Fall is such a nice time for biking in South Louisiana. No, we don’t have the typical “fall foliage” here – more of a green to yellow transition as seen through the smoke of billowing cane field fires, but despite the lack of leaves bursting orange and red, it is still pleasing to enjoy the outdoors at a breezy 70°.
This trip was concocted and organized by my friend Jonathan Rhodes, a lawyer practicing in New Orleans. The plan was to complete a two day tour of Lafayette, St. Martin, and New Iberia parishes via bicycle. We would drive out to Lafayette, bike to St. Martinville, and then camp at Lake Fausse State Park. On the next day we would bike around Lake Fausse and then turn North through the towns of Charenton, Jeanerette, New Iberia, and Broussard ending back at the car in Lafayette. As is typical on trips of this nature, the notable moments are usually unscheduled, found between waypoints, random surprises waiting to be discovered. Where would this loop through “Cajun Country” take us? Only one way to find out…
From the get-go I was running late. A large chunk of the prior evening was spent wrestling with a pair of borrowed panniers. Panniers are bags or baskets that fasten to the side of a bicycle, typically in pairs (see images below). They are preferable over rack bags because they hang low, allowing the cyclist to easily maintain a center of gravity. In preparation for the trip I got caught up in that all too familiar struggle: having the gear one needs vs. having a lightweight bag. After hours of trial and error, I wound up throwing random gear into the panniers and went to sleep. This late night haste led to me purchasing a gas station toothbrush and utensils at Walgreens.
Myself and Jonathan posing in front of our bikes in Lafayette, LA just before we shoved off.
In front of the Tommy Comeaux memorial. Cyclist, slide-guitarist for Cajun band BeauSoleil, and doctor of medicine, Comeaux was killed by a motorist who had a seizure at the wheel. This stretch of road in Lafayette is dedicated to his memory.
Fall is also a time for harvest, and in Louisiana that means one thing – sugar cane! No matter where we biked in our tri-parish trip, sugar cane was never very far away. We witnessed cane in all stages of harvest: cutting, loading, fields on fire, transporting, and even processing at the mill. The industry is unavoidable. Even with no fields in sight, we still felt the impact of sugar cane. Swerving around tractor debris became second nature, but nothing could have prepared us for the smell of the sugar cane mill in New Iberia. The American Sugar Cane League’s 2008 pamphlet titled The Louisiana Sugar Industry states:
Sugar cane is being produced on nearly 450,000 acres of land in 23 Louisiana Parishes. Production should exceed fourteen million tons of cane with an economic impact of $1.7 billion to the cane growers and raw sugar factories of the state. Louisiana produces about 20% of the sugar grown in the United States (beets and cane). Approximately 27,000 employees are involved in this production and processing of sugar in Louisiana alone.
I grew up right next to a sugar cane field through most of my adolescent years, and not once did I ever attempt to taste the raw stalk. As Jonathan and I biked past all this cane, the idea suddenly struck me. I seized my chance when we turned down a quite parish road. With almost no traffic from either direction, NOW was the time! The sequence of photos documents me eating cane, which I am very sad to report, tasted like a handful of grass to me. I announced my findings on Facebook and was instantly hit with a barrage of comments:
Sweet grass? I remember it being sweet (when I was little). Seems like it should be ripe around now, and it should be sweet. Did you get any juice from the inside?
– Niki Di
You have to let it sit in your coffee milk.
– Dane Faucheux
Try pulling strands from the center of the stalk. We used to just chew on that.
– Jason Hughes
Yeah I think you’re eating a leaf there, or a frond, or what have you. Try down where it’s a bit more rigid. Some kid from thibodaux gave me a piece once, and it was pretty damn good.
– Christopher Esposito
Used to cut and chew some all the time when we were kids… great sugary taste when it’s mature. OK I looked closer. You have to strip the leaves off and peel the bark off before you try to chew it! You lived right by a cane field. You should know how to chew sugar cane!
– Tommy Becnel
Our first major destination was St. Martinville, about 16 miles southeast of Lafayette. St. Martinville is one of the oldest towns in Louisiana and is most notable for its early involvement with the Acadian exiles from Nova Scotia. Cycling through the historic downtown district, we were distracted by a group of very young girls. They seemed to be yelling for us, in some attempt to get us to visit a particular site. Whatever the case, Jonathan and I did turn around and made our way deeper into the historical district.
