New Orleans, Travel

Hallowe’en in New Orleans

Halloween in New Orleans. Photo via Nola.com.

I’m back in New Orleans. I arrived one week ago with a few boxes, a “new” 42-year old bike, and—for a couple days at least—my dad.

He had offered to drive me down. The plan is that I’ll stay here a few months and keep building up my career as an author. I’ll also be looking for a more permanent residence, so that I’ll have a place to land here every time I come back. It does seem to happen quite often, after all.

I’m, never sure if I’ll still love this city until I get back. During the drive I thought about how slow everything is, how expensive it is, and how bartenders glare at strangers like convicts. I worried it wouldn’t be magical anymore.

But then I stepped out of the car and smelled the clean swamp air; I saw the hanging moss and Creole cottages; we spent some time sitting on a porch, just because. I always love this place just as much as the last time.

The Art Haus

Before I landed I made arrangements with a friend of a friend, which is the best way to get anything done in New Orleans. This particular gent owns an old plantation manor in the Bywater, the Boheaux fantasyland of the city. The house is a wreck, and my friend is doing his best to shake 170 years of decline out of its bones. It looks more like a demolition site than a home.

But, he told me, there is a little private room on the second floor, at the back of the house. It has a loft bed and a private bath. Normally it’s his room, but he’s leaving for a long trip to New York, and he’s happy to rent it.

Sounds like a good place for a writer to write.

The room opens onto a side porch. It’s not as dirty as I feared, nor as finished as you might hope. I could afford somewhere nicer—somewhere that looks respectable—but I’ve done that enough. I don’t feel any more comfortable in the gilded places than I do in the rough ones, as long as I have a silent spot to work. And if I save money, there’ll be more for a down payment on a house.

So we hauled an old writing desk into the room, and I made sure the wi-fi works. Good enough.

Briefly, the first night, I did get apprehensive. The menagerie of unwashed pots in the kitchen, the mosquitoes drifting through the screen on my door; what if I’d made a mistake? But then I heard a violin. I went out on the porch, stared at the moon, and listened to the music drift through the magnolias. I didn’t mind being there at all.

The roommates also sold me. It’s a mansion, so even with five of us we never step on toes. As far as I can tell they’re all artists of one kind or another. Greg, who restores historical homes, lives on the premises in exchange for his labor. Ryan, who has the only finished room, tells me he spends his days reading philosophy—by which I mean actual philosophers, not self-help blogs. He shares the room with his girlfriend Winnie, who almost never speaks. “It’s hard living with such an extrovert,” he told me.

I like being surrounded by these people. Good conversation is on tap when I want it, and creativity begets creativity. As my friend Cole told me, “Some day your biographer is gonna write about about how you all meet at this house, before you were famous.”

I’ve decided to call it the Art Haus.

Praise to the Gods of the Nile

Of course, Hallowe’en is approaching. This is my favorite holiday in New Orleans—more so than even Mardi Gras. Hallowe’en is at the beginning of the festival season, when people are still fresh. The weather is better. And the mood suits me.

As usual, we have a theme. My friend Cole was determined that she would be Cleopatra this year. (Yes, I told her it’s overdone; and yes, she will make it amazing anyway.) I decided to be Horus, the hawk-headed deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Pretty soon Cole’s boyfriend got on the bandwagon. He forsook dressing as Caesar and called dibs on Anubis, the jackal-headed god, instead.

Add in a friend visiting from up north, who will be Isis (the goddess, not the terrorist movement), and we’ve got a pretty neat little pantheon.

Horus

We build everything by hand. My Horus mask has several hundred hand cut feathers, and Cole just finished adding real gold leaf to the Anubis mask. I can’t be sure, but we might just outdo our past costumes.

We may also build a mobile pyramid full of beer to follow us, but I’m not certain we’ll have time to finish it.

(Yes, there will be pictures.)

