Date: Wed, 7 Feb 96 04:50:00 UTC 0000
Here's newsletter 14 in full. Hopefully the whole thing will successfully come across. GEnie folks, I will try to upload to the RTs today. If I'm not successful by Feb 12 at 5PM please assume I've encountered problems and take care of it for me.
Copyright 1996 (c) by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 14 - Jan 20 to Feb 1, 1996 St Francisville, LA to Cleveland, TX - 5234 miles cumulative
A full week off the bikes was exactly what we needed. When we're tired we tend to get quite cross with each other and with the world in general. Don't look at us in the wrong way after our fifth day of hills and headwinds. You might get your head bit off.
After visiting Baton Rouge we headed back to Mississippi to visit Gulf Islands National Seashore. I know backtracking doesn't get us to west Texas very fast. But it's amazing how fast these things with motors really do go. I hadn't been able to get a stamp for my National Parks Passport book for the National Seashore while in Pensacola, so this was my one and only opportunity. Besides there was nice camping at the nearby state park and pleasant hiking on the nature trails. The temperatures were nice and warm for a change. But was it wet. The state campground was right near the Gulf. The humidity was so high you could see tiny water droplets reflecting the light from our flashlights as they drifted by on the gentle breeze. The tent was once again soaking wet. Everything felt clammy and damp. But it was warm.
That was to change drastically within only a short day's drive back to New Orleans. A cold front rapidly moved in bringing the night time temperatures to the low 20s and the day's highs to the upper 30s. We toured around New Orleans dressed in enough clothes to look like we were on a ski weekend. It was so nice to have the car during the evenings. Turn on the heat, sit back and read in a nice warm environment. We do find we miss being able to go around in just lightweight shirts at night. Where is spring!
Just south of the city of New Orleans is the Chalmut National Battlefield. This was the site of a major battle in the war of 1812. The British really wanted to capture New Orleans and to control the Mississippi. General Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory", the future 7th president of the U.S. as sent to stop their advance.
The British moved up the Mississippi meeting very little resistance. So they stopped just south of New Orleans to take a break. This was their downfall as it gave Jackson the opportunity to attack. Jackson found an incredibly defensible spot to meet them. Imagine an open, rectangular field with swamps on one side and the river on the other. Running crosswise down the middle from the swamp to the river was a canal used to irrigate the plantation crops. Jackson set up his line behind this ditch. His engineers, go engineers, dug out dirt and piled it up chest high behind the ditch. The dirt was reinforced with logs to prevent collapse. Behind this wall he placed about 9 cannon and thousands of well armed troops. He then just waited.
The British walked forward and were simply mowed down by the artilary barrage coming from behnd this wall. After losing almost all their commanding officers, the British retreated, never to try to take New Orleans again. In the end the British lost 2000 men while the Americans lost only 6. An incredibly lopsided battle. This single battle significantly altered the future of this country forever. Imagine what would have happened if the British had won? Perhaps they would still have holdings in this area. Or maybe the battle would have simply been delayed for another time. Who knows, but perhaps a good subject for one of those alternate universe science fiction books.
New Orleans as a city is a strange enigma. There is a strange combination of beautiful, brand new expensive hotels, stores, and office buildings right next to boarded up buildings. The infamous Bourbon street is lined with sleezy bars, strip joints, gift shops. One street over are many posh and pricy antique and jewelery shops. Street performers share the streets with business people, tourists, homeless folks, and a real "jambalaya" of people. It's not uncommon to see a red or purple spikey hairdo on top of a skinny guy wearing back leather, chains, and multiple pierced earings stuck in an odd assortment of places including the ears. We can't tell if it is a city about to have a great revival or one that is gradually sinking to wrack and decay. But it is colorful.
