Native Son: March 2014
by Steven Chamblee
So I get this invite to come and speak at a Master Gardener meeting in Ruston, La. A quick Google up and I see two things: 330 miles from my house, and the route leads within spitting distance of Caddo Lake. I’m in. Thirty-five years in Texas, and the only natural lake in the Lone Star State has eluded me every time … until now.
Road trip day finally arrives. Initially, I get detoured by a business errand to northeast Dallas early in the day, but I escape the clutches of the urban beast by noon. Not surprisingly, the hours melt away and the 170-mile trip from Big D to Caddo Lake takes me about five hours. Not knowing where else to go, I head in toward Caddo Lake State Park, figuring this is the place. I stop at the visitor center, but never even get inside. An informational sign about Giant Salvinia attracts my attention, and I’m saddened by the realization that this pristine wilderness has been tainted by problems from far away.
Giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) is a floating fern from southern Brazil that grows in masses, and has the amazing capacity to double its size in about a week when given ideal conditions. Known in the Lone Star State only since 1998, it has quickly spread to at least 17 Texas lakes to become the worst invasive species problem in our waters. It was found at Caddo Lake in 2006, and has already covered some 7,000 acres of its surface with thick, floating mats.
So I quietly creep over to the nearby top-secret research greenhouse. As I peek through the opaque covering, Artie Johnson appears in my head, saying in that quirky, German-esque accent, “Hmmm … veeeery interesting.” Thirty seconds later, I’m stealthily pressing my camera against the greenhouse, taking photos of the tanks inside, when a pair of legs crosses my viewfinder and a voice says, “You’ll get better pictures if you come inside.” Busted again.
Turns out, this is not a top-secret facility, or even a low-profile facility, and the Texas A&M AgriLife researcher is more than happy to tell the story of how he’s breeding these special weevils that kill giant salvinia. He’s had some success, and notes that Mother Nature’s crazy winters have helped out as well, freezing and killing large sections of giant salvinia at Caddo Lake. I tell him I haven’t even found the lake yet. He looks at the late afternoon sky and says, “You’d better hurry.” On his advice, I head to Uncertain.
This little town (which I’m tempted to call a hamlet because of its quirky charm) is proud of its interesting name, which leads to all sorts of fun signs … Uncertain Flea Market, Uncertain Bar, Uncertain Church. (I never found Uncertain Insurance, Uncertain Hospital, or Uncertain Bank.) I end up at the boat dock, where I get my first glimpse of this famous lake … and it does not disappoint.
Mature bald cypress trees, draped in mystical sheets of Spanish moss, form a convoluted ring around the lake. The jet black water creates a reflection of everything upon the surface, so that after a few minutes of silent observation, you start seeing clouds floating on and birds flying through the water. The trees are so dense that you rarely see the actual edge of the lake, but rather a sharp line of trees that defines it.
A friendly local on a golf cart invites me to come down to their place and see more of the lake, so I end up at the Moonglow Lodge. Quietly navigating my way down a complex wooden dock that weaves its way through massive bald cypresses to where the water finally opens wide, I become a kid again. Giggling with delight, I enter another world. The scene before me is truly primordial, and it seems as though a Cretaceous mosasaur might emerge from the depths at any moment. Giant trees rocket up from the still water, exploding into a tangle of interlaced branches overhead. Tiny birds flash, then disappear. Spanish moss is everywhere, and it hangs ominously, like debris in the aftermath of a hurricane. I become so incredibly immersed, so bewilderingly lost in this lake that it all just sucks me in and makes me part of it. The silence is deafening, the stillness compressing. Time is irrelevant. Childhood memories surface, old dreams reappear, then all is quiet. My mind ceases to worry. My intellect becomes insignificant; my importance absurd. I simply exist, here in the grand cathedral of nature.
