Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Day 39-45 & July 2011-July 2012: Caught up, finally

I know it's been awhile since my last post, and I apologize.  I have finally made it over the worst and had some of the best this year and I'm here to catch you up, if you're interested.  So, here goes.  And check back again soon as I'm getting into this travel writer thing and I'll have much more coming.

The tour took seven more days to complete.  Six-hundred-thirty six miles from NOLA to the old (as in, original European settlement in North America) northeastern port town of St. Augustine, FL.  It was over one-hundred degrees most days - in the sun - and I literally wobbled through the thick humidity from campsite to gas-station to campsite, with a few fresh springs in between.  Afterwards, I
convalesced at Casa Yallaha, a long standing hippy hostel, for a few 
days in that crazy pirate town, was taken in by a host in Jacksonville for a night, and flew home to be with my family for a week, struck with recent news of serious illness among our numbers.  

Then, though I was feeling a little weary and definitely physically discombobulated, I left my touring bike behind in Idaho, packed my track bike in a box, and headed to San Francisco for a big urban bike party, that lasted more or less this whole last year.  I should stress less, because there has been very little partying in the traditional sense.

But, it was still a year for bikes and celebrating.  And getting down with the Bay Area.  I got a job at a bike shoe company called DZR, fell in love, ran around crazy trying to get my feet on the ground in SF (by getting an apartment, which took 9 months), then ended up leaving that job, that apartment (but not the man) and found another, less glamourous job at REI that is allowing me to get up and go yet again, to Chicago.

I plan on being in Chicago for awhile, but that's a generous word for my globetrotting existence.  I will be flying to and fro when I can scrounge up the cash or find a backdoor; to SF, Boise, and Abu Dhabi most likely in the next year.  (From whence I intend to do more bicycle touring back in the Mideast.)  Meanwhile, I will be alternately grateful and cranky, drink way too much caffeine, and ride my bike a little too far.


I choked a couple tears when I arrived at the little boardwalk that day in St. Augustine last June, which took me down to the water and the end of my ride.  There was an elderly man with a metal detector scanning the beach.  And, a few young children splashing in the shallow water.  The sun was soon to set, and some fresh-looking ladies with sun-hats and flowing white clothes took my picture.  I took everything off my bicycle and carried it down the sand to touch the water, too.  Then I sat there in the rising tide, buried my toes in the shell-gravel and wondered what it was I had just accomplished.

It's been a year, and I still don't know.  But I know I did it!

Photos: (in descending order) One Post, San Francisco as cyclists navigate the chaos at the beginning of an alleycat; Me helping out, posing in DZR Zurich boots for some promos; Minna St, where the DZR showroom is located above the Hunan Chinese restaurant; Villano Beach, St. Augustine, FL; Me At the Beach (so sorry for the blinding belly, lost my riding shirt two days left on the tour!); The pet parrots of my hosts in Jacksonville

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 37-38: Rebirth

Rebirth is a band, a staple of New Orleans since 1984, started in 1982, brass, of course, and rad.  But my first few hours there felt a bit like a being reborn process for me.  That knowing, that I'd found another home, spoke to in my last post.

The band, though, the band.  Wow.  They are gods of music.  I thank my host, Dain, for taking me to see them this, my second night.  They play every Tuesday they're in town at the Maple Leaf, in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown (they are almost on a constant tour of North America and Europe, very prolific).  A longstanding, classic, and heavily attended event, it is considered a good intro for newcomers to New Orleans nightlife and music, but also loyally attended by locals, and super, SUPER, fun.  I stood in that crowded little bar, dancing throughout the while, for hours, jaw dropped at the performance before me.  And the loving-life around me.  That's the thing about New Orleans, that I noticed.  No one was sitting, moping at the bar or standing round the edges--everyone, it seemed, had a smile on their face or were laughing, bouncing, talking boisterous, whether it was at a show or dive bar.  R Bar, where we went later--"R" for Royal St, at Frenchman-- is a real down-home watering hole, where I felt instantly comfortable and made lots of friends.  I went again the next night just to write and hang out and ended up rallying and running around with some folks to see mas musica on the outskirts of the French Quarter.

