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.

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