Opinion

The longest night: Chicot State Park

Tuesday, June 18, 2024
Rob Martin was formerly a wildlife biologist and anatomy professor at Dyersburg State

Gayle and I traveled last week to the Great Southern Republic of Louisiana to visit friends and family. We stayed in Shreveport one night, then south through Alexandria and on to Lafayette where we ate some good Cajun seafood.

The next day we headed east across the massive Atchafalaya Basin, which is a 20 mile-wide by 150 mile-long cypress-tupelo swamp; about 1.4 million acres of wetlands.

We reminisced about boat trips into this swamp in years past, where alligators are so common and thick you can use them for stepping stones to get from one side of the bayou to the other.

Earlier in the week, while driving south of Alexandria, I noticed the turnoff to Chicot State Park, and recalled an ill-fated adventure from my college days.

My best friend at the time was Luther Zachary and we were studying wildlife biology at Louisiana Tech and working hard in a plant taxonomy class for Dr. Don Rhodes who was the plant identification guru of north Louisiana.

Part of the requirements for passing his difficult class included making a plant collection of native Louisiana plants. And we worked hard, collecting most of the plants common to north Louisiana. But we also knew that if we traveled to the southern part of the state, we could find many different plants, which would add to our collections and improve our grades. And hopefully impress Dr. Rhodes. So Luther and I came up with this brilliant idea. (Disclaimer: Luther and I were about 20, and this apparently was in the period before our brains had fully sprouted.)

One Thursday night, we acquired a highway map of Louisiana and planned a weekend plant-collecting trip to the southern part of the state. Since neither of us owned a vehicle, we planned to hitchhike (See Disclaimer above.)

We located a destination called Chicot State Park on the map way down near Ville Platte and we were certain it would be perfect for collecting unique plants. If we left after morning classes on Friday, with luck we could easily cover the 160 miles to Chicot by evening.

We would hitchhike down Friday, camp in the campground, collect plants on Saturday before hitchhiking back to Tech on Sunday in time for Monday classes. And being the lean nature-loving biologists-in-training types that we were, we wouldn’t even need much equipment.

We took sleeping bags, a plastic tarp for a tent, matches, plant collecting bags, a few snacks, with little else. The map showed a camp store at the park so we planned to buy food and whatever else we needed at this store when we arrived.

We had some success in catching rides south and didn’t waste too much time on the shoulder of the highway with our thumbs out.

We finally arrived at the state park about six pm. Chicot was a very small park with a campground, picnic area, lake, an office (which was closed by the time we arrived), and little else. We were shocked to see that no camp store of any kind was visible. No other living souls were anywhere in sight.

Undeterred, we located the camping area and began to make a simple camp. There were no other campers present but we soon realized we weren’t alone. The residents of the park that we soon met were swarms of hungry mosquitoes. When the sun went down shortly after our arrival, the mosquitoes awakened with a roar and began looking for supper.

We quickly tried to build a campfire but it was very small and very smoky, as all the wood was damp.

This small smoky fire protected us from the mosquito swarms but only if we stood in the smoke. So we alternated between standing sweating in choking smoke and emerging into fresh air and swatting a thousand hungry bloodsuckers. Resting in camp after a long day of traveling was not going to happen.

Our tarp/tent did no good at all against the mosquitoes so we mostly spent the night pacing around the dark campground, swatting bugs and waiting for daylight.

Eventually we determined it was about 1 degree cooler sitting on a little boat landing nearby, so we spent a good part of the night sitting there swatting bugs in the dark night of our souls. Waiting for sunrise that we thought would never come.

When the sky began to lighten up in the morning, we gathered our scant gear and immediately began the 160 mile trek back to our dorm rooms. The heck with plants – we grabbed a few weeds along the side of the highway as we waited for our next ride. Again, some kind people would pick us up and would carry us partway, then we would have to get thumbs out and hope for the next ride. We got home about 3 pm. Showers and ac never felt so good.

I don’t recall getting any extra credit for our plant collection. We didn’t learn any valuable plant identification. The lessons we learned were not about plants but about foolhardy plans with no preparation. We never forgot our memorable night in the Great Southern Republic of Louisiana at Chicot State Park.