MAMOU, La. -- The teenage boy is covered in mud, literally from head to toe. After wading through a flooded rice field to catch a wayward chicken, he wipes mud from his eyes.
"I almost had him," he says to a friend with a shake of his head, and shrinks back to his horse.
Welcome to the home of the Cajun Mardi Gras, where men dance on horseback, chickens are their prey, and frivolity is the rule.
Mamou is a small town plopped in the middle of farming fields in the center of Cajun country, three hours northwest of the state's most famous Mardi Gras reveling town, New Orleans.
There is one high school here, one stoplight and no Wal-Mart. The population of 3,500 is generally divided into halves -- white or black, Baptist or Catholic, young and old. It is also my hometown.
Mamou has a few claims to fame. Fred's Lounge, a bar in the center of town where Cajun musicians gather every Saturday morning for a live radio music show and dance, is one. There's also the annual Cajun Music Festival -- a given for a town claiming to be the "Cajun Music Capital of the World."
It birthed Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, an internationally renowned Cajun music band that often returns home to play the street dance the night before Mardi Gras here. And Chicago Bulls player Chris Duhon was born here.
But there is nothing more famous here than the Courir de Mardi Gras.
In the courir, which literally means "the run," on Mardi Gras day men dress in costume and ride horseback from home to home in the countryside, "collecting" ingredients for the town gumbo -- and by collecting, I mean chasing after live chickens and catching them with their bare hands.
The tradition started in the 1800s in rural south Louisiana, but was suspended during the Civil War and in World War II. It was revived in Mamou in the 1950s and is practiced in several other towns around the area.
Local historians say the idea of the rural run was a way for the community to share in a pre-Lenten celebration, especially when times were difficult and the ingredients for a large gumbo hard to come by. It has evolved, however, into a sort of Cajun bar mitzvah. Teenage boys, usually around age 16, run the Mardi Gras as an informal entry into manhood.
While thousands of tourists flock to Mamou each year to enjoy the Cajun music and four-day festival in town (this year Feb. 2-5), few venture out into the rural prairies to follow the Mardi Gras riders. But they should -- that is where the area's truly unique traditions can be found.
Mamou sticks to old, some would say arcane, rules. It is all-male and unofficially segregated (there is an all-black Mardi Gras group that runs a different route on the same day), and requires all riders to be in costume.
When I went last year, I brought my boyfriend, my roommate and her boyfriend, Chicagoans who had never seen the festival, and convinced the men to ride.
We arrived at the meeting hall just about 7 a.m. and joined a line of men and teenage boys, all bleary-eyed and anxious. Some had not slept at all since the previous night's fais-do-do, or street dance. Most were dressed in the traditional Mamou Mardi Gras costume -- colorful long-sleeved shirts and pants, accented in fabric fringes, with required masks. Some were wearing the capuchon as well, a tall, pointed dunce-like cap decorated to match their costumes. (One teen, upon finding out that he must have a hat, ran outside to grab an empty Miller Lite box and placed it on his head.)
Before they can ride, their costumes are inspected by the capitaines, men who have run the Mardi Gras for many years and serve as the chaperons for the day. The capitaines do not drink and are not masked, though they wear purple, green and gold capes, the colors of Mardi Gras.
The riders pay $25 and sign a liability waiver, which reads, in part, that they are aware there will be large animals involved in the day's events, and they will not sue for any injuries they might incur.
After a large crowd of riders gathered, a capitaine asked if I was signing up a rider (parents can sign up their underage teens). When I said I was not, I was promptly told to leave the room. "No women allowed," he bellowed with a snicker.
The doors closed, and the riders were given a few rules, which my friends divulged later in the day. No talking to women ("This is a man's day!"), and no knives. That's it.
The riders tumbled out of the meeting hall and onto their horses. As they had no horses, my friends climbed onto the back of the "drunk wagon," one of three open-air trailers for Mardi Gras riders who can't ride their horses any longer.
In the front of the parade on a partially enclosed wagon, the band began to tune up. This collection of local men follows the Mardi Gras riders all day playing Cajun music tunes, including the traditional "Mardi Gras Song." It's a beautiful, haunting Cajun French tune played so often in the day that every participant, and every local, knows at least some, if not all, of the words.
