Chapter 7 - Louisiana
Stacy drove us into DeRidder, Louisiana and helped us unload the bicycles. We pedaled downtown to Lou Lou’s Cupcake for lunch and to contact Mandy, our Warm Showers host. Our night with Mandy included sharing a dinner and discussing politics. It’s always interesting to have political views with others who share different opinions yet Mandy made us feel right at home.
In the morning we traveled to a grocery store on the other end of town to get supplies and to make a plan for the day. The weather that day was raw and as we were riding I saw in my rear view mirror two tourers approaching. It was Chris from Toronto and Ties from the Netherlands who were riding the perimeter of the US and headed to Florida. We talked for a time sharing stories of roads, weather, people and life on the road. They had already ridden about 8,000 miles having crossed Canada, ridden the US West Coast and were now almost across the Southern US.
When we stopped at a small diner to warm up and eat lunch, the waitress suggested that we also stop and eat at her sister’s diner in Oberlin, fifteen miles away. On our way to Oberlin there was a cold rain and for the first time we had to put on our full rain gear. The Oberlin diner was a welcome site and the waitress’s sister had just made a fresh pot of homemade beef stew along with cornbread. We were so disappointed when we found out that this place didn’t open until 10:00 the next morning and we would be gone by then.
The next day was cold, with 15 mph winds and sleet in the forecast and we decided to hitchbike to Bunkie. We made a sign to Oakdale where we would turn to go to Bunkie. After standing out in the cold and wind for some time our fingers and toes were going numb. We decided to take a break and walked over to the local donut shop to warm up before heading back out. Finally, Keith pulled over and asked where we were headed and when we answered, ‘Bunkie’ he said, “Well, I’m going right through Bunkie”. Meeting the drivers while hitchbiking always gave us a wealth of knowledge about an area and as soon as we were in the truck Keith began to tell us about how the agriculture, forests, economy and culture of Southwest Louisiana were all connected. Several tornados had passed by the day before and we saw a roof torn off of a Walmart Garden Center. Then it began to sleet making the roads quite tricky and we felt so blessed we were inside a warm truck. After Keith dropped us off at our destination, the Bunkie Fire Station (Warm Showers) we met Ron, Troy and Joey a few of the fire fighters. Mary and I were pretty hungry and they insisted on giving us a ride to a local restaurant and after we finished we called over and they picked us up! Back at the Firehouse we met Amy and Matt, two bicyclists from England. Amy was also a firefighter and had plenty to talk about with our hosts. Matt had lost his leg in Afghanistan and had a prosthetic leg and was such an inspiration to everyone around him. Their collective biking name was 4 wheels and 3 legs. This Fire Station was much more laid back than the Navasota’s Fire Station, but the firefighters took their job just as seriously. It is apparent that firefighting is more than just a job. Both of these stations had both professional and volunteer fighters dedicated to saving lives and they worked together in such a positive atmosphere. This crew was busy making a large pot of gumbo until an emergency, 14 cars having slid off the highway, called them out. We kept stirring the pot, cooked up the rice and waited for their safe return. Later a city police woman came in and was given containers of gumbo so she, and her colleagues, could also eat during their night shift. The crews of both fire stations extended their kindness and generosity to bicycle travelers through ‘Warm Showers’.
When we woke up it was 20 degrees and as Mary and I procrastinated, Amy and Matt left the fire station. Before they left we had made plans to meet later at the Simmesport Motel which, according to reviews, was ‘the worst motel ever’. Sometimes you just can’t be too picky. I was slowly getting ready when Mary said, “15 more minutes”. After twenty minutes passed by Mary said, “15 more minutes” and I replied, “No way, let’s get on the road”.
