The Breaking Point

By  |  August 25, 2020
Film stills (scanned from 16mm negatives) from Dawn Surf Jellybowl Film (2011), by Jennifer West. © The artist Film stills (scanned from 16mm negatives) from Dawn Surf Jellybowl Film (2011), by Jennifer West. © The artist

It was all somewhat routine to the teenage girl. The reports of seventy-five-mile-per-hour winds, the landfall predictions, the mayor’s call for evacuation all stealing radio waves from the Beatles and Tom Jones. Shopping for bread, water, and canned meats. Sitting in her mother’s station wagon crammed full of suitcases and baby brothers. Following a line of cars, including her father’s truck crammed with even more suitcases and brothers, as they crawled at a snail’s pace up LA-1—the only road onto or off of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Since moving to the island with her family in 1963, Jeanne Landry had evacuated once or twice a year, almost every year, as she would continue to do for decades to come with her own children then with her grandchildren. As a full-time resident of the island, she’s now evacuated more times than she can count for these storms, which rush together in her mind, one unbroken swell. One image does stick out in her memory though: a few cars and trucks full of teenagers, the only vehicles for miles in the eastbound lane, the only ones headed onto Grand Isle, the first she ever remembers seeing on the island with surfboards strapped to their roofs.

From a bird’s-eye perspective, Grand Isle might appear as a quill feather floating in the Gulf waters—the central shaft being LA-1, the thin anterior vane being the gulf-facing beach side, and the full posterior vane being the bay side. As one of a string of barrier islands dotting Louisiana’s coastline, Grand Isle is the first line of defense against tropical storms, hurricanes, and erosion for several inland communities, including Golden Meadow, Cut Off, and even New Orleans. The island is seven miles long and less than a mile and a half wide. Lazy waves roll over its beaches, quietly eroding the shoreline more every year. 

My family has owned a camp on the island since 1965. Like my mother before me, I spent summer vacations playing in that piddling surf with my siblings and cousins. On the beach, she used to tell me about things that had happened here—how they played hide-and-seek in the dunes, learned how to shell crabs, fished with and lost Grampy’s expensive rod, collected sand trout on belts around their waists, attracted sharks—which made me feel like a time traveler, like we were recreating something together. But all that changed last year, when my uncle Ward, my mother’s brother, passed away suddenly, unraveling the seam between the past and present that the beach house had always sewn together so neatly. Not long after, I stumbled upon an Instagram picture of a young guy riding a surfboard. Nothing remarkable, except the location tag: Grand Isle. The account, Pontcha Surf Club, had hundreds of similar pictures geotagged at the beach and its bio read: “Bridging the gap between division and community.” 

I wondered to which community they were referring. Grand Isle’s? Their own ragtag fraternity of surfers? Was there some communion between the two I had been missing all these years? Division, on the other hand, I understood all too well. Following Ward’s death, an expanse had opened up between me and my mother, one I didn’t know how to cross. Division made sense for Grand Isle as well. When the locals are asked about the island’s history, they talk of pirates and Victorian-era seaside resorts, of fish, oaks, and oleander trees, and of storms and disappearing land. They never talk about surfers.

 

“Are you sure we have enough gas?” my mother asks me for the third time as we leave the dense bayous of Southern Louisiana’s inlands behind for the raw edge of its coastline. The farther we drive, the more is erased—shipyards, seafood shacks, casino-cum-gas stations—until all that’s left are fractured wetlands, the occasional shrimping boat, and a string of crooked telephone poles rising from the nearby water like roadside crosses. At Leeville, we ascend forty-five feet in the air onto a massive toll bridge connecting Grand Isle to the mainland. Passing pelicans at eye level, we make our way back to the family camp, which we haven’t revisited since the days following Ward’s death last summer.

Once on the island, we drive along LA-1—a quite literal divide between the islanders and the camp owners: the former live to our left, on the bay side of the road, the latter to our right, on the beach side. While the locals are nothing but welcoming, my mother says the closest they ever got as children was sitting next to each other on Sunday in the pews of Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church and I myself have no childhood memories of them. It’s an understandable divide, one seen often in tourist-dependent towns. During summers now, the town’s population skyrockets from fifteen hundred to over twenty thousand. One side is here to work and survive, the other to play and escape.

