Cheyenne LaRoque

Be the Change

With our initial journey of New Orleans having come to a close, our bookpackers group made our way to Baton Rouge to have one of the most incredible experiences of a lifetime. After a long drive full of great tunes and greater naps, we pulled up to the perfectly placed Hotel Indigo, which was just feet from the water but also close to cafes and shops. The lovely view from our room would not stay a view for long though, as we quickly decided to venture out.

Our first couple days in Baton Rouge were spent touring the capitol building, the courthouse, and, perhaps most jarringly, the thankfully no longer used prison cells of New Roads. While the cells were extremely run down, with paint flakes falling from the ceiling, it was easy to envision Jefferson, the falsely accused man of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, sitting quietly on one of the bunks. The conditions of this prison were unimaginable, as it resided on the upper floor of the courthouse and had no air conditioning. As we all know, Louisiana is rather unforgiving when it comes to its astonishing heat, making even a quick tour of the facility unbearable. Seeing these cells and hearing about the conditions prisoners were subjected to made Jefferson even more of a sympathetic character who was put in a nightmare of a situation.

What truly made this novel come to life for many of us bookpackers, though, was meeting the man who put the story to paper. The one-in-a-lifetime experience of meeting Ernest J. Gaines in person and getting to discuss this novel and the art of writing with him was something that meant a great deal to me, personally. To be a writer with the opportunity to  receive advice from someone so acclaimed was simply astounding. Gaines advice was overshadowed, though, when I began to realize that he did not just bring the story to life but was also making efforts to preserve the history from which the story derived.

The property on which Dr. Gaines lives was the very same plantation he grew up on and he has made many efforts to keep the land true to its roots. He has gone to lengths as great as moving the church, which also functioned as a schoolhouse, that inspired the church in which Grant taught onto his property, into his backyard, to keep it from getting demolished. Rather than get rid of a piece of history such as this, he has taken it into his own hands and kept up the maintenance of the building and the narrative it tells. Having taken a seat on the benches of the church, I felt A Lesson Before Dying become tangible and could almost see Grant behind the podium in the church with his Westcott ruler in hand, ready to smack any of his students brave enough to misbehave.

Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to figure out how a man should live.
— Ernest J. Gaines

Not only did the setting of the book become tangible in walls of this church, but Grant’s feeling of confinement and desire to escape did as well. I could feel how the walls of the church and the surrounding town could become a type of prison in the mind of Grant, an inescapable life sentence to something seemingly mundane and undesirable. As he says himself, every day is about the same. He knows what his students will say, who will wear what, and who will go on to be somebody regardless of his influence on them. Grant, in living out his self-imposed Groundhog’s Day, finds that he has commitment only to maintaining the mundane life he leads.

This is not a feeling unique to Grant, as I’ve often found myself in a similar sort of rut with seemingly no escape. The routines of everyday life can quickly grow tiresome and, just as teaching grows mundane to Grant, being a student can seem just as mundane. Going to lecture after lecture only to hear professors rattle on about, more often than not, something they’ve already discussed countless times, gave me a decent idea of how Grant felt listening to his students rattle off the same few bible verses every morning. The overdone and outlived nature of every day leaves a person worn out beyond belief, hopelessly begging for a change and a sense of purpose being restored.

Grant and I, to an admittedly lesser degree, both receive this sense of purpose, whether or not we are reluctant to take it initially. Grant receives his sense of purpose from the impossible task he’d been given: teaching Jefferson how to be a man. In taking on this task, Grant is not only taken out of his rut of daily bible verses, he is also given the chance to make a change for someone else. The change is twofold, as both end up having a great influence on the other and, in the end, Grant is made a better man with a newfound sense of purpose and sense of self.

I, like Grant, have been pulled out of my rut by an impossible task: travelling to Louisiana with 12 complete strangers, visiting various historical sites, reading various historical works, and somehow making friends along the way. Much as Grant is apprehensive towards his task with Jefferson, I was apprehensive about this bookpacking experience. Before departure, there were countless times I contemplated dropping out of the course, sure that I wouldn’t enjoy the journey. Once the fateful day came and I was sitting on the plane, I thought about getting up and off as fast as possible. Routines weren’t meant to be broken, I thought. Scenario after scenario flew through my head but, against my better judgement, I fastened my seat belt. I’m glad I did.

Had I turned back around and let my own apprehension get the better of me, I would have missed out on some of the coolest experiences and some of the most amazing friendships. From going out sightseeing to staying in for hotel movie nights, strutting down Bourbon Street to strolling in the Garden District, and sunrise swims to midnight ice cream runs, I’ve made countless memories with my fellow bookpackers. Both having been stuck in our own ruts of mundane living, Grant and I were jarred back into motion by life-changing experiences. Grant, in choosing to continue his lessons with Jefferson, and I, in choosing not to hop on the first plane out of Louisiana, did what we did not think we could: we broke our routines and changed for the better.

