Day #6 in Pensacola and still no wheel. Depression is setting in. I sat inside Burger King staring at the burger I didn't even want to eat. My phone rings. I immediately pick it up and say:
Me: "Tell me you have my wheel."
CycleSports: "Brother, I'm gonna sing you a song!"
It came. Finally. One week later, I'm in Opelousas, Lousianna and am just about 2 days from the Texas border. We're going to forgo the transitions between each adventure and instead recall the past week in a series of short stories.
Claire: "Shouldn't we sign those before you seal the envelopes?"
Daughter: "We all signed them already at church."
Claire: "I didn't sign them."
Daughter: "Yes you did. We all did at church."
Claire: "I went to church and I don't remember signing those cards."
Daughter: "You signed them, look."
The daughter opens up an envelope and shows her aging mother her own signature inside one of the cards. Claire puts her hands over her face and begins to weep. "That's my problem, I can't remember anything anymore." She continues to cry while the daughter talks softly and continues organizing the cards. It's obvious that this has happened more than once as the family is not immediately concerned. "What am I doing?? What kind of life is this that I can't even remember what I've done?" I was the only other person in the restaurant that evening and couldn't help but be brought to tears as well. I left just after they did to see the family driving off in a van while Claire looked through a tinted window in the back. It seemed as though she was looking at me, but as the van began to turn, her line of sight swept along detached from my own and she wore an expression I can only recount as hopeless pain.
RIDE ON ME
I decided to make a new shirt in order to exchange the monetary generosity into a place to sleep for the night. It now reads, "Biking across America - Looking for love and a spare couch". As I was making the shirt, a woman came up to me and gave me $5. All those bums out there collecting empty cans are wasting their time -- just buy a sharpie, find a Goodwill and everyday will be a breeze.
I wore the shirt into McGuire's and it wasn't long before I met Brooks.
Brooks is the music man; he plays at McGuire's 5 days a week and rocks hard day in and day out. Pretty sweet gig if you ask me -- you get free food and booze all the while jamming on the stage and meeting people. I left the bar before the night was through because it was becoming much too crowded, but I did catch Brooks do an entertaining rendition of "Rock Your Socks Off" by Tenacious D. I came back around 1:30am to rendezvous with him, shove off and cash in on the couch deal. We made a pit-stop at his former apartment and I met couch-man who we woke up while Brooks burnt a small one. Everyone who lived in this house was a musician and they all used to play together in a band way back when. Everywhere I looked there was music. The main room adjacent to the kitchen was filled entirely with guitars, a piano, amplifiers, drums, and countless other instruments I cannot name that were both big and small.
We let couch-man get back to his sleep while we went West toward Brooks' place of residence. Now about 2:30am, I am roughly 7 hours past my bedtime and am kind of tripping on my own thoughts. Brooks is both high and somewhat liquored so it was only appropriate that he introduce me to his book on cyoptics (or something like this... help me out on this one, Brooks). From what I gathered, the book comprises of studies done by a man in the 60's who examined the patterns of sound waves when passed through different mediums and it makes for some miraculous photography if nothing else. Though, if you're runnin' on fatigue, alcohol or otherwise, it tends to bend your mind in all sorts of fun directions.
Before I left the next morning, Brooks took notice to my Brooks brand saddle and said, "Don't forget. Ride on me."
ALL EYES ON ZIGGY
The AdventureCycling maps do not go anywhere near New Orleans for some reason -- someone told me that they deemed it too dangerous to bike. Nuts to that, if I'm going to go through Southern Louisiana, there's no way in hell that I'm skipping New Orleans. I had Ziggy digest more than his fair share of maps and let him take me the entire way from Pensacola.
Just as I'm beginning to pack up my camp site and move across Alabama, here comes the Ranger Rick. He's walking straight towards me on the beach while I just keep focused on my bags so as to not show my guilt in regards to whatever it is he's about to say to me.
"Someone called me up this morning and said there's a guy camping on the beach."
"Yea, I guess that's me. I purposely didn't camp on the 'official' beach in order to avoid this situation."
Though in the sand, I was about 20ft off the real beach and next to an old foundation. Ranger Rick claimed that I made camp on a construction site even though it was plainly obvious that no construction had occurred in months -- the site was barren with exception to the remaining foundation. I looked around the site, raised my eyebrows and said, "This place is under construction??". He knew just as I did that nobody cared; he just had to respond to the call. Once he asked where I was headed, the conversation about my camp site never came back up. I told him I was going to head through New Orleans and he was very concerned, "Oh I wouldn't do that if I were you." Well it's a good thing you aren't me, because you'd be missing out on a great experience thanks to the media feeding you endless fears. No, that's not what I said, but it's what I thought anyway. He wished me luck and off I went.
