Friday, March 7, 2008

Three States in a Day

I got an early start so as to try and beat traffic over the bridge on which I would have to detour. I was rolling at 6:30 and it was totally overcast. A thunderstorm had come through last night, but it wasn’t raining when I set out. I lucked out, as the high for the day would be in the low 50’s. Being wet that early in the day would be somewhat less than pleasant.

I made my way out of town and traffic was heavier than I would have guessed for being that early; but then again, traffic in or out of New York City is brisk at any time of the day. I made the turn off the main road for the bridge detour, though I did notice a few cars heading straight on. I figured it was local traffic.

The detour was an addition of about 10 miles, but the issue wasn’t the distance, but rather that it wasn’t a particularly safe route. It was a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder and heavily used. The road itself was 10 miles, of which five was a bridge. While traffic wasn’t as bad as I had prepared myself for, my heart started pumping faster when I heard big trucks approaching from behind me. The trucks knew that both they and I couldn’t share a lane when traffic was approaching from the other direction. A few cars passing me from behind however, thought it was OK. As they made the wrong decision to when they should pass me while traffic was coming from the other direction, I would take away that option and ride in the middle of the lane when cars were behind me, until in my opinion it was safe for them to pass.

I rode through the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge on my detour. I scared up a number of waterfowl as I rode along, but couldn’t spare the concentration to observe what species they were. Some areas would have been great to photograph on any other day, but as there was no place to pull over and the sky a uniform color of grey, I opted out.

I also rode through the area of Irish Bayou. The place was mostly destroyed during Hurricane Katrina and there was lots of debris to prove that. Some of the places were being rebuilt and on thick, tall pilings. I stopped at the convenience store to grab some energy bars and I asked the girl working there if she knew if the main bridge had been opened. She conferred with her co-worker and collectively they decided that they thought it was open. I had already gone four miles out of my way, so I wasn’t going to backtrack for an “I think so". Outside the convenience store was a small camp of sleeping bags. I didn’t want to think about who or why people were sleeping there, though I am pretty sure I know the answer.

I pedaled out of town and on to the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. If ever I was thankful that the wind wasn’t blasting me in the face, it was on this bridge, as it was really exposed as the elements. The bridge itself did have a small shoulder, but the shoulder was completely covered in debris and had drainage grates every hundred feet or so. I was fortunate as most traffic was heading in the opposite direction to New Orleans. Most cars going my direction cut me some slack. In the instances when I heard trucks coming up on me, I would slow to a crawl and tuck on to the small garbage strewn shoulder. I had to repeat that technique at least a half a dozen times. Only one driver was unhappy, or at least he was the only one that made his displeasure known. He gave a long honk and then flew the one-fingered flag. If I needed a reminder to be careful, there was one section of the bridge railing which had been hit by a car, blowing the thing apart. The section of railing was replaced by a low metal guardrail, allowing me to see right off the bridge down into the lake. All in all, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. Better to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised.

As I rode along, I thought about how any major change brings about opportunity. Specifically, how Hurricane Katrina created an opportunity for new businesses in the area. What set off my pattern of thought was an appliance store. It was the only one I had seen. Whoever got in early and took the risk of getting a business going had the chance to make a bundle. Before I get angry e-mails about taking advantage of the misfortune of others, it’s not that at all. I said nothing about encouraging price gouging. It is all about a person opening a business where there is a need. Supply and demand. The business would face significant risk and would have to be sufficiently compensated to assume that risk. Throw all the insurance companies into the mix and that adds a whole new level of complexity.

By 9:00 there was a steady rainfall though it was nothing more than a minor annoyance at the time. If it were to keep up for the rest of the day, I would probably end up getting pretty cold, but I had to wait and see. About that same time, there was a really nice stretch of road that was completely devoid of traffic and super quiet. All I could hear was my bike on the road and the sound of the rain hitting the foliage around me.

I took a little break when I hit the Mississippi state line. The rain had stopped and I was a happy camper. My first stop in Mississippi was in the town of Waveland. I spoke to a guy there that was almost certain that the original bridge was open, and it would have been a lovely ride. Too late now.

I would like to take a minute thank the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the bridge architects or whoever came up with the idea to put a bike lane on the St Louis Bay Bridge. The bike lane was eight feet wide, made of fairly smooth concrete and clean. Mississippi is very conscious of bicycles in their planning of roads. It seemed that all the roads/bridges had room for bicycles. Louisiana could have learned a lesson from Mississippi.

In the area of Pass Christensen, MS, the destruction from Hurricane Katrina was clearly visible. There were areas of downed trees, shells of houses and remnants of fishing piers. I had seen the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Southern India and Sri Lanka and it looked quite similar. Some of those areas in Asia were built back up more quickly than the Gulf Coast. I guess I thought in the US everything would have been back up and running in no time. It goes to show just how severe the damage was. Its one thing when you hear about an area being decimated or see it in photographs, but when you see with your own eyes, it has much more of an impact and puts things in perspective as to the damage done: physically, emotionally and financially.

I called a bike shop in Mobile to see if they knew about a bike route through Alabama. He, like my friends at the bike shop back in New Orleans said that heading south to Dauphin Island was scenic ride. The problem was that it would involve another ferry. I called the ferry company to check the details and they mentioned that the ferry only runs every hour and a half and takes 45 minutes. They also mentioned that with the storm coming in, the ferry might not be running the following day. I didn’t want to chance riding the 40 miles to Dauphin Island and be stuck with a 40-mile ride back or a 200-dollar hotel bill for the night, after riding only 40 miles for the day.

The areas of Gulfport and Biloxi were complete construction zones. I really wasn’t making any time through the area, as there were far too many traffic lights. In the afternoon though, the wind picked up and was at my back. How long I had waited for that. I knocked off the state of Mississippi in an afternoon. When I hit Alabama I hit a few rolling hills. They weren’t anything severe and it was a nice change of scenery. There was however no “Welcome to Alabama" sign.

I had the opportunity to finish the day at several points in Alabama, but for some reason I wanted to end the day in Mobile. It started raining and it was dark by 5:30, not to mention that it was rush hour, but I had my mind set on getting to Mobile; a 150 mile day on the bike. I figured that it couldn’t be any more dangerous than riding over the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in the morning. Fortunately, most of the traffic was leaving Mobile. I had caught the traffic the right way on both ends of my day.

I was really focused on the last 20 miles of the day, so I didn’t have time to contemplate whether I was cold, tired or otherwise. I just kept turning the cranks, dodging traffic and wiping the rain from my face until I was in downtown Mobile. It took a little bit of searching to find a place to stay, but after nearly 150 miles riding for the day I paid up for a decent hotel.

Once I got to my hotel I went through the usually routine, got cleaned up and did what anyone would do after riding about 150 miles...go out for a couple beers. I figured I should sample some of the Mobile nightlife. It seems like a late night town, a commitment I wasn’t willing to make, so I had a few beers with dinner and wandered around the downtown area until I retired for a well-earned night of sleep.

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