Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: New Orleans to Texas

In the last road log I paddled across the Mississippi to avoid taking a ferry. This time I pick up on the opposite bank and aim 700 miles away at Corpus Christi, Texas.

Image via Polkadots Cupcake Factory

Friday, October 4, 2013 (Day 455 of the Great Adventure)—Leaving New Orleans

Finally, after multiple false starts, I biked to the ferry, crossed the River and left. I made final offerings to say goodbye to the Mississippi, who had been my companion for 1900 miles and more than a year.

I headed toward Houma on a mix of levee trail, River Road, major highways, and the Old Spanish Trail which had some good scenery at times. I did my best to dodge rainstorms spun off of distant Tropical Storm Karen, and got a little wet but not soaked.

My destination that night was the hone of Alvin, a 50-something cyclist and a teacher. Easily the most knowedgeable cyclist I have ever met. I learned a lot from him in our short time together and enjoyed a great meal together. 58 miles.

Map.

(You can also see the actual route I took to get to the ferry, more or less—Google doesn’t approve of wrong ways on one ways—but this segment isn’t counted in the mileage because I had already crossed the river by kayak in June.)

October 5, 2013

Today there were more serious showers bearing down on me from Karen to the east. I made a calculated decision on being able to outrun them (the east wind was also a tailwind for me) despite Alvin’s offer to stay a day or two till they passed.

My destination today was Bayou Salé, but what I’ll always remember is Bayou Teche. Friends in New Orleans had helped me plan my route and insisted I bike along this bayou, and I’m sure glad I did—some of the most beautiful cycling I’ve ever seen along with the Natchez Trace. The road runs on either side of the bayou out of Houma, very lightly traveled. I did pass a park/fishing area that was closed due to the federal government shutdown.

My route then took me through Bayou Black, over the steep Amelia bridge, and through one small town before lunch at Morgan City. In the past I’d had only good experiences stopping at Shoney’s restaurants, but in this one they treated me like I was an escaped convict. I was sweaty but friendly, yet my manners didn’t seem to get me anywhere.

After crossing a big bridge out of Morgan City I continued to eschew major highway for a winding bayou road, adding miles but enjoying the scenery. I began to feel better about leaving New Orleans and pushing on with my adventure.

The small towns and scenic byways continued right up toward sunset. Finally I turned down the last road toward Bayou Salé, well off the beaten path. With only a few more miles to go, this road held one more steep bridge and—after staying dry all day—the first rainstorm to catch up with me. I arrived at my hosts’ house tired, wet and in good spirits.

Russ and Paul, my hosts, convinced me to have some wine with dinner. We had a great conversation and I got some much-needed sleep. 67.8 miles.

Map.

Sunday, October 6, 2013—Rest Day!

Russ and Paul are a sweet gay couple in their 50s. Russ grew up in the bayou and Paul moved there from Pennsylvania to be with him. Together, they opened a stained glass studio in a small building across the road. The studio makes a variety of objects, with most of their profit coming from large scale windows for churches. (Russ told me there was no need for me to pass on their business card to churches on my route, because they already had more orders than they could fill.)

They also make small items for tourists and do a lively trade teaching stained glass classes. Russ said that the men who take their workshops usually come to learn the skills needed, then start doing their own work at home; the women are more likely to keep coming back over and over, treating the classes as a social occasion as well as a learning opportunity. As a side benefit, the women have begun bringing food and wine to each workshop/social (which they share with the guys).

Russ also told me about how the devastation of the coastal marshes has made flooding worse in his area. Buildings that have not flooded in 200 years were feet below water after the last hurricane. One of his family’s houses was still in a needs-to-be-restored state from the last flood, and the glass studio had been badly damaged but already fixed up.

Russ and Paul live in another of Russ’ old family homes and Russ takes care of his elderly father, who is mostly confined to his bed. I spent part of the day doing writing, and rode with Paul to get some groceries from a gas station/mini-market. (By “groceries” I mostly mean ice cream.)

Like so many hosts, Russ and Paul offered for me to stay longer, but I planned to head out the next morning.

October 7, 2013—Bad Gear Day

I started out excited about more bayou country, but today quickly became a lesser disaster. I’d had a strange noise on the bike the previous cycling day—never a good sign—but couldn’t trouble shoot it. Just miles after setting out, as I made my way back over the nearby bridge from the other day, the back gear set began to fail. I limped forward and stopped at the gas station/mini mart hoping to fix it.

Unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. The gear cassette was loose and, contrary to what would make sense in a world run by the Rogue Priest, cannot just be screwed back on. It takes a special tool. To make matters worse, the lockring that holds it in place appeared to be stripped. Tools or no tools, my gears—the crucial component that translates pedal strokes into forward movement—were hanging on only by force of habit.

I could have called Paul and Russ and asked them for a ride back to their house just 7 miles away. But with no bike shop anywhere nearby it wouldn’t have helped. My destination for tonight, Abbeville, was still 60 miles off—but if I could get there, a bike shop in Lafayette was only a 20 minute drive away.

After at least an hour of failed troubleshooting, I mounted the Giant and limped him back onto the road. What followed was one of the most agonizing days I’ve ever experienced: soon the gear cassette lost its grip and fell off the wheel of the bicycle. I fitted it back on, still with no lockring to hold it in place, put the chain back on, and continued. Repeat this 100 times or so—anywhere from once every few hundred feet to once every five miles—and you have a clear picture of my day.

After a few bayou towns I figured out a partial solution: as long as I kept the chain in the absolute lowest gear, the tension of the chain itself helped guide the gear set toward the wheel instead of falling off. (It still fell off, just not as often.) The downside is that I had to run in my lowest gear. At an approximate pace of 6 miles per hour, I cruised onward.

