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.


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.

Beautiful Generous People

New friends in Mandeville, LA.

New friends at The Ugly Pirate.

How the scenery has changed since last I wrote.  I’m sitting on a little knob of hill in the shade of a beat-up looking oak tree, looking out over a swamp-lake about 30 feet below me.  It’s as much land as water, with brush and stumps sticking up through, and low muddy islands all around.  Three nutria are nosing around in the marsh grass just below me, unconcerned, while white egrets wade nearby.  Jalene reports a bald eagle overhead.  I hear airboats for a long time before I finally see them.  They are not nearly as fast as they sound.  Later I found out that they are spraying for noxious weeds in the lake.

The heat of the past two weeks has finally broken today.  We woke up to about 65° temperatures this morning, and for a little while I put my sweatshirt on.  I’m sitting in a nice breeze off the water, and not sweating for the first time in recent memory.

As we move along in this journey, it seems like every few days we enter a new territory, with its own customs, accents, and mannerisms.  Since leaving Gulf State Park, it feels like we’ve entered and traversed yet another version of America, this time along the hot, steamy Gulf Coast.  We crossed the bottom edge of Alabama, Mississippi, and then came into Louisiana and stopped in New Orleans for the night before crossing northwest up through the state.  Some neat things happened along the way.

Biological fun was had in Gulf State Park.  Our neighbor Lee, in site #3 had an alligator that hung out in the little backwater along the campsites, and had charged up into his site wanting the peanut butter sandwich he was making.  Seems they can see quite well, so Jalene and I pulled our picnic table in site #4 back away from the water and had no issues.  But poor Lee had another encounter at 4 am as he went to make oatmeal, and that was enough for him.  The park rangers showed up and after some patient waiting by the little slough managed to get a noose-on-a-stick over the critter’s head and out it came.  While it was only 4 feet long, it was big enough to be a concern and so they moved it over to a nearby lake and let it go.  Chatting with the park guys, it seems alligators in this region are the exact same problem as bears where we live in Oregon.  If they get habituated to people, or are fed, they become a problem and have to be dealt with.  Never a winning outcome for the animal, be it alligator or bear, and the people seemingly never learn, either.  Later we got a text from Lee that an even bigger one had taken over the spot.  No word on how that turned out.

We stayed at Gulf State Park for two nights, and spent the rest day swimming in the warm Gulf, swimming in the campground pool, and generally being lazy.  Jalene took in the Nature Center in the campground and pronounced it a super-good experience and a must-see.  By the time I heard this it was closed, bummer.  It’s a big campground, with several hundred sites, and lots of amenities.  One thing you’ll never see in any Oregon campground is the sign next to the big swing set reading “Don’t feed or aggravate the alligators.”  Nothing about keeping an eye on your kid, but maybe that was the “Don’t feed…” part.

We moved west after that, travelling along the Gulf Shore through towns, up into lovely neighborhoods in the wealthier section of Mobile, and then further west across sloughs and backwaters sheltering massive boat works and other industries.  Our neighbors in Oregon own a shrimper that was built somewhere down here, and we saw many boats that looked exactly like it.  I wonder if I might have passed the yard where their boat was built.

The area between Mobile and New Orleans was where the eye of hurricane Katrina came ashore, and as we rolled through there, it was easy to see the scars.  Many properties are still bare, with brush growing up through paved flat areas and foundation stones.  Nothing remains to suggest what building might have stood, maybe a house, maybe a store.   Many of the massive oaks are broken and dead, but most survived somehow.  Several of the dead trees were sculpted by chainsaw artists into various forms as a tribute.  To remind us of that even more, we were moving toward a black sky to the west and knew that eventually we would hit rain and plenty of it.  A big ugly weather cell was moving head-on at us from the west, and we were directly in its path.

