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

The Day I Biked Into New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's still there! Photo by André.

It’s still there! Photo by André.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer and Bad Pavement

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

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

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

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

Vodou in New Orleans. Photo by André.

Vodou in New Orleans. Photo by André.

I’ll Meet You There

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saumya however sent this message:

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

I almost fell over laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33.5 miles.


Total traveled this leg: 33.5

Total traveled since Day 1: 1893.8

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5 thoughts on “The Day I Biked Into New Orleans

  1. Glad the little evil eye charm is didn’t break when it fell! Is that still intact and with you? (Btw, those things seem to be made from pretty strong glass – I’ve seen plate sized ones set into door thresholds.)

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