I can only describe the ride as very, very cold. As we were riding a big pickup slowed down and rolled the window down; it was Stacey and his wife wishing us luck along with the familiar phrase, ‘be safe’. It is times like these that I get the ‘warm chills’, the ones that make you feel welcomed and cared for. We arrived at a gas station, think warmup shed, at the same time that Amy and Matt were leaving and we said we’d see them in Simmesport. We stayed at the diner for an hour of thawing out before heading out. The next section paralleled a river and, although cold, we happily travelled along on small country roads with beautiful scenery. Eight miles later we stopped in Moreauville to thaw out our numb feet before continuing on. On a dirt road as we were pulling into Simmesport two young boys pulled up in their old pickup, rolled down their window and welcomed us into town. They provided information and suggested eating at the seafood restaurant. Less than a mile went by before an elderly man walked out to the road and repeated the welcome, even offering us a place to stay. Perhaps if we hadn’t made plans already we would have taken him up. On our ride to the motel we couldn’t help talking about the openness and generosity of the South which it seems the parents must teach the children at a young age. Checking into the motel the clerk asked me if I wanted the room for the night or by the hour and I replied I wanted it for the entire night. As we approached the door we saw a couple whiskey bottles on the ground along with a lot of trash in the parking lot. The room itself was somewhat clean and mostly functional. Obviously the people who made the critical review of the motel had never spent a night at the Camp Wood Motel. In the evening we walked to the seafood restaurant with Matt and Amy. They had ridden through many of the towns that we had and the one statement that Amy made still is on my mind, “I didn’t know that Americans were so desperate, there is an image in Europe that the US is so prosperous”. It was hard for me to sleep that night; I couldn’t stop thinking about this.
The poverty issue becomes more and more complex when considering concepts that are not discussed in our culture such as Throughput and The Law of Diminishing Returns. Still another important concept is the Jevon’s Paradox, introduced by William Stanley Jevons, a nineteenth century economist. He noticed that as the efficiency of mining, processing, shipping and burning of coal grew the more the total consumption there was of coal, due to a higher demand. An imaginary example of this can shed light on this concept. Let’s say a state had no cars at one time and when someone produced the first car it would be very inefficient to build and to run. Let’s imagine this car contains 3 tons of steel, costs $100,000, and it only gets one mile per gallon making it extremely expensive to drive. Furthermore, there is only one person in the state who could afford such a car and the purchase is made and the car is driven 12,000 miles in one year using 12,000 gallons of gas. After a few years go by the production of the car becomes more efficient and now only contains ½ of a ton of steel and gets 30 miles per gallon. Because of this efficiency the price of the car drops to $5000. It is now the car for the people and available to many. Perhaps a million people in the state could afford, and do, purchase and drive the more efficiently made car. You don’t even have to do the math to see that the total amount of steel and gas has increased due to efficiency, especially if you consider this increase due to the throughput of building factories, mining, etc. When we consider the Jevon’s Paradox in regards to the 1% versus the 99% wealth distribution an interesting picture develops. Let’s use slightly different numbers in our example and imagine now there is still one person with enough money to purchase the inefficient car with its 3 tons of steel and the 12,000 gallons of gas used in the first year. After the car’s production was made more efficient and it now gets 30 miles per gallon and it contains ½ a ton of steel, now there are 99 people that could afford the new car. So now the total usage for the year is 45 tons of steel and 40,600 gallons of gas. If Throughput, The Law of Diminishing Returns, and Jevon’s Paradox could be considered when raising the standard of living of the poor we can see that there will be an increase in mining, processing and shipping that will increase stress in an already stressed world.
Another cold morning found Mary and me eating breakfast at a café and remembering our dinner conversation with Amy and Matt on the poor food choices that Americans were experiencing. After breakfast we crossed the Atchafalaya River, a treacherous ride on a high bridge that had ice on its surface. On the other side we traveled alongside the levee of the Mississippi River. This levee ran the length of the lower Mississippi to insure that the land surrounding it does not flood during heavy rains. The road, with no traffic, weaved its way through farms which mainly grew sugar cane. There were miles of seeing where the soil from these farms was washing into ditches and eventually to the Mississippi River. The peaceful road came to an end and we turned onto Rte. 1 where we opted to hitchbike over a long crazy bridge, The Morganza Causeway, once again with fast traffic and a limited shoulder! We stood there for over an hour before a man stopped to tell us that there was a spillway road that ran under and alongside the bridge which could be accessed during the dry season. This alternate road can be submerged under 30 feet of water at certain times of year. Sure enough, we found the road and rode it for a number of miles, almost into Morganza, the next town where we were going to camp that night. On our ride we saw many hawks and egrets and even a bald eagle. Entering Morganza, we stopped at a convenience store to eat a snack and get a sense of the town and I recognized the owner as the man who stopped to tell us about the alternative road and let us know he too would not have ridden across the bridge! He gave us directions to the RV campground where we met Michelle, the aunt of our waitress at the seafood restaurant in Simmesport. These were small towns and many of the people we spoke with had lived their whole lives in these small towns with very little travel beyond their hometowns. Everyone seemed to know everyone else in these towns and within a short amount of time we too were getting to know some of the locals. Along the way we had met some people who hardly knew the surrounding towns, let alone towns 50 miles away.
