This is a guest post by Jessica, who accompanied me on the final 80 miles of my ride down the Mississippi River.
This weekend Drew had to ride the final 80 miles of his trip—the Mississippi actually goes past New Orleans to Venice, LA—the southernmost point in Louisiana, gateway to the Gulf! He kept trying to plan this trip with his friends and had trouble planning it. I made a list: Trail mix. Power bars. Baby wipes. Tubes. Tent. Tarp. Sleeping bag. 1 pair clean socks. 2 pairs clean underwear. 1 clean t-shirt. 1 long sleeve t-shirt. Sunscreen, bug spray, water.
The trip started Friday night, when I dropped my bike off at Drew’s house and we geared up: two saddle bags for me and four for him, plus the tent and air pad strapped on the back. I had been sicker than ever since my 90 minute practice ride on Wednesday, but was bound and determined to go.
I cabbed it to “Rogue Chateau” at 7:45 am Saturday, already knowing that if I showed up at 7 as planned he wouldn’t be close to ready, and we left a little after 8. It was 9 before we left New Orleans, though, since Drew had to stop at a hardware store and get pliers and fix his bike (I bought/made fingerless gloves I thought I might want) and adjust his front panniers half a dozen times and stop at New Orleans’ own “end of the world” (in local parlance). Finally we were on the bridge towards Chalmette and feeling ok.
Nine miles in I got my first flat. Drew will boldly hold a lane against traffic and assert that bikes should be treated just like cars. I’m wimpier and ride on the shoulder, and he told me later that “that’s where all the shit from the road ends up.” I ran over a little piece of glass. Luckily a few weeks ago Drew had given me a crash course in how to change a flat tire so I was not completely clueless, but it took the two of us an hour, which included replacing the ruined tube with the same ruined tube Drew had thrown down on top of the new tube I had taken out of the box, trying in vain to use his hand pump, using my iPad to watch a Youtube video about said hand pump, being offered a foot pump by a funny guy mowing his lawn nearby, who didn’t want to talk to us but left the pump in the bed of his truck, yelled “HEY!” and pointed at it.
Finally we’re back on the road, gunning it (ha!) towards Plaquemines Parish. 22 (or according to them, 10) miles before the Point a la Hache ferry we’re flagged down by Greg and Gina Meyer, a sweet local couple. She’s an ambulance dispatcher and he sells drinks at the movies (he said at the movies, Drew points out, not the movie theater—which may explain why he has cases of water, soda, and Perrier in the back of his truck). He offers us all three, and we gratefully take several waters and talk to him about Hurricane Isaac, which for them was worse than Katrina. I’m semi-desperately hoping they’ll offer their bathroom, but they don’t; they do give us their phone number, in case of emergency, which I take. A few miles later, we flop down on top of the levee and I find a log to pee on. Then we eat some trail mix and chug Greg’s water.
We press on to the ferry, which we’ve just missed. We wait for about 25 minutes until it comes, then 25 minutes on it in the (blessed) air conditioning. Drew passes out with his head in my lap—he’s appalled that the heat and effort (we have a 9 mph headwind) are getting him so bad, but I remember that while I have a $300 dad-funded Trek, he has a free 40 pound steel bike loaded down with gear.
It feels like we’re the only passengers, but when we get off on the West Bank a line of cars is getting off as well. One slows down and I hear “Jessica? Is that you?” It’s Joel, who I vaguely know from LaunchPad, and his girlfriend Toy, who I met once. They’re fascinated by our trip, take some pictures, and give us some chocolate chip cookies. Joel also gives me his cell number and promises a ride back to New Orleans if we need it. They offer us the “emergency water” in the trunk of their car, but, convinced (thank to the Meyers) that there’s a donut shop right around the corner, I tell them “You might have an emergency!” Although Toy seems ready to drop out of life and join Drew on his adventure, Joel seems antsy, and they head off on their afternoon excursion to Port Sulphur, 10 miles down route 23. Instead, we’re the ones with the emergency: almost out of water, and miles of nothing but a headwind, cars whizzing by us at 55 mph, and a trucker whose WHOLE WHEEL, not just the tire, came off. The truck is sitting lopsided on the shoulder and we realize how lucky we are to not have been there when the whole situation went down.
