Day Twenty Eight: New Orleans walkabout

It was strange to be on foot all day yesterday rather than traveling by bike, but we had a lovely time wandering around the city.

We woke early and walked down to the Mississippi river and it was humid – tropical, even, by nine o’clock. Overheard the captain of the steamboat Natchez direct his crew through their drills (“we will now do the man overboard drill”), watched stone carvers put the finishing touches on a monument that is a tribute to immigration (donated by immigrants who arrived here under other presidencies), listened to some good music in the streets including at the National Parks Jazz monument where they had free jazz yoga underway with a ranger playing the piano, walked through the farmers market, and eventually took a break for beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde. The highlight was our stop at Faulkner House Books off of Jackson Square, located in a home where the writer William Faulkner lived for a time. The store is small (max capacity: twelve customers), but impressive, with a great collection of new and rare books. We walked in, looking a little sweaty and ragtag, and Dan asked if they had first editions of Faulkner’s books, and the woman (Joanne) working there said they were in the locked case, and Dan said that well, we were not likely to be buying any, and Joanne said “and I had such high hopes.” That was the start to a great conversation and she later put Dan in charge of the store while she stepped out and returned with a rare first edition of The Sound and the Fury valued at over $19,000. “The past is never dead, it is not even past” is a Faulkner quote that we cited many times as we made our way through Mississippi along the Natchez Trace, and the complex, tragic characters in his novels seemed very real and close by during our time there, so it was great fun to visit the books and rare letters at that lovely little shop.

The afternoon was spent in part by the hotel pool reading, and later I went off to find a salon for a pedicure while Dan took a nap (we are now doing vacation things!) We were delighted to discover prosecco and chocolate-covered strawberries in our room with a congratulatory card from the Gergen-Burkes, which was a very generous surprise, and later headed out for dinner at Herbsaint, which came highly recommended by friend Melissa B. Dan sent her a note telling her we had a reservation for last night, and she replied, “I have three words for you: Get The Gumbo.” And we did, and it was sublime, as was the rest of the meal.

As we sit out on our little patio with coffee this Sunday morning we catch the occasional sounds of the city drifting over us – music from a calliope, horns playing gospel hymns, and it is very peaceful. We are getting ready for more adventures in the city today, including the art museum and Preservation Hall. We are also sending our love and best wishes to Dan’s brother Tom as he sets off today with a group on a transcontinental bike trip…by comparison, our hills were considerably smaller than the mountains he will climb….looking forward to hearing about his adventures from the west to the east coast.

Day Twenty Seven: LaPlace, LA to New Orleans, LA

We woke yesterday, as we have so many mornings in the last month, to the sounds of highway workers who were staying next door at the days comfort super six eight rodeway motel inn getting up at the crack of dawn to get back out to work.

Our typical first thoughts when we woke were on how far we had to ride, what the weather looked like and how soon we had to leave. Then, we’d rise, try to find clean biking clothes, pack our panniers and grab a bite at the free continental breakfast and mount up.

This last morning, though, we knew we only had about 45 miles to ride and that they were largely on the bike path on top of the river levee on the east bank of the Mississippi so we didn’t feel too rushed. We had to return the truck and then find our way to the levee, but got good advice from a lovely former school administrator who was working at the hotel about how to get there easily. It was sunny and hot, even at a little after 9:00 AM.

The lady at the rental place said “you’re riding into New Orleans? That’s a long way!” Then she advised us to go easy on the Hurricanes and sent us on our way.

We found our trail and began a leisurely and thoughtful final day’s ride, except for when it was pouring rain. The levee is about 30 feet high so we had a good view to our right and left.

The Mississippi is really wide here, and deep enough for ocean going vessels to sail twenty miles upstream. The ships are visiting the many chemical and refining and agriprocessing plants that lined the river in our early miles. We rode by Norco, Destrehan, St. Rose, Kenner, and through a variety of environments, from industrial to residential.

