Kerosene lanterns light the darkness, hand-plucked goose feathers fill the mattresses and rainwater collects in a cistern. The grocery store is 90 minutes away—by boat.
Step into Myrtle Bigler’s domain, deep in the Atchafalaya Basin, and you’ve stepped back in time 60 years. She understood social distancing long before the rest of us had a clue.
I found “Miss Myrtle,” as I called her when I returned from covering Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991. I was looking for a more peaceful story to tell. I set out to find the last remaining, full time resident of the Atchafalaya Basin. To my surprise, The grizzled, bearded Cajun trapper I imagined turned out to be a gentle, witty 91-year-old woman. She held on to a different era, one that might vanish completely with her. She let me stay in the one-room remnant of her parent’s house, which had washed away in the 1927 flood. (More on that later.) The old feather bed was heavenly. I found ripped pages of The Times-Picayune stuffed in the cracks of the walls. The makeshift insulation dated from the early 20’s.
Though Myrtle lived just 30 miles southwest of Baton Rouge as the egret flies, she was really a world away. The days were filled with the simple pleasure of gentle conversation on the “front gallery” with friends who passed through the swamp.
Myrtle’s formal education ended when her family moved to the swamp in 1907, after she finished the second grade at Berwick Elementary. “Mom taught me to read and write,” she said. My dad taught me to add and figure.”
In her 91 years, she never owned a car—for that matter, she’s never had a driver’s license.
I’ve got everything I want right here,” she said.
People who travel and work in the basin say Myrtle appears to be its last lifelong resident. All the others, they say, have surrendered to the lure of civilization. Fisherman, pipeline workers, tour guides and wildlife agents say Myrtle’s closest competition is Alcide Verret, 89, who lived just a mile up the Atchafalaya River. But Alcide’s health is failing and he is staying part-time with his brother in Plaquemine.
Myrtle is determined to stay.
“They’re all worried about my age,” she said. “But I don’t see it as any big deal. I ain’t planning to die anytime soon.”
Myrtle’s nephew, Taylor Lyle, supports her decision.
“She wants to stay,” Lyle said. “I’m not about to be the one to go out and force e her to come in. She’s hell when she’s well and she’s rarely sick.” In concession to family concerns, Myrtle accepted a cell phone and permitted a spot near the house to be cleared in case an emergency helicopter is needed.
But she has done a good job of taking care of herself. On her last visit to the doctor, he asked where she gets her drinking water.
“Rainwater,” she said. “It collects in my cistern.”
“Is it clean?” he asked.
“Well, yours is pumped from the ground. Mine falls out of the sky,” she said. “I think mine’s cleaner.”
"Just keep on drinking it," he said.
Myrtle spends her days doing light chores, yard work, sipping coffee and tending to her seven dogs, who keep her company. Married at 46, she never had children.
She enjoys her life of isolation but for one thing. She would like her husband by her side. Harold, her partner for 45 years, died in 1990.
They met in 1943 when he arrived with fish buyers at Myrtle’s father’s house. Harold told her on that first meeting that she would be his wife when he returned from the Army after World War II.
She told him, “Well, you better want to live in the woods, or else you can just take yourself on out of here.”
True to his word, When Harold returned three years later, they were married.
Myrtle taught him about the swamps and how to fish. “After that, he couldn’t argue me down like he knew it all.”
The couple fished and trapped together. Harold took an occasional job on dredge boats.
Their first home was a houseboat given to Myrtle’s father to save the family belongings from the 1927 flood, when the Mississippi River broke through the levee and inundated the basin. It was built from an old riverboat pilot house fitted atop a wooden barge. When the water receded, the old house had been washed away, except for one room. So they beached the houseboat, and it became their home.
Eventually, the barge rotted away but the cabin remained in good enough condition to make a home. Myrtle continued to live there after her parents died.
Memories of Harold live there too. Myrtle recalled a visitor who asked Harold if having an outhouse so close to his home was healthy. He laughed and said he had heard that city people put their bathrooms right inside the house. Then she turned to me with a wink.
Over time, she has watched her neighbors, friends and family move into towns such as Calumet, Verdonville and Baldwin.
“I can’t blame them,” she said.
“But people need to learn to be content with what they have.”
Four years after our visit, a friend of Myrtle’s dropped in to check on her. He found her laying peacefully on her bed. It appeared that she had sat at the foot, laid back and died with her arms folded across her chest. She would have had it no other way.