up, so I put her up after just a few hours.
     The next day I loaded her up again, and we drove down the road paralleling the Red River levee, looking for access. We found several spots, although none allowed more than a few miles’ riding – it seems like some kind of levee authority puts up padlocked gates every mile or so, and even if there the first one you come to doesn’t have a fence connected to it that obviates circumvention, soon another will. Nonetheless some of the segments we tried fulfilled the Platonic ideal: footing of mown grass running away ahead of us, colored a green that is the very definition of green, and pasture or woods on one side and swamp and glimpses of the river on the other. Not the riverside of Credence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary, and not one tenth long enough, but a half a point nonetheless.
     After putting up Aquarelia to rest, I unhooked the trailer and scouted elsewhere along the river (no evident open-ended levee rides) and down some one-lane country roads (unrelentingly paved), so there didn’t look to be any more significant riding to be had out of Shreveport. Along the way I discovered that I had lost my binoculars, which I had been using them to scout levee access from roadside to decide if it was worth unloading the horse. I had been taking them out of the saddlebag before loading her up because their bulge made it too tight squeezing past her in the narrow trailer space after I hooked her up. I hated the idea of being deprived practically from the beginning of the expedition of the foresight they give me into such unknown country. Mirable dictu! I found them where I guessed they might be, a little black bundle on the shoulder of the road a quarter mile up from where I must have left them on the trailer fender. I was grateful, not least because this would have been the fourth pair of binoculars I’d lost in my 15 years of riding.
     The next morning I put a couple of bales of hay in the trailer, loaded up Aquarelia, and told Jessica, the stable owner, “I'm heading south, not sure when I’ll be back.” In my whole life this is one of the things I am most glad I was able to say.
     Following thinner and thinner lines on the map, I spotted a stopsign at an opening cut into the woods where an unpaved road debouched. I was able to pull over a little further down, unloaded Aqua, and we started up portentiously-named Manson Road. Louisiana is a thinly-settled state, in fact is actually losing population, which makes the countryside paradisical to the increasingly oppressively crowded Californian. But sometimes the deserted atmosphere becomes eerie. Manson Road soon passed through an abandoned settlement: a house with crumbling chimney, a couple of trailers, pasture with broken-down fences, scattered furniture, abandoned building materials. From there the road wound through the woods, pines and deciduous trees, some very large and draped with moss. The road divided now and then, the branches that headed off leftish leading into extensive clear-cut. Relying as always on the GPS receiver, we tended to the right, into the forest. Then for a while we ran along a straight strip cut through the woods with empty tower blinds at intervals, corn spreaders centered between them, to draw deer, I imagine, or maybe pigs. A grassy dirt track offered itself, winding back into the woods again. Suddenly we emerged into a settlement consisting of a half a dozen trailers and mobile homes, most with one or two pickups parked. I gaited straight through, looking neither left nor right, peripheral vision cranked open to the max – I really didn’t want anyone to suspect I was a patron at the zoo. “You lookin’at me?” I didn’t want to be asked by some backwoods Travis Bickle. My chill deepened at the far side of the clearing, where two antlered deer heads hung from a line strung between trees over bloody wash tubs like Jews from Berlin lampposts, or slaughtered Turks set out by Vlad the Impaler, or the heads of persona non grata set on some medieval town wall as warnings against violations of local mores and advertisements for the vigor of the local powers. When the track re-entered the woods on the other side, I still hadn’t seen a sign of life, so I mustered the bravado to whoa the horse, flip out the camera and grab a shot at maximum zoom of what I hoped were the deer heads.
     Definitely worth a full point on the scorecard.
     Following the breadcrumbs on the screen of the GPS receiver to trace our way back, on the far side of the woods from the settlement we came across some guys with guns, parked on ATVs near a couple of pickups. I rode up and we greeted each other, and I asked them when the shooting was going to start. One of them gestured with his head towards some distant barking, and said, when the dogs get something. I guess then they’d rev up the ATVs and give chase. Looked like fun. Better on horseback, though.
     Back near the mouth of Manson Road we stopped and had lunch among the ruins of the deserted homestead, Aqua grazing beside the old pasture with its fallen-down fencing while I found a perfectly good plastic chair and moved it into the sun. Broken toys and creosote cans and cement foundation piers, detreitus of unfinished projects, lay abandoned in the overgrowth. It was a place that everyone had left, and then forgotten.