I alerted my Abbeville hosts of my bike troubles and late arrival. I was determined to get there: camping in the middle of nowhere and then getting back on the wounded bike tomorrow sounded awful. No way was I stopping till either I arrived at their house or the bike crumbled to dust under me.

Eventually I had to depart the beautiful bayou roads and take a major state highway toward my destination. This was around rush hour and very, very unpleasant. The shoulder was a cratered mess—a good recipe for knocking that gear cassette off—so I stayed in the lane as much as possible (legally correct, but not a popular choice). One trucker actually pulled over and blocked my way, apparently planning to give me a scolding. I shared some opinions of my own.

My persistence paid off. Completely beat, I coasted into Abbeville at sunset just as the moist swamp air cooled down. I made my way by dusk to the home of Leanne and JH (names changed), a former boulangerie converted into one of the coolest homes I’ve seen. Leanne made Thai food and we ate at the former butcher counter, now their bar. 64.2 miles.

Map.

October 18, 2013—Rest & Repair

Both very laid back, Leanne & JH had no problem hosting me for an extra day while I repaired the bike. JH is mechanically inclined and had some thoughts on pillaging a gear set off an old Peugeot. I, being less initiated into the inner workings of these machines, preferred to get a brand new replacement. We took a ride to Lafayette where a bicycle shop installed the new gears without difficulty. (I also managed to leave behind my chain oil there, which I mourned for some time.)

Tonight it was my turn to make dinner. I made a giant pasta served with red wine. Friends came over. I enjoyed meeting everyone but I recall my two evenings in Abbeville without much fondness: I spent most of my time worried about the bike or the road ahead, plus I was physically beat. I get a feeling that I wasn’t the most social guest to my young, fun-loving hosts, though they did enjoy the dinner. I also got my first taste of Cajun hospitality at a nearby house party.

Late at night, I found myself craving some sweets. Leanne had told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen. In the freezer I found some chocolates, and had a few. They tasted (I thought) freezer burned, but satisfied my sweet tooth and I went to sleep. I remember feeling dizzy as I passed out…

Wednesday, October 9, 2013—Ouch My Head

I awoke feeling like a bag of garbage, or like something that the entire garbage truck had run over. I was on my own for breakfast: Leanne had to run to work early and JH was already gone. Somehow, I was simultaneously nauseous and ravenous, not to mention dizzy, bleary and suffering from a jackhammer of a headache. Doing morning yoga did not help.

Also, there was no food in the house.

Wondering how just a few drinks had left me with such a hangover, I moaned as I climbed onto the bike. The Giant, at least, was refreshed and ready to go—minus a lack of oil on his chain—and off I wobbled.

I remember the first hour of this ride as some of the most painful cycling I’ve done. Days later, I would find out from Leanne that the chocolates I’d eaten contained large amounts of magic mushrooms. Recommended dosage: one chocolate. That explained both the horrible after effects and the grittiness I had taken for freezerburn, though it does not explain why people would ever eat these mushrooms voluntarily.

About an hour out I reached the small town of Kaplan, LA. and had the “Hungry Man Breakfast” which helped considerably. (The hunger had, by now, overcome the nausea.) I picked up an extra bungee from a hardware store to secure gear in my front basket. Last, still reeling from the last effects of mushrooms, I conducted a review with one of my clients via phone while wandering through the side streets of town. Just another day as a freelancer on the road.

My destination for the day was Lake Charles, LA, a bigger city. It was a lot of miles away on a hangover and an untested bike, but the Giant was a champ and I’m happy I was able to get the brand new gear cassette for him. The chain slipped from the gears once but overall it seemed like a successful repair.

Between Kaplan and Gueydan I sang an entire Vodou ceremony, which felt good.

Sadly, I lost one of my (worn out) bicycle gloves while resting in Gueydan, just after I started thinking of replacing them. My hands and bum became very sore, but I had no knee pain, indicating my new seat position was good.

The towns were all interesting. Abbeville was beautiful if quiet. Not much going on in Kaplan. Gueydan was pretty and looks like it has good eateries but the people were a little standoffish. Lake Arthur seems like a good sightseeing destination. I stopped there in a park beside the lake and called my mom while I hydrated. Not much in Hayes or Bell City, barely towns at all.

I stopped at a roadside eatery/convenience store in Hayes late in the afternoon. While slamming Gatorade, cashews and a Cliff Bar, a teenager named Seth struck up a conversation with me. Really social, really interested in what I was doing. His dad put up two cyclists from Australia with their family about three years ago. I explained that I work on the road and I hope it planted the seed that he can do this too. His friend was much more cynical. Seth can do better than that.

Finally I cruised into Lake Charles just after rush hour and found the home of my next host, an English professor. 80.8 miles. 

Map.

Thursday, October 10, 2013—Work Day

I got along great with my host, Dustin, not only a young professor but a fellow writer. We discussed favorite books, authors, the difficulty of writing and the great joy of revising. He had a sort of high-functioning hippy attitude that I’m sure made him popular with his students. I read some of the original Conan the Barbarian graphic novels from his book shelf the night at one point during my stay, likely the night I arrived. The conversation was great.

Dustin understood about my need for a peaceful, quiet place to write and recommended the Stellar Bean Cafe. While he went to teach classes, I bicycled into downtown Lake Charles. The cafe was everything I hoped it would be (there was even a local writers’ group meeting there, which I did not join). I completed a lot of work, much more so than at previous rest stops, and that night I bought Dustin dinner at a Mexican restaurant. He seemed surprised by the gesture but his attitude and camaraderie meant a lot and I wanted to do something nice.

This would also be my last full day in Louisiana, as tomorrow’s route would take me across the border if all went well.

October 11, 2013—Train Bridge Day

I had no host lined up so I planned to go 37 miles to Orange, Texas and look for a place for the night. I was hoping a Methodist pastor there would respond to an email and offer me a spot. Because of the short day I took my time and got a late start. I left Dustin’s around 9, went to a park and did yoga, went to two bike shops and bought a new pair of bike gloves, then cruised up to the bridge I expected to take, the I-10 bridge. So steep! And negligible shoulder. I had seen the shoulder situation on the satellite but not the steepness.

