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!


Mom: I don’t know, where?

Me: I’m—



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.

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!)


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?

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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


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:

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Adventure, Adventure Prep, Fellowship of the Wheel, The Great Adventure, Travel

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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The Plane Ride Was Too Short

Since we’re getting ready for a group bicycle ride across Mexico, I thought I would share the story of another journey in that land: the tale of a young girl’s first trip out of her own country with her grandfather. This true story was sent to me as a present by one of my readers, who goes by Calluna, and I’m delighted to share it with you here.

The Baja. Photo by Charles Chandler.

THE PLANE RIDE TO LOS ANGELES was too short. I say that because I still had pages left to read in my book. I had come fully equipped with Bunnicula, two volumes of the Babysitters Club, and an edition of Horse Illustrated. I hadn’t even gotten through my first Babysitters Club—Claudia, who was my favorite character because I imagined she was pretty and because she was a painter, was still trying to figure out how to resolve the plot. If all the plane had done was launch into the sky, flown aimlessly until I had finished reading everything in my luggage, and then turned around and landed back at home, I would have been perfectly content. In fact, I would have considered it all to be a grand adventure because I could look out the window at the hidden side of the clouds, and glimpse tiny trees and rivers beneath.

Because I was eleven years old and flying alone, I had been instructed to wait for the flight attendants. I watched everyone file past my seat, feeling very grown up because I did not need a mommy or daddy to tell me what to do. The flight attendant greeted me when everyone had gone and escorted me off the plane.  This was back before 9-11, before shoe bombs and x-ray scanners. Back when your loved ones could greet you at the gate, holding signs and balloons. I was mildly concerned that Grandpa Johnson would be late, and the flight attendant would have to take me back into some kiddie playroom until he arrived.

Grandpa Johnson was a military man. He was not late. He did not bring balloons for me and he was not holding a sign with my name on it, but I found him anyway. Grandpa Johnson (who preferred I call him “Granddad” because “Grandpas,” he said, were old people) and I did not know each other very well. I had visited with him only a handful of times, when he would fly into Oklahoma City or we would fly to LA. I liked him because he looked like my mom, had a great smile and pretty silver hair, and once brought me a Mickey Mouse watch from Disneyland for Christmas. I was wearing the watch he gave me on the plane. He had a girlfriend named Judy, and she was nice and smiled a lot, too. This was my first trip to LA alone, but it was not my first trip to LA. I had also visited a few times when I was very small, and had vague memories of a giant snapping turtle that used to live in his backyard. Even now, looking back as an adult, I wonder about the accuracy of these memories, because having a pet snapping turtle is not only crazy for anyone, it is extra crazy for my Granddad, and extra extra crazy for an LA backyard. But I could swear I have seen photographs of this turtle in a family picture album.

We greeted each other and made it onto the LA highways without much fanfare. I had a day or two in LA before the main leg of the adventure, and he seemed to enjoy having me in the car. I fed him an endless stream of questions, beginning with, “Why is everyone honking?”

“Because we’re in a traffic jam.”

“But what do they think the honking will help? Do they think it will make traffic move if they honk enough?”

“No. I think they’re just angry and want something to do.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yes, it is.”

Granddad lived in Oxnard, outside of LA proper, so we had a lot of time to listen to honking. He also explained HOV lanes and told stories about people putting dummies in the passenger seats to ride in them. He was extra happy to have me in the car so we could ride in the HOV lane. He proudly announced when we were on Ventura Boulevard because “there are songs about it!” Granddad’s house was concrete (I thought at the time—it was actually stucco), which seemed appropriate for his big city life. He had two dogs to make me feel at home, and ironically, the constant traffic noise outside his window was also a familiar sound. My bedroom in Oklahoma was also off of a busy street. In my experience, sleeping near a busy street sounds just about the same no matter where you live. Some of them may also have trains, and some of them have drunkards, some of them (like in LA) have people who are more prone to honking, but always there is the droning white noise of vehicles to lull me to sleep; that ubiquitous cityscape lullaby; coming and going in waves not unlike the ocean.

The next day we packed up his big white pick-up and headed towards Mexico. I left my books in the back of the truck because I do not like to miss a single thing on road trips. I have to see everything we pass, read every sign, see every tree, every second of the trip. What is the point of travelling if I don’t pay attention? And how awkward, if I look down to read, or close my eyes to sleep, and the next time I look out the window, I am miles away? I feel like Scotty beamed me on down the road…

Before we made it out of the country there were yet more lessons. Granddad pointed out Silicon Valley, a nest of civilization surrounded by green mountains off to the side of the freeway. I told him I had never heard of it, so he asked me if I had heard of Valley girls. I said I wasn’t sure, so he asked me if I had heard Dumb Blonde jokes. (The 80s had recently ended… and if you don’t remember Dumb Blonde jokes, you were not in America in the 80s! My favorite used to go something like this: How do you kill a blonde? Put nails in her shoulder pads.) He said the Dumb Blondes were Valley girls, and Valley girls came from Silicon Valley. I was mystified as to why Dumb Blondes would come from a single small area of the country, so I scrutinized the scenery and shared some of my observations.

“It sure is foggy here.” And it was. The morning sun scattered every which way and little puffs of whitish haze drifted in and out of the mountain peaks. “I like fog.” Fog is faerie weather. Magic happens in the fog.

“Heather…” his tone of voice was one of those that people use when they are about to say something really obvious, “that’s not fog.” I frowned. He did not sound happy.

“What is it?” I considered that he might be pulling my leg. It looked like fog.

“It’s smog.”

“What’s smog?”

“Air pollution. From the cars, and from the Valley.” Now air pollution was something I HAD heard of. I wrinkled my nose.

“Ew. Yuck.”

“Yes, yuck.” Here, there were two things unbeknownst to me. The first is that I would grow up to be an air pollution specialist (for reasons unrelated to early visits with Granddad), and that this seemingly minor incident would stick out in my mind forever as my introduction to heavy air pollution. The second is that during this particular visit, the air of the LA metropolis was the most polluted and unhealthiest air in the entire country. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) and California politicians would soon launch a massive series of experimental and seemingly extreme efforts to curtail and reverse the ambient air pollution, and they would succeed. It would become a case study in my own college courses many years later. Before I graduate, their air will have improved and their smoggy crown will be stolen by Houston (which I will also come to visit at its smoggiest). CARB will become the most progressive and cutting-edge air regulatory body in the country, and all the other states and even the federal government will wait for the results of policies attempted in California before making decisions in the rest of the country. But for this trip, Granddad and I agreed that it was Yuck, and I unfairly still equate LA to Yuck in my own mind.

“I casually acknowledged that my young life was in danger, and I wondered if my mother knew. I was pretty certain that she did not, because if she did, I probably would not be having such a lovely adventure.”

Granddad was bent on making good time as we had many days of driving ahead, but he was kind enough to stop and take me to the San Diego Zoo. It was supposed to be the best zoo in the country. I was moderately impressed, but I didn’t see a huge difference between the SD Zoo and my hometown zoo. Another lesson to be learned later, after I acquired a summertime job at the OKC Zoo: I was not as impressed as I might have been because the OKC Zoo is also a top ten zoo. In 1990 Oklahoma City began supporting the zoo with sales tax, and ever since then it has been pumping tax money into a never-ending stream of improvements, some of which had already begun to materialize before I came to San Diego. But the San Diego zoo was lush and green, and it was the first true outing my Granddad and I had together, and a welcome side trip on a very long car ride.