It’s raining as we pull into the drive and sprint up the staircase of the worn white house, which is elevated high on pilings against floodwaters. Everyone here calls these rustic beach cabins “camps,” because no one lives in them year-round. They all have the same cramped three-bedroom/one-bath layout, and the math has never checked out for how, in its heyday, ours slept upwards of nine aunts, uncles, and parents and thirteen cousins at one time. Now, with only my mother and me, it almost feels like too much room. As we unpack our bags, the wind barrels under the belly of the house and my mother tells me the story of a storm: It hit the island one night when she was nine or ten, and she remembers her father taking her to the window and pointing out the lingering embers of a bonfire they’d left down on the beach—only a faint glow suspended in black. He told her if the fire was still burning, the waves could not be very high or very close. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” she tells me. “I knew if I did, the ocean would take it away and it would take us away next.”

The embers survived, though, and the next morning, the family returned to the beach. In one grainy home video her father shot around that time, dozens of kids, all cousins, crowd the scene. They sport wet cheap tennis shoes because the ocean floor is covered in crabs that will pinch their toes and, according to their uncle Freddie, “not let go until it lightnings.” In another video, her little brothers wrestle over an imaginary football in the surf. Ward, eight years old, lank-limbed and deeply tanned in a little red Speedo, is playing defense. He quickly tackles his much smaller brother, wrestling him in the foam before pretending to grab the ball and running off down the shoreline. 

My mother, who was only a year older than Ward, remembers these vacations vividly, which is why we didn’t cancel our planned family trip here last summer a week after he was found, only fifty-seven years old, on the floor beside his bed. The trip was, she tells me, an attempt to get him back for a brief moment. She and her brothers and sisters were all so close as children, their lives so tangled up in one another’s, and Ward was the first to leave them, to slip from the knot. Nearly a year later, she still cries at, even to her, the most unexpected moments. She still sometimes has trouble sleeping, tells me there’s an elephant sitting on her chest at night. 

I thought inviting her along to stay at the camp while I interviewed surfers and locals might be good for her—she hadn’t been back since our trip last summer. After all, historically, Grand Isle has been advertised as a place of healing. In the late 1800s, New Orleanians often fled here to escape malaria and yellow jack outbreaks in the city. Others seeking a cure for arthritis traveled eight hours by steamboat to be buried neck-deep in the sand here. Even now, the island is a vital rest stop for millions of migratory birds, which have just flown nonstop for up to eighteen hours only to literally fall out of the sky onto people’s lawns, exhausted. A few days in, though, she tells me Grand Isle just makes her feel sad now, and I fear I’ve only brought her to a place of grief.    

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While many more white and salmon-pink houses dot the landscape now than when my mother was a child, the beach looks about the same. The sand is brown, the water is muddy and full of silt flushed from the banks of the Mississippi River, and the waves are barely shoulder-high on a good day. In 1964, though, that was good enough for my mother and her five siblings and it was good enough for twenty-two-year-old Billy Hingle.

Wearing a madras plaid surfer shirt, which bled when washed, Billy used to ride into town with his orange Coastal longboard sticking out the back of his convertible and teach a few local boys how to ride the waves. “Mostly, we’d listen to Beach Boys music, get all cranked up, go out there, and just ride two-foot chop,” he says. Unimpressive though those waves might have been, they were a vast improvement over the wakes from barges going up the Mississippi that he’d initially tried—and failed—to surf near his hometown of Pointe à la Hache. His other options were limited to Galveston, Texas, an eight-hour drive from home, or Daytona Beach, Florida, seventeen hours away. So, he landed on Grand Isle, where he became, as one of his disciples recalls, “the traveling evangelist of surfing.” Initially, it was just him and seven or eight other guys, but within two years, word had slowly spread to gangs in Houma and New Orleans that it was apparently possible to surf in Louisiana. Rumor has it that up until the late seventies upwards of forty people surfed the waves there, before new families, demanding jobs, old knees—and, for Billy, a serious motorcycle accident—pulled them in different directions.    

The majority of people I talk to, though—the ladies working at the gas station, the rowdy roughnecks dancing at the bar, the librarian—all laugh when I tell them there’s a new club of young surfers rivaling those early numbers. They either think I’m delusional or these so-called “surfers” are. And in all my research, I only find one brief local newspaper mention of the sport in an article from 1983. The librarian does jot a phone number down for me, though, and, handing it to me, says that if anyone knows anything, it’s Jeanne Landry.   

