New Orleans, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Tin Man’s Year in New Orleans

Now that I’ve finally finished my road logs through New Orleans, I thought I would throw together a quick overview of the time I spent there. New Orleans was meant to be my first long-term stop, but I originally only planned 3 months or so. Instead, I was there on and off almost a year. Here are some of the highlights, as I remember them.

October 17, 2012 (Day 103). Arrival in New Orleans. Slept well. Soon joined by friends Urban and Saumya, on holiday from Minneapolis.

Oct. 20. Anba Dlo. A major Hallowe’en festival/fundraiser at a local nonprofit, with close associations to the Vodou temple. The name means “From Beneath the Waters,” a reference to the community coming back after Hurricane Katrina. I volunteered at the event, which got me free admission; also dressed as David Bowie/the Goblin King from Labyrinth. After borrowing a young lady dressed as a goth bride (looked like Sarah), we won the costume contest. The costume was actually a big expense and I would later regret it, but it was worth it.

Jared and Sarah!

Jared and Sarah!

Oct. 27. “Day of the Dead.” Actually Fête Gede, Vodou festival of the death god, but often just called Day of the Dead, a holiday more people are familiar with. To me this is like Vodou Christmas. The biggest event of our year and typically attracts 100 people or more to the Temple. This was my second year at the event, which consists of (a) a full Vodou ceremony with drumming and dancing for the raunchy, incorrigible death gods; (b) a big meal; and (c) a procession to the cemetery with a litter full of offerings and candles for the dead. My friend Cintain came from Mexico and joined us. Urban and Saumya there too.

November 2. House Blessing. I found a Creole cottage to rent, and moved in several days earlier. I christened it Rogue Chateau. I already had misgivings about the choice to rent it—client work was drying up, money was a little thin and I had passed up a chance to rent a cheap place with two other guys, offered to me days before I reached New Orleans. Saumya, Urban and Gary (all priests at the Vodou temple) came and did a house blessing for me. It didn’t fully settle my misgivings at the time, but this home would indeed be the site of the happiest year of my life (so far). I wrote:

“A gaggle of Vodou priests invaded my house last night. We processed backwards from the courtyard through each room to the front door, a traditional house blessing. Saumya poured a veve on the floor in corn meal, Gary filled the air with songs to Legba, and as he says, “all lights were on.” My mantle is an altar, its candles are a beacon, the door is open, the home is ready. Rogue Chateau is open for business.”

Cintain also lended a shamanic blessing of his own.

Rogue Chateau

Rogue Chateau

November 22. Thanksgiving. This was a weird but wonderful Thanksgiving. I went to at least three Thanksgivings total. First Gary and I went to the home of a very odd friend of ours, who went to great lengths to hold a feast for us but then immediately went and took a nap while we were eating. After we let ourselves out we went to Gary’s family’s house, where I was under strict instructions not to tell anyone he’s gay. Last we went to his boyfriend’s family’s Thanksgiving, a huge Puerto Rican family affair where the drink flowed and the jokes were raunchy. Then off to drinking in the Quarter. I bookended the whole day by stopping at my neighbors’ party twice, both too early and too late to catch their Thanksgiving but in time to snag some cookies and good conversation. It was a great day, much needed when I was starting to feel lonely.

December. The month as a whole was a turning point. With client work dried up, finances had gotten scary. As part of my effort to make new friends I also went to the local Couchsurfing meetup, where I met one of the guys I had almost roomed with. He was fantastic, and according to him so was the house I’d passed up. My rent there would have been $330, compared to $1100 at the Chateau. However, over the course of the month I confronted my financial situation head on. I found new clients, took on work on the side, sold artwork, got a grant and, at the very end of the month, took on a roommate. By New Year’s my life in New Orleans went from precarious and lonely to exciting and fun.

Saturday, December 8. Gran Bwa! Our temple’s head priestess was out of town for several weeks and we held a series of ceremonies on our own, with the other priests officiating. This was a really beautiful time because it gave me a chance to learn by doing, stepping up into roles that were normally filled by others. The one I remembered best happened on this date, for Gran Bwa, the tree lwa with roots reaching all the way down to the city of the dead. We held the ceremony under the tree in the yard outside the Temple, instead of indoors.

Ceremony for Gran Bwa

Thursday, Dec. 13. Launchpad. As part of my effort to turn my client work around I went to try out a couple free days at a local coworking space, Launchpad. It’s an excellent space and community. It didn’t lead to new clients, but did lead to new friends. This is also the day I met the girl who would, eventually, become my girlfriend.

Friday, December 14. Nerd Prom. Launchpad invited me to their holiday party, the “Nerd Prom.” I knew the girl in question was into me when she asked me to be her fake boyfriend to protect her from another man’s advances. It was the way she said it. Afterward we went for a walk and kissed. Unfortunately, she’d soon be heading out for several months in Thailand—the joy and pain of a fellow adventurer.

The R2 unit dispenses beer. Not kidding.

The R2 unit dispenses beer. Not kidding.

December 20. Date! Said girl and I went on our first real date. The downside: she’d be flying out the very next day. We took the ferry across the river and brought her cute little dog (with funny ears) with us. The ferry ride back, at dusk, was freezing. We missed a choir performance at the Cathedral so got dinner instead, then dropped off the dog and went out for a few drinks. She was sad to be leaving and I told her she would see me again.

December 24. Petwo! Christmas Eve is the night that the Petwo, the fiery spirits of Vodou, are given special honor. First we made fire baths in a special late night ceremony and blessed a variety of ritual implements, then we drove up to Lutcher, Louisiana, a small town on the river’s edge. Communities all along the river traditionally light giant bonfires for Christmas Eve. Our Vodou temple went as a group and we enjoyed a house party followed by the great bonfires themselves. A fitting celebration for the Petwo, and a good stand-in for my usual Midwinter celebration. (I described this a year later in more detail.)

At the bonfires

At the bonfires

New Year’s Eve. I spent this night with new friends, including my roommate and my soon to be best buddy Cole

January. Besides suffering from financial woes in November and December, I noticed I had given in quite heavily to New Orleans’ drinking culture. I decided to do a month of sobriety (a benefit to health, sanity and pocketbook). Friends told me this was a terrible idea, since January starts Carnival season, but I persisted and kept a clean record the whole month.