     Manson Road only gave us a few hours’ride, so we picked up and headed further on down the river. We crossed at the town of Coushatta, Red River Parish seat. It had old brick buildings in the old town center, and by the highway a gas station, a bank, café, car parts store, etc., some of which occupied buildings built for earlier businesses now long gone, and as a result had sections that were not in use, inappropriate windows, blank marquees, hand-lettered signs and other evidence of makeshift occupancy. Interspersed were what was by now, after a few days here, becoming to seem the usual assortment of empty lots, weed-broken pavement, and boarded up buildings. Stopping for gas, I looked at the other  patrons, the clerk, drivers at the stoplight. It struck me how this was a complete town, people having their lives, going to school, working, going to the doctor, watching tv, and looking out from here at the rest of America – Chicago that way, New Orleans the other, San Francisco that way, New York that way – but to the rest of America, Coushatta was no place, it doesn’t exist. You’ve never heard of it, nobody’s ever heard of it or been there. A Brigadoon that only materializes once for this blurry glimpse.
     On the road out of Coushatta southwards, at the edge of town, I spotted a stop sign at the mouth of another dirt road – after Manson Road I was primed. I pulled over as soon as possible, unloaded Aqua and we rode back down the shoulder and started up it. On both sides behind chain link fences around modest houses noisy little dogs ran at us barking. The road was badly eroded dirt with a scatter of gravel. Avoiding the worst ruts, I pushed her, and to keep her balance on the irregular footing she was forced into a high-stepping paso llano, so we were moving fairly quickly. After the first few houses, the fences disappeared and the yards became barren dirt. Three black kids, the oldest maybe 12, were in one yard and came up to the road and stared. To make some kind of acknowledgement, I asked how far the road went. They couldn’t seem to answer, and I thought maybe they couldn’t express distance in miles, so I asked how long it would take to go to the end. Still no answer but shrugs and writhings, so I tried to help out by suggesting, 15 minutes? Half an hour? No answer, but I thought I could see a short, direct line from the plantation slave quarters to them.
     We rode on. Another black boy, maybe 15 or 16, walking up the road ahead of us, looked over his shoulder, decided not to stop and stare, and kept on. Ahead an old American sedan rolled in slowly from the left on another dirt road, stopped, and the boy walked up and leaned into the window to attend to what the driver had to say to him. It was a Monday afternoon. The driver was a young black man, and when he saw me past the boy our eyes met. I came a couple of steps closer, bent low and asked him the same questions, and he told me the road just looped around to the right and came back at the highway. I told him it might not be very long, but at least it was a ride, and took off past him.
     Now the houses became shacks and trailers, with awnings, porches and steps of scrap lumber, corrugated tin and fiberglass paneling tacked on. In a couple of jury-rigged paddocks some horses were very interested in us. When I stopped to take a picture of a yearling, the guy in the sedan came down the road behind me, having realized, I imagine, that I was the most wonderful thing that was going to happen that afternoon. But it would have been too unsophisticated to stop and stare, so he idled slowly past. Of course this meant I had to abandon my supercilious anthropologic photography and conform to the pretense of just being out for a ride, so off I set behind him. The ruts slowed him to the speed of a gaiting paso, so for some yards we were moving along, absurdly, in close formation, him doubtless seeing me in his mirrors, until he came to a bare yard he could pull into, plausibly if not altogether convincingly. I kept on along the dirt road, but there were no more houses, only pine trees and dumped trash, and soon we came back to the highway a half a mile beyond where we’d left the truck.
     Tobacco Road: one point.
     We continued on south and then east, into the night, into the Atchafalaya Basin, to a little teepee symbol on the map, and found a spot cut into the shadowy woods beside the gravel road running alongside the swamp. I tied Aqua to the railing of the pickup bed, shredded a couple of flakes of her hay for her, and unrolled the sleeping bag on a pad in the bed. Any time I woke in the night I could hear her munching and her lead rope occasionally bump the fender.
     That night was the coldest of the trip, with ice on the water bucket and frost thick on the ground in the morning. But the down bag kept me perfectly warm, and Aqua, bred and born in Alberta at the north end of the the midcontinent, calmly pawed the frost away to graze like she was evolved to (something cattle don’t or can’t do). All my life I’ve very much disliked and come to dread the frigid discomfort of getting out of the warm sleeping bag on icy mornings. This morning my nerves registered the expected chill, but the sensation seemed somehow external to me, something more observed and less experienced. Another consequence of age, perhaps, to become more detached from, less a part of, one’s own body, in fact of the world, of which one’s body is one part.
