Something was up with the dog, but Freddie Featherstone couldn’t say exactly what it was. For a few minutes, the diminutive Chihuahua shifted uneasily in the front seat of the Lumina, struggling to put her feet underneath her body. “That’s not all that unusual, I guess,” Freddie mused, because that’s how the dog always rides in the car, with her feet tucked neatly underneath her body. And he knew from long experience that it usually takes a while for her to arrange herself in just the right position. Then, he looked at her face. His gaze enveloped her for several seconds before he looked up, swerving to keep the Lumina on the road and out of the southwest Louisiana marsh. The dog’s face carried pain, at least to a human’s eye, and she looked straight ahead into the glove box of the car. The eyes were vacant, like she was somewhere she didn’t want to be. Softly and ever so slowly, she let go with a whimpering, mournful cry that lasted almost a minute. Freddie knew for sure now that something was wrong; he had never seen her act this way, especially on the way to her much beloved Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
The dog’s name was Lady, and she had been Freddie’s constant companion since her birth nine years ago. As a professional dog breeder and trainer, Freddie was completely convinced that dogs were like people in that they had distinct personalities and they could express emotions. Lady loved the beach, and normally would be very demonstrative, but on today’s trip, she looked like she was on her way to a funeral, grieving someone or something – but Freddie couldn’t figure out who or what. After all, he was no animal behaviorist or psychologist. There had been no death in the family, and except for the limited damage to his home thanks to Hurricane Rita (he was lucky), there was nothing in particular that would have caused the dog to mourn or cry as she did. But he was traveling south into Cameron Parish toward the beach for the first time since Rita hit five months ago, and it was a journey he wasn’t looking forward to because of what he might see there.
Cruising into the small coastal town of Cameron, the damage appeared random, and mostly catastrophic. Empty slabs marked the spots where homes once stood, their inner and outer structures blown away, apparently into the marshlands to the north. Not far away, other buildings somehow withstood the storm surge but were so damaged that rebuilding was out of the question. Others, amazingly enough, needed only minor repairs. Freddie had seen plenty of hurricane damage in Lake Charles, so his senses were dulled to it. That was a good thing, because Freddie was by nature a very sensitive man. His normal inclination would be to stop and to mourn for each family and its loss. With senses dulled a bit, he could escape his raw emotions and “back-burner” his grief; and, he could drive on without stopping.
After the short ferry ride across Calcasieu Pass, Freddie could see the Gulf on his left and the vast expanse of marsh to his right. Lush green spring growth was starting to push up from the bottom of the marsh, competing with the brackish brown vegetation that had been damaged by the Rita’s saltwater intrusion. The green growth was a welcome site, a pleasant diversion after the devastation he’d seen in Cameron. He would have about 10 uninterrupted miles of this tranquil scene before arriving at the access road to the beach.
Freddie tensed his grip on the steering wheel as he approached the resort town of Holly Beach, not knowing what to expect. He had heard no news reports about the town or its 300 residents since immediately after the hurricane, when it was said to be completely under water. After what felt like a longer than usual ride, he could see the large water tower on the north side of the town. His eyes strained to find the familiar landmarks between the tower and the beach, but he couldn’t see anything just yet. Closer now, his eyes made out the outline of piles of debris on the beach and in the town.
There is nothing in Freddie’s 55 years of living that could have prepared him for what he encountered next. Approaching the town limits from the east, he stomped on the brake so hard that Lady almost ejected from her familiar perch onto the floor below.
His cherished Holly Beach had been completely destroyed! He stared at the scene in disbelief for several minutes. There was not a single dwelling or building left standing. Six FEMA trailers dotted the landscape. Slabs marked the graves of what were once popular fishing camps. Former beach houses, from a distance, looked like clusters of broken matchsticks randomly tossed, some pointed awkwardly up into the sky at different angles. Huge piles of sand delivered up by Rita’s fury blocked the access roads to the beach. Struggling with his emotions, Freddie didn’t know whether to stop and look at what was left of the town or just drive away. Slowly, he accelerated forward and turned left on to the access road.
Lady got out of the car slowly. She walked over to the remains of a few of the camps. She worked her way through the rubble slowly, sniffing long and carefully, almost purposefully. It looked to Freddie like she was trying to smell any source of life that was once at that spot. All that was left, though, was sand and parts of a slab that had been poured sometime after the first big storm to hit the town, Hurricane Audrey.
The boundless energy and gaiety Lady usually displays at the beach was not there today. No excitement or pleasure this time at this place where the Featherstones had held many of their family reunions. The elevated sensors inside her tiny snout could not identify any of the familiar beach smells – fish, the surf, tanning oil, bologna sandwiches, potato chips, Coca Cola, the general store and gas station, the volleyball net, the beach ball, the inner tube, the family. Today, there was just a lot of sniffing and slow-walking through the camps, looking for any signs of life.
As Lady sniffed the rubble, Freddie worked up the courage to speak with a couple that had come back to rebuild. It was a tough decision for these lifelong residents of the town, and it was one that their parents had made after Audrey almost fifty years ago. They said they loved Holly Beach; it was the only home they had ever known. Freddie then asked a terribly painful question given their loss: what happened to the town? Where did it go? The man looked him in the eyes and continued calmly: “the northeast eye wall of Rita hit exactly where we’re standing right now. There was a 20 foot storm surge. Most of it washed away in splinters and rubble into the marsh. They say debris blew into the marsh for about four miles before it stopped.” Freddie turned his head and stared in shocked silence at the marsh to the north across the highway, for a few seconds refusing to accept what the man had just told him. But he finally conceded the point. Whatever remained of the once thriving town along the shoreline was buried in the scenic wetlands and wildlife habitat to the north.
On the way back to Lake Charles, Freddie’s eyes welled up as the reality of the beach caught up to him and his emotions could no longer be contained. He was sullen, matching Lady’s mood, and he preferred to think in silence rather than listen to National Public Radio as was his custom. As the miles wore on, he started to calm down and to think more rationally, and he figured out what had happened to Lady on this sad trip to the coast. Her mournful cry began about four miles north of the Gulf – at the latitude where the remains of Holly Beach had been washed inland. She appeared to sense the horrible scene at the beach and the totality of it well before Freddie could see it for himself.
Lady died about a month after this trip to the beach. Freddie’s maudlin side wanted to say that she died of a broken heart over the loss of everything that was familiar to her at Holly Beach. Her smallish doggy body and soul that brought much happiness were gone; her personality that was the brunt of much love and joy had been silenced just as Rita had silenced the town. We can forgive this deeply sentimental man if memories of the dog and the town intermingle whenever someone mentions “the beach.” In Freddie’s mind’s eye, and in his imagination, Lady lives on at Holly Beach. She’s still there, romping gaily along the shore, her tongue out, wind blowing in her face, her feet nothing but a blur. She runs as far and as fast as she can until she’s whistled home. She is there at the beach along with all the other memories, the blazing sun, the sea breeze, the pounding surf, the swimmers, the fishermen and their camps, the sunbathers, the townsfolk, the Featherstones, and the Lumina.
A very special dog makes her last trip to Holly Beach after Hurricane Rita.