Our first stop was the Museum of the Acadian Memorial. The main feature of the museum is a large mural titled “The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana” by Robert Dafford. The mural is part of an interactive audio tour incorporating stories of the Acadians. Other highlights of the museum include the “Wall of Names” (twelve bronze plaques listing approximately 3000 people identified as Acadian refugees), the Eternal Flame (symbolizing the “ability of a culture to rekindle itself despite great hardship”), and the Deportation Cross (A replica of the Grand-Pre Deportation Cross. The original Deportation Cross, near the Grand-Pre National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, marks the site of embarkation of over 2,000 Acadian farmers and tradesmen and their families in 1755.)
Retrieved from the Acadian Memorial website http://www.acadianmemorial.org
Museum of the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, LA.
Just a short walk from the museum, we found a quite shaded spot for lunch – Evangeline Oak Park. The Evangeline Oak was made famous by the 1847 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie. The poem told the tale of an Acadian couple, Evangeline and Gabriel, separated by the forced exile from Canada. Because the poem is partly set in south Louisiana and sites local places such as the Atchafalaya, Bayou Teche, “St. Martin and St. Maur”, the people of St. Martinville dedicated this spot to the literary work. The images below depict a bust of Longfellow and the plaques surrounding it.
Longfellow monument in Evangeline Oak Park
The photo at left is a vertical panoramic. I stitched together four photos stacked atop each other. The result is a wider, taller, high resolution image of the Evangeline Oak. The image will open in a separate window, and you may have to click on it to open it to full size.
After St. Martinville we followed country roads east through farmland. As we neared the Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, cattle and rolling pastures were replaced with egrets and low-lying swampland. We crossed Bayou Benoit and turned southeast toward the park entrance.
Pit stop at Bayou Benoit
Lake Fausse Pointe, purchased by the state of Louisiana in 1974 and dedicated in 1985, is a 6,000 acre protected wilderness area, primarily consisting of cypress swamp and a natural lake. The park is the former home of the Chitimacha Indians. During the mid-1700s the area was dominated by French and Acadian trappers. We pulled up to the check-in window at the welcome center and were immediately attacked by giant mosquitoes. It was dusk, and to make matters worse, the check-in process quickly spiraled into chaos. Jonathan, who had the foresight to take care of all the reservations in advance, was mystified as to how the reservation operator could have possibly thought that two men on bicycles would reserve a campsite that you have to canoe to! Racing to beat the setting sun would amount to nothing if we were left to argue accommodations for thirty minutes. The prospect of setting up camp in the swamp, in the dark, propelled Jonathan to do his lawyer thing. I’m not really clear as to how the whole thing ended, but there were refunds, exchanges, campsite swaps, and the promise of a letter of complaint before the smoke cleared.
We did make it to camp just before sunset. The first thing we did was cover ourselves from head to toe in clothing for protection from mosquitoes. I’ve been fishing in the marsh, I’ve slept outside on a hammock in Grand Isle, and I’ve been covered head to toe in swamp mud in the Bonnet Carre Spillway, but never in my life have I been so besieged by mosquitoes! Of course, it’s no surprise when you think about all the standing water surrounding us. The entire state park is a veritable breeding ground for the pest, but still, the onslaught was impressive. We adorned rain gear, wrapped our heads, and doused the rest with DEET, a product that until then I could not tolerate on my skin. That night DEET became my armor, my friend.
Once shielded from the mosquitoes, we were free to set up the tents, gather wood, and start a fire. The flames and smoke added a second line of defense from those buzzing nuisances. Finally, Jonathan and I sat down and made a delicious meal of corn, peas, and tuna curry over rice. This meal, as most are after a full day of cycling, was devoured quickly along with second helpings. After our meal, we chatted by the fire until sleep became inescapable. We each crawled into our tents respectively and battled the mosquitoes that followed, until there were none.
For me, day two of our Cajun Country cycling tour started early. I awoke, and as my vision cleared I spotted three large mosquitoes on the ceiling of my tent. I flicked one with my middle finger, and it exploded upon impact leaving a large blotch of blood on my tent. I didn’t have the energy to clean up, so the next time I take my tent out, I know that the stain will be there waiting for me. I did finally convince myself to get out of bed, get dressed, and take some photos now that the sun was out.
Scenes from the Lake Fausse Point State Park trail system
More scenes from the Lake Fausse Point State Park trail system
Our morning goal was to hit the road early. More daylight = more things we can see, so we woke up early, made some instant oatmeal, filled our water bottles, and hit the road.