Also during this month I became seriously involved in my Mardi Gras krewe and our plan to dress as Led Zeppelin songs. We built an impressive float shaped like a Zeppelin, complete with fold-down guitar bar and keg.

Dazed and Confused Kewe (us). Picture by the Captain.

The Dazed and Confused Float

Saturday, January 19. Krewe du Vieux. This was my first Mardi Gras parade and, really, the first one of the season. Krewe du Vieux is known for its inappropriate humor, both sexually explicit and politically satirical. It didn’t disappoint. We went to a mixture of house parties before the parade. As the only sober one in the group, I was wide-eyed and lucid for the parade (but got worn out quickly later on). This parade truly dazzled me. The later tromping from bar to bar was more wearisome, but I still remember the night fondly. My landlord and soon-to-be good friend was a key part of it, as was his partner. It will forever be my introduction to Mardi Gras.

Natchez Trip, Jan. 31 – Feb 3. I took a long weekend to go see Jimmy, the host who had put me up in Natchez, Mississippi. He had invited me up about a month earlier to get my mind off my financial situation, but the invite came just as my fortunes turned around. Instead it was a very relaxing weekend, and I got to meet a friend of his who is the forester in charge of the entire National Forest I had adored bicycling through. We also walked along the river, met more of his wonderful neighbors, and explored the historic town in more detail.

Wednesday, Feb. 6. Nyx. This night will forever be enshrined among my happiest memories. Cole and her boyfriend Joe and I decided to bicycle up to the parade despite a forecast of rain. It was balmy when we set out, an electricity in the night air. Not long after we reached the parade route it began to rain. Not a soft drizzle but a good rain. We embraced it. The night was warm, and once we were soaked the rain was part of the magic. The women of Nyx doted on us, tossing us all kinds of great throws for being some of the only people to weather the rain. We ducked into a pizza shop where we traded throws for slices. We poured ourselves drinks from a kit we’d brought along and went back out. With bags and bags of throws, we retired to an Irish pub post-parade and eventually taxi’d home, to come collect our bikes the next day. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Thursday, February 7. Muses. Muses is one of the more fabled parades of New Orleans Mardi Gras, and I was surprised to recently learn it’s only been around 20 years or so. Another all-women parade, this one is “named for the nine daughters of Zeus and the goddesses who inspire the arts & sciences, as well as for the nine streets of New Orleans… Happy are they whom the Muses love!”

Happy indeed. This night was a treasure. The weather was clear and mild, we had a house party near the parade route to serve as our launching point, and I quickly made friends among the hundreds of people lining the block we chose to stake out. A group of our friends met us there, and among them was someone I’d met by chance only days earlier, who would eventually become a good friend. This friend managed to catch not one, but two of the treasured shoes that the Muses sometimes toss to revelers, each one a work of art in sequins and glitter. She gave one to two out of towners who were there on their honey moon. She also hooked them up with a room in a stone tower at a friend’s mansion, a modest step up from sleeping in their van as they had been doing.

What stands out most about Muses, however, was the fluttering butterflies on roller skates, their wings made of glow sticks and LED lights, holding  lights above them and passing out programs. This flock preceded the first float, giving the parade a sort of living overture, a buildup that made the excitement almost unbearable. It is rare to see such creatures of light, moving in inhuman ways, passing right by you and touching you as they go.

Our Mardi Gras krewe

Our Mardi Gras krewe

Tuesday, Feb. 12. Mardi Gras. There’s not much I can say that I haven’t already said in What Happens on Mardi Gras?

Saturday, Feb. 16. Bosale. I initiated into Vodou, as a free practicing member (bosale) of our House. Details are here.

Sunday, March 31. Easter. Early Easter morning I went to the Vodou temple. We had put the lwa to sleep earlier that week; in Vodou myth these are their days of rest. Now the altar was uncovered and coffee was laid out for each of the Rada lwa, the cool and wise spirits. I had a bad sore throat and had to beg some coffee from one of our priestesses to help soothe it so I could sing. One by one we sang to the lwa, woke them up and gave them offerings. Afterward we all ate cake.

Springtime. Eventually, the girl I liked so much returned from Thailand. We began spending time together. We went to a second line, a sort of street parade where revelers follow a brass band though a neighborhood (hence forming the “second line” behind the band). Originally it was a funeral tradition, but it’s used as an all purpose celebration and there’s one held pretty much every Sunday during the cool season. Neighborhoods take turns hosting them. The level of revelry in the street was intense, and we floated along as part of the crowd. We purchased beers from wheelbarrows of ice, jello shots from passing vendors, and cupcakes from a person with a few extras. Clouds of marijuana filled the streets.

The two of us were clearly falling for each other. Our courtship was slow, but bit by bit we became partners.

Also during the spring I found out that the Temple could not offer priestly initiation this year, unlike in previous years. This was crushing news to me as it was the main reason I had extended my stay in New Orleans, and had become a major part of my spiritual path.

April 13. Wizard of Oz. For Cole’s birthday, she asked us all to dress as Wizard of Oz characters. I took Tin Man. We bicycled through the French Quarter and the Bayou St. John, stopping for lunch and drinks and eventually ending up at City Park where we laid on the grass and enjoyed life.

Tin Man!

Tin Man!

April 30. Bealtaine. Although Vodou had become a major part of my life, I found myself homesick for my old Irish polytheist temple. I had no one to celebrate the Irish holidays with, and no one to perform big ceremonies for the deities with. Lorien, one of the priestesses at the temple, asked what was involved. Soon she and another practitioner, Geoff, had agreed to come do a Bealtaine ceremony with me.

We held it at the Chateau, in the evening before May 1 as is traditional. I constructed a new musical branch (a ceremonial implement) for this occasion. I had burnt my old one as a sacrifice, which is an appropriate offering in our tradition. I sang the invocations, they sang the chorus, we made offerings and greeted the gods, and then we had food and drink together. It was a true ceremony of the Seancreideamh.