25 miles later we approached the US/Mexico border at Tijuana. I recall something that resembled gates on a toll road, only taller, and manned by Mexicans. I didn’t need a passport; I had a birth certificate, and Granddad explained that I was his granddaughter, and that was good enough. They wanted to know what produce we had and they were particularly concerned about bananas. They looked quickly through some of our luggage, presumably for fruit, and then waved us through. Granddad locked the doors and told me to keep the windows rolled up. “Tijuana is nasty,” he said. “It’s a nasty city. It’s dirty and there are lots of drugs and lots of druggies. It’s the worst city in the world.” Granddad had been in the Air Force for a long time because he loved to travel—he had shipped my grandmother furniture from Japan; he had sent me money from Korea. So when he said Tijuana was a bad city, I believed his expertise and I kept my windows up. He said that he had military buddies who liked to go to Tijuana to party, and said he’d gone with them a few times, and found it unpleasant. He added that he wished he could drive around it. I stared out the window, mystified that a city could be so dangerous and disgusting that you’d want to drive around it instead of through it. I wondered what he expected people to do if I had my window down. The city did in fact look dirty and slummy—a poor city with sad poor people. I saw a lot of people out on the streets and most of them did not look happy. Most of them looked hot in the sun, bored, and maybe a little bit angry. But they didn’t look particularly dangerous and none of them tried to get in our truck.

We were taking Highway 1 all the way down the California Baja to Loreto, Mexico, over 800 miles from Los Angeles. Highway 1 travels along the western coast of the baja for many miles, snakes back and forth across the middle of the peninsula, and then jumps over to the eastern coast and eventually passes through Loreto. We didn’t pass many towns, although there were a few sprinklings of civilization along the way. Most of it was mile after mile of narrow, winding mountain highway with little or no guard rails, the shoulders just as sparse, dropping off into very steep mountainside that could send you tumbling into the sea if only you had enough momentum. Granddad took this drive every year, and did not seem bothered by the highway at all. The highway was so narrow that there was not enough room for two cars to pass one another if one of them was a large vehicle. We could squeeze past small sedans, but occasionally a larger truck or van would appear around the curve of the mountain. The vehicle nearest the slope would gingerly move over and park with one side of its wheels off the edge of the roadwhile the vehicle nearest the mountain face would continue past. Then the other vehicle could ease back onto the road and continue. This happened infrequently—Highway 1 was not a busy road.

I was aware, logically, that this was a dangerous highway. I was aware that it was entirely possible for a vehicle to come around a mountain curve a little too fast, popping into view, and surprise us over the edge before we could gingerly move aside. I was equally aware that were we to tumble, and were the tumble to end a few feet down the embankment rather than in the ocean, that Mexican doctors and ambulance and Mexican 911 (if there was even such a thing) would be far away and we would be in a bad state. This being the pre-cell phone era, we could have been there all day even if a witness reported our accident immediately. In short—I casually acknowledged that my young life was in a mild sort of danger, and I wondered if my mother knew. I was pretty certain that she did not, because if she did, I probably would not be having such a lovely adventure. She would want to keep me safe. That is a mother’s job, after all, but my Granddad’s job was to adventure. A vagabond at heart, he could not keep family ties, and after he retired even his chosen family could hardly keep track of him. I think that when he finally passed away he lived in Alaska, but even of that, I’m uncertain.

I was also aware that being in danger was not something that I should love as completely as I did, and not something that I should approach fearlessly, but I could not help myself. In fact, this may be the first time I remember being in any sort of danger. I loved staring up and down the mountain on both sides. It was both breathtakingly lovely and exciting to look straight down onto jagged rocks and crashing waves when the mountain fell away suddenly to my right. The few guard rails were scratched up, scuffed up, and mangled, and I imagined the vehicle-guardrail collision each time I examined them. Most of all, I was morbidly fascinated by the seemingly enormous quantity of dead vehicles littering the mountain side. Some of them had trees or shrubs growing through them, as though they were part of the native flora. Many of them were rusty, soon to foster their own gardens inside. Some were new and shiny. Most of them were tiny sedans with Mexican license plates. Sometimes it looked like perfectly-A-OK passengers probably had a challenging climb back to the road and long walk to the nearest town while other vehicles looked so mangled and precarious that I wondered if the unfortunate skeletons of their riders were still inside.I kept an eye out for the most antique vehicle I could find (a pick-up truck and a few cars from the 1940s). I tried counting the vehicle husks, but there were too many, and I gave up. I tried guessing how long the cars had been there and when the accidents that sent them over the edge had occurred, but there was no way for me to know. A few years later my Mom took the same trip with my Granddad, and she said she was terrified throughout the entire drive. I thought that was a shame—even without the forensic intrigue, the mountains and coast were incredibly beautiful, and my Granddad handled that twisty-twining deadly passage like a pro. The awkward and lovely highway turned out to be one of my favorite parts of our trip.

The ride to Loreto took three days. We learned to communicate with one another over those days… at least, I thought at the time that was what was happening. In retrospect, I realize that he came from my own home town and so, more likely than not, he knew exactly what I was saying and was trying to teach me better diction. Back then, being from Oklahoma was still stigmatized and an Okie accent was actively discouraged. (Today, on the other hand, my husband amps up his Okie accent on purpose because he says it makes him sound “friendly.”) Whatever the reason, we had several conversations that went something like this:

“Hey! We just passed a skole on the side of the road!”

“A what?”

“A skole! A cow skole!”

“A skole?”

“Yes!” At this point my enthusiasm on the imagined grisly death of cattle in the desert is waning, because we have both cows and cow skoles back at home, where people know about skoles.

“What’s a skole?”

“A cow skole. You know, a skole. From a cow.”

“No. I don’t know. What is that?”

At this point I’m skeptical that he’s never heard of cow skoles, but I keep trying, and grab my head with both hands as an example. “Um. It was the cow’s HEAD, and the cow dies, and skin and flesh rot away, and then it’s a skole.”

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” he responds, as though he finally understands the gibberish I’ve been spouting. “I call those SKULLS. That’s the correct way to say it.” This happened a handful of times afterwards, as though we were speaking a different language. I remember significant issues during a conversation about mirages, as well… It took some time to explain what a “mere” was and to get a lesson on how to pronounce “mirror.”

I fancied myself to be a horse expert, because I had ridden horses twice, had exactly one riding lesson, and read Horse Illustrated. I had taught myself the breeds and watched the Kentucky Derby on TV.  There were lots of horses in the Baja, and I ooh’ed over them and even mentioned what fine looking horses they were—all of them lithe, dark and muscular. Granddad told me that they were indeed very proud of their horses and the quality of their breeding in the Baja. I felt proud for having noticed, and took that as proof of my expertise.

One day we encountered some road construction. The entire road was new, fresh black asphalt—both lanes. Right into the wet road we went, driving slowly, flinging sticky tar and asphalt everywhere. I was stunned that they had not left even one lane dry, but the construction workers calmly stepped aside while we splashed through their work, like they were expecting it to get disturbed. Hours later, we stopped for gas. I hopped out of the truck to get some “jugo de naranja” and immediately planted both of my bare feet onto sticky globs of tar that were baking on the truck’s step—I had forgotten about our encounter with the road workers. I immediately sat back in my seat. Granddad handed me a rag with some water poured on it, and it took a lot of elbow grease to get that stuff off. Have you ever wondered how difficult it is to get tar off of your feet? Now, I can tell you: Pretty darn difficult.