New Roads was the next town of our trip then onto the John James Audubon Bridge that crossed the Mississippi River. We rode for quite a way before we finally saw the huge bridge and when we were at the beginning of the bridge Mary had reservations about riding our bikes over the 520 ft. high, 1,583 ft. long cable stayed structure. It took some time to convince her then onward we went and crossed the Mighty Mississippi, a milestone. Many times throughout the trip we had thought that we might not be able to complete our crossing, but now, after making over the Mississippi, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and we knew we would make it. For the rest of this day we traveled a mix of peaceful, relaxing roads and high traffic very busy roads until we reached a motel at the end of the day. Our plan for the next day was to ride to the other side of Baton Rouge where we could possible stay with a Warm Showers host. It would be a short day, kinda like a day off.
We started off early in the morning on our short day and although we couldn’t reach the Warm Showers host, a park caretaker told us of a campground at an equestrian farm on the other side of Baton Rouge. As we neared Baton Rouge we had to ride on the sidewalk to avoid the no shouldered, high traffic road, however, even this presented challenges. The sidewalks were broken and sometimes nonexistent in spite of being in a high populated area. Trash was everywhere with homeless people walking the streets and we constantly passed ramshackled buildings, many of which were boarded up. We passed refineries for miles smelling the foul chemicals that filled the air. It was very bleak and just one of the examples of how systematic class and racial policies are destroying our country.
Downtown Baton Rouge was totally different being a University town with cafes, bookstores, restaurants and a thriving economy. Maneuvering through the city was easy with bike lanes on the main streets and we soon found an indoor Farmer’s Market where we had lunch. After eating Mary wanted to get back on the road but I reminded her that we had plenty of time. We rode down to the Mississippi River, walked around a park and took our time before setting out to the campground. The route was on top of the levee with a view of the Mississippi and after a few miles we could see the equestrian farm with all of its land. We rode through the farm stopping off to use the restrooms and then over to where the RVs were parked to find out where the office was. A man gave us directions and pointed to where a man and a woman were standing outside the office. When we asked about a campsite, they said they hadn’t allowed tent camping for the last 5 years. Mary asked if they could make an exception because we were under the impression that your farm did allow camping and now it was getting late and we had no other options. They replied, “No exceptions”. Angry and frustrated we stopped at a bench to make a plan. We checked the maps and determined we had to reach the next town, miles away on ‘the kinda day off’.
What would have been a pleasant ride the next day on top of the levee, was reduced to a late afternoon rushed ride on a highway to St. Gabriel, home of a large casino. Entering the town we saw a gas station in the distance where we could eat dinner. As we ate our fried food it was getting dark and we asked a young man where we could camp for the night. He said to keep out of the town and to find a spot by the levee where no one would bother us. Since we were miles from Baton Rouge the houses were sparse, making this scenario possible. We left the gas station in the dark and started riding on top of the levee until I saw a road leading down to the Mississippi. We glided down the levee, parked our bikes and walked to the river to see if there was a suitable campsite. Our spot was right next to the Mississippi River and a top 10 campsite where we could watch the huge ships and barges float down the river. In the middle of the night there was a loud splash and both Mary and I woke up. “Did you hear that?” There was another and another and we got up to see who or what was doing the splashing. It was very foggy and the light from our headlamps reflected off the fog but we could see it was some type of animal swimming one way and splashing then swimming the other way and splashing, repeating this over and over. We couldn’t quite see it well enough to tell what it was and I said I thought it was a beaver. “But aren’t beavers up north, do they live down here too? Maybe its alligators. Alligators?” ALLIGATORS! We went back to bed hoping and betting on the side of the beavers. In the morning we could see trees that had been chewed by beavers trying to dam the Mississippi, a formable task. We drank our coffee by the side of the river and set our days plan which was to ride a good distance, at least for us, to Lutcher and stay with our Warm Showers host, Dale.