The I-210 bridge appears to have wider shoulder but it’s much, much longer, and even from a distance I could see it was tall as well. I considered using a train bridge to cross but couldn’t find a way to access the tracks. Ultimately I went around the lake entirely, through the towns of Moss and Westlake, adding 15 miles to my day. Had lunch at Jake’s Cakes and Coffee Shop north of Sulphur.

During this time I received an offer from a WarmShowers host, Jeff, to come stay two nights in Beaumont, TX. That is significantly farther than Orange, and I held out hoping the pastor would get back to me, but no luck. So I pushed on, and my day’s route grew from 40 miles to 60 miles to 80 miles.

Was on track to reach Jeff’s house just at 7:20 as promised, but the I-10 bridge into Beaumont was under construction, with absolutely no shoulder for bikes on either side! Jeff offered a ride, but I struck out and used a railroad bridge instead. Walked for about an hour on gravel and rail tracks in the dark, covered in mosquitoes, dodging living and dead snakes. Moved off the tracks at one point to let a train go by.

Halfway across the train bridge, a train appeared coming straight for me.

[André’s note: this is one of the craziest things that has happened to me and you can read the full story here.]

Once across, coming off a huge adrenaline surge, I made it to Jeff’s about 9:00 p.m. a 12-hour, 83-mile day. Ugh.

83.3 miles.

Map.

(Map includes a loop before the I-10 bridge that equates to the actual distance I took on the railroad tracks. Across the river, map does not show the distance I crossed on the bridge itself or on the city streets from the bridge back to the latitude of I-10. The estimated total for those two combined distances is 1.4 miles, which I’ve added in. After that the route on Magnolia Street is accurate. I always exclude time spent cruising around locally, which would amount to about 6 more miles in Lake Charles, and in this case I excluded the many spans of frontage road I took along I-10, which sometimes included small detours.)

October 12—Work Day

Jeff had never hosted anyone before, and was only able to put me up because (a) his wife was out of town and (b) he agreed to keep me in the guest room attached to the garage, not part of the main house.

One other cyclist was there the night I arrived, though I use the word “cyclist” loosely. This man drove a car which may or may not have had a bicycle inside of it, may or may not have been on his way to some kind of vague family emergency, and had the approximate social skills of a stoned badger. I felt incredibly grateful that this guy was not Jeff’s only introduction to the world of hosting travelers, and I endeavored to be the best guest possible and leave him with a good impression.

Thankfully, Mr. Grumpy left early on the morning of the 12th. I had arranged a rest day before continuing, and Jeff invited me to go fishing with him. I was extremely tempted—the area he was going sounded gorgeous—but I had too much client work to do. I stayed in and was a homebody, but I did get all of my work done before Jeff returned that evening. We went to the store and got some ingredients, then Jeff cooked up his catch with curry and we had a great meal and conversation.

Jeff and I hit it off. We come from different worlds but I know a good soul when I meet one, and he had it. He also seemed to take to me, and even put me in touch with relatives of his around Corpus Christi so I would know someone when I got there. Like many hosts, he invited me to stay longer but I felt the need to push on.

October 13, 2013—Loneliness

The day was dreary with occasional piss from the heavens. Riding out of Beaumont toward Baytown involved little traffic but a headwind that made the going frustratingly slow. The whole day was a long slog of a ride. Knee pain and saddle soreness became so extreme that I started making adjustments to my seat. Starting to get scared about my knees.

Really not much fun today. Not sure why I’m so worn down. Saw a guy sitting roadside (on the freeway) just out of Beaumont and offered him some water. He drank it without touching the water bottle to his mouth. I really admire that.

Rain clouds threatened all day. Didn’t get rained on till about an hour out of Baytown. Rain matches my mood. Further slowed everything down.

I had nowhere lined up to stay tonight. Thought I might get in by 3 pm and try to find a local who would help. Felt horrible sense of insecurity because of not knowing where I’d sleep—sometimes I think I’m giving myself an anxiety disorder out here. Ended up deciding I would just get a motel on arrival, and that brightened my mood up a lot—sense of security and promise of comfort.

Good decision too. Didn’t get in to Baytown till nearly six (reached my motel at 6:30) and this town really doesn’t have a cute downtown or anything particularly welcoming. Would have been hard luck trying to find a free place to stay. Lots of taquerías though.

Rested well and ate Mexican for dinner. Drank two beers. Stayed up too late. 68.1 miles.

Map.

Monday, October 14, 2013—Galveston Day

I had really looked forward today as a short, fun bike ride ending on the Gulf coast. But the wind was against me and there were many steep bridges. My knee pain became pronounced quickly, and I felt a new, much more urgent discomfort in one knee. I stopped and made adjustments again (I had also made more adjustments before leaving the motel). I think I’m closing in on the best seat height/position/angle for my body and bicycle, but the existing pain is still going to take a while to subside.

Going across the causeway onto the island was amazing, however. (Galveston is located on an island.)

Once on the island I saw another person sitting on the side of the freeway. This one seemed drunk and disoriented. He asked me how to get to the beach. I couldn’t do anything for him so I wished him luck and kept going.

Galveston is a beautiful town! I stayed with Kellyn, a graduate student and her roommates. As a man I couldn’t ask for a better welcome: four college girls living in a giant house together. I had a guest bedroom with its own bathroom. I also happened to arrive the night they were carving their Hallowe’en pumpkins, and I brought a six pack of beer to contribute to the event. They had an extra pumpking for me and we all chatted as we carved. My night with Kellyn and her roommates’ will definitely be one of my favorite memories from the trip. 44.5 miles.

Map.

