Unfolding the Map
Up over the bridge, the lake curving under us with smoky refineries and a gleaming casino at the water's edge. We'll pass right by Lake Charles, and head north with William Least Heat-Moon toward Shreveport. Click on the map thumbnail to see where we are located now.
"At Lake Charles, another sinuous parabola of bridgeway, an aerial thing curving about so I could see its underside as I went up.
"The city stretched below in a swelter of petrochemical plants and wharves. I got through only with effort and pressed north to state 27."
Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 14
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Lake Charles was always a little bit of a mystery to me when I passed by it a couple of times on the way to and from New Orleans from Texas. The freeway, I-10, would suddenly rise on a bridge over the lake. On the shore to the south, petrochemical plants smoked away and there, in the midst of the plants was a large casino.
It seemed to me to encapsulate the major addictions of the American psyche. One addiction, our constant need for petroleum and petroleum-based products, is pretty apparent. Where would America be economically if we didn't use the 25% of the world's oil that we use? (That percentage puts U.S. use first among all nations by a wide margin. The country next on the usage list, China, uses only nine percent of the world's oil.) Most of our usage goes to automobiles, so our oil addiction feeds our addiction to auto travel. I'm not saying this is bad - I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without access to a vehicle. However, I'm saying that one day the gravy train will end as oil is such a finite resource, and coming off of our addictions will be a hard withdrawal.
Our addiction to oil makes it possible for Americans to travel to places like Lake Charles, or Gulf Coast Mississippi, or to various Indian reservations, to feed another addiction, gambling. It makes it possible even for us to visit the grandaddy of all places devoted to cashing in on addictions, Las Vegas. As a country, we love to gamble! In 2004, it was estimated that 54.1 million Americans visited casinos (http://www.overcominggambling.com/facts.html). Of course, the recent economic troubles in the United States have cut deeply into our ability to both travel, because fuel costs more and even addicts will cut back a little on their habit if money is tight. The casinos, and really, everything associated with leisure and entertainment, has been hit very hard in the recession. So, I can't imagine that times are really good in places like Lake Charles right now. Places that depend on these industries will do well when the times are good, but really take a hit when times are tough.
I didn't ever stop in Lake Charles, but know a person who grew up there. She is the wife of a graduate school colleague of mine, and they would make many trips from New Orleans to Lake Charles to visit her family. They now live in Houston, a little closer to Lake Charles, and I'm assuming they get to see family a little more often now.
Nellie Lutcher, a pioneer R&B and jazz pianist who was well known especially in Los Angeles where she often played in joints on Central Avenue, recorded a song about her hometown. The song is called the Lake Charles Boogie. I give it to you here, from YouTube, for your listening pleasure. It's not every place that can inspire some fine rhythm and blues!
If you want to know more about Lake Charles
Next up: Rosepine, Anacoco, Hornbeck and Zwolle, Louisiana