One thing is abundantly clear: I went to Hodges Gardens twice. Hodges Gardens is a magical place in Western Louisiana, and life is strange, beautiful, and horrifying, sometimes in no particular order, and sometimes in exactly that order. As the great philosopher, Earl Theodore Simmons, once exclaimed, "It's dark and hell is hot." This is a simple paraphrase of the most famous quote by the Catholic Saint, Joan of Arc, "Damn, it's hot in here."
With those words of wisdom out of the way, earlier this year I up and decided to drive three hours to Many, Louisiana, which can brag of such famous luminaries as Cliff Ammons, former state representative, and Ethel, who works at the Cracker Barrel down the street. I did not drive to Many to see the birthplace of representative Ammons, nor Ethel, but the rumored Hodges Gardens, a paradise upon Earth, a place not dark, nor hot as hell, except the second time I went there, but I'll get to that.
I stumbled upon Hodges Gardens while aimlessly surfing Google Maps one day, or as it's known in support groups, Geography Porn. I had selected the little option where user-submitted photographs popped up at the bottom of the region you're exploring, when suddenly a massive waterfall and unspeakably beautiful gardens, punctuated by massive boulders, loomed before me.
"Surely this is photoshopped harder than Katy Perry's cellulite," I thought. "We don't have anything like this in Louisiana."
Boy, was I wronger than that Joan of Arc joke I told in the first paragraph.
We do have something like this in Louisiana, and it is called Hodges Gardens.
But Hodges Gardens wasn't always Hodges Gardens. Once, it was an untamed, rocky, wooded wilderness on the edge of the massive Kisatchie National Forest. Then, Native Americans, or as the city of Cleveland calls them, Indians, came and slightly tamed it. Then white people came and killed all of them, raped the land, and took all of the best rocks to build some white people things. Then some nicer white people came and decided to try to do something with the barren quarry the not as nice white people left behind, saw beauty in the ruins, and created a giant breathtaking lake, a colorful, well-planted garden full of waterfalls, a rustic lighthouse, and hiking trails in the adjoining woods.
If this was indeed a real place, by Kesha's bones, I wasn't about to not go there. I eagerly took a cool March day off of work, got in my car, and headed west.
Unfortunately, I made a rookie mistake. I gave myself a cut-off time. I had to make it to the Lecompte, Louisiana post office by 3 pm, in order to mail something. One must never post limits on an adventure into mystery. And that is why this travelogue, like my dream home, is a double-wide.
And now to begin...
To get to Many, Louisiana, you must take many roads.
I had to speed down all of them, because for some reason, I decided that I had to mail an EBay auction winner their item that very day, and not the next one, when I could have just skipped work to do it (NOTE TO BOSSES: Hahaha, that's a joke, don't fire me...please...I have a family to feed...and I really need the health insurance right now...I would never skip work...I love you! We can make this work! I'll take you out more! I'll do more thoughful things around the house! I promise! It was just a fling! She didn't mean anything! I don't love her...I love you! Could we just talk about this later when I get home?).
Anyway, I did not get to take my time to the level that I prefer, but I did have to stop a couple of times because something awful happens when you reach Presidential Age: you have to pee pretty much all the time. I am peeing right now. There is no end to the amount of urine that must escape my body. Where does this urine come from? Has a more advanced universe opened a trans-dimensional portal in my bladder, in order to transfer their owns liquid wastes to our less-intelligent world? These are the types of questions the presidential candidates SHOULD HAVE BEEN answering. Also, "are you, or are you not humans?" I'm not sure why Ken Bone didn't ask that one.
Speaking of bone, on my tenth pit stop in as many miles, I ended up at Camp Claiborne, another thing that white people made, or more likely made by a subjugated group of minorities in exchange for minimum wage or some sandwiches, probably bologna on white with mayonnaise, at the bequest of white people. It was used in the 1940's to train American soldiers to go fight the Nazis, which seems pretty important, so naturally, the structure is in complete ruin and disrepair, and jerk-offs with aging bladders stop by from time to time to piss on it. Also, there's unexploded ordinances there, because this is America, dammit.