May 18 – 20. Journey to the End of the World. For the first time I had someone else biking with me! Our fledgling romance growing, my new girlfriend decided to accompany me on the final stretch of the Mississippi River: about 80 miles to the farthest downriver point you can reach on land, and 80 miles back again. You can read her account of it here.

May 30 – June 4. Mexico getaway. Although an experienced traveler, my new girlfriend had never been to Mexico City, a city I adore. We decided to swoop away for a few days. Out of four nights, we spend the first three staying with a wonderful Couchsurfing host named Damián, and the fourth one at a hotel. I got to play tour guide. Our relationship became serious. One of my favorite meals of my life—Argentinian stake and red wine under the trees of the Condesa—took place on this trip.

June 26. I crossed the Mississippi River in a kayak. This was a better alternative to biking across the freeway bridge, and allowed me to cross under my own body power—no cheating. Thus, when I later left on bicycle, I could take the ferry knowing I had already crossed the river by hand.

8:00 a.m. June 29. Drew Parade. This was the day I was scheduled to bicycle out of New Orleans. I planned a big going away brunch, where friends could stop by for champagne, doughnuts and coffee and then we’d bicycle through the Quarter together to the ferry. Then they’d watch me leave and I’d bike off toward Texas. I went by Drew then, so the event was named Drew Parade.

It didn’t quite work like that though. Now firmly in love, I wasn’t ready to give up on the fledgling relationship and neither was she. So instead, at the brunch we announced a surprise: instead of me leaving for Texas, she and I would both be leaving for a few months in the Dominican Republic. It was, we hoped, a chance to get time together and to decide what we wanted to do with our relationship.

We still bicycled across the Quarter, and then she and I went on to her house where we stayed several days till our flight.

In the Dominican Republic.

In the Dominican Republic.

July 4 – August 30. Dominican Republic. The trip was entirely different than we could have imagined. Talking about it recently, we agreed that many of the surprises were downright unpleasant to live through, but make hilarious stories now that they’re over. You can read her account here (mid-trip) and mine here (end of trip).

August 23 – 25. Haiti side-trip. We also crossed over to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for a couple of days. It was rough, the roughest travel I’d done to that point. Plus I came down with a terrible head cold during my time there, which would haunt me for some time to come.

August 31. Birthday! The day after our return home, we met with friends for drinks for my birthday and a chance to catch up. I think both of us vented at length about our bizarre experiences in the Dominican Republic, probably more so than our friends were prepared for.

September. False starts. Once back in New Orleans, I had planned to continue my bicycle trip, and the two of us agreed to try our relationship long distance. My plans were temporarily stymied, however. I’d still had my Haiti cold on the flight home from the DR, and my congested sinuses caused intense, painful pressure in my ears. This led to trapped fluid, pain, dizziness, and partial deafness that went on for days… then weeks (and ultimately months).

I had first planned to leave Sept. 8, after a week of work time to catch up on writing and side projects. I put this off ffor another week, finally insisting I leave, but to no avail. I set out on Sunday, September 15 but all factors conspired against me. The ear problem, a late start, mechanical issues and heat stroke. At sunset I had to call a friend to pick up me and my bike and take us home.

Friday, October 4, 2013 (Day 455). I departed New Orleans on bicycle, beginning the ride to Texas.

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Adventure, Bicycling, New Orleans, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Day I Biked Into New Orleans

What an incredible feeling. After leaving my home, selling my possessions, and bicycling over 1,800 miles in search of the gods I was finally in striking distance of my first destination. Last time I left off in tiny Laplace, Louisiana, just 30-odd miles from the Big Easy.

Day 103 of the Great Adventure (Tuesday, October 17, 2012)

I woke up excited and happy, but cautious. I had already learned that an expected “easy day” can go sour. But I could feel how close I was and decided that nothing would hold me back.

We ate a quick breakfast and Judith wished me well. Different hosts and friends handle goodbyes in different ways. Some drag them out, begging you to stay longer, trying to feed you as much as they can, holding on for a few more minutes. It’s very sweet. Others become almost abrupt, knowing that you have a long distance to cover and not wanting to bog you down. Judith fit that second type. She essentially said “it was good to meet you, now get going” in the friendliest way possible. To some people it may seem gruff but to me it shows an appreciation of the road, and I suspect these types of quick goodbyes are a sign of someone who has had long travels of their own.

Before I left I had one (mostly symbolic) chore. Way back in the first week of my trip I visited my friends Kira and Tony in their family cabin in Minnesota. Kira had given me a Turkish evil eye, a traditional protection charm from her travels in Turkey. I’d hung it from the Giant’s handlebar bag, but the cord eventually snapped and it fell off. Somehow, the colored glass charm didn’t crack on the pavement and I picked it up, keeping it stowed in the bag ever since.

I was long overdue in restoring this lucky charm. Judith provided some bright pink string, not the most couture choice perhaps but quite fitting given my pieced-together bicycling equipment. After futzing with the knots I once more had the protective eye glaring from the head of my fomhorian mount, ready to hold his gaze high as we coasted toward our first major stopping point.

It's still there! Photo by André.

It’s still there! Photo by André.

Mid-morning I wobbled away from Judith’s house and down the shady street toward the River Road and the levee. I had emailed ahead to a New Orleans cycling group asking about the best route into the city. (I didn’t want a repeat of Memphis.) They told me about a levee top trail I could follow instead of taking the highway, and Judith and her family knew of it, giving me directions to where the trail started.

The day began easily on low-traffic surface streets that ran parallel to the levee. I was looking for the “spillway,” a word everyone kept using as if it was a landmark I would recognize. I asked them what a spillway was and they stared like I was Martian. As it turns out the spillway is a giant dry channel used for flood control. It looks like a grassy basin, like a soccer field with concrete walls, except that it runs from the river all the way to Lake Ponchartrain. If the river comes close to topping the levee, gates are opened to let water rush into the spillway and drain it off into the lake.

[André's note: Thanks to Mark for correcting me on how a spillway works!]