The Next Adventure

Not everything in New Orleans is easy. I liken her to a courtesan, one who knows just what to say but always ends up costing more than agreed. Even that is part of her charm: she’s a city of blues, of Vodou, of letting les bon temps rouler. You take the bad and the good together here, which is part of why I like it.

It will be a few months of writing, saving and house-shopping. Meanwhile, the Giant is safe in Yucatán; new stories are almost ready to share (more on that soon), and the Adventure across the Americas is waiting, whenever I’m ready.

Which leaves me with just one question. What should I name the new bike?

Standard
Adventure, New Orleans, Road Logs, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Crossing the Mississippi

We’re almost caught up on old road logs. This is a short one, but reflects a crucial day in my Journey. I had paddled the length of the Mississippi and was almost ready to head west—but with all the ferries I’d taken over the river, it was time to prove I was still doing this under my own body power, even where the river is wide.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 (Day 355)—Crossing Day

I rented a kayak and paddled across, tagging a lamp post on the far shore. That’s where I’d later pick up my bicycling, taking any accusation of cheating out of the equation.

People often ask if I carried the bicycle with me on the kayak. The answer is no. The point is to do each leg powered by own body, not to carry extra equipment.

I also paddled back across, but that part’s not included in the official tally. 6 miles.

Map 1. 3.0 miles cycling.

Map 2. 3.0 miles kayaking and walking.

Total traveled this leg: 6.0

Total traveled since Day 1: 2,082

My hope is to have the Texas road logs up soon, and thus be ready to dive into the new ones for the trip across Mexico when I start it in a few days. I owe you guys an update on that, too—coming soon!

Check out other road logs or help make the next adventure a success.

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

Road Log: Journey to the End

Lately I’ve been catching up on old road logs. So far I’ve gotten up to arriving in New Orleans and the various events that transpired there. But New Orleans isn’t the end of the River, and eventually I had to set out and cover that last 80 miles.

This story has already been covered in detail in the Journey to the End of the World, but I never did chart our route and miles. Here they are, for anyone interested.

Saturday, May 18, 2013 (Day 316)

Departed New Orleans and headed down the East Bank nearly as far as the road went. Crossed by ferry and continued on. I made a decision to use the ferry since I had already crossed the Mississippi under my own power multiple times and would later do so again. In other words, using this motorized boat during this leg saved me no sweat and cheated me out of zero miles. 64.3 miles.

Map Part 1.

Map Part 2.

Distance covered by ferry is not included in the mileage.

May 19

Reached the end of the river, or more accurately, as far as you can go on dry land. Made offerings. Grateful. 38.1 miles.

Map Part 1.

Map Part 2.

Monday, May 20 (Day 318)

Retraced the whole distance back up, but returned via the West Bank instead. I didn’t know it at the time but early in the day I broke my 2,000th mile. I was pleased as punch anyway. Multiple ferries, beautiful tail wind. Much celebrating at the end. 79.8 miles. 

Map Part 1.

Map Part 2.

Map Part 3.

Map Part 4.

Total traveled this leg: 182.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 2,076

I’ll have more road logs up soon. Until then, check out the past ones or help out the next leg of the Adventure.

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

A Tin Man’s Year in New Orleans

Now that I’ve finally finished my road logs through New Orleans, I thought I would throw together a quick overview of the time I spent there. New Orleans was meant to be my first long-term stop, but I originally only planned 3 months or so. Instead, I was there on and off almost a year. Here are some of the highlights, as I remember them.

October 17, 2012 (Day 103). Arrival in New Orleans. Slept well. Soon joined by friends Urban and Saumya, on holiday from Minneapolis.

Oct. 20. Anba Dlo. A major Hallowe’en festival/fundraiser at a local nonprofit, with close associations to the Vodou temple. The name means “From Beneath the Waters,” a reference to the community coming back after Hurricane Katrina. I volunteered at the event, which got me free admission; also dressed as David Bowie/the Goblin King from Labyrinth. After borrowing a young lady dressed as a goth bride (looked like Sarah), we won the costume contest. The costume was actually a big expense and I would later regret it, but it was worth it.