Jeanne lives where most full-time residents do, at the green heart of the island, where oak trees once grew by the thousands. Since those early teenage days sixty years ago, she’s made a name for herself here as a local historian, nature conservationist, and bird lover. In her living room, high above the ground, she tells me about the prolific cucumber farms of the early 1900s, about the Filipino shrimp-drying platforms, and about the fishing boats passed down from papaw to daddy to son. She calls the island’s people “hardworking” and “tenacious,” “innovators” and “problem solvers,” who, immediately upon returning from evacuations, begin rebuilding their homes with whatever they have. It isn’t until a mention of storm waves that she says, “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you!” and recalls that lone car she saw with surfboards strapped to its roof. 

Dissecting our conversation, I find few mentions or memories of the beach, though it only lies through the oaks and across LA-1.
The locals don’t play on the beach like the surfers do. They and their ancestors were fishermen, carpenters, and farmers dependent on the water, bartering with the ocean for oysters and redfish for their nets, driftwood for their furniture, and rain for their orange groves, blackberry patches, and fields of cucumber and melon. This cultural divide, manifested in that sliver of a road, is all it took to keep the surfers and locals so far apart that the former would slip from the latter’s notice almost entirely. Yet, the more I talk to the surfers, both young and old, the more I’m beginning to think it’s not so crazy that they’d choose to come here. The surf might not be perfect, but the mindset is. 

 

Throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and first decade of the 2000s, surfers from the surrounding parishes still came to the island but in smaller numbers. It seems the few guys who refused to hang up their boards quietly passed down the secret of Grand Isle to the next generation. Bobby Pietre only knew how to ride a skateboard when he met Mike Keith in Galliano, an hour’s drive north of Grand Isle. Mike had surfed the island in the ’60s and by the early ’90s was running a business charging thirteen-year-olds like Bobby a monthly fee to use his DIY skate park.

“I was his little grom,” Bobby tells me as we lean against the boardwalk outside the marina where his aunt works (a grom being a young teenager who skates or surfs, the guy on a board with the least experience but the most spunk). Bobby is a tattoo artist now and covered in ink himself. His knuckles spell TETE DURE: “hardhead” in Cajun French. An anchor drops from his eye instead of a tear. One wrist reads SAILOR in shaky handwriting; his daughter, his own “little grom,” tattooed her name on him when she was six. On the other wrist, there’s a cartoon sun coming up over a wave, a reference to dawn patrol: the act of beating the sunrise to the beach. Before weather apps and cell phones could tell you from your warm bed whether the water would be glassy or barreling, dawn patrol was simply an act of faith. 

Back when Bobby was thirteen years old and his skin was still blank, Mike introduced him to Louisiana’s waves. He taught Bobby that the best wave to ride is one that’s peaking, usually the third or fourth in a set. “You dart out to the highest point of the peak then turn around and paddle your ass off in front of it,” he says. You want to drop down from this breaking point onto the face, or unbroken part of the wave, and ride it as far as you can. 

For years, he kept coming back with four or five guys from Galliano, but like Mike before him, Bobby’s now the only one among them still surfing here. He occasionally runs into a few local guys from other nearby communities, but before I mentioned it, he’d never heard of Pontcha Surf Club. And he’s not sure he’d have much in common with them. He’s a legacy of a generation with no cellphones or Instagram, guys who just happened to be on the beach on the same day.

I’m not sure he’s right about having nothing in common, though. Billy, Bobby, or a member of Pontcha will all readily say the same thing: Grand Isle’s waves are just not impressive. The water here is super shallow, and that friction between the ocean floor and the energy propelling strong waves often kills them before they reach shore. Surfers are lucky if they get to stand for more than a few seconds, and there’s only a handful of conditions that result in rideable (two to three feet minimum) waves. Winter cold fronts often bring fairly consistent and longer-lasting swells, which is why many surfers here own wetsuits. For more powerful waves, wait for a storm to hit Florida. “That generated swell is called ‘camels marching,’” Bobby says. “You can see the humps on the horizon, so you just kick back and wait.” Neither scenario tends to last for more than a few hours, though. Talking to these guys, I think you’ve got to be desperate to surf here, but they don’t act desperate. They’re more like old hounds napping under the table, confident someone will eventually drop something and grateful for whatever scraps they get: “You can be pissed off at the world and come ride the smallest waves,” Bobby tells me. “And it makes everything better.”

I hear this sentiment echoed in the lives of the islanders: a resolve to live with whatever the water is willing to give them. One local says the desire to control nature is “blasphemous.” Bobby calls the ocean his church, which embraces and bears him onward. Their god is an ancient one, though, with a temperament seen in the Old Testament or on Mt. Olympus or amongst the stars. The water can be cruel more often than it can be kind, can take more than it gives, and they are content to be at its mercy.