On our right was the river, close by and lined by trees and wetlands. On our left, the river road and development. Mixed in with the industry were plantations, strip malls, and around Kenner, really nice residential neighborhoods. We saw lots of birds, including egrets and red-billed ducks and one bright green parrot (or parakeet, but big), and over and between the trees to the right, the smokestacks of huge ships.

We entered the city through the beautiful Audubon Park and then followed St. Charles (we were now sharing the street with traffic) and rode along the streetcar tracks past fabulous homes, block after block. Lisa, who has visited NOLA a few times, started to recognize the neighborhood and soon we were pulling into Jackson Square with its artists and tourists.

It is hard to express what we were feeling as we looked at each other and realized we were done; we are sappy people, and we both got a little teary. We’d ridden 1,427 miles since May 20, through 9 states, on busy highways and county roads, chased by dogs and one goat; we’d crossed and ridden beside countless rivers, the greatest rivers of the heartland, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee; we’d had breakdowns and resolved them with the help and kindness of complete strangers.

And now we were standing at our destination, trying to absorb the moment. We walked around grinning, wanting to tell everyone what we’d done. We grabbed a couple and asked them to take our picture by the Bourbon Street sign and they turned out to be from Wisconsin and had many questions for us.

We walked over to a restaurant where we could hook our bikes up and keep an eye on them and ordered a popcorn shrimp po boy and beer. Of course we told our waiter we’d just arrived on our bikes and he took our picture, and then the manager said to Lisa “I commend you on your travels!”

We walked down Bourbon Street to our hotel, the Royal Sonesta, and rolled our bikes into the fancy lobby. Lisa said “this is the nicest hotel our bikes have ever been in!” The staff knew we’d biked in, and had received the bag that Lisa’s sister had shipped down with regular clothes. I’d also spoken the night before with one of the desk managers, Rita, who recognized that my name was Norwegian (she came from Norway) and she actually recognized us right away. (There weren’t too many others in the lobby who looked like us.) We sat out in the courtyard and waited a while for the room to get ready, and then Rita and Brian, the hotel’s Director of Rooms, came out and told us that they’d upgraded us to a two story room opening on to a small private patio. We were gobsmacked as the bellman took us to the beautiful room. He said that in 45 years working at the hotel, he’d only seen people arrive by bike three times.

After we showered (and got into clothes that weren’t Lycra) we walked down to the Spotted Cat for music and to meet our friend Carlos, who’d bused to NOLA from Natchez. As many possibilities as there were for fun last night, Lisa and I started to flag at 9:30 and we ended up walking home and climbing into a huge comfortable bed for a long night’s sleep. We are in New Orleans till Tuesday and have a long list of music, food and museums to experience. We might even ride those bikes one more time before we ship them home.

Day Twenty Six: Natchez to Laplace, LA, mostly by U-Haul

So we went out to dinner tonight in a ten foot U-Haul truck.

The restaurant, Frenier Landing, was on Lake Pontchartrain, a couple of miles from the motel where we are staying, next to some swampland, and the night air was humid and heavy. We were amazed by the size of the dragonflies there; they looked like small birds. Dan had gumbo with alligator sausage and I had a delicious crab salad with remoulade, and no one really seemed to look twice at our vehicle as we climbed out of it, though I thought it was sort of hilarious.

We took yesterday off after twelve days of riding. It was Dan’s birthday, and we had a lovely room for two nights at the Dunleith Inn in Natchez. After breakfast we had a tour of the inn and visited some other historic sites and had to do mundane things like laundry, and then had an opportunity to reconsider our 240 mile or so route into New Orleans again, which we have changed several times. While talking this through, it became clear that one of us was ready to be done with biking, and the other was not. So we worked to figure out a compromise.

