Thursday, February 11, 2010
Day 83: The Middle Way
Sulphur to Louisiana Welcome Center. 21.2 miles/1506.4 total
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The car is parked in a vacant lot at the corner of Lewis St. and Highway 90 in Sulphur. I'm heading down 90 to where it merges with I-10, and then a couple of miles to the Louisiana Welcome Center just this side of the Texas line.
Today will be my last full day of walking in Louisiana. My reconnaissance this morning indicated that I should be able to walk across the I-10/U.S. 90 bridge over the Sabine River into Texas on the next walk. It’s a wide bridge with an ample shoulder. The only trick will be not to attract the attention of the police.
Sulphur is a fairly tidy older industrial town, perhaps along the lines of Clawson, except for that ubiquitous southern tendency not to do a great deal in the way of zoning. Zoning isn't the whole problem, really. There’s zoning, all right. Here it appears to be mixed use commercial and light industrial, and in a few blocks it will be residential. Where the trashiness comes in is from the lack of enforcement (or maybe even the existence) of what we would call building codes. So yes, this is commercial, but if one of the businesses is burned out or the roof falls in and they take their time demolishing it, or if the business is being run out of a broken-down trailer, that’s fine. Similarly, when a place is zoned residential they often don’t care what kind of dwelling is on the property. This morning I went through a neighborhood of mostly trailers and modular houses where several people were living in school buses. Old yellow school buses, with wooden stairs going up to the back doors. And the utility companies apparently will hook up lines to a school bus. Also, in the south generally, I think they have a couple of subcategories of residential zoning we don’t have in the north, like Slave and Master.
There’s not much between Sulphur and Vinton, the only town of any size I’m going through today. So for the next twelve miles or so I’m out in the country. A few miles into the walk I make the acquaintance of a fellow traveler, who is on the other side of the road, walking but hoping for a ride. I passed him earlier, but we meet at a gas station where we’ve both stopped.
His name is Kerry, and he’s coming from Gainesville, Florida, headed for his home in Alaska, by way of California. He’s carrying a small backpack and wearing several layers of clothing. He’s missing about half his teeth and smells like booze already at a little before noon, but he’s not drunk. There’s no comfortable motor home waiting for him at the end of the day—just whatever shelter he can find in the town he ends up in, or maybe a spot beside the road. Kerry tells me he’s 63, and just enjoys being on the road. Says he was in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, and now he’s headed to the Gulf coast of Texas to stay with some people.
He tells me he was hauled in by the cops between Crowley and Jennings the night before last, and held in handcuffs for an hour while they checked him out, finally letting him go. I tell him that might be because of the serial killer in Jennings and he says he knows, that the police told him all about it. He was walking late at night to stay warm because it was too cold to sleep. For all that he's generally complimentary about the way the cops treated him. Evidently he's had worse.
We talk about finding things on the side of the road—tools, knives, money. He says he found $360 and some weed in a Marlboro pack once. I can’t beat that, with my pennies and nickels. I ask him about the metal silverware and he nods right away. He says the spoons are from people cooking dope. "When you see a spoon you’ll see the syringe a little while later." I’d thought of that already, and I say it makes sense for the spoons, but how does he explain the forks and knives? He shakes his head. “I have no idea.” So the mystery continues.
Kerry tells me to avoid Albuquerque, that there are gangs of Indians who don’t like white people, and not to go there after dark. I tell him that I never walk after dark anyway, and ask him about Santa Fe. That’s a nice city, he says. "Clean." I’ve been to both cities myself, but not on foot, of course. I agree with him that Santa Fe is nicer than Albuquerque, and I take his advice seriously, even though I’m not going to be walking around at night and staying in shelters, like him.
Something about Kerry just sort of broadcasts the fact that he’s a potential victim, drifting from town to town, whereas I don’t think I project quite the same image. More teeth, less baggage, perhaps more clear-eyed determination, and no hanging around bars late at night, all of which help to increase my safety. So far, so good.
Still, the idea of a person being truly on his own, with nothing but what he's carrying, is part of the freedom I romantically envisioned when I first began to contemplate this undertaking. But I guess that freedom comes at a cost—being rousted by cops and targeted by thugs and having to wonder whether you’re going to be able to sleep or have to keep walking.
I suppose it’s fair to say that I’ve chosen what might be termed the Middle Way—something between the unencumbered open road with nothing to lose and the potential for a world of pain on the one hand, and the Griswold family trip to Wally World in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster on the other. Maybe leaning a little toward the latter. But I’ll take it.
At eight miles I take Louisiana 388 off of Highway 90 into Edgerly. There’s an old rice dryer (which I know to be such because it’s located at the end of Rice Dryer Street). It looks like a skeleton of its former self—a huge empty ruin of a building, made of concrete and fifty feet high or more, with mostly windowless walls covered with dead vines and a few empty windows at the top, like black eyes. Cattle now graze in what used to be a parking lot next to the dryer.
Otherwise, Edgerly is nothing to speak of. I’m back out on U.S. 90. Finally at about 13 miles I get to the edge of Vinton. There’s something that looks like that rice dryer in Edgerly, looming high over the town. Vinton is a town of about 3,300, and is the birthplace of bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who lived here and in Orange, Texas, just over the state line.
This area, between the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers, was once part of a literal no-man's land. It lay in the disputed boundary between the Louisiana territory just bought by the U.S. and the Spanish lands to the west. In 1805 negotiations broke down and both countries agreed not to settle the area, called the Rio Hondo Territory. So all the settlers were cleared out and relocated. Things didn't change much until after the Civil War when a guy named Seaman Knapp came down from Iowa with a bunch of fellow Iowans, to get involved in the lumber business. Around the same time the Louisiana and Texas Railroad decided to build a line from New Orleans to Beaumont, Texas, which ran right through here. That's when things began to take off to the limited extent they did. Vinton, Iowa was where Seaman Knapp had come from, and hence the name.
Most of the town lies to the south of Highway 90, down by I-10. I stop at the Circle A Mini Mart to see if they have coffee. But nothing doing—they have half a pot that’s been turned off for a long time. So I go on to the Texaco station, where I have better luck—they have the super sweet cappuccino I have become addicted to lately.
Vinton has a dusty little downtown going, and at least one more gas station on 90, a Citgo. Then it’s back out to the countryside for a few more miles, where the road stretches straight ahead without curving.
I go by a small herd of cattle, perhaps fifteen adults and eight calves scattered around. I begin singing “Mister Bad Example” and they do just what they did last time, gathering together and clustering around the fence right in front of where I’m standing, looking at me. Ordinarily cattle run away when they see or hear me coming. I start singing another Warren Zevon tune, “Carmelita,” just to see what happens. They like it, and begin mooing back at me. Well, one of two things is going on here as I see it—either cattle like Warren Zevon songs or they like my singing voice (which I assure you is not good, at least from a human perspective). Perhaps I’ve found an audience. Next time I’ll try some Bob Dylan and see what they do.
At 18 miles I get to where Highway 90 merges with I-10. Before crossing over the expressway I stop in at the Lucky Longhorn Casino for one last video poker session in Louisiana, and quickly win a dollar. I think I’m ahead now for this state, and I’ll settle for that.
I begin walking down the access road on the right side of the expressway, until it curves away in a different direction. Then I go down into the wide ditch on the edge of I-10. Eventually I spy another road running parallel to the highway, and walk through fifty feet or so of woods and climb a fence to walk get to it. That road soon ends and I’m back walking through the weeds in the ditch, past the truck weigh station. At last, after about another mile, I get to the exit lane from the Welcome Center, where the motor home awaits.