Friday, January 29, 2010

Hot Stuff

Friday, January 29, 2010. New Iberia, Louisiana
Figured it was time for a progress map, so here are the long and the close-up views, in addition to some images from recent walks.
Today was rainy. Went down to Avery Island, a few miles south of New Iberia, to visit the Tabasco plant. Avery Island originally was the site of a salt mine. The Indians got salt through an evaporation process before the Europeans came. In 1830 a guy named Marsh took it over and started a sugar plantation in addition to the salt operation. His daughter married Daniel Avery, and their daughter married Edmund McIlhenny, who started making Tabasco Sauce in 1868. His son, Edward, started a bird sanctuary and nature preserve on Avery Island in the 1890s. Edward, also known as "Mister Ned," was quite a guy--adventurer, explorer, nature lover, hot pepper baron.
The factory wasn't making hot sauce today. Some people were busy cleaning and maintaining the equipment, but no little bottles were scooting along the conveyor belts. So I took a drive around the place, through the village where, I assume, many of the workers live. Modest houses, but not shacks. It's way too early in the season for peppers to be growing outside, so I didn't get a chance to see any happy peons stooping in the fields, picking the peppers by hand, which they still do.
Then I drove through the 170-acre nature area, called Jungle Gardens, which used to be Mister Ned's personal estate. Lots of very nice old live oaks and camellia bushes in full bloom. And birds--egrets, mostly. One particularly old oak--called the Cleveland Oak because Mister Ned knew President Grover Cleveland--looked to me to be about 300 years old.
After tomorrow's walk I'll be spending some time visiting John and Joyce Carbaugh, old friends who live in Kaplan, about 30 miles west of here. So if I don't post for a few days, that's why.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day 76: Soc Et Tuum

Garden City to Jeanerette. 20 miles/1363 total

Thursday, January 28, 2010

9:20 a.m. Another good looking day, weatherwise. A few high clouds but more sunny than not. The prediction is for a high of about 70. Doesn't feel like it will make it, though.

Today was originally scheduled to be an off day, but there's heavy weather coming in tomorrow, so it seemed like a good idea to walk now and rest later.

I'm on Louisiana 3215 right off of U.S. 90. It's a short road that will take me back up to Louisiana 182, and then through Franklin, Baldwin, and Jeanerette, as well as a few smaller places.

This is sugarcane country. The vinegary smell of fermenting cane is everywhere. I've picked up a few pieces of cane to try to find one that is as sweet as the first one I ate, but they've all been too old and sour. I imagine these pieces on the roadside have been here for a long time. God knows what kinds of microbes are in and on them. The only thing I know about sugar cane is that when it's red it's old. That's from a Tom Rush song from the sixties about a sugarcane cutters' strike, called "Joshua Gone Barbados":

Cane standin' in the field
Gettin' old and red.
Lotta misery in Georgetown
Three men lyin' dead.

In short order I come into the village of Garden City on 182, which is called the Old Spanish Trail around here. I pass the Frances Antebellum Home. The sign says it was built around 1810. It does have that Federal Period look to it, with the addition of a two-story full-width porch in the front.

Garden City is a shady quarter of a mile lined with live oaks and featuring several very large 19th century houses, including one pink late Victorian job with baby blue shutters, for sale. Why do they have to paint those Victorian and Queen Anne houses those light-loafered colors? Is is because the styles are so frilly and fussy to begin with? For houses, give me white or earth tones or brick. Let the camellias out front be pink, as they are here.

At three miles I enter the city limits of Franklin. Franklin is a very old town, the seat of St. Mary Parish, with a population today of something over 8,000. Named for Benjamin Franklin, it was originally called Carlin's Settlement when it was founded in 1808. Noteworthy is the fact that it began with a large number of English settlers (whether English or Americans of English ancestry I don't know). What is today the First United Methodist Church of Franklin was established in 1806 as the first Protestant church in Louisiana.
The neighborhoods on the east side of town are middle class. Franklin's main street has a median containing white iron lamp posts, which were installed in 1915. The next year the town passed an ordinance prohibiting chickens from walking on the boulevard, and each lamp post has "Do Not Hitch" on it in raised letters. These lamp posts are quite attractive, topped with three glass globes, one up in the middle and two hanging down.
But the really interesting thing about the lamp posts at present is that most of them have signs attached featuring the names of the local Mardi Gras kings. These signs, three feet high or so, are very colorful, containing the king's last name and under that the family crest, and below that the work "Sucrose," the local Mardi Gras krewe--a good name for the krewe of a sugar growing town. Following that is the Roman numeral of the parade in which that person was king. The numerals go up into the high fifties, so I guess they've been having their parade for that many years. The majority of the surnames are English, German, or Irish, with only a few French ones. Caffrey. Latisolais. Kramer. Horton. A few of the family crests are authentic, but most are merely fanciful. One features an alligator riding a backhoe. Another has a catfish on one side and a lobster on the other. Yet another has a banner on which is written a faux Latin inscription, "Soc Et Tuum."
Franklin was the site of the Battle of Irish Bend, in which outnumbered Confederates did considerable damage to some Union troops before having to retreat. And speaking of being on the losing side in war, it seems there was a German prisoner-of-war camp here, converted from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1943 to house captured soldiers from the Afrika Korps. The Germans worked in the sugar cane fields. The sign says that area citizens remember them for their friendly behavior. What the hell, they probably looked pretty much like everybody else, and were probably having a better time in Louisiana than they would have been having on the eastern front, or wherever, had they not been captured.
I pass the Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapel. How do you adore the eucharist perpetually, I wonder? I'm hazy on the whole adoration thing, generally. Maybe it involves standing around with your mouth hanging open and a sort of starry-eyed look, or grovelling on your knees.
The Franklin cemetery is a combination of the traditional above-ground vaults and mausoleums and American-style graves where they're planted six feet under, reflecting the relative diversity of this city.
At about 8 miles I cross the Charenton Canal and enter Baldwin. Baldwin is quite a bit smaller than Franklin, perhaps 2,500, but it is still a city, with a police force and schools and a post office. On the whole much plainer and poorer than its neighbor, though.
The long open spaces between towns here along Bayou Teche are filled with sugarcane fields. They're burning the cane stubble today with the aid of a brisk wind from the northeast, and all over the horizon I can see clouds of smoke.
Sorrel is the next little settlement I come to. A few houses and what looks like a sugar mill. A historical marker says Sorrel was the site of one of the early ranches on the old cattle route from Mexico to the Mississippi River. Joseph Sorrel had land claims here in the 1750s.
At 17.6 miles, after a long walk past cane fields, I enter Iberia Parish and Jeanerette, a town of 6,000 that calls itself "Sugar City." It was named for John Jeanerette, who settled in this area in the 1820s and bought part of an existing plantation, although the town wasn't incorporated until after the Civil War. Lumber and sugar have been the main enterprises. A sign marks the spot where Nicolas Provot, called the Father of Jeanerette, was buried in 1816. He was one of the area's first landowners.
The breeze has died down a bit. A woman is mowing her front lawn, something people don't think of doing in late January where I come from. Downtown people move about in the late afternoon, leaving work or congregating in front of stores and gas stations. An old man sits in front of his auto detailing business, nodding off to some soft music. People wave to each other as they drive by. The main street business district tapers off to a few large old houses on the west side, then to a couple of patches of woods and some weedy empty lots. Dollar stores, ever more common and somehow always present, like hardy weeds, in places where no other commerce can thrive, compete with one another from opposite sides of the street--Family Dollar versus Dollar General. In the huge empty lot in front of a defunct store where things must have cost too much the motor home waits for me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Day 75: Hoover Hogs

Morgan City to Garden City. 20.4 miles/1343 total

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I'm just east of the railroad bridge outside Morgan City, headed down Route 182 to Highway 90 and on through the countryside to a spot a few miles east of Franklin.