GULF PORT AND BAY ST. LOUIS
The entire day was a tailwind and I every time I looked at the cycling computer, I was pushing 20+ mph and hardly trying. I biked route 90 along the Gulf of Mexico and through a town called Gulf Port, MS. Everything in this town is destroyed. From what the locals told me, Katrina hit here, not New Orleans; they were only flooded. You could tell that the road I was riding used to be the main drag separating the beach and a completely developed commercial district, but all that remained was foundations and the occasional battered restaurant sign with half a palm tree standing beside it.
On the other side of the ferry, which wasn't in existence until the bridge was taken out by the hurricane, I entered Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. This town was equally as devastated. Though, everywhere I went, there was construction equipment, pickup trucks hauling supplies and the sound of hammers. They are rebuilding; slowly but surely. What they can't repair, they tear down, and what they haven't yet torn down, they spray-paint "DEMOLISH" on the front of the house.
I cycled around Bay St. Louis for an hour or so just to get a grip on the destruction. There are people everywhere rebuilding things. Some neighborhoods are entirely gone and the only thing that remains are the stilts the houses used to stand on and maybe the mailbox. A lot the houses have been replaced by trailer homes. I don't know if this is a temporary solution right now, but at least it's allowing people to live there.
Places formerly boasting small homes on the beach and boats lining each port are the most transformed. These were typically the poorer areas with the least population which means they're on the last page of the recovery plan. To the left and right of the only road through town, lands are now swamps scattered with random pieces of furniture, appliances, the remnence of ships and splintered wood. The road itself is the only thing in tact but requires attention as well before its flooded potholes turn into canyons and start swallowing the rest of the world. I biked by two teenagers using an acetylene torch to separate a formerly classic car from a tree and several homely-looking men fishing the swamp from a filing cabinet and headboard.
BILL AND ED
Reading the menu in front of a Chinese restaurant, I met Bill and Ed. Today was their one day off out of every fourteen and they were smoking and throwing back a few from inside their telephone repair truck. Soon it was three of us sitting around drinking beers and talking about the hurricane. A lady pulls up next to the truck and gets my attention -- it's the third time I saw her this day. The first time she asked me for directions to a church, "I've never been here before, sorry." The second time I happened to pass her on the road while she waited in line at a red light. This third occasion, she found me and offered me $10. My parents told me I had to go to college if I wanted to make good money... lies! I accepted it, again, then Bill pointed me to a chinese buffet and off I went.
ATTITUDE, MUSIC AND THE STUPID 22 MILES
On the hardest of days, when the wind resists every effort, the weight of the sun beats down on you and the scenery consists of nothing but pavement and power lines, it can be a challenge to keep a positive attitude. Add to that some profound stupidity and the only source of remedy may be the soulful tunes you carefully packed on day #1.
I purposely slept in proximity of the library so I could wake and mapquest the exact route to Bill and Erin's house in New Orleans. I woke @6am and couldn't find a way to burn 150 minutes 'til the library opened, so I decided to head down the road in hope of another library before long. A road sign says it's only 51 miles to New Orleans, so there should be plenty of opportunity to find a library. The wind propelled me 5 miles West when I realized that it was no-man's land between here and The Big Easy. No problem, I'll just stop in a gas station, look up Plum Street on a city map and do it the old-fashioned way. Nope, not quite -- there are four Plum Streets in New Orleans. You don't want to get lost in New Orleans, Chuck. I struggled 5 miles back upwind to the library and waited for it to open.
Inside, I took my time with things... after all, Bill and Erin didn't get off work 'til late, and I didn't want to show up early. I mapped it out, read some journals, did some human maintainence and then hopped back on my horse. The road sign reminds me that it's only 51 miles to New Orleans. Why is it that you begin to think about what you may have forgotten to pack while you stand at the airport security gate instead of at your front door? Yup, I biked 6 miles down the road before I realized I forgot my camera charger in the library. The wind was even harsher this time back and I swear it was laughing as I fought to pedal along. I got the charger and triple-checked my gear. It's about to pour rain and the road sign says it's 51 miles to New Orleans...