Eventually we decide to start knocking on doors—who’s not going to give water to a sweet young couple who have been biking for 50 miles? We see a sheriff’s car in front of a mobile home and I knock on the door (“You’re cuter,” Drew points out). No answer. We wander around the small cluster of trailers and see two guys getting out of a truck and hear what sounds like a small party. Indeed it is a party, at least after we get there: We ask to fill our water bottles, explain what we’re doing, and get invited in for crawfish with a family who never tell us their names. From what I can gather, it’s a grandma, her daughter and the daughter’s husband and their daughter, another woman and a passel of grandchildren. We go to town on their crawfish and accept more cold water for the road. Bless those people forever.
They tell us about the donut shop too, but we never see it. In fact we don’t see much of anything in Port Sulphur (we’d been promised thrift shops), except St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which looks deserted. We press on to Empire, where we find the Empire Inn—almost exactly 60 miles from New Orleans. We’re pretty thrilled to shower and bike another mile (“Before the bridge!” our friendly innkeeper Danica assures us) to Dad’s, where an overworked young waitress ostensibly assisted by a drunk guy called Twig serves us burgers and beers. Christina at the next table hears us talking and sits down at our third chair: “Are you guys cyclists?” She too is from New Orleans, and full of advice on where to ride. “People down here aren’t used to seeing cyclists,” she warns us. In New Orleans, it’s different, and she calls it the most bike friendly city she’s seen—compared to New York, Illinois, and North Dakota.
We return to the Empire Inn for a sweet night of sleep and sweet slow morning. The headwind is still going strong, but power bars and trail mix take us the remaining 20 miles—in about 8 hours. We can’t find an open restaurant (it’s Sunday), but we still manage to make a lot of stops—first to buy a white t-shirt for my poor sunburned shoulders, then to sit under a tree and eat apples and cashew butter. We’re cornered by a toothless “spiritual advisor,” who asks if we have any questions about the Bible and seems unphased or not understanding when Drew explains that he worships the gods of nature.
More riding. I realize I’ve left my sunglasses 6 miles back under the tree, but it’s cloudy and I don’t fret. We stop at a gas station where a confused guy and a clerk who “has a bad case of being 19,” according to Drew, tell us that there might be somewhere to eat in Venice but that “we have food here!” We don’t want their hot dogs or gas station pizza, so I use the bathroom and we press on. Our destination is the Venice marina, and a fisherman tells us we’re on the right track, but when we get to the very promising restaurant at 2:52, they tell us the kitchen closed at 2. As a very pissed off Asian guy storms away, we ask for beers and if they know anywhere we can camp.
The manager, Brad, says something about his friend’s condo and gets on the phone. The waitress, Kristen, is from North Carolina and on her fourth day of work. She tells us that if we want to ride back up to Empire (not bloody likely!) she lives in a trailer park there with cabins available. She’s cooking a feast tonight if we want to come by—here’s her number. She was going to bring home these two plates of shrimp but since she’s cooking tonight she won’t eat them so we should have one. In fact she’s going to put it in the microwave right now. We beg her not to, insist that we want to hold out for a full meal. Brad’s friend’s condo isn’t really an option (they stopped letting people stay there after some groups of drunks trashed it), but another restaurant is “just a mile and a half” around the bend.
A mile and a half? Maybe. Clearly no one ever goes to this place except by boat. We make it, though, and fortify with po boys and fish and boudin egg rolls and cheesecake, plus two more beers for Drew.
He really wants to get to The End Of the Road, so we go. We pass Haliburton signs, and a few trucks pass us, but mostly we’re alone, walking our bikes down gravel roads, riding through a few inches of water, spotting a dead alligator by the side of the road…until finally there’s a sign, “Gateway to the Gulf,” southernmost point in Louisiana. Pretty fucking proud of ourselves, though I’m getting freaked about the night riding we’re going to have to do if we don’t get a move on—it’s almost 7 (he’s not wearing a watch).
In addition to the end of the road, he wants to make an offering by the end of the river, so I’m drafted into taking some pictures of that, which are surely disappointing.
I really want to camp. I want to be tough and hardy and besides, we’ve hauled this damn tent for 80 miles (I took it today, since it was a short day). Nowhere looks great, but it’s getting dark quick, so we pick a spot on the river side of the levee, which is not too quiet and not too cool, but fairly hidden, except from the trucks on the service road who keep driving by as we hustle to put up the tent and get in it, away (hopefully) from the swarming mosquitoes.