October 15—Work Day and a New Host

On Kellyn’s advice I chose a little cafe in downtown Galveston to work in. Galveston is a great city, with a lot of artists and a lively downtown. It’s a vacation destination, which is part of its charm, but it also lacks the sprawl of other Texas cities because the island only has so much space.

When I planned my stop in Galveston I arranged two nights with two different hosts. It was one of the first destinations on this trip that had a large Couchsurfing community, and I figured I would meet more people this way. In reality, though, I was sad to leave Kellyn & Co. My second host, Celia, was incredibly kind and had many interesting stories of her own. I’m happy I met her. But Kellyn and her friends are closer to my own age, and after having such a lonely time on the road the chance to socialize with them had been very nourishing. Celia has a son to look after and after our dinner together I was mostly left to my own devices. I think the smart choice, after having met Kellyn yesterday, would have been to change my plans and stay with her both nights while simply meeting Celia and her son for dinner. I’m sure neither host would have minded.

I iced my knees regularly during this rest stop.

October 16, 2013—Freeport Day

Instead of crossing back to the mainland I rode alone the barrier islands. Extremely pleasant ride with beach and beach houses to my left, and pasture or dune prairie to my right. A little rain at the beginning and end. My knees are feeling differently, with the right knee feeling much less strained and the left feeling more strained, which means my seat adjustments have had an overall good effect though still not perfect.

Really enjoyed the ride along the Seawall in Galveston in the beginning, even though the tourist strip is less attractive than downtown. Wish I had taken a week or a few days in this town.

Just before reaching my destination, near the tip of the barrier island, I stopped at an oceanside restaurant for a burger, a beer and some rest time. I called my friend Saumya, long overdue and good to speak with her again.

In afternoon I reached my next host, a young couple named Danielle and Chris living in a small, nice house in the edge of a bayou outside Freeport. Both work as chemical engineers at a major refinery operation. Interesting, friendly people.

[André’s note: much later, they would take me up on my offer to reach out to me if they were ever in New Orleans. I got their message very last minute and was unable to find a place for them to stay that night. Will always feel like I let them down after they helped me out so generously.]

43 miles.

Map.

(This map still shows me leaving from Kellyn’s house, not Celia’s. That’s because the two houses are nearby, and this way my route includes the distance traveled between the two. One house is literally on the route onward from the other.)

October 17, 2013—Bay City Day

Reluctantly, I turned away from the Gulf and its beach communities, which seemed open and welcoming. I went through the “city” of Freeport, which is more like thirty miles of nothing but refineries. It felt like bicycling through the Death Star. Actually kind of fun.

Very sore ride especially the second half. Had to fight wind at times too. Late-ish start from Danielle and Chris’ house (they left early for work and left me to my own devices) and had a big lunch at a Tex Mex place in Brazoria, right at the V-corner in my route. More Tex than Mex for sure. Called many motels in Bay City and cruised through town to get a feel for the place (not reflected in map/miles). Settled on Studio 6 for the night and was quite happy with it—apartment-style rooms with full kitchen at very low price.

Notably, this was the one year anniversary of arriving at New Orleans.

Had indulgent Mexican dinner at Ricardo’s. 49 miles.

Map.

Friday, October 18, 2013—Port Lavaca Day

I ate again at Ricardo’s, this time for breakfast, and really loved it. Possibly the best huevos rancheros (with chorizo!) I’ve ever had, and one of the top breakfasts in general, too. I’m starting to like these “shorter” 50-mile days, even though I’m mostly using the extra time to leave later in the morning—flies in the face of my original reason for shorter days (although still no sunset runs in quite some time) but makes everything less stressful.

I also took a long break at a gas station in Blessing, TX after almost missing the turn off (continuing past would have sent me through Palacios, adding perhaps 15 extra miles onto my route).

The last section of roads before reaching the causeway to Port Lavaca, such as Highway 1862 and then back on 35, were gorgeous and empty and perfect. Felt that spiritual sense of awe at the beauty and desolation that makes me love journeys in the first place. It’s really been too long since I felt that.

The causeway was another matter. While I made it across fine (and was actually impressed at how smoothly and politely traffic changed lanes to go around me), no sooner was I across than a sheriff vehicle threw on its lights and motioned for me to pull aside. He scolded me for using the causeway and told me “the worst accidents” happen because of cyclists. I didn’t tell him that I was the one following the law, or that if law-breakers are causing accidents, maybe they should be the ones pulled over. He told me “next time” I should “get a ride or… whatever.” I was polite.

I planned to camp tonight at a public park in Port Lavaca, right there on the shore near the causeway. It had RV camping so I figured if I paid my hammock would be more than welcome. Wrong. When someone asks if you need a “tent site” apparently you should just say yes. Something about the idea of the hammock made the woman fear for her job. She did recommend another possible campsite (which seemed dubious) and a Mexican food stand (which I never went to), and I liked her overall. But with the cold north wind, no promising camp option, and storms on the way I ended up going to a motel for the third time on this trip. (It was a regular Motel 6, directly across the street from the RV park, which was oddly more expensive than the apartment-style Studio 6 the night before.)

I feel a lot of regret that I didn’t get to camp. Not that I was super looking forward to it, in all—setting up camp solo after a long bike day can be exhausting—but I had gotten excited about it that day. Plus, with tomorrow having a scheduled CouchSurfing host, this was my last opportunity for this whole leg of the trip. Turns out I hauled the hammock, fleece sleeping bag and cold weather gear all this way for nothing. It’s a substantial amount of dead weight on a bike. Sunk costs and all. But it would’ve been nice to sleep in the breeze at least once on this segment.

After checking in and showering I spent an outrageous amount of time biking around looking for a local pizza place that turned out to be closed, then settled for Mexican again at a restaurant that was truly sub-par (but more expensive than Ricardo’s). I miss you, Ricky. 51.9 miles.

