Bidding us adieu at the doorway of Café Des Amis on the Friday before Christmas, Mary Lynn was emphatic. “Remember,” she said, “you’re going to have to rise and shine if you want to get a table for tomorrow’s Zydeco breakfast.”
No innkeeper could be more attentive, more determined than Mary Lynn to help her guests savor their experience in her world, but her words evoked memories even sweeter than the Gâteau de Sirop we enjoyed our first night in Breaux Bridge. “Rise and shine!” my mother would say, drawing back the morning curtains. “Rise and shine!” my dad would echo, coaxing me into the day, tempting me with the promise of adventure.
Cheerful and comfortable, “rise and shine” became a childhood staple, an assurance that the challenges, trials and delights of the day ahead would be well worth the effort of throwing back the covers. With passing years, the phrase took on added weight, becoming a cautionary reminder that just getting up isn’t enough. It’s not enough to plod into the day, slogging through it as though life itself is a burden and an imposition. Being called to get up is one thing. Being willing to shine is another.
Back at Bayou Teche, our bed-and-breakfast home, another memory began to stir. “Rise and shine” had been a common expression in my childhood home, but it also served as the hallmark signature of a blogger I’ve never met, an Atchafalaya River basin-dweller named Jim Delahoussaye, whose writings during last spring’s floods were straightforward and compelling. As far back as 2005 he was ending each blog entry with the phrase, “Rise and shine”. I liked it, finding that, and much else about his blog, appealing. Now that we were in his neighborhood, a visit seemed in order.
“You know,” I said to Carolyn, “they have the Zydeco breakfast every Saturday. There’s no reason we couldn’t come back on another weekend…” “Well,” she said, “A big breakfast certainly isn’t at the top of my list after that dinner. Got another idea?” Peering at the map, I considered, finally giving voice to my impulse. “Since we’re heading that direction anyway, I think I’d like to go down to Butte La Rose and find the bridge.” “What bridge?” “The throwback,” I said. “The weird one. The pontoon bridge that looks like a cross between a Steampunk fantasy and an outlandlish Rube Goldberg project.”
Not blinking an eye, the best traveling companion in the world said, “I’m in. What’ll we do for breakfast?”
Breakfast turned out to be dark, rich coffee and fresh-from-the-oven French bread from T-Sue’s bakery on the Henderson Highway, just east of Breaux Bridge proper. Like bread produced by LeJeune’s in Jeanerette or Poupart’s in Lafayette, it was crusty yet tender, hot and just slightly yeasty, delicious even without butter or jam. Like a levee road, the loaves were straight and simple, although, as we traveled toward Butte La Rose, it was impossible not to consider the sad consequences for both of too much moisture.
On May 23, 2011, as the Mississippi River crest worked its way southward and backwater flooding had become an immediate concern for the entire Atchafalaya basin, a mandatory evacuation order was posted for Butte LaRose, an off-the-beaten-track community tucked into the basin. The formal notices were terse: “Back water flooding is beginning to approach some structures in the Butte Larose area. Therefore, the mandatory evacuation order will be reinstated in the Butte Larose area on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 12:00 p.m. Entry into the area will be prohibited and [the order] will be strictly enforced…”
The week the decision was made to flood the Atchafalaya basin in order to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans, I wrote:
So. The engineers have calculated, the scientists have pondered, the advisors have advised and the decision-makers have decided. The Bird’s Point levee has been blown apart, the river is being allowed to run free through the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Morganza Spillway gates are being raised, one by one.
I have no real quarrel with any of this. I’ve followed the decision-making process as best I can, and I understand the rationale. But like so many who claim even the slightest connection to the Atchafalaya, to Cajun country and to the area’s warm, friendly and often downright quirky people, I was immensely saddened to see the waters begin to pour into the Atchafalaya Basin, scattering wildlife and sending its people fleeing to higher ground.
If I’m cheered at all, it’s by the knowledge that a goodly portion of the folks in Louisiana are what my grandfather used to call “britches hitchers”. Faced with a challenge, with adversity or grief, they “hitch up their britches” and get on with it.
Jim Delahoussaye, a resident of Butte La Rose, recently mentioned a friend, a catfisherman who’d pulled a rib trying to run lines that were too tight. “You can’t always fight,” said Jim, reflecting on his friend’s experience. There comes a time when it’s “best to let it go, and start over when this statement by the river has been made.”
In the end, the river’s statement was less than apocalyptic. There was flooding, and there were damaged structures. There was mud to be cleaned away, and creatures of every sort to be returned to their natural habitat. Still, as Delahoussaye wrote on June 2, it could have been worse.
Some houses got flooded, to be sure, but those are mostly on an elevation not much different from the forest floor. The river bank didn’t flood. At 29 feet it would have gone over the bank for the first time in recorded history, I believe, but not at 23.5 feet. Perhaps some places on the river got flooded in 1973 when the crest was 27 feet, but not many. Basically… Butte La Rose was not seriously impacted by the high water of 2011.
Other consequences resulted less from actual flooding than from sustained fear and anxiety. In his entry of June 7, Delahoussaye says,
We had a near-miss, not a full blown catastrophe, but some people are leaving the community forever because of an emotional response to the threat. One family has been here for 37 years, and they are now looking for a house to buy elsewhere, where the water cannot come.
Driving toward the levee on a quiet road lined with houses of every sort (camps, as they are called), it was hard to imagine anyone leaving Butte La Rose. We remarked especially on the yard signs, as creative and quirky as their owners. Some are humorous, sporting such slogans as Dad’s Pad When Mom’s Mad. Others have a certain elegance (Bayou de Betsy) while still others appear to declare their owners’ intention to live out their days far from the madding crowd, whatever the river may bring.
Finally, as we neared the end of the camp-lined road, the bridge for which we were searching appeared. With the river in full flood, it had been taken apart and secured in order to prevent damage. Now, with the waters receded, it had been reassembled in all its rusted glory, becoming once again a sturdy, dependable and just vaguely humorous link to the outside world.
Creaking across the bridge I’d christened Le Pont Steampunque, we came to the top of the levee. From that vantage point, the world appeared orderly and secure. Once again banked and slow-moving, the Atchafalaya slouched its way toward the Gulf. A pair of hunters crossing the old bridge in their truck waved, and turned southward along the levee road that would take them to Catahoula. Near the edge of the bayou, a man in no particular hurry stopped to speak to the dog trailing him, doling out an absent-minded scratch behind the dog’s ears as a single poule d’eau watched from the water’s edge.
Later, at the convenience store on the Atchafalaya Highway, the couple behind the counter had few customers and time to talk: about the water, about the flood of attention that innundated their town, about the blessedness of ordinary days. Rise and shine, I thought, listening to them. Rise and shine. The river will have its day, but for now it’s enough to rejoice in the river’s fall, delight in the rising sun and let the sweet glow of gratitude shine in your eyes, you who escaped to tell the tale.
But there was no time to linger. It was Christmas eve, with miles to go.
And we still hadn’t gotten to the bonfires…