My Granddad and I La Quinta’d our way up and down the peninsula. I don’t know what was special about the La Quinta Inn and I didn’t even know they had La Quintas in Mexico before this trip, but at the La Quinta we got free Spanish TV and free eggs and toast for breakfast. The La Quintas usually appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, a lonely Hotel California-like rest stop on a lonely highway, and we didn’t venture far from them. We stayed in, watched the Three Stooges or Clint Eastwood dubbed over in Spanish, and ate eggs. The irony that I left the country just to watch American TV programs in another language was not lost on me, but there didn’t seem to be much else on the TV. I would read some more chapters out of my Babysitters Club books (I will have finished them all before we return to California) and then we were back in the truck.

One evening we went out to eat in a restaurant. I ordered a hamburger and I could actually see cows grazing through the windows. He watched me eat as though he expected me to do something. Finally he asked me how I liked my burger.

“It’s fine.” I kept chewing.

“It’s different.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Cows taste different here.”

“Oh yeah?” I chewed more slowly, trying to figure out what he meant. The height of my burger-tasting skills were learned at McDonalds.

“The cows here are fed different. They aren’t as fat. The meat is drier; less juicy.”

“Hmm.” I kept chewing, looking at the cows. I tried to remember how fat the cows at home were. I supposed that he was right about their weight. “Can I have desert?”

The only desert on the menu said “ICE CREAM.” At home, “ICE CREAM” always meant vanilla, which I thought was a little disappointing, but better than no desert, so I ordered it. It came out. It looked like vanilla. I tasted it. And it was coconut, and it was divine. It was very soft and very flavorful, so good that I guessed it was made on site. I was immediately aware that I might never taste ice cream exactly like that again. (So far, I have not.) I “made a big deal” over it, as my Mom would say, but my Granddad was just as impressed with my ice cream as I was with his insight on Mexican hamburger meat.

Eventually we made it all the way down the Baja to Loreto.

Professor Google tells me that Loreto, Mexico was founded in 1677 (which would have astounded me, had I known it at the time—I wish I had), and that the year I visited (1993) was the first year the city elected its own mayor. Professor Google goes on to tell me that Loreto is now a popular tourist destination. Photos on the internet show me large resort hotels with big blue swimming pools and all of the usual brochure-like images of scuba divers, kayakers, and bikini-clad women sunning on the beach. This is not the Loreto I remember.

I remember a small-town Loreto, with long stretches of (largely empty) sandy beaches frequented primarily by fishermen. I don’t recall any fancy resort hotels, and did not see any of the rental infrastructure that comes with a beach tourism industry. There were no bikini babes, no swimming pools or scuba divers, and few structures at all on the beaches we visited. The only beach building that I recall was little more than a large, do-it-yourself-looking covered patio where you could get burgers and sodas. Granddad knew these fellows; every few days we’d visit. They would talk together in Spanish and I had no idea what they were saying. My Spanish was then and is now very rudimentary, but Granddad was fluent. The owner of—I’ll call it “The Shack”—had two boys that fished the bay, and they would drag their boat up and down the sand in front of the shack. I watched them with interest, and they were introduced to me. I liked looking in the boat to see how much fish they’d caught. They did not seem hard at work—they seemed hard at play. As though they thought it might be fun to go out and fish for a little while, so they’d go out for only a few hours, catch a few fish, and come back in, but they did it every day and so I guessed it was their job.

I recall a Loreto entrenched in place; look away from the ocean and still you see ocean everywhere. People decorated, both in and out, with things that had been pulled out of the sea or things that had washed up on the beach; driftwood, dried fish (especially pufferfish—lots of those! Hung all over everything like spiked and bleached Christmas ornaments—they fascinated me—to this day, I’d like to have one), seashells, sea glass; they set them out in the sun, hung them from the eaves of their buildings, or made all varieties of crafts with them. It was just to my taste. I was always hauling in outdoor finds, anyway, so I thought it was perfect. When my mother visited Loreto the following year she admired their seashell wind chimes so much that she learned to make her own; she carried home jars and jars of shells, and had my father carefully drill tiny holes into each one so she could string them into long tinkling chains and arrange them onto loops. The hardy Loreto wind chimes survived many years on a gusty Oklahoma porch, and that is saying a lot.

“I hadn’t considered walking as a ‘hang-out’ activity before and imagined there was nothing else to do, or perhaps it was a cultural thing and they really loved sidewalks.”

Granddad Johnson owned an RV in a small RV park outside of town. I could walk from one end of the park to the other in very short order, with tropical flora reaching for me from the fences and humming birds zipping all around my head. In the center of the park was a building that held a tiny Laundromat, convenience store, memento store, and post office all in one. This was my home base for buying popsicles in a variety of tropical flavors and sending postcards home. I always delighted in sorting out my pesos and separating the old style from the new style; they had recently had a currency change.

Granddad visited Loreto once or twice a year and stayed for a few weeks each time, but the couple in the RV next to ours (also Americans—expats, I guess) were permanent residents. They were friends. We had dinner and card games with them on most evenings. We grilled burgers. They drank beer, I drank Coke. Because my parents did not allow me to drink soda, I would drink way, way too much Coke and bounced myself back and forth across the RV until I was told to quit shaking the house.

On our first or second evening in Loreto, Granddad drove us from the RV to the town. We did some grocery shopping and then he took me to the promenade. It was a wide gray sidewalk made with irregular stones. You could see the ocean from it (you could see the ocean from almost everywhere) and there were, here and there, portions that would jut out into platforms or docks. “This is the promenade!” he told me. He seemed excited. I was not impressed. It just looked like a sidewalk. I had never heard the word “promenade.”

“What is it for?” Because I am nothing if not inquisitive. When he offered to spend time with me that summer, he probably had not counted on also becoming a school teacher.

“It’s for walking.”

“Why? It’s not for the view. You can also see the ocean over there.” I pick a random place and point.

“I don’t know. It’s what people do out here. For fun. They go on dates here, and bring their friends.”

“Hmmm,” I nodded, examining the other people on the promenade. I hadn’t considered walking as a “hang-out” activity before and imagined there was nothing else to do, or perhaps it was a cultural thing and they really loved sidewalks. I indeed identified an opposite-sex pair strolling the cobblestones, and decided that meant that Granddad was right, and those two were lovebirds on a walk, watching the ocean. “Well, let’s do it. Let’s walk.” I don’t remember very much about our stroll along the promenade other than that it seemed uneventful and smelled like fish. I spent some time watching sea gulls and when we meandered back to the truck Granddad pulled out a cigarette and leaned against the car. I went down to the dock and looked into the water. I could see mud, seaweed, and fish. Some of the fish were very tiny, the size of a fingernail. I wondered if they were young or if they were naturally small. I stuck my hand in the water and they didn’t seem frightened.

I love all the Earth’s creatures, and at that time, I especially loved catching them and taking them inside. My family had bought me a variety “bug zoos” and ant farms to combat my tendency to catch and release indoors (so we could cohabitate with butterflies, right? Cool idea?). I had boxes of frogs and tortoises and grass snakes. I even caught a duckling one day, to the disbelief of my parents, who immediately ordered me to return the duckling to its mother. I was always trying (unsuccessfully) to catch squirrels and bluejays in my butterfly net. One year I brought a mouse inside and it escaped from its box to cause an infestation (which I never fessed up to). So you can guess what happened next.

I walked back to the truck and asked for something to use to catch fish. Granddad took it in stride—he had me describe the fish I wanted to catch and then told me the only thing he had in the car that might catch a fish was his coffee mug. I was told to hold onto it very tight and then I was back at the dock, mug in hand. Ever so slowly, I lowered the mug into the water. I held it motionless as the fish got used to it. They got brave, coming closer and closer. Then, a quick swish-swish and I had a tiny fish in the mug! Relieved that I hadn’t lost his mug to the sea, I carefully walked back to the truck with my new friend. “I got one! Can I take it back with us?”

