We began our bookpacking journey with Kate Chopin’s heartbreaking novel, The Awakening, set first in 1870’s Grand Isle and then in New Orleans. It follows Edna Pontellier, a twenty-eight-year-old mother and wife wrestling with her role as a woman in society and searching for her place in the world. In The Awakening, Grand Isle is a glamorous vacation spot for the prominent Creole bourgeoisie of the city, fit with fine interconnected wood cabins facing a serene ocean. For entertainment, vacationers hosted starlit evenings of music, nibbling on delicate gold and silver cakes, after peaceful days of sewing, swimming, and gossiping. I was excited to roam the shore or walk the Grand Isle streets and feel like I could put myself in Edna’s shoes or see through her eyes, immersed in the world of Kate Chopin. Instead, the stark difference between Chopin’s whimsical and melancholic Grand Isle and the Grand Isle of today was made quite clear from an encounter we had with some friendly Louisianans on the beach, on one beautiful Tuesday morning.
The interaction went a bit like this.
“YOU’RE FROM LOS ANGELES?” The boy on the beach howled with laughter. His two friends smiled widely in amused bewilderment.
“YOU CAME ALL THE WAY FROM CAAAL-LEE-FORNYA TO THE MOST-SOUTH-SOUTHERN-EST PART OF LOUISIANA… TO GO TO THE BEACH?”
With this last outburst the boy, Alex, had tired himself out. Sinking into his beach chair, his head seemed to recede into his body like a soft, white turtle, as he chuckled and examined us groggily.
It was around 7:00 AM that day on Grand Isle. My newfound friends and I had been swimming in the ocean for more than an hour since rushing to the beach to enjoy a breathtaking Louisiana sunrise.
All prospects of romance and serenity were abruptly shattered by our neighbors to the left. Alex and his two friends were enjoying the latter hours of an all-nighter of partying and inebriated arguments over which Saints player was better, finally settling down around 5:30 AM at their pop-up-beach-bachelor-pad—three dilapidated folding chairs surrounded by a graveyard of empty beer cans. I’d like to think that at least 50% of the cans were crushed via can-to-skull contact, granted these dude-bros were the real deal.
While we were attempting to enjoy the glorious view of an orange-pink sky and a rising red sun—colossal tuna seiners creeping across the horizon, confidently lowering their wing-like rigs for a new day of fishing—the boys blasted country EDM on their speaker, a bizarre and jarring combination of noise that made us laugh. An air-duet of drumming and guitaring from our sunrise companions distracted my group from the beautiful scene in the distance to an arguably more intriguing one on the sand. We decided to make friends.
In typical Southern fashion, the boys instantly welcomed us as we approached, shaking our hands and offering us each a doomed can of beer. We declined their gracious offer to share in their beach breakfast.
“You came… all the way from Los Angeles… to go to Grand Isle… Grand Isle,” gasping through laughter, Alex played up the gag with exaggerated disbelief, eventually relaxing into a lethargic smile, proud of his comedy. He was shirtless, sporting a pair of sunglasses which—missing an ear rest—had fallen diagonally across his face. No attempt had been made to correct it, and apparently, the glasses were not even his. His friend, skin red and splotchy due to his girlfriend’s apparent misapplication of sunscreen, laughed as he told us to pay Alex no mind; the more than 24 hours of sleepless drinking had clearly affected his articulation. “Take me to Lag-un-aaa Beach,” Alex yelled to no one in particular. “They have some of the best lookin’ women there at Laguna Beach,” he said, with hands behind head, contemplating his sophisticated observation. The third friend—beautifully tanned with a cross necklace resting proudly on his well-exercised chest—politely reiterated Alex’s confusion at us being in Grand Isle. We explained the bookpacking program and asked for any recommendations from our new friends—they lived about 60 miles North of New Orleans but were familiar with the city. We were to go to Drago’s for oysters and Deannie’s for all other seafood dishes.
We laughed over our mutual surprise that anyone was on the beach that early. “Yeah, we thought y’all were crazy,” they said. We parted ways after our three beach buddies had their last laugh at us having sought out what was clearly a vacation spot for locals to chug beers and lounge in their family-owned camps.
So here I was, a thousand miles away from Los Angeles with twelve strangers for the very specific reason of reading books at the places in which they are set, thinking I’d be immersing myself in the luxurious beach town where our glamorous 1870’s protagonist had her grand awakening—with romantic visions of sunsets, pensive waves, and salty air—and three shirtless boys couldn’t stop laughing at us about it.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kate Chopin’s Grand Isle anymore.
Grand Isle is, for the most part, a long stretch of gravel road, rough at the edges where the street meets the grass, lined by elevated wooden houses with a backdrop of vibrant blue sky, unbelievably white clouds, and bright, green foliage. A relentless sunshine reflects off the uneven grey street and wood siding of the houses, producing an image like an over-exposed photograph, still beautiful through squinted eyes. No two houses shared the same architecture, and for any given row of them, the members of the pastel color wheel received fair and just representation. Rows of large houses, or “camps” as they were called there, were separated every so often by swamp-like patches of water wherein gorgeous sailboats rested in the calm afternoon. No longer a luxurious vacation spot for the affluent city folk of the 19th century, the Grand Isle of 2019 was instead home to a warm, unaffected people—full of the charm of the American South and the joie de vivre of the French Creole—with tanned legs dangling idly from golf carts speeding down the road, stopping for the occasional drive-thru daquiri (one of the more surprising Louisiana staples observed so far).
Though not the sophisticated beach destination I imagined when reading The Awakening, Grand Isle possesses a refreshing, down-to-Earth charm, where local restaurants advertise their “Never-Frozen-Burger”—which I’d say is the bare minimum—where their tastiest fried food is sold in a gas station hole-in-the-wall named after a real cat called Jim Bob, where they put playgrounds next to cemeteries, and where kind, blonde women take interest in students bookpacking in their beloved town and give them about five pounds of free Pecan pastries, just for fun (these are all things that really happened). Long gone are the years of pampered vacationing for stately Creoles and foreign visitors in Grand Isle—today, it welcomes local families and college friends, enjoying the simple pleasures that their intimate town has to offer, like sucking on some fried crawfish, fishing on a quiet lake, or laughing at the Californians who came all the way to southern Louisiana just for a swim.