Jared and Sarah!

Jareth and Sarah!

Oct. 27. “Day of the Dead.” Actually Fête Gede, Vodou festival of the death god, but often just called Day of the Dead, a holiday more people are familiar with. To me this is like Vodou Christmas. The biggest event of our year and typically attracts 100 people or more to the Temple. This was my second year at the event, which consists of (a) a full Vodou ceremony with drumming and dancing for the raunchy, incorrigible death gods; (b) a big meal; and (c) a procession to the cemetery with a litter full of offerings and candles for the dead. My friend Cintain came from Mexico and joined us. Urban and Saumya there too.

November 2. House Blessing. I found a Creole cottage to rent, and moved in several days earlier. I christened it Rogue Chateau. I already had misgivings about the choice to rent it—client work was drying up, money was a little thin and I had passed up a chance to rent a cheap place with two other guys, offered to me days before I reached New Orleans. Saumya, Urban and Gary (all priests at the Vodou temple) came and did a house blessing for me. It didn’t fully settle my misgivings at the time, but this home would indeed be the site of the happiest year of my life (so far). I wrote:

“A gaggle of Vodou priests invaded my house last night. We processed backwards from the courtyard through each room to the front door, a traditional house blessing. Saumya poured a veve on the floor in corn meal, Gary filled the air with songs to Legba, and as he says, “all lights were on.” My mantle is an altar, its candles are a beacon, the door is open, the home is ready. Rogue Chateau is open for business.”

Cintain also lended a shamanic blessing of his own.

Rogue Chateau

Rogue Chateau

November 22. Thanksgiving. This was a weird but wonderful Thanksgiving. I went to at least three Thanksgivings total. First Gary and I went to the home of a very odd friend of ours, who went to great lengths to hold a feast for us but then immediately went and took a nap while we were eating. After we let ourselves out we went to Gary’s family’s house, where I was under strict instructions not to tell anyone he’s gay. Last we went to his boyfriend’s family’s Thanksgiving, a huge Puerto Rican family affair where the drink flowed and the jokes were raunchy. Then off to drinking in the Quarter. I bookended the whole day by stopping at my neighbors’ party twice, both too early and too late to catch their Thanksgiving but in time to snag some cookies and good conversation. It was a great day, much needed when I was starting to feel lonely.

December. The month as a whole was a turning point. With client work dried up, finances had gotten scary. As part of my effort to make new friends I also went to the local Couchsurfing meetup, where I met one of the guys I had almost roomed with. He was fantastic, and according to him so was the house I’d passed up. My rent there would have been $330, compared to $1100 at the Chateau. However, over the course of the month I confronted my financial situation head on. I found new clients, took on work on the side, sold artwork, got a grant and, at the very end of the month, took on a roommate. By New Year’s my life in New Orleans went from precarious and lonely to exciting and fun.

Saturday, December 8. Gran Bwa! Our temple’s head priestess was out of town for several weeks and we held a series of ceremonies on our own, with the other priests officiating. This was a really beautiful time because it gave me a chance to learn by doing, stepping up into roles that were normally filled by others. The one I remembered best happened on this date, for Gran Bwa, the tree lwa with roots reaching all the way down to the city of the dead. We held the ceremony under the tree in the yard outside the Temple, instead of indoors.

Ceremony for Gran Bwa

Thursday, Dec. 13. Launchpad. As part of my effort to turn my client work around I went to try out a couple free days at a local coworking space, Launchpad. It’s an excellent space and community. It didn’t lead to new clients, but did lead to new friends. This is also the day I met the girl who would, eventually, become my girlfriend.

Friday, December 14. Nerd Prom. Launchpad invited me to their holiday party, the “Nerd Prom.” I knew the girl in question was into me when she asked me to be her fake boyfriend to protect her from another man’s advances. It was the way she said it. Afterward we went for a walk and kissed. Unfortunately, she’d soon be heading out for several months in Thailand—the joy and pain of a fellow adventurer.