“Sure. Let’s go now.” He stomped out his cigarette and opened the door for me; I gingerly climbed in, staring at the tiny fish. It was swimming circles. It was stressful preventing the splashing from upsetting the fish (or worse, splashing it out into the car) on the road. Granddad showed me how to “use your elbows as shock absorbers” and that helped somewhat. As we drove, the water in the mug started to change. First it got cloudy, and then tiny clumps started to appear, and I finally had the thought I should have had at the dock.

“Can the fish live in this cup?”

“I don’t know.” I felt my heart skip a beat. I didn’t want to kill it. I just wanted to have it close to me!

“There’s something wrong with the water. It’s cloudy.”

“Maybe it’s the salt.”

“It wasn’t like that before.” We are nearing the RV at this point, and I am growing increasingly concerned. The water is getting worse. The fish is swimming slower. I wonder if it’s the agitation from the ride. When we get back to the RV I set it on the counter and stare intensely while Granddad puts away groceries. The water keeps getting chalkier and the bits of debris keep coagulating and getting bigger. The fish quits swimming and just sort of hovers; it doesn’t float to the top… in fact, it sinks a little bit. “What is wrong with it?”

Granddad looks into the cup. “I don’t know; maybe it doesn’t have enough oxygen.”

“What should I do?!”

“Well, you could keep it and see how it goes. I don’t have a fish tank.”

I don’t remember which of us suggests that the fish could be returned to the ocean, but Granddad said it would take a while to get there and we’d have to leave right away. I decide I’d rather be safe than sorry and we get back in the truck to drive all the way back to the dock. I fret over my little fish the entire time, certain that the fish is moments from death and I’m about to become a fish killer, when all I wanted to do was watch it swim in the RV. He is very kind and understanding, but I am certain he has no concern for the fish or the dark stain that would appear on my youthful conscience if it died. Yet he humors me, acting equally concerned, not letting on how inconvenient I was making his evening, and I return the fish to the exact same spot I’d caught it from. The fish sinks out of sight and other tiny fish swim into view on top of it. I don’t know if the fish lived or not (I like to imagine it did), but I learned an important lesson about being more thoughtful before I take responsibility for living things and remove them from their environment, and I also learned a good deal about my Granddad’s capacity for patience. Even at the time I knew the type of gentle patience it must have taken for him to allow me to catch the fish, carry it home, and immediately return it—all without any real adult guidance or words of judgment or irritation, just quietly going along with whatever I wanted.

I now have to add to this story that we were on a fishing trip, so I am 100% sure that he was not as concerned about the Coffee Mug Fish as I was. Granddad paid for the RV in the Baja just so he could always have a nice home base from whence to fish. His favorite prey were marlin, although we were also after edibles, which at that time of year was mostly dorado. Dorado is the Spanish name for the dolphinfish and so that is how I was introduced to it in the baja, but I later learn it is more frequently called mahi-mahi or dolphinfish by Americans.

Granddad paid for the services of a fishing guide and his small motorized fishing boat, which was probably no more than ten or twelve feet long and four feet wide. Every morning, we would get up before dawn, pack some sandwiches, put on sunscreen lotion, and go down to the beach to load up the boat. The men—usually our guide—would catch tiny bait fish with a net in the bay, and when we had a few buckets full of live bait our guide would drive the boat out into the Gulf of California. This was my favorite part of the trip. The sky was only dimly blue and the air was cool and breezy; the water in the bay was smooth and dark and the land wrapped around it was the shadow of a giant’s arms. They’d speed the boat to get it through the bay—so fast that we had to tie our hats on – and I’d perch as far towards the bow as they’d let me go so that I could really fly when the nose would dip up and down.  The water would get choppy as we went through the pass; we’d always hit at least one or two big waves that would jolt me to my spine, and at this point we could finally see what type of waters we faced on the ocean. The men always seemed discouraged by whitecaps, but we never turned around.

Before this trip, I had been under the impression that only big boats were ocean faring. Little motorboats like ours surely stayed in lakes and rivers—at least, that is what the television had taught me. But the three of us rode that boat all day long, often going so far into the Gulf that land was nowhere to be seen.

Our guide watched the seabirds, and followed them to find floating mats of kelp. The kelp attracted small fish, and the small fish attracted the dorado (and birds, and many other things), which my Granddad wanted for the table.  We took several dorado everyday; they were plentiful; if there were fishing limits, we must have met them. We filled the iceboxes with them. I’d never seen anything like them. I was certain that if a rainbow could fall to the sea and become a fish, it would become a dorado, blunt nose and all. We would usually fish dorado in the morning, then go farther into the Gulf, past the kelp, past the birds, to fish for marlin.

Granddad Johnson loved the marlin. The marlin were what drew him into the Baja; the dorado were only secondary. He thought marlin were magnificent creatures, and they were: some of the ones we saw were as big as our boat, all powerful and gleaming blue and white, the tall sword-like tip of their dorsal fin slicing the water and visible for long distances. He never killed one, although we caught several; usually one or two a day. He said they were too beautiful to kill, and that he had too much respect for them to kill them. He just loved the hunt.

We would see the fin from far off and watch it for a while. We had to wait and watch because it was easy to mistake sailfish for marlin if their sails weren’t at extension. Sometimes we’d see the fish swim at a different angle or see the fin flex, identify it as a sailfish, and carry on. Other times we confirmed it as a marlin, and our guide would slowly work the boat close enough for Granddad to cast. Sometimes it felt like forever to get near if the fish was moving away from us, and we often couldn’t head straight towards the marlin. This far into the gulf, the waves were large. The boat had to angle over them. We’d have to head the fish off. It seemed we were always moving at angles for one reason or another. Finally, Granddad would cast his line out as far as he could. Sometimes it wasn’t far enough, but eventually, he’d catch the marlin’s attention. He’d make the bait dance. The marlin would catch the bait, and the two of them would duel with much back and forth. He’d work the fish in, and let the line out. Reel it in, and let it out. Over and over. Sometimes his adversary escaped the hook and disappeared into the deep. Other times, the glorious thing was at last fatigued and at rest alongside our boat. We would admire it for a few short moments, Granddad would either remove the hook or cut it loose (if the hook had been swallowed), and fish and fisherman would part ways. If the sun was low, we’d turn around and head back past the kelp and into the bay. We’d return with an hour or two of daylight to spare.

They removed the hook, clubbed its head, and put it in the tank. They told me it was a red snapper. They declared it was a Good Fish

I was raised in a landlocked state. A state with plenty of lake and river coastline, to be sure, but a state with no ocean and peopled with farmers and other landlubbers. Big water was not an integral part of our lives; lakes and rivers were places you might visit in the summers or on weekends. I had been on boats before that summer on the Gulf of California. I had been in canoes at home, and I had been on a dinner cruise on a big steady tourist ship in Florida. But it was nothing like this. Nothing like water as far as the eye can see, a tiny boat, alone, in a great big world. Nothing like waves that tossed me up and down like an amusement park ride, nothing like moving across the water at speeds that created a breeze in my face as strong as a stormy wind. On this trip I fell in love with the ocean and even more so—I fell in love with riding in boats. Specifically, I fell in love with riding in small, agile fishing boats. I fell in love with the feel of the waves rocking my body.

I was only seasick once. I spent the first day dreading the possibility that I might get seasick, and look weak in front of the men. So I moved to the back of the boat, were the rocking was less intense. I sat there quietly. I did my best not to let on that my body was fighting the ocean. I watched the men, hoping they wouldn’t notice. They were at the front of the boat, talking and fishing. After what felt like a very long time, I leaned over the side, vomited very quickly and neatly, then sat back up and wiped my mouth with my shirt. They were still at the front of the boat talking and fishing. To my immense relief, they had not noticed. After that, I was a child of the sea.