I did a couple of other predictable, but delicious things, like getting a coffee and beignets (French doughnuts of fried bread and powdered sugar) at Cafe du Monde, and eating gumbo.  But the latter my friend made, and the truth is, most people do make and eat a lot of the traditional foods of the area.  They're proud, and participate, still, though there's plenty that goes beyond that.

On the third day, my second full day, I walked around in the CBD, or downtown, used the library, and ended up at a concert in the park.  Cops passed by as people swirled each other on moving sculptures in a square nearby, and beads were to be seen everywhere tucked in corners.

There was a lot of poverty; buildings, people, processes, that need to be addressed.  But, even as I contemplated moving there, it did not seem as hopeless and depressing as the increasing disparity of wealth which I've seen in nearly every other city.  It's going through rebirth, it's got energy.  And I want to be there.

Day 35, 36: The magic of the bayou, Morgan City through The Atchafalaya basin to New Orleans

Day 35:  I set out from Lake Arthur early in the morning and by mid-day covered the 50-odd miles to New Iberia.  I stopped off at the Visitor's Center, to get out of the heat, and get a read on a camp.

Two hours later, I was still there.  I simply could not leave the little rocking chair, on the porch, where I was reading a local magazine.  But, by four I knew I needed to eat and hit the road again.  Where to camp?!! There was a state park twenty miles out of the way, where they didn't allow tent camping, but I could put a tent up outside the gates, for free.  Then there was Morgan City.

I go through town, towards both highways, and at the fork, go straight.  I was trying to be smart, go towards the state park.  But then something compelled me to turn around, continue on track down the 90E.  (Again, I think I'm just stubborn, and I can always find a grove of trees.  Though, I thought, there are lots of alligators and snakes.  Oh well, this is an adventure, isn't it?)  There were 40 miles to cover to a campground at Morgan City, then I'd just have one more day to New Orleans.

It was a good road, but after about forty-five minutes and ten miles, I hit construction, the sun was beginning to slip and I knew it: flat tire.  I was on a frontage road, no shade, really beat, so got off the bike and thought I'd walk a few minutes.  At least find a tree to get under.

Not two minutes and I heard a quick bleep, a sort of truck siren, and a white truck was coming towards me.  A young man hopped out.  Showed me his ID; said he and his girlfriend, were headed to Morgan City.    

Wowee, am I lucky!

It didn't feel at all like cheating.  But especially because of what happened later.  Without any solicitation, again, these good samaritans and kind Louisianans, took me off the street.  I'd been wishing there was some way I could go out on the water, and again, without me saying a word, expecting to be dropped off at the camp, the couple decided they wanted to pick up their ski-doo and take me out on the water.  An hour later, I was riding, at seventy-miles an hour, across the waters of the bayou, smiling wide, but also stunned.  How could this be happening, how and why are people coming out of the woodwork, being so good to me?  And how, how does anyone live anywhere else besides this, this beautiful place?

more pictures later, or let your imagination run wild, to do it justice

We stopped at a bar, called the Mosquito, had a drink, talked it up with the other barflies and the lady owners. Then we went into town to help his family move some furniture.  They were getting the floors waxed the next day.  

We had a late meal at an old diner and, super exhausted, all of us, passed out in his home on stilts, right next to the water.  It was like sleeping in a tree.


Woke up late.  Cool, dark, air-conditioning.  But I was eager.  I couldn't believe it.  Today I would make it to the Crescent City.

They were all kinds of helpful in getting me situated for the ride.  They even wanted to run me over to the local Walmart for a fresh tube, but I declined.  I was kind of attached to my tube, with all it's patches.  And somehow, I knew, the flat queens would be good to me.  I would make it.

I'm riding, making good time, thrilled by the ride on the raised waterways over the Atchafalaya basin.  Then I checked my phone.  I had a text message, had forgotten my tire lever.  They wanted to bring it to me!  I was about thirty miles out by that time and called, "Please, please, don't worry, I can't put you out like that."  But they were insistent, and excited to be a part of this big day.  There was something in the air...