For some reason, at about this point, a police man started tailing my car, and did so for most of the final hour of my trip, most likely because he cared about my safety and well-being. At some point, probably after peeing on the fort, I passed a sign that said welcome to the Kisatchie National Forest, and things certainly felt different from that point, sort of like some giant pine monster had devoured me. Then, while traveling on a state highway with a 65 mph speed limit, the road suddenly turned into a roundabout. I'm pretty sure that roundabouts are a slow way of the British attempting to retake the continent, after that whole "attack you directly" thing failed when a bunch of Louisianians shot them in their faces.
I knew that I was supposed to take a right to get to Hodges Gardens, but before me lay a beautiful mass of concrete and drywall called The Market Basket. I then decided that I needed to purchase an apple, and also pee again.
Upon exiting my car, I noticed that the parking lot was full of cigarette-smoking elderly women, and at that point I suddenly realized that this store was not "The Market Basket," but "The Damn Market Basket." As in:
"Hey, Dorris, when you gonna get here?"
"I'll be there in a few minutes, Ethel, first I gotta swing by The Damn Market Basket."
The best part about The Damn Market Basket, despite the fact that it is called The Damn Market Basket, is that the produce guy was both shocked and amazed at the fact that I wanted to purchase an apple (after, of course, urinating...in the bathroom, not in the apples). Here is a copy of our exchange.
"You like them things?"
"No, like, um...like, uh...them kind of apples?"
"Like Pink Lady apples? Yeah, they're good."
"Maybe one day I'll try them kind of apples."
"Yeah, you should."
"They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away."
"Yes, I guess they do say that."
The strange thing is, The Damn Market Basket is a very nice grocery store, spacious, with a sensible layout and a great selection, and that apple did keep the doctor away, at least for that day (except for Dr. Funk, whose prescription I try to keep daily).
Finally, I made it to Hodges Gardens.
Just kidding, I followed a sign which included the wrong information, reached a cliff side that surely didn't really exist, ran into a girl standing by the road in the middle of nowhere, asked her if she needed help, admitted that I actually needed help, then left her there because she is probably that girl from The Witch.
Then I made it to Hodges Gardens.
Hodges Gardens really doesn't appear to belong in Louisiana. I love Louisiana, but our cheap, lowly topography is coastal wetland, and I basically live in a swamp full of cane field islands. As I rounded over the final hill of my trek, I came down a lakeside road, which appeared to belong in California. In fact, I've legitimately been to California, and taken a picture of a lake that looked exactly like the one at Hodges Gardnes. Here's one of them. Can you tell me which one this is, and also, can you please do so without being a smartass, because I get my feelings hurt easily? HINT: I'M TOO LAZY TOO HUNT DOWN A PICTURE FROM 17 YEARS AGO.
I reached the parking lot, then wandered around, pretty sure that either the police man, The Witch, or Ethel drugged me, because Hodges Gardens does not appear to be of this world.
I can't even make fun of it. There is nothing to make fun of. I can't believe this exists in our state. This simply isn't what Louisiana looks like.
After staying on trail, I played a classic The Nicsperiment move and went off-trail, even though I was pressed for time. I then ended up in a cypress swamp in the middle of the woods. Where I live, cypress trees usually equal nearby gators, and I don't really like running into alligators in the wild, because for gators, a human a day keeps the doctor away, especially if that human just ate an apple. After giving the cypress swamp a wide berth, I wandered aimlessly through the forest, crossing streams, running into giant stone boulders that must have somehow crashed down from the sky, found a strange, sandy hill, and then pulled out my knife because I heard something large crashing through the woods.
Sunlight glinted through the leaf-cover, as suddenly, everything was still, and I crouched toward the noise, knife in hand. Barely visible through the brush, something brown and mottled with white, roughly five or six feet off the ground, turned in my direction. I felt a strange wave of connection wash over me, like I was joined to something vast, ancient, dwarfing the very concept of "me."
