Thursday, October 16, 2008

Night of the Mosquitos: Grand Isle, Louisiana 1981

In 1981 I was in school at the University of Iowa. Brock and Matt (and Mike) were my fastest friends. And we lived for the bars, books, women and new landscapes. Road trips were a great staple to our sense of adventure and discovery. So, that summer, we decided to head south.
We went to Mississippi first--Gulfport. We camped at a private campground (Gaylord's Camp or something like that), under tall trees--walnuts or something--and pines. Sure, it was hot but the hot didn't bother us. We scooted around town in Matt's car, swam in the Gulf of Mexico, hit a beachside bar named Spiders. (I went back to Spiders a few years ago--yes, it was still there--while Bill M. and I visited Mike P.. But have since learned it was blown away by Hurricane Katrina.) So, we drank us some beer, played games of pool with the locals while watching the sun descend into the calm Gulf waters through the bar's windows. We got to know a small group, one guy and two girls, and they invited us to do a little hopping in the night. And we went to a couple of odd bars back in the woods, then to a big place called the White House in Biloxi. This was before the casinos and it was really just a glorified disco. We had our drunken fun, then went back to crash in our tent. Then, sun up, we headed for New Orleans.
Being from Iowa (essentially, though I'd lived in three states before Iowa, Brock was from Seattle, Matt an Iowa Boy from Sioux City) and being young, driving through new places, new states and "cultures"--even within the confines of the USofA--was a pleasing internal adventure all its own. The slow rivers and stagnant bayous, cotton fields, kudzu-covered trees and fences, the snakes, gators, buzzards, the sleepy dilapidation and drawl-talking folks all interested us greatly. And the city of New Orleans was like a foreign world to us. Yes, it was Bourbon Street Viuex Carre French Quarter tourist land, but that mattered little to us as we hit the bars and restaurants, talked to people, listened to music, gawked at the veranda and wrought iron balconied buildings, the tawdry strip clubs, painters in the street, mimes and such, Jackson Square and Jax Beer and the Mighty Mississippi, banana plants and magnolias and stunted palms and moss-laden live oaks, the seedy neon old-world hustle-bustle tourist trappiness of it all. It was wild and strange fun, even if we did nothing particularly wild or strange. And as the night wore thin and our drunkenness became greater, we realized we did not have a place to stay for the night.
We stumbled the streets, considered a few hotels. But we were cheap bastards (even if we had had the cash, I doubt we'd of shelled out more than $20 bucks for a room if we could find one that cheap). But we were car people, nomads, drivers of America's highways (and campers), so we tromped back to Canal Street where we'd parked the car and--despite our inebriation--decided to drive away.
It wasn't really a problem. We found our way to I-10 and headed west. We got about halfway to Baton Rouge before we called it quits, before our drunken splendor turned into asleep at the wheel. Pulled into a rest area and slept in the car. Actually, at one point, I got out of the car and slept in the parking lot, using the curb as a pillow. I don't know if anyone saw me, but they must have, because it was daylight when I woke up in the parking space.
Unbowed, we headed south again, this time taking the small roads, headed for the Gulf again and a small town called--and island--called Grand Isle.
The drive down was amazing: a reel of flatflat land and drooping trees, plantation homes with those mossy oaks like toppled Ferris Wheels, sad little towns under the baking sun, Donaldsonville, Houma, Raceland, Cut Off, Leeville, mosquito-riven canals with traps and detritus and big paint-peeling shrimp boats, the highway getting skinnier and skinnier under a relentless sun and soupy humidity. Yes, it was summer down in the delta land of Louisiana and we were going to camp on the beach.
Grand Isle itself was shuttered and asleep, vacation homes boarded up against heavy humid light and torpor, everything standing still and slow of breath, hanging on in the oppressive impossible heat. Yes, a few places were open, but the streets were peopleless and animal-less. We found the campsite. It was right on the placid grey water. There were a few others there, all in motor homes with air-conditioning. We were the only tent campers. Yes it was hot as hell, dry and humid at the same time. No breeze. But we swam, showered to escape the heat and sweat. We went back into town and entered some weird little bar--black and sealed tight against the day, coldly cold air-conditioned. We had a few drinks, then went back to the beach and ate cold chili out of cans. Drank all the fluids we could get our hands on. But it was not enough. We were running out of dollars and spent them at the vending machine by the showers, but no matter how many cans of soda we bought it was not enough. Two days of drinking--maybe three--and the deep south Louisiana heat were drying us out. The sand was full of ghost crabs, too. Little whitish creatures that scuttled everywhere under our feet. There was no shade to be had on the beach, where our three-man tent sat wilting and broiling.
Dusk came. A man from a motor home talked to me, asked about us camping. He said that the mosquitos would eat us up. "Them's red-eye mosquitos. They'll come out of that brush," and he pointed to the sea oats and weeds, "and bite the devil out of you." I didn't quite believe him. But, as dusk fell into night, they came.
We'd never seen such bugs. They were small, they were a million if they were a one. Maybe a billion. And they were relentless. They clouded and buzzed and attacked without guile. We swatted and smeared and killed them by the dozens, the hundreds, thousands, but there were always more. We ran to the showers and they followed us, even attacked while the water streamed upon my parched, baked burnt tired body. Kamikaze mosquitos. We ran back to the tent and got inside. It was an oven. And the mosquitos had followed us inside. We killed as many as we could, but there were more. There was no breeze. No rain. No air. The tent--cramped world of canvas--had to have everything zipped tight because the bugs were still after us, could slither through the tiniest of openings and even the tattered screens. It was miserable crazy insane and we were seared, burnt and dead tired.
We headed for the car. Killed the mosquitos that followed us inside. The car was an oven too, but we slept a little. Woke up and ran the air-conditioning, but we couldn't just leave it running. We slept some more, but it was impossible. Too hot, cramped, too infested. Couldn't take it. So, I bolted from the car. Grabbed a towel. I paced the beach swinging the towel around me to keep the carnivore-bugs at bay. It worked. Of course, I couldn't sleep. I was still hot, sweaty, hungry, thirsty and bone-tired, but the damn mosquitos couldn't get me. They didn't stop trying, but they couldn't quite make it past my flailing towel. Matt and Brock soon joined me.
We walked, towels swinging, until daylight. Eventually the mosquitos retreated back into the weeds and we retreated from Grand Isle.
We packed up, got in the car, and left town. We drove all the way back to Iowa City in one shot.

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