I’m in the tent. I’m bitten up. I’m hot. I’m miserable. I’m made more miserable when Drew points out that this, to him, is “kind of swank.” I lay quietly, try to cool down from the inside out. Finally I state my case. I really want to camp, really don’t want to spend another $80 on a hotel, but more than that, I want a shower. I want to get a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s 80 miler.
We give it up. We ride the mile to the Venice Inn (owned by the same people who own the Empire Inn) and explain to Melissa at the front desk that we biked down from New Orleans and would love a room.
The AC is already on and I feel better immediately. A cool shower reveals at least 42 big bites on my back, legs, and ass, but a Benadryl puts me right out. In the morning they’re calmer. Drew snoozes as I bustle, but we’re on the road by 8, laughing about what we might find in the tent: a bum, sleeping? Another dead alligator? Will it be open? Did someone come to prey on us and find the tent empty? Will we hear about ourselves on the news later?
None of the above. The tent, dirty socks, and accompanying mosquitoes are right where we left them. We pack it up with the quickness and hit the road back to New Orleans.
Two hours down the road is Alice and Woody’s Restaurant. We make a quick stop to retrieve my lost sunglasses (right where I left them under that tree), but otherwise hold out till then and I’m so glad we did. Bacon, eggs, pancakes and hash browns for me… French toast for Drew, with extra bacon and plenty of coffee. The waitress thinks we’re nuts but keeps the ice water coming.
We pedal on and on. We unintentionally manage to miss the hellish bridge (not too long but a crazy steep grade that had Drew walking his heavy bike on Saturday) and ride down some back roads. I stop to pee and Drew picks some wild blackberries…not ripe yet. We pass one house and hear, “Hey! Remember me?” It’s the toothless spiritual advisor from Saturday. We keep going, fight off a dog or two, and eventually have to get back on 23. It’s as un-fun as we remember, but I suggest that we try to make the 1 pm ferry. We kill it on that road, and the tailwind helps, but even though my watch says 12:58, we see the ferry pulling away.
Another one’s not far behind it though, and we make our first ferry crossing of the day. On the other side, we stop at the Plaquemines Parish courthouse, which was burned down in 2002 by someone wanting to destroy the records of his past case. Gina Meyer told us about it and I talk to the woman in the post office, which is set up in a trailer behind the courthouse and is sweetly, blissfully air conditioned.
The ruined courthouse.
I have a little snit because Drew wants to stay and take more pictures, so we ride separately for a little while. We talk it out and I’m glad, because it’s a long ride before the next ferry, at Belle Chasse, where we choose the smoky but air conditioned cabin. A mom with two bad little boys is in there and I hear him express amazement at my lifesaving, wonderful, amazing Camelbak: “She got water in that bag!”
We get off the ferry right as a woman getting on finds her car won’t start. She’s already on the boat, with a long line behind her, so Drew helps push her.
We realize it’s only 11 more miles to Algiers and we’re thrilled—until we see the miles. First, a traffic-packed main street we can’t possibly ride on, so we hit the sidewalk on the other side. Then we turn on to a less trafficked but fast road, only two lanes which is actually the worst because people can’t always pass you. We haul ass on that road and get off it as fast as we can, only to find that next is another ridiculous bridge—not quite as steep as the one in Empire (at least we never have to get off and walk) but long…it’s got to be at least a mile up. We make it and I’m thrilled. I love the feeling of conquering a physical challenge.
A few more meandering miles to the Algiers ferry; the road we’re supposed to take leads us to a “No Trespassing” sign at a port, but one gate is open. No way to exit, though, so we double back through some not-too-nice neighborhoods. And finally, there we are, at the Dry Dock, site of our first date back in December. After some disappointing spinach salads, Drew orders a burger and I hit some shrimp scampi, plus the most delicious beers ever.
We contemplate dessert but decide instead to push back to New Orleans for chocolate chip cookies. On the ferry, the decision is made to buy cookie dough at Rouse’s, hit the Rogue Chateau for a final tag, then ride in tandem uptown to get my dog Nola, eat cookies, drink champagne, and call it mission accomplished. After a pleasant morning and breakfast at Coulis, we part ways, and I have to remind myself that plenty of people come into your life for a reason or a season, and there is so much to be learned from this one…