Unfolding the Map
In New Iberia, we could have seen ghosts of Roman emperors (but no longer!). Now we just ruminate on Tabasco, nutria and live oaks. Which is all just fine, especially if it is in the somnambulant heat of a summer afternoon. Click on the thumbnail at right to see where Rome, Brazil and Louisiana intersect in Hadrian, nutria and bayous. Leave a lazy, sleepy comment if you wish!
"The Teche, at the western edge of the basin and paralleling the Atchafalaya...was the highway from the Gulf into the heart of Louisiana. Half of the eighteenth-century settlements in the state lay along or very near the Teche: St. Martinville, Lafayette, Opelousas, New Iberia. The Teche was navigable for more than a hundred miles.
"Blue road 31, from near Opelousas, follows the Teche through sugarcane, under cypress and live oak, into New Iberia....A long strip of highway businesses had cropped up to the west, and the town center by the little drawbridge was clean and bright....Bayouside New Iberia gave a sense of both the new made old and the old made new: contemporary architecture interpreting earlier designs rather than imitating them; a restored Classic Revival mansion, Shadows on the Teche; a society whose members are hundred-year-old live oaks; and the only second century, seven-foot marble statue of the Emperor Hadrian in a savings and loan."
Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 14
New Iberia, Louisiana
I have a romantic vision of what New Iberia might look like downtown with the live oak trees. I traveled past New Iberia in 1999 as I was driving back from New Orleans on a visit to the University of New Orleans, where I eventually did my PhD studies. On the way back, my friend and I decided to take the scenic route on US 90, which took us through the swampy Cajun country, past Thibodaux and Morgan City, and ultimately past New Iberia before we rejoined I-10 at Lafayette. Unfortunately, by the time we got by New Iberia, we were probably tired and just ready to get to the freeway and eat something in Lafayette. The truth is, I don't remember much about that trip back.
It's unfortunate that I didn't take the time to stop in New Iberia to check out its most famous resident, Hadrian. I'm quite an ancient history buff, and Hadrian ruled Rome just about the time the empire was at it's most extensive and powerful. He built the wall across northern England that bears his name to control entrance and egress of northern tribes like the Picts and to serve to discourage invasions from the North into Roman settled lands in the south of the country. A recent movie, King Arthur (2004) was set along Hadrian's Wall and depicts Arthur as a Roman officer, and Guinevere as a Pict warrior.
But I digress. Until 2008, New Iberia hosted a statue of the Roman emperor which was carved in 127 A.D. The statue was about 7 feet tall and a landmark of the town but had been a target of vandalism, prompting the IberiaBank, which owned it, to put it under a locked glass atrium. The bank had originally bought the statue from a New Orleans collector who had himself purchased it in 1957. The bank paid $3,000 for Hadrian's statue, which it sold at auction at Christies in New York for $900,000. Not a bad return on its initial investment, I'd say.
Near New Iberia sits Avery Island, which is where Tabasco Sauce was formulated and still made today. Tabasco is a great sauce for pretty much everything - in New Orleans I learned to put Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce on things and even today I spice up my scrambled eggs with Tabasco. I've never been to Avery Island, but a popular legend says that the scourge of the swamp, the nutria, came from an Avery Island attempt to breed them for their fur, which can be used in coats and hats. These giant rats from Brazil with orange teeth were supposedly freed after a hurricane came through the area, and because they have no natural enemies, they bred like wildfire. They damage levees by digging into them, and eat native vegetation. When I lived in New Orleans, the sheriff of the neighboring parish had posses out shooting them, and the state paid a bounty for every nutria tail brought in. As a New Orleans reporter, my wife went on a nutria hunt with some Cajun hunters who were taking advantage of the state program.
I would have also liked to have seen the live oaks. When I lived in New Orleans, a drive or walk down Carrolton Avenue or St. Charles Avenue was always a treat because of the huge, ancient live oaks planted there. These massive oak trees are the ones that you might think of when you think of the South. Massive, spreading branches that reach out over the street, providing cooling shade in the hottest of summers. In Carnival season, the trees become a record of Carnivals and Mardi Gras' past, because beads thrown from Carnival floats often get stuck in the branches of the trees. I've thought of a great title for a novel: The Bead Trees (sorry Barbara Kingsolver!) They also have been known to hold up Mardi Gras parades, because floats sometimes have to maneuver under their boughs. During storms, a branch that breaks off a live oak tree can weigh a ton and squash down a car underneath like one of those car compactors. I assume that the live oaks in New Iberia are probably just as majestic and beautiful, and have served witness to much of history in their quiet way.
If you want to know more about New Iberia
Next up: Delcambre, Louisiana