overlander

Hazy Blue Beyond

Written December 13, 2015                         

I don’t have anything exciting to tell you.  And that’s fine with me, because after four months of traveling it’s long past time to simply plonk down somewhere and enjoy where we’ve come to.

We left the great volcano Pico de Orizabo behind and rolled along a combination of paved and dirt roads through the desert scrub.  The hills along side us were covered with what looked like long spines or stiff hair growing straight up, sparse at first but then thicker and thicker.  As the road approached the base of the hills we could recognize it as a new kind of cactus, some of them quite tall, like saguaro.  Down along the gullies was another kind, branching strongly like trees, but with all the branches turning to go straight up.  As we continue south, we often come across a new plant or tree that makes for a dramatic change in the landscape, and this new cacti is certainly one of them.  Another example is last month, as we were climbing through the high desert of northern Mexico approaching Zacatecas, we saw Joshua trees, and they became a thick forest that one couldn’t see through.  It made Joshua Tree NP up in the US seem kind of silly by comparison, there were so many of the trees and they were so densely packed.

We made our way up a broad river valley, twisting and rolling along a snake of a road through arid rocks, cactus, and sparse brush.  Eventually we started a long climb over a pass that would take us down into Oaxaca.  We climbed up and up, and we weren’t the only ones going over that pass.  In the desert heat, there were hundreds of people on bicycles accompanying trucks carrying big glass boxes with statues of Jesus or the Virgin Mary or some other religious symbols, all covered with flowers and palm fronds.  The bicyclists were not your racer types, all dressed up in lycra and spandex, no, they were mostly regular people on all sorts of bikes, some in shorts, some in jeans, all sweating in the heat, but all making that climb.  They were strung out on the road over many miles, and support trucks were setting up food stops near the top to feed and refresh the peddling pilgrims.  I admired them all, as I couldn’t imagine doing the same myself in such heat.  The climb up that pass took us up at least 1,000 meters (~3,300’) if not more from the valley floor, to an elevation of around 2,800 meters (~9,200’), then rolled along up and down, up and down, as we rode along the ridge crest southward.

The wee town of Tule is where the "stoutest tree" in the world is located. Learn more here.

We stayed for 5 days in a small town about 12 kilometers east of Oaxaca called Tule.  Calvin and Leann are Canadian transplants, and they own a place called Overland Oasis for travelers such as ourselves.  We pitched the tent in the shade and had great company while we were there, not just from our hosts, but from the many people stopping there in their own travels.  Many were in impressive overland rigs, and from a variety of countries, especially Europe.  Calvin has a nice shop area and tools, so I took advantage of that and adjusted the steering head bearings on both bikes, and did several other little jobs on the list.  Jalene’s bike has been lowered one inch front and rear, so her center stand has always been too long, making it a two-person chore to get it up the stand.  Calvin offered to shorten it, and since he’s done plenty of welding on race car frames, I said okay and we did it.  It really wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d imagined it might be, and now it’s easy to pop her bike up on the center stand again.  Calvin didn’t want to charge us anything for it, so we found a way to kick in for the cold beer supply there - thanks, Calvin!  I must give a plug here – and if you’re travelling through the Oaxaca area by bike or car or truck, you’ll want to stop at Overland Oasis for a break, and if you have repairs to do, it’s the ideal spot.  Find it on iOverlander.

We said goodbye were back on the road south again, but we got a late start after a big group breakfast, and it’s slow packing up when you don’t really want to say goodbye.  But we got on the road about 11, and made it to the foot of the mountains by 2:30, where we stopped after finding a nice, cheap hotel in Miahuatlan to get out of the heat.  I’d eaten a bad shrimp burger the day before and wasn’t feeling 100%, so I was happy to call it a day rather than pushing over the mountains.  Next morning we had a fantastic ride over the range that separates inland Mexico from the Pacific.  It reminded me of Ecuador quite a bit, with continuous twisting two-lane road in various states of repair, and the occasional huge truck swinging around the blind corner at you in both lanes to keep things exciting.  We dropped down out of the cool peaks into more and more humid air, which warmed dramatically as we wound down, down toward the hazy blue beyond which I knew must be the ocean.  Nearing sea level, we were sweating something fierce in the hot, damp air.  We reached the beach, and followed the GPS to La Habana Cuba, a group of nice, simple cabanas right on the beach at Puerto Angel.  We are at the southern tip of where Mexico curves under on the Pacific side.