Map.

October 19, 2013—Broke Axel Day

Today seemed like an easy day. At “only” 50 miles, I felt good that I would make it to my host for the night, where I would get to sleep on his sailboat in the Fulton, TX harbor. That’s a pretty cool prospect, and one I looked forward to. Plus, tomorrow would be my arrival in Corpus Christi if all went well.

All did not go well. Less than 10 miles out of town I heard an odd noise from the back wheel, and the second time I stopped to check on it the axle fell out in two broken pieces. The bike couldn’t go any further.

I’ve already told this tense story before, so I won’t repeat it. The short version is I had to hitchhike forward 10 miles to the next town, where I failed to find a further ride onward toward Fulton. Instead, a friendly local gave me the axle from an old Peugeot road bike and helped me change it. I continued on from that point and, in a heart-pumping race against the sunset, made it to host Mel and his boat.

[André’s note: I had to come back to this stretch of road months later and bike the missing 10 miles I’d hitchhiked over, for the sake of covering every inch powered by my own body.]

Mel was a fascinating individual whose spirit I admire. He lives aboard his catamaran, which he’s slowly fixing up for long sea voyages. He’s also toured extensively in his camper van, and not long ago took a cruise ship one-way to South America and bused back to the US slowly over the the course of months.

We had an excellent evening swapping travel stories. Mel served a home made dinner of soup with brisket and noodles and a big side salad. It’s rare to meet a host on my travels who will serve healthy food, and while I’m always grateful for whatever people share, I was extra happy to get some greens in me. 50.6 miles.

Map 1: Completed that day before breakdown. 10.4 miles.

Map 2: Hitchhiked that day; completed by bicycle later on January 18, 2014 (Day 561). 10.8 miles.

Map 3: Completed that day after repair. 29.4 miles.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 (Day 471 of the Great Adventure)—Arrival in Corpus

This was a good day. After a light breakfast with Mel I set out on the bike, confident I could cover the 34 miles to Corpus. I stopped for an early lunch at a cafe in Rockport and took byways off the main road as far as I could. Remembering my entrance into New Orleans, I allowed myself a congratulatory beer at a gas station in Ingleside—not quite as memorable as the one on the way into the Crescent City.

The first (larger) bridge into Corpus, the causeway, was no problem. Wide lanes, wide shoulder and not steep. The second bridge however proved much trickier. I feel that Fortuna always throws one last obstacle at an adventurer close to completing a quest, and mine was the bridge featured in this video:

Finally I made it into the city proper, the freeway bridge depositing me directly in the downtown. Known for its beach, I had hoped Corpus Christi would be similar to Galveston (especially after the cute, laid back feeling of Fulton). The truth was it felt very different, more like the big, sprawling city that it is. I aimed myself at the palm trees and the waterfront and followed Shoreline Boulevard and its scenic Seawall. (This isn’t reflected exactly in the map, since I was on the pedestrian/bike walk on the Seawall, which Google doesn’t approve of.)

Finally I reached a yellow concrete building facing the ocean. It looked like it had survived from the set of a Miami Vice episode 30 years ago. Inside that building was the apartment of my final host, a man who had offered to put me up for a few days while I found an apartment—and would ultimately take me on as along term paying roommate.

For now, my host was out on a fishing trip and I was told to let myself in and make myself at home. I tried to determine if there was a beer store nearby, so I could have a gift waiting for him, but to no avail. Instead, I took a shower and prepared for a new life in Texas. 37.4 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 698.6

Total traveled since Day 1: 2780.6

There are just two more road logs to go (the kayak trip, and the final push to the Mexico border), and then we’ll be all caught up—and ready to start chronicling the current Mexico ride! Until then, check out old road logs if you’re so inclined.

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

A Ride in Louisiana River Country

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!

Mom: What?

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?

Me: I’m—

Semi: FWHOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

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.

I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

Photos by André

Photos by André

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!)

Map.

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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Bicycling

What to say to the man who ran you over?

Remains of a wheel.

I didn’t want to be on that road.

The day started cool, clear and nervous. The noise from the rear wheel was back, back louder than ever before, and I still couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Nothing was hitting the spokes and the tire was good. So why did it thwap on every revolution?

The answer came at the top of a bridge. If you don’t dissect bike for a living, picture it this way: you know how there are gears on the back wheel? Well, there’s a little part that holds them in place, and that little part was loose. It’s called a lockring. Mine was hanging useless on the axel and the gear set was wobbling free. The hard pedaling on the steep bridge made the chain slip.

A short postcard of my day would read: Tried to fix gears; lockring is stripped. Some grit destroyed the threads. My fault, should’ve cleaned more. Limped to a store that sold WD-40, but even cleaned up it won’t screw back on. No way to coon ass* it with regular hardware. The bike works if I leave it in second gear, with the front on the big gear. Really weak pedaling. Going to try for Abbeville.

[*Cajun slang that does not refer to people of color! It refers to the Cajun country way of bodging things together so they just barely work, e.g. “that’s a coon ass car you got,” or “FEMA sure coon assed this hurricane recovery.”]

There were no bike shops for a hundred miles, but I had a host waiting for me in Abbeville, 65 miles away. That’s an easy six hours of pedaling on a normal day. Stuck in one of my lowest gears it was more like 11 hours. The chain would slip off every hour or so. There was always a chance, as the gears worked looser and looser, that it would fail completely and I’d be hitchhiking or camping out.

I made my gambit.

Highway 14 is not a good place for bicycles, even fast ones with all their gears working.

It’s a divided highway with a high speed limit, but it’s not an interstate. The shoulder is a joke, about as smooth and straight as an alligator’s grin. And bikes aren’t supposed to be on the shoulder, they’re supposed to be in the lane.

