Headlights in the Dark
We’d never seen anything like it. As far as I could see, looking south on Louisiana Hwy 113, the main (and only) thoroughfare through Dry Creek, there were headlights.
On Thursday the exodus had begun and it seemed everyone knew a shortcut to avoid heavily traveled US 165 and US 171… they decided to turn off US 190 and go north on LA 113. For most of Thursday and Friday there was slow moving, closely packed traffic heading north. To cross over 113 to enter the campgrounds meant a moderate time of waiting.
Looking south after dark, the long string of headlights reminded me of the final scene in Field of Dreams: If you build it, they’ll come.
Or if Rita comes, they’ll go.
Never had we seen an exodus like this. The mandatory evacuation of both Cameron and Calcasieu parish had led to this. Everyone was wiser and warier due to Katrina’s hit on Southeast Louisiana. Cars by the dozen pulled into the Foreman’s meat market parking lot. People pored over maps, bought supplies, and discussed where they were headed and what they could expect. Many of the vehicles had stock trailers and utility trailers. The sound of yapping dogs and mooing cattle in the dusty parking lot gave it all an 1880’s Dodge City atmosphere.
Looking at the long line of headlights in the darkness reminded me of how this area had changed. As a boy I walked the four miles from our house to this corner and often never saw a moving vehicle.
Friday morning continued with the steady northward migration in Dry Creek. I went to DeRidder and although traffic was steady, there wasn’t quite the bottleneck we had seen at Foreman’s in Dry Creek.
Then after lunch the traffic suddenly cleared out. Everyone that was going had evidently gone. It was the point of no return. If you were going, you’d better get out. If you were going, the options as to where you could stay dwindled as folks talked about no hotel rooms this side of Arkansas.
The contrasting quietness at the Dry Creek intersection was stark in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the two previous days. As darkness settled and the wind began to pick up, Dry Creek community, with buildings and houses boarded up, seemed like a ghost town.
It wasn’t until midnight when we lost our electricity for good. Then we settled into a true darkness… a darkness that would persist for the next week.
As I made my rounds during the worsening storm, the darkness was pervasive. The campgrounds have plenty of night lighting on our campus. With the lights out, this normally well-lit area was in total darkness. The clouds, blowing rain, and moaning wind only made it seem darker.
Daytime on Saturday was a blur as we rode out the storm. Then the darkness returned.
Never had it seemed so dark. In the next week I would travel through DeRidder, Jasper, and Sulphur at night. The darkness in these cities was surprising as well as frightening. Driving along I-10 after midnight I would not have known Sulphur existed if not for the exit signs and a few generator-powered lights.
The first few nights after Rita were cloudy. Then as often happens following a hurricane, the clouds cleared out and the night sky showed off. There was no moon to compete with and no obscuring haze of night lights to dim the natural sky; a lower humidity opened up excellent night viewing of the isolation of the darkness.
To walk outside and see the stars was spellbinding. Never had I seen the Milky Way as brilliant across the entire sky. At its southern end, Sagittarius the teapot was angled above the horizon. I understood how earlier civilizations had seen this constellation as a hot teapot and the Milky Way as the steam pouring out its spout.
I looked north and saw our old friends the North Star and Big Dipper. Cassiopeia the queen still sat on her throne in the same area of sky.
After experiencing the power of Rita, I nearly expected these constellations of stars to be blown away, or at least be misplaced sideways by her winds. But they all were right where they’ve been for centuries… steadfast and solid in spite of the storm.
It was over two weeks before we got our power restored. We learned a lot about the simple things we take for granted. We were reminded of the comfort, intimacy, and luxury of lights—the comfort of lights—even a long, long line of headlights coming from the south—along our normally quiet country road.