We are on the Pacific Ocean.  Jalene and I had not seen the Pacific since we left August 10, and I had no idea how much I had missed it until it was in sight again.  Once we were settled in our cabana, I could sit back and listen to the roar.  I realized that the sound of the ocean, which has been a constant all these years, has been gone while we were traveling.  Now that I heard it again I felt somehow restored and complete.  I’ve always loved hearing it while lying in bed drifting off to sleep, and now here it is again.

The beach here runs east-west.  It’s actually somewhat disorienting to someone like me who has lived on a north-south beach for over 20 years.  The sun rises at one end of the beach, and sets on the other end.  At night, since we’re only about 15 degrees off the equator here, the stars come up in the east, travel nearly straight overhead across the sky, and set in the west.  Orion arches over the length of the beach at night for us, so just by looking up I can estimate the time of night.  I’m so used to the stars circling the North Star - I’m having to relearn where things are again.  The North Star is not even visible here, since it’s low enough on the horizon to be hidden by the mountains we rode over to get here.  Soon we will be far enough south to start picking out stars and constellations associated with the southern hemisphere.

Our friend Chris, from Australia, has already pointed out to me how to find the Southern Cross once we get a little farther south.  Some of the stars in Orion form what they call “the frying pan”, and it is a pointer to the Southern Cross in the same way that the Big Dipper points out the North Star.  We met Chris at Overland Oasis in Oaxaca, he also being a traveler by motorcycle, and we shared the tent area.  Chris bought a locally made Dynamit brand 250 for all of about $2,000, and has outfitted it with soft panniers and other good equipment, and has been having a great time exploring Guatemala and Mexico on it.  In Oaxaca he had a local upholstery guy put new foam in the seat, making it taller and more level, and giving it a really nice material for the cover.  A first-class job it looked to me, and for only 350 pesos! (~$22)  With regular oil changes, it’s been running perfectly for him, and he has plans to continue back down into Guatemala to meet up with friends down there.  More proof that the big adventure bikes are often just overkill.  Chris is also here with us in the cabanas, but tomorrow we part ways.  We wish him all the best in future wanderings, and, as with so many we have met along the road, would love to meet up with him again someday.

“Our” beach is only about a half-mile end-to-end, and so one can stroll it at leisure and, once back at the cabana, feel that one has accomplished something after walking the entire shore.  Not much happens here, which is just fine with us, and our 6 days here have flown by.  We’ve spent our time deciding which beach restaurant has the best food, and the winner turns out to be the one only 30 yards away.  The local dogs are a treat to watch, as they all seem to get along just fine, and have a marvelous time visiting each other up and down the beach, engaging in hilarious romps in the sand, and demonstrating for the humans just how life should be lived here.  I’m taking notes.

***

We have no links to photos this time because the wifi at the beach doesn't like uploading them. Sorry. We'll share the links in the next post. Hopefully.

Jalene is sharing the top 10 lessons she's learned from traveling so far. Check them out here.

Music, Art, and Conviviality

Written December 6, 2015

We actually got a pretty good night’s sleep in the dead girl’s room (See the previous blog post.).  I think I slept better than Jalene, but I was a little puzzled at how I could simply not care about the fact that someone was probably murdered right here.  I’ve often thought that the years spent in Alaska in the late 1970’s probably hardened me in ways still undiscovered.  In the commercial crab fishery there, I saw some pretty gruesome things at a young age.

We took off out of Apizaco without finding anywhere open for breakfast.  It only took us about a half-hour to get to our destination that day, Tlaxcala.  On the way, the highway came up and over a rise, and we were treated to our first view of Popocatepetl, the volcano that rises to 5,426 meters (17,802’) over the valley floor.  It was pumping out a massive amount of pure white steam, a grand sight in the still-clear morning air.  Later in the day, the warm rising air tends to form condensation clouds and hide the summit.  Beside it is another volcano, the dormant peak of Iztaccihuatl, its peak covered in snow.

Our home for a week in Tlaxcala with Airbnb hosts Sharon and Jaimie.

