[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on 1/29/2005]
The campground where I stayed Wednesday and Thursday night in New Orleans was very brightly lit all night, for security. The first night I draped the space blanket, which I assumed to be opaque, over the top of the tent to try to blot out the light, but some came through. Between that and the sound of the nearby highways and railroad tracks, I slept poorly. I woke around 4:00 with chills and put my hat on. With it over my eyes and earplugs in my ears, I finally slept soundly until 7:00. I had warmed up enough that I walked to the restroom in a T-shirt and shorts, but by the time I had made breakfast I realized I would need more clothes than that! I didn't want to repeat the mistake I'd made in Austin and go into town without warm clothes. As it turned out, the day didn't warm up at all, so I wore my windbreaker suit all day long.
I rode into town without my trailer (zoom!) and was soon in the French Quarter. I found a shop that could develop my film to CD and settled in for cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe Du Mond, which I had heard was a mandatory part of the New Orleans experience. At $3.50 I didn't mind giving it a try! Beignets are more like Indian fry bread than donuts -- sturdy enough for dunking. I'm not sure whether dunking them is strictly proper, but it keeps the powdered sugar from getting all over one's clothes and beard.
When I was satisfied that I had seen the waterfront, I rode north and found a bike shop. The owner examined my pedals and said that the persistent clicking sound is nothing serious. He gave me some spare BikeE parts he had left over (since my brand of bike is no longer made), and he showed me the new Giant "Revive" semi-recumbent bikes he's selling. They're very snazzy, much more attractive than the other recumbents in their price range ($650-$800). I also visited a Whole Foods store which turned out to be the smallest in the country, which I thought was funny because I'd just been to the flagship store in Austin, which fills a city block.
My last sight to see was the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the astoundingly long bridge featured in many a car commercial. It's difficult to photograph, especially on a gray day, but I did my best. On my way back to camp, I crossed a drawbridge on its sidewalk and got to see its workings up close while waiting for it to come back down. There was a chain at each corner of the counterweights, and each link must have weighed half a ton!
My neighbors in the campground were a honeymooning couple from Colorado. Their route is similar to mine, but they're going much faster in a VW camper. We enjoyed comparing notes about New Orleans. The husband is from Scotland, and his accent is identical to Mike Myers's faux-Scots accent. I didn't get their names, so they'll always be Shrek and Fiona to me! (Although I'm quite sure they didn't have a talking donkey -- or Eddie Murphy -- with them.)
Friday's forecast didn't begin to describe what happened... there were supposed to be scattered showers, but instead it rained all day long, and the wind was fierce. I had a strong headwind most of the way into Mississippi, but it was worst whenever I came near a lake, which happened a lot... US-90 was often the only dry ground for miles, with a bayou on one side and a lake on the other, and then vice versa. The highway was lined with "camps" -- vacation cabins built on the second floor, with a carport and boat dock underneath. Practically every "camp" had a sign by the road giving a fanciful or clever name for the place. Unfortunately for me there was noplace to stop... no stores and no privacy for miles and miles. But the traffic was light most of the way, so it was pleasant riding in spite of the weather.
I stopped for lunch at a bar and grill just across the Mississippi border. The waitress and customers were very curious and supportive about my trip, but I told them I was from Oklahoma rather than Minnesota to be on the safe side. Due to the rain, the dim light, and possibly a lack of road signs, I missed a few turns and took a long way around to Buccaneer State Park. I wound up going through the town of Lakeshore and running right smack into the Gulf of Mexico! The road from there to the park took me along a sea wall, with a terrific wind coming off the gulf and waves breaking across the road. I had to ride through a few inches of salt water, but the rain rinsed it all off!
By this point I noticed it was getting awfully dark. My internal clock said it was only about 3:00, but I wasn't wearing my watch and couldn't check the time on my other gadgets without getting them wet. Turned out it was already 5:30, and the sun was setting! I pitched my tent by flashlight during a lull in the rain. I stayed dry through the night, but my gear got soaked. I resolved to make it a short day (today: Saturday) so I could dry everything thoroughly before using it again. But then I decided I should visit a library before everything closed for Sunday... Before leaving the park I did some work on my bike. As usual after a rainstorm, the bearings on my front wheel had gotten wet, so I cleaned and re-greased them. I also cleaned and lubed the chain, which had gotten filthy in the wind and rain.
I spent all day following the Gulf, which was astonishingly calm after yesterday's storm. I mean, I've seen bigger waves on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. You would think a body of water that size would have big waves even on a calm day, but apparently the islands offshore reduce the wave action; that's all I can figure.
US-90 crosses the Bay of St. Louis on a bridge that's about two miles long. On a foggy morning, you can't see either end from the middle. There was a sidewalk, but it was so narrow I walked my bike for the first half mile, afraid that if I got on and rode, the trailer would fall off the curb and capsize into traffic. On a windy day like yesterday I'm sure that would have happened, but today it didn't.
I reached the Pass Christian library around noon, but they didn't have the maps of Alabama I was looking for. A librarian checked the catalog of the Gulfport library, 12 miles farther down the road, and found a copy there. So off I went. Gulfport has two giant casinos offshore, so there are lots of hotels and RV parks nearby, but the one campground that allowed tent camping was unexpectedly full when I called around 4:00, after using the library. I decided I'd had enough traveling and got a hotel room. This not only allowed me to dry out my gear and attend church in the morning (tomorrow), but I also got a coupon for Waffle House... the discount came to only 46 cents, but I was glad for an excuse to eat at one of my favorite restaurants.
Some reflections on Louisiana and New Orleans:
- So many places sell boiled crawfish in southern Louisiana that it almost doesn't make sense to advertise, like advertising cheese in Wisconsin. And yet I never actually saw anyone eating boiled crawfish. Maybe they're the cajun equivalent of north-Texas donuts.
- Having experienced Texas chili and Louisiana cayenne, I am convinced that cayenne is a superior pepper. Take the pepper challenge... maybe you're a pepper, too!
- I was really impressed by New Orleans. It seems to strike a good balance between its tourist economy and the other things it does. It also strikes a good balance between being cosmopolitan -- about 10% of the population is Vietnamese -- and having a unique local culture rooted in history. And best of all, many of the tourist attractions are free of charge!
- Louisiana drivers were extremely patient and considerate towards me (except on the River Road), even though I frequently had to share the road with them. I got the impression that people there are just more laid back than other places I've been.
So far Mississippi is pretty friendly, too! I'll write you again from Mobile, Alabama! --Ben