Photo by Alex V. Cook
The Case for Comfortable Camping: With a side of Swamp Pop and smoked meat.
Camping, for many, is about sloughing off the comforts of life, about unplugging and reconnecting with the original network of nature, about acquiescing to the hard ground and insect filled air and the smoky fire. This is precisely why most people hate camping. Thanks to the deluxe cabins at Chicot State Park, one can still get back to nature without leaving life’s comforts behind.
We arrived around 7 p.m. on Friday after a leisurely trek through the sun-dappled magic hour light along Highway 190 coming from the traffic chokehold of Baton Rouge, up through the strained quaintness of Ville Platte and out again into the woods. My wife absorbed in an audio book on her phone, my daughter and her friend were deep in teenage chatter and I was tuned in to the cicada hum of nostalgia. We did RV trips in my childhood, and the green blankness of trees I was now experiencing typically meant back then that we were at our destination state park or national forest campground and we’d finally get to leave the camper for the day.
There is a tidy order to state parks that I find eminently soothing. I inspected the cabin key; the worn plastic keyring to cabin 11 had a seal indicating I could drop it in any post office stamp-free and it would find its way back. I tried to work some customer service magic to get our cabin exchanged for one directly on the water, but the kid at the booth smiled, “No, plus cabin 11 is the best one. It’s off by itself. Trust me.”
She is to be trusted. We went past the pool and the boat launch and the roads to the primitive sites (the ones for tents and all, though the first tent I saw had an air-conditioner connected to it) and on to the nook where the deluxe cabins are set.
Ours was nestled in an embrace of green, perched on stilts. An ample screened-in porch with a grill and satellite dish hanging off one side, opened into a dining room with seating for six, a full kitchen and vaulted ceiling living room, trees coming at us from every angle in the floor to ceiling windows.
There was a full bath, a queen size bed in the master bedroom and a set of four bunks in the other room. The girls disappeared into their bunk bed cave immediately while my wife and I exhaled. Everything, for one moment at the end of a busy week, was all taken care of.
After lighting the grill, I extracted the girls from their giggly cavern and forced them out into the wild. This was still some sort of camping trip, after all. Down the hill, the public fishing dock extends almost three hundred feet out into the lake and then juts out again to the east into the ethereal stillness of the water. Cypress trees loomed with spectral stillness while behind a postcard sunset was descending on the lake. I must have taken fifty pictures of the tree line reflecting in the water. It’s a corny shot but it works. A couple people fishing on the dock informed us we’d just missed an alligator, and that there were deer out by the playground. The girls ran off to see these alleged deer while I took in the placidity. It was like being deposited gently on the moon.
Back at the cabin, the A/C was cranked, the Friday night lineup on the dish, the hot dogs grilled to the precipice of popping and the girls were back in their cave. My phone dinged that it had found the cabin’s wireless connection.
Some may find this embarrassment of amenity, well, embarrassing, and I hear you. But I offer this counterargument: when you are on vacation, as this was, are you more concerned with doing what’s “right” or doing what you want? My spirit leads me to the latter, for I find it reveals what is actually right in the world.
For instance, the girls made off with the laptop to watch Doctor Who on Netflix, squealing with delight, and subsequently ate up enough wireless that my iPad became inert. I sat on the porch trying to get into my eBook when a rush of tree frogs sang a prologue to a light drizzle and I looked away from the screen. The woods were a dim silhouette, the trees rustling softly. Were I getting this calm from a device, I’d call it white noise, but this was decidedly more of a green hum. I sat there until the whole of the world quit whispering and dozed off.
I awoke to a markedly pleasant Louisiana September morning, an experience rare as a Sasquatch visit and I was determined to take advantage. I herded up the girls for a boat ride. We trekked up to the gatehouse for a boat key (red plastic ring, rowboat #10) and an armful of life jackets and worn wooden paddles. A fellow camper offered us a ride to the boat launch—state parks bring out the friendly in folks—but we waved him off. We got boat #10 unchained and eventually pushed out into the water and I asked the girls where we should go. Usually this question was answered by one frozen yogurt place in deference to another, but they pointed to a cadre of trees where an egret had just landed. “Start paddling then,” I said. “You are driving this thing.”
Turns out that is only partially true when you have three people aboard with a loose understanding of how to paddle a boat. We awkwardly twisted our way into the lake, but through determination, or perhaps trial and error, we got the hang of it and piloted #10 out on the spectral glass of Lake Chicot. We kept a close watch for alligators, half hoping we’d see one near the boat and equally glad we didn’t.
There is a single twenty-mile trail that circles the finger-y lake with trailheads throughout the park. It’s an easy hike; a well-maintained and clearly marked avenue into the tangled depth of the woods. I had to keep telling the girls to run on ahead, gently lamenting how life is more complicated than when I was a kid. Kids don’t just bound off into the unknown as we did. But again, I can spin my wheels in the mudflats of regret or hike the trail before me now. Cypress knees and patches of algae compete for the sunbeams stippling the ground. A fairy could have appeared and no one would have been surprised, so sweet a place.