We were headed for Quinta Amada, which we’d found on Airbnb.  We planned to take a week-long break from riding and get to know the valley around Puebla, the fourth-largest city in Mexico.  There are many Mayan ruins in the area, as well as the wonderful museums and architecture of Puebla itself.  Tlaxcala is a smaller town outside of Puebla that has a significant history, it being the place where Hernan Cortes made an alliance with the four tribes that enabled the defeat of the Aztecs.  Inside the Palacia de Gobierno in town, there is a remarkable mural that runs up the stairway, illustrating the history of Mexico and the role that Tlaxcala played in it, well worth seeing if you come to this beautiful town.

Our home for the week was a very nice little casita which was part Quinta Amada, a bed and breakfast on a hill just west of Tlaxcala.  We had perfect privacy, a secure parking area for the bikes, and yet had the company of our hosts just a few steps away in the main house.  It’s a short walk down to the main street and food vendors.  The view from our little front door was of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.  I went out early each morning and checked, and Popo was sometimes steaming, sometimes quiet, but always a beautiful sight.  It was much like being back in Tacoma again, with Mt. Rainier an ever-present neighbor.

Funky bathrooms delight me. Need to blot your lipstick? Los Contenedores has just the thing.

One reason we wanted to stay the week in Tlaxcala was that Thanksgiving was coming up, and we wanted to be at a place with reliable internet so we could Skype with our families on the holiday.  Our hosts at Quinta Amada, Sharon and Jaime, an American woman and her Mexican husband, are very gracious people to say the least.  They invited us to have Thanksgiving dinner with them, which was bound to be fun as they were having the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry dressing, the works.  They were also inviting several Mexican friends to join them, so it would be a superb Espaniol session for Jalene and I.  We ended up having a marvelous time, and, like always, it was noisy with laughter and stories told, never mind the language obstacles.  Sharon and I had made apple and pumpkin pies the day before, and they got devoured.  All agreed it was a wonderful evening.

After dinner, one of the invited couples asked if we’d like to go into town and see the bar they owned – sure!  Turns out they had a piece of land along the river, and they wanted to combine music, art, and conviviality.  So they brought in six 20-foot trucking containers, set them down, and turned each container into one component of a nightclub.  One was the bar, one was the restrooms, one was an art gallery, another was a comfortable living room, and the other two held more stuff to be brought out onto the large covered patio to form a wonderful outdoor bar-café.  On top of that, they make delicious artisan beer featuring Frida Kahlo on the label.  The remaining land was covered in grass, where music is played on a regular basis, with outdoor concerts and shows.  When it’s time to close, everything goes back into the containers, the doors are locked shut, and it becomes just another semi-vacant lot beside the road.  It’s kind of like a flower that opens at night, unfolding into chairs and tables, lights and propane heaters, music and fun, and then folding back in on itself to await another day.  If you’re in Tlaxcala, stop in and enjoy a relaxing time at Los Contenedores (The Containers).

Eventually though, it was time to climb onto the bikes and continue exploring Mexico.  We had a three-day weather window at hand that would allow us to visit the “Magico” city of Cuetzalan, back up in the southern end of the Sierra Gorda.  So we headed northeast for a beautiful ride across rich agricultural land.  Popcatepetl faded into the brown haze of pollution to the west (it’s pretty bad some days), but soon we had another big volcano rising on the horizon ahead of us.  This is Pico de Orizaba, also called Citlaltepetl, the highest mountain in Mexico, and third-highest in North America at 5,636 meters (18,491’).  This mountain comes right up out of the plains to the west, making it seem even more spectacular in height.  There is a huge set of glaciers off the north side of the peak, which shone brightly for us in the sun.  The flat fields around were planted with corn, vegetables, and other staple crops, and looked to me like first-class growing land.

Soon we were off the main highway, and taking the little roads up into the mountains toward Cuetzalan.  Twisting and turning, go up, up, up along canyons and rivers, we were treated to spectacular views as we wound through high farms and ranches built on ever-steepening slopes.  It reminded us very much of the farming practices we saw in Ecuador, where they used little or no tilling on the steepest slopes, leaving the last crop to rot back into the soil as the next one sprouted or regenerated.  On somewhat less steep fields, we saw where they tilled with horses, which could traverse the field without tipping over or sliding.  This was the beginning of the dry season, so there was less risk of heavy rains and erosion in the coming months.  The freshly turned soil was dark and rich with promise.