     Atchafalaya is the swamp: bayous, moss, mosquitos and armadillos. The first place we found to ride was a designated nature trail. It was immediately perfect. A flat, soft single track, it twisted and wove through trees, palms, shrubs, and grass, and past bayou channels either clear or blanketed with some aquatic plant with little green leaves like small clover. The canopy is open enough that the sky was visible through the leaves, and the low winter sunlight dappled everything. I spent a total of three days riding through this and another swamp; days full of hours consumed just gaiting, walking, or leading through the trees over soft, flat trail. It is monotonous in description, so you will not hear much about it again, but it was like ceaselessly imbibing a moderate pleasure, like an opium high, good for nobody but oneself, and all and anything that one wants. The other events I describe here are the incidents that interrupted this drone of gratification, and were at the time for me just distractions. If you want to picture the experience I had, keep in mind that between any two events were hours and miles of riding, which were what was really going on.
     In Atchafalaya and in other swamps all over The Sportsman’s Paradise, generously wide, flat, soft bridle paths have been bulldozed and signed “ATVs only”. I gather they are mostly used by the numerous camoflage-clad hunters who unload the little four-wheelers from pickup trucks or trailers and on them haul their gear out into the swamp. There they set up for “still hunting,” sitting motionless on camoflage stools with camoflage-stocked shotguns or crossbows waiting for a deer – although in one swamp where we rode later, the hunters were required to sign in and list their kills, if any, but the only trophies recorded were several squirrels.
     Not far from where I camped in Atchafalaya the park had a rifle range, and when we were near it we could hear hunters sighting in their guns. Before I came to Louisiana I had been warned about the danger from hunters, and that night in the Baton Rouge paper I read a story about a hunter killing the friend he was hunting with because the friend had stalked around to were he wasn’t expected; the sheriff shrugged it off as “a hunting accident”, no charges filed. Particularly in the earlier days of the trip I imagined me or my horse taking a bullet – one feels the impact before the sound reaches the ear. I wished I had some hunter’s orange clothing, so I took some orange ribbons off a survey stake and tied them around my hat like a hat band with a tail. But when I held it at arm’s length it looked more bedraggled than eye-catching.
     That afternoon we were heading down an ATV track that ran in a straight line into the swamp. A cleared strip crossed it at right angles, 10 feet wide and perfectly straight too, probably for an underground power line. We turned left on it, and walked on a mile or so. Every so often we would cross a swale, a depression two or three feet deep and a couple of yards wide, sometimes muddy, at least damper than the rest of the ground, presumably seasonal streambeds
     These swales usually had fewer trees in them, probably kept from growing by periods of standing water, and when we came to one that was almost as clear as the strip had been I turned right and headed into pure, untouched swamp. Stepping over small downed trees or around broken off stubs of trees, we picked our way along, again in a straight line, parallel to the ATV track now a mile or so to our right. Eventually we came to a broad bayou, full of water, and I stopped and got off. I tied Aqua to a tree, with just an overhand knot pulled tight, and went over to the bank and squatted down, to listen to nature and to answer it too. I looked at everything: all the trees, their exposed roots in the bank opposite, the leaves floating in the water, sparkling sunlight reflected in it. I listened: the swamp is quieter than I expected, at least this time of year: very few birds, very few insects aside from mosquitos. Behind me I heard Aqua crunching around in the brush near her tree. I glanced back and saw that she had moved around and was facing it from the other side.
     When I had seen and done everything I wanted by the bayou, I stood and turned and she was gone. She was nowhere to be seen and nowhere to be heard; there was nothing but quite woods in all directions. The ground was too firm and leaf-covered to show any prints. She had never gotten loose before so I didn’t know what she was likely to do. I started running up the swale the direction we had come. Where do you look for a runaway horse? When a creature runs away, it can go in any direction whatsoever, but the searcher must gamble on just one. Therefore, I reasoned, the odds were that I had not guessed right and was getting farther away from her, not closer. The route back, though, was the only direction I could take that was in any way distinguished from all the other directions I could go in. The fact that I had to follow that path deprived me of any feeling of hope  – as my path was preordained, so was my success or failure.