The R2 unit dispenses beer. Not kidding.

The R2 unit dispenses beer. Not kidding.

December 20. Date! Said girl and I went on our first real date. The downside: she’d be flying out the very next day. We took the ferry across the river and brought her cute little dog (with funny ears) with us. The ferry ride back, at dusk, was freezing. We missed a choir performance at the Cathedral so got dinner instead, then dropped off the dog and went out for a few drinks. She was sad to be leaving and I told her she would see me again.

December 24. Petwo! Christmas Eve is the night that the Petwo, the fiery spirits of Vodou, are given special honor. First we made fire baths in a special late night ceremony and blessed a variety of ritual implements, then we drove up to Lutcher, Louisiana, a small town on the river’s edge. Communities all along the river traditionally light giant bonfires for Christmas Eve. Our Vodou temple went as a group and we enjoyed a house party followed by the great bonfires themselves. A fitting celebration for the Petwo, and a good stand-in for my usual Midwinter celebration. (I described this a year later in more detail.)

At the bonfires

At the bonfires

New Year’s Eve. I spent this night with new friends, including my roommate and my soon to be best buddy Cole

January. Besides suffering from financial woes in November and December, I noticed I had given in quite heavily to New Orleans’ drinking culture. I decided to do a month of sobriety (a benefit to health, sanity and pocketbook). Friends told me this was a terrible idea, since January starts Carnival season, but I persisted and kept a clean record the whole month.

Also during this month I became seriously involved in my Mardi Gras krewe and our plan to dress as Led Zeppelin songs. We built an impressive float shaped like a Zeppelin, complete with fold-down guitar bar and keg.

Dazed and Confused Kewe (us). Picture by the Captain.

The Dazed and Confused Float

Saturday, January 19. Krewe du Vieux. This was my first Mardi Gras parade and, really, the first one of the season. Krewe du Vieux is known for its inappropriate humor, both sexually explicit and politically satirical. It didn’t disappoint. We went to a mixture of house parties before the parade. As the only sober one in the group, I was wide-eyed and lucid for the parade (but got worn out quickly later on). This parade truly dazzled me. The later tromping from bar to bar was more wearisome, but I still remember the night fondly. My landlord and soon-to-be good friend was a key part of it, as was his partner. It will forever be my introduction to Mardi Gras.

Natchez Trip, Jan. 31 – Feb 3. I took a long weekend to go see Jimmy, the host who had put me up in Natchez, Mississippi. He had invited me up about a month earlier to get my mind off my financial situation, but the invite came just as my fortunes turned around. Instead it was a very relaxing weekend, and I got to meet a friend of his who is the forester in charge of the entire National Forest I had adored bicycling through. We also walked along the river, met more of his wonderful neighbors, and explored the historic town in more detail.

Wednesday, Feb. 6. Nyx. This night will forever be enshrined among my happiest memories. Cole and her boyfriend Joe and I decided to bicycle up to the parade despite a forecast of rain. It was balmy when we set out, an electricity in the night air. Not long after we reached the parade route it began to rain. Not a soft drizzle but a good rain. We embraced it. The night was warm, and once we were soaked the rain was part of the magic. The women of Nyx doted on us, tossing us all kinds of great throws for being some of the only people to weather the rain. We ducked into a pizza shop where we traded throws for slices. We poured ourselves drinks from a kit we’d brought along and went back out. With bags and bags of throws, we retired to an Irish pub post-parade and eventually taxi’d home, to come collect our bikes the next day. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Thursday, February 7. Muses. Muses is one of the more fabled parades of New Orleans Mardi Gras, and I was surprised to recently learn it’s only been around 20 years or so. Another all-women parade, this one is “named for the nine daughters of Zeus and the goddesses who inspire the arts & sciences, as well as for the nine streets of New Orleans… Happy are they whom the Muses love!”