Once in Cuetzalan, we wound up, down, and around in the steep old streets until we found our hotel.  Jalene turned thumbs-down on the room however, disliking the mold on the walls.  As I watched the bikes, she hiked down the hill to another hotel, and pronounced it fit for habitation.  Cuetzalan is a tiny, compact town of steep and slick cobblestone streets, mostly one-way, and so we had to circle through it twice before finding our way back to the hotel only two blocks below us.  Jalene did a great job of negotiating difficult terrain on a packed bike, and at last we parked the bikes in the courtyard.  This area of Mexico is noted for the local ceremony, the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) where four men hang from ropes as they circle and descend from a tall pole.  Here in Cuetzalan, the pole is in the town square, and 30 meters high (about 100’).  A fifth man stands atop the pole, with no safety lines or net, and performs a dance for about 5 minutes before the other four tip backward and swing from four ropes as they unwind from the top of the pole and they slowly descend toward the ground.  Finally they are on the ground, everyone starts to breathe again, and the brightly costumed performers mingle with the gathered crowd like stars.  Look it up on the web, it’s an amazing thing to watch, especially the guy dancing on top of the pole as he arches waaay back at times, looking straight up at the sky.  And of course there was another of those incredible, temporary markets that pop up here in Mexican towns, only to vanish leaving hardly a trace by the next morning.  Anything imaginable is to be found, and it’s so much fun to jostle through and look at shirts and hats, tools and vegetables, pig’s heads and pencils.  But soon we were sleepy after a meal overlooking the cathedral, and we wandered back up to our room and tucked in for a snooze.

We had decided it was now time to start our journey southward to Oaxaca, which would take several days at our pace of travel.  And so back south we rode, down through the canyons and mountains, coming out onto the plains again and approaching the giant Pico de Orizaba.  We spent the day taking photos in the clear air and sun that day, and as we wanted the little roads, we departed the lines of trucks and headed off across the fields toward the big volcano.  Soon we were at its foot, and found a little town called Ciudad de Seran, right at the base of the cone.  We found a nice, inexpensive hotel right in town, and we were able to park the bikes very securely.  Off we went to explore another town, this one with the massive volcano and glaciers always in view directly above us.  Soon we found the cathedral square, and a huge, packed market all set up with music blasting and people all dressed up for some kind of ceremony.  Lots and lots of stuff is happening in the lead-up to the Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadelupe on December 12, when tradition holds that she first appeared on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City in 1531.

We dove right in - adventure!

***

Photos here.

Jalene's sharing the top ten lessons that traveling has taught her so far. Here's the first lesson.

The Broken Shards

We crossed into Texas and headed west along a network of little roads.  Even the “little roads” here have speed limits of 70, so we did our best to stay on the least-used lanes.  East Texas is rolling piney-woods, and really pretty country.  By the time we crossed into the state, the GPS told me we had risen to about 250 feet in elevation, and as the day went by we slowly climbed to 450.  You can almost navigate just by elevation when around the Mississippi drainage.  As we continued west, the rolling pines gave way to flatter, more open ground as we transitioned into more ranch-like country, and soon it took on the classic Texas look of open rangeland and big, gated ranch mansions (many sited on oddly less-than-ranch-sized pieces of land…).  South Fork wannabes, I guess.

Texas has a doughnut shop in every town.  Even the little towns have them, and that was Jalene’s downfall.  We needed a little snack late morning so we stopped and we each had one.  I actually had a pig-in-a-blanket, which was made with a polish dog and the bun was a sweet croissant-like dough (awesome!) and Jalene had an old fashioned and something else.  Anyway, when we pulled out of the parking lot, I realized I wasn’t sure which way I needed to go out of town, and so stopped on the margin.  Jalene didn’t expect this at all and crashed right into the back of me, which shattered her front fender to bits and pushed her headlight well back into the little nose fairing.  I took it apart and was able to pop the headlight back into place without damage, but the fender was in about 15 pieces.  We gathered them all up and after bolting things back together, got underway again.  The damage was all cosmetic, and we considered just cutting away the broken shards still sticking out and calling it good, but in the end called the BMW shop in north Dallas and got a silver one on order (no matching black ones in N. America).  Once here at PJs we looked into plastic welding and gluing, but there were so many pieces that we decided to stick with the new part.  It came in only 3 days, so now Jalene has a new silver front beak on her black bike, which looks pretty cool, actually.  And we learned that one should be careful around doughnut shops.