These lanes were heavy with people going home from work, mostly pickup trucks. Dealerships must offer pickup owners a rebate if they promise to be bad to cyclists. I kept an eye glued to my rear-view mirror for signs of people who wouldn’t slow down and merge over; most did, and I could always bail to the shoulder if I needed to.

It was a pretty bad ride.

Just at sunset a big white truck came barreling up my lane. He laid on his horn. I had seconds before he’d reach me, and I let those seconds tick away, motioning for him to get over. He kept honking and charged on in.

I dove off the side of the road.

The Giant went over those grooves in the pavement, the ones that vibrate car tires, but on a bike it’s more like firecrackers exploding under you. We leapt onto the busted shoulder, the chain jangled free of the gears, and I’m sure I said some words that are better left unblogged.

Well, I did say I could always bail onto the shoulder if I needed to.

After a few minutes I was underway. I stuck on the shoulder for now, recovering myself.

I blinked into the sun. Something was up there—someone had pulled over. It was that white truck, with his mini-flatbed and his load of logs. He had pulled over and the driver was out, standing behind his machine, just waiting for me.

Waiting for me.

Two years ago the prospect of this much confrontation would’ve sent me into an adrenaline sweat. Turning around wasn’t much of an option, so most people would do one of two things: lose their cool, or try to bike past him without engaging. I couldn’t picture either one working well.

(And honestly, for 2,000 miles I’ve fantasized about schooling bad drivers on sharing the road with bikes. I’ve had a lot of practice for this conversation.)

So I bicycled up to the man, who stood there with his arms crossed and his feet wide apart, and I stopped the bike. I waited.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing out there?” he said. He used an angry lecture voice, like you’d use to a 14 year old, not exactly shouting.

“I’m supposed to be in the lane,” I said. I used a regular voice.

“You’re supposed to be in the lane?” Sarcasm.

“Yeah. I’m supposed to be in the lane. It’s the law.”

That seemed to throw him, so I went ahead. “If I ride on this shoulder I’m gonna have a flat tire about every two miles.”

“Look, do you see what I’m hauling here?” he asked, pointing at the logs. “It’s not exactly like I can just swerve around you with all this stuff.”

That was true. It wasn’t a full semi (it had actually looked like a pickup truck in my rear view mirror) but it was a big pile of truck all the same.

“Well, did you see me up ahead?” I asked. “Could you have slowed down?”

“I tried!”

I nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “What if it had been a tractor. A big slow moving vehicle that can’t possible fit on the shoulder. What would you have done then? You would’ve slowed down until you had a chance to merge over. You wouldn’t have just honked your horn till you slammed into it. Would you?”

We both knew I was right, and he changed direction.

“You gotta look out for your safety out here. You gotta start using your brain. You ride out in the traffic like that, someone’s going to hit you.”

Now the thing is, for whatever kind of point I might have just scored with the tractor comment, he was right. He had scored right back. But something in his voice gave away a much deeper truth. We were both scared out here.

So I told him that.

“I don’t want to be on this road,” I said. “I wanted to take a different road but it was all gravel. This is the only play I can make.”

Neither one of us was going to apologize or shake hands, but we had communicated. He went back to his truck. I biked past him and I went on my way.

I’l always respect him for pulling over.

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Adventure, Bicycling, New Orleans, Spotlight, The Great Adventure

The Jessica Version

This is a guest post by Jessica, who accompanied me on the final 80 miles of my ride down the Mississippi River.

Jessica

Jessica

5.21.13: 

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.

Drew makes offerings at the end of the Mississippi

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.

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…

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Adventure, Bicycling, New Orleans, The Great Adventure, The Heroic Life, Travel

Journey to the End, Day 3: Who Beside You?

And after the End, what is it like? How do you get back?

One of the magic places on the way back.

One of the magic places on the way back.

The Levee

The last leg of the Mississippi River was behind us. We had biked all the way to the end, made offerings in a lonely place, ignored a sage perhaps; we were done. And it was dark, or damn near.

We planned to camp on the levee. I have written before about the problems with illegal camping, but down here was different—we were far from any farm, any house, no one was bothered, no one could find us.

We could lie where we pleased.

What pleased was the nearest, flattest, driest, quietest place we could find, with “nearest” leading the compromise. It becomes a scramble when the sun is low—I remember these days well; Jessica was about to be initiated.

Venice is built outside the levee. We crossed back over to the protected faux-basin of lower Louisiana. We took a side road that followed the levee, a high rampart above us. I spotted what looked like a service road and we went to investigate.

Below the levee’s crown was a flat spot. It was protected from view, it was grassy, and it was high up—zero danger of flooding and little of gators. The breeze helps reduce mosquitoes, though that’s a joke: you’re in a swamp, son.

We hauled our gear up by hand, to lighten the bikes. Then we hauled the bikes.

As with an air pump earlier, we had never before used the tent we’d brought. It’s actually an ingeniously designed piece of gear, but in sweaty dusk by lamplight and ear-buzz I would have welcomed something a little less ingenious, a little more familiar.

The tent went up.

Sweatbox

Inside was a nylon oven. Sweat threw itself from every pore. Itchy legs, dirty clothes, fever skin, exhausted limbs. Rationed water.

I got ready for bed.

I looked over at Jess. “How are you doing, Broome?”

She looked straight ahead. “Give me thirty minutes.”

It was the voice that brings men ulcers: the am-not-happy voice of a woman. But she was self contained. She neither complained, nor blamed, not pretended to be well: she asked for thirty minutes.

I nodded, said nothing, and gave her the time.

This is miserable, I knew. Not the trip as a whole—the trip I adore. But there is a certain malarial fatigue that happens when you race the sun to camp. You arrive exhausted, stressed and worried; you must then do physical work by little light in unsavory conditions. When at last you get into your cocoon you’re wired but deflated. You tremble, you toss around wishing you could sleep.

In 1,900 miles I had many nights like this. I never grew to like them, but I grew to manage them.