Happy indeed. This night was a treasure. The weather was clear and mild, we had a house party near the parade route to serve as our launching point, and I quickly made friends among the hundreds of people lining the block we chose to stake out. A group of our friends met us there, and among them was someone I’d met by chance only days earlier, who would eventually become a good friend. This friend managed to catch not one, but two of the treasured shoes that the Muses sometimes toss to revelers, each one a work of art in sequins and glitter. She gave one to two out of towners who were there on their honey moon. She also hooked them up with a room in a stone tower at a friend’s mansion, a modest step up from sleeping in their van as they had been doing.

What stands out most about Muses, however, was the fluttering butterflies on roller skates, their wings made of glow sticks and LED lights, holding  lights above them and passing out programs. This flock preceded the first float, giving the parade a sort of living overture, a buildup that made the excitement almost unbearable. It is rare to see such creatures of light, moving in inhuman ways, passing right by you and touching you as they go.

Our Mardi Gras krewe

Our Mardi Gras krewe

Tuesday, Feb. 12. Mardi Gras. There’s not much I can say that I haven’t already said in What Happens on Mardi Gras?

Saturday, Feb. 16. Bosale. I initiated into Vodou, as a free practicing member (bosale) of our House. Details are here.

Sunday, March 31. Easter. Early Easter morning I went to the Vodou temple. We had put the lwa to sleep earlier that week; in Vodou myth these are their days of rest. Now the altar was uncovered and coffee was laid out for each of the Rada lwa, the cool and wise spirits. I had a bad sore throat and had to beg some coffee from one of our priestesses to help soothe it so I could sing. One by one we sang to the lwa, woke them up and gave them offerings. Afterward we all ate cake.

Springtime. Eventually, the girl I liked so much returned from Thailand. We began spending time together. We went to a second line, a sort of street parade where revelers follow a brass band though a neighborhood (hence forming the “second line” behind the band). Originally it was a funeral tradition, but it’s used as an all purpose celebration and there’s one held pretty much every Sunday during the cool season. Neighborhoods take turns hosting them. The level of revelry in the street was intense, and we floated along as part of the crowd. We purchased beers from wheelbarrows of ice, jello shots from passing vendors, and cupcakes from a person with a few extras. Clouds of marijuana filled the streets.

The two of us were clearly falling for each other. Our courtship was slow, but bit by bit we became partners.

Also during the spring I found out that the Temple could not offer priestly initiation this year, unlike in previous years. This was crushing news to me as it was the main reason I had extended my stay in New Orleans, and had become a major part of my spiritual path.

April 13. Wizard of Oz. For Cole’s birthday, she asked us all to dress as Wizard of Oz characters. I took Tin Man. We bicycled through the French Quarter and the Bayou St. John, stopping for lunch and drinks and eventually ending up at City Park where we laid on the grass and enjoyed life.

Tin Man!

Tin Man!

April 30. Bealtaine. Although Vodou had become a major part of my life, I found myself homesick for my old Irish polytheist temple. I had no one to celebrate the Irish holidays with, and no one to perform big ceremonies for the deities with. Lorien, one of the priestesses at the temple, asked what was involved. Soon she and another practitioner, Geoff, had agreed to come do a Bealtaine ceremony with me.

We held it at the Chateau, in the evening before May 1 as is traditional. I constructed a new musical branch (a ceremonial implement) for this occasion. I had burnt my old one as a sacrifice, which is an appropriate offering in our tradition. I sang the invocations, they sang the chorus, we made offerings and greeted the gods, and then we had food and drink together. It was a true ceremony of the Seancreideamh.

May 18 – 20. Journey to the End of the World. For the first time I had someone else biking with me! Our fledgling romance growing, my new girlfriend decided to accompany me on the final stretch of the Mississippi River: about 80 miles to the farthest downriver point you can reach on land, and 80 miles back again. You can read her account of it here.

