Of The Water
Finding myself drawn to a lake while driving the Great River Road in Louisiana was only one of many strange happenings…
About an hour past Baton Rouge, the interstate turned into a large trestle bridge with choppy, grey water stretching out endlessly to each side. Mist hovered in patches, giving the broken pilings of former bridges an eerie menace. Strangely, I found myself wanting to wade into this vast emptiness and simply let myself float.
My only prior knowledge of this place was hearing it mentioned in relation to flooding caused by hurricanes, and listening to Ludo’s song “Lake Pontchartrain” as a high schooler.
I felt as though I were crossing a drowned wasteland, yet I was instantly in love with the haunting beauty of this endless expanse of water known as Lake Pontchartrain.
As I left the causeway and continued into New Orleans, I became agitated. Layla sat up in the seat next to me and placed a paw on my knee as I drove, sensing my distress.
None of the riverfront parks I had looked up ahead of time had space for parking, and the one that did had been shut down for an upcoming festival. The longer I drove around, becoming increasingly stressed by the lack of accessibility and heavy traffic, the stronger the pull of the lake seemed to become.
Deciding to give New Orleans a try at a later point, I left the city and drove northward along the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain. I had no idea where I was going, but I felt the tension drain from my body. This was the right direction for the moment.
Finding what appeared to be a public shoreline on a map at a gas station, I continued on. It was taking much longer to get there than anticipated, but the constant, oddly comforting presence of the lake to my left kept me going. I was determined to wade along the shore of this lake whether it would make me late in reaching the gulf tonight or not.
Entering Big Branch Marsh on the northern edge of the lake, I was confused by the increasing fog— but as Layla sat up and growled in alarm, I noticed a distinct smell, and realized it was smoke. Soon, I found my way blocked by a fire truck. The emergency workers waved me on around the truck and told me they had things under control — but the trees and undergrowth to my right were burning and smoldering for the next two miles. I began to question this detour. The fact that this was taking much longer than the map had shown only added to the feeling that maybe this was the wrong decision.
Breaking free of the thick trees, I turned onto a long, gravel road heading through several miles of open marshland directly for the lake. The only people for miles around appeared to be a family that was fishing. They watched warily as I drove by, and only the grandmother, holding her fishing pole from a wheelchair parked precariously on the edge of a one-lane bridge, nodded and smiled slightly as I passed.
The marsh seemed to melt away as the gravel road ended abruptly at the rocky edge of the lake. I parked and climbed out of the car to explore this small bit of shoreline with Layla.
Jagged pilings rose up from the water, proof that men had once built bridges and docks here before the lake claimed them as her own. The only human-made item still recognizable was an angel statuette that was growing a mossy beard, perched on a crumbling rock.
I was mesmerized by the lake. Despite the fact that I could hear the fishing family packing their truck about half a mile behind me, I felt as though Layla and I were utterly alone. I slipped off my shoes and socks and waded cautiously into the cool water. Layla stayed on the shore, keeping me tethered by planting her paws and refusing to walk closer, tilting her head curiously every time a wave splashed against the rocks surrounding her.
I heard the family’s truck travel slowly along the gravel road before turning onto the pavement miles away, and then Layla and I were truly alone — or so I thought.
As I climbed back up the rocks and began fiddling with my tripod so that I could film the waves while continuing to explore, Layla and I were both startled to hear a man’s voice. Turning around, I saw a small, white pick up truck, gone tan from dust and rust. An old man wearing a weathered grey baseball cap climbed down from the cab and approached me slowly, his eyes wide as if he were staring at a ghost.
I was sure my own eyes were just as wide. I should have heard him approach — there had been no cars around except for the family that had packed up their fishing equipment and left, and I had been able to hear their truck until they left the road that came through the marsh. There was no dust in the air to show that he was a recent arrival. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I quickly collapsed my tripod and held it tightly, prepared to use it as a club if necessary.
He halted a good distance away, looking nervously at Layla, then the back end of my car, then back to me. Addressing my bare feet, now muddy from the lake, he asked,
“Are you actually from Tennessee, or are you of the lake?”
He was just as startled by my presence as I was by his! Vague memories of strange legends surrounding people lost to Lake Pontchatrain filled my mind, and I smiled hesitantly. I told him that I had never been here before and had indeed been living in Tennessee for some time.
He seemed relieved, and walked closer, smiling crookedly. The old man said, “I come down here a lot just to look at the lake. I’m a little scared of dogs,” and very quickly patted Layla on the head before walking to my other side. He then began telling me that he was originally from Tennessee, and began to tell me all about his family that was still there, to the northwest of Nashville. We talked a bit about the state and some of the areas we both knew. I was beginning to relax and enjoy the old man’s company.
“I keep meaning to go back and visit, but…” his voice trailed off, his expression seeming a bit lost.
I asked why not, if his old truck wouldn’t make it that far, and he shook his head, saying, “Every time I try… I can’t leave. This place is beautiful. It holds me.”
Chills ran down my spine, and I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he gazed longingly at the lake. He suddenly whipped his head towards me and stared intensely, searching my face. His voice was pitched much lower as he said,
“You may not be of the lake, but you are of the water.”
Then he abruptly turned around, climbed back into his truck, and drove away. The engine rumbled gently, and dust floated around the truck in a cloud. I watched him go, as strangely quiet and sudden as he had arrived. The hair on the back of my neck prickled as his words echoed through my head.
As much as I love small town legends and myths, I’m fairly skeptical of them, so the striking energy and strange happenings I’d experienced so far in Louisiana were fairly unsettling. This entire road trip, like my entire life, I had been drawn to the water, but not felt the pull quite so strongly as I had here with Lake Pontchartrain. Had this strange old man really picked up on that somehow, or was he just trying to frighten the tourist away from his spot? The fact that he had been so friendly and eager to talk for the majority of our encounter told me the latter option was just a small part of me hoping to disprove the first.
The unease stirred up by the appearance of the old man faded away with the last bits of dust, and I began to relax, explore, and take photos again. I found myself thinking I should just camp here for the night — but a text from a friend asking how the trip was going, reminded me of my time constraints and the fact that I really wanted to see the sunset from the southern-most point of the Mississippi River tonight.
I took one last long look at the hauntingly beautiful lake, then shook myself and let Layla drag me back to the car. Slowly, I drove back down that long gravel road, windows down to let the warm breeze in, staring at the waves in my rearview mirror more often than the empty road ahead.
The strong pull of Lake Pontchartrain didn’t fade until I was south of New Orleans, driving straight towards the end of the world. ❤
As of this post, the countdown to the release of my debut book has officially begun — only 5 months left to go. We’ve got four more sneak peeks coming your way before then, so stay tuned!
For more stories from my road trip of the Great River Road,
be sure to click the “The Great Meander” tab on the
Meridian Creators page for more excerpts from my upcoming travel memoir,
THE GREAT MEANDER, available January 1st, 2020!
❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