It is the kind of hot that you start to sense while still inside. The kind that pushes back on you the moment you consider facing it. Heavy, sludgy, steamy; the earth as a cast iron pot full of gumbo that's been simmering over a flame for hours. You remove the lid to taste for seasoning but not before being walloped by a fist of heat.
The windows drip with humidity, lizards hide away in potted plants, people stay indoors unless a good breeze is blowing. Then, a rocking chair on a covered porch with ceiling fans might be tolerable.
Everything slows down, conserving energy, seeking respite and biding time.
"When do you run?" I ask a friend.
"Before 6 am or after dinner," she replies as she hands me a bag of sage and sweet red peppers from her garden. It looks like summertime Christmas. The sage leaves are each the size of a cow's ear; they like the sunny sauna just fine.
Southwest Louisiana in July is not for the faint of heart. As those who have attempted to style their hair know, the summertime elements are a forceful blend of sweat-, frizz- and near-panic-inducing inputs. Temperatures and humidity levels regularly hover near 100 (degrees and percent), mosquitos swarm, and swaths of pancake-flat land at or below sea-level provide little in the way of relief. It's an insanity trinity, really, except many of us never seem to succumb. Not enough to stop loving the place, at least.
It is unlike anywhere else in the U.S.. Acres of thick, wiry St. Augustine carpet run alongside lazy bayous and glassy lakes. Cypress trees -their knees, trunks and stumps- resemble arboreal mountain ranges studding shore and shallow. They are supremely suited for a swampy life, and Louisianians are all the luckier for that.
Luckier still for the love that Oaks have for Louisiana climes. They grow up and out over the decades, arms reaching into a wide embraces with plenty of room for all. They let us hang hammocks from their trunks and swings from their upper branches. Wooden planks are tacked up as ladders for kids, and birds find their boughs perfect for nests. Spanish moss, a gray hairnet you want to touch, hangs decorously from them too, mysterious curtains behind which anything might be found.
I often think of my homeland as a verdant swiss cheese: lush green country hole-punched by an intricate system of muddy waterways. Everything is some state of disrepair, for what doesn't shift and age atop an ever-moving, scorching base?
Quite often, the move toward ruin adds immeasurable charm, and indeed, were it not for its dynamism, Louisiana wouldn't be nearly as special: flat and hot aren't much without a constant infusion of je ne sais quoi. And this has led to both a remarkable acceptance of eccentricity and a laissez faire attitude among many down there.
This morning, for example, before I finished packing, the boys wanted to take me for a ride in the golf cart a friend loaned us a few days back. They'd driven with Mom a few times and I was going to see all they'd learned. It wasn't yet 9am, Dad was wearing a hospital greens top tucked into ancient Levis and a sweat-stained cap and clutching a mug of coffee, and I was still in the pajama shorts and tee I'd slept in. I slipped my feet into Mom's fluorescent green Crocs, the five of us belted ourselves into the spunky Precedent and we took off through the neighborhood (this picture is from a previous trip so not representative of just how odd we may have looked).
Ol, sitting on Mom's lap, drove first, and after a lap, Jack took over. Because he is Jack and cannot resist a lever or button, he pressed all available, and we stalled on the main road. Soon enough, he and I were pushing the cart while Mom and Ol steered, and I am telling y'all that not one person seemed to think anything was remotely weird about any aspect of the situation. And if we'd needed help, all passersby would have stopped.
I must have seen 25 people during my few days home. We did the rounds one afternoon but also ran into friendly faces all around town: my childhood dentist; my high school English teacher; the man who sold Tom my wedding band; mothers of friends from elementary school on. All have known me for seemingly ever, some since I was five.
We come away with a bag of just-picked garden tomatoes, a book recommendation, a plea to come swim again, a Mason jar of homemade pimiento cheese. We reminisce, catch up, share a drink and then a tight hug. Nothing is far. So many are familiar.
I think we can all agree that Louisiana is far from perfect (um, Bobby Jindal anyone?), but I deeply love so much about it.