I was pretty excited when I finally reached it (I actually biked past it without realizing and backtracked a couple blocks to check it out). It’s not much to look at, but there’s something magical about getting to walk on dry land and know that one day it could be 20 feet underwater. If I was a kid I’d want to play there, and I wonder if they ever build a wooden raft there and wait for it to flood to swim out to it. (Probably not safe–there’d be a strong current in the channel if it did fill with water. Not that that would stop me when I was a kid.)

I found the entrance to the trail. Unlike the one in St. Louis this one was fully paved and easy to follow, staying on top of the levee continuously. I got a view of the river on one side and mostly residential neighborhoods on the other. The day was sunny but not too hot, breezy but no headwind. A single rain cloud passed over, its light drizzle cooling me off before it moved on and made a rainbow. I passed industrial structures at regular intervals, but it was a peaceful stretch.

I decided this was a good time to listen to music. Since I was on a no-traffic levee top trail I wore both ear buds, jamming to M.I.A. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, especially Zero. The last time I’d played music while cycling was in the forest of the Natchez Trace, where soothing Talvin Singh fit beautifully, but today it was all hooky adrenaline songs to herald me into the city.

(Maybe a little too hooky. As I coasted along, singing to the music in my ears, I got the scare of my life as a much faster cyclist roared past me. She called out “on your left” but I heard nothing till she was right on me. After laughing at myself I switched back to just one ear bud.)

Mysterious industrial bits on the levee top trail. Photo by André.

Mysterious industrial bits on the levee top trail. Photo by André.

Beer and Bad Pavement

At each curve of the River I passed another neighborhood, and usually a neighborhood bar. It put an idea in my head. When I reached what I now know to be the end of Carrollton Avenue I stopped at a gas station and bought two ice-cold bottles of beer. I poured these into my water bottle for what I’d heard one cyclist describe as “the perfect end to a long bike ride.” Drinking beer while cycling into New Orleans felt oddly fitting.

All too soon I was at the end of the trail. I passed through Audubon Park, a confusing loop of roads for the uninitiated, but managed to find Laurel Street on the other side. It was one of the streets the cycling club had told me would lead me all the way across town with very little traffic. It made me smile because Laurel was also the street I had followed to leave Saint Paul three months earlier—on a day not very unlike today.

This Laurel was BUMPY. There’s almost no city in the US that can match New Orleans for its terrible pavement. The cap on my “water” bottle popped open, splashing me with suds, and on another big jolt a light fell off. The little glass Evil Eye charm held together. I glanced nervously at the tires, worried I would get a flat so close to my end point.

As I went I spoke to New Orleans herself. I greeted her and made offerings. She took my hand and gleefully pulled me forward. New Orleans is an expensive woman, she is a high priced courtesan. She will make you many promises and she will take your money. I’m not saying she won’t keep the promises, and I’m not saying she will, either. But once you’re in her arms she’ll make it very hard to leave.

Vodou in New Orleans. Photo by André.

Vodou in New Orleans. Photo by André.

I’ll Meet You There

My destination was a small vacation rental in the Marigny, the first neighborhood down from the French Quarter. Months earlier I had visited my friends Urban and Saumya. They are regular visitors to New Orleans—both are part of our Vodou temple—and already planned to come down in fall.

“When do you get into the city?” Urban asked.

“Hard to say. Mid October, roughly. I want to be there before Hallowe’en.”

Urban nodded. “Well, we’re flying in on the 17th. If you want, you can stay with us.”

That date had floated over my head ever since. I knew it wasn’t a strict deadline (and Urban and Saumya never pressured me). But, especially with the hardships of the last month or so, getting to land in the arms of old friends held a great allure. I made it a point to arrive on the ordained day.

Now, as I coasted over potholes and cobblestones toward the vacation rental, it was the afternoon of October 17th—our agreed date. It took me 95 days and 1,800 miles of pedaling but I’d arrived exactly on time.

Saumya however sent this message:

I’m really sick and we decided to change our flight. Will be two days late.

I almost fell over laughing.

They still had the vacation home booked, however, and made arrangements for me to pick up the key. I reached the end of Laurel Street, crossed under the freeway that marks the end of the Central Business District, and weaved through traffic toward the French Quarter. At one point I managed to turn the wrong way down a one way street, but shrugged and plodded onward for a few blocks—there was just enough space for me on the edge of the road. (I now know this is common in New Orleans. Feel free to shake your fist at me in the comments.)

Then came the French Quarter, the first place I’d ever set foot in New Orleans a year earlier. I slowed down and savored each street. This was my new home. I felt the old rhythms, the generations of life and pain that haunted every doorway. I saw the freaks and the artists and the musicians and the weirdos, my people. I saw the street performers and the bamboozlers and the homeless people of both friendly and unfriendly stripes. I saw the old New Orleanians, to whom it was all normal, and the tourists to whom it’s all a show.

The last of my now-warm beer was gone. I crossed the Esplanade, the oak-lined boulevard at the end of the Quarter, and rattled a few rough blocks to the rental.

Soon I held the keys, opened the door, said good-bye to the landlord, brought the Giant inside. I wasn’t sure what to do with him. After so many months of rolling place to place, I couldn’t understand the idea that I’d stay here. That I didn’t have to go anywhere tomorrow or in a few days. That I could, I supposed, completely unpack the bike.

I didn’t know what to do with myself so I did what every adventurer does when they find the end of their road: I indulged. All you want after an adventure is, in no particular order: food, alcohol, a hot shower, sex, a good night’s sleep, some cookies, someone to talk to, a moment alone. I had about half these things at my disposal and I dove in.

I took a good shower, I came downstairs and laid on the sofa. The late afternoon light faded in the curtain. The ceiling hung above me, blank like my future in New Orleans. I stared at it, whispered thanks to my friends and all the people who’d helped me, and napped.

I knew my journey wasn’t over. I still had 80 more miles of Mississippi River to bike, and thousands more to the Amazon. But for a little while this was home. After 1,893 miles, 103 days, 40 flat tires, 30 new friends, seven states, three cases of heatstroke, one wipeout, and one soul-changing journey, I had made it to the city of my dreams.

...where I would soon dress like this for Hallowe'en. Photo by Saumya.