Just before we rolled into Bay St. Louis, we recognized two bicyclists that we had befriended our first night at Gulf State Park, Jean-Francois and Marie.  From Montreal, they were taking their second trip across the US, this time bound for San Diego after turning the corner in Tallahassee.  With hard rain imminent, Jalene and I agreed to go ahead into Bay St. Louis, find a tavern showing the Saints game, and text them where to find us.  Within a few minutes, with the first drops on our shields, we were in the Ugly Pirate, and the bicycles rolled in just as it really opened up.  We stayed for the game as the rain pounded down, with reports of as much as 5 inches coming down in the area.  The Ugly Pirate has a tradition that when a Saints game starts, they tap a keg and pour free beer until the keg is gone.  We gladly weathered in for a few hours as we watched the rain pass over on the radar, and so enjoyed a glass and a pizza while we watched the Saints hang in there, but lose in the end.  We took off after the game ended, and within 10 miles were back in the sunshine with roads drying fast.

The people in the Ugly Pirate were the best part of the whole thing.  I don’t know who seemed to amaze them more, the couple on motorcycles traveling the length of South America, or the couple on bicycles traveling the breadth of North America.  In any case, we made friends with everyone in the bar (it’s only about eight barstools and three tables), and had a fabulous time with them.  They ended up picking up the whole tab for the four of us.  I wish I hadn’t lost the card of the fellow and his friend that paid our bill, but Thank You just the same!  A lady in green that lived across the street offered to have us come over and use her dryer, but we were fine.  They were all really concerned that we were leaving again in that cold rain, but we assured them that we had the gear for wet, 70° weather and would be all right.  Beautiful, generous people!

That night we made Big Biloxi campground in Mississippi.  On our way, we made our usual stop for dinner items at the supermarket, and then went to camp.  There was a guy doing BBQ ribs out front of Winn-Dixie, and he sold me a huge half-rack for all of $6, then sliced them up and sauced them when he found out we were camping on motorcycles.  He had graduated from the crotch-rockets, he said, and was looking to buy a “grown-up” bike, and wanted a Harley.  Turns out those ribs were the best BBQ we’ve yet had down here in the south, they were awesome.  Best of luck finding that Harley.

MotoStays is a website where one can sign up to offer accommodations to traveling motorcyclists, and in return stay at the houses of other motorcyclists along the way while on the road.  We had contacted Skip and Karen who live on the north side of Lake Ponchartrain, and stayed with them for two nights while we took care of the bikes and decided where to stay when we went in to New Orleans.  With wonderful hospitality, they took us in and we enjoyed a couple of days of swapping bike stories and travel tales while checking the bikes over, and just generally taking a break from camping and the road.  Real showers and laundry have a way of changing one back into a somewhat civilized character.  I considered shaving but then thought better of it.  Skip and Karen have travelled extensively both by sailboat and by bike in their time, and Skip has been an instructor with MSF locally.  We got an interesting lesson in house design while there, and saw first hand how Katrina had modified everyone’s ideas about flooding and winds.  Their new house is now built on masonry piers about ten feet high.  The nice side-effect is that you have a big, shaded area underneath to park cars, have a table and chairs, etc., and in the hot sun of the day it’s a perfect escape from the heat.  My GPS had the elevation in their driveway at 4 feet.

After saying goodbye to Skip and Karen, we turned the bikes south and crossed Lake Ponchartrain on the 25-mile long causeway bridge.  When you start across you can’t see the other side for the haze and curve of earth, but about halfway across I suddenly noticed I could see the high-rise area of New Orleans.  It seemed as we crossed that we were entering a whole new world, saying so long to the Gulf Coast and all the wonderful people we met along the way, and heading into something new and weird and wonderful in this big, old city at the mouth of the Mississippi.

Photo by Skip in Mandeville, LA just before we left.

Ready for some new photos? Click here

Jalene has some thoughts to share about how it's all in our heads (and hearts!). To see her blog post, click here.

Hey there!

Jalene here to share a quickie update. We're staying with Keith's cousin PJ and her husband Marty, in Plano, Texas for a few days as we finish our final prep for heading south of the border. (Gigantic "Thank you!" to PJ & Marty.) We're getting rid of stuff, buying stuff, and fixing stuff. After 56 days on the road, we're learning, learning, learning, and looking forward to more!