As we approached our campground, we saw a disturbing sight.  We slowed down for the blue flashing lights of a cop car, which was stopped for an accident at an intersection.  A white sedan had rear-ended a motorcycle at high speed, burying the aft two feet of the bike in the front end of the car and trapping it upright.  Didn’t see the rider, didn’t really need to.  No one wears helmets here.  It was obvious the car driver had never seen the bike, which had likely stopped waiting to make a left, and slammed right into it.  Jalene was pretty shook up by the sight, and we talked about always checking the mirrors anytime you touch the brakes.  Being rear-ended hard is likely fatal for the motorcyclist, and is the one situation that scares me most.  It’s why I want lane-splitting legalized, not so that I can split lanes, but so I can escape up between lanes when multiple lanes of traffic suddenly slam to a halt in a traffic jam.  It’s terrifying.

Enough soapbox.  Our campsite at Lake Tawakoni was beautiful, and had some impressive ant highways in the area that were kind of fun to watch.  Incentive to keep that tent zipped up!  We spent a relaxing evening lakeside in a breeze, and enjoyed a slow morning, as it was only about 2 hours to cousin PJ’s house.  We had showers and hung out in the shade.  I laughed at myself, as I had found a bar of soap on a post, and so lathered up again and again, luxuriating in my “free soap” and hot showers.  It’s become kind of funny, the things that we find special now.

We hit the road and rolled along increasingly busy streets into Plano, an outpost of the busy metropolis of Dallas, and found PJ’s house.  PJ is another of the Horton cousins, sister to Connie that I visited in Indiana. Tall and slim, she has a slow drawl but a quick wit that catches you off guard, and likes to pick on me in her gentle way.  She’s more of a quiet thinker than any of us, and it’s always illuminating to talk with her.  She is the cousin that is my age, and I’ve always had a soft spot for her.  She and her husband Marty have a house out in a quiet area of town.  It’s odd to me, but all the houses in this area have the garages facing an alley that runs behind the houses, with only lawn and a front door in front, no driveway.  Tall fences ring each house, creating privacy, but PJ and Marty admit that they don’t really know any of their neighbors because of this.

We’ve been busy on “the list” for the past few days.  I’ve put two new tires on my bike and a new rear on Jalene’s along with new chain and sprockets.  We’ve been spraying the chains at the end of about every other day with lube, and I noticed that the sprockets I took off her bike showed almost no wear at all, only the chain was stretched and done for after over 20,000 miles.  The tires I took off still had some rubber on them, but with Mexico coming up, I went ahead and put the fresh tires on so I could forget about it for another 10,000 miles or so.  One of the great things about being on “little” 650s is that things like tires and chains last a long time.  I’ve also rebuilt the water pump on Jalene’s engine, as it had started to puke oil from one of the seals at a worrisome rate.  The coolant was also contaminated.  Our friend Don Weber in Albany, Oregon gave us a flexible oil line for the F650 engine before we left, a roughly $100 accessory to replace the solid external oil pipe that makes removing the clutch/water pump cover, an absolute bitch.  The flexible line simply swings out of the way, making removal very easy, and I was able to complete the job in PJ’s garage in an afternoon.  Feels good to have it done, and I will be able to do mine that much easier wherever it decides to crap out.  I am carrying spares for both bikes, the one known weakness of that engine.

And now my supervisor is telling me it’s time to get busy making dinner.  Jalene and I are grilling salmon and veggies for PJ and Marty tonight.  We’re going to see what kind of quality the Sockeye is in these parts.  It’s frozen, granted, but if they did a good job of processing it, we might get a surprise.  Oh, $13/lb. since you asked.  Chinook and Coho $15.

PS – It was wonderful fish.  Someone did a good job with the freezing and packing.

***

Here's a few photos of our week in Plano, Texas.

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!