The capitaines led the way, starting a parade through town past locals who waved at the departing Mardi Gras riders. There is only one stop within city limits: a short show of sorts at the hospital's nursing home. Then it was on to the outskirts of town, to the field next to the Piggly Wiggly where the riders disembarked for the first real run of the day.
The tradition calls for the owner of the home or property to "receive" the riders. First, the capitaines approach and ask permission, usually in French, for the riders to run. If the property is large, the capitaines will wave white flags to the horse riders, who charge onto the property and perform for the residents: They dance on their horses, do head-stands and generally act like buffoons. They also grab women and young girls to dance a two-step. The traveling band plays and sings. Then, the owner stands atop something to throw the chickens.
The riders are competitive, and run full-speed after the chickens, which they grab mostly by landing on top of them. Caught chickens are handed to the capitaines, who keep score for awards given at the end of the day.
One absolute rule is observed: No chicken is allowed to get away. At one of the first stops on the route, a chicken somehow dashed into a ditch culvert, and the riders scrambled into it as far as their bodies would go. Two other riders walked on top of the culvert. Minutes later, they returned, hooting, chicken in hand.
Behind the Mardi Gras riders, locals and tourists follow along in a parade of trucks and trailers, equipped with beer coolers and grills. One enterprising group of LSU students even had a port-a-potty. My roommate and I followed in our rented truck, fortified with a few cans of beer and boudin, a spicy Cajun sausage stuffed with rice and pork.
My boyfriend did not take well to chasing the chickens. I watched as he stood on the sidelines, beer in hand, watching the other men and teens jump in puddles and ditches, fall over the chickens and toss them in the air. At a lunchtime break of beer and boudin halfway through the route, he told me he felt bad for the chickens, and decided to root for them. He winced as he told me he watched one man bite the head off the chicken, unsure if it was dead or alive.
I could understand his reticence. For outsiders, it might be a strange, perhaps even uncouth tradition. But it is also an integral part of the community here. It is a rite of passage, a day of celebration of Cajun culture, food and music. It's also one last gasp of fun before the restrictions of Lent set in.
By day's end, even my boyfriend was won over. He marveled at the friendliness of his fellow riders, at the fortitude of their hard-drinking souls and began to cheer for a young rider whose skills won him a number of chickens. Once, he even chased after a chicken, if only for a short run.
A little after 4 p.m., after miles of riding and one injury (a horse riled up and dropped a rider on his head), the Mardi Gras riders returned on horses and the drunk wagon to the center of town for a street dance. Locals and tourists lined the sides of 6th Street, cheering them on. They converged under the one stoplight in town, where the band played a few songs in their honor.
We left the party to go back to the hall we started at for bowls of gumbo. As we walked away, we heard the strains of the accordion and the cheers of the revelers as they danced once more, hours before the fasting of Lent would descend.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND: There are airports in Lafayette and Alexandria (an hour's drive away); the Baton Rouge airport is 1 1/2 hours away and New Orleans is a three-hour drive. Renting a car is a must, though a few determined travelers have been known to show up in Mamou by bicycle.
MAMOU'S MARDI GRAS: Events start the Saturday (Feb. 2 this year) before Mardi Gras, with a variety of Cajun and zydeco bands on tap through Tuesday (Feb. 5). The biggest acts play Monday night, and in the past often featured local-boys-made-good, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. At about dawn on Tuesday morning, the riders for the courir gather at the American Legion Hall on Main Street. You can meet them there and follow by car into the countryside. Make sure your gas tank is full and pack a lunch -- there are no gas stations along the route, which takes about eight hours. (Some folks follow the courir for a while and return to town for more dancing.) Mardi Gras ends with the return of the riders, usually about 4 p.m., for a short parade down 6th Street and about a half-hour more of dancing. Make sure to buy a bowl of the communal town gumbo at the American Legion Hall before you leave.
WHERE TO EAT: Mamou's festival features home-grown delicacies for sale, including boudin (pronounced boo-dehn), a spicy Cajun sausage made with rice and pork, and the Mardi Gras Association sells gumbo on the day of the holiday in the center of town. Frenchie's serves up some pretty good traditional Cajun favorites, like gumbo and etoufee (427 6th St.; 337-468-4000). Several school and charity organizations also set up alcohol and food booths on the evenings of the dances and on Mardi Gras day.