Heat.  No, I kid.  But they did meet me.  They drove past and yelled out, "Meet us at Spahrs!"

I had told them I'd yet to have good seafood and they wanted to make sure I had some.  It was the perfect spot.  Literally dripping, my calves and shins covered in mud, my face red as a beet and my shorts and top wet with sweat, I slipped into the bathroom of this casual, but nice, spot, on the water, where you could look out at birds and alligators, and cleaned up.  I was in the riding zone and felt a little out of place, but it was a fantastic, giant meal of catfish and shrimp and I couldn't have been set more straight for the day.

We said goodbye again, with the possibility of meeting later, in the city.

I arrived, at the outskirts, two hours later, and both my body and mind immediately breathed easier.  I loved the architecture, even on the West Bank.  Then the ferry ride...well, let's just say it was a mile marker.

There were only a few of us on board, and the other set was a family, the father a professional photographer and cyclist.  It felt like another of those fated things, or just a pleasant coincidence.  We chatted it up, then I let the wind and the spray of the water cool me as I watched downtown, and the famous/infamous French Quarter come into focus.

It was a short ride, from Gretna boarding station a few miles across and down the banks of the Mississippi.  I disembarked and felt like I was tumbling, into the energy of Canal Street.  The balconies, flowers, uneven, brick and cobble and asphalt streets, the rogue beads (which, actually, I would see along the road all the way through Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and had seen on my way in); it was all as they say it is.  But they can't tell you how it feels.  That is, how it hears.  I've gushed enough, you know it, the music of New Orleans.

This fall, I'll be moving there, for awhile.  And I knew it that day.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Day 34: Vinton to Lake Arthur, via "The Bridge Crossing" of Lake Charles

This morning started at Nibletts Bluff Park, from there I headed down the beautiful, shady county road, then was back on the main highway, 90E towards Lake Charles. 

The roads got even worse than they were the day before, just covered in debris and very confusing around the water.    By 8am it was well over 90 degrees, 76% humidity, and I had to get to Lake Charles (the township) within a few hours.  Trying to get across the lake was proving nigh impossible.  But, one lady at a truck stop said she was training to be a cop and the law states one can walk across the interstate bridges (which was the only one, distance around 3/4 of a mile), pushing the bike, but not to get on it.

As I approached the bridge, I was terrified.  It was non-stop, huge truck traffic, and the noise was deafening.  But, it was around a hundred and there were no signs stopping me, and a narrow raised sidewalk.  There was nothing to be done, I hopped off the bike and hopped on it.  Those were some of the more terrifying twenty moments of my life.  I'm a tiny bit afraid of heights, the bridge rumbled constantly, and one slip or tilt of the bike and I was a gone-er.  But, it really wasn't that dramatic.  I mainly just felt a little stupid.

See, most of the folks that cross Louisiana via the Southern Tier route do so farther north.  So, I felt, again, I might have been too independent.

Later that night, I changed my mind.

Lake Charles was a low point, I didn't think I could go on.  The heat, the bad food, my dwindling budget.  All the weird people loitering at the grocery store, the library, leering, but not talking to me.  The bad riding, and walking made me feel isolated and weary.

Lake Charles actually had quite a nice downtown--historic, but happening, lots of fun restaurants, cool shops, the like.  But, I'd become quite un-civilized by that point, and had no part of it.  I was wiped out, but, there was nothing to do but ride.

I couldn't bring myself out to ride again, though, until 5:00pm.  There were no campgrounds, nothing really but rice paddies and swamp-ground for something like 35, forty miles.  But it was flat, and the road was a scenic one, for Louisiana, fairly nice.  (LA, I adore, but the roads aren't notorious for nothing.  Though I don't blame them down there; they have way more to fight.  That water factor is monstrous.)  I found my third reserve of fuel, got into a rhythm of faster, and with the sundown cooling, and a fear of alligators eating me, rode to Shady Shores, an RV Park, outside Lake Arthur, in a two-and-a-half hours.

Now this place was shady, and swampy.  Bugs crawling up and down the walls of the bathroom, trees growing out of the water.  Old boats parked on the lawn near a rickety dock.  But it was absolutely beautiful, magical even, all this under a reddening sun over the silver-gray swamp-water...