The ride was mostly on the River Road which ran alongside of the levee past and through miles and miles of refineries, one after another. The refineries were on the side of the road opposite the levee and there were numerous pipes of all sizes crossing above the road, over the levee and leading to docking stations on the Mississippi where huge ships could load and unload various chemicals and fuels. The smell of chemicals wafted through the air. This was not an affluent area. We passed poorer housing communities which we assumed housed the plant workers. These were separated by woods and even poorer black communities.
Dale had given us directions to his industrial shop where we were going to stay and we arrived at an unlocked building with piles of usable junk surrounding it. Right away I could tell that Dale and I would have a lot in common and even before we entered the shop I was taking an inventory of the piles. Dale called to see if we made it and to recommend a grocery store around the corner where we could eat dinner and buy food. Mary and I were just sitting down to eat when Dale walked in and the conversation began and continued until the store was closing. We all went back to the shop where the conversation continued. Dale was a builder who could also fabricate things out of metal. He loved bicycle touring and opening up his shop to bikers passing through. Our sleeping quarters that night was a small RV parked inside Dale’s shop.
I hope the rebuilding of our country’s infrastructure can include small shelters for weary travelers to stay in. and in the more urban settings small parks along roads for low cost, low impact camping. This infrastructure would cost little money to build and could make use of composting toilets to avoid costly and many times ineffective septic systems. Travelers could carry in their own food and water, again reducing set-up costs. There could be a no open fire policy, allowing gas cooking stoves and any trash generated would have to be carried out. Organizations such as Warm Showers and small rooms for rent at a fair price could also dot the landscape. In the last 20-30 years science has shown that diverse environments are healthier environments. Evolution has made sure that different plants, animals and microorganisms living and working together fight off disease and benefit each other in ways we are just starting to understand. If we are to mimic a diverse healthy environment then welcoming travelers is a start to a more diversified atmosphere. Imagine, more interesting people meeting more interesting people.
After leaving Dale’s shop we made our way to the local donut shop and met the owner, Charles. His ancestors developed Perique tobacco, an artesian tobacco that is fermented in whiskey barrels and his close relatives are still farming and producing this famous tobacco. Soon we were making our way back to the levee when we stopped and asked a man for directions. He was a plumber who had a trailer filled with tools and some miscellaneous junk and I asked him if he had a hacksaw and any lightweight pipe in his trailer. It didn’t take long before we were fixing the kickstand I had purchased at Walmart which had worked for a short amount of time before falling apart. Further down the road we stopped at a small, sparsely stocked store where we met Leroy and James Brown sitting outside the store. They had ridden over on their old one speed bicycles and were relaxing and enjoying the day. We sat down to eat a snack and James started telling us about how the robins used to fill the field across the street this time of year, but they don’t come anymore. Since winters are warmer, are robins staying further north? We ended the day camping at a KOA before heading to New Orleans.
Helping to fix my newly purchased kickstand
The bike path that went to New Orleans was mostly on top of the levee giving us a pleasant riding experience. When we entered New Orleans we rode through the park where they also had the zoo and saw the necks and heads of two giraffes well above the fence. Weaving our way we zigged zagged through the city until we arrived at the home of Dylan, Mary’s nephew. The house had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina and along with several friends; Dylan bought it and is working to restore it. Mary and I ended the day by walking to the French Quarter to get a feel for the area and to eat dinner. At a restaurant we met Juan Carlos the bartender, who had moved to New Orleans from Chicago. He had become a US citizen and as we began to talk about political issues he expressed his concern for his country of birth, Mexico. He also couldn’t believe that there were so many people in our country that did not vote. “We have such a privilege and it is just taken for granted”. The next day we were up and out early and rode a streetcar to a stop that was a short walking distance from the French Quarter. After breakfast out we met up with Hedges, a roommate of Dylan’s who is a tour guide, for a historical sightseeing tour of the city. Hedges knew quite a bit of the local history and ended his tour at the cemetery where the famous voodoo practitioner, Marie Laveau was buried. We also took in the Pharmacy Museum, an original apothecary which contained medical equipment and medicines from the early years of the city. After dinner that night we sat around a campfire with Dylan and friends talking about the city and how it has changed since Katrina.
