EUNICE, La. – They began arriving before sunrise — men and women in bright costumes, eager for the annual ritual of fellowship, drinking and merry-making that is the Cajun Mardi Gras.
Hundreds of people registered for the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday run, a wild send-off to the Catholic fasting season of Lent in this bayou country community 150 miles west of New Orleans. Hundreds were on horseback; many others rode in pickup trucks or flatbed trailers.
"It's just heritage. It's Louisiana. We're crazy," said Cody Granger, 24, wearing what looked like surgical scrubs decorated with the New Orleans Saints' logo. He said he's been part of the Courir for years.
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It's a festival very unlike the parades in New Orleans and other cities around Louisiana. Locals and tourists turn out to ride horses and flatbed trailers or walk through the countryside to gather ingredients for a communal gumbo that will be served at the end of the run.
It's mostly pageantry, an effort to keep tradition alive. Families along the roughly 13-mile route have given their consent to have riders stop by to beg for items, said Pat Frey, a farmer and the run capitaine. And what's gathered is largely symbolic; the crowd that has turned out in years past to dance, drink and eat in what's become one of the busiest times of year for agricultural- and tourist-dependent Eunice has gotten too big to wait or rely on what's picked up during the run. Last year, about 1,200-1,300 runners participated, he said.
Frey estimates hundreds of pounds of ingredients like chicken and sausage are needed for the community gumbo.
Shortly after 7 a.m., the faint sound of Cajun music streaming from pickup truck stereos could be heard. Alcoholic beverages made an early appearance.
Watching the runners, often in various states of inebriation, try to catch chickens let loose at at least one stop adds further levity to what's supposed to be a lighthearted day to celebrate community, said Barry Ancelet, a professor of French and folklore at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, who planned to participate in another rural run in the heart of the state's Cajun country.
The run, he said, is "a moment where the community defines itself by who it visits. ... Again, that shows by who gathers to eat and dance at night."
Some measure their success by how many people turn out, Ancelet said. In the case of Eunice he believes its become almost "unwieldy," with tourists or other participants sometimes not even aware of the goings-on because they're so far behind in the procession. It's not the same, he said, as a few dozen runners visiting their own neighbors. (By Frey's own recollection, perhaps 100-150 people ran as recently as 20 years ago.)
Brandon Lejeune, 23, whose costume showed hot peppers, had almost lost his voice. He said he'd been partying virtually nonstop since Friday, taking a break to chill out on Super Bowl Sunday. On Tuesday, he had three cans of beer in hand for the run and to celebrate his birthday. He said he was out for "friends, party, heritage."
It was the first run for Toby Darbonne, 31, who will soon be moving to the Pacific Northwest. He said he had no choice — his wife was driving their pickup truck. "I'm just a tag-along."
Horse trailers started lining up before the sun was up and registering before 6 a.m.
Some of the flatbeds were decorated with Mardi Gras flags or masks, but most were spare, with perhaps wood or pipe railings or wood poles holding up a tarpaulin or aluminum roofs.
A few wore masks. One, on a white horse, wore the traditional mask of painted screen mesh and age-old cone-shaped hat.
Robin McGee, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, can't pinpoint when or why the run got so big. She said she fields calls from around the country and that Eunice (population 11,499 at last Census) ends up with an event that rivals the World Crawfish Etouffee Cookoff in its importance to local businesses.
The tradition is changing: Frey said some people don't want the crowd on their properties, limiting where runners can go. This year, he expects to make four or five stops.
This isn't New Orleans' Mardi Gras: there are no large, showy floats or take-home beads and doubloons for those who jump highest or attract a riders' attention. Rural Mardi Gras features the runners as beggars — a role parade-goers at urban Mardi Gras' tend to play — in costumes that Ancelet said are meant to spoof institutions or goof on contemporary political figures.
Frey says he's never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras — even though the city is only about 171 miles away — and doesn't feel he's missing much.
His wife usually runs, too, in what used to be a men's-only affair, but had to work Tuesday. His son and daughter participated in separate, under-18 runs on Saturday, he said.
"It's nothing fancy; it's far from fancy," Frey said. "It's just a fun time."