Yes, I told myself. It is finally over.
— Ernest J. Gaines

Diving In, Learning to Swim

The beginning of my journey with Bookpacking the Big Easy started as all good adventures do: with a disaster. After a sleepless night and a ride cancellation, I arrived at the airport with little time to spare so meeting the people I’d spend countless hours with had to wait in line. The flight, while long, consisted of many power naps and a multitude of movies. Upon touching down in Louisiana, though, the world had changed around me. The second I stepped off the plane, my back and neck were drenched and every inch of my skin was slick with Louisiana’s famously humid air. The waft of heat upon exiting the aircraft, though, was the most notable. As one would be hit with hot, thick, air upon opening an oven, I was hit with the hot, thick air of the Big Easy, except there was no sheet of fresh baked cookies beyond my fogged-up glasses but in its place was the prospect of adventure and of change.

That summer at Grand Isle she began to loosen the little mantle of reserve that had always enveloped her.
— Kate Chopin

Our first stop on the journey was Grand Isle, a popular tourist destination now and long ago. With plenty of time to kill and the perfect setting, The Awakening by Kate Chopin inhabited the hands of each bookpacker. Chopin’s novel, set in the late 19th century, follows Edna Pontellier on a journey of self discovery as she realizes that, in her view of the world and of her own place in it, she stands alone. During her vacation on Grand Isle, Edna learns to do something daring, a previously unacquired skill: she learns to swim. In learning to do something she had not been able to, Edna embraces a new sense of self and a flood of empowerment.

Sitting on the beach and gazing out into the water that she would have been essentially baptized in, reborn as a new Edna, was a surreal experience. The sound of the waves crashing to the shore and sinking back in gave a whole new dimension to Edna’s pull towards the water. The push and pull of the waves drew me further into Chopin’s beautiful crafted lines of emotional reality. Edna’s transformation in those waves thus mirrored my transformation on that beach, though mine was admittedly a much less significant change.


As a generally scared and apprehensive person, going on a trip with a group of strangers to an unfamiliar place was nothing short of daunting. There were many times when I was tempted to back out and run away from something so personally unheard of. I simply could not see myself managing to be social for any extensive amount of time, let alone the upcoming three weeks. I, like Edna, needed to make a change and grow past an impediment. So I dove right in.

For a while, I couldn’t even manage to float. Making small talk was torturous at first, as I felt the words rushing back into my lungs, drowning me, but soon enough I grew past this hiccup. Edna and I learned to float together. I made small talk, we both moved forward. Soon we both began to take the lead. I started conversations, Edna kicked her legs. Soon enough, we both fully took control of our fears and cast them aside for the new lives we wished to lead. Edna, growing into somewhat of a feminist icon with her radical (for the time) ideas of what the role of a woman is and what role an intimate relationship should serve, and I, growing into someone who can have multiple conversations with multiple strangers that lead to blossoming friendships, both have had life changing experiences on the shores of Grand Isle.

She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself-her present self-was in some way different than the other self.
— Kate Chopin

This summer, I expect, will be like no other. Edna Pontellier’s summer at Grand Isle led her down a path of self-discovery and growth and I expect my bookpacking journey to have much the same effect. Already, I am bearing witness to the fruits of adventure, meeting people of like minds, discovering those of like-minds and of similar interests. From mere days in a house on the beach, I gained an understanding of Edna’s new present self. Grand Isle is a place of change in its very essence, withstanding yet adapting to hurricane after hurricane. Edna, much like the properties of Grand Isle to weather, adapts to her newfound sense of self, with her beams and her flood-born height coming from her desire to be her own person through rejecting the luxuries her life as a Pontellier had gifted her.

In finding a place of her own, Edna becomes, in her mind, self-sufficient and no longer in need of the fiscal support of her husband. Much like the shifting of the architecture from the ground to the air, Edna elevates herself in her own mental standing from a dependent to an independent.

Edna’s means of changing her standing are nothing short of extraordinary either. She, much like myself, is an artist and while our mediums of choice may differ, what we draw from our craft is similar. While she may fall out of love with her passion rather quickly, she draws from it a sense of worth both figuratively and literally with it being her outlet as well as her financial security. While I have yet to make anything of my work in an economic sense, it does remain an outlet through which I express what I feel cannot be expressed. Edna does the same, expressing her anger towards the era in which she was born and the role she was forced to fill as well as her inability to conform to social standards in her makeshift artist’s loft, painting the days away.

My present self, much like Edna’s in her moments of self-sustainability, have already drifted from my past self and become another. This new self is one that would talk to and befriend eleven strangers and one who would sign up for a bookpacking trip in the first place. While my personal growth is nowhere near as drastic as Edna’s, it is just as empowering. The soft sands of Grand Isle, the silt-clouded waves that brush the shore, they have served as stepping stones and as guiding forces for both Edna and I in our journeys of self-discovery. I can only dream of a change so drastic, but, as far as summers come, this is sure to be one I never forget, full of personal growth and hopefully a lot more diving right in and learning to swim.

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