All too soon, darkness overtakes the scene and I head back to my truck and the modern world. But my rejuvenation is still with me. I find an oldies station on the radio and begin to sing unabashedly. Every tune brings a memory and, magically, I know every word to every song. Half an hour later, I’m rolling into Shreveport, radio blasting Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady.” I’m wailing louder than Tom the Bomb and doing the biggest pelvic swivel the seat belt will allow. “Wo-ah, wo-ah, wo-ah, she’s a lay-dah! Talkin’ about that little lay-dah … aaaaoooow! … and that lay-dah is-a-mine!” Passing drivers just shake their heads, and I see a few moms trying to shield their children’s eyes from the bearded crazy man caterwauling in the pick-up. Life is good.
Ruston, La., turns out to be a charming town full of tall pines, sweet people, and cute little roads that curve around for no apparent reason. I end up doing a double program that runs a little long, but the mostly Master Gardener audience is forgiving and doesn’t seem to mind. The ladies in charge of the refreshments alleviate my emaciated condition by piling home-baked cookies on my plate, and stuffing a to-go snack bag full of delectables, including those outrageous “pumpkin puff” cookies, to sustain me on the long drive home. Life is good.
I stop for a bladder break on the east side of Bossier City and end up at this rather seedy-looking convenience store. Knee-length rap tee shirts drip like stalactites from the ceiling, a tsunami of energy drinks beckons the young and restless, psychotic contact lenses promise to transform the wearer from mere human to fantastic freak of nature … all intriguing, but I am in search of porcelain. After speaking to the man about a horse, I am heading back through the store and pause for a moment before the slightly crusty heat lamp food counter. My inner Beast growls … “Must have meat.” My Rational Mind counters, “Are you out of your mind?!?!” Beast shoves the troublesome pipsqueak aside, bellies up to the counter, and points. In seconds, a tubular snack encased in gold-colored foil fills my palm, and Beast is trudging out the door. Once in the truck, Beast peels back the foil to expose a gray, slightly slimy, boudin sausage packed with crawfish and heaven knows what … “Mmmmm … meaty.” Rational Mind screams, “Are you insane!?!” Beast is not deterred. Desperate, Rational Mind tries sarcasm: “A middle-aged man eating a quasi-shellfish product that’s been sitting for who knows how long under a heat lamp in a dicey store that specializes in counterfeit counter-culture merchandise … now what could go wrong?” Beast laughs heartily, and inhales the potentially lethal sausage-like product. “Hmmm … Beast happy.”
Well, 15 minutes later, I am being tossed about like the SS Minnow on the beginning of “Gilligan’s Island.” Not sure who is in charge of this section of I-20 West that runs through Bossier City, but it’s more like a travelling carnival ride than a freeway. My poor truck is rocking and banging along the rough road, and the cars around me are jumping up and down like jackrabbits in season. It’s all bad enough, but then I feel that boudin start to boil in my stomach. In seconds, my imagination is conjuring up a scene of me bent over on the side of the road, cursing the devil and pleading with God … while mothers cover their children’s eyes. Rational Mind peeks up from behind the seat … “Didn’t I try to tell you?” Beast is now cowering on the floorboards.
A sudden, yet elongated eruption of mixed gasses explodes past my tonsils and forms a thick fog inside the cab. I quickly roll down the window to dispatch the smellodious cloud onto the innocents of the world. Window now up, we all wait in silence. Rational Mind speaks first, “Ummm … what, exactly, was that?” I’m a bit flustered by the whole thing, so I mutter, “I’m not sure.” Beast perks up, smiles broadly, and announces, “That called ‘furp’… maybe ‘bart.’ Uncertain. Ha! Get it? Beast only knows that it’s better from attic than basement … ha!”
Within a minute, the road smooths out, the boudin boil quiets, and I relax. Beast and Rational Mind settle down for a long nap on the ride home. Ten miles later, my hand reaches over for the to-go snack bag. The boys continue to snooze. I smile. Life is good.
Mark your calendar now for the upcoming Chandor Gardens Bridal Faire on March 17, and our annual Spring Fling on April 5-6. Go to www.chandorgardens.com for details. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue. Head straight 12 blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 for more information.
I can always use another road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come out and speak to your group sometime. I’m low-maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town too small. Just send me an e-mail at email@example.com and we’ll work something out.