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2/365 - Back to the swamp where I belong

I am a terror to share a bed with. I toss and turn all night, kick, talk in my sleep, and have even been known to sleep flight. If you're a Parks and Rec fan, picture Ron Swanson napping during the diabetes telethon (season 2, episode 22).



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But on January 2nd, I woke up under several pounds of blankets at the Hotel Monteleone exactly as I fell asleep. Other than a Kat-sized vertical lump down the middle of the bed, the comforter could have been untouched.


I'm not sure of the last time I slept that hard or that soundly, but I have to imagine it was post-ketamine infusion.


My phone's alarm chirped beside me. 7:45. I snoozed it for another 15 minutes deciding to forego any attempt at breakfast in favor of a few more minutes rest. I was checking out that morning and was not ready to say goodbye to the room.


I typed in "Louisiana Jazz" to YouTube and clicked on the first playlist that came up. The brassy notes of David Lewis Luong's "Summer Delights" bounced around the room as I tamed my waves into two French braids and put on my swamp clothes: a green linen jumpsuit, an orange and white striped Patagonia base layer, and a light blue sweatshirt.


The jazz brought my room alive. The night before, I had marveled at the room's layered fabric and textured wallpaper, but seeing it lit up with early morning sun and jazz music brought it to life like a sepia-toned photograph revived to full-color and animated.


In the spirit of not taking myself too seriously, I twirled around the small open space on the far side of my room, trying not to think too hard about what I would see in the floor length mirror of the ballet studio. Instead, I let my braids whip around me and slung my arms out to trace the rhythm of the music.



A calendar reminder interrupted to remind me that my boat left in one hour.


"With or without you, baby doll," the woman on the phone had told me when I coordinated the tour a few days prior.


I headed down to the lobby and checked out. The valet brought my van around. This time, it was lined up between a Porsche and a Range Rover. A woman in her 60s or 70s with hair teased several inches above her head and a full length fur coat looked on while the valet loaded dozens of bags into her car. Behind me, a tech bro played with settings on his Apple watch while his partner reapplied lipstick in the Range Rover's side mirror.


I want so badly to be a fancy hotel gal, and I'll never turn down a stay when I can get one, but I was very excited to be heading back to the swamp where I belong.


The drive was short and fairly straightforward, even for me. The dock was only a few miles from the hotel. When I arrived a mural of an alligator eating a s'more greeted me, along with a tank of turtles. I checked with the coordinator and waited on the dock for my guide.



A man with an alligator tooth necklace and an unmistakably New Orleans accent ushered me to an airboat.


"I was born here, grew up here, and have never lived more than a mile from here."


Perfect! I thought. There is no better tour than a tour given by a local, or in this case, a hyper-local.


Before I strapped in, I drafted a quick "you've been warned" text to Cara and Josh, my emergency contacts.


Headed to the swamp now. Be prepared to get emergency contacted when I try to make an alligator a pet.


After giving a safety briefing that mostly consisted of "this thing has no breaks" and "you don't have to be the fastest swimmer in the world just faster than the person between you and a gator" he pointed out my lifejacket and hearing protection and we were off.


I rested my camera equipment on my lap and said a quick prayer to whoever was listening that the strap securing my camera to my hand would be a fair match for the airboat.


As we cruised through the mouth of the bayou, he pointed out a heron and said, "that one's Henry."


"How do you know?"


"Because I knew his mother and her mother before."


Hyper-local!


My guide continued to give the most thorough genealogical oral history I've ever heard. At first I thought he was bullshitting me, until another boat pulled up alongside us and yelled, "Hi, Henry!"


A few moments later, the airboat stopped again. My guide pointed out a bald eagle circling above us.


I've seen eagles before and even filmed them a few times, but I never quite remember how magnificent they are. Their massive wingspan, bold markings, and gracefulness in the air is unmatched. When I looked back at my viewfinder, I realized my shot was out of focus but I couldn't look away from her to fix it.