But I was not a fisher. There is a reason why I have spoken only of the adults catching fish, and it is this. I had never been fishing and I had never held a fishing rod. On our first day out, they brought a rod for me and showed me how to bait and cast. I fished with them, happy as a clam, until the first time I saw my bobber dip. They told me that I had a fish, and I ought to reel it in. I did so without trouble, and I could feel the fish fighting under water. When it emerged from the water I saw a stout red fish, a little over twelve inches long, flailing at the end of the line. I had no idea what to do with it. I laid it down in the boat, hook in, still flopping. I thought it was lovely. I recognized I had caused it distress. Granddad and the guide were both excited about my fish. They removed the hook, clubbed its head, and put it in the tank. They told me it was a red snapper. It turned out to be the only snapper we saw during the entire trip. They declared it was a Good Fish, and Granddad went on to tell me how excellent a meal red snapper was, how delicious, how pleased he was that I’d caught it, told me I’d been lucky. I spent that time trying not to cry in front of the men—because I had killed a fish. A live fish. Dead. Thanks to me. Knowing that it was going towards dinner did very little to soothe my aching conscience and tender heart. After my first and only fishing experience, I told them that I would rather watch.

For two entire weeks, I watched. I watched the men joke in English and Spanish. I watched them fish with nets and reels. I liked watching them reel in a catch, because you almost never knew what it was until it broke the water next to the boat. Often it was food, like dorado or my snapper, but equally often it was something that had to be thrown back, like an eel. Eels were always a total loss for the hook. By the time they reached the boat, they were a writhing Gordian knot of a creature, and all you could do was cut them loose, throw them back, and hope they came untangled on their own.

I dangled my fingers in the water and watched shadows move beneath our fishing boat—I could see just well enough to tell when fish were swimming underneath or when the water was getting shallow. Sometimes I could make out the rocks. The ghosts I saw in the underworld were fascinating. To me, the best shadows of all were sea turtles and rays. Rays were very common and I saw a handful each day—some of them quite large; I only saw two or three turtles the entire trip, so each time I’d call it out and point so my companions could look. I’m not sure if the men could see the turtles or not, but they took me at my word, and that was good enough.

I watched the sea gulls and the seaweed. I watched the motion of the kelp. I watched the dolphin—of which we saw many (much to my delight). We saw so many that they almost seemed common by the time I flew home. The dolphin were often near the same kelp islands that drew the dorado and seagulls. We could usually see their fins breaking the waves or the quick blow of a spout. I learned that they were easy to spot from far away because they looked like waves moving out of unison with the rest of the ocean. Sometimes they would follow our boat, and I was reminded of stories of dolphins saving people from sharks.

I saw sharks, too. I could see larger nurse sharks beneath the boat (especially when we were in shallow water) and I was told they were docile. Granddad would catch smaller sharks on his line, and those were some of the fish he had to throw back.

I saw many pufferfish: bleached-white spikey balls bobbing up and down on the top of the waves like miniature buoys. They were all dead. I guessed the puffers faced foes who were fearsome enough to cause fatal wounds but not fearsome enough to eat an inflated pufferfish. And so the fish stayed inflated, died, and floated up to meet the sun. This is where all the locals got their porch decorations—all you had to do was take a boat out and scoop them up.

While watching the ocean, I came face to face with a mythological animal: the flying fish. At least, my mind had convinced me, while going about daily life atop red Oklahoma clay, that flying fish were mythological. I had seen them on cartoons and heard about them in discussion, but they seemed obviously fake. Like mermaids. The Little Mermaid should have had one for a pet. She was half mammal and half fish, and flying fish were half fish and half bird, so they should have gotten along, right? They could swim to shore and chat with their buddies, the centaur and the basilisk. Imagine my surprise when I saw hundreds of tiny airplane-shaped blue fish leaping joyfully from wave to wave. I beheld them with awe and humility. If there are platypi in Australia, why not flying fish in the ocean? We saw them every day; the creature I had arrogantly assumed to be impossible.

After two weeks of floating in this magical new place where fish could fly, we repeated the long and breathtaking drive back Highway 1 to Los Angeles. I spent another couple of days in LA, where Granddad and Judy treated me as though I was older than I was. They took me out to see a scary movie (Jurassic Park), and they left me alone all day while Granddad was at work. With his permission I pulled a book off of his shelf (Clan of the Cave Bear, with plenty of graphic content) and read the entire thing. And then I went back to Oklahoma, back to school, and bragged about my summer vacation. I told my parents that I had enjoyed both Jurassic Park (“You were ok with it being scary?”) and Clan of the Cave Bear (“You liked that? But there’s no talking… I thought it was boring”), and they started buying me edgier books and letting me watch scary movies.

I saw Granddad Johnson less than a handful of times after that (the vagabond soul was soon to retire, bid Judy goodbye, and spend the rest of his days travelling in his RV, far out of my reach). I halfway hoped that he would invite me back to the Baja, but he never did. In later years I learned from my mother that he thought I did not enjoy the trip. He thought that I was bored out of my mind, but since I did not ask to go anywhere or do anything, he didn’t know what to do with me. So instead of taking me out to “do things” he let me watch his TV, ride in his boat, and play his card games.

It is true that I was a quiet kid, but I didn’t ask him for anything during those weeks because I was not only content, I was delighted. I loved riding with him in the boat and watching the ocean. I loved following him up and down the beach. I loved watching Mexico pass by my truck window and playing cards with the neighbors at the RV park. I liked listening to Granddad and Clint Eastwood speak Spanish. I liked the burgers, coconut ice cream, and pineapple popsicles. I even liked watching the Mexican mechanics work on his truck, because I got to go into town, try my hand at translating signs, and imagine what it was like to live there. I knew nothing about Mexico, the sea or the Baja. I did not know there was anything more that I should have been requesting. I was only eleven years old, and for all I knew, the entirety of the Baja was what I saw.

I was well-taught enough to thank him for the trip, but I had not yet learned how to express gratitude in a way that he could understand. I still had not learned that a deeply sincere thank-you is different from a simple thank-you. I thought he knew that I was enjoying myself, like he thought I knew that I should be asking to go for outings.  It is too late to tell him now. At 11 years old I had no sense of perspective, but now I can say that the Baja was an important place for me. It was my first time away from my parents; my first solo plane trip; my first time out of the country; my first time on the ocean; my first time fishing; my first time for a lot of things.  From an adult perspective, it was a simple fishing trip with little cultural enrichment. But I was not an adult. I was eleven. And that summer in Mexico, my world suddenly became much bigger.

Please support the ride across Mexico.

Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Mexico, The Great Adventure, Travel

Here Are the Dates for Biking Across Mexico

Finally! I’m excited to announce the route and dates for the Fellowship of the Wheel, a group bicycling trip across Mexico. We will wander, we will make new friends, we will eat new foods and maybe we’ll even learn a little about the purpose of life… at least, that’s the plan.

Although this kid seems to have a head start. Photo by Jorge Organista.

The whole trip will take 80 days. Most people can’t take that long off of work, so I’ve broken it down into much smaller segments. You can come along for as little as three days of riding, the whole two and a half months, or anywhere in between.

Each segment ends with a few rest days, so we have a buffer if we fall behind. Here are all ten segments:

#1: The Border Dash

You’ll get to see three Mexican states. The terrain will be wide open scrub land, and we will cross a mountain range on the third day!