Today’s plan was to continue cycling southeast to the end of Lake Fausse, bike around the southern tip, and then northwest back towards Lafayette. Unfortunately, we hit a MAJOR snag within the first five minutes. The beautiful paved, secluded road that we were on disintegrated into loose gravel. We hoped that around every turn, a new paved road would begin, but after every turn we were just crushed by the reality of nothing but gravel as far as the eye could see. Finally, I waved down two men in a large pick-up truck to ask them, “Do you know how far this road goes? When does the gravel stop?” The driver gave me a cockeyed grin and replied, “That road goes all the way to Morgan City!” What crushing news. If we turned around then we would have to return the way we came, but if we could only get past this gravel, then our return trip would be filled with new places and experiences. Jonathan and I weighed the pros and cons, and in the end, we both thought it was important to keep going as planned. And so began a very slow 15 miles of gravel road.
After two hours of gravel road, ANY road seem like smooth sailing. Even a highway filled with cane industry debris seemed delightful after that rocky nightmare. We were now heading back northeast towards Lafayette. This area along Old Spanish Trail through Jeanerette and New Iberia is one of the most dense cane areas in the state and is often referred to as the “Sugar Bowl”. We saw more of the sugar industry in the next 20 miles than at any other time on the trip.
Riding along the shoulder of a busy highway is one thing, but riding alongside sugar cane trucks is another. It was especially interesting to stop and check out the Sorrel Sugar Mill between Charenton and Jeanerette. A historical marker in front of the Sorrel Sugar Mill reads:
Site of one of the early ranches along the Old Cattle Route from Mexico to Vacherie on the Mississippi. Joseph Sorrel, in cattle business from 1750s had land claims of over 3000 acres.
Up the road some, in Jeanerette, we came across Justin’s Observatory, an amateur Cajun’s version of Palomar. Owned and operated by hobbyist Justin Lerive, this is probably the last thing one might expect to see on the side of main street in Jeanerette, and we might have missed it if not for the tiny sign out front. I fully intend to go back to Justin’s, one clear night, and take advantage of his astronomical structure.
In 1799 Spanish settlers traveled up Bayou Teche to land at an area called Spanish Lake. The Spaniards called this area “Nueva Iberia” after the Iberian Peninsula, the large European land mass comprised of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Andorra, and a small portion of France. In later years, when it came time to incorporate the town, there was some squabbling over the name. State legislature officially named the town New Iberia in 1847.
New Iberia’s Main Street is lined with beautiful antebellum homes, half-hidden by even more elegant oaks. We stopped to marvel at the oak in front of the Frederick L. Gates home. A historical marker in front of the house reads:
Former home of Frederick Larned Gates (1827-1897), outstanding citizen, businessman, lawyer and Civil War Veteran. He served as district judge in the 1870s and 1880s. As an early industrialist, Gates developed a cotton seed oil business which was one of the area’s major enterprises.
In my opinion, New Iberia was by far the most interesting town we passed through on this trip. I could easily see myself going back there in the future to properly tour some of the antebellum homes, sample eateries, and explore the area along Bayou Teche. With that said, we were both jonesing for coffee, yet couldn’t find a single cafe open on Sunday in New Iberia! To make matters worse, the entire town smelled like a rotten baby diaper. At first, we assumed that one of us had stepped in something foul at the Frederick L. Gates house. In the end, we realized that the ubiquitous stench must be the byproduct of a local mill, probably sugar cane. The combination of no coffee shops to patronize and singeing nose hairs made New Iberia overly inhospitable. We continued up the road, on our final push towards Lafayette.
The last leg of our trip was fast and furious, 20 miles from New Iberia to Lafayette. In order to get to our cars before nightfall, we had to make up some time. We biked the distance in two 10-mile legs with a break in between. As we passed through the town of Broussard (population approx 7,000) I noticed a man standing outside of a sports bar, smoking a cigarette. Realizing that the New Orleans Saints were already well into the first quarter against division rival Carolina Panthers, I yelled at him, “How are the Saints doing?” He yelled back, “Seventeen to three… We’re losing!” I couldn’t believe it, the Saints were going to lose a game. Later, in the car ride back to New Orleans, Jonathan and I listened to Saints commentators call a great comeback as the Saints rallied to defeat the Panthers 30 – 20! It was a great end to a great trip and a fitting way to transition back to city life.