The person beside me was experiencing her very first one.

Thirty Minutes

I’ve been reading a book by Ed Stafford, the first (known) person to walk the entire length of the Amazon (thanks Sharla!). The biggest barrier to Ed’s trip, every day, was tension with traveling partners: guides, friends, locals. Learning to handle the psychological and social aspect of the adventure was far more critical to his survival than knowing how to deal with snakes, spiders or caimans.

Likewise, as I prepare to kayak the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve spoken with a wonderful doctor who’s done the same. His words about travel partners echo Ed’s perfectly.

And that was my only concern with bringing Jess (or anyone) along: we get along great, but how about under pressure?

The answer, it turns out, was not bad.

Jess calmly listed her thoughts in no particular order. Thoughts like:

  • She did not want to give up if camping out was important to me.
  • She was hot and miserable.
  • She wanted to be able to say she had camped on the levee.
  • She knew she could force herself to remain in the tent all night, uncomfortable as it was.
  • She was worried that if she slept poorly our final day of biking would suffer.

I listened to all points and suggested we go to a motel.

On the way we got lost in the fog.

Checking the phone (map) I turned us around. Jess asked me several questions: how we missed our road, why we needed to turn, how sure I was, etc. These are reasonable questions. Finally I had to answer:

“Right now my body’s tired. When my body’s tired my mind gets tired. I really need to not answer questions right now.”

She understood and we continued in silence, successfully reaching the motel.

After coffee and showers, I said: “Jess, I feel like we both did something mature tonight.”

She nodded: “I’m really proud of us.”

Ferries! (I did not make us late.)

Ferries! (Me not making us late.)

Tail Wind

All of that was the night of Day 2. Day 3 deserves little mention, because it was so simple.

We had a tail wind. We had different priorities for pace and schedule: fellow adventurers warn that this is the biggest source of contention. To her, we had reached my goal and the mission was over; get home quick. To me, we’d found one magic place at the end of the river and there were many more to discover.

We worked this out, doing mature things.

We pedaled 80 miles in a grand day, sailing on an 8 mph tail wind and strong legs. We crossed three ferries so we could follow the prettiest roads; in Algiers we faced our toughest traffic, conditions that left me with a pounding heart and an iron grip on my bike. Jessica handled it with a cool head.

We also crossed this bridge:

Highway 407 Bridge

“Report a Problem.” Problem: THIS BRIDGE!

After a rain shower and a gated dead end we reached the Dry Dock bar and restaurant (site of our first date) beside the Algiers Ferry. (For non-New Orleanians, that means one ferry ride from home.) There, no one cared about the miles we had gone or the dangers we had faced. We were just two more people with too many requests for our overworked waitress. Her adventure occluded our own.

Beer, salads, and too much food; an oddly comfortable ferry ride; a jaunt through the Quarter; coming full circle at Rogue Chateau; and 3 more miles back to Jess’ place for champagne and cookies.

This is the first leg of the Great Adventure. The first leg of a dream, a prophetic dream come true; the first leg of wresting Fate, of choosing Fate, of lightly holding Fate.

This is what it is to seek the heroic life.

This is the last part of a series. You can also read Day 1, Day 2 and reflection 2.5. Better yet, you can even read Jessica’s version.

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Adventure, The Great Adventure, Travel

End of the World 2.5: But Where is Spekkio?

Art by E-M-R.

I grew up on these stories. Stories of journeys. Now I’ve made my own. 1,800 miles by my own muscles: I’m nowhere near the final step, but it sure is a start.

So with one brave heart at my side I had made the final 80 miles to the end of the river and the end of the world. Here were were, with the Great River Road vanishing into a heap of gravel before us, and the entire length of the Mississippi behind us. The “southernmost point of Louisiana,” and nothing around but marsh, backwater and the lonely towers of industry.

It’s a spooky world, southern Louisiana, because everything is alive and no one’s home. You can go hours and see nobody, stand at refinery gates at see nobody at all.

And I thought, this being the final little stretch of road, the least important length of asphalt in the whole state, that maybe we’d see no one here, either.

I was mistook.

That one man was there, one man smoking his cigarette, sitting on a stack of logs. A truck was nearby, also a boat: he was in no hurry to go.

Smoke Break

Now here is what I thought as I approached him:

What is he doing here?

I wonder if we’re disturbing him. I wonder if he’s going to disturb us. 

Well, we came all this way and we’re not stopping now.

He probably thinks it’s pretty stupid, two kids coming here on bikes. He must work around here. Here we are, doing nothing but acting like tourists, and he has a real job. 

Must seem like a pretty strange vacation.

“How’s it going?” I asked. He nodded his head.

Gaspar

In Chrono Trigger, when you reach the End of Time there is nothing but a few cobble stones, a lamp post and one old man.

That man says very little but he is Gaspar, an ancient sage.

I didn’t realize till days after I left the End of the World.

The purpose of my quest is to meet the gods. Reaching the end of the Mississippi was a milestone—and in that apocalyptic place, it seemed we truly were at a nexus beyond the universe itself.

What if the gods were waiting for me? Do they ever take human form? I always presume, learned philosopher that I am, that such things are metaphors: they speak in the heart, but they do not appear in the flesh.

Why am I so sure?

I had to admit that it seemed strange for a worker to be taking his smoke break in the middle of a bayou; that he seemed awfully stoic and that I completely ignored him.

Whom had I just ignored?

Prophets

I have no particular reason to believe that the smoking man was a deity, nor a 12,000 year old magus.

But a thought occurs.

Out of all the workers on all the refineries, how many go out to lonely wild places of an evening?

How many go not home, not to the bar, but to a dead end road in perfect silence?

I wonder if he comes to the End of the World daily, or only once in a while. I wonder what he thinks about. What in that rugged, buzzing, croaking backwater calls to him—and how does he answer the call?

