Last night, I found myself in a car riding down Poydras St. getting a homegrown taste of southern hospitality in the form of John the Lyft Driver. John, born and raised in New Orleans, asked me what brought me to the city in which I explained the concept of Bookpacking and how our group had just arrived from Grand Isle. He was instantly taken aback as he asked, “Grand Isle? That’s the real edge of nowhere, ain’t it?”
Looking back on my brief time spent tucked away in my temporary corner of the Earth, reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening on a veranda with no agenda really placed things into a new perspective for me. There was a never a moment in Grand Isle where I didn’t feel relaxed and at ease not only with the world, but with my place in it– free of anxieties, insecurities, and all previous responsibilities. With all of the residences propped up on wooden beams running parallel to the coastline, homes feel more like Cypress treehouses planted in the middle of the ocean– a feeling of isolated elation in a place where slow times and simple joys are plentiful.
This is a place where nothing happens– the real edge of nowhere. However the fact that nothing’s expected to happen is exactly what makes it beautiful. Grand Isle is waking up in the morning to the sound of the ocean, buying lunch at JoeBob’s Gas and Grill, and dodging lizards and spiders as you trek through the sand in your bare feet at night. It’s dipping your toes in the warm, murky gulf while staring at distant oil rigs on the horizon. It’s hearing the flies buzz around your ears as the heat sticks to your skin. As Sadie (a fellow Bookpacker) says, “it’s an easy place to fall in love” exactly because of how simple it is.
Edna Pontellier fell in love in Grand Isle, and although her circumstances are quite different from mine (being that she is a 19th century housewife to a husband of which she doesn't love, as well as a mother to children she never wanted), I can still understand how it happened. Grand Isle is a place that asks you for your utmost attention and presence. It asks you to be nowhere else but in the moment and cuts you off from the reality of a busier life. Edna would spend summers here with her family, but in The Awakening she mostly spends time with herself figuring out who she is and what she would like to be going forward. She’s defiant for her time through the freedom that she adopts from the way of the Creole, so much so that come the end of the book, she truly lets herself go in a destructive, yet transcendent manner by releasing herself to the embrace of the sea and drowning herself in the process.
Grand Isle was only the first stop on our Bookpacking tour through Southern Louisiana, however it will remain one of the most impactful. The surreal nature of placing myself in Edna’s shoes in the exact places she supposedly once stood helped close a gap of time and space within a moment in history. Growing comfortable in a place such as that, as I’ve experienced in such a brief amount of time, can really alter a person’s mindset and help one re-evaluate their true wants, needs, and values. For me, I found myself erasing all negativities from my mind; all pressures that have been imposed onto me via the pace of the college environment were excused. I was free, and in a sense, I too released myself to the embrace of the ocean– the embrace of Grand Isle.
With all of this being said, I would never choose to live in place such as that. I had no desire to stay for longer than a brief vacation or else my mind, as restless as it is, would probably consume itself and decay into grains of sand to be lost to the wind. To Edna and her summer lover, Robert, it was the same thing. I can only imagine that anyone that ventures down to “the edge of nowhere” is bound to find the same solace and energy (or lack thereof) in the moments of beautiful silence shared between Edna Pontillier and myself. Driving in Grand Isle, I was still very tightly wound– worried that I wouldn't find my place in this program or my people within it. However, leaving Grand Isle, I recovered bits of myself that were lost within the stress I allowed myself to carry, and through that recovery, have already made memories with people I will never forget. From accidentally breaking my bunk bed, hoarding sweet honey biscuits and egg rolls, spotting dolphins across the horizon, to even getting locked out of our van in the middle of cemetery, this was only the mere beginning– the Awakening if you would– to an adventure I'll recount to my kids one day.