Then the mosquitos started biting, and I quickly located a resident, who happened to be the host.  Tommy, who pointed a few hundred yards over to where I could put up my tent, and after I asked about food, said there wasn't any nearby, but would I like to come in for Hamburger Helper?  (Note: I had emergency rations, but I was so tired of eating, and especially eating those, that I'd just as soon have gone without, and often did.  When I arrived at a camp, though, I always asked about nearby possibilities, just to see if I could spark some interest.  I'd really lost my appetite in general by this point, so hot and tired and sick of gas stations and minimarts.  But, you know you have to eat.  Like not putting gas in a car, someone told me, you'll just plum putter out.)  I said, "Golly, thank you!" and, though I was tired, try not to miss out on the opportunity to meet and talk with people who live in the areas I'm traveling.  I agreed to shower and put up my tent then come over.

Turns out, he was being quite the gentleman, or his wife sent him, and pulled the truck over to pick me up (remember I told you how it was about a 1 minute walk.)  I couldn't believe it, in that short time, Christine, his wife had prepared a gigantic bag (really, actually, so much I had to give some back, I couldn't carry it) of cookies, chips, and candy--"I made you a care package!" she said, and hugged me, not once, but twice, as I entered.

Their place was tidy, but full of life.  Christine has a ballcap and trucker/hunting hat collection, and that covered part of one wall.  They rescue cats, and had two at that present.  We hung out, drank Busch Light, and they served me up that super salty, carby Helper, two servings.  And we talked for an hour: about my ride, their other drop-ins, and their lives and families, being raised in the area, relocated a couple times by hurricanes.   I glimpsed overall just a scoch more of what it is to be Cajun.

It was getting late, and Christine was getting tired.  They took my information and I theirs, making me promise to call when I made it home.  In one last incredible stroke of generosity, Christine called her work, the Tiger Mart, and left a message for the woman who'd be working in the morning: Michele is coming in.  She's a traveling cyclist.  I'd like to buy her breakfast.  Give her whatever she wants.  Put it on my account."

I awoke to the most serenity I've experienced in awhile.  

I stood out there on that dock for as long as I could, the mysteries of swamp life--both human and other-worldly biological--until the sun and my stomach started growling.

Wet tent packed up, wet bike, I rode the few miles to Tiger Mart:

I had a sausage biscuit, orange juice, and coffee, sat and talked with more locals for a minute, then headed further southeast, to New Iberia.

The trip had gotten awesome again, my travel energy renewed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 33; Texas, please, let me go...into the Bayou and the rain

Today was another long one, the roads despising me.  Hot, and difficult to find my way around the metropolitan area of Beaumont, across waters with supposedly impassable bridges.  It was hellacious.  Until it rained.  That was a glorious rain, a real shower, cooling my head and my heart.  I passed into Louisiana on the 12E, into the swamps, otherwise known as the bayous, and despite having another slow leak, enjoyed the winding road to Niblett Bluff Park and truly reveled in the night of loud noises, muggy air, and mosquites.

I woke up drenched, my tent soaked, and everything I had to put on, already wet, nevermind me sweating.  But at least I was in Louisiana!

32: Cleveland, TX; Flat tires, a young guitar player, and many more biscuits and gravy

This was another one of those days.  Hot air and flat tires and being cut-off early.  But, also, for making connections.

So, I start out brilliantly, with a great breakfast and good people in Montgomery.  I make great time and start riding through the trees.  45 miles in like two and half hours, so I stop at a gas station after going through Cleveland town proper, to get a drink and some icecream.  I have a great conversation with the Pakistani owner, who gives me my refreshments on the house.  I had a long day planned, and feel the kick, that I'm going to make it.  About ten feet from the turnoff to the station, my tire goes flat.

I accept it, this is the name of the game on this trip, the flip from bad to good in mere seconds.  I'm getting better at dealing with the rollercoastering.  So, I simply get off the bike, walk back to the shade on the side of the building and, though I pretend to be stoic, somewhat grumbling, investigate.  A fish hook!  Of course!  This was also a bait shop; in the fridge next to the red bull were containers of live worms and on the aisle across from the candybars flys and rods and hats.