I'm taking U.S. 90 for most of the walk because Louisiana 182 runs in a serpentine fashion along Bayou Teche for most of the way, whereas 90 cuts straight across, saving several miles. As a result, I'll be bypassing most of the little communities along the way.

It's another cloudless day, in the mid-50s, expected to get into the mid-60s. It doesn't get a hell of a lot better than this.

Morgan City will get short shrift today. I do pass the entrance to the City Convention Center, which says it's the home of the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. That's an interesting-sounding combination. "Boy, this shrimp is good. What's on it?" "Well, we use a special blend of petroleum and Cajun spices."

On the ascent up the bridge exit ramp I can look down to the left at downtown Morgan City, which is a few blocks along the river. There's no one else walking across this bridge today, which isn't surprising. Pedestrian traffic outside of large cities is almost nonexistent in 21st century America. Occasionally you see young people and extremely poor people on foot, or grown men on bicycles (which, unless they're wearing lime green spandex outfits, means they've lost their licenses due to drunk driving). This is not a country of walkers, by any means. To be on foot, especially at my age, implies a certain failure of other options. That's why an undertaking such as mine is better understood and accepted when it has a charitable purpose. The generosity and self-sacrifice help to justify the eccentricity. And if one's resolve starts to flag in the middle of the day (as it invariably does), one can tell oneself to keep going for the sake of those poor little crippled children or the women with cancer.

This is a large truss bridge, with four lanes divided by Jersey barriers and shoulders the width of cars, so it's fairly safe to cross. It crosses the Atchafalaya River and is called the E. J. Lionel Grizzatti Bridge. Safe or not, I'm just as glad to be over it. Underneath, the Atchafalaya is wide and brown.

At a little over six miles I enter Bayou Vista. I can see the water tower. This is where I stayed last night. A little past Walmart is a billboard that says, "We're Loving Jesus."

Wag-a-Pak is the name of the convenience stores connected with Conoco gas stations. That may be the silliest such name I've seen, and I've seen quite a few of these little stores. On the sign is a little white dog with black spots holding a Wag-a-Pak bag in its mouth. Up in Arkansas they have a chain called Kum-N-Go, another unfortunate name.

About halfway into this walk and things have been uneventful. Here's the water tower for Patterson, another community I'll be bypassing. But to give you your money's worth I'll tell you that it's a city of about 6,500 originally settled by Pennsylvania Dutch back in the early 1800s. The settlement was called Dutch Town or Dutch Prairie. Then in 1832 a guy from Indiana named John Patterson came through and opened a store and the place became known as Pattersonville, and later Patterson. And here's something you don't see every day. A big sign indicating that bears cross here.

At this point the stores and churches and other buildings pretty much disappear and the rest of the walk will be along the marshes and woods. Some of the trees have red buds on them and are getting ready to bloom for spring. No live oaks out here in the middle of nowhere--those are found mostly in yards and the edges of open fields. I cross another bayou--this one without a name that I can see.

I just saw a freshly-killed armadillo, with its shell cracked open and some pink flesh showing. A long time ago I speculated that the reason I saw mostly bits of armadillo shell and not many whole animals was that their meat must be especially tasty to the scavenging animals. And indeed it does look like pork. Some people eat armadillos, and in east Texas during the Depression they were called "Hoover Hogs." Apparently they are good barbecued and in chili. However they do seem to have a tendency to carry leprosy (now known as Hansen's disease), so I guess you have to be careful about handling them too much. Also I assume it's best to eat them well done. Well, that's an adventure that awaits me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Day 74: Butch World

Humphreys to Morgan City. 20.4 miles/1322.6 total

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

9:20 a.m. Leaving from the parking lot of the Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Humphreys, headed down Louisiana 182 through Gibson and on to Morgan City.

It's another cloudless day. The temperature is about 55, expected to get up into the low 60s here in the bayou.

I'm on the north side of Bayou Black, which I mentioned yesterday is the slummier side, at least on this stretch. In the space between the road and the water someone is burning, for no apparent reason, a couple of those huge wooden spools the utility companies use for wire and cable. The fire is small and slow, just at the bottom of one of them. It'll be a long process, like burning a stump. Burning garbage in this space by the bayou seems to be a regular pastime in Humphreys.

At the next bridge I cross over to the south side, where the shoulder on the road is wider. The walk will just get me to the edge of Morgan City. I pass a sign that says Hilltop Energy Company. In the background there are a number of tanks and pipes and apparatuses. As with the cotton and sugar cane industries, I don't know a lot about the oil business, and I'd like to know more. So I stop in at the shack in front of this Hilltop property to ask someone exactly what they're doing. A friendly guy tells me that they have an oil well in the back and when they pump from it they separate the natural gas from the oil and store both of them. There's a pipeline from their place over to a Shell facility just down the road. The huge oil storage tanks belong to some other company. They do no refining there. Well, that's a little more than I knew before. Shell probably loads the crude into tankers that take it by water to refineries, maybe inland.

Here's a sign that says Live Oak Cemetery, but there are no graves. Maybe it's a brand new cemetery, with no one planted there yet. [Later I checked the internet and learned that this cemetery is very old, possibly a slave cemetery, and is located behind the two huge Shell storage tanks, accessible only by a road with a locked gate controlled by Shell.]

One of the things I've been meaning to mention is the plenitude of liquor sellers in Louisiana. In most states you can buy beer and maybe wine at a convenience store, but the liquor license is harder to get. Here practically everyone can sell liquor, including the tiniest gas station. They all have it, usually in a small area behind the counter. It makes some sense that Louisiana, with its French population, would have resisted the more puritanical approach to alcoholic beverages that the English and Protestant dominated parts of the country adopted.

I take the fork off of 182 into the village of Gibson, past the Triumph Baptist Church and the St. James Baptist Church, which has a nice little cemetery, where I go to eat my lunch sitting on the grave of Namon Pharr, which sits next to those of Theophilus and Zenobia Pharr. Cool names.

Next to this church is another old one, dating from about the mid-19th century, a one-room affair of white clapboards and green shutters, shut tight. According to the sign this was the Gibson Methodist Episcopal Church, erected in 1849. During the Civil War it was used as a hospital.

Another hundred yards down the road is the municipal cemetery, filled with French people, many of its tombs resplendently white in the midday sunshine. The Heberts, the LeBlancs, the Duvals.

Gibson boasts another two or three churches, not to mention a post office, a school, and a little branch library. There was a time on this journey when I would have gone into the library to check on local history, but I haven't felt the urge to do that in quite awhile. I probably should, because whoever feeds information to Wikipedia about these little Louisiana towns doesn't do a very good job.

On the way out of town I pass an old house and overhear three people on the front porch speaking French. To paraphrase William Jennings Bryan, "Imagine! Rednecks speaking French!" Down past the houses the roadside along the bayou once more is littered with garbage--a couch, some old computers, some old tube television sets. The least they can do is throw these things into the water, so the heavy metals can go into the food chain faster.

Here at Gibson, Bayou Black widens to at least twice its previous size, and appears to be navigable by commercial vessels.