…where I would soon dress like this for Hallowe’en. Photo by Saumya.

That evening I walked to Frenchmen Street and Decatur. I was shaved and dressed in clean clothes. No one glanced twice. You could look at me and never guess what I’d done, never guess where I’d been or what I’d seen. I was normal, a little square even. But I had just done what so many people told me was impossible. And already, I wanted to do more.

33.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 33.5

Total traveled since Day 1: 1893.8

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Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Ride in Louisiana River Country

In the last Road Log, I made it into a riotous Baton Rouge on a Saturday night and stayed with a host who opened up about some very difficult memories. This time I leave the big, smelly city behind me and strike out across Louisiana river country.

Day 102 (Tuesday, October 16, 2012)

By the time I left Carol’s house outside Baton Rouge I knew the surrounding streets well. I had biked to her cycle mechanic’s shop when I dropped off the Giant for repairs. Carol then picked me up by car and we did the same thing in reverse when the bike was done. The first stretch of today’s ride was familiar territory.

But very soon I turned off to pursue a very odd route. If you look at the map, I first meandered back toward the main highway. Instead of taking it I went across it, aiming for the river. Eventually I linked up with the River Road, following every curve of the Mississippi for most of the day until just a few miles from my destination. The result: a ride that could have been 54.7 miles actually took 79.1 miles, but it was far, far nicer than just cruising on a freeway.

My destination for the night was a town called Laplace, Louisiana not 35 miles from New Orleans. I no longer remember if Laplace is locally pronounced “la place” or “la ploss” because there is a ritual role in our Vodou temple known as Laplace pronounced “la ploss.” So that’s how I say it.

The first third of the trip, heading toward the river, introduced me to many iconic Louisiana sights: Cajun seafood restaurants, po’boy shops and daiquiri stops. By the time I crossed the freeway things got a bit more rural, and I went through some ripped up roads thanks to construction. Everything was green, flat and open. It’s a very different look from rural Wisconsin, where the landscape is broken up not only by slight hills but by lots of trees.

Eventually I reached the river road. A levee runs along it, so there was no view of the river from the roadway itself.

This next third of the trip became somewhat unreal. The green open areas continued, but sometimes broken up by areas of giant, gnarled live oaks with Spanish moss hanging mystically from their branches. Just as common were sprawling industrial complexes, likely related to the petroleum or chemical refining industries. The river road was devoid of normal traffic, since most people took the freeway, but had no shortage of large semi trucks plowing down the two lanes.

Though intimidating at first, I soon found that these truck drivers were for the most part extremely courteous. I had no shoulder and couldn’t let them pass easily if there was oncoming traffic, but they just hung back and followed till they had a chance. Once or twice one edged too close, but compared to regular car and pickup traffic they were a joy.

I became so comfortable with the occasional trucks that I did something I had never done before: I called up my mom and chatted while cycling. I already felt a great sense of accomplishment because I was so close to reaching New Orleans, my first major stopping point. I was a little giddy and wanted to share my excitement with someone.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey Mom! Guess where I am!

Mom: What?

Me: Guess where I’m calling you from!

Mom: I can’t hear you!

Me: GUESS WHERE I AM!

Mom: I don’t know, where?

Me: I’m—

Semi: FWHOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

Mom: OH MY GOD WHERE ARE YOU?

We then talked for about a half hour, although how much information was successfully communicated is a question mark.

This conversation ended when, through the oak trees on my left, I saw one of the grander buildings of the last 1,800 miles. The gardening was magnificent. It had a lane leading up to a small parking lot as if it was open to the public, so I coasted off the road to explore. Families getting out of cars stared at me and I described the place to my Mom, still on the phone.

I had stumbled upon Houmas House, a plantation house open to public tours:

…although that wasn’t immediately obvious, as I had arrived at the back of the estate, a curious structure that consists of water cisterns that have been converted to wine cellars. I was moved by the old brick architecture. I got off the phone with Mom to take some pictures.

I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

Photos by André

Photos by André

The rest of the River Road was like this. Occasional beautiful old estates—most not in such fine condition—set back among oak trees on one side, and chemical pipelines along the levee on the other. There were small wooden houses with peeling paint and ramshackle country churches as well. There were even streets with names like Evangeline. It was Louisiana.

I rode at a leisurely pace, and by the final third the sun was low once again. The air became cooler. I picked up speed, but wasn’t too worried about being out after dark—I had gotten used to it. This may not have been the best attitude, since the very end of my route required that I re-join the main highway, which I reached just at dark. It was only a few miles, but I never like high-speed traffic whipping past me at night.

Finally I turned off on a quiet residential street in LaPlace. Just a few blocks away, about halfway between the highway and the river, was the house of my Couchsurfing host for the night, Judith.

Judith lives with her adult daughter and her family. They have a small but well kept house in a cute neighborhood of shade trees and kids playing outside. Judith herself doesn’t have much mobility, but her daughter welcomed me in and made me at home. After a good hot shower I joined them for dinner and got to know everyone.

My impression of Judith is that she’s had many adventures of her own in her younger days. She’s a straight talker and she had a true understanding of what I was doing, skipping the usual questions to talk about practical things I may not know about New Orleans. She has a great, inappropriate sense of humor that kept me laughing continuously. [André's note: Not just for that evening, either. Many people I meet on my travels say they want to keep in touch, but most never do. Judith quickly added me to her Facebook friends.]

After some chatting, we turned in for a relatively early night. If all went according to plan I would reach New Orleans tomorrow, and I could feel the excitement in my chest. But I was so tired I had no problem falling asleep… 79.1 miles. (Could have been just 54.7!)

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 79.1

Total traveled since Day 1: 1860.3

Next time I set out on the final ride, with just 33 miles to reach New Orleans and friends with a warm bed for me. But what if it turns out the friends aren’t going to be there?

Do you like reading about this journey? Help make the next one a reality!

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Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Don’t Bike Into Baton Rouge on a Saturday Night

Back to road logs (finally)! Last time, I cruised down one of the prettiest roads of my trip and arrived at one of the prettiest towns. This time, it’s about to get a lot less pretty.