We decided that leapfrogging ahead through Baton Rouge would get us past the many miles of rural roads without services in rural Mississippi and Louisiana on the route, as well as getting us past some expected storms, and would let us finish our ride into New Orleans along the levee. So when we woke up this morning we immediately started making phone calls. First to the one car rental agency in town, Enterprise, to see if they had a car or SUV that we could rent (answer: no, they had nothing available until Saturday), then to Downtown Carla Brown’s shuttle service (answer: no, she was in Nashville delivering some cyclists doing the Trace but she could take us to Brookhaven to get on an Amtrak on Friday), and then to the Rock and Roll Taxi service (answer: yes, they would take us to Baton Rouge after 4 o’clock but could not take our bikes). So then we started considering other options…and U-Haul seemed pretty attractive. They offer one-way drop off, plus enough space to fit a couple of bikes in the back of their trucks, and there are lots of U-Haul offices in the region. The lovely woman at the Natchez U-Haul, Linda, said they had a truck available and quoted us a price and after breakfast in the Dunleith Castle we loaded up our bikes and rode out to highway 61.

Unfortunately, Linda discovered she was wrong when we got there… there wasn’t a truck that we could take without messing up other people’s plans. She was really apologetic and started making phone calls in between people coming in to pay bills and Fed Ex packages (the other part of the business) to see if she could find another truck for us, and eventually found one about 15 miles west in Ferriday. To get there, we would have to ride across a bridge that was under construction. By this time there was an older guy sitting at the other desk behind the counter (who looked like he could be Joe Biden’s brother), and he kind of quietly suggested that he didn’t think they were letting bikes on the bridge, and said he would check with the U-Haul in Woodville, about 35 miles south on 61. He found they had a 10 foot truck we could rent, so now the trick was to get us there before they closed for the day. And then he very kindly offered to drive us there…turned out Mike was the owner of the business and had a pickup and could take us and our bikes there in between some lawn mowing and other duties. His sidekick was a 15 year old boy who was wide eyed and quiet and watched as we strapped our bikes to Mike’s trailer, then came along for the ride.

It was a very pleasant trip, a beautiful wooded stretch of highway 61 that would have been a challenge on bikes only because there wasn’t much of a shoulder to ride on, and Mike had lots of stories including one about finding a still in those woods when he was a kid, and his dad called the police to let them know, and they smashed it up, and his dad later turned the barrel into a coffee table. The U-Haul office was in a small fitness center next to a Sonic Drive In and we got our gear and bikes out of the truck and profusely thanked Mike, who didn’t want any money for driving us though we persuaded him to at least let us pay for his lunch.

The rest of the day was spent driving down highway 61 in our big old truck, listening to NPR, stopping at the state line, drinking sweet tea under a giant oak tree in St. Francisville, and looking out at a landscape with sugarcane fields and refineries and lots of truck stops and strip malls. We drove through a torrential rainstorm and were sort of glad not to be on our bikes, though I confessed to Dan that missed it, I missed the intimacy with the landscape that is part and parcel of traveling by bike.

Tomorrow we will be riding along the river again…looking forward to it.

Day Twenty Five: day off in Natchez, MS

We took today off, partly because it was my birthday and also because we’ve ridden 12 days straight. We reached the end of the Natchez Trace yesterday and celebrated with Carlos last night. It was so great to sleep in a terrific bed in the “Dairy Barn” (rather than the main house.) We are waking earlier than we used to, but we dawdled for a while before heading over to a delicious breakfast in the restaurant.

Then we toured the house with a retired judge who was from a tenth generation Natchez family. He knew the people who used to own the house (he roomed at Ole Miss with one of the sons of the family and said they used to get as “drunk as goats” in the place while in college.)

He said no one around here calls these houses “mansions” – “they are just houses…big houses, for sure, but just houses.” (Between you and me, this is most definitely a mansion.)

We rode our bikes a few miles to the laundromat and took care of our few clothes. Then we cycled through downtown again, and stopped in at a museum dedicated to William Johnson, a freed slave who became wealthy as a barber and left a record of his life in diaries.

Then back to the pool.

