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.