A road trip to the end of the line has a magnetic draw, and Louisiana offers plenty of these routes. Follow the one that leads through Chauvin and Cocodrie, however, and you may wish the road would never end.
Past the highways and bayous that bisect Houma, pick up La. 56 and follow the broad, blue waters of Bayou Petit Caillou as it leads farther and deeper into the fragile outer reaches of coastal Louisiana.
Most visitors venture down this way in Terrebonne Parish to visit camps or depart for charter fishing trips. What surprised me on a recent visit was how much the area had in store for the casual day-tripper.
That started with the Chauvin Sculpture Garden (5337 Bayouside Drive, Chauvin, (985) 594-2546; nicholls.edu/folkartcenter), which looks like something you might find in a pocket park in Barcelona and proves something of an enigma in this small bayou fishing town.
“The artist who created this place didn’t give a lot of explanation,” said Lorelei Bergeron, a docent on duty when I visited. “It’s a place where, depending on who you are and what mood you’re in, it tells you a story specifically.”
The sculpture garden is the work of Kenny Hill, a brick mason who lived in Chauvin beginning in the 1980s. On a narrow plot between the bayou and a quiet residential road, Hill built his own house (since demolished) and eventually started work on outdoor sculpture projects.
One was a 45-foot tall lighthouse, which seemed apt enough on the banks of a bayou busy with workboats and fishing vessels, though he soon covered it with a mosaic of imagery from scripture and history. As the years progressed, Hill’s sculptures proliferated and now more than 100 of them crowd the small yard in various scenes of allegory and whimsy, anguish and salvation.
Hill left town in 2000 and now lives in north Louisiana with family, while Nicholls State University took on stewardship of the property. The school now runs a small visitors center and studio here offering tours on the weekends. Admission is free, and the park is open during the week for self-guided visits.
Get past the string of businesses that makes up Chauvin’s downtown and the land quickly narrows to a sliver. At select spots all along the roadside, people pull over to work the waters with fishing poles or crab nets.
One popular area is the Robinson Canal, where sites for RV camping hold down one side of the channel and a pier lines the other. The camps are run by Lapeyrouse Seafood, Bar & Grocery (6890 La. 56, Chauvin, (985) 594-2600), which is also home to Terry’s Bar, a friendly watering hole with a covered patio overlooking the fishing scenes and a massive cache of koozies for beer drinkers to borrow.
As the scenery of camps, fishing boats and spreading marsh continues, the Elpege Picou Cemetery makes an arresting sight.
Under a shading oak, a small collection of tombs and graves sits on the slope of an Indian mound, a sacred spot for native people said to date to 1000 A.D. The mound rises just about seven feet, but compared with the uniformly flat terrain all around, it seems monumental.
There isn’t much to announce your arrival in Cocodrie, but one marker and essential stop is Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery (7243 Shoreline Dr, Cocodrie,(985) 594-3054), which is run by a different branch of the same family from the similarly named grocery up the road.
Celebrating its centennial this year, Cecil’s (as everyone seems to call it) is a vintage bayou general store stocked with everything from cast iron skillets to plumbing fixtures.
Fishermen come for fuel and bait, kids angle for penny candy and neighbors pull up stools between the narrow aisles to catch up with proprietors Etta and Cecil Lapeyreouse on the local news.
Head out back and between the store and its fuel dock on the bayou, there’s a green, shady grotto of repurposed objects and beckoning benches and swings. With a cold drink and a snack from the store, it’s a fine spot for a bit of peaceful bayou watching.
For a much different vantage on the area, push on to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, better known as LUMCON (8124 La. 56, Cocodrie, (985) 851-2800; lumcon.edu), a sprawling coastal research center in a building that looks like a high school fortified to withstand hurricanes.
The public portions of the center include displays explaining the surrounding ecosystem, though the main reason for a visit is the six-story observation tower. Accessed only by stairs, the glass-enclosed platform offers a rare sweeping view of the waterways, camp clusters, oilfield infrastructure and levee system for miles around.
The next stop is the last stop, by necessity, since the road ends abruptly in a utilitarian complex of marinas and seafood docks. It’s the business end of the bayou, and there’s a generally battened-down look, even in good weather. But right there at the end, Boudreaux’s Marina (8250 La. 56, Cocodrie, (985) 594-4568) operates a large, window-lined restaurant and bar elevated over the water. Sit down for a platter of soft shell crabs and “Coco potatoes,” mashed up with what tastes like equal parts garlic and cheese. Watch the fishing boats head out and huge pelicans swoop and plunge to catch their own meal and gaze across the green and blue of water, marsh and sky.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.