But if you want to venture away from town, turn on your GPS and make your way to D.I.'s Cajun Food & Music (6561 Evangeline Highway in Basile, La.; 337-432-5141), where you'll taste some of the best in traditional Cajun cooking, including their fried catfish supreme -- catfish topped with a creamed shrimp and crab sauce. Cajun bands play nightly.
In Eunice, Nick's on 2nd Street (123 S. 2nd St.; 337-457-4921) is a local favorite, and near Lafayette, try Cafe Des Amis (140 E. Bridge St., Breaux Bridge; 337-332-5273) for a delicious, hearty brunch, including their Oreille de Couchon -- powdered doughnuts shaped like pig's ears and stuffed with boudin.
WHERE TO STAY: Most of the motels and hotels near Mamou -- and in the entire area -- book up the weekend of Mardi Gras, but as of this writing, a handful still had vacancies. Eunice, located about 10 miles away from Mamou, is the closest.
L'Acadie Inn (259 Tasso Loop, Eunice; 337-457-5211; www.hotboudin.com) is owned by locals Lance and Kelly Pitre, who have been operating their "country inn" for eight years. They offer an extensive Mardi Gras package, including a trailer to participate in a courir and traditional meals during the weekend. Lance will be happy to tell you about Cajun history, and the couple can offer suggestions for other things to do in the area. The inn books up a year in advance, but call and ask if they have any cancellations. They have 21 rooms, and 17 RV sites. Mardi Gras rates run $105 a night for the room and package, and $42 for RV sites.
Potier's Prairie Cajun Inn (110 West Park Ave., Eunice; 337-457-0440; www.potiers.net) is booked for this Mardi Gras, but again, try calling the week of Mardi Gras to see if there are any cancellations.
Howard's Inn (U.S. Highway 190 East, near Eunice; 337-457-2066) had a couple open rooms in early January, ranging from $89 to $105 a night.
The Days Inn (1251 E Laurel Ave., Eunice; 337-457-3040) runs from $117 to $128 a night, including taxes, and there were a handful of rooms still available as of early January. The Best Western in town is already booked.
If you're feeling adventurous, the Eunice Inn (1151 E. Laurel Ave.; 337-457-4274) does not take reservations. A manager there said there are 24 rooms at the inn, and they're given first-come, first-served. Rates are $45 to $85.
There are also dozens of hotels in Lafayette and Alexandria, both of which are about an hour's drive from Mamou. For Lafayette: www.lafayettetravel.com; 800-346-1958. For Alexandria: www.apacvb.org; 318-442-9546 or 800-551-9546.
Campgrounds also abound in this area. Try Chicot State Park in Ville Platte, which has a few cabins and hundreds of camping sites. For reservations: www.crt.state.la.us/parks; 877-CAMP-N-LA (877-226-7652).
OTHER COURIRS/MARDI GRAS FESTIVITIES: A handful of towns around Southwest Louisiana, including Eunice and Church Point, celebrate the Courir de Mardi Gras. (For Cajun and zydeco events in the week before and after Mardi Gras, go to www.arnb.org/Mardigras.php.)
In Church Point, children run on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, meeting at 7 a.m. at 1036 E. Ebey Street with a parade down Main Street in the early afternoon. A male-only courir is held on Mardi Gras day, with a parade with floats to follow through town. www.churchpointmardigras.com
In Eunice, about 10 miles south of Mamou, men and women riders gather at the Northwest Community Center the Tuesday morning of Mardi Gras. A dance featuring Cajun music is held the night before and the evening after the ride. eunicechamber.com; 337-457-2565
For those looking for a bigger party, without chicken-chasing, the town of Lafayette, 45 minutes south of Mamou, holds the largest Mardi Gras celebration in Acadiana. Lafayette's Mardi Gras is more akin to New Orleans' than Mamou's, with parades and invitation-only balls, but it also features Cajun and Creole bands at stages open to the public, dancing and Cajun food. www.lafayettetravel.com/visitors/eventsandfestivals/mardigras
If you want to venture even farther out of Cajun Country, you might try Baton Rouge's Krewe of Spanish Town parade, an hour and a half away, held the Saturday before Mardi Gras every year. This political-satire parade has a small-town feel, but does some big-city partying. After attending last year for the first time, it has now become one of my don't-miss events for the Mardi Gras season. www.spanishtownmardigras.com