SWEET LAKE, La. — Getting through a Gulf Coast summer takes understanding.

It’s not the afternoon thunderstorm that can change your plans but the sky after the rain. Rain too early in the day can take things one of two ways: Pleasantly temperate with a breeze or, if the sun returns at full blare, ungodly steamy. (Mosquitoes are optional, humidity never is.)

As I rolled into Lake Charles and hit the rickety Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River, the casinos, refineries and downtown skyline usually visible was masked in a foggy curtain of just about the second-heaviest rain I’ve ever seen. Nice lightning poked through, too, with thunder you could hear over your radio. Up ahead, I could see the clearing on the horizon and tried my best to see how intense the sunlight was. I couldn’t really make things out which meant a pit stop was in order.

I pulled onto downtown Lake Charles’ main drag, Ryan Street, to the Blue Dog Café that I’d been aching to try. As I downed a bowl of crawfish bisque and chomped on an order of smoked duck quesadillas, I stared at brilliant prints of blue dog paintings made famous by artist George Rodrigue staring back with their trademark piercing yellow eyes. It was totally worth it.

I let all that settle a bit then continued on to my destination for the day: the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge for some gator-watching.

I rolled eastward through residential Lake Charles and the new neighborhoods on the edge of town to Louisiana 14, then to Louisiana 27, the Creole Nature Trail, a straight shot toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Traveling out of Calcasieu Parish toward Cameron Parish, you can “read” the landscape. It’s flat. Very flat. This is one of America’s official “Scenic Byway” routes, but your vistas are all at eye level. New Orleans often is described as a bowl. Well, Southwest Louisiana is more like a cookie sheet tilted ever so slightly into a sink.

The first several miles aren’t too different from any pine forest. Clusters of tall pines and occasional oaks are broken by clearings with small homes and neatly kept yards or pastureland with grazing cattle and egrets picking at flies flitting around the cows. The piney woods gradually become more spotty and open land takes over as the highway cuts through rows of scraggly slash pines breaking the horizon. Prairie, pines and woody plants, more prairie, fewer pines. Solid, sandy ground turns into wet marsh as you barrel south at 55 mph (or more). A few miles more, and the road bed is about the only solid ground around you. Sparse hackberry trees make shady green puffs on the horizon. A canal runs alongside the highway, likely dug to build up the roadbed and make it suitable for pavement. 

Tall, reedy grasses with a few cattails appeared as I reached my turnoff, the Pintail Wildlife Drive. The thunderstorm that passed overhead in Lake Charles left a nice overcast sky, keeping a lid on the temps. Great for me, but since I’m looking for gators and they’re reptiles, I wasnt sure if that would keep them in the water or bring them up to the roadside. All the reviews for the Pintail Drive all but guarantee gator sightings.

Here we go. I followed the arrow (and stern signs warning to stay inside the car at all times) and eased to a steady crawl. Pintail also doubles as a birding trail. There’s also a healthy dose of dragonflies that made the 5 mph trip with the window down a bit challenging. Great blue herons and egrets tiptoed through shallow waters and looked on, pausing with stately posture.

Around the first bend, there they were. Hard to distinguish from logs at first, but I saw my first gator heads half submerged in water probably wondering what the hell this big white car was doing going and stopping. Then, another one, mere feet away from my window in the grass at the water’s edge. We stared at each other for a moment. It gave a big yawn or something, holding its mouth so wide I could almost count every tooth. I gave up and continued on, making out other weird shapes in the water that turned out indeed to be other gators, either their heads or their rugged tails visible. 

The trail didn’t disappoint. I counted about a dozen or so along the three-mile path. Maybe next time I’ll work up enough nerve to walk the boardwalk trail. Strange, but seeing gators there wouldn’t have freaked me out as much as snakes would.

Recommended soundtrack: KRVS 88.7 FM, Radio Acadie. Great soundtrack of local music and programming.

Extra notes: Pintail Drive is a one-way road. If there are other drivers, be patient. Enjoy the scenery! There are small cul-de-sac areas at the corners to get out of the way of impatient folks behind you.