February 26, 2016 – Sun, 50 degrees
Miles Today: 56
Miles to Date: 12,379
States to Date: 29
The east bank of the Mississippi River, which is actually the north side in these parts, is a smidge higher than the west bank, which is in fact the south. My host in Gramercy boasted of being six feet above sea level. Perhaps that is why as industrialization supplanted the plantation economy most factories located on the north side. Oil refineries, sugar refineries, and granaries cover former sugar fields with miles of pipes and towers. Conveyor belts long as football fields span across River Road and the levee to connect riverside docks with the behemoths that turn raw materials into the stuff of contemporary life.
My ride into New Orleans oscillated between navigating narrow River Road and riding the Mississippi Levee Trail bike path along the crest of the levee. When completed, the trail will give cyclists an elevated approach to the Crescent City. Now, there’s quite a bit of up and down involved.
The Bonnet Carre Spillway is a creepy stretch of pavement. The spillway provides a relief valve to divert the Mississippi directly to Lake Pontchartrain during high waters. The dam proper is concrete, but above is a section of vertical wood slats. I have no idea what they’re for, since light shines between them and would easily let water through. A few timber sections have been pierced by floating logs – whole trees really. The large specimens look like toothpicks against the mammoth spillway. I picked up my pace along the low side for over a mile, feeling a need to get higher than the river ASAP.
Beyond the spillway heavy industry gives way to fabrication and assembly plants, residential neighborhoods and commercial strips. From the top of the levee I realized that the streets of small homes sit quite a bit lower than the river surface, even in February when the mighty Mississippi is relatively low.
I recalled my very first trip to New Orleans. I was ten or twelve years old on some instantaneous family excursion my father concocted. We visited Grandmother Schumacher, a tiny old woman, grandmother to our neighbors, who came to live on our New Jersey street every summer when New Orleans was hot. When the adult conversation grew tedious in her Jefferson Parish home, I snuck outside. I saw a hill at the end of her street. I climbed the steep grassy slope. The word ‘awe’ was created to describe what I saw. The vast Mississippi River, one of the world’s most majestic thoroughfares, sluggish green, cluttered with barges and tugs and tankers, happened to be down the street, and a few dozen feet higher, than Grandma Schumacher’s cottage. My first experience of the Mississippi River was perplexing and magical. It cemented my belief that wonder can lie around any corner.
Although the entire relationship of land and water, monumental and domestic is bizarre in this land where low is dry and high is wet, traversing the top of the levee is different from climbing it dumb. The current was swift. A single tug guided fifteen barges downstream, while it took a pair to push just one up. Pipes and conveyors and service roads and wires connect ships and docks to land. Raw materials from all over the world on my right zoomed over my head to be turned into stuff on my left. I sat on a bench, drank water from a plastic bottle and ate a granola bar. Either of whose constituent parts might have one day been here before.
I left the levee to pedal down St. Charles Street and around the Garden District, which look fully polished ten years after Katrina, even though the trees and telephone wires still sported beads from last week’s Mardi Gras’ parades. I spent too much time meandering the Convention Center area, all new and overscaled. It takes like five minutes to bike around the carbuncle that is Harrah’s. The French Quarter was packed even on a cold day in Lent.
Finally, I got to the east side and made my way to Musician’s Village, where I’d lent a construction hand post-Katrina. I got a tour of the performance and training spaces, which did not open until 2012. Then I made my way back to Busker’s Bunkhouse, an artist commune run by Ms. Pearl only five blocks from New Orleans most famous side street: Desire. I spent an evening, a fly on a tattered paper wall, among heavy smokers with gravelly voices who sounded profound, though I have no interest in fact-checking their political assertions or conspiracy theories.
The exception being one silent woman who wouldn’t even share her name: she lay in her dark room next to mine with a phlegmy cough. I couldn’t help feeling sorry that she had arrived at the wrong French city, reenacting the tubercular La Boheme within shouting distance of where Tennessee William’s Stanley, Stella, and Blanche raised such a sexually induced ruckus.