Trip Log – Day 246 – Ocean Springs, MS to Fairhope, AL

to fairhopeFebruary 29, 2016 – Sun, 75 degrees

Miles Today: 86

Miles to Date: 12,576

States to Date: 31

 IMG_6436I spent a leisurely morning at the Porter Greenhouse Coffee Shop that my host Jesse owns: coffee, biscuits, and conversation. About ten, I headed toward Mobile, sixty miles away.

By the time I reached the state line the terrain changed considerably; gentle hills and broad farms that could pass for Ohio. Around noon I received a message from my New Orleans friend Elyse that her friend Cathi in Fairhope would like to host me. I was making good time, so Fairhope before dark seemed doable.

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Mobile is a challenging city to cycle. As I approached downtown I realized the primary way across the river was a tunnel; I took an eight-mile detour to cross on a bridge that offered me a great view.

Mobile Bay is immense and the US 90 causeway no more than six inches above sea level. It must flood at the mere threat of weather. But on a clear crisp day it was exhilarating to roll along at water level with the sea scent filling my lungs.

I got to Fairhope about 5:30 p.m. I had heard the old town was extraordinary so I veered onto scenic 98. About a quarter mile in, a Porsche took a sharp left in front of me. Surly hit the passenger side door. Paul flew off his steed and hit the pavement.

Everything changes in an instant. I broke my fifth left metatarsal, my left shoulder, and burst my L2 vertebrae. I have no internal injuries, no paralysis, and an excellent prognosis.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 3.22.06 PMThe goodwill I have found everywhere in our land thrives in Pensacola. I’m locally famous at Sacred Heart Hospital where many staff exclaim, “You’re the bike guy!” Strangers who are now friends visited with cookies and flowers. I’ve received local offers of places to recuperate. I’ll likely remain in Florida through March; it’s easier to rehab at the beach than in Boston this time of year.

I won’t post any more Trip Logs for some time, but will continue to post my conversations as I master the art of one hand typing with my non-dominant hand. It’s never too late to learn new skills.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 3.21.54 PMThanks to everyone who’s contributed love, support, and their ideas along my journey thus far. I have witnessed how great our nation is, not through its strength, but through its compassion. I have had one heck of a ride, which may not be over yet.

Stay tuned, because I think tomorrow is gonna be a good one.

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Trip Log – Day 245 – New Orleans, LA to Ocean Springs, MS

to ocean islandFebruary 28, 2016 – Sun, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 89

Miles to Date: 12,490

States to Date: 30

I rose early, despite my Saturday night partying, and headed to Mississippi. The city of New Orleans stretches far to the east; more than twenty miles along US 90 of mostly deserted highway on a Sunday morning. By the time I reached Lake Catherine, dry land was a narrow isthmus with fishing camps on either side. The lakeshore turned into marsh with flocks of heron. Upon entering Mississippi, I was surrounded by sweet, pungent pine forest.

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IMG_6427I crossed the first of two wonderful causeways at Bay St. Louis, two miles long with a dedicated bike lane: great sign of progress for cyclists. The causeway leads to over thirty miles of beachfront from Pass Christian to Biloxi. The beach at Pass Christian is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen; white crystal sand on my right, stately mansions on my left.

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Cycling this stretch was gorgeous but tricky. US 90 has zero shoulder. The ‘boardwalk’ is sometimes only three feet wide, shared by cyclists, roller bladers, runners and pedestrians: scenic but not speedy. It gets more complicated in Biloxi where they’ve built casinos along the shore. It appears to be as big a gambling spot as Reno.

On the far side of the splendid causeway over Biloxi Bay I arrived at Ocean Springs, a scenic beach town. My host, Jessie, took me to a weekly Sunday potluck where her group of friends welcomed me to their community.