It would have been a fantastic shot to use but every so often I get selfish with my work. As a conservation documentarian, it's my job to bring these images to my viewers and weave in story that makes them want to do better for the ecosystems I'm working to protect. But sometimes I need to keep these moments of myself. Little private rendezvous with nature that fill my conservationist cup.


When she retreated to her nest out of sight among the trees, my guide started the boat again and navigated to an intertidal zone of tangled mangroves.


I let the sun warm my wind-chapped cheeks while he pointed out the tree he climbed as a child, told me the best way to soothe chigger bites after covering yourself in Spanish moss for a swamp monster Halloween costume (Pine-Sol baths) and checked his jug trap for catfish.



"You gotta label it with all your information and your fishin license. You can know every person in this town and not a one of em can get you outta a ticket from the Wildlife Commission."


He played with some lines before tossing them back. "Ah, I'll come back for em at the end of the day."


He pirouetted the boat so I could get a 360 shot of the grove. I hoped he could sense my genuine interest in each of his stories despite having my face buried in a camera.


"Toss on that hearing protection. We're bouta take off."


We took off. My guide showed off with some turns that made the boat lean through tangles of water plants. I giggled and fluttered my fingers with joy as weaved through the bayou.



He stopped the boat before I could see what he saw.


"That Elvis?"


"The ghost?"


"No, that gator. Nah, that's a momma. Ay, she got her baby. Wanna hold Chompy?"


I did want to hold Chompy!



An alligator shorter than the length of my forearm rested between my fingers while I stroked his head and cooed at him.


"I called him Chompy because he used to bite my fingers, but now he ain't bitin so much so I gotta rename him."


Chompy rested his neck in my palm and let me kiss his head before I handed him back. He immediately curled into my guide's hands.


"You should charge the Mama a babysitting fee!"


"Ay, now that's an idea."


With Chompy settled back, we went a couple more feet before the boat stopped again.


"There a tail on that Nutria?"


I turned to see a bloated rodent carcass bobbing alongside the marsh.


"No?"


"Well, shoot. The state's got a $6 bounty of each of em tails. Eh, he looks like he's fixina swell up and pop anyway."


A second general prayer of thanks sent up that my seatmate would not be an exploding rodent carcass.


We spent the rest of my tour looking for Elvis (the gator, not the ghost) and chatting through anecdotes from my guide's childhood. On our way back to shore, he kicked the boat into high speed again and every ounce of my autistic body that craves vestibular stimming was euphonic as the airboats skipped and skimmed through the bayou.


We docked sooner than I would have liked, but when I checked my phone I realized we'd been out for hours. I thanked and tipped my guide and stumbled back to the car, land legs no where to be found.


After a quick inspection in the rearview mirror to make sure I looked more woman than swamp monster (about a 60/40 split) I plugged in my next destination: Café Du Monde.


While I let the van's engine warm up, I texted a selfie of Chompy and myself to Josh, who's directing my current documentary and is a firm believer that we can never have too much B-roll.


JOSHUA!! ALLIGATOR!!!


He doesn't like being called by his full name, but I slip into it when I'm especially excited.


Next, I speed-dialed Jeremy and recounted each and every detail I could remember from the tour. I told him that the guide and his molasses-thick voice and deep love for the land would win him over to loving Louisiana.


"Sounds like my kinda people," he said, his own Southern drawl dripping from the last words.


I told him coffee and beignets were next on the agenda and that I'd touch base when I was on the road for real.


Café Du Monde was a nonnegotiable stop for me. I was hoping to head into the Jackson Square location, but braving more vomiting tourists did not sound like a great way to say goodbye to the city. Instead, I GPS-ed a smaller location between the bayou and I-10.


"Get the chicory coffee," my Uncle Mike, a Louisiana native and not technically my uncle but an unwavering part of my life, wrote several weeks before.


After scrubbing the swamp off my hands in the bathroom, I ordered a chicory café au lait and an order of beignets in French to a small woman behind the counter whose Creolean accent twirled around the words tres bien, baby.



