We take the airboat out early and spend the morning surfing swells through the gutted interiors of abandoned skyscrapers. Mae covers her eyes and screams whenever I pass too close to a barnacle crusted support pillar or sagging electrical wire. Mostly she snapchats the sunrise as waves wash through the lower floors of Place St. Charles.
“Do you take all your girlfriends here?” she asks over the wind noise.
“Only the ones I really like.”
We pass over New Orleans Below, skirting a half dozen dive boats with red flags raised. The city has been submerged for decades, but enthusiasts come from all over the dry world to dive the old streets and cemeteries of the French Quarter. Most of New Orleans has been knocked down, recycled, or absorbed by the gulf—aside from the New Superdome, an all inclusive offshore casino resort, complete with magic shows, prison rodeos, and twenty-four hour yacht traffic.
The brushless air fan drones for a quarter hour as my stepfather’s boat glides smoothly across tremendous swells and deep mist. I set the compass south, a few miles offshore, watching the erratic dance of Mae’s hair as she swivels dizzily in her chair and tosses pretzels at passing gulls.
There are hundreds of camps out here, most of them abandoned. For decades people tried to contend with the rising tides by building floating rigs, anchored beyond the disappearing city. But life out on the gulf was too challenging for most, and the rigs were left to rust. My wake sloshes over their legacy, areas of water roped off or set apart by buoys, invisible fences, or GPS warning signals. There is no private property out here. But there are memories, and that’s what I’ve come to reclaim.
The engine lowers in tone as I slow to an idle where I marked the GPS coordinates. I feel the presence of something dark and massive in the mist, the swells washing under it. I ease the hull against the rubber bumpers of a corrugated docking platform, anchored above what was once brackish marshlands.
Mae hops out and ties off, breathing the brine wind and mist. “Where are we?”
“This,” I announce, “is my grandparents’ old camp.”
“Your grandparents built this?” Mae looks up at the shadowy hulk of sheet metal supported by a dozen pylons.
“My mom’s dad built it fifty years ago when the icecaps started melting. Mom used to come here for weekends and summers when she was little. She thought it was vacation, but her dad was really fixing it, making it ready for when the water kept rising, ten times higher than anyone guessed it would.”
“Did they use it?”
“Yeah, for a while. After her dad passed away her mom didn’t want anything to do with the place and moved to a duplex on the bay of Baton Rouge instead.”
“I’m amazed it’s still here,” Mae says. “With all the hurricanes over the years.”
“Me too. I thought you’d appreciate it more than most.”
“Well let’s go inside!” she exclaims, a true bayou girl, eager for adventure.
I search around under the camp, looking for the stairway. Most camps out here look like oil rigs with lawns. Some, like this one, used five point anchor systems, and most of those have been torn apart or borne away. But my grandfather was an engineer and he built things to last. This one is a fortress.
Picking up a broken mason jar, I imagine my mom as a ten-year-old making water catchers with her older sister by the windmill; or later, helping her dad float propane tanks through the pipeline canals to power the generator.
“This place is totally off grid,” I say. “Those steel drums collect rain water from the roof. Then the sun heats it. The solar array was state of the art in its time.”
“Your mom must have loved this place,” Mae says, exploring the underside of the camp.
“Looks like the stairs are washed out.”
“Sure enough,” I reply, wiping my hands on my jeans. “That’s why I brought this.” I uncoil a rope from my shoulder and lasso a protruding crossbeam. Then I scurry up the rope like a water rat and hoist myself into the house.
Mae remains below, unable to see more than obscure shapes. “What is it?” she calls.
“This wall is completely gone,” I say. “But the roof is still here. A lot of stuff too.”
May jumps as high as she can, wraps her legs and fingers around the rope, and shimmies up. She examines the sagging roof and piles of shattered glass. “I hope whoever trashed this place found what they were looking for.”
“I think it was probably hurricane Viktor that did it. Remember that one, the first ever category six?”
“There are so many now,” Mae says with a shrug. “It’s hard to keep them all straight.”
The sun comes out and burns off most of the mist. We spend the morning going through the rooms, laughing at old items, and trying not to fall through the floor. We find boxes of smashed clay pigeons, a few bottles of aged liquor, two propane heaters, a rusty charcoal grill, books, a girl’s doll house, and a music box among other things. We even find one of my great-grandmother’s lost oil paintings.
“Look at this plaque,” May says, emerging from the bathroom. “Save water. Shower with a friend.” We both laugh and pack everything carefully into food crates.
“I didn’t even know this place existed until a few weeks ago,” I say. “My mom’s always told stories about it, but she thought it was wiped out.”
“What’s it all for?” Mae asks, cleaning a mud dauber nest out of a Saints coffee mug. “You coming here, I mean.”
“My mom has so many memories from this place,” I say, dusting off a vintage waterski.
“These things are her childhood. When she got breast cancer last year, I knew I wanted to come find it, even if it meant searching a thousand old camps. Luckily my parrain emailed me the coordinates.”
“I didn’t know that about your mom.” Mae appears in the kitchen doorway. Sunlight streaming through a half-shattered window illuminates her dark hair. “I think you should take her here.”
“I might. I’ll see how she feels. Seeing it torn up might be harder on her than not seeing it at all. That’s why we’re here instead. We’re going to take things she remembers and bring them back to her.”
“That’s really sweet,” says Mae, handing me a brass door knocker to take home. “Not bad for a third date.”
I shrug. “It’s a little adventure. And this place is in decent shape. Maybe for a fourth date we can start fixing it up for a weekend getaway.”
“That’s ambitious,” she says, eyeing the mildewed sheetrock and oxidized door hinges.
“Hey, look at this.” I uncover a handmade picture frame and dust it off. It’s my mom as a teenager, no older than I am now. She is suction-cupped like a spy to glassy solar roofing tiles, trying to fasten an LSU flag to the satellite dish. She’s wearing a purple flower in her hair and grinning mischievously at the camera. For some reason the photo makes my eyes burn. I pretend to scratch the corrosion from the doorknocker until I’m sure the moment has passed.
Mae sees through my facade. She realizes, maybe before I do, that I am committed to saving this camp, this thing my mother loves. When I look at the collapsing deck, the rust and the rot, it’s not neglect I see. I see my mom rowing her pirogue through the cattails until it falls apart, until the tides cover the cattails and the swamps, and Lake Pontchartrain becomes Baton Rouge waterfront. I see antique dolls hugged and kissed beyond recognition. I see a future—boys and girls with black curls and brown skin who look kind of like me, chasing minnows by the shore.
“We’ll find a way,” she says, hugging me unexpectedly. “What your grandfather did here is amazing. We won’t let it go to waste.”
I look into her brown eyes for a moment, never feeling so appreciative of her, wishing I had more to give. I kiss her lightly on the lips and she responds, melting against me, one hand resting against my chest. Outside, the gulf swells and rumbles, eroding the touchable world, eating away the past, and leaving the rest up to us.