The topic of conversation this afternoon was our next steps. We have a hotel in New Orleans for Saturday night. New Orleans is roughly 230 miles away so those would be three long days.

I knew that when planning this leg last winter, but now that it is here, it seems really daunting. We are off the Trace, so are back to more complicated navigation, dealing with Louisiana dogs (who have a reputation) and the daily predicted thunderstorms. I’m ready for New Orleans, honestly. Lisa feels pretty strongly about riding into the city. So we are looking at the logistics of various scenarios which might satisfy us both.

We walked back to the river to dine at the Magnolia Grill on Silver Street (also known as Natchez-Under-the-Hill) and Lisa surprised me with gifts. After some local music, we rode home again with Natchez’ Rock and Roll taxi. We got out of the car to the very loud sounds of tree frogs, or insects. I’ll include a ten second day clip of the night sounds.

It was an unusual birthday, for sure, and a very good one.

Day Twenty Four: Port Gibson to Natchez, MS

I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” on this trip, and it has provided a thoughtful perspective on what it is to be traveling through unknown terrain, whether geographical or psychological. She notes:

“Lost is mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all of the metaphorical and metaphysical states of being lost as it does to blundering around the backcountry…. The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

We have been lost, and uncertain, and uncomfortable, on this trip — even given all of the maps and technology and planning and arrangements — and have experienced discomfort, as well as a rich life of discovery as a result.

This afternoon we finished our ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway, and felt both giddiness and loss as we counted down the mile markers to zero …. it was a tremendous biking experience. For more than 400 miles we were on a nationally maintained, historic roadway and the land adjacent to it. We entered it in the same way we started off on all of the other parts of the trip — with some sense of the towns and sights along it and high hopes for light traffic — but what we did not expect before starting was the quiet that we frequently experienced. Sometimes 15 minutes or more would pass before we would see a car or truck or RV, and in that time we would hear the quiet whir of our bike tires on pavement and the clink of our shifting gears, and the sounds and songs of birds in the woods around us, and maybe a far off tractor or mower, or water dripping off of rocks, or a cow or rooster making itself known.

We spoke with a group of lovely Belgian cyclists last night and at various points today at length as we compared our journeys, and they they too remarked on how amazing this was, the best biking they have experienced, and this in the context of many other cycling trips in Asia and Europe and better known places in the U.S. We did experience dry weather and blue skies most of the time, and that contributed to the overall satisfaction for us all, I think.

Our day started in our antebellum bed and breakfast in Port Gibson, where our young host served us bacon and eggs and berries in a dining room built in the 1700s and talked with us about his decision to buy the house and move there from Minnetonka, MN. The house had fifteen foot ceilings and beautiful details and no nails were used in its construction, only wooden pegs. We walked down his long, hilly gravel driveway after saying goodbye to him and his lively Golden Retrievers, and rode south toward Natchez.

The trip was a short one by comparison to other days though we felt a bit tired and ready for a break, which we experienced as soon as we entered Natchez. It is a beautiful river city, with amazing historic homes and streets lined with flowering trees and bushes, and we are staying at the Dunleith Inn which is quite posh by comparison to most of our accommodations this far. We are in the Dairy Building, and evidently the inn’s more notable guests (Mick Jagger, Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser) have stayed in the main house. Loved having the pool to ourselves before walking back into town to meet our friend Carlos for dinner along the river. He has been great company, a true companion and a lively storyteller, and we look forward to seeing him again in a few days in New Orleans.

The day ended with a ride back to the inn in the town Rock and Roll Taxi, with an older fellow who was playing great music. Dan asked him about Jerry Lee Lewis, who played his first gig down the street from where we had dinner when he was 13, and our driver went on to tell us that he first heard Elvis perform on a hayride, together with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, for $1 some years back.

Looking forward to more adventures in Natchez tomorrow….

