JENA, Louisiana (Reuters) - If you’re young and bored at night in a small town in the United States, you can always jump in the car, switch on the radio and go “looping.”
On weekend nights in Jena, a conservative, rural area of around 3,000 people in central Louisiana, the main street is full of teenagers driving slowly through the center of town, Saturday Night Country Gold playing loud on the radio.
In the parking lot at Mitch’s restaurant at one end of town, the cars turn round and drive back until they reach Untamed Outdoor Products at the other end. They circle round in that parking lot and return, making a loop.
“You can loop all night, or until you run out of gas,” Seth Deville said behind the wheel of a pick-up truck.
Looping has been a pastime for young Americans in small towns since the 1950s, though elsewhere it’s called “cruising” and in parts of Kansas they call it “dragging Main” — Main Street being the central avenue in towns all across America.
In many parts of the country it’s accompanied by elaborate dating rituals, understood by teenagers but incomprehensible to outsiders and, crucially, parents.
Meg McGuffee, a high school senior in Jena, said she once looped for an hour without meeting friends but usually they stop in the town’s darkened parking lots to chat. Better still, they park one car, pile into another and go looping together.
All the while, they await word of a party or a hog roast going on nearby, teenagers said.
Jena hit the news last year when thousands of marchers came to the town to protest what they said were excessive charges against six black youths accused of beating a white high school student. The town has faded back into itself since.
Instead of honking their car horns to greet friends, Jena teenagers “rack their pipes,” flicking the car into neutral and gunning the accelerator. They install special exhaust pipes so that the big engines let out a deep, throaty growl.
“It’s manly,” said McGuffee, with a touch of irony.
It’s also illegal. Teenagers said the police sometimes give tickets if they hear a car racking its pipes.
Driving in the vast country has long been a symbol of American freedom. But writers have used driving up and down in a small town as a metaphor of the kind of aimlessness that makes young people long to escape.
But in Jena there’s never a dull moment. Stumpy yellow fire hydrants dot the sides of the road, each one marked by a blue reflector in the middle of the road to tell fire fighters where to find water.
One looping game is to divide the car’s occupants into teams and see who can spot the blue reflectors amid the yellow reflectors. Then it’s a race to slam your fist against the car ceiling and shout “blue light.”
Television plays a big part in the lives of U.S. teenagers but young people in Jena said they spend much of their spare time fishing, camping in the woods and hunting. Many of the young in rural areas own guns and know how to use them.
If looping gets boring, there’s always pushing cows over. Cows doze standing up and young people said one game is to creep up on them as they sleep and heave them over.
Some doubt it is possible to do but the game is called “cow-tipping” and the trick is to get out of the field before the cow, befuddled and angry, wakes up and comes running.
Reporting by Matthew Bigg; Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Michael Christie and John O'Callaghan