I slept in the Roosevelt Room, on a four-poster of crudely cut and varnished cypress logs, their bottoms flared like petrified morning glories. I undressed on an elk hide rug, my toes half-buried in hairs, beneath a whirring ceiling fan. Although the night promised a blanket of frost, the great room’s fireplace had filled the cabin with dragon’s breath.
Teddy Roosevelt hadn’t actually slumbered there, but his great-grandson had. Still, ol’ Bully himself had most definitely been enamored of the nearby tract flanking Louisiana’s Tensas (pronounced Ten-saw) River. He wrote about it as if he’d found Heaven’s doorstep somewhere amidst the palmetto and then virgin hardwoods -- now a federally owned refuge and national treasure.
Serpentine is too simple an adjective for the Tensas. Likening it to a giant cottonmouth might also be trite. I prefer telephone-cord-straight, but such a reference might be lost upon those who now carry phones on their hips, who have never wrestled rogue coils.
The thing’s crooked, you see, even more than a Catahoula Curr’s hind leg. If you set out walking a straight line south, from somewhere between Waverly and Tallulah to Ferriday, you’d cross the same damn river two dozen times. You could canoe it for a mile and wind up 100 yards from where you started.
The Tensas is the toothy zipper that holds Madison Parish together.
In this flat Delta country, class seems to be defined more by one’s choice for president and lot size than by dwelling, vehicle, schooling or wardrobe.
The richest and poorest wear jeans and ballcaps, drive pickup trucks, batter and fry things pulled from the swamp, resent that bears might eat as many deer as people do, and will invite complete strangers to stay overnight and thank them for doing it.
The haves and haves-less live and work alongside each other, sip their libations from red Solo cups, root for LSU and measure the seasons by what they can legally hunt.
I was the guest of Dick Brown, definitely a have, though neither he nor his sweetie, Teri Henley, put on airs. They’ve a pet skunk, an ancient Texas longhorn and three baby squirrels named peanut, butter and jelly.
We spoke of deer hunting under the chins of glass-eyed mounts, ate fried gator tail within arm’s reach of a skull more befitting a tyrannosaurus rex, and wound up talking about a former drunk while we sipped Old Charter and Maker’s Mark.
I occasionally wandered outside to smoke beside wooden benches with arms carved into bears.
While sharing stories with Dick, I told him about the Louisiana deputy who once described his sister as being more messed up than a run-over dog. He told me of a visiting evangelist, a Brother Jack Daniels, aptly named, who once came to hunt there.
I Googled the preacher later, and, yes, the man claims to have been both drug addict and drunk by the age of 21, right before he was called to deliver sermons and baptize new believers in bayous.
Brother Jack spent an evening in a box blind, if I’m not mistaken. Near dark, he peered out the left window and saw three bears. There were three more when he looked to the right. And five more when he glanced behind the shooting house.
The heavenly hotline got a call from rural Louisiana that night, and I’m fairly sure the message wasn’t one of those now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep prayers. Brother Jack praised Jesus when he saw approaching headlights, which meant safe passage through the Valley of Death.