I have seen an unusual number of dead owls today--four, as far as I remember. They probably swoop in low in the night and misjudge the height of those semis and whopp! on the windshield. Maybe they have brain damage from eating the mercury-poisoned mice.

I leave Terrebonne Parish and enter Assumption Parish. Then at 15 miles I'm out of Assumption and into St. Mary Parish, which calls itself "Cajun Heartland USA." I cross Bayou Boeuf on the Earl "Tuttem" Bergeron and Janet Marcel Memorial Bridge. Bayou Boeuf is a wide and very busy commercial shipping channel. It also has a riverboat-type casino, permanently docked. The Atchafalaya River is near here, too.

Your Humble Narrator is a person of many moods. Sometimes somber, and sometimes desolate for days at a time. And occasionally buoyant. Today the mood is relatively upbeat, as I come down off the bridge with only four miles to go, listening to the iPod, playing air guitar to the instrumental bridge of "Dude Looks Like a Lady." These moments, when they come, must be seized. On another day I might be in more of the frame of mind that Matthew Arnold must have been in when he wrote, in "Dover Beach,"

...the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

For today, with Whitman, I sing the body electric, and play the air guitar electric. But the baggage is always there, very much like Meriwether Lewis's wolf in Frances Hunter's To the Ends of the Earth.

I am now in an area called Tiger Island, which was once the name for Morgan City. It was called this because of wild cats in the area. This end of the island contains the town of Amelia. Route 182 now becomes very busy with shipping and oil related businesses. There's a company that makes what looks like drilling platforms, and a place called Conrad Aluminum, that makes and repairs vessels, and the Caterpillar Marine Equipment Yard. Everywhere big guys walk around in hard hats or drive trucks containing big things, or sail ships, or move scrap metal around, all looking very tough. For their recreation stripper bars dot the roadside between these manly places. They should package a tour of the area for gay couples and call it Butch World. They could bring their children. So much testosterone.

I go by another cemetery, tucked in between the businesses. Then I pass the Yellow Rose Gentleman's Club, Judy's Lounge, and Blondie's Lounge. One last bridge, over the railroad tracks and the scrapyards, and I'm at the motor home.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Day 73: Who Is That Guy?

Savoie to Humphreys. 20.8 miles/1302.2 total

Monday, January 25, 2010

I'm leaving from the side of the road on Louisiana 182, heading down through Houma, staying on 182 to somewhere between Humphreys and Oak Forest, along Black Bayou.

There isn't a cloud in the sky, not even early in the morning. It's in the high 50s and will get up to about 65. Beautiful day.

After a mile or so the four-lane divided highway narrows to two lanes, and I can see a water tower that says Bayou Blue. On the map it says this is Savoie, but I don't see that name anywhere. Whatever its name is, it's a collection of buildings reasonably close together--two pawn shops, a junkyard full of trucks, another larger one filled with construction equipment and other scrap metal, and a Family Dollar store. The cottage industry here seems to be trading in things people don't want anymore. At this point I cross from Lafourche Parish into Terrebonne

All of Louisiana celebrates this morning the victory of the Saints over the Vikings, 31-28 in overtime. I watched a bit of that game myself, although I didn't have any emotional stake in the game. Part of me wanted to see the old warhorse Brett Favre win it, just because of his durability, but I really didn't care. In the end he crapped out throwing for an interception, one of the many things for which he holds the record. And everyone here is overjoyed.

The sidewalks of Houma have begun. Although I've been in this city since the night before last I haven't really gotten a strong impression of it, except the part out by Walmart. It seems to be divided into a number of different sections. I may have missed it, but the downtown doesn't seem like much. The Route 3040 business district, on the west side, has all the big box stores and other franchises that most cities have. Houma is a city of about 32,000, named for the Houmas Indians, and founded in the 1840s. It's a fairly isolated and self-contained place on the intracoastal waterway connecting the towns in this part of the state with each other and with New Orleans. It's the parish seat of Terrebonne Parish. I'm deep in Cajun country here. Some folks I've overheard sound as if English is not their first language.
Houma comes across as a functional city, without frills. It has a hospital, the waterway, plenty of stores, but no frilly Spanish or French architecture to speak of--it looks primarily southern. By far the most beautiful and stately things in this city are the live oaks, many of which appear to be older than the city itself. Usually they're wider than they are tall, and they never lose their leaves, so they tend to stand fairly far apart, providing huge amounts of shade.
At a little over 8 miles I'm down at the south edge of town, taking a right and continuing on Route 182 northwest along Black Bayou, a fifty-foot wide waterway. As I get to the outskirts of town there are two roads running along the bayou--182 on the south side and another one on the north, connected by hundred-foot-long-bridges every four miles or so. Most of the houses are in a line along the roads on the sides opposite the water. This is the high rent district of Houma, with new luxury condos and older big houses, with an occasional mansion.
Outside Houma things get more bucolic. There are sugar cane fields and cow and horse pastures, and all along, near the road, these magnificent live oaks. On the bayou side of the road are a number of cypresses, bald and otherwise, some pine trees, and other deciduous southern oaks.
Route 182 is called Bayou Black Drive. This looks more like the south than any spot between New Orleans and here did, on that long drab trek through the bleak gray swampland.
People tend to wave as they go by out here in the country more than they do up in the urban areas. It's just a way of acknowledging a fellow traveler on the road. And as a pinko, I rather like the idea of fellow travelers. I wonder what they think of me as they go by. This guy with a white goatee wearing a khaki vest like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, its many pockets filled with necessary items for the walk--camera, recorder, first aid kit, extra batteries, notebook, cell phone, bandanna, iPod, knife, food, drink, poncho. And lots more pockets for things picked up along the way. "Who is that guy? Where is he going? Do we know him? Why is he picking up that dirty stainless steel fork?"
Although I've never done it before, I pick up one of the ubiquitous six-inch pieces of sugar cane stalk that line the roads, apparently having fallen from trucks at some point (I don't even know when they harvest the stuff). With my knife I whittle off the bamboo-like outer skin and inside there's a moist pulp. I chew on it, and it is delicious and sweeter than I thought it would be. Of course I hope I'm not inadvertently poisoning myself with pesticides or something. I try my luck with another piece, but this one has begun to ferment, and tastes like vinegar.
Here's a sign for the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge. I'm at a place called Waterproof, but there is another Waterproof in Louisiana, too, as I discover on the internet, and there is nothing about this one. It's another spot on the map.
I stop in the front yard of a large house set back several hundred feet to admire another live oak. This one is about the largest I've seen so far, with a trunk at least six feet in diameter. As I stand under it, a young man comes over from the house next door and asks me if I need help. He's seen me walking along. He introduces himself as Mike Greenberg, and I tell him what I'm doing and we chat for awhile. Mike thinks this tree might be two hundred years old. I wonder if it's even older. This tree might have been here when Napoleon ruled this area, or the Spanish.
St. Luke Baptist Church, built in 1902, has a cemetery next door. This is an African American church, so the last names on the graves are for the most part not French, although a few are. I sit down on the tomb of Alicia Hawkins, a little girl who lived not quite four years.
The sign outside St. Anthony Catholic Church, put there by the Knights of Columbus, says "Mother Mary Was Pro Life. Thank Heavens." A few rather bizarre images come into my mind. The Virgin walking into a Planned Parenthood clinic and saying, "I'm not married and I really don't want this baby. In fact, I can't even figure out how the hell I could have gotten pregnant!" Or the idea of an entire religion going by the wayside because a woman in Judea gets an abortion. Anyway, the cemetery here is full of French names--Thibodeaux, Hebert, Guidry, Breaux, Boudreau, Blanchard. These are all fairly common Cajun names. Interesting that some of the most common French Canadian names aren't represented, like Pelletier, which can fill up entire pages in phone books in Maine. You'd be hard pressed to find a French cemetery in New England without a few Pelletiers and Rouliers.
I come to a historical marker for an 1840s Greek Revival plantation house, called Orange Grove. Not long afterwards I spot an orange tree in someone's yard, the first I've noticed. On the bayou side of the road there's a small group of orange trees with a bunch of large navel oranges lying on the ground underneath them. Some of them look like they're still good. I take one for later.
At the Blanchard Bridge it's time to cross over to the north side of Black Bayou. This looks like the low rent district. I think I'm in Humphreys, or near it. People sit on benches or on docks and fish. Another small stand of citrus trees on the bayou side of the road. These look like tangerines. I take one off the ground. The Louisiana citrus crop was hit hard by freezes recently, but these look okay.
As I proceed, the neighborhood becomes trashier. Unhappy-looking dogs stand tied and barking in front of trailers that shouldn't even be inhabited. On the edge of the bayou someone is burning garbage, which gives off the smells of plastic, rubber, and cardboard. By the water a small moppy-looking dog lies dead and decaying, gradually becoming one with the litter-strewn earth. An upended couch, an upside down box spring, a child's plastic toy, a falling-down corrugated metal shed, an old man with a blowtorch cutting up its pieces. Two skeletons of semi trucks. Over all of this the ancient oaks preside.
Eventually the wretched refuse tapers off to swamps and woods again. I round a few more bends and the motor home comes into view at the edge of the parking lot of the Mt. Pilgrim Church.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Day 72: Jesus Really Is Lord

