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!
Me: Guess where I’m calling you from!
Mom: I can’t hear you!
Me: GUESS WHERE I AM!
Mom: I don’t know, where?
Mom: OH MY GOD WHERE ARE YOU?
We then talked for about a half hour, although how much information was successfully communicated is a question mark.
This conversation ended when, through the oak trees on my left, I saw one of the grander buildings of the last 1,800 miles. The gardening was magnificent. It had a lane leading up to a small parking lot as if it was open to the public, so I coasted off the road to explore. Families getting out of cars stared at me and I described the place to my Mom, still on the phone.
I had stumbled upon Houmas House, a plantation house open to public tours:
…although that wasn’t immediately obvious, as I had arrived at the back of the estate, a curious structure that consists of water cisterns that have been converted to wine cellars. I was moved by the old brick architecture. I got off the phone with Mom to take some pictures.
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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