Natchitoches, LA

Today we made our way out of The Big Easy, on I-10, heading through northwest Louisiana to Texas (where, we hear, EVERYthing is big). Through this part of Louisiana, I-10 runs a nearly straight path through a very large wetland area. We traveled for miles on a level elevated causeway about 20 feet, or so, above the water. With sparse Sunday traffic, it made for an easy drive.

We picked Natchitoches, LA (pronounced Nag-a-dish, or sometimes, Nak-a-tush) on I-49 for a one-night stopover about halfway to Ben Wheeler, Texas where we’ll be meeting our friend Sherry, who we haven’t seen for over 30 years.

Nakatosh RV Campground was advertised as being close to the highway, easy-on-easy-off and was cheap, with full-hook-ups, cable TV, and WiFi for $17. Upon arrival we found all that was true in addition to a special, unadvertised, feature– it was just behind a very busy truck stop with all-night comings and goings. It was full of big rigs, farting their airbrakes and idling out diesel exhaust to maintain their air-conditioning or refrigeration. Beyond them were tall, bright signs for BurgerKing, Chevron, and Exxon. No paved pads or picnic tables, and no one in the office. “Pick a spot, I’ll see you in the morning.” The sign said.

Next day we drove into Natchitoches to see what was there and much to our surprise, found a charming historic district on the Cane River Lake. It’s called that because it had once been part of the Red River, but in the late 1800s a massive natural log jam or ‘raft’ had caused the Red river to move five miles to the east, leaving a 32 mile stretch stranded forming a very long, very narrow lake. Now it’s a delightful waterway that the town has used to great scenic and recreational advantage. Like Cooperstown, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places including the oldest operating general store in Louisiana. Front Street is the main street and one part is under reconstruction, including the removal and replacing of the original redbrick paving.

Natchitoches had been in economic decline when the movie crew shooting, ‘Steel Magnolias’ moved into town. The success of the movie has brought the Magnolia theme and tourists to the town ever since. There’s even a metal distributor called Magnolia Steel! Next year, the town plans to re-enact the movie’s Easter-egg Hunt and the blackbird shoot on the film’s twentieth anniversary.

The historic district has the charm of Cooperstown, (almost identical lampposts bearing twin baskets of flowers), and along Front St. and the river walk below, quaint wrought-iron benches bear the names of donors, or memorialize loved ones. History is much cherished here, and interested visitors much welcomed.

It’s also the home of Northwestern State University, along with a well-interpreted replica of fort St. Jean Baptiste (first Spanish, and later French) situated on a point along the Cane River.

We went to Papa’s Bar & Grill on our first night for blackened catfish and a crayfish po’boy, and for lunch the next day to Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen restaurant, famous, of course, for its meat pies. While waiting for a table, we read the many framed reviews, letters, magazine articles, and celebrity photos about the place. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall, with a great reputation. The meat pies, made of pastry stuffed with ground beef and pork and fried, were decadent and delicious, as was the little squash casserole.

We overheard a circle of ‘propah’ Southern ladies at the next table discussing their fine ancestry. This somehow completed the atmosphere.

Just down from Lasyone’s stands the Courthouse Museum exhibiting the colorfully detailed paintings of an ‘outsider artist’ Mary Anne Pecot de Boisblanc (presently 82 and still painting)
depicting the facets of rural life in Acadiana from Nova Scotia to Creole country. The stories she’d written to accompany each painting took us back with her into her ‘Cajun primitive memory paintings’. We carefully read every one.

South of town, along the Cane River Lake, a number of historic plantations offer tours. These were working plantations of less grandeur than we associate with Tara, of ‘Gone With the Wind’. They had survived being burned by the Union Army by hanging out red flags as the army approached. The red flags indicated scarlet fever here–stay away! The county-side spreads out into lush pastures full of cattle, all lightly shaded by tall pecan orchards, or tilled, sown fields sprouting rows of sprouts, like green corduroy. Most of the land here is very flat, with red, stoneless soil that encourages rivers to meander. Louisiana must import stones for roadbeds and construction. We offered them some of ours from home.

We toured Melrose Plantation, which has a long colorful history, first as a modest planter’s cottage, then an expanding plantation owned by a freed slave named Marie Therese Coincoin, and still later, a salon/haven offered by Cammie Henry to artists and writers such as Lyle Saxon, William Faulkner, Rachel Field and many others, whose only requirement was that they produce while there and regale the dinner table with their day’s accomplishments. Many of their works were conceived or written while at Melrose. It was also at Melrose that Clementine Hunter, a plantation field hand and cook for the Henrys, began to paint in her fiftieth year, and became known as the Black Grandma Moses. One of the outbuildings has an upper floor paneled with her murals, and many of her works hang in the main house as well.

So, our one-nighter became three nights of diesel and two very enjoyable days.

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