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Trip Log – Day 244 – New Orleans, LA

to New OrleansFebruary 27, 2016 – Sun, 50 degrees

Miles Today: 22

Miles to Date: 12,401

States to Date: 29

I’ve been to New Orleans half a dozen times: with family, with friends; to come to Jazz Fest, to build after Katrina. I appreciate New Orleans. I value it. Which is not to say it suits me all that well. I’m a New Englander, by choice and disposition. I am prudent and sensible, perhaps to a fault. I’m preoccupied with time, space and schedule. My wild fantasies are just that, fantasies; I have no need to act them out. New Orleans is a healthy anecdote for me: spontaneous, impulsive, unstructured and unscheduled.

IMG_6389The afternoon I arrived in NOLA I had more ‘potential’ meetings and places to stay than anyplace I’ve visited on my tip. Yet, nothing was firm. I took a Big Easy breath and let it all unfold in a rich, chaotic New Orleans way. I visited Musician’s Village and stayed at Buskers Bunkhouse on Friday. This morning I rose at dawn and made me way to New Orleans East to visit a Habitat for Humanity build site. NOLA has one of the largest and most successful HFH operations in the country. Then I pedaled clear across town to Carrollton to meet a pair of NOLA natives whose fathers’ were musician and musicologist involved in establishing Preservation Hall. Back in Mid City I met with a geotechnical consultant expert in the unique combination of rising tides and subsiding earth that makes Louisiana give up so much land the sea – second only to Bangladesh in coastal land loss.

IMG_6396Finally, after an odd string of texts, I arrived at Gina and Phyllis’. Gina invited me to stay but said they were going out. As a rule, I do not stay in houses where I haven’t met my hosts, so I suggested we get together late afternoon. She thought I was interviewing her to see if I wanted to stay, which must have made me seem like a prick. (She didn’t know I just came off a night at Busker’s Bunkhouse, not a place for the fussy.) No matter. We clicked when we met and they invited me to join their female friends to hear Susan Cowsill, longtime NOLA resident of Cowsill fame, channel Karen Carpenter.

IMG_6412We went out to dinner, where I snarfed down a variation of a Mufeletta called a Frenchuletta. NOLA being nothing more than a really big small town, we met two other women they know and all ate together. We arrived at Chickie Wah Wah almost an hour late, plenty of time before the main show stared. The place was jammed. We heard some good original stuff, a superb double drum jam, and a seven-piece ensemble that did justice to all the Carpenter’s greatest hits in full reverb. It wasn’t Preservation Hall, but it was wicked fun.

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Trip Log – Day 243 – Gramercy, LA to New Orleans, LA

to New OrleansFebruary 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.

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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.

IMG_6344The 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.

IMG_6356I 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.

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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.

IMG_6369Finally, 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.

IMG_6370The 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.

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Trip Log – Day 242 – Morgan City, LA to Gramercy, LA

to LaPlaceFebruary 25, 2016 – Clouds, 60 degrees

Miles Today: 62

Miles to Date: 12,323

States to Date: 29

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Up at out early along Highway 182 east with the wind at my back. After a few miles of industry and a nice climb over the causeway at Amelia the road turned sweet: fresh blacktop with a wide shoulder. I turned onto Highway 20 and things got even better: a marked bike lane flanked by gorgeous cypress forest.

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Thibodaux is a featureless town except for its fields of new houses. This one has perhaps the biggest roof cap I’ve ever seen, easily twice as tall as the house itself.

IMG_6286The land around me sank from wetland to marsh to pure swamp. The shoulder shrank to a narrow strip and then disappeared. One bridge over a bayou sported a ‘no bikes’ sign. Too late. I signaled with my right arm and pedaled over. Thankfully, drivers in Louisiana are among the most polite I have encountered on my journey.

IMG_6296People who focus on Wal-Mart are not spending enough time in the truly small towns of our country, where the dollar stores are the main thread of commerce. They often sit right next to each other.