     As I jogged, I took out the GPS receiver and set it so it showed the route we had come in on. After a few minutes I thought the swale was getting shallower and more cluttered than I remembered, and sure enough, checking the GPS receiver, it showed that I had overrun the cleared strip and was headed deeper into the swamp beyond.
     When I got back on the strip and looked down it, I still couldn’t see her, but I had no choice but to continue. The next swale was a little muddy – I remember she’d balked and resisted when I’d wanted to cross it on the way in – and I saw what I registered as a horseshoe print pointing the opposite way from the others. I didn’t stop to verify the perception; even if I were wrong I couldn’t have changed my plan, and actually remembering her earlier balk gave me a jolt of anxiety that if she’d reached this point without me to urge her on she quite likely would have not  crossed, and she’d have to be somewhere off to the side in the trackless swamp now.
     Ah, finally I reached the ATV track, looked right, the way we’d come, and there she was, a quarter of a mile up, alternately dropping her head to graze and raising it to look at me. From then on I used clove hitches in every case.
     That day was our introduction to the mosquitos of the Louisiana swamps. I was told later that this fall’s crop was unusually bountiful, but it was way beyond anything I’ve ever seen.
     I’d brought my saddlebag from home, and in it was the little vial of high-test deet I always carry but rarely use. A coating would keep the bloodsuckers off me for 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes they would be settling on her again. The ones on her face, around her eyes and on her muzzle would make her shake her head, she would stop to rub her face on a front cannon bone, and she would swat her sides and belly with her tail, but she couldn’t reach most of the areas on her body. When I dampened my hands with deet and swiped them on the insides of her upper legs, around her hind ankles, and on her shoulders and flanks, I would squash a hundred at a pass, and my hands would come away blood-speckled, and I had bloodstains on my own clothes from swatting mosquitos that were drilling through the fabric when I crushed them. Aqua quickly caught on about the deet, and when I noticed her shaking her head and got off, she would hold still while I rubbed it on her face.
     That evening I had a steak in Baton Rouge. Back at Atchafalaya, it wasn’t as cold as the night before, but the mosquitos gave up at dark and didn’t start to gather again until a couple of hours after dawn. I would have thought the frost the first night would have wiped out the whole population, but if it did, a whole new generation was born when it warmed up in the daytime. Between the deet and keeping moving they weren’t much of a nuisance, but as long as I was in the swamps they eliminated my usual afernoon naps in the grass, and they sure made me wonder how the hell the Indians could ever have lived down here.
     In the morning, after placating my caffeine addiction with a cup of tea boiled on the little burner screwed into the propane cannister, and choking down whatever cold food I’d picked up at the WalMart a few days earlier, we followed more ATV trails. At the end of one there was a sign that said, “Trail ends here.” For several more miles the trail got less and less distinct, and the further we went the more the swamp looked the same in all directions, until the only thing that made one direction different from any other was the particular trees and shrubs in view, and what the GPS in my pocket said. When the foliage presented too many obstacles to continue, I stopped and got off and looked around. It was very quiet. Then the mosquitos closed in, and we turned back. It was clear that DeLeon and Cabeza de Vaca were far better men than me.
     Swamp: one point.
     At dark we upped stakes again and made it to the Clattenburgs, Peruvian breeders near Pine Grove, northeast of Baton Rouge. They had a mare Jean was considering getting to keep in the South so she could come with me next time. The Clattenburgs most kindly put me up for the night, and I slept amongst spare tack in the guest room over the barn. The shower gave me a welcome chance to restore my hygiene to respectability. When you clear the ground in the South and either mow it or graze it, the year-round rainfall gives you a close approximation of an English lawn, swards of lovely green carpet that beg for some expansive sport like archery or polo, and their ranch was a good example.
     The mare turned out not yet greenbroke, so that was moot. I mentioned that Aquaralia was loosing her gait, and I was unable to correct her pace. They inquired about her conditioning level, and when I described how limited her riding had been in the last six months, they told me that Peruvians need to be well-conditioned to gait for hours, and that she was probably just getting tired. In subsequent days I could see that this was true, as she would gait pretty well when fresh but not later, and I backed off from pushing her as the ride wore on. Having been given such a simple solution to the problem ended my frustration and made me feel much better.
