We have a home and hearts that know no strangers. Currently six dogs, three cats, chickens. We have a futon and two air mattresses and can push furniture around to make a lot more floor room. We are not fancy here, pretty simple living in a very rural section of Highway 82 between Abbeville and Cameron. Smokers and drinkers.
When I read that warmshowers profile, I changed my route. I stuck tight to the Louisiana coast in order to meet Juanita Campbell. Anyone who wraps up a profile aimed at cyclists with the phrase, ‘smokers and drinkers’ is worth pedaling a few extra miles for.
Juanita greets you by clasping both hands. She looks into your eyes and says, “Welcome to my home. Be at home here. Stay as long as you like.” She directed me to put my bike in the shed and introduced a few dogs. Inside, she stuck a cold beer in my hand and outlined house rules. “I prepare the first meal, after that, graze on your own. There’s plenty of food. Don’t leave one spoonful in a container, finish it up and add it to the shopping list here on the refrigerator.” She showed me my futon, the bathroom, the Louisiana map on the kitchen wall, and the atlas for route planning. “I love maps. Can’t stand fiddling with them on the Internet. Give me latitude lines.”
Before I’m quite settled we’re out feeding the herd: dogs have free reign anywhere, but cats are not allowed indoors, “because they won’t stay off the counters.” There are fifteen egg laying chickens – “I get six or seven eggs a day” – a pair of new chicks, a half dozen larger chicks, a dozen meat chickens and a bunch of ducks. “I haven’t figured out what to do with the ducks yet.” Juanita has no children but there’s a husband over in Cameron who runs the supply point for Halliburton, where the multinational assembles everything from pipefittings to ketchup for transport to off shore rigs.
Juanita grew up in northern California, but her mother was born here. “We didn’t get electricity until 1958. Highway 82 was a ridge in the marsh; you could traverse it by land in low tide. Otherwise, people travelled by boat. The ponds along the south side of the highway were made from the excavation to build up the road.”
After Juanita’s mother left her several parcels, Juanita returned to Pecan Island, bought a house in Abbeville for $9,000 and moved it to the 9-1/2 acre parcel along Hwy 82 where she lives with her herd in the shade of ancient oaks. “I’ve lived here long enough to forget that the world works different north of I-10.”
The whole group evacuated during Hurricane Rita, returned afterward, lived in a tent for five months, stripped the flood-damaged house to its bones, and added a sizable addition. “We don’t put our folks in nursing homes. I want my husband’s parents to come here when they need.” Between the expanded house and the trailer on the property, Juanita envisions, “a community of old farts. A place where we remind each other to take our pills.”
Hurricane Rita changed Pecan Island, and from Juanita’s perspective not for the better. “Everybody came back, but not everybody stayed.” The School Board closed the local school. Juanita believes it had more to do with oil royalties than education. “We had 600 families before the storm; we have about 200 now. What few children there are have to travel twenty miles to school.”
While Pecan Island is not a place for families anymore, it’s become a place for ‘camps,’ vacation houses on eighteen-foot stilts that sit empty most of the year. “Its a rich man’s paradise built in a poor man’s field. They build a million dollar camp and come a few times a year to shoot duck. By the time you add in all the permits, ammo, and boats involved, each dead duck costs about three hundred dollars.” Juanita was offered $250,000 cash for her parcel, but she’s not selling.
Juanita is simultaneously earth mother and political siren. When she gave me a hug goodnight she commended me to rest in ease and grace. She rose in the morning with a lilt in her voice exclaiming the new day. But she also railed against the extraction economy that permeates the Louisiana coast and decried the swaths of dead oaks where dredging allowed salt water to seep into fresh water zones.
Her approach to ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ was similarly bifocal. Like many people, Juanita instantly shifted the ‘we’ to ‘I’. She wanted it to be more projective, for the very reason that I don’t state it that way. Yet, as our conversation wore on, she came back to the question again and again, each time with deeper, more inclusive views.
I rose the next morning, helped with a chore, and left by 9 a.m. as planned. Juanita was surprised by my diligence. “Most people don’t get going until at least noon; one cyclist stayed here four months.” However bewitching the bayous, Louisiana can’t alter six decades of this Yankee’s habits. Perhaps some day I will return and follow Juanita’s parting advice: “Leave slowly, come back quick.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I think you should ask, what are your intentions? That allows me to project what I want. What’s the point of this question? I can see lots of bar fights coming out of it.
“There, I answered your question. Life will be quiet, loud, fast, slow. Is that what you want?”
“Your question, maybe its about the environment. What are we doing, taking all this from the earth for the fat cats?”
“I’m still thinking about your question. We have more than we need, more than we want, and more than we can do without. Maybe we’ll learn that better tomorrow.”