When I reached Highway 18 I knew the Mississippi River was near, but it is invisible behind the levee and the swatch of trees that grow in the flood zone. Thanks to an early start and tailwinds I reached my destination – Whitney Plantation ninety minutes early. I am much better about reaching destinations on time on my bike than in a car; I allow ample time for mishaps.

IMG_6310The Whitney Plantation opened just over a year ago as a historical site and tourist attraction focused on slave life rather than the life in the Big House. Whitney borrows, with great success, from the WPA Writer’s Program narratives of former slaves. The tour is among the best I’ve attended, and since I’m the writing guy on the bike, I had a nice conversation afterward with the Director of Operations.

In late afternoon I crossed the mighty Mississippi to Gramercy. The Gramercy-Wallace Bridge is the first choice among cyclists because it has a generous shoulder. However, it is very steep and high and has six expansion joints that are the biggest I’ve ever seen. I had to stop my bike at each one and guide my wheels over the gaps to avoid taking a header. Fortunately, I crossed safely and live to tell stories another day.IMG_6323

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Trip Log – Day 241 – Lafayette, LA to Morgan City, LA

to Morgan CityFebruary 24, 2016 – Clouds, 60 degrees

Miles Today: 77

Miles to Date: 12,261

States to Date: 29

I slept in a craftsman-style studio with a tin roof adjacent to a woodworking shop last night. Yesterday’s rain ended but gales of wind continued throughout the night, dropping branches on the roof, blowing the shop door open and slamming it shut. My dreams were the sound track of a Grade B horror movie.

I got turned around several times trying to get out of Lafayette, but eventually found US 90, which had a frontage road just for me! Within a few miles I connected to LA Highway 182. I didn’t mind the cool morning and heavy clouds. The strong wind had my back.

IMG_6254As the day progressed the clouds broke and shadows spread across Louisiana. The wind remained my friend. I made excellent time, which I used for more stops along the way. In New Iberia I visited Rosary House, where devout women assemble rosaries by hand. Top of the line jewelry grade rosaries cost over $350, but this superstore of all things Catholic also sells less expensive lines, including rosary bracelets and rosary rings, for as little as 95 cents.

IMG_6264Since I’ve been doing what Catholic ladies tell me since I was a boy, I headed across the road when they told me to visit Konrico, the oldest rice mill in the United States. Wendy gives a terrific four dollar tour of the three-story cypress and galvanized steel plant that’s been hulling and polishing rice since 1912.

I was enchanted by Jeanerette’s domestic architecture. The further south I went along Bayou Teche, the more grand homes lined the river.

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I passed fields of waving sugar cane, not unlike the fields I encountered in North Dakota in June. Just sweeter.

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IMG_6277The last ten miles of my route was mostly industrial. Morgan City is an oil and fishing industry town without strong Cajun roots. I was surprised and pleased to see the German couple I met in Marathon, TX at an intersection, making their way toward New Orleans at about my same speed.

The Red Roof Inn in Morgan City is newly renovated; a great deal for $40 a night. And there’s a decent barbeque place with notable baked beans only half a block away. I appreciate the Cajun food I’ve tasted the last few days, but don’t think its going to become a new favorite cuisine.

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Trip Log – Day 240 – Lafayette, LA

to LafayetteFebruary 23, 2016 – Rain, 60 degrees

Miles Today: 8

Miles to Date: 12,184

States to Date: 29

 IMG_6238-1Lucky me! A huge storm hit on the day I planned a bike repair day in Lafayette. I arrived at Hub City Cycles right after they opened. Mike Broussard of the Cajun French Music Association met me at the shop and treated me to lunch at Don’s, ‘Louisiana’s First Cajun Restaurant’ since 1934. He introduced me to fried alligator and shrimp etouffee over a long conversation about Cajun music and culture.

After lunch, I scuttled back to Hub Cycles and lingered there throughout the afternoon until the skies cleared and I made my way to my evening’s host. My ongoing dance in and around nature continues to sing a benevolent tune.

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