Day Twenty Three: Clinton, MS to Port Gibson, MS

We left Clinton in rather heavy traffic this Monday morning, but after we crossed I-20, it dropped off dramatically. We were also happy to run into our friend Carlos and we chatted a while on that overpass. When we realized we were both staying in Port Gibson, we decided we’d dine together at the end of the day. And then we rode together off and on over the miles.

The day was overcast, but sultry and sticky. We were expecting storms and kept watching the sky, but it did not seem threatening at all. We cruised along between the green woods, so deep and dark. The trees are a mix of hardwoods and southern pines, many with vines, kudzu or moss draped from the branches. The woods are silent, except for the sounds of birds, insects, frogs and toads and who knows what else, so not silent at all, but with no human sounds. It feels sometimes like we are riding through a jungle. We ride through tunnels of green arching trees and then out into the sunny open fields of corn or tobacco. I think we both feel the silent ghosts of the dead of “the war.” (When the war is mentioned here, it is only the Civil War that is referred to. William Faulkner said “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past” and that is clearly true,)

At one point yesterday, partly as a way to pass the time, I recited to Lisa one of the few poems I know by heart – “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (W. B. Yeats, who was also born on June 13) – in it are the haunting lines which I imagine applied to many of those soldiers – “Those that I fight I do not hate/those that I guard I do not love.” We can feel the almost overwhelming sadness buried in these fields and forests.

And here’s another, more mundane observation – our bikes, too, are absolutely silent. The pleasure I get from a silent bicycle is hard to describe – think of all the moving parts, metal against metal, bearings and hubs, pedals, crank, chain…all operating quietly and reliably mile after mile and all the rider hears is rubber rolling over asphalt. It is a beautiful thing to be rolling through these deep dark green woods in this lovely mechanical silence. OK, I did have a flat today, so that might dim the romance a bit. My tubes have a few thousand miles on them and the problem was right at the valve (rather than a puncture) and I had it replaced in about fifteen (oh, maybe twenty) minutes and we were rolling again. It was normal and to be expected, so my respect for the machine was intact.

Songs about rain were in my head. Jesse Winchester’s “Biloxi” – “and the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans” and Jodee Messina’s “Bring On The Rain” – “tomorrow’s another day, and I’m thirsty anyway, so bring on the rain” and, the best, John Hiatt’s “It Feels Like Rain” – “Love comes out of nowhere, baby, just like a hurricane…and it feels like rain…”

(I’m kind of partial to the Buddy Guy version of that Hiatt song with my long and unrequited love Bonnie Raitt on guitar but the original is also great.)

Riding these last few days, after some very intense hills early on our trip (the hills of northeastern Iowa and south out of Hannibal, which were so steep we had to walk them) – the hills we’ve had lately have been more subtle. I’ve sometimes even had trouble telling whether we were going uphill or down or just staying level. Have you skied under a full moon in the winter and lost your sense of depth and rise and fall? It is like that. I’ve the strange and entirely pleasant sensation of coasting uphill. I guess that’s what hundreds of hours behind the bars does to one’s brain.

We arrived at our antebellum mansion early in the afternoon and found a beautiful and large house on a hill on the edge of this small town. We, as always, asked about beer, and after we unloaded our bikes, I rode into town for those supplies. I have to say, we’ve been drinking (and eating) way less than usual, but cold beer after a long hot bike ride is essential. Once we have that and we shower, we are back to normal, regardless of what happened on the road.

We had a couple of hours to relax and chat with the owner of our inn (who was originally from Minnetonka and his mother was from Northfield) then walked to meet Carlos, who is staying at a different inn, along with the Belgians we met a few days ago and got Chinese take out and sat on his porch eating and talking. The expected storm came and was fierce but short lived (we were very glad not to be out in it, either on bikes or in a tent.) Carlos has been a delightful friend on this leg of our trip, and we hope to have a final meal with him tomorrow in Natchez, at the end of his ride. (Final only till we visit him in Fairfax, VA, that is.)

So, we are now under 40 miles from Natchez, the terminus of the southward bound Trace. We’ll finally get a day off there.