The scariest thing of my two-week road trip happened in the beginning, in Baton Rouge. No, it wasn’t me getting sick. Sure I had trouble swallowing and for one night I had body aches and chills. But after overloading on zinc and vitamins, I was all right the next day although the throat still smarted in the entire week I was in Louisiana.
The scary thing in Baton Rouge was how quickly my Louisiana drawl came back. Having lived in Zachary, LA until I was eight, I had a thick accent when my mom left my dad and moved us to Los Angeles. As a third grader, I quickly ditched my accent for obvious reasons. When I am really tired or drunk, the drawl creeps its way subtlely.
But being back in Baton Rouge phrases like, “Howdy ma’am,” and “You better’n giddy up there ‘fore I turn your car into a piss bucket,” crept into my vernacular complete with the drawl. Just like that. No thought, no hesitation. It just fell out of my mouth as if that’s how I’ve been talking the last 25 years.
Soon people looked at me as just another person while my cousin was the one who talked weird. It didn’t help that he’s full Korean, so he already is an aberration.
I lied. There were two scary things. There was the accent, but there was also something else. It felt like home. Baton Rouge, a city with just over 800,000 people in its metropolitan area and around 230,000 in its city limits, felt like a place I could move to after years of living in the second largest metropolitan area in the United States.
The initial goal of going to Baton Rouge was to visit my dad’s grave. I had never seen his headstone. We buried him in 1997 less than a week from my high school graduation, and I hadn’t seen him since. He’s buried at the Second Baptist Cemetery out in Jackson, about 35 miles north of Baton Rouge and about 20 miles north of where I grew up in Zachary.
There had been changes to both Zachary and Jackson. Zachary had become more posh. It now boasts a hotel. The Winn Dixie moved across town to nearby the Cracker Barrel convenience market my mom used to manage. They now have a library, a golf course and, inexplicably, trying to build an Americana complete with a cineplex, mall and condos.
We went by my old house. There was no one home, so we didn’t go in. It was much closer to the street than I remembered. Our old flower bed and flag pole in the front yard was gone. Also gone were the marks on the street that told the deliveryman of the Baton Rouge Advocate whether or not to deliver the paper to the houses.
But I remember the spot we used to burn our dead leaves during the winter. I remember the backyard which got flooded during a hurricane. I remember all of the ant hills I used to kick around as a kid just to see the ants scurry about manically. I remember Brandon Bates’ house, my best friend and classmate. I believe he hosts a show on the Outdoor Network or something like that.
Despite the changes, everything felt familiar. It was like I belonged here, that I was meant to be here. It’s a feeling that’s hard to put to words, but anyone who has gone back to their hometown after many years absence must surely have felt this also. That is unless that town had beat out your will to live when you were a child. Then perhaps it’s a shithole to you.
When we got to the cemetery, I was amazed at how nice the graves were. There is my older sister, my uncle, my grandfather and my father. None of the family live anywhere nearby, so I was amazed at how nicely kept the headstones were. What also astonished me was that my dad and uncle had two markers each. One was the headstones we purchased, but the other was the military ones that indicated which branch they were in and what conflicts they served. I don’t remember ordering that when my dad died.
Since my dad was a veteran, someone had stuck a tiny American flag next to the grave. There were plastic flowers and a tiny praying angel figurine on my sister’s grave which would normally repulse my atheist self but oddly comforted me. I didn’t break down and cry or anything like I thought I might have. It was all very stoic.
The one time I did have tears falling was when we had moved on to New Orleans. I wanted to see one of the few beaches in Louisiana that lined the Gulf Coast, so we went the 100 miles down to Grand Isle. We got to the State Park at the end of the island and onto the beach. The emotions just came out. The water was murky thanks to an oncoming storm.
I don’t know what had me emotional, whether this was the water tarnished with the oil from the BP spill or this was the water that fueled Hurricane Katrina. But I stood there on the beach just staring out in amazement.
It was then that I realized that Louisiana is partly my home. Though all of my adolescence and adult life has been spent in Southern California, there was no doubt that Louisiana was a part of me like the Mississippi mud, the Spanish moss, the humidity.
I told my cousin, “I could live here.” He didn’t get it. He’s only lived in Southern California so Louisiana was a foreign place for him with foreign concepts and foreign people. But I knew these people. I knew these lands. Hell, I could still find my home without the aid of a map.
This concept of home was reinforced for me when we got to Norman, OK. Stephanie checked us in, a mother of three who divorced her husband a few years ago. She was from Metarie, LA when Katrina came barreling. She lost everything.
She came to Norman to wait things out for a while until Metarie was rebuilt. In 2009 she moved back to Metarie.
“I was amazed how well New Orleans has recovered so far,” I told her.
She shook her head. “But not the outside cities,” she replied.
Stephanie only lasted in Metarie for six months until she came back to Norman. “The economy,” she told me. There were better opportunities for her to be able to feed her children in Oklahoma.
“They must be really hospitable here since you came back,” I said.
She just made that face, the squinched up face that leaves no doubt that she was not happy living here. “I miss it down there,” she added. “It’s so different here.”
Stephanie wasn’t home. To her it was just a place to live, not a place to lay down roots. Her heart was still in Louisiana.
Perhaps I’m just romanticizing my visit. But I guess part of me, too, still has roots in Louisiana no matter how much I’ve tried to run away from it in the past.