     After admiring their horses, it being Thanksgiving day they took off to honor family traditions. Aquarelia and I proceeded a little further east to where they and their friends usually did their trail riding, rolling uplands called Sandy Hollow. Soft dirt roads with grass between the tracks wound through fall-colored grasses and mixed evergreens and deciduous trees. This was higher, drier and more open than the swamp, pretty near mosquito free, strewn with trees downed by Hurrican Katrina – about one in 10, I would judge, and all pointing southeast. The Clattenburgs, like the media, referred to this as “damage from the hurricane,” but nature can’t damage itself – anything that happens in nature is just more nature. Although this line of thinking bites itself in the butt if like the good Darwinian that I am I consider mankind and all his works and ways to be products of nature, and God knows we sure do a lot of damage.
     We paused at an abandoned house, a few broken plastic toys in the weedy yard, just outside the boundary. The complete circuit, including getting a little lost, took five or six hours. It was fine, but not the deepest darkest Louisiana I was looking for.
     Back at the staging area, as I began to untack Aqua we were approached by a man  in the hunter’s camouflage pants and shirt, a beer riding in his left hand at his waist with the unattended-to balance of a parrot on a man's shoulder. When we had set out in the forenoon I had noticed him lounging in a camp chair next to a portable barbeque set up in front of a very large trailer attached to a pickup truck. With the Louisiana accent I was beginning to enjoy he said he was waiting for all his buddies to show up for some hunting, and began dropping hints about how much he liked and had ridden horses. Always eager to see people enjoy the experience of a gaited horse, I offered to put Aqua’s saddle and sidepull back on and let him have a turn. He allowed as how that was exactly what he was hoping for. I didn’t notice that his legs were much shorter than mine, so they didn’t reach the stirrups, and when I yelled, “Kick her on,” before you could say “six-pack” Aqua was gaiting vigorously but aimlessly around the big meadow, while he came to terms with the fact that with a sidepull, direct reining requires both hands, so if he wanted to steer the horse he really needed to let go of the pommel.
     The DeLorme Louisiana atlas listed the Wild Azalea National Recreation Trail, Kisatchie National Forest, and even though it was on the other side of the state and lacked a little bullet in the “Equestrian” column, the description, “Winds through hills and hardwood bottomlands. Varied scenery and lush vegetation feature namesake azaleas,” its 31 mile length and the fact that I had yet to see a single ranger or other nature cop had me on my way like a junkie making his connection.
     Half way between Baton Rouge and Opelousas, in the hamlet of Courtableau, we fell into a speed trap. The young white patrolman pointed out that since my truck had expired Alberta registration and no insurance, I shouldn’t be on the road, in fact should be towed off. I threw myself and Aquarelia on his mercy. He retired to his patrol car to weigh the fate of the ingenuous out-of-stater, and eventually returned to announce he was simply going to stick me with the speeding ticket, which, if I paid it quickly, would not appear on my record (when I phoned in from home to get the amount, the clerk asked me how fast I had been going, and when I told her it was 62, she said, “$160” right off the top of her head. Purely routine for her, I’m sure). I told the young man he was a gentleman and a scholar, choosing that phrase over “Mighty white of you,”which might have been better received but at the time seemed like it would be pushing my luck. I asked him if he were a horseman, and of course being a good Southern boy he said something about riding relatives’ horses.
     We got to Kisatchie pretty late, and wound our way a couple of miles down a narrow, tree-lined one-lane paved road towards what the signboard said was a campground near what looked on the map to be the trailhead. But when we got to the end of the road, the campground was barricaded due to bad water, with no turnaround. And so I performed my all-time greatest feat of truck and trailer driving, backing the rig 75 yards in the moonless dark, steering by the side mirror, my elbow propped on the windowsill aiming a spotlight back over my shoulder like an Annie Oakley sharpshooting trick, with only one back and fill to correct for a steering mistake, until we got to a wide spot where I backed in and made camp for the night.