Our time in New Orleans was over and Dylan and Hedges described a route we could take out of the city to avoid a bridge that was described by other bike tourers as ‘the worst section of the entire trip’. The route sounded sketchy, however, when facing another crazy bridge there was really no choice. It was Sunday and a great day to leave since there would be little traffic. We were to ride on Alamonaster Road until it ended at a T and across the street would be a funny road, continue onto the funny road and cross the canal on the railroad bridge and you will find Alamonaster Road again once on the other side. Just as they directed, we biked down Alamonaster road until we came to a causeway and we weren’t sure where to go. Looking around we didn’t see any funny roads or railroad tracks. We were trying to make sense of Google Maps when we heard a soft voice, “Can I help you”? Looking around we heard it again, “Can I help you”? It was a woman in a small house right by the causeway sitting on her porch in a wheel chair. I walked over with the tablet-GPS and together found the route, over the causeway with no shoulder to the funny road. When we came to the funny road it was blocked off with a ‘road closed’ sign and after the sign, a gate. We could see a raised drawbridge which when lowered would allow trains to cross the canal. Above the drawbridge was the huge dreaded bridge we were trying to avoid. We really didn’t quite know what to do so we walked our bikes around the sign and the gate and just stood staring up at the drawbridge. Out of nowhere a man ran up to and then climbed a tower and suddenly the drawbridge began to drop. In amazement we walked our bikes to the other side and waved thanks to the operator and continued on. Even on the other side it wasn’t clear where we had to go to find Alamonaster Road. After discussing it we settled on a small single lane, badly paved with dirt patches, a road that actually led us to Alamonaster Road which turned out to be four lanes wide with big shoulders and no traffic. The road ran about 15 miles through an industrial area with many scrap and junk yards before emptying out onto rte. 90.
A few miles from the Mississippi border we camped at an unusual campground. We walked up to the house-office where an older man came out with his parrot. He then had his parrot do some tricks including shooting the bird with his finger and the parrot fell over and played dead. He continued telling us about all of his zoning problems and why there was no shower. We ended up camping in his side yard next to Wendell, a man who is now living in his RV. Wendell had been a machinist working for NASA and in the past made parts used in some of the space shuttles. He purchased the RV after retiring and he planned to travel around the states but as he described it, it was just a ‘pipe dream’. Now, with his pension and social security, he has to pinch pennies to squeak by and was living in the campground. This was our last night in Louisiana.
I have to say, many things about Louisiana were what I expected. I have heard people talk about the friendly atmosphere in addition to the environmental problems due caused by the refineries of the oil and chemical companies. Throughout our country we are experiencing an increasing amount of manmade chemicals in our soils, in our waters and in our bodies. Science experiments often test each chemical only to find there is little effect on the surrounding environment, however, science is also finding out, just as life itself, the chemicals in our environment have different results when they interact with each other. The scientific evidence is mounting in support for the Biome Depletion Theory. It is simply that our immune system has evolved along with microorganisms within our body over the millennia. Over this time period we have come to rely on this mutualistic relationship. Mutualism is a living condition that has two or more lifeforms living together and benefiting each other in a symbiotic relationship. In looking at life forms on a chemical level, science is unraveling the complex web of connections between lifeforms and the synergetic effects of manmade chemicals. There are scientific indications that there are stresses on our immune system due to environmental conditions along with our fixation on sanitation. There is a dramatic rise in food allergies and learning difficulties which are absent in underdeveloped remote cultures that do not have our high degree of sanitation or the industries that fowl their land. According to William Parker of Duke University microorganisms work together with a host to strengthen the host’s immune system to be able to fight the enemies off. This has been demonstrated in mammals and those devoid of microorganisms have a weakened immune system while mammals with natural microorganisms intact demonstrated stronger immune systems. There are many articles on this such as; “Autism on the Rise: A Global Perspective” by Corinne Maguire, in the Harvard College Global Health Review, April 16, 2013. The medical costs to remedy all of the health challenges in our present high throughput culture are rising dramatically. Can we rethink our present day solutions, which usually involves more chemicals, more industry and more medicine?