Day 99 (Saturday, October 13, 2012)

In the morning, Jimmy made another delightful breakfast. I lingered, as I tend to do, savoring the last moments of comfort and camaraderie. Finally I walked the Giant out of Jimmy’s garden shed, hugged him goodbye one more time, and biked away.

Getting out of Natchez involved some hiccups but once I was on the open highway it was easy and peaceful ride. That changed as the day went on. I remain impressed by the ability of the Southern sun to cook the hell out of you even after a chilly autumn night. It was like day and night were totally different seasons.

I’d pass two major towns that day: Woodville on the Mississippi side of the border, and Francisville on the Louisiana side. By the time I got to Woodville it was lunch time and I was feeling the miles. I pulled off into town.

There’s this thing that happens when you’re cycling long distance where you start to look like a monster. You’re wearing your grubbiest road clothes and you’re drenched in sweat. Your nipples are probably rock hard through your t-shirt and maybe you shaved this morning or maybe you didn’t. If you’re fatigued enough, you may look like you just stumbled out of a hospital bed. It only gets passing glances at a gas station, but you really don’t fit in at nice events.

So as I biked into Woodville I was only briefly excited to see a festival going on. There was live music, a town square full of food booths, and families enjoying cotton candy in the streets. This will be fun! I thought. And then, as people eyed me and steered their kids far around me: No! It won’t!

The other problem with a crowded festival is where to put your cycle. All your stuff is on there, and it’s hard to keep an eye on it from even a short distance away in a crowd.

I decided not to bother navigating the festival proper, instead chaining the bike outside a cute local cafe where I could see it through the window. The families in the cafe were no more excited to rub elbows with me than those in the street, but now I was a paying customer. I was tired, and the icy air conditioning ate through my sweaty shorts and t-shirt. I mostly just wanted to keep to myself anyway.

This cafe also had a bathroom door whose only lock was one of those eye hook latches, like this bad boy:

…which you may wish to note, in case you plan to open a business, will never work for a public bathroom. It always ends the same way.

I used the restroom before eating to wash up a bit, and the latch was secure. After I finished my meal I went back in, this time noting it had been ripped clean out. Suffice it to say that the toddler and mom who came in the use the bathroom were just a few seconds too late to get a very good view of my bum.

Back on the road, I had really only come about a third of the way to Baton Rouge and the day was half over. As a plus, the crosswind had let up. As a minus, it was now about 400 times hotter than it was before.

I remember this section of the ride as brutal. It was my first serious flirt with heatstroke since the really bad incident outside Memphis. I kept dumping water over the back of my shirt, which helps in a huge way, but marveled at how quickly it evaporated bone dry. As I ran low on water I wished futilely for a gas station or rest stop, but there wasn’t one until long after the border crossing. I just had to suffer through.

Late in the afternoon a faint breeze kicked back up and the worst of the heat passed. I didn’t have time (or, at this point, much interest) to turn off into Francisville although the name intrigued me. I do remember feeling a slight sense of elation or pride at finally crossing the state line, as this was the last border of the trip and the entranceway to my new home. Mostly, though, I just pedaled.

My speed increased and I hoped I might actually make my destination before nightfall. I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing host we’ll call Carol, who lives in Baton Rouge. But my hopes were burst, as many times before, by yet another flat tire. I changed it—and then another one shortly after—along a golf course by the light of the setting sun. I noted with chagrin that my tubes were old and much-patched, and I was running out of good ones.

The golf course was the last scenic visa I’d see, and even that had pipelines running near it. By the time you approach Baton Rouge, the banks of the Mississippi River are nonstop chemical plants. I didn’t get to savor the green space long, though. I had emailed Carol to give her my ETA and received a reply:

“What route are you taking into the city? It gets very dangerous especially on a Saturday night.”

I frowned, not too worried. I gave her the route Google Maps gave me. A second later the phone rang.

It turned out that the route I was taking would lead me through most of Baton Rouge’s worst neighborhoods. She gave me a different plan, one which would only take me through some of its worst neighborhoods. And she warned me it would be “rowdy.” That wasn’t the half of it.

Entering Baton Rouge was, at first, like entering any city: heavy traffic, bad pavement and piles of tire-popping garbage on the shoulder. But soon everything changed. The sidewalks and street were packed with people. Hundreds of bodies per block milled around in the street. Traffic backed up. Police cruisers parked on sidewalks with lights flashing.

This is, apparently, any Saturday night in Baton Rouge. During Hurricane Katrina over 200,000 people fled from New Orleans to BR, raising the city’s population by one third overnight. Not all of those people stayed, but the population did jump by 200,000 total between 2000 and 2010. Even as a growing metropolis, Baton Rouge was not set up to handle these new arrivals.

That led to crowding, tension and crime. Of course, those who fled to BR and stayed were mostly those who already lived in poverty—who didn’t have the means to go back. To add another layer to it, most of the impoverished people in the exodus are of black descent. I’ll let you imagine local attitudes about this in a Southern US city.

In those conditions people have to let loose somewhere. So what otherwise might have been a block party, a neighborhood festival or a concert in the park became, essentially, a sidewalk-to-sidewalk street party.

Then I reached the street that Google had told me to turn on (which Carol told me to go straight past). I looked down it as I went by. It was completely closed to traffic by police barricades, with a sea of humans beyond.

My strategy was to keep moving. While cars ground to a total halt and drunks stumbled off the sidewalk, I swerved and dodged. I moved from lane to lane, into the oncoming, onto the sidewalk and off of it, around parked cars. Sometimes people noticed the cyclist with his bike loaded high with gear, and their eyes went wide or they pointed me out to their friends and yelled at me—but not until I was already passing them.

My strategy worked well, and I got through the party to a deserted industrial part of town that wasn’t much more reassuring. I had simply taken too long on the road, however, and Carol’s house turned out to be in a suburb well beyond the far side of the city. I had two hours of biking in the dark, through poorly signed residential neighborhoods and along heavily trafficked highways.

The final jaunt into Carol’s subdivision came with fresh breezes and a sense of relief. She lived in a two story home with a cast iron bench out front. She welcomed me in and gave me beer and food, in that order. 97.0 miles

Map.