May 30 – June 4. Mexico getaway. Although an experienced traveler, my new girlfriend had never been to Mexico City, a city I adore. We decided to swoop away for a few days. Out of four nights, we spend the first three staying with a wonderful Couchsurfing host named Damián, and the fourth one at a hotel. I got to play tour guide. Our relationship became serious. One of my favorite meals of my life—Argentinian stake and red wine under the trees of the Condesa—took place on this trip.

June 26. I crossed the Mississippi River in a kayak. This was a better alternative to biking across the freeway bridge, and allowed me to cross under my own body power—no cheating. Thus, when I later left on bicycle, I could take the ferry knowing I had already crossed the river by hand.

8:00 a.m. June 29. Drew Parade. This was the day I was scheduled to bicycle out of New Orleans. I planned a big going away brunch, where friends could stop by for champagne, doughnuts and coffee and then we’d bicycle through the Quarter together to the ferry. Then they’d watch me leave and I’d bike off toward Texas. I went by Drew then, so the event was named Drew Parade.

It didn’t quite work like that though. Now firmly in love, I wasn’t ready to give up on the fledgling relationship and neither was she. So instead, at the brunch we announced a surprise: instead of me leaving for Texas, she and I would both be leaving for a few months in the Dominican Republic. It was, we hoped, a chance to get time together and to decide what we wanted to do with our relationship.

We still bicycled across the Quarter, and then she and I went on to her house where we stayed several days till our flight.

In the Dominican Republic.

In the Dominican Republic.

July 4 – August 30. Dominican Republic. The trip was entirely different than we could have imagined. Talking about it recently, we agreed that many of the surprises were downright unpleasant to live through, but make hilarious stories now that they’re over. You can read her account here (mid-trip) and mine here (end of trip).

August 23 – 25. Haiti side-trip. We also crossed over to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for a couple of days. It was rough, the roughest travel I’d done to that point. Plus I came down with a terrible head cold during my time there, which would haunt me for some time to come.

August 31. Birthday! The day after our return home, we met with friends for drinks for my birthday and a chance to catch up. I think both of us vented at length about our bizarre experiences in the Dominican Republic, probably more so than our friends were prepared for.

September. False starts. Once back in New Orleans, I had planned to continue my bicycle trip, and the two of us agreed to try our relationship long distance. My plans were temporarily stymied, however. I’d still had my Haiti cold on the flight home from the DR, and my congested sinuses caused intense, painful pressure in my ears. This led to trapped fluid, pain, dizziness, and partial deafness that went on for days… then weeks (and ultimately months).

I had first planned to leave Sept. 8, after a week of work time to catch up on writing and side projects. I put this off ffor another week, finally insisting I leave, but to no avail. I set out on Sunday, September 15 but all factors conspired against me. The ear problem, a late start, mechanical issues and heat stroke. At sunset I had to call a friend to pick up me and my bike and take us home.

Friday, October 4, 2013 (Day 455). I departed New Orleans on bicycle, beginning the ride to Texas.

Standard
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.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 33.5

Total traveled since Day 1: 1893.8

Help Keep the Adventure going!

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

I’m about to lead a small group of adventurers on a ride across Mexico. Your contribution helps us afford crucial safety gear and keeps the journey free for anyone to join. Plus supporters get exclusive perks that bring you along for the ride, like video logs, stories, postcards and letters from the road! Click here to support the journey today. Time is running out.

Standard
Andre Sólo, New Orleans

Birthday in New Orleans

Photo by André

Photo by André

A few days ago I celebrated my birthday here in New Orleans. (For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m back here for downtime until the Fellowship of the Wheel takes off to bicycle Mexico.)

In New Orleans, the tradition on your birthday is for a friend to pin a $1 bill onto your lapel. Over the course of the day, other people will spot it and pin more $1 bills on you. Eventually this becomes a sort of cash corsage, which you can use to buy your birthday drinks.