Suddenly, the creature let out a neigh, and bolted across my path, then up the hill, and out of sight.
It was a wild horse.
"What just happened?" I said out loud, breaking the spell. I put away my knife, stepped a few feet ahead, and checked the ground. Indeed, it was covered in horse prints...barefoot horse prints--as in, that horse wasn't wearing horse shoes, and was just running free in the middle of a forest, a billion miles from civilization, near a Magical Garden.
Later, when I reached home, I googled Kisatchie Horses, and thankfully, while I am insane, my insanity does not cause me to hallucinate visions of horses. Herds of wild horses, thought to be the descendants of cavalry horses released after World War II, actually do roam the forests of the Kisatchie.
I can honestly say, running into a wild horse in the middle of the woods when I was not anticipating running into a wild horse in the middle of the woods is one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
Um...weiners. Now, what was I talking about?
Okay, so I saw that horse, and then realized I was probably way off course, and pushing my three pm post office time. I tried to find my way out, but instead found a fishing pier, an abandoned water tower, a freaky old barn, a bunch of mysterious boulders, and these ruined greenhouses from Resident Evil.
Finally, I made it to my car, got to the post office at 2:50, satisfied my EBay customer (just kidding, I've never satisfied anyone... :( ), and then went to the nearby Lea's Lunchroom, because apparently, Lecompte is "The Pie Capital of Louisiana."
Actually, I'm the Pie Capital of Louisiana, but that is neither here nor there.
Lea's is more of a "Southern Eatery" than a "Louisiana Eatery," featuring food one would most likely eat in other parts of the South. In other words, the stuff they serve that Judaism forbids is more of the hoofed variety than the crawling in a ditch variety. That was fine by me, as the hoofed variety they serve was full of fatty flavor and delicious. The vegetables, misused in many other regions as a source of health and vitality, were also full of fatty flavor and delicious.
And then I ate pie, delicious pie, so much pie...er, no more pie.
I then immediately went to a nearby gas station and got some pizza and an energy drink because if you haven't figured it out yet, there is something seriously wrong with me...and you best believe that that pizza and can of chemicals didn't make it down the street without meeting my insides...ugh...sorry, that was gross.
Thus came the end of my first trip to Hodges Gardens. I didn't intend for it to be a "first trip." It was supposed to be the only one. My plan was to go on this road trip, make some memories, and then have a normal year where I maintained the sweet, sweet status quo.
Of course, that didn't happen. For instance, because I had to rush, less of the trip stuck in my head than I would like. I also didn't quite get to explore the Gardens to the extent that I wanted...might sound crazy to some people, but there was more I wanted to see.
Not only that, but pretty much no year for me has had any sort of status quo, and I am guessing that is the same for most people, or for whatever species I belong to. A few months after my trip to Hodges, my wife and I went on a cruise with some friends (I'll do a travelogue on that as soon as I pay it off!), and it looked like smooth sailing ahead. My old buddies, crippling social anxiety and depression, seemed to be far away, and indeed they did stay far away. I hate those guys. But other things happened, things which have forced me to continue to grow as a human being when all I want to do is lie on the floor and eat pizza.
Indeed, I have had to work hard at being a husband and a father when I thought I had all those things worked out. But most importantly, I've had to deal with some personal issues that date back to whenever my home people dropped me off on this rock. Man, it has been so, so fun. So fun, that I decided a few weeks ago that I needed to visit Hodges Gardens again. I mean, I'm like a completely different person now than I was eight months ago. I even bought a Sega CD! These are different times: the newly elected President's now on-hiatus day-job is game show host, and his biggest opponent had already lived in the White House for eight years. In fact, for all but eight of the last 28 years, a Bush or a Clinton has been in the President's chair. Why do we have royal dynasties? It's like we're England or something! So it's the guy who says he "Grabs um by the Pu$$y," (I keep seeing that quote written that way, and must guess that that word has a high value in our society) and who has been accused of sexual assault, or the wife of the guy who has been accused of sexual assault. Either way, we apparently want sexual assault to be associated with our top Presidential candidates. But I don't have time for politics here! Who cares! They're all sociopaths! If you think you should be in charge of everyone, you probably shouldn't be in charge of everyone!
