COLUMN: A commute even longer than Hwy. 98

Rachelle Roubique, Dispatch from the Oil Fields

I understand the pains of a Highway 98 commute.

Having lived on 30A and worked on Okaloosa Island, my daily drive could be quick or take two hours on those dreadful days when "damn tourists" decided to drive the speed limit through Destin or pause and gawk at every palm tree.

But my new commute is truly extreme.

After an hour and a half drive through small towns such as Gray and Des Allemands, La., I arrive at a small heliport in the marshy wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin.

I park in a potholed gravel lot and trudge inside for a 5 a.m. check-in. A wonderful way to begin a 14-day hitch: a public weigh-in, in front of the 30 men heading offshore with me.

There is a small TV, 30 plastic back chairs and coffee and vending machines fill a small kitchen. Sleepy conversation hums in the room as men that have worked together for years greet each other.

We all wait for the helicopter landing officer to direct us to the briefing room for a video. If the weigh-in isn't enough cause for dread, the video is to remind us how to exit the chopper in case of an emergency landing, or "ditch" into the dark, cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

We then don life vests and file aboard a yellow and black Sikorsky-76. The ride is uneventful but I still find it beautiful, though judging from the snoring from the other seven on the chopper with me, I assume this will wear off at some point.

It's a juvenile revelation but from the chopper window, Louisiana really does look like a boot. Bayous and tributaries flow from the river like chocolate sauce dripping down a sundae. Houseboats and camps hide in the basin amongst cypress trees and alligators.

It takes only a few minutes to be over the Gulf and within seconds you are amidst the clouds. Up close oil platforms are stark metal boxes but from the sky they dot the Gulf waters like Great Egrets standing in the swamp.

Near the coast there are hundreds of them, sometimes grouped together but often spread out, each standing guard, protective over their well of oil. You can see the line in the water where the earth drops off, marked by a stripe of debris and vegetation, and shrimp boats can be seen following this path, horizontal to the coast.

My commute takes an hour and 15 minutes. I strain my eyes to read in the dark until the sun begins to rise, but no matter how interesting my book, I find myself staring out the window, down at the whitecaps or out into the clouds. Regardless of noise it’s peaceful, serene.

I often use the time for chats with God, thanking Him for getting me this far safely, asking for continued protection on this somewhat unusual journey and, as usual, asking Him to help me figure out what, exactly I am doing here.

Rachelle Roubique is a Destin business owner who has lived in the Panhandle for many years, taking brief escapes to islands and cities to maintain sanity but always returning to the Gulf. She currently works as a site manager for a catering company that operates on oil rigs and natural gas platforms.