On our hike back, we came on an announcements board. I remember these being key; they said where and when the group campfire was held. Instead, it announced a Citizen Science program at the arboretum.
The Louisiana State Arboretum juts into the grounds of Chicot State Park. It is a modern kids museum stuffed in the woods: interactive exhibits about photosynthesis, displays of animals found in the park. The girls were mesmerized with a giant spider that had taken residence in the museum window when I herded them into the meeting room where the program was held.
A group of mycologists—mushroom experts—started the show with a table full of the park’s findings. My daughter read the card, “Rusulla mariae. I saw a bunch of those on our hike!” Then, a young scientist named Jeff Bush walked us through how he uses a GPS tracker and a site called eBird to help record migratory patterns in the park. He asked if anyone wanted to go and was a little surprised at the girls’ enthusiastic yes. My daughter made sure I jotted down the website before we left.
Bush and another park agent took us across an elevated walkway into the woods where we’d momentarily pause. “A red-bellied woodpecker,” Bush would say. “If you can identify the call, it counts.” And we’d all jot down “red-bellied woodpecker” on our clipboards and put a “1” by it. Within minutes we heard birds and were seeing mushrooms everywhere, our experience enhanced by our fresh, new knowledge. They pulled up a tiny red sprout of a mushroom, one that looked like the eyestalks of a cartoon snail. It was later identified by our mycologist friends as an immature Hygrorybe miniata. My daughter said it ought to be called Hygrorybe minotaur because of the horns and it made the scientists laugh. “You have good kids,” they said as we helped them load their wares back in their Prius in the parking lot.
I deposited the girls at base camp and ventured into town—we needed ice cream bars for the Doctor Who season premier on BBC America later that evening. I stopped at Ortego’s convenience store just outside the park where I met up with my friend Sharon Fontenot, one of Ville Platte’s most ardent cultural ambassadors. Among the candy bars and drink coolers is a meat counter in back with fresh sausage and boudin made on site.
Fontenot took me on a tour of Ville Platte’s many meat markets, filling my ice chest to capacity with boudin, pork sausage and even a ponce (a pig stomach stuffed with ground pork) with visions of a cookout to end all. Each meat market informed me that for about half of the year, they each produce about 800-1500 hundred pounds of pork sausage a week. That came to roughly four tons of sausage a week for a town of 7,410.
We made a stop at the Swamp Pop Museum which Fontenot runs. Housed in an old train depot she had moved there from her hometown of Elton, the Swamp Pop Museum is a reliquary of Louisiana's reaction to the encroachment of rock ‘n’ roll on their unique musical culture. My favorite part of the museum is a stage featuring elaborate shirts worn by the stars of swamp pop in their heyday. Charles Mann donned a denim jacket with an elaborate embroidered firebird on the back while Prince Charles and the Rockin’ Kings emblazoned their name in rhinestones on bright red camp shirts. I love the way swamp pop makes something as massive as rock ‘n’ roll its own, continuing to craft its own identity. Fontenot pulls out a Japanese book about the subject that features a portrait of the King of Swamp Pop Johnnie Allan. On a far wall are pictures of the legendary nightclubs where the music took place, the Purple Peacock, the Evangeline Club, The Jungle.
My wife texts me that its getting too late to grill and to pick up some burgers on the way back, so I make a stop at the Cajun Smokehouse on Main Street. A program of Cajun-French country music from KBON plays on the speakers as the expansive but modest dining room is packed with families. The restaurant is worth the attention—the burgers are better than anything I would’ve grilled and their gumbo had thick chunks of chicken commingling with local sausage, but it’s just about the only game in town. The beloved Pig Stand barbeque joint shuttered earlier this year and even Floyd’s Record Shop, one of the last great Louisiana record stores, is closing to focus solely on their mail order business. It’s difficult to watch places as charming as Ville Platte suffer the times.
The next morning, our last at the park, we headed out for one more hike. On our way to a more remote trailhead, we are stopped short by a family of deer poking cautiously across the road. It is thrilling to see something with antlers stare back at you, no matter who you are. Our hike was lovely and we pushed farther than we at first intended, voting to investigate a secondary trail jutting off the main one.
You could say we didn’t see anything special, more trees, more mushrooms, the occasional interface with the lake, but we thought it was all special. We didn’t need a sore back from the tent or lack of a warm shower to tell us that we are part of a great green world.
Details. Details. Details.
Chicot State Park
3469 Chicot Park Road
Ville Platte, La.
The deluxe cabins run $150 a night. To reserve them or some of the other cabins at the park, go to reserveamerica.com and search for “Chicot.”