I’ve had at least one friend—a transplant to New Orleans, like me—express dislike of this tradition. To them it feels a little like begging. I wasn’t sure what to think, but this year I had no choice: we had my birthday brunch at a local café, and when my friends sang Happy Birthday a woman from another table came over.

“Is it  okay if I do this?” she asked, flashing a $1 bill and a blue safety pin.

Honestly, I was ecstatic. It was the first time anybody’s ever done the corsage for me. And Yankee conservatism be damned: this is a local tradition. One of the unsung tragedies of Katrina is that tens of thousands of native New Orleanians left and never came back, and the city has not recovered from the loss of culture (even as newcomers come and take their place). I can’t change the fact that I’m not from here, but I can at least learn the traditions and pass them on.

But this was more than just a lesson in local culture. Wearing the corsage definitely does not feel like begging—in fact, it feels like magic. It marked me out as a birthday person, and total strangers came up to give me their well wishes. People broke into giant smiles. They came over, introduced themselves, and chatted under the guise of pinning a dollar on my shirt. A tourist even saw me and asked what it was all about, and I got to explain this tradition I’ve inherited.

Edit: A friend who is a lifelong New Orleanian just gave me some interesting history on this tradition. Originally the corsage was a black tradition and wasn’t really practiced by white New Orleanians. Now, my friend says, “it has been adopted by some New Dats like you!” New Dats are (mostly white) transplants to New Orleans. 

There is something really special about this tradition. As kids, one of the best parts of a birthday is that it’s that rare time when you’re at the center of attention. As adults we don’t really get that—we have a little gathering with friends and some cake (my friends actually went well above and beyond that, but you know what I mean). But the corsage became an emblem that invited even strangers to come wish me well. It was like being in a Disney movie, where the whole world is singing for you.

Anyway, it was a good birthday, and one more gift from my beautiful New Orleans. Thank you to everyone who was there, and everyone who reads these words week after week. It’s an honor to be your rogue priest.

What are your favorite birthday traditions? Are there any you don’t like?

Want to give me the best birthday present ever? Spread the word about the Fellowship of the Wheel as far and wide as you can!

Standard
Bicycling, New Orleans, The Great Adventure

Yes, My City Has Gravity

My bike wobbled. The trail was long, white and 100 degrees. To my right, across that brown sea, was the city that care forgot. I was gone.

It was overdue. I can’t count the number of goodbye parties, cards, and free drinks. First I put off departure for a side-trip to the Caribbean. The trip ended but a Haitian head cold didn’t—in the pressurized cabin of the return flight it erupted into painfully blocked ears, which a doctor assured me were not infected and would clear up. A week later, they were infected.

That was behind me now. My right ear still feels (and hears) like someone shoved in a couple of after-dinner mints, but I had the antibiotics—and delays make me sicker than germs. Sunday, I mounted up.

The wobbling continued.

My machine was top-heavy, piled high with gear tented over a new front trunk. I was proud of that rig, I built it myself, even if it did give the bike the approximate silhouette of a triceratops. Although going in straight lines was a bit tough.

Behemoth that he’s become, the Giant (as I’ve dubbed my ride) is still tougher than I am. I learned to goad him gently down ramps, through intersections, along crowded highways. I noticed the pickup trucks gave me a little more room than they used to. Who wants to hit a bull?

Twenty miles out, the front wheel exploded.

To seek the heroic life is, in many ways, a path of renunciation. Not just of small comforts—it’s giving up things much bigger, much more difficult to surrender. Things like security, familiarity, roots. To adventure is to walk on dangerous soil, it is to fall far from the flower and seek what sustenance you can.

But for me, that renunciation has tension with the other necessity of a heroic life: to connect. It’s important to me not only to find sustenance, but to create it—to participate in a take-and-give wherever I go. A heroic journey requires giving more than you are offered, in whatever form that may be.

I’m not sure what I’ve given New Orleans.