Vallier to Savoie, Louisiana. 20.4 miles/1281.4 total

Saturday, January 23, 2010

There's really no Vallier to speak of, although I think this collection of six or eight houses is supposed to be it. I'm heading south toward Houma, but I won't quite get there today. I'll be going through Des Allemands and Raceland and ending up along Louisiana 182 a mile or so north of Savoie.

The weather forecast was for sun today with thunderstorms coming in the evening, but it is completely overcast and looks as if it's about to rain right now. There's a fine mist in the air. The temperature is about 60.

I'm walking down Louisiana 561, running parallel to Highway 90, the back way into Des Allemands. No shoulder to speak of, but very little traffic. A quiet walk so far. Another name for this road is the Old Spanish Trail, and I imagine this was the highway before they built the four-lane semi-expressway that is U.S. 90 today.

The terrain is very flat and the land is low, surrounded by swamps and rivers and canals. What we'd call wetlands, except that here they call it the bayou. Not many tall pine trees down here, only swamp oaks and other water-loving varieties, not very tall. Occasionally in someone's yard there will be a few live oaks, broad and green because they never lose their leaves. The rest of the trees are bare and gray on this mid-winter morning.

Here's a first: a dollar bill by the roadside. That brings my state total up to over seven dollars. Thank you, Louisiana.

I pass the Shellmound Cemetery of the Antioch Baptist Church of Des Allemands. Most of the graves are of the vault variety, with their tops rising about a foot and a half above ground level.

There's an inordinate amount of garbage in the ditch alongside Route 561--bags, cups, coolers, household trash--lining the edge of the swamp and floating in the tea-colored water as I approach the town. More than the usual bottles and cans you find in all the states that do not have bottle deposit laws, and more even than the usual higher number of bottles and cans you find in the southern states. This is extra garbage, suggesting that when people get just north of town they throw all their crap out the window. Hey, why not? It's a free country, right?

I pass another cemetery, which at one time was the Des Allemands Mennonite Cemetery. Des Allemands got its name from Bayou Des Allemands, which means "bayou of the Germans" in French. There are a few German surnames in this cemetery, but not many. The majority are French.

The Mennonite thing might explain why Germans were here so early. I think I read yesterday that they started coming to Louisiana in 1721. Mennonites already were being run out of Europe by that time, and some had come to Pennsylvania. Why the French tolerated them in their colony I don't know. But I don't think the majority of German immigrants to this area were Mennonites.

Des Allemands is a grubby little fishing village of about 2,500 that calls itself "The Catfish Capital of the Universe," no less. Now that's presumptuous. Wonder what Zaphod Beeblebrox would have to say about that? I rejoin Highway 90 and head through the southern outskirts of Des Allemands, which consists of a few places offering swamp tours, a small casino/restaurant/gas station, several seafood restaurants, and an adult bookstore.

This is Lafourche Parish. At about eleven miles into the walk I get off Highway 90 onto Louisiana 182. Shortly thereafter a guy from Raceland offers me a ride. I decline and give him the story and we chat for a few minutes while I stand at the driver's side window. Finally he wishes me well and goes on. The whole time we've been in the middle of the road. That seems to be the style on these rural byways.

Now I'm passing sugar cane fields. Up ahead is what I think is a sugar plant. The side of the road is filled with cut pieces of cane stalk, about six inches long, just the way cotton lined the roads up in the Delta. From the fields there comes a smell like fermenting sawdust and manure.

You might remember that at the entrance to Amite last week there was a sign saying "Jesus Is Lord Over Amite." Well here in Raceland there's a sign that reads, "Jesus Really Is Lord Over Raceland." There's a slightly argumentative tone here, as if this answers Amite's wimpier claim to being under Jesus's thumb. Like kids on a playground: "Jesus is the boss of us." "No he's not. Jesus is the boss of us." "Oh yeah?" And I'm thinking, "Don't these people have anything better to do with their time?"

Raceland is a city of about 10,000 located on Bayou Lafourche. It's not much different from the average rundown southern town--houses built up on bricks, rusting tin roofs, the occasional decent-looking place right next to one that looks like a strong wind would blow it over. The big difference here is that virtually all the names are French--on the stores, the funeral home, the bait shacks, the gas stations.

The gas station/convenience store I stopped at has a drive-though daiquiri window. I've noticed a number of these, as well as a chain of little bars called Daiquiris, not much bigger than fast food places. From this I gather that it must be okay in Louisiana to drive up and order a daiquiri and drive off drinking it. It's hard to come to any other conclusion. I've seen drive-through liquor stores in other places--we used to have them in Michigan--but the assumption, however naive, was that people were buying beverages in closed containers to take somewhere else to drink. Here they're buying mixed drinks for immediate consumption--and frozen at that, necessitating that they be consumed soon.

Well, Raceland is underwhelming. Now I'm on 182 heading south out of town. As I go under Highway 90 it's less than two miles to the motor home, which sits by the side of the road, among a number of other scattered vehicles that have pulled off for one reason or another. In the distance I can hear shooting, and everywhere there's a bridge people are fishing off of it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Day 71: Goodbye to the Mississippi

Bridge City to Vallier. 18.8 miles/1261 total

Friday, January 22, 2010

I am leaving from the foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge, heading down U.S. 90 through Boutte and Paradis, to a little place along Louisiana 631 the map calls Vallier.

It's another cloudless day, with temperatures in the 60s already, expected to hit about 70.