     The wide spot turned out to be the Wild Azelia trailhead, marked with a sign with silhouttes of horses and motor bikes inside circles with lines through them. The trail itself was rolling, nicely broken up between gradual ups, gradual downs, and flats, excellent exercise for Aquarelia because she still wasn’t conditioned enough to be able to gait for extended periods. Kisatchie was not swamp either, but quite nice withal. The wild azelias grew in a natural seep about 10 miles from where we started, but turned out not be in bloom this time of year. The woods were very quiet, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we didn’t encounter anyone at all until around noon. A man in day-glo orange t-shirt and baseball cap, which did stand out very well in the muted browns, greens and grays of the forest, had his Ridgeback out for a run. He called a warning that there was a dog loose nearby, maybe imagining his attack canine would try to tear us limb from limb, but I've almost always found that dogs not on leashes and away from their home territories were either polite to horses or actually wanted to go along with us – this one just looked interestedly at us, and then carried on scouting out the landscape. Later we were overtaken by three cyclists in multi-colored spandex racing down the trail – the only such bicyclists we I saw the whole trip, an amazing contrast to the ubiquitous flocks that clutter the byways of California. Everyone was quite cordial except a couple of hikers emerging from a cross-trail, but we brushed past them before the sour expression gathering on the face of one of them could ripen into a challenge.
     Not a swamp, and not the Mississippi River either, and I only had one day left. Due east of us, almost to Natchez, DeLorme showed extensive lowlands stewn with bayous and oxbows abandoned by the great river in its meanderings. After dark we pulled into a wide spot next to the gravel road that nicks one corner of the Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge.
     The various portals to the government reserve were all signed, “ATV only,” in one case even reserved for handicapped ATVers. So, still seeking my holy grail, a ride among unstaged, naïve settlements, we set out down the wide cleared strip beside the gravel road we had camped on, keeping just ahead of a swarm of mosquitos that were handicapped by the light south wind in our faces. The swamp on the left, opposite the Refuge, was privately-held, and we ducked into the the first opening cut into it. The track was dark and winding, and where it skirted a stagnant bayou it passed a tiny green plywood dwelling, six feet by eight feet, with a little window. Aside from the cab of his pickup, it’d be the only place a swamp rat could escape the bloodsucking.
     The track tended right, roughly parallel to the road we had been going along, and another couple of hundred yards further in I caught the gleam of a reflection from glass and chrome, so we reversed and high-tailed it back to the open road. Soon we came to another opening in the swamp leading to a cabin in front of which was parked the pickup I must have glimpsed earlier. Some yards further along an armadillo came out of the woods just as we were passing and began probing the grass with his snout. We stopped and turned to watch, and just then a camoflaged person carrying a long gun came out of the opening to the cabin, looked down the road at us, and immediately went back in. A woman, if I could tell in the moment it took her to identify Aquarelia as a horse and withdraw. Greedy for a deer.
     Eventually the swamp pulled back from the road, cleared for farm fields. After several miles I stopped to take a shit in the shade of a screen of oak trees that grew along the road, gazing out across a ploughed field bounded by a line of vegetation along a creek or slough, examining the leaves, pebbles, grass and twigs at the tips of my boot toes under my chin, feeling the air, hearing the sounds near and far, behind me or above me. This was my sixth consecutive shit in the woods and, regrettably, my last, because this was the last day of the excursion.
     A little further on we passed through a ranch that had paddocks on both sides of the road. The ones on the right held three rather slender youngsters that sure looked to me like Peruvians, and of course quite curious about us. We stopped to say hi, and I’ll be damned if there was nary a mosquito on any of them. I know for a fact that nobody at that homestead was coming out every 30 minutes and rubbing deet all over them; for one thing there was nobody home at all. I wished there had been; I wanted to know how that came about. Maybe the Indians who had lived here had been protected by an adaptation similar to the one these young horses had made.
     Shortly thereafter the cleared strip beside the road disappeared and rather than stump through the gravel we turned back. Now the the wind was at our back, and at the gait the mosquitos could stay with us as conveniently as if we were stock still in the windless swamp. A few times we turned back into the breeze until they blew away, then hastened across the road to the other side before going on, hoping to lose them, but it didn’t work.
     At the trailer I tied up Aquarelia to graze and had a bit of lunch, leaning my chair back against the trailer fender where I could watch her. A little pickup truck came by, with two camoflage-clad occupants and the inevitable ATV in the bed. It stopped, and the driver got out, came around to my side of the trailer, knelt in the cropped grass and sat on his heels, put his hands on his thighs and introduced himself in a thorough-going bayou country accent. He was the spit and image of Welsh character actor Pete Postlewaite – a face shaped like a football, narrow at chin and crown, with knobby cheekbones, a knob of a nose, and clear, wide-open eyes.