Did I enrich this city, give back to it? All I did was focus on relationships: trying to be good to my friends, even when I had very little; participating and going out, even when I felt very tired; asking bold things and listening to people who hurt.

Those relationships have a certain gravity. It’s hard to leave your pack mates, to leave security, familiarity, roots. But then, this whole city has a reputation for her gravity. “Like a hand pulling you back,” one friend described it, “Even when you’re boarding a plane.”

Our Texan transplant was more direct: “You’re not leaving this city.”

Algiers Point

Me thinking I’m leaving New Orleans.

I had fondly imagined my last French Quarter cruise as an early morning jaunt, with that eerie peace the balconies get when there’s no one left to party. Instead it was 3 p.m. (“Late starts are what I do“) and I focused on how to slurp water while breathing so damn hard.

But it did rip me up, when that ferry pulled out. Her engines rumbled low like she was taking us to war. Her prow swung around, and there it was, my last view of Jackson Square and the Cathedral and the steps to the water where we used to talk philosophy.

Then we were across the river, a stretch I’d kayaked months before. I tagged a lamp-post then, and I made a point to tag it now—my way of being sure the whole journey is powered by my own body. I made offerings to my city and went on.

When the wheel exploded I was just starting to feel the heat. My T-shirt had dried out and I was looking for a gas station to soak it. Instead I spent an hour in the heat changing the flat. The whole tube had burst like it was over-pressurized; I looked at the piled-high Giant and tsked.

You could go back to the ferry, I thought.

But I didn’t: I wobbled onward. I found my gas station and pointed my nose toward Houma, Louisiana. I picked up the pace, riding faster in a higher gear, and the heatstroke set in.

I really did feel the invisible hand of New Orleans, yanking me back. It’s not a supernatural force, it’s the sum result of a city where weirdos, artists and the cheerfully poor are welcomed, even honored. You can go your whole life starving for acceptance or you can just go to those rare places where everyone hustles, where past failures are not measured against future potential.

And once you’ve found it, you think you’re leaving?

It was past 5 o’clock when I made the choice. It wasn’t the heatstroke, it was the thought of biking a freeway after dark. I felt defeated but I shook with relief. It felt like salvation.

The hours after that were a haze of biking, vomiting, laying in the grass and stumbling to a gas station. It was too late to catch the last ferry, so I’d struck a new course for an upriver bridge—which I never reached. Eventually, I just got a ride.

The delays become almost comical as they stack up. It would be easy to think I’m prolonging it because I’m deeply in love with Jessica, and I can’t deny that influence. But the reasons I’ve delayed have been mostly practical. Getting on top of work, fixing my broken computer, suffering a (still) infected ear, and now reconfiguring my bike. I find myself still in possession of a steam-powered determination to get back on the road, if only to test whether this journey is still doing its job.

But something has to change.

The thing is, I like biking, but I haven’t enjoyed so many days of my bike trip. (The stops, the people, yes—the long hauls and roadside repairs, often not.) The hook of adventure, for me, is the sense of discovery: finding a quaint downtown or an ancient, lonely tree; meeting new people in cozy, well-loved pubs. I would gladly do this all over the world, but not if it beats me down. And that’s where most people quit.

I can’t fault them. But another solution would be to stop having it beat me down.

After all the doubts, all the questioning, Sunday’s false start was not because I didn’t want to be out on the road, it was because I stacked conditions up to make the road a monster. It should really be more like a cheerful jaunt, so what do I change to create those conditions?

I’m going to start by focusing on early starts (as a strict rule) and short days. Less miles to go, and more time to get there, means a roadside repair doesn’t have to be so onerous. I won’t have to wear myself out. I’m also changing equipment: no more jerry-rigged freight bikes.

As a guideline, I should always find myself cheerful. My cheer is a meter of adventuring talent. If I’m in too much discomfort or strain to smile at strangers, I’ve crippled the adventurer’s most important skill.

…and from now on I’m not saying goodbye.

What do you think of the site’s new look? 

Standard