With that said, the state of Louisiana wouldn't let me write my name in as a Presidential candidate, but I sure can finish this travelogue!
* * *On a not so cool (mid 80's!) November day, I once again set out for Hodges Gardens. This time, I had no time constraints. I took my time, and it was glorious...ly foggy. Also, I got to take a decent pic of the inside of the under-repairs Atchafalaya bridge at Krotz Springs--or, as we used to call Krotz Springs in high school... well, you can guess.
Thankfully, the fog cleared up just in time, as I had pulled up to a rest stop, noticed it was obscuring some random lake, and saw there was a snake warning. Of course, I had pulled over to this rest stop to release...you guessed it, Crotch Springs.
My wife called me while I was gazing out at this mysterious wonder, and she gave me some bad news: Her mission to Krispy Kreme to retrieve a that-day-only pumpkin spice donut had ended in failure. While I personally think pumpkin spice tastes like vomit, my wife loves it, and since I am trying to be more supportive, I told her to keep her head up and keep fighting the good fight. Also, Donald Trump is President.
I must confess that going into this trip, I had been suffering from a migraine for about three days. I have been drinking the devil's juice, coffee, for the last two weeks or so because I had a day where I needed a lot of it...like gallons of it, and my wife is now helping me to slowly ween myself off of satan's brew. Actually, on a purely evolutionary level, coffee is winning--get another species addicted to you, and you don't even have to breed anymore--they'll do all the work for you! They'll spread your beans across the galaxies!!!
So, seeing a deer in the wild can be a very spiritual experience, almost, but not on par with seeing a wild horse...in the wild. I've only seen that one horse, but I've run into deer on several occasions--I mean with my eyeballs, not with my car. Also, deer are delicious. Haven't tried horse yet.
Anyway, on that same old highway that ends in a roundabout, I saw a huge buck standing just outside the tree line on the side of the road. Of course, any time you actually see a beautiful beast in the wild, your first thought isn't "Let me get my camera," but instead, "Please don't run away, please don't run away, please don't run away!" He did, however, run away, but then I suddenly realized with delight that I actually had taken a picture about twenty seconds earlier, because I thought the juxtaposition of the highway and sky was beautiful.
Turns out, you can actually see the deer, on the right-hand side, though he looks like a cross between a pinprick and bigfoot. Little known fact: an actual pinprick once bred with an actual bigfoot. The result became a famous celebrity, but I've been sworn to secrecy cough***Katy Perry***coughcough.
I knew even before it rose over the majestic roundabout, that I would have to pay a visit to The Damn Market Basket.
Now that I wasn't having to rush, I decided to be more aware of my surroundings, and it turns out that The Damn Market Basket is right on the edge of the fine town of Leesville, LA. If iconography reveals the true nature of a place, Leesville really loves America and Jesus. There are American flags and pictures of Jesus everywhere, even in The Damn Market Basket. I also noticed another strange flag around Leesville, a red one with a blue X and some stars on it. I don't know what that flag meant, but I'm guessing by the fact that Leesville loves both America and Jesus so very, very much, it must mean something good. Here's a fine gentleman flying it from his motorcycle, and wearing it on his head. America and Jesus are proud. Also, I got a Faygo and some Bugles from The Damn Market Basket because apparently I am a Juggalo.
I found Hodges Gardens way easier on the second trip, probably because The Witch didn't put a spell on me this time. I decided to explore more of the Gardens main peninsula, at least to start. The Gardens again revealed untold wonders, untold because, as before, I was the only person there, though actually sort of told because I talk to myself. The lack of humans makes Hodges Gardens seem even more unreal, and more like some kind of post-civilization oddity that a just crash-landed astronaut discovers after the apocalypse. Oh, yeah, and it's also like Myst. That game was harder than Katy Perry's heart. By the way, Russell Brand gave me $5 and a can of Pringles to write all this mean stuff about Katy Perry. I have already spent the cash on more Faygo and some Hatchetgear.