 

Grand Isle is either brushed or hit by a system every couple of years, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the residents talk. I’ve noticed that some never even call them by their names. They lump them all together. The storms. 

In 2005, Katrina caused catastrophic damage to seventy percent of their homes. In 1998, the town evacuated three times in three weeks for three different storms. In 1985, Juan trapped twelve hundred people there when the bridge was swamped. In 1965, 1956, and 1915, storms covered the entire island in five to fifteen feet of water. And in 1893, on a day forecast by the U.S. Weather Bureau to be “fair, preceded by light showers . . . with southeasterly winds,” an estimated 779 out of 1,471 people were killed on neighboring Cheniere Caminada by a Category 4 hurricane, an event which sealed Grand Isle’s fate as Louisiana’s last inhabited barrier island. In the local library, I find a newspaper sketch from that day of three small figures clutching hands, their bodies and black hair tangled up in a barbed wire fence. They look like dolls. They’re sisters.

When my mother and I first arrived on our trip, the storm of 1893 was all I could think about. I couldn’t help but compare it to the day my uncle died. Both days started out as sunny mornings. I remember my sister, pale-faced, a phone crushed against her ear, begging me to get out of the backyard pool, to come join her in the side yard of my childhood home in Mississippi. I remember standing there as she told me the news, dripping wet in a bathing suit, looking back at my mother, who was still swimming, oblivious. She asked me if I wanted to break the news to Mom myself. I don’t remember answering, but I do remember still standing there minutes later, alone in a puddle of water, when I heard my mother scream. 

That was only the beginning of my failing to be a good daughter to my grieving mother. After the funeral, my family drove to the camp on Grand Isle. We drank, swam, watched home videos, drank more, and I, to my shame, avoided her. I lingered on the beach well after she’d already gone up, afraid of her glassy stare, her fragile bones. It was like she’d come in out of the rain, arms open for a hug, but her jacket was soaking wet. Since then, it’s gotten better but only, I believe, because time has passed and her grief is more manageable for her. I know she tries not to cry in front of me. I can’t mask the panic on my face. I fear she knows that I’m no help. I fear all news from my sister. 

I thought the islanders’ ability to deal with sudden loss would help me be better at it too. I ask over and over again how they can bear to keep returning to a place that promises to just rip them apart again, and I’m almost annoyed by the repeated response. You just rebuild, they say. It’s just a house. The land is still there. When I return to the camp at the end of the day, I find that I can’t apply this to the blisters on my mother’s feet, erupted from hours of walking the beach, waiting, I think, for a little boy to come running over the dunes. It’s only after days of exploring the island, or what’s left of it, that I start to think it’s not the sudden loss of my uncle with which I’m struggling. It’s the slow loss of my mother, or a part of her, nothing that can be rebuilt. But how do you mourn something before it’s gone or as it’s going? This is an entirely different kind of loss altogether, one I’m afraid the islanders themselves, as well as the new generation of surfers here, are no better at dealing with than I am. 

 

In 2019, Keegan McGuire received an email from Billy Hingle, now seventy-eight years old and retired in Angie, Louisiana. The message was blank but for the subject line: YOUR HISTORY IS WRONG I WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO SURF GRAND ISLE IN THE ’60S.

Billy had gotten wind of the Pontcha Surf Club, started by Keegan and his friend, Michael Tucker, as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to surf Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. After reading on their website that people first attempted surfing in Louisiana in the ’70s, he shot off the email, unimpressed. Later, after meeting the twenty-nine-year-old, though, he would text Keegan, “You are the young me and I am the old you. Dig it?”

Like Bobby, Keegan started out as a skateboarding teenager. The first surfers he ever saw in person were in Pensacola, Florida, near his parents’ condo, and though both he and Michael (who focuses more on the business side of things) are from Louisiana, the first time Keegan surfed Grand Isle was only three years ago. He still remembers riding his first Louisiana barrel on a board he calls the “Jazz Cabbage,” which was made for him by one of the state’s only board shapers, Shane Madera, in his backyard in landlocked St. Francisville.

