Afternoons such as these are rare, rare in the life of humanity. Afternoons where you survive first by the strength of your own good body, second by the warmth and cheerfulness of fine companions, third by the kindness of those you’ve just met, and only last, only a distant last, by the money earned through hard work—which you give freely without a hesitating thought.
Such afternoons are rare.
On July 4, 2012 I began my journey. I bathed in the waters of the sacred Lake Itasca, I swam to her center and made my sacrifice, a dear friend watched on the shore, I waded in the stream Mississippi and I bicycled away.
1,700 miles I was alone on the road.
Saturday I set out again, now to cross the final 80 miles and see the end of that little stream, that little creek. She disgorges 12 million hatboxes of water each minute I’m at her side. In Minnesota I crossed her in four careful steps.
This is the story of that final 80 miles from New Orleans to the end of the Mississippi River (part 1).
Day 1, Heat Stroke
Jessicais my companion. When Jessica declared she would come along, I was happy—and cautious.
“80 miles is a long day on the road. What’s the furthest you’ve ever biked?”
On my advice, Jessica tried a 20 mile ride along the levee. That night she was painfully ill; a day later she did it again. Well, Doctor, welcome to the Great Adventure.
The jump from 20 miles to 80 in a day is a nasty one, but as far as I was concerned she had the right spirit. Worst case scenario we fail completely; then in a week, try again. So we began.
We left on the dot of “seven o’clock ish,” which is to say 8:45 after numerous spot repairs, delays and adjustments. In other words we maintained the same stringent schedule I’ve held myself to since Day 1.
We paid our respects at “the End of the World” and crossed the metal-cage bridge out of the city that care forgot.
There are two sides of the river, the East Bank (through Bernard Parish) and the West Bank (through Algiers). The East Bank is longer but prettier, and after 46 miles the road ends. That’s the side we took.
(For the love of the gods don’t ask me for maps.)
10 miles in we got a flat; a stranger loaned us his pump (better than the one I brought). 25 miles in, a man yelled for us to stop and get cold water. His home, and miles of parish around it, looked like they’d been bombed from space; he told us calmly that Hurricane Isaac was—and I quote—“far worse than Katrina.” Did you see that on the news?
Near the end of those 46 miles is the Pointe a la Hache ferry, the last crossing of the entire Mississippi River. I decided a long time ago that taking the ferry is not cheating—in this specific case. That’s because I’ve crossed the river by my own body power many times on the Adventure; I could’ve stayed on the West side if I’d wanted. In any case I went to the farthest bikable point on the East side, ferry free; if you’re a purist, consider everything else gravy.
Jessica was rock solid. Myself, I had a hard time.
I was disappointed that my body didn’t handle the heat. It was used to this, once. By the ferry dock we were low on water and I had heat stroke.
Then my companion got her first lesson in car owners’ many failures; the town “just across the ferry” (to drivers) was twelve miles away. We could expect no gas stations, and maybe even no houses. The situation was dangerous.
In the shady den of the ferry I laid on a steel bench, the cool metal leeching sunshine right out of me. I fell into a sickly sleep that lasted thirty minutes, and seemed more like three—I barely stumbled outside to make offerings when the boat finally moved.
How do you handle heat exhaustion? Jessica once asked me what I learned on my Adventure. My answer was:
Above all I learned to pass calmly through hardship, and take delight in small pleasures.
Both lessons conspired to save me. After my rest I felt dizzy but improved; ready at least to foray out in hopes of a house with a spigot. There are few options, and I accepted them with a shrug—if it became an emergency I could rest in shade while Jessica went ahead.
And small pleasures! One of the cars on the ferry turned out to be two of Jessica’s friends. Complete coincidence, and of course they had no water with them—but they had cookies. They gave us nearly a dozen, and we ate them slow-like, careful of our tummies. But the sugar and the fellowship perked me right up, and I was ready to go.
The West Bank
The far side brought new adventures. The road there is a high speed highway, shade is lacking, settlements far apart.
When at last we saw houses, we stopped for water. That was 7 miles after the ferry.
Did they give us water? Yes, but I hardly noticed: they invited us in for a full blown crawfish boil. It was two branches of a black family and I suspect they’ll be talking about the crazy dehydrated white people for a long time. They were very gracious, very generous and extremely helpful in telling us what lay ahead. I ate more crawfish than I should have, and never regretted it.
And this bears mention—Jessica and I set out with the best of digital technology. We had a map and forecast at all times; we knew the route, the ferry schedules, the distances involved. We had full access to apps that show local restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, and of course Wikipedia with its info on local towns. All of that was useless.
Jess said it well:
We would’ve done just as well with nothing but a paper map.
I’d say she’s right. Seeing the roads and route was useful, but Google didn’t know about any local businesses and we were riding blind into the unknown. We really had no clue if our final destination (Venice!) would be a picturesque resort town full of fishers or nothing but refineries.
It ended up being a place we couldn’t have begun to imagine.
We weren’t headed all the way to Venice on Day 1; after the crawfish boil it was evening and we knew we wouldn’t get that far. But we were refreshed and in high spirits, plus the sky cooled down. We made a very clever decision:
We would go till we found a motel.
Locals indicated that might be around Buras, a good 20 miles more; I heartily endorsed the plan.
The Adventure is often camp-outs and bush life, but that’s by necessity more than design. Given the option, barbarians take showers.
We lucked out finding the Empire Inn after just 12 miles, clocking about 60 total for the day. We got a discount rate—“because of the fishing tournament”—and found out the only nearby restaurant, a mile down the road, would close in just one hour.
These two bicyclists took the fastest showers you’ve ever seen, then raced on. We arrived just before closing at a great roadside eatery known as Dad’s (motto: “When you can’t go to Mom’s, go to Dad’s.”) I recommend it if you ever get down that way, but you never will.
Dinner was thousands of calories, including giant local oysters fried to perfection. We drank two beers apiece, which after a marathon bike ride amounts an amazing cocktail of buzz, joy and sedation. Completely sated, we chatted on the restaurant porch before wobbling half a mile back to the motel.
Both forgot to set alarm clocks, and quickly fell asleep.
Tomorrow I’ll cover Day 2, in which we attempt an “easy” 20 miles and discover that the Road to Venice has yet more tricks to play. If you want to ask for pictures, don’t; I’m a writer not an Instagrammer, and this log is worth more to me than a megapixel.
All other comments are greatly welcome. I like it when the story of the Adventure spreads, and the contact with readers is a big part of what keeps me going. Please share this post on Facebook or wherever you share fine digital paraphernalia. I’d love to hear your questions, thoughts or worries.
Update: You can read Day 2 here.