Trip Log – Day 239 – Pecan Island, LA to Lafayette, LA

February 22, 2016 – Rain, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 54

Miles to Date: 12,176

States to Date: 29

Louisiana continues to be kind to me, even in pouring rain. I woke at dawn, helped my host with a few chores, and pedaled east by 8:00 a.m. The forecast was 50% chance of thunderstorms, but the sky was matte grey rather than turbulent. Within a few miles the first drops began to spatter. Their intensity increased with each mile. By the time I reached the causeway across the Intercostal Waterway sheets of water careened over the pavement. Fortunately the wind was mild, the pavement good, and traffic light. Although there was no shoulder for most of my route, only twice did vehicles approach each other when passing me. Each time I pulled to the side and allowed them to pass. The drivers actually waved in appreciation. I never saw that in Texas.

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I made swift time: fifty miles to Lafayette by 1:00 p.m. I was very hungry. By happy coincidence Golden Corral was along my route. I planned to stop but when I arrived the parking lot was packed, including a tour bus. The thought of so many hefty people bellying up to the buffet line checked my appetite. Next-door was a Chinese buffet. I figured it must be good to compete with a national chain, and I was right. Buffet City is the best Chinese buffet to date: excellent sushiIMG_6226, delicious fish, and tasty Chinese food. After my run-through with crab boil last night I passed on the local specialty, though most diners heaped their plates with crawfish. The clientele was notably diverse: oil workers, Asians, African-Americans, and a party of three Black guys with three White girls and four interracial children between them. Still, everyone shared extra pounds in common. I was the skinniest person there, aside from the waver-thin wait staff. All you can eat buffets are great for hungry bicyclists, but a contributing factor to our national obesity epidemic.

The rain abated after a writing break. I cycled to my warmshowers hosts for an enjoyable evening of bike tales and Cajun hospitality.

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Trip Log – Day 238 – Cameron, LA to Pecan Island, LA

to KaplanFebruary 21, 2016 – Clouds, 70 degrees

Miles Today: 60

Miles to Date: 12,122

States to Date: 29

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IMG_6189Solid clouds, smooth roads, a withering breeze, scant traffic, and friendly fishermen made for a great day of riding. The only things more than ten years old (pre-Hurricane Rita) were mighty Oaks, low-lying gravestones, even closer to the ground alligators, and the hulking remains of structures that nobody’s bothered to either repair or destroy.

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Query of the day: why did some people choose to build back on mounds of dirt while most built back on stilts? Building on piers ought to be less expensive; depending on how far one has to drill the supports. Houses on stilts are taller and the storms pass right through them. Then again, the storm takes the all-important four-wheel toys that people collect beneath their raised homes. If your earthen mound is large enough, your vehicles stay dry as your children.

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Thirty miles in, the trees started collecting moss. I get deeper into the South ever day.

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Elaborate containers, complete with shade cover and screened porches, often swallow up trailers.

I’ve spotted many elegant birds on my trip; eagles, condors and hawks. Today I saw many blue heron and snowy egret. I have been less lucky with wildlife, but locals in Cameron assured me I’d see alligators along Highway 82. I didn’t see any for miles, but when I heard a kersplash as I rolled by, I looped back and stood silent on the road. Sure enough, the eyes of an alligator popped out of the calm water. He fit right into the floating moss, though it drifted faster than he did. Within minutes I spotted a second one in the same pond.

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Like so many things, once you know what you’re looking for, things are easy to see. Over the next five miles I spotted fifteen alligators, most on the far shore of the ponds that line the south side of the highway, many in pairs, some over six feet long.

IMG_6207As I approached the eastern edge of Cameron Parish all signs of civilization disappeared except the blacktop: no houses, no driveways, no electric wires. For more than five miles into Vermillion Parish the road was man’s sole intervention. Then, slowly, bits of human evidence reappeared until I came to the linear village of Pecan Island and found my warmshowers host for the night.

IMG_6215Juanita and her herd of farm animals greeted me with a hug and a cold beer. She served crab boil and jambalaya, which went down smooth, but unfortunately exited my intestines just as just as quickly. Everything in my life just passes through.

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Trip Log – Day 237 – Port Arthur, TX to Cameron, LA

to CameronFebruary 20, 2016 – Sun, 75 degrees

Miles Today: 56

Miles to Date: 12,062

States to Date: 29

For the next month my biggest climbs are going to be over shipping channels. I downshifted over two tall bridges today as I started rolling along the Gulf of Mexico, which I will do all the way to Naples, Florida.

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The day began with big clouds, air sweet and thick enough to top a pie. I backtracked through the urban desert of downtown Port Arthur, climbed my first bridge to Paradise Island, and went west, then south, and finally east past the industry along the shipping channel.

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A caravan of six gigantic cooling tower manifolds with police escorts and flashing lights passed me. I passed them back when they stopped to change officials at the state line, and so they passed me again.

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Another bridge across the Sabine: Welcome to Louisiana! The pavement was smooth, the land flat and saturated with water. The clouds began to evaporate.

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Unlike Texas, every kind of building is elevated here.

