Thursday, February 11, 2010

Day 82: El Anglo Loco

Iowa to Sulphur. 20.2 miles/1485.2 total

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I depart this morning from in front of the post office in Iowa, heading down Highway 90 to Lake Charles and over the lake into its twin city, Sulphur.

It’s about 40 and cloudy, heading up only into the high 40s. The thunderstorm we had last night has passed over and brought this cold front behind it, with a stiff breeze from the northwest.

I’m facing a problem I didn’t think I’d have after New Orleans. There are only two bridges across Lake Charles, and they are both on interstate highways. U.S. 90 merges with I-10 just before the bridge I have to cross, and although the bridge predates the interstate system, having been built under Governor Earl Long, it’s not meant for pedestrians. A narrow four-lane job that is treacherous enough for vehicular traffic, let alone for a walker. So I’m forced to hitchhike across the bridge and resume the walk on the other side.

There was really no way around this other than to have planned out an entirely different route across western Louisiana, or to take a long detour. So today will become the fourth time I’ve had to ride since I started the journey. The first time was when the Cairo chief of police made me get in his car for the last half mile or so of the insanely narrow Mississippi bridge from Cairo, Illinois to Missouri. Then a DeSoto County Sheriff’s Deputy in Mississippi decided I couldn’t walk on Highway 61 and drove me about three miles down the road. Third was the Huey P. Long Bridge across the Mississippi in suburban New Orleans, a distance of about two miles. With today’s ride of three miles the total will come to about 9 miles of riding. Not bad, I guess, but of course I wish I could have walked it all.

And to make matters worse, I may also have to omit walking across the Sabine River, between Louisiana and Texas, in a couple of days. The alternative there is to take a fairly long detour out of Edgerly which I really would rather not take. I feel like I’m on a bit of a slippery slope here. But this is not a pedestrian’s country we live in, as I’m finding out. And from the point of view of the builders of the infrastructure, why go to the expense of putting in a pedestrian walkway on a bridge when that walkway will hardly ever be used? To spend an extra few million to let guys like me and the occasional cyclist get across wouldn't be fiscally responsible.

Walking out of Iowa I go through a neighborhood of trailers in various states of disrepair. I’m looking around to see if Michael the Archangel is still lurking about the streets of Iowa. But no sign of him. It's been two days, and he’s probably moved on east of here.

Well, the Saints won that Super Bowl, as everyone knows by now, and the State of Louisiana is jubilant. Yesterday on my off day in Lake Charles everyone was wearing Saints t-shirts that said Super Bowl XLIV Champions. The shirts must have been bought on faith before the event actually happened. It occurs to me that perhaps the greatest contribution of the Super Bowl to our nation is that it teaches lots of otherwise ignorant people how to read Roman numerals.

The first seven miles of today’s walk are through nothing much. Now at about nine miles I enter the corporation limits of Lake Charles, a city of over 70,000--the largest in Acadiana. It's called the Festival Capital of Louisiana, since it has over seventy annual festivals. The Europeans who started the city were French, but it was a Frisian, Daniel Goos (namesake of Goosport, just to the north), whose timber business in the mid-19th century made Lake Charles take off.

A mile and a half later I take a left onto Louisiana 14 to go down to the Highway 90 business route through the center of the city. This morning’s clouds have disappeared and it’s a bright sunny afternoon, although still cold.

At the Citgo Food Post all the windows are covered with black iron bars, making it look like a jail. This is not a good sign, I'm thinking. The neighborhood doesn’t look too bad to me, but then I’m walking through on a Tuesday afternoon when it’s too cold for most of the locals to be on the street. The few people who are walking are dressed like Eskimos. It’s definitely the poor side of town. And wouldn’t you know it, this part of Route 14 is called Martin Luther King Highway.

I’m on Broad Street now, heading west into downtown, which is still a long way off. I pass the first large cemetery I’ve seen in quite some time. Graceland Cemetery, it’s called. The names are a mix of English and French, with a scattering of Italian. Graceland merges seamlessly into Orange Grove Cemetery, filled with more English folks. At the east end is the oldest part of the graveyard, containing some of the early settlers. The old brick vaults are falling apart like they were in St. Louis Number One in New Orleans. Here’s Mary Ransom, born 1841, died 1940. She hung in there.

Across from the cemetery is the Hokus Pokus Liquor Store. On I go, past Chad’s Pawn and a place called Breath of Life. Finally, at DagOstinO’s BistrO, housed in an large old brick house, the neighborhood becomes more residential. Here many of the homes seem to be privately owned and well kept up. A few contain lawyer’s offices, and are nicely restored. This is the Charpentier Historic District, in the vicinity of Broad and Reid Streets.

