Last month, my husband and I had the good fortune to travel down to Louisiana for a week of Mardis Gras festivities, a holiday that many northerners associate with episodes of MTV Spring Break or Girls Gone Wild. In reality, Mardis Gras is a family-friendly event, celebrated across the state in cities and towns large and small – so much so, that they close down schools for the entire week so that everyone can partake in the fun.
We stayed in Lafayette, where we were visiting a friend’s sister, and joined an entourage of other Yankees she had invited down for the week. We attended parades for five days straight, collecting so many beads we would have needed an extra suitcase just to bring them all home. We woke up at 6:15am on a Saturday morning to travel to Fred’s Lounge in the tiny town of Mamou, where there was a line out the door at 8am with people gathered to hear the world’s best Cajun music. We rambled through the streets of New Orleans with thousands of other revelers from around the world, pausing to eat beignets covered in powdered sugar and raw oysters on the half shell as big as my hands. On Fat Tuesday itself, we visited another small town named Eunice, where there were more horses than floats in the parade and people in colorful costumes danced with chickens in their arms during the street dance later that night. The band sang entirely in French.
There are many obvious differences between Minnesota and Louisiana. We say “ya der hey.” They say “y’all.” We eat walleye, they dine on copious amounts of crawfish. While standing on the Main Street in tiny Eunice waiting for the parade to start, however, I couldn’t help but think that it was an awful lot like a 4th of July Parade in Afton, Marine, or many other small towns in Minnesota. There were families pulling children in wagons, teenagers goofing off and drinking too much soda in the parking lot across the street, and grandparents resting in lawn chairs while the youngsters rushed to catch beads.
While in Louisiana, I thought too about the Mississippi River and how it connects us to other communities in our watershed. The same river that begins at Lake Itasca, in the cool, green northwoods, flows through the sweltering city of New Orleans, into the bayou and the ocean. Though many Minnesotans identify with their German and Scandinavian ancestors, there are French roots here as well. Fur traders ventured down from Canada using arteries of rivers and lakes for travel. Cajuns in Louisiana are descended from French-speaking people who were exiled from Canada in the mid-1700’s. They reached Louisiana by sea, sailing from Nova Scotia and ending, somewhat ironically, at the bottom of the same river French trappers and traders were exploring up here.
Like Minnesota, Louisiana’s economy is also tied integrally to the health of its waterways. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, anglers in Minnesota spend $1.8 billion per year on fishing related recreation. The Louisiana Seafood Board reports that its seafood industry generates $2.4 billion annually and provides one out of every 70 jobs in that state. Even while driving inland, we passed acres and acres of soggy fields in southern Louisiana where farmers simultaneously grow crawfish and rice. Like Minnesotans, many families in Louisiana have cultural traditions in hunting as well. In fact, we saw more people wearing camouflage than costumes when we visited Eunice for Mardi Gras. Vast wetlands protect inland areas of Louisiana from the effects of hurricanes, much like wetlands here in Minnesota protect cities from the impacts of river flooding. Where these wetlands have been decimated, floods have hit communities in both states hard.
Rivers and seas often form political boundaries between countries and states, but I prefer to think of the Mississippi River as a ribbon that connects us with people and communities from here to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes you travel far away from home only to realize that it’s not quite so different after all.