Now, Keegan rides that board regularly at Grand Isle, catching breaks near the bridge-side cove, Artie’s Sports Bar, Birch Lane, and the state park. He’s often joined by upwards of fifteen other people at one time. Most of them live near New Orleans and are in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, but there are a few outliers. Some are transplants, some natives, and others are just visiting the state. They often scatter down the beach, but last time he was there, everyone came together in one spot. “The young’uns, the old guys, us,” he says, grinning wildly. “An old timer out there was like, ‘Dude, this is nuts. You’ve got pull.’” He credits this revival in great part to technology. Pontcha’s Instagram has a few thousand followers, they just released a documentary on YouTube in March, and their GroupMe has grown to a network of 150 men and women coordinating dawn patrol meetups, selling boards, and waxing poetic about waves.

Keegan knows how this can look in the wrong light—like giving away a secret or posing for likes—but he believes it’s just the latest phase of Louisiana surfing. “When young people used to search surfing on the Gulf Coast, Pensacola or Orange Beach would come up. We’ve really changed the focal point.” Pontcha uses that influence mostly to educate people on respectful surfing practices here and to promote local pride. “This is the end of the world. There’s no other place like this. Pontcha represents only Louisiana surfing, but so did the people that came before us,” Keegan says.

He tells me respecting space is a big deal for them. It’s why their website emphasizes the importance of respecting locals, laying out specific recommendations regarding where to park and where to surf. “They can tell if you’re an outsider here by the way you look, the way you talk, but people down here live with respect. Respect one another and respect the land. It’s simple.” He’s more interested in talking about these people and their struggles here than he is about promoting the club. Once, the problem was the lack of surfers. Soon, he says, it might be the lack of beach.

 

This year, Grand Isle ranked No. 19 out of 52 places the New York Times recommends you visit in 2020, warning readers to go before it’s washed away. The worst estimates have it uninhabitable within the next fifty to a hundred years. When I ask where the erosion has been most obvious, most of the islanders point to the open water beneath the bridge, which Jeanne’s mother once called “an ocean of grass.” I visit one of Keegan’s surfing spots nearby, but I can’t find anywhere to stand without getting wet. He tells me he’s watched the Army Corps of Engineers redeposit sand here only to have the beach washed out again in less than a year. According to the most recent offical report on the subject, a 2007 study conducted by Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources, the shoreline was eroding at an average rate of forty-two feet per year. The report predicted that if absolutely no preventive measures were taken, the shore would face continuous loss. 

Over the past sixty years, the Army Corps of Engineers, along with private citizens and local nonprofits, have dredged sand, built earthen levees, planted stabilizing oaks, and installed wooden jetties and rock breakwaters in desperation. Ironically, placing breakwaters in front of one part of the island has, in some cases, actually caused erosion farther down the beach, a process especially apparent to surfers, who have had to follow the waves down the shoreline. 

There are several factors behind the erosion—storms, sea level rise, subsidence, human activity. One factor is particularly hard for the islanders to swallow, though. Grand Isle has, in fact, always been eroding. “Many and many a mile of ground has yielded to the tireless charging of Ocean’s cavalry,” Lafcadio Hearn wrote in 1889. That’s the thankless job of a barrier island—to sacrifice itself to the waves for the mainland behind it. In order for the island to survive, the waves have to deposit as much sediment as they strip away. At Grand Isle, the problem is they aren’t anymore, at least not at a fast enough rate. 

This is where the similarities between the islanders and the surfers end. “As far as losing a surf spot, that’ll never happen,” Billy tells me. “The sands steadily shift and cause new breaks all the time.” The water will always give the surfers waves, but it’s no longer willing to give sediment in the amount the residents need. They aren’t just at the water’s mercy anymore. They’re also at the mercy of time. It’s a type of loss I’m starting to recognize myself.

On our last day on the island, my mother and I sit on the deck of the camp. It’s been raining all night again. The mosquitos loiter. “Before he died, it was like a circle,” she says. “We could always come back. We were supposed to last summer. Now, that circle’s broken.” Ward didn’t even like Grand Isle as an adult, but it isn’t just for the grown man that my mother mourns. Her own childhood is now lost to her forever, and I think I’ve balked at her grief because watching a piece of someone or something you love disappear is beyond frightening. It makes you intensely aware of what’s left to still be taken.

The surfers, though, spend countless hours standing on the shoreline, calculating the physics of the perfect moment to sprint past the breakers, and they know what we often forget: waves are only energy moving through water. They’re neither malicious, nor kind, but they are coming, still. I see the dying embers of the bonfire in my mind. I hear the pounding surf. I wait and I try not to be afraid.


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Kerry Rose Graning is a writer and archaeologist from Mississippi. Her work has appeared in the Bitter Southerner, Hakai, and 1843, among other publications. She is currently at work on a collection of nonfiction stories about encounters with cockroaches.