"Welcome to New Orleans"... "and the end of all things", I added. The city had an apocalyptic black overcast looming above and I was pedaling right into the heart of the monster. Just as I'm thinking, "Maybe I'll make it indoors before the storm strikes", the temperature drops fifteen degrees and Hell is about to spill over. The road I'm following was not one mapped out by AdventureCycling and it shows; cars are whizzing by as I dodge potholes on the 3" shoulder while bracing my arms so an unexpected wind doesn't push me sideways. But it was no use. With the storm gaining strength, the wind was too much to overcome and the best defense became my reflective jacket.
A lonely drop of rain lands on my hand. Then another. And another. Niagara Falls is heard in the distance. I look up from the shoulder for a moment to see a wall of water sweeping in from the West and erupting in furious explosions on the pavement below. "Here we go!!" Before everything had a chance to get wet, the wind nearly put me on the ground. I caught myself just in time, switched into lower gears and stood on the pedals to try and maintain control. The power of the storm is setting a stage of chaos all around. The wind changes direction at will and leaves have partnered with the rain to both minimize visibility and steer their momentum towards my eyes.
The sound of a car running over loose metal is heard ahead. I know to lookout for this since I myself have accidentally launched debris horizontally from my tires, but I didn't have a chance to react this time. I stopped pedaling to peer through the liquid curtain and figure out where the metal was laying, but before I could find it, a second car ran it over and launched a frisbee-sized piece of steel across traffic nearly 5ft in front of me and struck the closest house with a loud 'CLANK'. I coasted to a complete stop while standing on the bike in light of what just happened. Water collects on my eyelashes. I don't blink. Something about this is too great to stop now. I smile and continue into the elements.
The rain is beginning to hurt. It's coming in sideways now from the North and pelting the right side of my face. I can feel my skin turning red as I shut my right eye and approach the bridge over the Mississippi. "GOGGLES! I SHOULD HAVE BROUGHT MY GOGGLES!!" The leather on my gloves looks to be melting onto my hands and is amazingly slippery in exactly the wrong situation. Fate did not want me to cross this bridge and was employing all its means to put a halt to my progress. I stood again on my pedals to scale the mountain of a bridge and that's when the wind came alive. As the rain came in from the right, it was slamming into the side of the bridge and being forced up and over the girders until it reached the road and took off like a slingshot right into our friend, the biker. It gave the wind visual shape and the water within rushed furiously onward, streaming into a blur of lines like some futuristic warp through space. The scene was more beautiful than dangerous... and it was quite treacherous at that.
The bridge has 2" trapezoidal reflectors spanning the shoulder every 10 yards and I'm trying to steer the poor horse through its tiny gaps while Fate grows red with anger at his inability to bring our adventure to an end. "IS THAT THE BEST YOU CAN DO?!?!" I never fail to quote my favorite movies... even in the most trying of times. "YOU'LL NEVER... SINK... THIS... BOAT!!! AHHHHHHHHAHAHA!!!!"
BILL, ERIN AND NEW ORLEANS
I made it to their house New Orleans looking like a "wet rat" as Erin would properly describe it, but I was now under the roof of two very welcoming and easy-going bicyclists. Mother Nature's free shower would be used in vain as I upgraded to a real shower and rinsed the mud and sand from my hair. One of my first questions to Bill was "So is there really a House of the Rising Sun?". I wanted so badly to get a photo of it, but he informed me that it doesn't currently exist in New Orleans and may never have at all. Wikipedia says similar things... bummer.
When I first arrived, I stopped in Bill's Internet-based bicycle store to discover that he is selling nearly half of the very specialized gear I had on my bike. He started out with Brooks saddles, but has since grown to encompass much of what you would need to start a tour. Turns out, he owns and operates www.wallbike.com, a website I have been to several times before meeting him. He recently moved the operation 4 blocks from his house into a store of his own and has a few employees working behind the scenes. From what Erin told me, he's one of the two largest retailers of Brooks saddles in the country. Most rockin'.
Anyhoo, the two of them treated me to a good dinner at Lebanon's restaurant right down the road, which was most delicious and appreciated. They helped me out with knowing where to go and where not to go in the city and the next day I hit the road intent to explore the city everybody claims is dangerous. I biked down St. Charles Avenue with my camelbak on loaded with the bear spray, but quickly felt like an idiot for even bringing it along. People are out walking their dogs, jogging and greeting each other on the street to talk about the day's voting agenda. There are beautiful, historic mansions up and down the neighborhood roads and in the middle of the street, people are working to put the trolley back in service. It was harmless. Even as I ventured off the map and into places I didn't know, it came down to common sense; don't go into the areas with broken windows and ghetto folk at night.