Here’s a large Spanish-style house with brown stucco walls and green shutters. Then a scattering of houses from around the turn of the century, interrupted here and there by empty storefronts and businesses indicating that the neighborhood is no longer upper middle class, by and large. 915 Broad Street is an elegant mansion with a full two-story porch and fluted columns across the front with very ornate capitals and plain smaller columns running around a cupola on the side. Its next door neighbor has an interesting second-story wrap-around porch that’s suspended at the end by supports through the ceiling.

I pass the First United Methodist Church, a very solid and stolid-looking variegated red and tan brick structure. And a place that looks like it should be a funeral home, but instead houses a law firm: Cox, Cox, Filo, Camel & Wilson, Personal Injury Law. It has an attractive green tile roof, with many gables. Across the way is another law office building, the Ramsay Mansion, from 1885. All these houses must have been the edge-of-town palaces of the early rice, lumber, shipping, and later oil barons of Lake Charles. Thanks in part to the lawyers they’re being preserved nicely.

After this attractive historic district comes the inevitable expanse of vacant lots before the city center. This is pretty typical, in my experience. For those of you familiar with Pontiac, think about Wide Track Drive, the huge empty moat around the cluster of old downtown buildings.

I pass the Children’s Museum. These things are usually nothing but elaborate playgrounds. Why people think children need special museums of their own is beyond me. Let them share the real museums with the adults, and learn to appreciate them. It’s the same with children’s sections of libraries, which sometimes take on the look and proportions of day care centers. Teach a kid to respect and admire a library, not to expect it to be a fun house. People think that if kids sit on tiny chairs and look at oversized illustrated children's books they'll go on to appreciate the printed word as adults. But that's like expecting children who watch cartoons on television to transition to PBS productions of Jane Austen novels.

There are a few sidewalk murals scattered around downtown--paintings on big sections of sidewalk. Some are pretty vapid, but one I like says “Anyone who thinks he is too small to make a difference has never been to bed with a mosquito.”

Down from the corner of Ryan and Kirby is the Italianate red brick Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. All the doors are locked, so I can’t go in, but from the outside it’s quite handsome.

Back down on Ryan I find something called the 1911 Historic City Hall, now an Arts and Cultural Center. It also is Italianate in style with a tall central tower. I go in to see an exhibit of Frederick Remington prints and sculptures on loan from the Remington Museum on the Hudson River in New York. Very nice. Also, on the first floor, is an exhibit of black and white photographs by a local photographer named Lynn Reynolds, a graduate of McNeese State University here in Lake Charles.

Across the street is the large Calcasieu Parish Courthouse, topped with a green dome and looking more imposing than many of the courthouses down here. Inside the rotunda doesn't go up to the dome, but the building is nicely appointed.

Back outside I’m on Lakeshore Drive, heading toward the place where I’ll have to start hitchhiking. On my left is the Lake Charles Civic Center and in front of me are the huge Chase and Capital One bank buildings. Over to the west, on the other side of choppy, grayish brown Lake Charles, are several gigantic casino/hotels.

At the entrance ramp of the expressway I stick out my thumb and wait. After about fifteen or twenty minutes I finally get picked up. A large black four-door pickup truck with a four-wheeled back axle pulls over and waits for me to trot up to it. Inside are four Mexican men, headed west. I share the back seat with two young guys who nervously look straight ahead and say nothing. Only the driver speaks English, as far as I can figure. He offers to take me to Houston, but I manage to explain to him that I am walking, and only want a ride over the bridge because it's impossible to walk over it. He seems bemused, but obligingly drops me off at the Highway 90 exit. This Anglo is loco, he’s probably thinking.

Not long after I get back on Highway 90, I enter Sulphur, a city of 22,000, named for its early 20th century sulphur mine. Sounds like a fun place to work. There are a number of oil refineries, and the smell is definitely that of sulphur, although I'll bet it really used to be something before people got serious about air pollution. There’s even a suburb of Sulphur called Brimstone. How would you like to live there? Brimstone, Louisiana.

Here Highway 90 is called East Napoleon Street. The road is lined with live oaks perhaps fifty years old, which bend toward each other from each side to form a canopy. The businesses are light industry, warehouses, and equipment sellers to the oil industry.

At 19 miles I pass N. Post Oak Road, and the businesses become more oriented toward the individual consumer. A meat market called The Sausage Link, Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant, Kinki’s Adult Gifts, a massage parlor, a Dollar General, Richard’s Fine Cajun Restaurant, featuring hot boudin and fresh seafood. On top of the sign there's a huge, somewhat beat up red crawfish. It looks as if a giant insect has landed.

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