Down in the Bayou at the Ends of the Earth

Our journey began two hours before sunrise in a small Nissan SUV, the cruise control set to four miles faster than the speed limit — just enough to reach our destination in time and avoid getting pulled over in the process.

A New York Times Student Journalism Institute photographer, Evan Ortiz, and I were racing the rising sun. We were en route to Dulac, a tiny bayou town on Louisiana’s coastal fringes, in search of a cemetery in danger of being lost to coastal erosion. Capturing a photo of the cemetery set against the sunrise over the bayou was an opportunity we did not want to miss.

The lights of New Orleans quickly melted into a dense canopy of trees below the causeway on Interstate 90. Before long, the highway narrowed to a two-lane road with water on both sides. The houses sat on 12-foot stilts to protect them from floodwaters during hurricane season.

Down in the bayou, it feels like you’re at the ends of the earth. I had never seen such a place; I was caught off guard, out of my element.

It wasn’t the poverty — I’ve seen that before. Shuttered businesses in Saginaw, Mich., the dying rust belt town where I was born. The boarded-up neighborhood in Detroit where my grandfather lives. A homeless camp inhabited by heroin users in Columbus, Ohio.

No, this wasn’t upper-middle-class guilt. It was a case of good old-fashioned culture shock. It’s amazing how foreign your own country can seem.

After Evan took photos of the sunrise, we stopped at a gas station with two pumps that still had analog dials to try to talk to a few locals.

“Do you know if that little cemetery down the road floods at high tide?” I asked the middle-aged woman behind the counter. “Do you know who takes care of it?”

She returned my question with a momentary blank stare. And then: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English good.”

From the sound of it, she spoke Creole, a pidgin mix of French, Spanish and English.

I was aghast. This is Louisiana — not near a border, with no particularly high concentration of immigrants. I had been told some people down here spoke this language, but I had never actually heard it before. These were people who had been here their entire lives, so isolated from modern society that their customs hadn’t changed.

Later that morning, we went to a small commercial shrimp fishery where we met with the owner and talked to some of his employees. I met an 89-year-old woman who was still working full-time. She had never left the bayou.

The same was true for Stella LaBouef, who worked at the tiny local Catholic church. She was born and raised in the bayou, got married and never left. She would be celebrating her 60th birthday the following day.

I’d been to Europe, done internships in two states and traveled to many others on family vacations, conference trips and the like.

But this time, more than any others, I had the feeling I wasn’t in Michigan anymore.