Lafayette trip report: 1

Greetings from Lafayette, Miss., in the heart of Cajun country, where I am attending the 2007 American Birding Association convention (while Leta house sits back home).

I made the drive down from Reston on Sunday and Monday, with little in the way of mishap. The only construction delays that I encountered came in the vicinity of Cleveland, Tenn., and I noticed something happening there that you never see back home. The merge down to one lane was out of sight, over a couple of hills and around a curve, but no sign was posted to let us know which lane was going to be dropped. Yet all of us politely started lining up in the left lane: some of us, the locals, must have known which lane was closed, while we long-distance travelers figured, “everyone else knows to get in the left lane, so I will, too.” There was no pushing ahead to the merge point, with a line forming for last-minute move-overs. (I say, “all of us,” but there were a few exceptions, including an impatient Greyhound bus.)

Two smells along the drive, both of them overpowering: first, in a couple of stretches in the Shenandoah Valley, the stench of dairy farms (I’ll remember this stink the next time I’m in the butter-and-egg aisle in the supermarket); second, from Laurel, Miss. southward, blasts of perfume from a white-flowering shrub that is in full bloom here already. (There seems to be some confusion about how to identify this plant, which smells like honeysuckle: one trip leader has named it Rough-leaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii.) (Update: Privet (genus Ligustrum) is probably the correct ID, based on the fragrance match. Trip leader Virginia, who has lived down here, loathes the smell.)

The verges were carpeted with a number of unfamiliar wildflowers, purple, blue, golden, masses of something cloverish with a maroon flower.

Both Alabama and Louisiana’s respective transportation departments should be persuaded to pick a different shield design to designate their state highways. They currently use modifications of the state’s map outlines, with crummy-looking results. Louisiana simplifies the outline by cutting off all the wiggly bits along the Gulf Coast, so we’re left with what looks like a fabricator’s mistake. Alabama’s crime against design is to stretch the outline horizontally to accommodate 3-digit route numbers: Washington state with a burst appendix. And while we’re at it, both Alabama and Mississippi use the state outline for their buckle-up signs, and since the outlines are close to mirror images, it looks like one engineer copied off another’s exam bluebook.

If you would drive cross-country, you would do well to develop a taste for country music, classic rock, and contemporary Christian (which combines the worst features of both). But I did find a couple of fresh college stations around Charlottesville and Baton Rouge, and a great R&B station in Hattiesburg, in what they call the Pine Belt.

(Since I’m reading Agee and Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I was expecting to see long and wide stretches of cotton farms as I rolled south. Instead, I found mile on mile of pine plantations. Generally, the forestry company is smart and leaves a buffer of uncut pine and hardwood understory between the road and the patch that has just been logged. Much better PR than rubbing our noses in the clearcut.)

Anyway, FM radio with Dead Kennedys, obscurer Janis Joplin, and Elvis Costello singing Little Feat with Alain Toussaint: it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’m not sure when I’m going to get to post this, because our hotel’s idea of “available Wi-Fi” means “available for $10 a day.” I may be stuck trying to look up local businesses the old school way, with The Phone Book.