     He said he’d seen me there the night before, and wondered who we were and what we were doing. I told him we were just roaming around the countryside finding places to ride and camping out. He proffered his own fantasy version of that – hitching up a couple of horses to a wagon with a generator and just “taking off”. When I told him the only difficulty I had was getting showers, he said that was no problem, that you could get showers at truck stops, and that he only took a shower every other day, unless he was working hard, in which case he took a shower every day.
     He asked me if I planned to ride in the refuge, I think because they were about to hunt there and didn’t want the game spooked. I told him I was considering it, as there was a hiking trail marked there. He warned me twice over that riding was forbidden on the ATV trails, and mentioned that if any hunters ran across me in there they’d report me to the wardens. These, he said, were federal agents, not softies like the state game wardens, and, to drive home the importance of obeying the rules, told the story of the guy in the passenger seat (who never emerged and whose face I never saw even though my interlocutor called to him), who had been caught by the feds putting out corn to attract deer and had been fined $1,500 and lost his hunting license for two years. I guess baiting like this is considered next door to poaching.
     The hiking trail turned out to be more some kind of heavy equipment log removal spoor, churned up mud with some extensive puddles that Aqua minced around a lot, so we turned back pretty soon. Back at the parking lot, besides the “ATVs only” route that I had been warned off of, there was the ATV route marked “Handicapped access only.” I figured I wouldn’t be meeting the Bayou’s guardian spirit back in on it, and though it seemed likely to be pathetically short and tame, we set out.
     But it went on and on, flat, soft, nice, leaf-strewn, the swamp around us almost artificially perfect, like a model swamp or a demonstration swamp. Since the trailhead was the rightmost of the three trailheads at the parking lot, to maximize distance travelled I took the right fork at every opportunity as the trail generally arced to the left and we proceeded counter-clockwise. After a few miles we hit the bayou itself and ran along it with it on the right, and I could tell by the GPS that we were were almost half way around a circle, when there parked in the middle of the track facing me was our friend, sitting on his ATV, a crossbow mounted over the handlebars pointing forwards – i.e., at me.
     Not noticing him, motionless and camoflaged, I had actually just taken a fork to the right of the trail he was on when I realized he was there, on the other side of a thin screen of bush. The only gallant thing to do was to double back and speak to him. Seeming to struggle with himself, he reminded me that I could get in trouble for being in there. I promised to immediately leave, then jokingly said that as this was the handicapped trail I was surprised to see him, him not seeming handicapped. He said yes he was certified as handicapped, and that he had other kinds of permits which he named, and he pulled out his wallet and started showing them to me, and I could see that he had a 20-dollar bill in it as well. Unique encounter: one point.
     Consulting the GPS, I took the next left and we meandered easterly across the swamp back to the trailer, loaded up, took off and got to the stables about 9. This airport cabbie, like the other three who had driven me on my previous trips, was black (as were their dispatchers, to judge from their voices). He asked me what I had been doing in Louisiana, so I told him about riding and camping, and when he dropped me off he thanked me and said he’d be thinking about that all night. The flight was at 5:30 am, so I washed my hair in the bathroom out of consideration for my impending seatmates, left the shampoo on the sink so I didn’t get hassled by Homeland Security, found an upholstered bench, set the travel alarm and fell asleep on my bag.
     The things I did on this trip and the things that happened to me were pretty gratifying. But despite this, I must say I didn’t get what I wanted most out of Louisiana. It’s the poorest state in the country, the most 3rd world, and I had figured it would likely be the least paved and least patrolled. I had thought this made it the most likely place in the country to be strange, exotic, and to be the least resistant to riding. My fantasy was being able to ride all day on dirt roads and encounter human habitations, most desireably places where I could feed myself and my horse – I could work out our sleeping arrangements from there. I suppose the ideal I was after is to be on horseback in a horse world, say 17th-century Europe or ante-bellum South, albeit equipped with contact lenses, satellite navigation system, insect repellant, Gore-Tex and antibiotic ointment.
     And it might have come very close to this, if the fields hadn’t been separated by impassible overgrown creeks and bayous so that, outside of official nature preserves, I could never get a run going of more than a couple of miles, or if I had been able to find any more roads like Manson road but longer. Being the alluvium of the Mississippi, the land is flat, green and soft, and population is so sparse that nobody really bothered with me, but still, my scorecard only showed four and a half points out of a possible ten. To my surprise I have been able to find rides in smoggy, crowded, traffic-ridden, overbuilt post-industrial California that go through the country all day and let me tie up at restaurants and grocery stores.