Bridge City, which isn't very large and which I'm leaving now, calls itself the Gumbo Capital of the World. It has a Gumbo Festival in November. I can't tell you much more about Bridge City, except that it's a community of over 8,000 that was established in the 1930s during the construction of the Huey P. Long Bridge. The bridge was opened in December 1935, a few months after Huey Long was assassinated. I don't know if they were planning to name it after him anyway, but I guess his death sort of settled the issue. The width of the traffic lanes on the bridge (two in each direction for now, but being increased) is nine feet, which I'm pretty sure is not as wide as the motor home. It was not a comfortable crossing.

I'm now west of the Mississippi, for the second time. The crossing at Cairo, Illinois was memorable, as was the recrossing at Memphis. Neither of those bridges was pedestrian friendly, although the Memphis bridge probably was once, before they built two or three miles of expressway leading up to it. But the Huey P. Long wasn't even tempting as a foot bridge. Now it's west all the way. I'm leaving the Mississippi behind for good.

U.S. 90 is surrounded by bayou. The towns are narrow--only a few blocks deep on either side of the highway. I'm heading into a part of Louisiana that should be more French than was the Florida Parishes region north of Lake Ponchartrain. Maybe people will even speak French, or what passes for it down here.

After a place called Avondale, which is a collection of fast food joints and gas stations and not much else, there's a stretch of maybe eight miles of little or nothing. Just the highway, which is extremely busy and noisy. Fortunately it has a good wide shoulder.

I spot the first live armadillo I've seen, rooting around in the vegetation alongside a swamp, just down the slope from where I'm walking. Its head seems impossibly small compared to its body, with just a pair of large ears and a long nose and not much else. When I make a noise to get its attention it sort of jumps up about half an inch. A hundred yards or so later I see another one. They seem to be digging around for grubs and other insects. Nice to know that they're not all dead on the road.

After a couple of hours of eating road construction dust and seeing nothing but the occasional armadillo, I round a bend and come to the outskirts of Boutte. a town of about 2,200. I am in St. Charles Parish now. Despite its rather low reported population, Boutte must be part of a larger and perhaps growing regional area, because it has a Walmart, where I'll be staying tonight, and quite a few other amenities, all right on Highway 90. Perhaps it is centrally located to a number of little oil and gas towns in this area.

St. Charles and a few surrounding parishes had a number of German settlers, who came as early as the 1720s, from the Rhineland, Alsace, and Switzerland. Within a few generations they had mixed with the locals and were speaking French. It is said that the Germans introduced the accordion into Cajun music.

Once again I am impressed by how heedless of pedestrians (me, in particular) the drivers of Louisiana are. I had to slap the hood of a car I was crossing in front of just now to get the driver's attention as she inched toward me. She was looking to the left for a break in traffic while talking on her cell phone. Never once did she look right as I began to cross in front of her. I've been through enough other states and have walked enough miles now that I can say with some authority that Louisiana drivers are the worst I've seen on my trip. The concept of "look both ways," which most of us learn as children, and the idea of yielding to pedestrians, are both foreign to them. In fact, sometimes they see me as I approach the intersection and shoot out in front of me anyway because they can't be bothered to wait.

I hasten to add that I am not influenced in this criticism by the fact that I have only been offered one ride since I got into the state (and that by a transplanted ex-Amish man from Ohio). The ride offers are more a function of the rural versus the urban mentality. Urban people simply don't offer rides. So I will reserve judgment on this issue until I have had a chance to travel through some of the more rural parts of the state, which will happen soon.

At the west end of Boutte there is a historical marker about the Skirmish of Boutte Station, in which Confederates ambushed a Union train in September 1862, killing 14 Union soldiers and wounding 22. I suppose when you're a loser, you have to brag about your little victories when and where you can. Today, right here at or near the site of the skirmish, there is a Domino's Pizza store.

Out past Boutte a few miles is another small collection of stores, restaurants, and gas stations that comprise the village of Paradis, about half the size of Boutte. A little southwest of Paradis, past the Chinese restaurant, I take a right onto Louisiana 306, across from St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Suddenly the noise of the highway is behind me and it is peaceful and shady. After a few hundred yards I turn left onto Route 631, where I am parked alongside the railroad tracks near the entrance to the Paradis Oil and Gas Field.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Day 70: King Among the Muses

New Orleans to Elmwood. 12 miles/1242.2 total

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm leaving from the empty flea market parking lot at the corner of Broad Avenue and Conti Street, heading south on Conti into the Vieux Carre, then west on Royal and St. Charles Ave. to the levee, and into Jefferson Parish, near the foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge.

It's in the high 60s already, heading into the mid-70s. The clouds of this morning will soon disappear and it will be sunny. Gorgeous weather.

Today's walk is going to be shorter than usual, about 12 miles. It worked out that way because originally I was going to continue when I got to the Huey P. Long bridge across the Mississippi, but when I drove the bridge yesterday I realized there would be no walking on it. Pedestrians are prohibited, and quite rightly. The bridge is undergoing construction for expansion and is narrow even for vehicles. So I decided to walk today to the Walmart by the bridge, and start out tomorrow from the other side. The short walk will give me more time to dawdle and sightsee.

Considering what I said yesterday about liking to walk through housing projects, I couldn't have chosen a better route. Conti Street down from Broad dead ends at a large housing project of the City of New Orleans that looks as if it was made from some old military barracks, perhaps from the 19th century. If any of my New Orleans-based readers know any details, I'd be interested. The other places near here are rundown shotgun houses, but rundown in a somewhat classy way, with the New Orleans touch, including nice ornate cornices.

And I couldn't have picked a better street than Conti for descending into the quarter, because down at Basin Street I come to the Holy Grail of cemeteries, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which I think was the site of the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Karen Black wandering around among the graves. Regular followers of the blog know that I love cemeteries anyway, so this is a treat. I go in and start wandering (sans LSD). The tombs are large and decaying and crowded together and crumbling, just like the neighborhoods hereabouts. The cemetery is still in use by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was started in 1789, and once extended out over what is now Basin Street. Often the graves are reused--the bones of the old occupants put in the back or under the ground. Occasionally there will be a bronze plaque on the tomb of someone of note--here's one for a guy who developed a process for granulating sugar. That was big. Some graves have new inscriptions of folks added to old family mausoleums; others are out of use by a hundred years or more. There's a kind of solemn chaos in the decrepitude and multitude of the burial places, above which the tallest statues stand against the sky, still gray.

Out in the median of Basin Street there's a statue of Benito Juarez, hero of Mexico. Down a block or so is Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church, its pews containing a collection of local street people seeking shelter.

I'm now in the French Quarter. It's a bit early for partying, but a few people are doing it anyway. At Conti and Royal stands the Louisiana State Supreme Court building. Interesting that it should be here in the oldest part of New Orleans, rather than in the capital, Baton Rouge.

I spent several hours wandering around the French Quarter yesterday, so I won't do too much wandering today. This west end of the area is definitely the money end, though, with high end antique shops, jewelry stores, and hotels. I cross Canal Street and Royal becomes St. Charles Avenue. Speaking of money, looking down Canal Street I can see a conglomeration of large big-name casinos and hotels. Straight ahead is the center of the business district of the city.

I go past Lafayette Square, dedicated to the Marquis, who, according to a plaque (in English on one side and French on the other) was offered the post of first governor of the Louisiana Territory after it became part of the United States. He declined, but did visit the city in 1825, and was very popular. "Vive Lafayette!" they shouted.

