Thursday, March 6, 2008

New Orleans

My day didn’t start all that well as the first several miles of road out of town was being redone. It had been stripped but not yet repaved. It made for a slow bumpy ride. Further on, one lane of a bridge was closed as well. It actually worked out as I tagged along after a group of cars went over.

I rode along a series of shipyards to start the day. For several weeks prior as I rode through the west, I was following the rail route. The game had now changed as it was about water transportation. Barges coming down the Mississippi, container ships being loaded up and sent off to who knows where? You may not think about how those kids’s toys or your new plasma TV made its way over from China, but chances are it came over in a shipping container. The standardization of freight containers was a huge leap forward for cargo transport. Containers from anywhere in the world can be moved from ship to train to truck. When standards were finally set, transport costs were slashed and it’s the reason that we are able to purchase so many foreign products cheaply. Having cheap labor is one thing, but if it costs a fortune to ship from there, it doesn’t help. When the packaging for some products is designed, the engineers take into account what the best dimensions for the package are based on how they can maximize the number that will fit in a shipping container.

As I rode on, I passed a woman who was collecting cans on the side of the road. I slowed to say hello and all I heard her say was “watch out" so I turned around and asked what was up. She told me that there was a 14 to 16 foot alligator up on the side of the road just ahead and it was aggressive. Whether it was 16 feet or 6, I really didn’t want to be anywhere near the thing. Now not only did I have to watch out for maniac drivers, but I had to be on the lookout for alligators as well. I rode in the dead center of the road for the next few miles, traffic be damned, but saw no sign of the gator. I eyed every downed tree limb and half submerged tire with a suspicious glance.

In some backwoods town I stopped to pick up a Gatorade, but there wasn’t much of a selection. There was however Night Train, Thunderbird, Boones Farm and six different flavors of Mad Dog 20/20. I didn’t know they still made any of those.

With all the talk of fire and brimstone in getting to New Orleans on a bike, I was pleasantly surprised as it was not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. Route 90, the road on which I rode for a majority of the day was in the process of being turned into an Interstate, so in the future that will preclude the use of the road to get to New Orleans on a bike.

Around midday I called a bike shop that had been closed the previous day. I spoke to a guy named Joe who had done a significant amount of long distance riding and was very familiar with New Orleans. While he mentioned that arriving from the southwest wasn’t ideal, he said it was possible and even legal, providing I took the ferry across the river.

As I arrived in the New Orleans area I had to cross two bridges that had large ”no bicycles" signs guarding the front of them. The bridges were small in comparison to the bridge of death in Lake Charles, so a non-event really.

Eventually I made it to the levee of the Mississippi River just across from New Orleans proper. As I looked down on the Mississippi I was thinking, “I want to kayak down that? What the hell am I thinking? I first had to survive the rest of the bike ride and then a 2,175-mile hike.

The levee path took me right to the ferry dock. I caught the timing for the 3:30 ferry perfectly. It was just about to leave when I hopped on. The ferry actually brought me dead west, so it was bringing me farther away from my destination, not closer. I will use that to reduce the cognitive dissonance of taking a ferry on a cycling trip.

After I crossed the river I had to wait for a freight train to pass. The train seemingly took 10 minutes. Rain was in the forecast and the sky was getting dark. I did however stop in the bike shop in which Joe worked to thank him in person for the directions. Joe was kind enough to give me direction out of New Orleans as well. He explained that the normal bike bridge leaving New Orleans had been out since Katrina came through, so a less than desirable detour was in order. One of his buddies called the Department of Transportation just to check and the DOT confirmed that it was closed. Argh!

I wouldn’t have minded sticking around a bit to swap stories, but rain was threatening. I would also have liked to do a lap around the French Quarter, as it had been a couple of years since I had been to New Orleans, but I would be back...in a kayak.

I had planned on staying in the northeast section of New Orleans so as to give me a jump of getting out of town in the morning. The area had been absolutely pounded by Hurricane Katrina. Most of the houses were still unoccupied, many with piles of trash outside which were formerly the contents of the house. The spray painted markings from FEMA were still on many of the houses. It was just desolate. Every once in a while there were a few houses together that had been redone. It was heartening that some progress had been made. Many of the businesses were shut down. Some of the new businesses were built right along side or integrated with the old. Even the motel in which I stayed had both an old and new section. I paid extra for the new. It was so new that they hadn’t even taken the plastic off the bed.

You know you are in a desolate area when you can’t even get Dominos Pizza to deliver to you.

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