  • Starts Saturday, November 8 from Nuevo Laredo.
  • 3 riding days totaling 205 miles. Map.
  • This section is for experienced cyclists.. The first day will be 80 miles and then about 65 on the second and third days.
  • This is the most intense segment of the trip. Because the border area is dangerous, we will cross it as quickly as possible and sleep in hotels at night. You should read the safety information at the end of this post.

We will then take three rest days in Arteaga, a pretty town of 6,000 people on the outskirts of the major city of Saltillo.

#2: Dust Country 
  • Starts November 14 in Arteaga, COAH.
  • 4 riding days and 183 miles. Map.
  • The first day will be an easy 25 miles. The longest one will be 64 miles, then 45 mile days after that. It is gentle, flat terrain.
  • We will pass through some small rural towns and likely camp out in the town centers near churches.

We will end in Matehuala, which is near the famous desert town of Real de Catorce known for the shamanic traditions of the Huichol natives. There is a bus from Matehuala to Real de Catorce which we can take during our three rest days.

Real de Catorce has internet! I’m hoping we see this sign a lot on our trip. Photo by Michael R. Swigart.

#3: The Midlands
  • Starts November 21 in Matehuala, SLP.
  • 138 miles in three riding days. Map.
  • Expect to bike about 55 miles on two of the days, with a short 28 mile day in the middle.
  • I expect to camp out in the towns along the way or use hotels, depending on what’s available in each town. That will also be the policy for much of the rest of the trip (except rest days, which will typically be hotels).

We’ll then get to spend three rest days in the city of San Luis Potosí, where I can play tour guide because I used to live there! This is one of the safest cities in Mexico and has a great historic downtown.

#4: Silver Land
  • Starts November 27 from San Luis Potosí, SLP.
  • 4 riding days and 121 miles. Map.
  • This is a great section for beginner bicyclists. It’s all easy biking, just 25-37 miles a day. 
  • We should get some dramatic vistas in this area although the road will still be mostly flat.

We end in the stunning town of San Miguel de Allende, one of Mexico’s most popular destinations. It’s a colonial-era town built on the wealth of its silver mines. Three rest days to explore it!

Views like this! Photo by Michael R. Swigart.

#5: The Bajía
  • Starts December 4 in San Miguel de Allende, GTO.
  • 3 riding days and 135 miles. Map.
  • The last day is the longest one, going 58 miles.
  • This is a generally affluent area of Mexico with a large middle class.

We’ll take three rest days in Tula, a major city known for its well-preserved pyramids and colossal statues.

Note: If you want to see Mexico City, you could take a bus there from Tula. It’s very close.

#6: Aztec Land
  • Starts December 10 in Tula, HID.
  • 5 riding days and 227 miles. Map.
  • Expect 45-55 mile days.
  • This will be the most diverse leg of the trip, going from the affluent central lowland to small rural towns to a final climb up a mountain range.

We’ll end in the mountain city of Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz. There are museums and parks and we’ll have three rest days to enjoy them. Plus you really can’t have a cooler name for a city than Xalapa.

Is it cheating if we use mules? Photo by Elena Marini Silvestri.

#7: The Magic Road
  • Starts December 18 in Xalapa, Veracruz.
  • Total of 6 days (5 riding days and 1 beach day) and 177 miles. Map.
  • Mileage varies from 35 to 55 miles per day. Our last day is a mere 7 miles!
  • We’ll start off downhill and then follow the Gulf Coast, with a stop on Midwinter at the beach town of Boca del Rio. At the end we’ll come through a forested area to a city on a magic lake.

This leg ends at Catemaco, Mexico’s City of Sorcerers. I plan to take a full eight rest days there, using the time to meet some of the local magical and spiritual practitioners. And we’ll spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve here!

#8: Agua Dulce
  • Starts on January 1 in Catemaco, VER.
  • 6 riding days and 209 miles. Map.
  • Most days are less than 40 miles; there will be one 59 mile day.
  • Most of this leg will not be in view of the Gulf, but in the forested areas about 20 miles inland.

We’ll take three rest days in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco. This city has a lot of history and holds the world’s leading collection of Olmec artifacts.

#9: The Beach Road
  • Starts January 10 in Villahermosa, TAB.
  • 7 riding days and 259 miles. Map.
  • Other than one 60 mile day, these are all 40 or less.
  • You should really look at the map link on this one. Much of this segment will be on road just 100 feet from the beach, and we’ll be exploring small coastal towns including two that are literally islands. Plus for two days we’ll be biking the edge of a wildlife reserve.

We’ll take three rest days in Campeche, the gateway to the Yucatán Peninsula and Mayan culture. It also has a 17th century fort built to repel pirates.

#10: The Yucatán
  • Starts January 20 in Campeche, CAMP.
  • Total of 7 days (6 riding days and 1 pyramid day). Map.
  • This is all easy days of mostly 35-40 miles. Even the longest day is only 47.
  • We’ll be in the heart of the Mayan empire. We will bicycle directly past the massive pyramids of Chichen-Itza and will take a day to see them.

We will end in Valladolid, one of my favorite towns in Mexico, on or around January 26. For me, this will be home for a while. But before you fly out, we could all take a beach day at Cancun…

Photo by Wonderlane.

Safety Information

There is a lot of misinformation about the dangers of traveling in Mexico. Much of Mexico is very safe. Here is what I wrote about safety last time:

I planned this route using the advice of two native Mexicans, one of whom is a former security editor for a major news publication. I also drew on crime data from researchers at Stanford University and a variety of watch groups. These sources helped me avoid most high crime areas. Contrary to American perceptions, the violence in Mexico is concentrated along the northern border and a few other hot spots. To complete the adventure requires crossing that border area, but the rest of the trip aims to avoid major crime zones.

With that said, we will do everything we can to travel smart and minimize risk. I will provide a more in-depth section on safety soon.

Missing Information

I wanted to get this itinerary out right away, so that I can start contacting cycling groups. But I realize there’s a lot more information I should provide to help people plan. Here is my to-do list of info I need to pull together:

  • “Must have” packing list (including biking essentials)
  • “Nice to have” packing list
  • How to take a bike on a plane
  • Basics of traveling in Mexico
  • Expanded safety information

Is there any other critical information you think I should provide?

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

Natchez and the Trace

Last time I rested and partied in Vicksburg. Now I take to the road once again, with more new friends to meet and more challenges to conquer.

Jimmy and me. Photo by André.

Jimmy and me. Photo by André.

Day 97 (Thursday, October 11, 2012)

My new Vicksburg friends begged me to stay through another weekend, but now the clock was counting down. To keep my promise to meet two friends in New Orleans, I wanted to arrive the same day they would: October 17. I still had time to make it, but just barely. I’d spend at least one day going to Natchez, Mississippi; a second day to reach Baton Rouge, and potentially two more to hit the Big Easy. Factor in potential breakdowns and time was running out.

So Thursday morning I mounted up. I had heard of something up ahead called the Natchez Trace, an ancient highway that was, I was promised, blissfully free of traffic. The Trace started out as a Native American footpath shared by the European voyageurs in the frontier days. Once the Mississippi River became a major thoroughfare, so did the Trace. Crews from riverboats, who rode the current downstream herding their cargo as they went, had to walk back upstream in order to get a new gig aboard a new barge. (Apparently walking was cheaper than hiring horses, even with the longer road time). So they followed the well worn footpath from the river town of Natchez, MS up as far as Nashville.

Why the Trace goes to Nashville I can’t say. I presume these boat workers wanted to get another job as soon as they could, maybe at a town like Memphis. But the Trace’s route heads immediately away from the river, and by the time you reach Nashville you’ve a good 150 miles from the Mississippi. To me, it doesn’t add up.