I come to a traffic circle in the center of which stands, on a tall pillar, a statue of Robert E. Lee. This is Lee Circle. I am afforded the opportunity to continue my tradition of spitting on monuments of Confederates, and once again let it fly onto the plaque, right onto the name of Robert E. Lee, a man who should have been executed after the war, as far as I am concerned. So many Confederates, so little saliva.

Just on the other side of the circle I notice a sculpture in front of an office building, and go up to investigate. Then I see a bronze bench shaped like hands, with the palms as the seats and the fingers as back rests. While resting, I notice some other objects of art in the lobby and go in to investigate. It turns out that this is the K&B Building, and it houses a portion of a huge private collection known as the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection. In the lobby the guard tells me to look around, and says to go up to the seventh floor and work my way down. He also gives me two slick heavy books containing photos of pieces of the collection. I am amazed as I travel through, looking at modern paintings, sculptures, and multi-media pieces. They're in the hallways outside the elevators and in some of the office suites, which are occupied by a variety of businesses.

Up on the seventh floor I am let in to the office area, and told to walk around and look, only not to disturb people in their offices. The first office I see is that of Sydney Besthoff III, and I can hear him talking on the phone. I'm tempted to say hi, but I don't. I walk around to the north side of the building and there is a huge collection of artwork, just sitting around, hanging, and stacked against the walls. A friendly and helpful young woman named Stacey, who had let me in, answers my questions when I get over to her desk. She tells me that K&B (for Katz and Besthoff) was a large chain of drug stores in this area of the south that was sold to Rite Aid not long ago. Sydney Besthoff owns this building and some strip malls with Rite Aids in them here and there. And this magnificent art collection. If you're reading this, Stacey, thanks again for being so kind and helpful.

Down in the lobby I take another look around and see a bronze bust of Venus by Renoir, from 1915. But my favorite items were the photorealist paintings by John Baeder and Ralph Goings, reminding me, with my limited knowledge, of the works of Edward Hopper. And a wonderful one called "Marilyn Lichtenstein" by a Spanish artist named Antonie de Felipe. Oh, and "The Burning of Atlanta," by George Febres, from 1991, a fanciful depiction featuring my man General Sherman. And Stacey's neighbor, a nude sculpture called "Seated Blonde With Crossed Arms," by John Deandrea, which she sits across from all day. I've included a few photos.

Out on the street again, I congratulate myself for climbing the steps to look at the sculpture, leading me to this amazing and powerful collection of modern art, rivaled by only a few museums. If you come to New Orleans, the K&B Building is a must-see. In fact, if you love contemporary art and can see only one place in this city, choose this collection over what they have in the New Orleans Museum of Art. You'll be glad you did. And give my regards to Stacey.

On one of the floors, the fourth I think, was the firm of engineers that is working on the renovation of the Huey P. Long Bridge. I popped my head in and asked a woman at a desk whether they were putting a pedestrian walkway on the new bridge. She didn't know offhand, but made a quick phone call. The answer is no. So anyone thinking of following in my footsteps should be forewarned. Perhaps some younger person will be the Philippe Petit who dares the foot crossing, but not me.

On another floor of the K&B Building I went into a firm (I forgot its name) that is dedicated to the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. One of the people there told me I should see the great houses they're building down there. And who doesn't welcome the opportunity to rebuild, especially in the poorer parts of a city? But when I asked them whether the levees have been rebuilt to inhibit that kind of flooding again, they didn't know the answer. When I mentioned what I take to be a pretty obvious fact--that another hurricane just a bad as Katrina could come again any year--they looked at me sideways as if I had broken some taboo. So I ask my New Orleans readers, what has been done about the levees?

One of the things I love about this city is the names of the streets. They're so, well, exotic. After so many towns and cities with the usual American street names, like Elm and Main, and the southern ones like Bubba Joe Turner Highway, it's nice to see names like Iberville and Gentilly and Carondelet. And leave it to the French to be literate enough to name a series of streets after the muses of Greek mythology. So as I walk down St. Charles, imagine my surprise to see a newcomer among them. Here are the nine muses, New Orleans style: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Thalia, Martin Luther King, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Polymnia, and Urania. It seems that a good portion of Melpomene Street was renamed for Dr. King. Regular followers know that one of my pet peeves about U.S. cities is that they usually name the crappiest streets in the worst parts of town for Martin Luther King, as if to say, "Here, we gave you people your holiday, and your street, what more do you want?" And true to form, much of New Orleans's King Boulevard goes through an industrial wasteland. However, I do like the idea of placing him among the muses, for his untiring attempt to inspire in all of us what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." But it would have been far more fitting to rename Jefferson Davis Highway after King, or topple the statue of Robert E. Lee and replace it with one of him. King Circle. That has a nice ring to it.

St. Charles Avenue is a feast for the eyes if you like big old houses and gigantic spreading oak trees. The oaks nearly form a canopy over the wide street, which has a working street car line in the center. I can see, though, that the relative wealth of this avenue is a facade behind which, a block or two in each direction, some doughtier dwellings hide.

I stop in to Christ Church Cathedral, just to see if Episcopalian splendor rivals that of the Roman Catholics in their cathedral dedicated to Louis IX, king and saint, down in the Vieux Carre. But unlike St. Louis, this one is locked. Undeterred, I go to a side entrance and someone buzzes me in and takes me to the sanctuary. It's large and stately, but in a much more dark hardwoody way than its Catholic cousin, and stripped, of course, of much of the mystery and mumbo-jumbo that says to the humble entrant, "Our God is bigger and badder and far more mysterious than any other god." Christ Church says, "Our God is decidedly wealthy, but really just wants to be your friend. Think of him as a kind of Mentor."

I pass the VanBenthuysen mansion, built for another Yankee-turned-Rebel (like Slidell) who came down here from New York and served as a captain in the CSA. He was a railroad guy, with a big interest in the St. Charles Streetcar Line. He died here in 1901.

At the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana, I pass a Borders Bookstore, made from a big old funeral home built in 1880. Very original. I go in to get a coffee and find out about it.

As I go west, past Jefferson, the mansions get bigger and the trees older and thicker. The roots of the live oaks seem to spill and eddy out around the bases of the trunks as much as fifteen or twenty feet before they finally go underground for good. St. Charles obviously was the wealthy suburbs back in the 1800s, and this area indicates that after about the turn of the century a second wave came out here, reaching to the edges of Orleans Parish.

I notice that the people passing me seem to be getting younger, even as the trees are getting older. Then I notice that I am passing the campuses of Loyola University and Tulane University, which sit side by side. Across the street are Audubon Park and the zoo.

And what do I see down at the corner of St. Charles and Hillary but the John Jay Salon, of the very same John Jay of the ruined shopping center in Slidell. Even the lettering is the same style as on that great retro sign.

At the end of St. Charles, where it connects to Carrollton, there's a marker saying that the St. Charles Line began service in 1834 as the St. Charles and Carrollton Railroad. It was powered by steam, horse, and mule until it was electrified in 1893. It is the oldest continuously operated street rail line in the world. In der fricking Welt, as the Germans would say.

I turn right onto Leake, which takes me along the levee next to the Mississippi. I walk up to the top, where there's a bike and walking path. The clouds are all gone and it's warm and relatively quiet here atop the levee. Where it takes a turn to the left I know that I am leaving New Orleans and entering Jefferson Parish.

