Heading south on Interstate 55 past Ponchatoula, there’s an exit that just says “Frontage Road.” The frontage road stretches out in each direction from the exit toward, it seems, nothing. On each side of the road, a thick canopy of cypress trees pushes the driver’s eyes away, back to the road, seeming to point the way out. They form an impenetrable, forbidding green wall, disinterestedly advising you to move along, nothing to see here. Only a sign by a gravel parking lot indicates otherwise, and offers a way in.
The Swamp Walk at the Joyce Wildlife Management Area, just a quick skip over the train tracks from the gravel lot, is the only on-foot access to the interior of this 27,000 acre swampland in Tangipahoa Parish. The walk itself is a boardwalk, about four feet wide and less than a mile long, suspended above the low water of the swamp. It was built in 1990, though several hurricanes tearing through the area have necessitated its rebuilding since then. Running into a Wildlife and Fisheries official clearing the walk with a leafblower was a pleasant reminder that the state puts some money into keeping services like this up and running.
If you don’t own a boat, the Swamp Walk is the only way into Joyce. Joyce is popular among hunters, trappers and fishers in the area, and given its relative inaccessibility, they’re the only ones willing to go to the trouble to get inside. In that sense, the Swamp Walk is a democratizing force which expands access to the swamp, one of the biomes which shapes Louisiana’s history and identity but is easy to ignore from the larger cities. You don’t have to be a regular sportsman, canoer or hiker to get into the swamp this way, and you don’t need any special equipment. It’s ideal for someone like me, who has lived in Louisiana for five years and for various reasons has never experienced the swamp.
Experience is the word, really. Once you cross the tree line and the sounds of cars from the interstate fade out, it envelops you. You’re immersed in a complete sensory experience and you get the sense that if it wasn’t for the boardwalk, you’d be in danger of becoming part of the swamp yourself. There’s the stink, the buzzing of insects and vulgar screeching of waterbirds, the feeling of the air as some oily, palpable mass all around you. It occurs to you that it was places like these where the first animal life emerged, a ripe, teeming petri dish where the cycle of life and death is evident and accelerated all around. Fresh flower stems burst from dead cypress stumps; here and there fish push through a layer of scum to pull dragonflies from the surface. Somewhere, you are reminded by some ancient nerve at the base of your skull, there are alligators.
You think, too, of the people who came here, by choice or otherwise, and built a life. How oppressive that heat was, how much sickness and death that water could carry, how grateful they must have been for cool November afternoons. For all that it’s a cliche now, it is good to occasionally leave your phone in the car, walk around in the woods and feel the feelings that humans have always felt.
Of course, this reverie only lasts so long as you’re alone out there. Eventually, you’re likely to run into someone. I found Paul, a Ponchatoula man originally from Morgan City, and a woman whose name I didn’t get. Paul was soft-spoken, with a thick Cajun accent.
“I like to walk out here a few times a week and take some deep breaths,” Paul said.
The woman said she also came to the Swamp Walk a few times a week, making a bet with herself over how many “critters” she could spot. She was shooting for 11 that day, and had already seen two squirrels and some lizards.
When I ran into Paul, after getting over the shock of the bubble bursting, I was concerned that the spell of the swamp had been broken. I was wrong. Paul and the woman were there for the same reasons I was, and they come back every week. I’ll be back, too.