Me wih "Carol." Photo by André.

Me with “Carol.” Photo by André.

Days 100-101 (October 14-15, 2012) — Rouge Priest

Sunday I joined Carol for church. We had spoken about it the night before and she didn’t pressure me at all to attend. Rather, I asked if I could come along. I made clear that I was only hoping to learn about their tradition and am not Christian myself, and that was fine with her. Given the positive experiences I’d had with churches earlier in my trip, I was interested to see how this one celebrated.

Carol is Episcopalian. I had dated an Episcopalian once but never gone to a service. Although she lives in the burbs, Carol drives into the city every week to attend worship service at St. James, a giant historic church that looks like this:

She introduced me to fellow parishioners and we settled in for the service. As a priest, I believe that ceremony is part performance (though that can’t be all of it, or you’re just a carny). St. James definitely knew how to create atmosphere and give their words and music impact. On the other hand, that week’s message wasn’t one I could connect with. The readings from the Bible included some real old fire-and-wrath stuff, and the theme of the week was tithing. For me, there’s always an inherent tension between the spiritual purpose of religion and the administrative need to solicit donations. (As a former nonprofit worker I know that that doesn’t make soliciting donations wrong. It just needs to be handled well.) To me, the heavy emphasis on giving money—during worship—felt uncomfortable. Especially coming from very well-heeled congregants who clearly didn’t have to sacrifice as much as others in the community might to tithe.

But the fire-and-wrath bits were extremely juicy poetry, and I saved the week’s program for inspiration in later fiction writing. After the worship service there was a breakfast on the church reception hall, and I met several of Carol’s friends. Everyone I met was friendly, warm and supportive of my journey across the Americas.

Afterward Carol wanted to show me the best view in Baton Rouge. The Louisiana State Capitol is the tallest capitol building in the US, at 450 feet with over 30 floors. It’s also open for visitors, and we got to see powerful WPA-era murals in the grand art deco lobby. We peeked in on (empty) courtrooms and legislative chambers and then ascended the elevator all the way to the top, where the observation deck was open.

Carol was a great tour guide. Aside from showing me around, she explained the history of Louisiana. She told me the state capital was originally New Orleans but it was moved to Baton Rouge “to get the politicians away from their Bourbon Street prostitutes.” She made good use of the view to orient me to the major landmarks of the city and explain all the industry along the river. I really enjoyed it.

Photo by André

View from the Capitol. Photo by André

Also as seen from the Capitol. Photo by André.

Also as seen from the Capitol. Photo by André.

Afterward she gave me a little driving tour to show me a few more spots, then we stopped for Puerto Rican beer at a local grocery. On the drive home we managed to run out of gas (!) on the freeway. Carol seemed nonplussed, explaining that Baton Rouge offers a roadside service that will “change a tire, jump a battery or give you one gallon of gas—but only one gallon.” Sure enough, the taxpayer-funded rescue service showed up in less than 15 minutes and we were on our way.

Back at her home, Carol understood that I needed to do some work. She showed me the nearly unlimited supply of tamales in her freezer and I had these and beer for lunch. It went to my head pretty quickly, leading to an interesting afternoon of work.

That evening over dinner, Carol told me about the social business she runs in Nicaragua. She had visited that country many times and made local friends, mainly women. She saw that the women from the villages made beautiful handcrafts and sold them for tiny prices. Large merchants or foreign buyers resold them for much more in urban centers to tourists or overseas. Carol had worked to form a collective where women in several villages could pool their handcrafts at a single urban shop that they owned together. That way they could sell their work at tourist prices and keep the profit. I love it.

Carol’s work had two highly visible results in her life: she spent a lot of time in Nicaragua, and she had a ton of great artwork in her house. The less visible but equally important result was that she had a strong sense of purpose and determination.

During dinner I commented on a painting upstairs that I liked. Carol said it was painted by her son, which took me by surprise because she had never mentioned having kids. She didn’t offer any more details about it. Sensing this, I didn’t ask any questions.

The next day was Monday. I had told Carol about my sad, leaky tires and how I was debating pushing on to New Orleans anyway—just two days away if the bike held together—versus taking a day to go a bike shop. She told me she knew a great bicycle mechanic who worked out of a shop behind his home, and by mid-morning we were on our way.

The bike mechanic was an older gent and was as skilled as Carol had said. He taught me a few things about my machine while he turned it upside down in his shop. We left it with him for a few hours and the Giant was as good as new, wheels trued and ready to roll.

That night we again had dinner together. This time Carol opened up more about her adult son. She told me that he had died several years earlier. She struggled between a sense of anger that she could barely contain, and the urge to be polite and positive in front of company. I told her she could talk honestly and she did.

I won’t share Carol’s son’s story here, but I will say that she had a great deal of advice for me: about my trip, about my family, and especially about my sister. (I had told Carol it bothered me that I never got to see my sister, who was cloistered in a Buddhist monastery.) I listened carefully and tried to absorb her advice. It was hard won, after all, and if she had learned lessons about how to live a good life after the immense hardship of losing a child, it would be a sin not to take them to heart.

To Carol, my ambition in riding to South America reminded her of the son she had lost and was part of why she was so supportive of my trip. To me, it was touching that this woman was willing to share with me the pain that she carried. I knew I could do nothing to relieve it, but I also sensed that it helped her to speak about it. I listened as long as she wanted to talk.

By the end of our visit, Carol had invited me to meet up with her in Nicaragua if we’re both in that country at the same time. Creating this social business was the project that gave her something to do with herself after she lost her son. I would love to stop and meet the women behind it one day.

Total traveled this leg: 97.0

Total traveled since Day 1: 1781.2

The next morning my first Baton Rouge visit ended and I took off once again. I’ll tell that story soon. Until then you can also read the previous road logs.

Keep this journey going:

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

Your contribution helps us afford crucial safety precautions, AND you get exclusive perks like behind the scenes video logs, letters from the road and blessings from Mexico! Click here to support the the Fellowship of the Wheel

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Religion

Doing My Job as a Priest

Image by Justin Ornellas

A friend of mine has been facing repeated heartbreak as he tries to get a fledgling relationship off the ground. We talked recently and he asked me, “Why do I have to keep paying in tears and pain for the sin of desiring romantic human companionship? Sometimes I feel cursed.”