At about 10.5 miles I walk under the Huey P. Long Bridge, which I am not destined to cross on foot. A half mile past the bridge I get down off the levee and turn right off River onto Plantation, which takes me up to the Walmart, where the motor home is parked.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Wednesday, January 20, 2010. New Orleans.
Went first to the French Quarter, then here and there until I ended up at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The museum has a decent medium-sized collection, particularly of French paintings from the Renaissance through the 19th century.
What a charming city this is, particularly in its older parts. The lure isn't so much to see lots of specific tourist items such as museums, as to simply be here, surrounded by the architecture and in the shade of the gigantic oak trees. In the French Quarter of course their lifeblood is tourists, but I always wonder when I look around what it is I am really missing while being directed at restaurants and souvenir shops and balconies hung with Mardi Gras decorations. It's like a magician's sleight of hand. Watch over here, while the reality takes place behind my back. That's why I like walking past junkyards and warehouses and housing projects, too. But like anyone else, I would rather live on St. Charles Avenue than out on Chef Menteur Highway.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Day 69: The Big Difficult

Bayou Sauvage NWR to New Orleans. 20 miles/1230.2 total

Tuesday, January 19. 2010

Here I am at the garbage-strewn intersection of U.S. 11 and U.S. 90, heading down 90 toward New Orleans, whose far eastern edge I should reach in a couple of miles, and then more or less into the center of the city, to the intersection of Broad Street and Conti.

Finding a place to leave the motor home was a bit challenging today. The area down around the cutesy touristy section didn't seem a likely place because of narrow streets and metered and residential parking restrictions, so I got up onto Broad Street, north of downtown, and found an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned store of some kind, where they have a flea market a couple of times a month. As always, it's an act of faith leaving that thing behind for the day.

So I'll get about halfway through New Orleans. Tomorrow is a day off for sightseeing, and the next day I'll walk the rest of the way through the city. This is symbolically an important day, since it represents the completion of the first leg of the entire journey--from Michigan to New Orleans and then west to Los Angeles. It's probably about the one-third point.

Let me start out by saying a couple of things about Hurricane Katrina. In August 2005 it devastated the city and its suburbs, killing people, displacing them, and causing property damage. The levees failed, for one thing, and for another, it was a goddamned hurricane, in an area of the Gulf coast that is prone to hurricanes, and much of which is only being kept dry in the first place by artificial means. And it could happen again next summer or the summer after that. In the words of Dick Gregory from an old substance abuse public service spot, "When nature comes to collect her debt, you can't go to the door and say, 'Mama's not home.'" If you want to visit a blog about Katrina, go to the address listed in the comment by "judyb" following yesterday's post. And thanks for all the info, judyb.

Early on, it's the wildlife refuge on the north of 90 and a series of auto junkyards and small houses and shacks on the south. This road is also called Chef Menteur Highway. There are several explanations for this name. The one I like best is that it means "chief liar" in French, a translation from the Choctaw "oulage mingo," and was given by the Indians to the French colonial governor, named Louis Billouart, Chevalier de Kerlerec, because he reneged on a treaty. Kerlerec was in charge of Louisiana during what we call the French and Indian War, after which France lost the territory to Spain. He was recalled to France in 1763 and thrown into prison for a few years, but was eventually exonerated.

There's no sign welcoming me to New Orleans, but according to the map I'm carrying I have entered after crossing Recovery Drive. I pass the Diamond Jubilee Casino, a small brick building a half mile or so inside the city limits. I go in to bet five dollars, but come back out after a few minutes, down $1.10. It was a rinky-dink place with nothing but poker machines. I'd rather play slots, where you don't know how high the odds against you are, than to play video poker, where you do.

I am in what is called Eastern New Orleans or New Orleans East. This is part of the Ninth Ward that was severely damaged by flooding from Katrina, although there's another part, the Lower Ninth Ward, that got hit even worse. There's a NASA facility off to my left, probably a tracking station. The first residential area I come to is evidently filled with Vietnamese people. Almost all the stores have Vietnamese names. This place probably has some clever name like Little Saigon.

The south side of Chef Menteur must be zoned industrial/abandoned motel/junkyard. With the exception of the Vietnamese places, which look quite sharp and well-financed, the rest of the area, except for some factories, is pretty dingy, and probably wasn't much better before Katrina. I would liken it to entering New York City from the south end of Staten Island, down by Perth Amboy. I pass a factory that smells like burnt toast. Then the prevailing smell becomes that of burnt plastic. Then sewage.

After I cross Read Street things are decidedly more residential. Relatively new brick houses, hip roofed, with decorative terra cotta tiles along the roof edges. On down the highway I go, getting ever closer to the Intracoastal Waterway Canal, which separates New Orleans East from the central part of the city. And that is the problem I face today, and the reason why my walk only takes me halfway through the city instead of most of the way. The bridge on U.S. 90 is closed for construction, and it's one of only two bridges that a pedestrian can use. So I must go north to Lake Ponchartrain and take the Leon Simon Bridge across, then south again to Chef Menteur, adding almost four miles.

I pass the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family. There's a marker in the median of the highway. It says Henriette DeLille, 1812-1862, founded the order in 1842. It is an African American order, with a number of facilities in the city.

On the street map I'm carrying it looks as if there's a street called Almonaster that crosses the
canal just under the I-10 bridge, only a bit south of Chef Menteur Highway. If that were so, I could save quite a bit of time. Like a short route to the Indies. But I'm skeptical, so I ask a guy at a convenience store. But he's not from around here (not even from this side of the planet), and can't help, although he sincerely wants to. So I walk on down to Downman Street and ask a guy in front of a car dealership. He doesn't think Almonaster goes across, but he's not sure, and doesn't believe that Almonaster runs parallel to Chef Menteur until I show him on the map. Then I ask a third guy who's just standing on the street, but he doesn't speak English. I think he might be from South America. At last I decide to walk a few blocks to the south and see if I can find this part of Almonaster that the map shows as a very thin black line going across the water. No dice. It dead ends, as far as I can tell, and I can't afford to take any more time walking around behind warehouses. So I've just taken yet another detour from my original detour.

Now I'm on Jourdan Street, heading north through the warehouses along the canal, past the Luzianne coffee and tea place, which gives off a delicious roasted coffee aroma, definitely the best industrial smell of the day so far.

At last I'm on the Leon Simon Bridge, which is anything but pedestrian-friendly. To the left of the skimpy shoulder it has an elevated concrete strip about eighteen inches wide on which I can walk, even though that means the guard rail only comes up to my waist. Motorists speed by, desperate to get out of the city and home. In less than a mile I'm on the other side, and glad of it. Finally I turn left onto Press Street to go back south to Chef Menteur. I'm on the campus of Southern University at New Orleans, which looks as if its student body is predominantly black. Apparently most of its buildings and the adjacent areas were damaged by Katrina, and there's a great deal of construction going on here now.

South of the university is Ponchartrain Park, which the internet says was the first African American subdivision in the country. One wonders about a claim like that. What about Inkster, for example? A large sign says "Established 1955, Reborn 2009." Of course the buzz words around here are rebirth and recovery. Unless I miss my guess, many of these houses were used up messed up and boarded up long before Katrina.

Down at the corner of Press and Chef Menteur the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary sits behind black iron fences and gates, resplendent and prosperous-looking in the same ecclesiastical red brick that most of the big downtown Baptist churches in the south are made of.
Across the street is the God is Good Car Wash. Underneath its name on the sign it says "All the Time," which I assume refers to the hours during which God is good, not the hours the car wash is open. Toward the end of the seminary grounds Chef Menteur Highway turns into Gentilly Boulevard.