What does make sense is how the Trace has been preserved and memorialized. The entirety of the trail is owned by the National Park Service and considered a historic site. While much of the original footpath still exists, a paved road was added as well—but it’s cleverly restricted. No commercial trucks can drive the Trace, and the speed limit is lower than a normal freeway. The result is that general traffic doesn’t use it, and the only vehicles you see are hatchbacks loaded up for family vacations and a few motorcyclists and bicycle groups.

At Vicksburg I was near the end of the Trace, and I planned to do about 35 miles on it, the second half of the day’s ride. First I took regular highways, having a little bit of a hard time between the occasional hills and the brutal Southern sun. By the time I reached Port Gibson, the town where I’d pick up the Trace, I already felt a little woozy. I started to worry that the glories of the Trace, like so many “easy” stretches before me, may have been exaggerated. I pounded cold water, bananas and trail mix in the shade at a gas station, double checked where to get on the Trace, and cautiously pedaled over.

A beautiful scenic route opened up before me. The traffic was, indeed, both sparse and respectful; the pavement was in remarkable condition; and instead of the usual gas stations and billboards the scenery was National Forest.

The new surroundings put me in a great mood. Emboldened by the low traffic I put in my ear buds and listened to music. I had never done this before on the bike, and I left one ear bud out (most of the time) to help stay aware of my surroundings. Digging into a trove of new music I had downloaded in Minnesota, I discovered Talvin Singh for the first time (Thank you, Urban!). If you’ve never biked through a forest with Talvin Singh in your ears, you’re missing a great experience.

Small worlds off the Natchez Trace. Photo by André.

Small worlds off the Natchez Trace. Photo by André.

Parts of the Trace were shady, which finally broke my heat problem. At one point, even though I was running a bit later than hoped, I just couldn’t help it: I stopped, chained up the bike, and walked a footpath off the main road for nearly an hour. When I finally returned to the Trace and ponied up, I could see the remains of log cabins and other historic structures in glens off the side of the road.

As day became evening, I found myself wistful. This is what I wanted every biking day to be like. I had always pictured myself riding down cute country roads, enjoying the beautiful outdoors without a care in the world. Most bicycle days aren’t like that, but if you ride far enough you will find them.

This time I beat the sunset to my destination. I rolled into Natchez, Mississippi and regular roads just at the tail end of rush hour. I had found a host named Jimmy on Warm Showers, a site dedicated to bicyclists and those who are willing to provide them a spot to crash. It was my first time using this website and, incidentally, Jimmy’s first time acting as an official host.

Jimmy was a retired antique dealer. A few weeks earlier, a friend of his had run into two French cyclists (a couple) headed on a route similar to mine. He offered them his roof, and it was from them that he first heard of the Warm Showers website. He’d had such a good experience with those two that he listed himself as a host, just in time for me to find him.

Jimmy’s house was small but stunning. Part of a row of stucco-walled historic homes in the middle of the oldest part of Natchez, he had put his full antique dealer talents into appointing it with flawless Southern charm. Classical statues on marble topped tables, ancient oak canopy beds, and 150 year old paintings. It was hard to believe I was in a real house. The back garden, enclosed in a high wall, was his true passion, and it was immaculate. I said it looked like something you’d see in a magazine and Jimmy grinned. “It is,” he said, and handed me the issue where he was featured. 70.2 miles.


Breakfast in Jimmy's garden. Photo by André.

Breakfast in Jimmy’s garden. Photo by André.

Day 98 (Friday, October 12, 2012)

One thing Jimmy’s home lacked was wi-fi, but the Public Library was just two blocks away. I had planned to spend one rest day in Natchez to keep up with work and explore, and Jimmy and I hit it off so well that I knew it was the right choice. After a light breakfast together, I settled in at the library and set to work on my laptop.

I came back in the afternoon and Jimmy gave me a walking tour of the city’s historic homes. Most were owned by friends and neighbors, so he knew the whole backstory of all of them. He pointed out stunning architecture including a rare style of plantation home that he said had only one other surviving example (which I’d later see in New Orleans).

This one, in fact. Photo via Pam the RV traveler.

In the downtown area, he showed me where the steam boats docked and explained how there’d be a coach service waiting to bring passengers and their luggage up the small bluff to town. He pointed out one brick home above the bluff which once belonged to a free black landowner, “A former slave who owned plenty of slaves of his own.” I wasn’t unaware that there were once black slave owners, but seeing the house in person was jarring. How completely had slavery entrenched itself in the old economy, if even a former slave turned to it?

In the park we saw a memorial to the victims of the Rhythm Club Fire, an inferno that destroyed a local dance hall in 1940 and killed 209 people. The rafters had been decorated with Spanish moss sprayed with a flammable insecticide, and the windows boarded shut to keep out unpaid revelers. The back door was padlocked as well, so most people inside died of smoke inhalation or trampling when the fire swept in from somewhere near the front door. Most of those inside were African American.

According to Jimmy, many donations for the memorial and nearby museum had come from Chicago, because so many Natchez natives had moved there but still remembered the tragedy.

Natchez, MS. Photo by André.

Natchez, MS. Photo by André.

After this tour we drove to the grocery store, where Jimmy and I both tried to beat the other one to paying for pasta, bacon, goat cheese and fresh veggies. These were the ingredients I used to make a dinner for Jimmy and two of his friends, a retired judge and his wife. First I served a spinach salad with walnuts, cranberries and a warm dressing made from the bacon fat. Then I brought out a giant goat cheese bacon pasta with red peppers and caramelized onions. We had a red wine that paired nicely and, as I recall, a white after the meal was over.

I got my first lesson in Southern manners. At one point, I reached for the bottle and asked if I could refill the glass of the judge’s wife. She said “yes, please” so I did. Jimmy later told me, “I’m sure he won’t hold it against you because you didn’t know, but when she said yes the judge shook his head. People won’t always speak their minds here so you need to look for the little cues.”

This was also my first experience with a Louisiana accent, as Jimmy had spent most of his adult life in New Orleans. He called me “baby” a lot (he calls everyone “baby” a lot) which stuck out as unusual at first, but is a normal tick of Louisianans—and one I’ve now enthusiastically picked up, baby.

The evening with Jimmy and his friends is still a warm memory, and like so many new friends he asked me to stay longer. But this time I had to decline, beckoned forward by the final stretch. I slept well that night knowing it was with a heavy heart that I would get back on the road in the morning.

In Jimmy’s garden a hand-lettered sign proclaimed: Strive for Beauty and Humanity. I will, Jimmy.

Total traveled this leg: 70.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 1684.2

Next time, the ride into Baton Rouge is more like a run through a war zone. Until then you can until then you can check out my past road logs or sign up to bike a leg with me. Likely start date of the Mexico trip: on or around November 6. Are you tempted yet?


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

Vicksburg Days

Last time I made my way to Vicksburg, Mississippi, despite getting lost. Having finally arrived, it’s time to spend  few days resting…

Carla, me, Ryan and Katya.

Carla, me, Ryan and Katya.


Day 93 (Sunday, October 7, 2012) continued

After nearly 100 miles of pedaling I was pretty beat. If my hosts had simply given me a shower and a bed I would’ve been grateful enough. But I was in for a hell of a welcome party.

Roommates Carla and Ryan were avid Couchsurfing hosts. Both worked as scientists in a large government research center located in Vicksburg. Due to this facility, the city has a huge population of researchers and intellectuals, and also tends to lean liberal. That means there was a lot of great conversation.