This led to a conversation:

Me: Do you ever talk to your spirits?

Friend: Other than an aimless “why?” screamed towards the Heavens, no.

Me: Might not be a bad idea.

Friend: Why? You think I’m cursed?

Me: No, I don’t. If I’d felt that I would have done a ceremony for you already.

Friend: I don’t think I’m cursed either.
Just unhinged.

Me: The spirit world has a way of unblocking things that are blocked and pointing out things that aren’t easy to see. That’s the reason I suggest it. Gently, of course, with with total respect for your own freedom to do as you see fit spiritually :)

Friend: How should I begin? I need answers with this thing. I’m losing it.

Me: I would begin by just going to a quiet place and talking to them. Bring a gift, even if it’s just water or a few coins. Ask them for their guidance and listen with an open heart.

They may ask you to make changes or to do something. If you feel comfortable with what they say then do it. If you make the changes they tell you to make you will see the ripples of it across your life.

That is my experience.

Friend: Did you sense something? Hear something? Like how did you recognize the guidance?

Me: I think it’s different for every person. I wouldn’t expect a voice to whisper in your ear (might be a bad sign if it does). I feel it in my heart.

Friend: LOL
I’m going to the Beach this afternoon. What kind of offering do you think I should take? Pennies to throw into the water? I’m honestly clueless about these things.

Me: I think pennies are a great idea.

I may no longer run a temple, lead many public ceremonies, or even have a clear sense of whether the gods exist outside our heads… but I’d like to think I’m still doing my job as a priest for those who need it.

Join a handful of adventurers on a spiritual journey across Mexico:

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

Your contribution helps us afford crucial safety precautions, AND you get exclusive perks like behind the scenes video logs, letters from the road and blessings from Mexico! Click here to support the the Fellowship of the Wheel

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A Roguish Update

Preparation for the Fellowship has kept me busy this week (and therefore quiet on this blog), but I wanted to give everyone an update.

I’m in New Orleans, as I have been since the Texas Leg. For the first two months here I rented a room, and this month I was invited to stay in a friend’s guest bedroom. I pay utilities, help him with a few errands, and we’re all getting along great.

My to-do list while here has been a whirlwind. First I had to get the word out about the ride across Mexico and recruit cyclists, which went well. Then I had to put together our funding campaign, which I did but the results have been slow. And this month I’ve had to focus on getting our little group ready: making sure everyone knows where to be and when to be there, and that all the arrangements are in place when we show up to get started.

This has by far been the most intimidating part of the preparation, and I spend pretty much every day racing from one task to another. I’m the sort of person who really prefers to have a single, large project to lose myself in (like writing a novel or a batch of 10 articles for a client). A to-do list of dozens of smaller, unconnected items is pretty much my nightmare. But it’s also to be expected before just about any large adventure.

Given that I also have client work to do, what’s fallen by the wayside is much of my own personal preparation. I realized this week that I haven’t yet gotten a physical, gone to the dentist or gotten new contact lenses as I’d planned to; I haven’t registered for an absentee ballot so I can vote from Mexico; I haven’t switched to my new phone or made a final decision on what shelter I’ll be sleeping in on the road.

There’s no doubt that these projects will get done. I wake up every morning, check my list and dive in. What will get triaged, unfortunately, is my own writing. Aside from not blogging here this week, I have three finished short stories I won’t have time to edit and send out before the trip, and I’m about 40% of the way through writing another book. It gets extremely strong feedback from my writers’ group, but I won’t make much more progress on it till after we reach the Yucatán.

All of this, of course, makes me question the Adventure overall. I felt the same way last time I left New Orleans to push the journey forward. In one form or another I’ve been planning for this journey since March, when I finished the kayak leg. There’s no denying that it’s taken my focus away from other things I care about.

So I ask myself: what takes me forward? It’s more than just a stubbornness, a refusal to quit (though that is something I excel at). There’s also a sense of excitement. Finally getting to cruise into the Yucatán on my bicycle, the wind in my face, is an image that grabs me. It’s a day, like the day I rolled into New Orleans, that I want to remember for the rest of my life.

And this time I have companions. I don’t know how much will change, compared to past legs, with fellow adventurers at my side. It should make many of the hard times easier, and it will also bring problems of its own. But the individual personalities of those who have stepped forward are recommendation enough, and I would want the chance to mingle with a group like this whether we were on an adventure or not.

So a good crew, a good goal, and a certain amount of refusal to give in. Is that justification for a great adventure? I don’t know. But I’m damn well going to find out.

Please help us launch this adventure:

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

Your contribution helps us afford crucial safety precautions, AND you get exclusive perks like behind the scenes video logs, letters from the road and blessings from Mexico! Please support the the Fellowship of the Wheel

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Deadline Extension

Fellowship of the Wheel adventure campaign

Several people have contacted me and said that they would like to be able to contribute to the Fellowship of the Wheel fundraiser, but won’t be able to before the campaign deadline. Several others have suggested that I should extend the deadline so that people can give right up till the day the trip starts, which will make it more exciting and possible lead to a few last minute contributions.

So, good news: the deadline has now been extended through November 8!

If you haven’t heard, contributions to this campaign will help us cover important group costs, like a support vehicle to tail us through the notorious border region. In other words, the money you contribute to the campaign directly helps us stay safe as we cycle. It will also help provide must-have equipment such as a wireless device we can use to get wi-fi anywhere in Mexico. That helps us stay in touch and further contributes to our safety.

Supporters get much more than a thank you (although your name is inscribed in a thank you card that will travel all 2,000 miles of our journey with us). You also get all kinds of perks, from video logs recorded as we travel to a series of stories inspired by the places we visit. We can even send you postcards and hand-written letters from the road.

If you haven’t already, please consider contributing to the campaign. Even a $1 donation helps (and gets your name on the card). And please share the link and tell your friends. Check out the campaign here.

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