Walking With Alligators Outside New Orleans [Part 1]

     One afternoon while sitting in a bar in the French Quarter -nursing an Abita Amber- I over-heard a snippet of a conversation that went like this: “…and you can walk through the swamps with the alligators.”
     Which was exactly what I had been looking for.
     Who says you can’t find everything in a New Orleans bar?

     In the past few years, the first thought that comes to mind when New Orleans is mentioned is Hurricane Katrina and the devastation.
     This story is not about that; it’s about swamps, alligators and solitude.
     I lived in New Orleans for a year and a half in 1997-98, and the city didn’t agree with me; money was impossible to find, and I made no lasting friends. Now before all those people out there jump to New Orleans’s rescue, I’m not trying to insult the city; she and I just didn’t get along, it happens sometimes.
     But jump nine years later, and it’s 2006 and I’m returning to the city with my girlfriend Cameron, who lived in New Orleans in 2004/05 and loved it.
     The first thing we did was wander about the city, looking at the rich areas that looked like nothing happened, and the poor areas that were still abandoned. Cameron introduced me to her friends and I saw parts of New Orleans I had never seen.
     And so I finally understood, at least a little, why people love this city.
     So in the attempt of fairness, I took Cameron to the one place that kept me sane while I lived in New Orleans, my local swamp.

     I am, as my friends know, am natural introvert, and when things don’t work out exactly as planned, I need a place to disappear, and recharge.
     I needed a lot of time to disappear and recharge when I lived in New Orleans.
     And the place I found was the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, just 10 miles –as the crow flies- south of the French Quarter.
     When I arrived in New Orleans in 1997, from the deserts of Southern California, I wanted to visit the swamps, I wanted to see alligators, I wanted to know what a swamp felt like.
     There was a vision in my head of sitting quietly in the swamp, maybe like Kermit the Frog and his banjo, of somehow trying to understand the landscape. What I didn’t want to do was go on a boat tour with a bunch of tourists and a man with a microphone.
     All I found were boat tours with a man with a microphone.
     After a month or two of searching I gave up, and put my thoughts of visiting the swamps to the back of my mind.
     Until one afternoon at Molly’s at the Market.
     Johnny Cash played through the jukebox as I sat on a stool pondering what I was going to do for the evening, when I overheard a man mention walking through a swamp.
     I –politely- interrupted their conversation, explained what I had overheard, and asked where it was possible to walk through swamps. He said there was a national park, just south of the city, with wooden walkways through the swamps.
     The next day I visited my local library -with my bar napkin with vague directions- and found a book on national parks, (remember the days before the internet?) and planned my trip.
     On my first journey to Jean Lafitte I stopped at the visitor center and talked to one of the rangers, who sent me down the Coquille trail, where I saw dragonflies, spiders, turtles, lizards, an alligator, felt the calm and solitude, and fell in love.

Coquille Trail

     The park is a swamp, but a swamp that has the hand of man imprinted on it. This is an area with oil and natural gas, so from the turn of the last century, to the 1950’s it was drilled for oil and gas and logged for cypress wood. The swamp is crisscrossed with ruler straight canals that were once used to transport the men and machinery, now they make great walking and paddling paths.
     There is a road that runs through the center of the park, it has the ranger station on it, and small parking lots sitting at odd intervals, which are the beginning of the different walking trails. There are many different trails, with different habitats, like a dry forest walk, or a dark circular walk through swamp forest.
     On my many journeys to the park, I walked each trail, but returned again and again to my first and favorite, the Coquille Trail. It begins in dry forest, cuts through wet swamp, follows the edge of twenty foot wide canals, and ends up over-looking what I thought was the largest field I had ever seen.
     And it has the greatest chance of seeing an alligator.

     When Cameron and I walked along the Coquille Trail in the July heat of 2006, there were crickets all over the place. Huge black crickets. I had never seen black crickets before, and I had never seen crickets this large before. They brought to mind a bad 1950’s sci-fi movie when a nuclear blast makes them slowly grow to eating people size.
     They hadn’t grown that big yet, but were about the size of a D battery, and strangely didn’t move out of our way when we walked along the pathway. There were also a significant number of squashed crickets on the path. As we strolled along in our boots, they didn’t jump out of our way, they only twitched when we stamped the ground next to them. There is only one thing that will completely kill something’s desire to stay alive, and that is sex.
     The impulse to mate: that wonderful moment when nothing matters, not health, not disease, not the future. The only thought is to get it on.
     I wondered if these things died after intercourse and so didn’t care any more, or had just released their young and were no longer useful. But no matter, their lethargy made it easy to take their picture.

Giant black crickets on the Coquille Trail, at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.

Cameron’s boot attempting to scare away one of the giant black crickets on the Coquille Trail, at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.

Jean Lafitte

     When I first visited the swamp, I thought the swamp was called Jean Lafitte, and I was both right and wrong. The Jean Lafitte Park is actually five different parks scatted about New Orleans, and includes the site of the Battle of New Orleans, a French Quarter Visitor Center and my swamp, called The Barataria Preserve.
     This National Park is named after Jean Lafitte (1776-1823). He has been known, over different periods of time, as a pirate, a smuggler, a society man, a war hero and a privateer.
     He was a pirate in the Caribbean, but he was also known as a privateer. A privateer is a strange thing, it is basically a pirate, because they roam the oceans boarding and robbing ships, but they are official pirates, because they are hired by governments, to rob and plunder ships that government is currently at war with.
     But it seems Lafitte made most of his money as a smuggler. First under the French, then –after 1803- under the United States when New Orleans became a U.S. territory with the Louisiana Purchase.
     The new U.S. government found that Jean Lafitte was bypassing its customs houses, and therefore avoided paying the taxes that every government feels the must collect. They eventually send a flotilla of ships and attacked and destroyed Lafitte’s base of operations in the swamps.
     Many of his men, including Lafitte’s brother, were thrown in jail and his goods confiscated. Which was when Andrew Jackson comes into the story. He was in New Orleans to repel an imminent British attack on the city during the war of 1812.
     Jackson realized that he didn’t have enough men to repel an attack, so he made a deal with Lafitte. He and his men would fight on the side of the U.S. and they would receive pardons for their crimes.
     They took the deal and by all accounts fought bravely. It is said that if Lafitte and his men were not there, Jackson would not have repelled the British.
     Jackson got the square in the center of the French Quarter named after him, Lafitte a National Park.

Click here to visit the second part of this story:
Walking With Alligators Outside New Orleans [Part 2]

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