At Eastern Street I enter a neighborhood of larger, older houses. This looks like a pretty stable middle class area. They're having elections in the city soon. Lots of signs.

The next institution of higher learning I come to is Dillard University, founded in 1869 as one of the post-war colleges for blacks, along with Howard, Fisk, Hampton, and a number of others throughout the south. Like the seminary, it's well-gated and walled off from the outside, but its buildings are mostly white. The oak trees around here are old and wide and imposing, their roots claiming portions of sidewalk and street.

It's become completely overcast and the temperature has fallen ten or fifteen degrees since mid-afternoon. Gentilly finally connects with Broad Street and I turn right. Only a few blocks to go. At 5:30 there's only a little light left. At Toulouse Street I catch sight of the motor home. All is well.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Day 68: The Bridge of Size

Slidell to Bayou Sauvage NWR. 20 miles/1210.2 total

Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm leaving from the Walmart parking lot in Slidell, going through the city then south and across the east edge of Lake Ponchartrain, ending in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.

This is the spectacular sunny day I thought yesterday would be. Right now it's about 50, with a slight breeze out of the west, going up into the low 60s.

I turn south off of U.S. 190 onto U.S. 11. Yesterday Mandy from Mandeville told me the Mardi Gras parades had already begun, and sure enough I'm seeing lots of leftover plastic beads on the roadside, along with plastic tokens and foil-covered chocolate coins here and there.

Highway 11 is called Front Street here, and I'm going past what is termed the Antique District, which includes a few old storefronts converted into boutiques and shops. It's only about a block long, with antique stores that take what they do a bit more seriously than the places I like to frequent.

Signs here and there indicate that this is Old Towne Slidell, founded 1888. The Slidell of today is a pretty big city, over 25,000, and I'm just skirting it, heading south and out of town quickly. The city was founded along a railroad line that was being constructed between New Orleans and Meridian, Mississippi. One of its earliest industries was a creosote plant, which burned down in 1910, was rebuilt, then polluted the waters for three-quarters of a century more, finally being torn down and becoming a Superfund site in 1986. (Sounds like it was a fun place to work while it lasted, though.)

Slidell was named for John Slidell, who was born and grew up in New York, but went south to become a congressman from New Orleans, a diplomat, and later a U.S. senator from Louisiana. He was sent by the Polk administration to negotiate with Mexico before the Mexican War. That didn't work and war broke out, but I don't think Slidell was too disappointed. During the Civil War Slidell was one of two Confederate diplomats captured by the United States while aboard a British ship. This was the so-called Trent Affair. It seems that in 1861 an energetic U.S. Navy captain boarded a British ship called the Trent, out of Havana, carrying Slidell and a guy from Virginia named Mason, who were going to Europe to try to get diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy by England and France. They were taken prisoner and held captive in Boston, but the British objected so strongly to their seizure from their boat that they threatened to recognize the Confederacy. Lincoln eventually agreed to release them, noting that what the U.S. Navy had done in boarding the British ship was pretty much what the U.S. had objected to the British doing to us during the War of 1812. Slidell and Mason went on to Europe. Slidell stayed in Europe after the war until his death in 1871, and is buried in Paris.

Further down Front Street there's a mostly-abandoned strip mall called the John Jay Centre. I'm not quite sure why they would name a shopping center here for the first Chief Justice of United States, a New Yorker and abolitionist. Maybe it's a different John Jay. Anyway, there's not much left of the place but this huge Jetsonesque black and white sign built on a tripod of black steel legs, much in need of paint, topped with a large oval on which, in fancy lettering, is the name John Jay Centre. The sign looks like a friendly robot. In the background are the remnants of a demolished store of some kind, mostly consisting of concrete slabs.

I officially leave Slidell, passing the sign facing the other way that welcomes people to "Camellia City." Another sign says "Happy Mardi Gras Slidell. Laissez les bon temps rouler."

As I continue south the land on the east side of Highway 11 becomes marshy, dotted along the roadway by houses built high on stilts--at least ten feet above the ground. But from what I understand, ten feet wouldn't have been enough to stay above the Katrina storm surge around here, which was closer to twenty feet. Over on the west side of the road, off in the distance, there's a tremendous amount of new construction--condos and large single family houses. All since the hurricane. I guess people just like tempting fate. Well, anybody who would live in this region obviously knows the risks.

At about nine miles I reach the five-mile-long bridge across the eastern end of Lake Ponchartrain, on which I'll be making the crossing. This bridge has a shoulder about two and a half feet wide, and nowhere to stop once I get on it. The good news is that there's a fifteen ton weight limit for trucks, which means no semis should be on it. And because today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the traffic will be lighter than usual for a Monday. At least it's a little wider than that bridge up in Cairo, Illinois.

Off to the west lies the open expanse of Lake Ponchartrain. To the east is the I-10 expressway bridge, about a mile distant. At about ten minutes out I am convinced that the shoulder is wide enough, although oncoming cars and trucks do try to swerve over the line when they can. This is what this plan of going around the north shore of the lake was all about, so that I could take this walk on this bridge.

After about a mile I'm past the first of the two drawbridges. The woman in the drawbridge tower came out and asked me if I needed her to call anyone for help. I said no and thanked her.
So far the traffic has been light, and I've seen nothing wider than a large pickup.

It's now been a little over an hour since I started, which means that I am more than halfway across. Tedium mixed with a sense of danger characterizes the walk so far, but I must say that feeling has been ameliorated by the phenomenal number of coins I'm finding. I stop every fifty yards or so to pick one up, and they're not just pennies.

Ahead in the distance is the hazy New Orleans skyline. I'm picking up so many coins that my right front jeans pocket is bulging with them, and I'm having to hitch up my pants every so often.

I think I'll call it America, I said as we hit land,
I took a deep breath, I fell down, I could not stand.

I'm off the bridge, but I still have another shorter one to cross yet, over I-10. When I'm finally off that one I sit down to rest and count my money. It's over $3.50, all but about thirty cents of which I picked up on the bridge. Apparently these folks in Louisiana have had so much federal money thrown at them that they toss it to the four winds to see if anything happens.

There's a Texaco station here, at the entrance to a community called Irish Bayou. I go in to spend a little of my loot. Irish Bayou is a narrow fishing village about half a mile long, with a motley collection of shacks and docks and vacation houses, many built high off the water. There's one oddball house that looks like a castle. To check it out, Google "Irish Bayou Fisherman's Castle." This place survived the hurricane, just to show you that nature is no respecter of good taste. It looks out of place here, but then, it would look out of place almost anywhere.

I enter Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. It gets quieter here, with water on both sides. An egret walks about fifty feet ahead of me on the side of the road, flying forward when I get close, then landing again. Ducks of all kinds ply the marshes. Through the tall grasses I can hear things moving and jumping into the water.

I come across the remnants of a black plastic bag that must have contained a dead dog, and a pretty good sized one at that. Now the only thing that's left is bits of the bag and clean bones. I pull a canine tooth out of the mandible as a souvenir.

The intersection of U.S. 11 and U.S. 90, where the motor home is parked, is right next to a large vacant lot that has been used as a dump for quite some time. It's littered with all kinds of refuse--a child's playpen, plastic toys, mattresses, yard waste, books. There are about twenty large screen tube televisions, all lying face down, their tubes broken in the back. I suppose that whatever is valuable in them has been removed. It looks like maybe a motel dumped their TVs here after they switched to flat screens. I just love garbage like this. And right in the middle of a national wildlife refuge. Doesn't get any better than that.