A second Couchsurfer had also arrived that day, but this one from Germany. She was something of a riddle: her name, Katya, is actually Russian, and when she opened her mouth to speak I thought I’d been misinformed and she was actually Scottish. Her English was flawless, but so was the Scots accent, and I gingerly asked where she was from. She’s German all the way, but had studied for years in Edinburgh.

Carla, for her part, was Puerto Rican while Ryan rounded out the group as a Southern white boy.

I was barely in the door before they handed me drinks: red wine in one hand and sips of various microbrew beers in the other. Beer is Ryan’s passion, and when he found out my dad makes mead he popped a mead of his own for me to try. It was delicious, but I sheepishly asked if I could shower before dinner.

I should say a word about Ryan and Carla’s home. Huge and immaculate, it was the perfect place to land. The house had a guest bedroom, which had been given to Katya, and a fully furnished mother-in-law apartment over the garage where they put me. The renovation on the bathroom up there wasn’t 100% complete, and they apologized for putting me out there. The truth is I loved it. It gave me a private place to write.

Behind the house was a big yard with a firepit and a spectacular view. They were on the bluff directly over the Mississippi. That’s some valuable real estate.

By the time I cleaned up Katya was well underway cooking us a giant dinner from fresh ingredients bought that day. While we hung around the kitchen chatting Carla made heavy-handed rum and cokes with plenty of limes, explaining it was the drink of Puerto Ricans everywhere. At first I politely declined, since a long day on the bicycle means even a few drinks can have a hefty effect. But soon I gave in and joined in the revelry, learning just how strong a Puerto Rican highball really is.

I couldn’t hide the fact that I was ravenously hungry, but the conversation was so good it didn’t really matter. I pitched in and helped Katya in the kitchen. Eventually we gathered around the table for one of the finest meals I’ve eaten.

One moment paints a pretty good picture of the back and forth. As Katya told us about Germany, Carla blurted out: “Well what was the deal with Hitler? What were you guys thinking!”

Ryan and I sucked in our breath. From the little I’ve heard, World War II is still a touchy subject in Deutschland, and casually blaming today’s Germans is pretty far from polite dinner topic. But Katya almost fell out of her seat laughing.

Carla laughed too. “Puerto Ricans just say whatever we’re thinking.”

After dinner we put on music and danced until the wee hours.

Entrance to my loft. Photo by André.

Entrance to my loft. Photo by André.

Days 94 – 96 (October 8 – 10) — R&R

The group of us bonded and explored Vicksburg together. I spent daytime in my little apartment catching up on client work, which was no problem since Carla and Ryan more or less worked a regular full time schedule. Katya spent her free time jogging or going out on adventures of her own.

All I knew about Vicksburg before I visited was that some Civil War battle happened there. In fact, it’s a little more impressive: perched on high bluffs at a bend in the Mississippi, the Confederate garrison had a perfect vantage to bombard any Union vessels that tried to pass. Numerous Union attempts were made, but for the most part the city’s guns locked down the river. Vicksburg finally capitulated to Union forces on July 4th, and for many years afterward the city refused to celebrate Independence Day. To hear the locals tell it, it was actually captured several days earlier and the Union commander delayed accepting the surrender so he could do it on the Fourth of July.

Nowadays, I’m told, the holiday is celebrated like anywhere else in the country, but I’ve also heard that some diehards continue to boycott it.

The National Military Park is one of Vicksburg’s biggest attractions. One day Carla dropped us off there so we could explore while she was at work. For the most part, Katya and I went in separate directions: she wanted to jog the entire trail that circles the place, while I wanted to examine old graves.

Walking the ancient cemetery is as spooky as it should be. With graves going back to at least the early 1800s, crowded tight and decaying with moss and time, it’s a vision from a European horror story. In fact, my time wandering there helped inspire a particularly macabre fantasy game I’d later design and run for some friends. Many epitaphs featured whole poems, or personal messages from family members. The fatalistic blend of heartbreak and faith in those words struck me much harder than today’s optimistic and inspirational stanzas. One woman’s grave was inscribed with the shattering words of the man she left behind. He had lost all purpose.

In the evening we wanted to show Katya some Southern barbeque so we headed to a smokehouse overlooking the river. A few of Carla and Ryan’s friends joined us, one of them quite conservative (and not afraid to lecture us about it). At this time, Greece was going through a terrible financial crisis and had just received a huge bailout package from Germany. Assuming Katya would sympathize with his outrage, the conservative turned to her:

“What do you think about all the aid your country is giving out? You’re the most successful country in the EU and now you’re saddled giving away everything you you earned.”

Katya answered with characteristic warmth.

“I don’t mind that we give it away. I grew up with everything I needed, and was sent to a good school. I didn’t earn any of that. Now it’s made me successful. I enjoyed everything I was given, so how could I say we shouldn’t give it to others? I would feel like a hypocrite. My country gives a lot of aid to other countries, and it’s not my place to say we should stop.”

This, to me, is the ultimate condemnation of conservatism: the hypocrisy of denying to others what you yourself were given, and the conceit to say you earned it alone. Placed beside someone who views their own privilege with humility, wanting only to help others, American conservatism looks a lot like a carnival barker.

On the drive home, we went past a Sonic—the old fast food chain that still offers drive-in service. “What is Sonic?” Katya asked.

Ryan tried to explain it, but the concept only made Katya more confused.

“But… you cannot eat there?”

“Sure, I think they have an inside too.”

“So it’s like a drive through?”

“No, they bring out the food so you eat it in your car, but you eat it right there.”

“But why not just eat inside?”

The vision of the 1950s as the Age of the Automobile, and America’s perennial obsession with cars, was completely absent from her historical lexicon (as is, I’m sure, much of Germany’s culture from mine). Katya begged that we pull in. We did—she got herself a chocolate shake, practically jumping up and down with excitement as she wrapped her head around the experience.

The next day, over Carla and Ryan’s lunch break, we met them at a local cafe within easy walking distance of their house. Ryan raved about the place’s craft beer selection, so I tried a pecan flavored brown ale (Southern Pecan by MS-based Lazy Magnolia Brewing). It immediately become a favorite. The place was so good we went back for their happy hour that night, which happened to be the venue for a weekly Craft Brew gathering.

The cafe in question, Martin's at Midtown in Vicksburg. Photo by André.

The cafe in question, Martin’s at Midtown in Vicksburg. Photo by André.

It wasn’t all partying. I also needed to get new tire tubes, which involved navigating giant hills and busy highways to reach a strip mall on a sweltering sunny day. I also picked up a bottle of wine for my hosts and one for Katya’s goodbye party (she was leaving a day before me, as I recall) and made some basic repairs on the bike, to the amusement of neighbors.

The days in Vicksburg were more than just a happy time. They cemented my confidence in my ability to make friends and be good a good guest. My trip down the Mississippi had become a series of warm welcomes at major cities, much needed after hard days on the road, and it seemed I made a good impression at each of them. Once socially awkward, shy and more than a little selfish, I could see I had become easygoing, friendly and generally considerate. Carla and Ryan, like virtually every host before or since, insisted I extend my stay and seemed genuinely sad when I finally had to leave. This didn’t just reassure me about my social skills, it also served as a crucial touchstone with two later roommates I didn’t get along with. I could know, at least, that I didn’t need to squarely blame myself for a messy social situation.

If I wanted, I could move tomorrow to Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis or Dubuque and already have a circle of friends happy to see me arrive. That is a gift for which I am truly grateful.

On the morning of October 11 I saddled up the Giant and hit the road again. I’ll pick up that story next time, and until then you can read my other road logs or join me on the next bike ride.