The Gulf Coast: Knowing Where You’re Going
The Gulf Coast oil spill has officially been capped. But the long-term consequences are still very much on the minds of scientists, biologists, environmentalists, and others who study the region. In a special report for the October National Geographicspecial report for the October National Geographic, contributing editor Joel Bourne traveled to BP headquarters in Houma, Louisiana, and throughout the Gulf region. His resulting story looks our country’s appetite for oil and the volatility of the industry that supplies it. National Geographic and NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted a conversation on the future of the Gulf at our headquarters last week; you can listen to a podcast of the show here.
At the height of the crisis, writer Aimee Brown blogged for Intelligent Travel from the Gulf with photographer Justin Bailie; together they documented how the oil spill was impacting the lives of the people they met. Today she looks back on some of the people she encountered along the way.
HOUMA, La. — It’s pouring rain. We stop the van on the narrow shoulder and Justin hops out to make an image of a “For Sale” sign stuck in the middle of a flooded residential lot. Mid-calf in the water, he doesn’t see the two young men walking down the side of the road with arms hanging loose at their sides and thumbs barely out until one of them yells out, “Hey, can we have a ride?”
He says they’re headed a few miles up rural Highway 57 toward Houma, Louisiana.
Justin picks his way out of the muck and makes it to the van at the same time as the hitchers. He looks them up and down.
One is easily 6’4″ with defined forearms and hands like baseball mitts. The other is shorter with close-cropped brown hair and broad shoulders barely contained by his T-shirt.
“Are you guys cool?” asks Justin.
We’ve both picked up a fair number of hitchhikers over the years. Most of the time they’ve been carrying skis or kayaks or bikes with flat tires. It’s a little different picking up gearless randoms, especially when giving them a ride means inviting them into our temporary home on wheels.
“Yeah, we’re cool,” says Shoulders, while Tall nods. Up close it’s obvious. They’re just teenagers and soaking wet from the rain.
From looking at our map, I know that up the road is Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center. I also believe that if these kids were runaways, they’d be running in the opposite direction. Still, when I crawl into the back to make some room for our passengers amid the gear, cameras, and kitchen boxes, I hoist my bag with my wallet and laptop toward the front seat where it will sit between my feet for the rest of the ride.
Justin slides behind the wheel and I notice that he puts his camera between our seats; maybe I’m not the only one wondering if this is the greatest idea. The boys settle into the cargo area and before we’re even rolling I start throwing questions at them.
Are you from here? Are your parents from here? Do you go to school? Do you work? Does it always rain like this?
Why are you walking in it? Where are we dropping you, again? And on and on.
I’m the nosey Parker of the South but they call me ma’am and handle it. Tall does most of the talking.
“No ma’am. Not from here, but up by Houma.”
“Yes ma’am, but my grandparents were from Lafayette.”
“It’s summertime. But I’m trying to get a job on one of the BP boats for the cleanup.”
Shoulders interjects, “Me too. I have a friend who said he could get me on.”
Then it’s back to Tall.
“This isn’t much rain. You should have seen Rita. Everything was flooded.”
“We were down visiting some girls.”
That one makes me laugh, and I suggest that maybe the rain and the walk were worth it, causing him to blush a little.
Finally my questions slow and Shoulders asks where we’re from.
“Oregon,” Justin and I say together.
Tall nods a little, but Shoulders only looks at me.
“Is that up north by New Orleans?” he asks.
Maybe it’s my accent. Maybe he didn’t hear me.
“The state,” I say. “Oregon.”
“Up in the Pacific Northwest by Washington.”
“I don’t know where that is,” he says, then turns his head to watch the rain slide down the windows of the van. He
doesn’t seem embarrassed, just a little bored.
Me? I’m stunned. I’ve never run into anyone in the U.S. who didn’t recognize a state in the Union. It scares me, and though I feel Shoulders is right not to be embarrassed, I can’t help but believe that we as a nation should be ashamed.
In 2002, the National Geographic-Roper Global Geographic Literacy Survey
- Nat Geo Expeditions
polled 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States. Of the nine nations, the U.S. scored eighth in levels of geographic illiteracy. The most powerful nation in the world and we can’t find our way out of a paper bag.
Despite the fact that the point of my being in Louisiana was not to educate hitchhikers about my home, but rather to learn about theirs, I start in on the process of trying to describe Oregon.
“It’s really beautiful,” I say to Shoulders. “It rains there too, but not like this. And not normally in the summer.”
I follow Shoulders’ gaze out toward the bayou. I tell him that there is water all over my state. There are sexy blue green rivers and creeks that curve and dance over mountains and across valleys. I say, they’re filled with fish – trout, salmon, sturgeon. And because I love those rivers and fish, and because I want him to love them too, I keep at it.
“You can swim in them,” I say of the rivers. “They’re cold, but you can jump in.”
Finally Tall stops my chatter.
“We use to fish a lot out of here,” he says. “I caught and killed an alligator once. Got arrested for it, but the judge knocked it down to just a fine. We don’t go swimming though, especially not now with all the oil.”
He says it as a matter of fact without any emotion attached.
Another three miles down the road, Tall tells us to take a right into a tidy development. We pull up in front of a neat ranch home, and the boys climb out, thanking us for the ride. Justin tells them that if they get the chance they should travel, maybe head west, visit Oregon.
For more coverage from National Geographic on the Gulf oil spill, check out National Geographic’s special issue.
Photo: Justin Bailie