Just Above Sea Level

It’s hard for me to believe it’s October, and fall has come.  Here in Plano, just north of Dallas, it’s hotter than it would be during our coastal Oregon high summer.  Right now it’s a hazy but clear day, and the temperature is 89 with high humidity.  I’ve retreated into my cousin’s house in an attempt to stop sweating.  We’re here at cousin PJ’s house now, spending a few days catching up on “the list.”  Along the way so far, we’ve slid into a habit of thinking of tasks needing done before we leave the U.S., and then saying we’ll take care of them “when we get to Texas.”  And so The List has come due.

Some of the things we’ve been doing include bike maintenance, tent reinforcing, getting our phones “unlocked” so we can subscribe to international providers, buying a DeLorme satellite communicator (for emergencies SOS use, similar to the SPOT unit only better), paying bills and setting finances in order, last minute shopping at big-city stores, picking up a few more tools which I found we needed, sending unused stuff home, and, of course, catching you up on adventures.

We were partway across Lake Ponchartrain when the city of New Orleans hove into view.  Buildings seemed to float on the water, way off in the distance over my left hand, but soon became rooted in the ground as we neared them.  No, that’s not really true, they still seemed rooted in the water, along with the rest of the city.  There was no elevation difference at all, the water simply changed to a city along the edge.  The elevated roadway flew us into the city about 30 feet over everything for a while, then descended to street level.  We got on the freeway, once again flew over the city to the east, and finally landed in the French Quarter.  We ditched our gear in the room, then found the garage about 5 blocks away and secured the bikes for the night.  Walking back with helmets in hand, several people looked at us and commented it was cool we were on motorcycles.

After a nap and cooling shower (the heat and humidity are formidable for us Oregon kids), we wandered the streets.  Lunch was had at an old restaurant on Chartres Street, and I had a Hot Brown, which is like French toast with turkey, cheese, and bacon on it.  Jalene tried a salad with fried green tomatoes, which in Alabama she had found she really liked, even though she won’t generally eat ripe red tomatoes.  Wandering more, we soon found ourselves amongst the “hookers and hustlers” (Little Feat) along the rows of bars and were entertained by calls to “come on in, get drunk, and leave all your money.”  Later we walked along Bourbon Street and drank a hurricane in what was purported to be the oldest bar in the country.  Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar is said to have been founded in 1761.  We sat on the sidewalk drinking and chatting with folks from Australia, I have no memory of what about.

Hurricanes are excellent, I do remember that.  I had to have one because, well, I ended up in the hospital in 2008, and my anesthesiologist was a lovely blonde woman with a syrupy smooth Tennessee accent.  As she worked a large needle into my arm, she told me how to properly mix a hurricane, her favorite drink from the south.  An anesthesiologist should know how to mix a proper drink, and as I had a full load of morphine in me, I could have listened to her voice forever.

After that it was more wandering along the riverfront, watching the big paddlewheelers moving along, steam whistles blowing, calliopes tootling tunes at the wharf.  The Mississippi is a big river down here at the mouth, wide and deep.   Freighters and tankers come and go, barges move up and down, and there is generally never-ending vessel traffic.  We split a muffaletta at Café du Monde, an outdoor cafe as we neared the French Market.  Boy, those are good, with the oil-and-vinegar bottle to splash on each bite.  A 4-piece jazz band was playing, and we spent our dinner watching the tourists and locals interplay in a similar kind of dance as we see along the waterfront of Newport.  New Orleans in the area we visited is pure tourist-town, and it’s always fun for me to be on the tourist side in another town, where I can drive the locals crazy doing dumb tourist things.

Later that evening, we walked down to get ice cream, and on the way back listened to a guy playing an African kora (bass harp) in front of the big Catholic church. (See him at: youtube.com/watch?v=MgprRuaPVQM)  Though it had cooled off a little, the night was still warm and the moon was out.  He had some reverb going, and the sound was also reflecting off the nearby buildings, giving it a soft, lasting glow.  We sat on the stones a while listening and just chilling out, with the tiredness from the day setting in.  Jalene slowly ate a cool scoop of Lime Gelato.  We finally got up and started strolling back, knowing that if we didn’t, our poor legs and feet might leave us stuck there.  Sleep came fast.  In the morning, we walked across the street to a kind of coffee/bakery shop.  Breakfast was good, if not a bit pricey, and it got us started off.  We walked down and got the bikes, and brought our gear down and loaded things up.  By this time the heat was building fast, and I wasn’t coping well.

We got rolling and headed west out of town on the freeway.  With my impatience to get going, we hadn’t looked at the map together that morning, and so when I asked Jalene over the intercom whether she wanted to split off north or just head west, she wasn’t familiar with the routes, and was frustrated not to be able to have any input.  After a quick helmet-to-helmet conversation, we decided to continue west, and that turned out the best, letting us have a look at the seawalls surrounding the city, and the levee system and some of the pumps.  The west side of the city is bordered by a massive straight, high concrete wall that runs out of sight to the north toward Lake Ponchartrain.  The freeway we were on is an endless bridge running along over water and swampland for miles and miles.  Finally it returns to dry land, but there is still water between the trees to the side, and the many drainages had a dark tunnel-like appearance as they disappeared into the thick, wet forest.

After a while we needed gas, so got off the freeway and crossed the Mississippi to the south side and followed the levee heading west.  The Mississippi levee here is a massive earthwork, probably 50 feet high and several hundred feet through at the base.  It winds along, following the river, and our road faithfully followed the levee, which looked like a giant snake overgrown with grass.  Periodically, we rode beneath big pipes or conveyor belt systems crossing the road and going over the top of the levee to dockworks on the river, and we could sometimes see the superstructures of ships above the top of the levee.  Big tank farms, mills, or refineries greeted the other end of the pipes or conveyors.  But most of the land along here was planted with sugar cane, and very rural in nature, with old plantation houses among the few structures scattered here.

We followed this road along the levee for quite a while, and then caught another little road, which took off to the northwest in the general direction of a campground further north.  We followed rivers and railroad tracks through little towns, occasionally crossing a bigger road or interstate where we’d find gas or a truck stop and maybe a grocery store.  In a one-stopsign town Jalene had to pee, but the little store had no bathroom and the tiny restaurant was closed up that day.  Luckily a young guy named Raymond came by (“Dang, them’s cool bikes!”), and though I declined his offer to sell me some weed, he said we could just take a right at the intersection nearby, and follow it over the levee where the bridge crosses.  Jalene’s semi-emergency was averted under a rusty railroad bridge over the Atchafalaya River – thanks, Raymond!

Later that day we pulled into a campground in west central Louisiana, near the Texas line.  We had a prime campsite on a little knoll above a swampy lake where I sat and wrote the last webpage story.  The breeze was welcome after the heat of New Orleans and traveling northwest along the rivers.  We were able to leave the rainfly off the tent, which is nearly all mesh on top, and watch the stars as we fell asleep.  Next morning we got up early, trying to make tracks in the cooler morning and get off the road earlier.

Time for a break from this writing to work on “the list.”  I think some of my posts have been a little long, including this one, so I’ll stop here.  Having folks out there wishing to read these is a tremendous boost to my enthusiasm for the trip, thanks everyone for the encouraging comments.  And so, gentle reader, we say so long for now, and I’ll finish the ride into Texas in the next story.

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No updated photos to share this time but if you didn't catch the last batch, take a look because they were taken "just above sea level."

And, here are Jalene's thoughts about what we've done to shake up our life.