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After 35 miles I took a stub road to the beach. The houses on stilts were mostly boarded up, so I made myself comfortable on a porch swing and took a nice break in refreshing breeze and cool shade.

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In Holly Beach the stilts grew even taller. Shotgun houses stacked on high. Curiously, there were also many trailers. They seemed so fragile compared to the buildings. I suppose they just get carted away when storms hit the shore.

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Route 82 in Louisiana has so little traffic they didn’t bother building a bridge over the Calcasieu Channel. A small ferry crosses back and forth every fifteen minutes 24/7. It gave me a chance to stretch my legs and chat with locals.

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Cameron is an oil and fishing patch, large enough to have a food stand open past 3 p.m. so I was able to savor my first Oyster Po’boy, which I ordered ‘All the Way’, meaning mayo and mustard, tomatoes, lettuce and onions. Mighty good. I want more.

IMG_6182The Cameron Motel is the only sleeping spot in town, with only one customer on this Saturday night. Don’t try to find it on hotels.com. I thought eighty bucks was steep until I saw the room: classic Patel sheik with a mirrored ceiling above the sofa area. Any motel with a first floor room Surly can roll into, chipped ice, in-room coffee, and reliable Wi-Fi has everything I need. Heck, in this stretch of swamp, having a motel at all is worth that price.

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Trip Log – Day 236 – Beaumont, TX to Port Arthur, TX

to Port ArthurFebruary 19, 2016 – Sun, 75 degrees

Miles Today: 38

Miles to Date: 12,006

States to Date: 28

Although I have yet to cross the Louisiana state line, today was my first day in the South. Everything moved a bit slower, everybody was a bit more friendly, I got called ‘Sir’ more times than I prefer, and I shook lots of hands. The landscape is lush, the grand homes are symmetrical, the new homes squat on the ground. Downtowns are deserted, the far side of the tracks is very poor, and franchise chicken is ubiquitous. I saw as many signs for soul food and Cajun food as Mexican food and barbeque. People in this remote corner of Texas speak with a drawl.

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I spent last night with an energetic young ExxonMobil engineer, this morning with the Republican candidate for the 136th District Court Judge position, and the afternoon with the freethinking Education Coordinator for the Museum of the Gulf Coast, where I also got to wallow in Janis Joplin memorabilia. ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ is one of my favorite songs to sing on the shoulder.

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imgres-3In between I pedaled strong headwinds and climbed the levee that protects the City of Port Arthur, despite the fact that everybody left downtown years ago.

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Trip Log – Day 235 – Houston, TX to Beaumont, TX

to BeaumontFebruary 18, 2016 – Sun, 70 degrees

Miles Today: 86

Miles to Date: 11,968

States to Date: 28 

Closing in on 12,000 miles and spanning the breadth of Texas makes me an expert of sorts on one ornery aspect of distance cycling: heckling. Heckling is rare. Based on the counting and extrapolation my mind wanders to on long travel days, I figure over a quarter of a million cars have passed me so far. More have hassled me in Texas than all other states combined, but they still only number a few dozen. Yet hecklers loom large in my memory. Here are the seven forms of heckling I’ve endured so far, in order from what I consider most disgusting to almost delightful.

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  1. The Ashtray. Getting flicked with ashes from a passing pick-up passenger is the worst heckle I’ve suffered so far. It stings.

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  1. The Exhaust Cloud. I first got this in Yosemite National Park. A truck passes me, slows down, shifts into the shoulder, and then guns their engine, rocketing a plume of smoke in my face.

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  1. The scold. This heckle is the unique province of female drivers who are more interested in shaping behavior than displaying dominance. They slow their mini-vans down and yell at me, “get on the sidewalk.” Legally, cyclists are supposed to be on the road. In Houston a Hispanic woman chastised me to a sidewalk, even though there was none.

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  1. The honk. This is the most common heckle. It can be two beeps or a long, drawn out honk. Though some drivers may mean it as encouragement, it is still annoying. When I am riding lawfully I never acknowledge a horn, even when accompanied by a friendly wave. I don’t want to encourage it.

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  1. The swerve and skid. A hot shot slides into the shoulder in front of me and peels away. This is the most benign testosterone surge. Without an exhaust plume it’s neither dangerous nor uncomfortable. It’s easy to laugh away.

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  1. The spritz. I’ve only been squirted with water once. It was a warm afternoon and felt pretty good.

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  1. The joke. This heckle is actually fun. Two guys came upon me in Grant’s Pass OR. They shouted “nice ass”. Unfortunately for them, the light before us turned red, which allowed me to catch up. “Glad you like my butt.” I grinned at their odd taste in men. “We like to shout to cyclists but always say something nice. I explained that, “Telling a sixty-year-old man he’s got a nice butt is much more than nice.”
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Trip Log – Day 234 – Houston, TX

to HoustonFebruary 17, 2016 – Sun, 80 degrees

Miles Today: 31

Miles to Date: 11,882

States to Date: 28

What is art? What are our responsibilities to this planet and to each other? Are those two questions connected? This is what percolated through my mind as I navigated this robust, rich, impoverished, generous, selfish, confusing, amiable city.

