Although Lafayette lies about 50 miles west of my hometown of Baton Rouge, I'd never spent any time there until last weekend.
The "hub city" of Acadiana, Lafayette surged during the domestic oil and natural gas resurgence of the early Obama years. The offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico is the major economic catalyst. The plunge in oil prices the last few years cooled the boom, but the city still feels prosperous.
Like the rest of southern Louisiana, Lafayette worships the automobile. Heavy traffic clogs its multi-laned main roads throughout the day, and the city sprawls with shopping centers filled with the same suburban national retailers found in other cities. As Louisiana loses miles of coastline each year, climate change receives little notice.
Downtown Lafayette, home to a nice planetarium and science museum and some interesting historic buildings along with a couple of generic half-skycrapers, had little foot traffic even on a pleasant Saturday morning. The owner of an eclectic clothing/arts/knicknack store said that an annual international music festival in April brings huge crowds that pack downtown's streets.
I loved the French-inflected accents, which persist among younger people. Other traditions hang on. On Friday night, we ate at Chris' Po-Boys behind our hotel, and Lenten seafood gumbo was a hot seller, especially at the drive-in window.
We attended a wedding at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette's Hilliard Arts Museum. The reception took place in the courtyard of a neo-antebellum building built in 1967 by noted Louisiana architect A. Hays Town, a Lafayette native.
Inspired by the 1812 Hermitage Plantation in Darrow, La., the building is surrounded by 24 Doric columns. On the other side of the courtyard, the museum's collection is housed in a modern glass-enclosed building, making for a striking juxtaposition of past and present.
The next day, we traveled back to Baton Rouge on the frequently clogged I-10, which passes over the Atchafalaya Swamp. The swamp was drying up when I used to go fishing there with my father 40 years ago, and it appeared from the interstate bridge that large sections of the swamp have been lost, thanks to Army Corps of Engineers machinations that keep the Mississippi River flowing to Baton Rouge and New Orleans (see John McPhee's book on the matter).
In Baton Rouge, we stayed at a house across the street from the ranch home in which I grew up. I revisited childhood memories with walks around the old subdivision.
I was glad to discover that the city had built a walking/bicycle path along Dawson Creek, an abused waterway when I was a kid. Folks tossed tires and other junk into the creek, and its erosion-cracked banks lacked vegetation. I used to go down to a creosote-covered bridge over the creek to shoot lizards with my BB gun. The lizards lay stunned for a few seconds, and then leaped up.
Now, the old bridge has been replaced with one of steel and concrete, and the walking trail passes beside it. The creek's banks have been restored and now glisten with wildflowers. The creek's water looks healthy.
We stopped on the bridge to look at huge turtles cavorting in the creek and schools of small fish barely visible beneath the water's surface. Walking beside the creek, we saw two snakes cruising down the middle of the water. The wildlife had come out early; spring was still a day away, and the temperature was rising toward 80.
Baton Rouge always shows up on those national lists as one of the worst cities for doing business. That might be so, but I'm always surprised at how vibrant the city is, at least the prosperous south side where I grew up.
The city always has interesting new stores, bars and restaurants, and streets that were half-rural in my childhood now bustle with offices, gyms, shopping centers and doctor's buildings. Of course, a lot of the city's economy is off the books, with crawfish, local crafts and so forth. The city has a few high-tech Internet based businesses, but I doubt it'll ever be recognized as Silicon Valley South.
Despite the national reputation, the old Red Stick seems to do pretty well with its local-based economy. The traffic is horrific, though. Each day, the traffic stalls headed to the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi.
Traveling home to Atlanta through Jeff Sessions' Alabama - the welcome centers are great along I-65 from Mobile to Montgomery, and the state boasts of its golf trail - we stopped in Georgiana, birthplace of Hank Williams. Years ago, we'd visited the Hank Williams museum in Georgiana, and as I recalled the weekend trip to southern Louisiana, I thought of Hank's "Jambalaya."
After filling up our car, we decided to eat lunch at a small walk-up barbecue stand perched right beside the gasoline convenience store.
Sitting on a wooden picnic bench in the soft sunshine of the first day of spring, watching local truckers, lawmen, housewives and pipeline workers drive up for their barbecue, life felt pretty good.