I remembered a hiking trail I had to pass up the first go through because of the time constraint, and decided after clearing the main area (of zombies), to head that way.
I suddenly realized something while walking to that trail: God was already mad at me for the future act of making that Joan of Arc joke, and had decided to smite me with fire, which is the only way to explain the kind of heat I experienced that November day in Hodges Gardens. It was so hot that... Okay, there are several directions I can go with this joke.
There's the cute route:
1. It was so hot, I saw a squirrel trade his tail for some ice cubes.
I could go the mid-90's David Letterman route:
2. It was so hot, I saw a hooker on Broadway pay a hobo to fan her with a playbill.
I could try to make fun of your mom, but make it awkward:
3. It was as hot as your mom gets when your dad tells her how inadequate he thinks you are.
Or I could just go with this racially-motivated gem:
4. It was so hot, I was literally sweating my butt off, but since I am a white male of mostly Irish descent, this took less time than it took for me to type this sentence.
The hiking trail was pretty cool, except it was hot, a nice stream flowing nearby, with boulders strewn throughout, a dense canopy high above, and a thick layer of pine needles below. Here is a picture of me standing in front of a boulder bank, purposely making a face my wife and son will hate, while also showing most of my 143 years of age. On that note, I hope the Trump inauguration features all of the pomp and pageantry that Grover Cleveland's did. #Squadgoals, amirite? I have no idea what that means, or who Grover Cleveland is, except for when he was on Sesame Street.
Eventually, I started getting that evil feeling to go off trail, so I did. I saw an overgrown offshoot that looked possible, and found myself following a natural drainage area, kind of like the forest's colon, but not like mine, because I don't get enough fiber. At one point, the wind suddenly died, and I said, "It is as if the very air has stilled, as if God himself is holding his breath," because I am an over-dramatic douche. I followed this path for far longer than it was prudent, because a girl named Prudence was mean to me once, and I still bear a grudge. Finally, I came to a meadow in the midst of the woods, told the woods we'd call it a draw, turned around, and walked back to the main path, and then to my car. I felt like I had gotten my five dollars worth because I forgot to tell you that you have to pay five dollars to enter Hodges Gardens. Small price to pay.
Upon leaving, I noticed that across the street from the entrance to Hodges Gardens is a haunted hotel, but I'm not posting any pictures here because the last thing I need is to face the wrath of some damned hotel ghosts. They haunt your bed and make it so uncomfortable. Instead of getting back on the main highway at the roundabout, I went further south into Leesville.
This is because I don't like going home the same way that I came, which is also why I am still single.
I am so very sorry, and can only take solace in the fact that many people will miss the joke and think, "Wait, I thought he was married and has a kid, and also that he had a sense of basic human decency." I love those people. Of course, I could erase the joke, but when I put white out on my monitor, then scroll down, I can still see it. That is a waste of white out, and also a joke I stole from a Dumb Blonde Jokes Book, which I guess is considered hairist now.
Driving through Leesville brought me right by an eatery called Fatboy and Skinny's, so obviously, I stopped at Fatboy and Skinny's. I ordered a Fatboy and some Cajun Fries, and while you are what you eat, I'm not actually Cajun, so the jokes on you Fatboy and Skinny's.
After my meal, I ordered a chocolate milkshake to go, and got out of Leesville, as I don't trust villes not one little bit. I took Highway 10 through Fort Polk to Ville Platte, and then got onto Louisiana's great highway, 190. My drive home was a beautiful experience, as the sun seemed to be setting all around me, and I listened to some great tunes and reflected on the positive changes I've made in my life, besides all the dirty jokes I wrote for this travelogue, and then I made it back to my wife and child because contrary to what I said a moment ago, I do come back the way that I came, and I'm proud of it. For some reason, when I suggested that as a slogan at a Promise Keepers rally, they shot it down. If there's one thing that's wrong with this nation, it's that shocking statements aren't rewarded.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! Enjoy time with your family, whatever your concept of family entails.