IMG_6088I lingered with Lisa and Preston over pastries topped with fresh fruit and pecan cappuccino on their back porch because the morning was fine and their company sweet. I savor my opportunities to be with nurturing couples. Night work, living without a car in a city of freeways, and a porch overlooking concrete can’t diminish their affection. Preston reiterated a phrase I’ve heard from others who’ve found the right partner: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Google map is way ahead of Houston. The city is in the process of connecting the bikeways along the bayous, but Google kept directing me on routes that don’t quite exist. As a result I ran a bit late all day.

Picah Mivan was waiting for me when I arrived back at Rice and The Pavilion. I was delighted to meet this graduate student who contacted me after reading my 1981 thesis, Architecture that Affords Play. I am astonished how our digital world promotes dissemination beyond all expectation. Micah and I sat on the grass rather than inside the glass box. “I like the form of The Pavilion, but I don’t like how it reinforces status. It’s a place to be seen eating overpriced food. It’s where the administration takes donors to ask for money.”

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After a delicious lunch at the Montrose HEB, I visited the Menil Collection. Renzo Piano’s building is superb, the main collection is jaw dropping, the juxtaposition of contemporary and African art is insightful. Beyond Menil’s signature building is a campus of new and reused buildings, all painted the same muted taupe. Dan Flavin’s installation in a former grocery store begs the question, is this big space with an array of colored lights, artificially heated and cooled, employing a jovial guard who counts the people who stop by, an appropriate use of a building that once contributed to the community in a more fundamental way? It is less than it was, yet more than it would be if the Menil had not repurposed it.

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I looked forward to visiting the Rothko Chapel; Rothko is my favorite artist. I wasn’t disappointed so much as being there at the wrong time in the wrong frame of mind. Mid-afternoon, the chapel is over bright, full of school groups and other tourists. There’s nothing contemplative about it beyond meditating on the reality that we humans have become incapable of quiet for even five minutes.

imgres-2The chapel is one of Rothko’s last works, very somber, very dark. He killed himself not long after its completion. I realized that my connection with Rothko’s early work is stronger. Perhaps our younger selves possessed complementary perspectives. Rothko grew more depressed with age, while I have done the opposite. His late work does not resonate with me.

IMG_6096I pedaled away from the Menil with a hollow in my gut. There was something incongruous about the cerebral art scattered among bungalows. My senses were fully satisfied at Project Rowhouse, on the other side of the tracks. Rick Low purchased a block of shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward and turned each into a small gallery. He orchestrates two themed shows a year. Round 43 is now on display: Small Business/Big Change, Economic Perspectives from Artists and Artrepreneurs. The show includes five installations about the Black economic experiences and two pop-up stores, one with locally made soaps and herbs, the other baked treats by Ella Russell. The art at Project Rowhouse is not as refined; some is not that good. But what is good is very fresh. It was difficult for me to understand why Cy Twombly’s scribbles merit an entire building at the Menil while a comparable blackboard about Black experience will simply be erased when ‘Small Business/Big Change’ ends later this month.

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The contradictions of my day continued. A fascinating conversation with Megan Parks on her decision to leave BP after fifteen years due to the chasm between personal and corporate beliefs preceded an evening with Mike Finley, an independent oil and gas entrepreneur in his duplex loft overlooking the city who advocates fewer constraints on energy exploration and extraction.

For a guy on a bike, some days I really get around.

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Trip Log – Day 233 – Houston, TX

to HoustonFebruary 16, 2016 – Sun, 80 degrees

Miles Today: 16

Miles to Date: 11,852

States to Date: 28

I rose with the sun and pedaled to the campus of Rice University, which ranks as one of the most attractive campuses of my trip. Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram came to Houston to design the campus over a hundred years ago. He developed an axial plan and eclectic Mediterranean style for the buildings such in polychrome and fantasy. He also lined the walks with live oaks which, although apparently not native to this area, have become signature landscape features.

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The campus continued to develop along strict lines except for one sad addition, a 1940’s library that bisects the quad. Fortunately, Rice built two superb structures in the early 2000’s to mitigate the mess. Near the backside of the unfortunate library they built The Pavilion, a crisp white and glass space for hanging out. The simple form creates an airy indoor area, covered outdoor spaces, and extensive gardens. Though small in footprint, it manages to mask the library. At the far end of the long space Rice terminated the quad with a respectable School of Music Building, in the traditional Rice style, and then set James Terrill’s Skyspace in front of it, an echo the Pavilion’s taut whiteness. The two modernist elements are the exclamation points that make the entire ensemble coherent.

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IMG_6079I enjoyed a trio of fascinating conversations. Ron Sass, Fellow for Climate Change at the Baker Institute and Rice Professor Emeritus met me at The Pavilion to talk about energy from the global to the molecular. I pedaled over to City Hall to meet Lisa Lin, Houston’s Sustainability Manager. Finally I walked across the plaza to the imposing One Shell Place to talk with Lyman Paden, attorney and partner at Baker Bott as well as an old high school friend who’s savvy to the comings and goings of his adopted hometown.

Then I cycled to the other side of town and stayed with a bartender and his girlfriend who prefer their unpretentious Mexican neighborhood to Houston’s hipster precincts.

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