I found a corner table in the café and took a long drag of coffee. I tasted like the city itself. Rich and warm and a little unpredictable but in all the best ways. The bag of puffed-up beignets was more powdered sugar than pastry and I dusted myself with sugar as I took that first bite.


When I think about who G-d is to me, I don't picture a man in the sky looking down at creation tutting at our missteps. The G-d I know lives curled up in our DNA, floats by on every molecule of water in a cloud, is centrifugal force itself. G-d is tears and screams and the cold press against your cheek when you sob on the floor (why is it always the floor?).


G-d was the joy I felt biting into a beignet without the terror of my anorexia screaming at me that even being in the same room as sugar would kill me. G-d was my amygdala resting calmly while I ate bite after sugary bite without fear. Growing up intertwined between Episcopal and Jewish faiths, I took communion a few times but it had been years. This beignet and my chicory coffee and my brain that wouldn't light up like a firework on an fMRI with the terror or food was where I met G-d that morning. We communed and I offered up a thank you for the therapists and doctors and for my own stubborn refusal to die that brought me to Chompy and the Café and back to myself.


Before I left, I grabbed a few more orders for my family and a gift basket for my mother with a can of coffee, beignet mix, and a mug.


"You looked happy over there, darlin. Good food?"


"Good food," I agreed and tossed a few dollars into the tip jar.


When I got back in the car, I talked with Jeremy for a while and decided that I would drive straight back to Dallas to keep me from driving an extra six hours to pick him up. I pulled over and booked myself a night at the Westin in Downtown Dallas and listened to my GPS reroute for an unsettling amount of time. Once it recalibrated, I did a U-turn and headed toward Shreveport.


I didn't know much about Shreveport other than a doctor whose medical talk show I used to produce lived there as a child. He often opened the episodes with anecdotes of his childhood in Louisiana and driving diagonally across the state felt like I was headed to meet a mutual friend.


Hours of driving Northwest was sponsored by what my cardiologist calls "a reckless and irresponsible amount of caffeine." By the time I got to Shreveport, I was exhausted. I had hoped to find a park to stroll through to stretch my legs, but instead pushed through and admired the city from a long bridge.



The drive from Shreveport to Dallas was a blur but by the time I parked my car and fumbled inside the Westin, the massive clock above the desk read 1 AM. The next day, I was hosting Morning Edition. My shift started at 5 AM.


Key card in hand, I leaned against the mirrored elevator walls while a chipper basketball player told me about her previous stays at the hotel and how much she loved their breakfasts. I would be a work for hours before breakfast was served, and I was frankly a bit nauseous with exhaustion but I wished her a lovely stay and told her to have a waffle for me.


When I got to my room, I did my traveling journalist duty of filming a quick room tour before gathering every washcloth I could find and standing under a divinely scalding stream of water to scrub the bayou off of myself.



I don't remember crawling into bed, but I must have fallen asleep with wet hair because when my alarm went off at 4 AM, the pillow was drenched. My hair was more curly than wavy and frizz haloed my forehead.


A few swipes of E.L.F. makeup and leave in conditioner later, I felt okay about walking into a newsroom. Another vague thank you to the universe that I ended up in radio and not TV.


I showed up to check out dressed in my favorite professorial blazer.


"You need coffee." It wasn't a question.


The desk attendant handed me a travel mug. "Good nap?"


"Good nap," I agreed. "I'm obsessed with your beds. My mum bought one years ago."


"Oooh, you come from a long line of Westin devotees," he said with more enthusiasm that I think anyone's had for their job at 4:15 AM.


I thanked him and trudged back to my car referencing the photo I took of its location in the parking garage.


A few wrong turns later, I pulled in to KERA's parking lot. Within seconds of being on the property, all my grogginess was gone - I was going to host Morning Edition, a dream I've had for decades, and one I was not going to sleep though.


Until tomorrow,

Katherine


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