If I had spent a week there like I did in Pensacola, I would have explored more than the "tourist" area, but I wasn't about to stay that long. As such, it's off to the French Quarters and Burbon Street.
THE SHARD FROM HELL
A flat tire. I don't believe it. I don't get flat tires... ARG! Oh well, it's been a long ride, I'm definitely due. Any problem that I can fix on my own doesn't deserve to be called a problem. I discovered that a piece of glass or a nail must've found its way through my reinforced tires after making a small 3mm slit in my rear tire. I ran my finger along the inside of the tire to ensure nothing was going to re-puncture the inner tube after I patched it up. "I should probably figure out a way to close the 3mm slit", I say to myself. "How can I do that?". I look down to see that I'm holding a tube of rubber cement in my left hand and an imaginary candle starts to kindle above my head. UREKA!
Done and done, everything's fixed and ready to go. I hop back on my bike to the discouraging sound of air rushing out of my tire. I took everything apart once again and found out that a new leak now existed around the base of the valve. Into the trash goes in the inner tube, on with a new one! No big deal.
I continued biking the entire day and had no further problem until the sun was setting. My rear tire is low... again... on a brand new innertube. No time to fix it now, I got to find a camp site. I filled the tire as best I could and landed in the second floor of the announcer's box behind a once beautiful baseball field now ruined by the swamp that Katrina left behind. In the morning, I opened up the tire once again and found a small puncture in the new tube. I inspected the tire for a third time and made certain there was nothing pertruding from the inside. Nothing was to be seen. So, I patched the tube and continued down the road. As you can imagine, the tire went flat again. It never goes flat where I patch it; always elsewhere. This is my 4th flat in 24 hours after never having any puncture flats all the way from Maine. Charlie woke up, pushed Chuck aside, shoved a screwdriver through the hole in the tire and out popped a tiny shard of glass. "There you go, genius."
When I entered the announcer's box on the second floor, I looked around and was happy to have found such an easy place to sleep. Sure, the windows were broken and random trash was here and there, but hell, it had a roof! And though the lock on the door didn't work, I managed to wedge a chair and a 2x4 against it and the stairwell thus making it impossible to enter. Nobody could get in without some sort of tank... or so I thought.
Still reading about Bilbo's adventures around 9pm, a voice is heard that is alarmingly close to me. "Boo", he says. It scared the bejesus out of me, and I turned toward one of the windows to see the siloutte of a man's upper-body looking inward. I took the safety off my bear spray.
[The man turns away and starts walking]
Me: "Who are you?"
Man: "I'm Fred."
Me: "I'm Chuck."
Man: "Alright, brother."
Then he walked down the bleachers which led up to the second story of the announcer's box. "OH! THE BLEACHERS! Stupid, stupid, stupid!!", I tortured myself on the inside. I must've been camping at another dude's hideout, but like the pastor from the Bethlehem Baptist church, I think he was more scared of me than I was of him. Around midnight he came back and this time just walked right in through the window from the bleachers. I had the bear spray ready, but really he appeared quite harmless. He came in and said, "Have you seen my blanket?" He was scurrying about the room looking for it and I pointed him in the right direction. He then proceeded down the stairs to leave and I told him the door was barricaded and that he can't get out that way. He went down anyway and was surprised to see it would not open. He went back up and moved swiftly by me and out the window once more. Then Fred was gone.
SHIFTING FOCUS ON THE ROAD AHEAD
I've stopped wearing any shirts that have words on the back. I'm kind of tired of the same old conversation over and over and over -- I just want to bike for a while. I've skipped out on several WarmShowers destinations because I just want to keep truckin'. I want it to be like it was from Pennsylvania to South Carolina; just me and the road... and maybe the company of fellow bums on bikes. I skipped out on exploring Baton Rouge even though I was a couple miles from the city. I may regret such a choice looking back upon the tour months from now, but at the present, the choice feels all too justified. Working my way through Texas, I want to make my next planned stop with the Pecan Lady in Las Cruces, New Mexico. We'll see how that pans out though -- everyday I feel like a new person, so who knows what tomorrow may bring.
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