Traveling from east to west, the Mississippi River Bridge is a time portal for me. I drive for
hours squarely focused on the here and now, then I reach the bridge and in a breath I’m suspended above the Big Muddy, the river stretches for as far as I can see to my right and my left. When I slide off the span onto terra firma I’m in Loosiana – a strange world of memories, nostalgia, and anticipation.
This trip is for R&R and after I cross the river I only have about an hour and a half until I’m standing on the banks of the Ouachita River with dear friends, old and new. This land is flat and for the most part, fallow right now as this year’s crops have been harvested. As I look out at the brown earth that stretches for miles in either direction it’s hard to remember that when I first arrived on the planet a mere 62 years ago, the majority of these miles were botttomland hardwood forests. Now don’t get me wrong, this is the Louisiana Delta and once cotton was king and there were many, many acres under cultivation but they were broken up and separated by forests. King Cotton has been dethroned and the crop dejour is generally whatever the futures market says will bring the best price, perhaps corn or soybeans or rice, occasionally cotton. But the cotton and soybeans and forests blur in my mind as I race on across the flat.
I cross the Tensas River, I’m getting closer. I cross the Beouf River and this is an area I’m more intimate with, I remember watching these forests fall to the saw and plow. I spent endless hours as a kid and as a teenager tucked away on the edge of the Beouf River swamp in a shotgun cabin on Horseshoe Lake – in my mind, this expanse is still a wilderness.
Soon I make it to Monroe. This was the city when I was a kid growing up 30 miles away in Mer Rouge. Today it looks strangely small as I whiz in on I-20 and turn north on U.S. 165. A few miles north of town I turn left and head towards the Ouachita. At Moon Lake Recreation Area, I access a small gravel road that follows the river. Moon Lake – I remember that chilly spring morning a lifetime ago standing on the bank at Moon Lake with my ornithology class, when Dr. Keyes raised his hand and said “Listen, a black-throated green warbler,” then pointed to the songster in a nearby tree. I put my binoculars up and there was this tiny dynamo, yellowish face, olive-green back, shiny black throat lifting his head and singing for all he was worth – yeah, I was hooked.
A short ways past Moon Lake and I turn left through an old gate an enter a grown up field, part of which is mown and where a little shanty of a cabin sits on the river bank. Fellow Mer Rougeian and grades 1-12 classmate Gil White is already there making final preparations for their annual fall cookout. Another Friend, David is present. It’s a mild day, but a strong gusty wind is blowing across the river and the fire pit is soon glowing red. Guests begin arriving my late morning, adult beverages are cracked and various grills are lit.
As the afternoon progresses more people arrive, tents are set up and campers roll in. Soon there are about 15 people milling around the fire and campsite, chatting and visiting the various grills. Campers and visitors come for their own personal reasons – I am happy to be on the river with Gil and all the memories we share and happy that fate reconnected us a few years back. Everyone there has a connection, either with the camp or friends or both and there are no strangers.
By late afternoon the wind has finally died down and the sun has rolled across the river and is basking the campsite in a warm orange glow. As darkness descends, memories have been dusted off and stories ebb and flow around the campfire. Probably a testament to age but I don’t think anyone saw the bewitching hour. And as the noise subsided and people were crawling into sleeping bags. The night was left to coyotes calling a geese flying over and a magical end to a wonderful day.