Covered in grease, patch applied, I struggle to get the tire back on, finally do it when a man on his way out asks if I need any help, says he's sort of the local bike guy.  I tell him thank you, thank you, but it looks like I might have got it.  I reunite with the station attendant, who thought I was long gone, not out causing trouble in his parking lot, wash me hands and set off again.

So proud to have successfully managed the change in under thirty minutes, I'm almost singing, though drenched in sweat from the thickening humidity, when I turn onto a new, even sunnier highway and about five miles later feel the wobble again.  Oh, this is going to be unpleasant, I thought; I knew I'd probably pinched the tube or something (though how it could have held up for fifteen miles if that was the case is hard to say.)  Anyway, I start to change the tire again.  I find two other holes, patch them, and am wrestling the tire on, when a car pulls up.

"We have to stop meeting like this," the man says.  It was the same fellow from up the road.

He and his wife step out, introduce themselves, and say, "Come on, get in, we live a couple miles down the road.  Let's take the bike, get out of the heat, have something to eat and we'll get you off and running again.  This time, I take them up on their offer.

Juan and Marsha Beltran, and their brilliant son Jacob were such cool cats when they asked if I'd like to just stay for the night, start out again early, I, again, took them up on it.  Plus, I was feeling a little ill.  Sometimes I think Texas was a big monster trying to eat me, and it was quite nice to hide from him.  Besides, I never knew how, but at the start of each leg (roughly each week), I planned for an unexpected half or full day's break somewhere in the middle.

Jacob and I hung out, he played me some music, showed me his wall of fame--personal fame, or the little things he'd found iconic in his life.  He took my patchy, useless bike tube (we bought a fresh one), and put it up there.  I was so honored, so amused, so touched.

I hope I get to see those guys again, maybe at one of Jacob's concerts, when he's famous!

Day 31: 105 miles into Texas forest country

Due to resting up and the short ride before, I was able to cover some ground today.  And it was a gorgeous ride, very green.  Lots of farmland, cows, trees, and at the end, the smell of pine trees, which always calms me.  I was worried I wouldn't make it to the state park to camp, but I couldn't get too worked up because the sunset, the cooling air, and the feeling of being in the mountains was too serene.

When I arrived in Montgomery, I thought I'd look around for a city park, instead.  First stop, groceries.  I asked there about the local rules on camping, or if anyone knew of a nearby place, but there were mostly blank stares.  Then there was talk of a nearby KOA, but as they are so overpriced, the checker had another idea,

"Ask the fire department.  They're just down the road."

I didn't see anyone outside, and I was tired, it was getting late, I kept on going, not knowing exactly how far I had to go to reach the KOA.  Then something hit me, a burst of confidence, I suppose, and I turned back around.  I pulled my bike up to the front, then around by the garage.  Still nobody.  I was about to ride away when two young guys came out.  I apologized for bothering them, but explained my situation.  They, too, directed me to the KOA, but said it was only about a mile.  I would make it, no problem.

I thanked them, crossed the highway, and pedalled up to the indeed very close by registration.  Then, a fire truck, a small one, pulled up behind me;

"Hey there, uh, we ran it by our Captain and he said over in Navasota [the town before them, to the west, on the same highway] they do it all the time, take in cyclists.  You're welcome to stay with us."

And I rode back into the sunset.  Another lucky break.  Another swell of human kindness to which I am greatly indebted.

The fellows on the nightshift had made barbeque chicken and potatoes and graciously served me some after I'd had a shower and got situated in my little room/office with a murphy bed.  I got a tour of the complex and some area history, especially around the procedures and recent dealings with natural disasters (ie Hurricane Ike and Rita.)  I slept soundly except for one call in the middle of the night that started the sirens.

In the morning, it was the next shift, and they insisted one must have some grease to get started.  It was a deliciously filling biscuits, gravy, and bacon that got me, again, on my way.

Thank you, thank you, to the Montgomery, TX Fire Department, especially Larry, Joseph, and Captain Devon.