“Although we’ve come to the end of the road,
Still, I can’t let go. It’s unnatural.
You belong to me, I belong to you.”
– Boyz II Men
“In the end, every person’s life is a tough act to follow.”
– James Michael Rice
October 8, 2015 – Day 40 – Venice, Louisiana
Today, our journey would come to an end. After 40 days, 2340 miles, 10 states, and 30 river crossings, we were approaching the end of the Great River Road. We were determined to follow the road as far south as possible, although we knew we’d run out of road before we ran out of river. Unlike Minnesota, which celebrates the Mississippi headwaters with a plaque, interpretive center and lots of tourists, Louisiana doesn’t celebrate the end of the road or river. The river simply meanders unheralded through Louisiana and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.
We left New Orleans, headed south through bayou country, and decided on one final excursion: the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour. Queue the banjo music. We boarded a pontoon boat with a dozen other folks, including a friendly minister and his wife from Kansas. They are shopping for an RV and considering full-time RVing some day, so we talked to them about gypsy life. As we travelled through beautiful mangrove swamp canals, our tour guide told jokes, explained the landscape, and helped us locate multiple alligators. After 7 years of living in Florida, gators aren’t quite the novelty any more, but it was still neat seeing a few big ones approach the boat. We cruised by an old hut along the bank, and our guide explained that the hut and that area of the swamp have been featured in a number of movies, including Django Unchained, Pelican Brief, Tempted, Beautiful Creatures, Hatchet 3 (a love story?), and some episodes of NCIS. In fact, Nicolas Cage, who we practically hung out with yesterday (okay, we walked by his former house), Jamie Foxx, and Ryan Seacrest have all previously done the swamp tour. Towards the end of the tour, our guide pulled out a live baby alligator and we got to pass him around and pet him. He seemed thrilled.
We left the swamp and continued south along the southernmost peninsula in Louisiana. We drove through Buras-Triumph, the town where Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, with 145 mph winds. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction still dots the landscape, with several abandoned houses and businesses. Further south, we came to our final tourist stop, Fort Jackson, a Historic National Landmark located 40 miles up river from the mouth of the Mississippi. Between 1822 and 1832, it was constructed as a coastal defense of New Orleans, and was a battle site during the American Civil War. More specifically, Flag Officer David Farragut and his U.S. Navy fleet besieged the Confederate-controlled fort for 12 days. The siege resulted in a mutiny inside the fort against the officers and conditions, and the fort fell to the Union, as did New Orleans. Fort Jackson was then used as a Union prison and much later, after World War I, as a training station. Hurricane Katrina’s deadly storm surge flooded and badly damaged the fort in 2005, but it’s still open for tours.
We continued our journey southward to Venice, an unincorporated community in Plaquemines Parish. With a population of 202, it is the last community on the Mississippi accessible by automobile, and it is the southern terminus of the Great River Road. Thus, the town has earned the nickname, “The end of the world.” It’s also known as the launching point for offshore fishing. If Venice were a person, you would say she’s had a tough life, and is a survivor. She was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She got back on her feet, and has spent the past decade rebuilding, reopening, and reoccupying. That comeback took another hit in April 2010, as Venice faced an environmental disaster when oil from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion began washing ashore. Oily birds from the spill were treated at the historic site we had just visited, Fort Jackson.
I wondered, if Venice is the southernmost town on the Mississippi reachable by car, is there a town even further south reachable only by boat or helicopter? (Because geeks wonder about things like that.) It turns out there is, and it is named Pilottown (or Pilot Town). Originally, in 1699, French settlers established a settlement and fort known as La Balize, located about ten miles downriver from Pilot Town. La Balize meant “seamark” and the French built a 62-foot-high wooden pyramid to help guide ships on the Mississippi River. This was where river pilots came to live. After an 1860 hurricane storm surge blew down its buildings and destroyed the area, La Balize was abandoned. Mississippi River pilots then built a new settlement further up river and named it Pilot Town. Below it the river splits into multiple branches as part of the larger Mississippi River Delta. Pilot Town consists of a few buildings, including temporary housing for river pilots and a weather station, and some large oil tanks. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina struck near Pilot Town, damaged nearly every structure, and drove away its few remaining residents. Today, it serves as a temporary home for members of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association and as a base for offshore oil exploration.
As for Venice, the southernmost inhabited town on the Mississippi, we pulled into the last store, a combination gas station/convenience/hardware store. It was obvious it had taken a mighty punch. Its sign was still down and the floors had rusty streaks and other evidence of flooding. There was a picture near the cash register that showed the store after Katrina hit. It’s really a miracle anything was left to salvage. I asked the clerk, now in her mid-twenties, if she was around when the storm hit. She said that she was. I asked her what it was like to be a part of that history. She said they first focused on surviving, and then on getting back on their feet and rebuilding. I’d say that’s pretty good advice for towns, and people, whose lives have been dealt a heavy blow.
The Great River Road eventually becomes a dirt road, and then a private road for workers at an energy company. We had reached the end. We climbed a riverbank, gave each other high fives, and took a final selfie. Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” Or maybe she just signed it. Regardless, we are thankful that God has given us this great adventure…40 days to travel, be inspired by some amazing people, and see some incredible things along the Great River Road. Although this particular journey is over, there is still so much of our great nation to see, and more adventures to experience. So we did some laundry, topped off the gas tank, said a prayer, and set our sights on the great state of Texas.
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