The thought occurs, days too late, that although he was perhaps mortal flesh-and-blood he was also different, thoughtful, unique. I talk to so many strangers, and I forget most of them. This man was memorable. I barely said hello.

I no longer remember if he was white or black. By the time we left Jess says he was in the truck, but I remember him still on the logs.

I know nothing about him, but I wished I had stopped to ask.

Update: Read Day 3 here

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Adventure, Bicycling, The Great Adventure, Travel

Day 2: The End of Time

Blocked.

The End of the World is exactly like the Zone.

Not the End of the World in New Orleans, that strip of land for late night parties at the city border. No, in the marina of Venice, Louisiana – the final city of the Mississippi River – there is a sign.

“End of the World: 1/2 mile.”

We were at the end beyond the end.

And it looks it. We had taken our time that morning in the motel, we had drifted merrily along the road, fighting a stiff headwind and stopping for scenery and pictures. We hadn’t found restaurants so we sat under a live oak near Buras, LA. There we had apples and almond butter.

But by the Venice area we were hungry. It was late afternoon. A man at the gas station suggested we try the marina; otherwise the gas station itself was the last hope for food.

Cautiously, we bicycled into Venice. That city is past the levee, a lamb on the altar of Flood. We biked up and over the final dyke of southern Louisiana. From that small height, we had a view.

A view of four dozen smoke stacks, twice as any metal-girder towers, a hundred proud cranes at odd angles; I don’t know how many ships.

Use your imagination, friend, picture it: an entire small twentieth century nation, washed hurdy gurdy onto the shore of the Gulf, clinging to Louisiana’s postern with the promise of shrimp, crawfish and oil.

We entered in silence. The road seemed never to go through a town, rather to hint at one. Every side-lane could have been the route to a village, or simply a delivery road for semis. There was no one to ask, no human – only the raptors of industry. Deserted lots, deserted roads, empty boats, empty hangars. One road had a sign: Chevron. Another: Haliburton.

We saw one black fisherman, in this lonely place. I wondered if he was a phantom. The phantom told us the road to the marina. There, he promised, was food.

Well there are two marinas in Venice and both have a restaurant. They are on opposite sides of a harbor, and the near side was closed. The owner sold us a beer, but food was lacking; it took 90 minutes to get around to the other side.

There, at last, we ate. What should have been lunch was by now dinner, and when the last deep-fried platter was cleared away the sky was gold.

It was time to do our job.

Where is the end of my journey? One small catch: the road curves away from the river. That means there are two “end” points to choose from:

  1. The end of the actual road, which far from the river. You have to go past town to reach it.
  2. The farthest part of the main Mississippi channel that can be reached by foot. This is off the road before town.

I wanted to visit both.

First the end of the road. We turned left on the main road, the last jaunt of the whole Great River Road I’ve followed for a year. Much of it is gravel, and we walked the bikes. We forded a mud pit, then rode cautiously through a lake: yes, we did. The water floods the road often, there, and is infected with snakes, gators and a variety of chemicals. Once, I scared a fish on the road. Not long after we saw a gator—he was already dead.

Flooded

The flooded road.

This stretch also had more fishermen, these ones less like phantoms but just as quiet as we passed.

So what is the End of the World like? The road becomes dry again, then smoothly paved. It thinks it’s going somewhere. A gated entrance to a refinery. Fire hydrants. As if some movie director thought up a parody of the end of the universe and had it installed in the swamp.

Facing into the setting sun, we approached the mistaken sign, the sign that welcomes you to the “southernmost point in Louisiana.” It isn’t, but it’s as far as the road will take you. The road goes past the sign about 100 yards. Tar-smeared logs to the left; on the right, bayou.

And one heavyset man, smoking his cigarette at the End of Time.

“How’re you doing?” I asked.

He nodded his head.

Jessica at the End of the World.

Jessica at the End of the World.

Jessica and I sat on a log retaining wall, dangling our legs into swamp. It was perfect, the perfect picture of the End. Just at sunset, everything bathed in bronze, dragonflies around us, intense green river plants, living brown water, the stinging reek of tar, an ancient boat parked in the reeds.

To adventure is to make love to the world.

We had our moment, we took our pictures. This, to me, was the end of the first leg of the Great Adventure; this was what I needed to see. But all was not done, all not complete. I am a priest, you know, and I had a certain rite to perform.

When we biked away from the End, the heavyset man was still there, his smoke was still there, he watched us go, he watched us go away.

Back through the flooded road, back across the mud pit, back over the gravel, past one marina, past two marinas, all the fishermen driving away—driving away to where?—shrimp boats on trailers driving in, industry smoking in silence, a city that isn’t a city.

Back past Venice and back over the levee.

I returned to the bend in the road, the last bend in the whole road. We had biked past it that afternoon like it was nothing, and it is. I followed a track of gravel, weeds and barbed wire to edge of the river, the final reachable River if you haven’t got a boat.

After that she meanders some tens of miles through islands, coastal marsh and backwaters till she gives herself to the sea.

But here, she is river, she is the goddess Mississippi. I approached that final point, a dear friend watched as I knelt down, I placed myself in her water and I spoke to her.

Her source is a lake shaped like a triskele; I once swam to its center and offered a triskele. That was 10 months ago. Now I have followed her every inch, I have crossed her many times, I have slept on her bank, I have bathed in her water, I have eaten her food.

“May you be blessed.”
Offering made by the Wandering Dragon.

Offering made by the Wandering Dragon.

I gave her the offering that I brought. It was hand prepared by the Wandering Dragon. Thank you my brother, thank you.

One stubborn fisher watched as I threw it in, one fisher and one brave woman. And the gods, maybe the gods, did the gods watch too?

Plunk.

So it ended. So the first leg of the Great Adventure ended.

But there is much more to tell.

Journey to the End of the World 096

Update: Read the next part here

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