We spent the day taking the walking tour in our AAA guide book and stayed into the evening when the bars along Bourbon St. come to life. Evening and night are really something, especially with the city starting preparations for Mardi Gras. All of the bars throw open their doors so the music from their particular band can be heard and entice customers in the door. This makes for quite an eclectic array of sounds coming to the ears. Like a variety shop for the ears. Jazz mixes with hard and soft rock tunes. If you don't like what you hear in one place, just move on.
Bourbon St. must also be the only place in the U.S. where you can walk down the street with a glass of the local favorite, Hurrricane or other alcoholic drinks. I always marvel at the small cafe doorways that are used as impromptu bars. These are the small starwells that normally would lead to the apartments upstairs. Someone pulls down a frig and loads it full of alcahol and viola, a small bar. Stop by and get your hurricane. It's so fun to walk and watch.
Being the end of January all of this Cajun region from West Mississippi to west Lousiana was preparing for the Mardi Gras celebration. Now I had always associated Mardi Gras with New Orleans. So it was quite a revelation to see that there are celebratons throughout this region. It seems to be almost a mini, localized holiday that even the party merchants can capitalize. Stores had aisles of Mardi Gras trinkets right next to their Valentine Day assortment. Mardi Gras trinkets included wreaths for doors, tinsel garlands, small clown dolls, masks covered in silk and sequins with all sorts of feathers surrounding the eyes, ceramic white faced masks with variuos symbols painted around the eyes, and beaded necklaces of all shapes and sizes ranging from small peas to ping pong balls. And everything had the colors purple, green, and gold. It's a region with a holiday all its own.
The last thing we did while we still had the car was to drive up to Vicksburg to see the civil war battlefield. Different armies, different generals, but this was once again a battle for control of the Mississippi River. The Union armies had managed to rout the Confederates from all cities along the rivr except Vicksburg. Lincoln felt Vicksburg was the "key" and he wanted to put it in the Federal's "pocket". So he sent Grant.
Grant started by marching downstream on the opposite of the river from Vicksburg to about 30 miles south of the town. He then battled his way to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, took Jackson, and then headed west to Vicksburg. The hill surrounding Vicksburg were riddled with cannon ready to defend the city. And it truly was a fortress. After two failed attacks, Grant settled into a long 27 day seige to starve out the Confederates. He surrounded the town and completely blockaded them from outside supplies and communication. They only surrendered after they were nearly out of ammo and were starvng. In the end some 9,000 soldiers on both sides were killed or missing.
The battlefield as a park is covered with monuments recognizing every battalion, every squad, every commander, every army who participated in the battle. Thousands of granite and marble monuments dot the hills and line the road. But the 130 year old scars of the battle actually remain. Remains of the trenches dug by the soldiers are still slightly visible and the ditch of the road to Jackson is still used as a service road. It was amazing to see how the trenches dug by the Union soldiers were often only a few yards from the Confederate positions. They could literally yell at or to each other as they contnued to lob grenades to the other side. War this close and personal must be frightning indeed.
Also on display were the remains of the only remaining metal armoured gun boat of the Mississippi, the Cairo. The armour plating on these boats was designed to withstand attacks from the side and front. It's weaknesses were the roof and hull. Before the battle of Vicksburg, it was coming down the river when Confederate volunteers on shore exploded a floating "torpedo" or mine as we call it today. The boat sank in 11 minutes taking all the artifacts inside with it. Remarkably, no man aboard was killed. Because it sank so fast it its contents were in remarkably good condition when they raised it in 1964. It now sits under a protective roof on the grounds of the Battlefield and many items found on board are in the museum. The ship has sharp, angular lines and when painted black looks an awful lot like today's stealth aircraft. We nicknamed it the stealth gunboat.
We returned to St Francisville, the Green Acres Campground and our bikes to give up our portable, heated room, AKA car. Ah, Enterprise Rent-A-Car with their pick-up and deliver service sure is nice. Our route was then supposed to take us through St. Francisville to the ferry across the river. Imagine our shock when we arrived to find the ferry not running and not expected to be back on-line until the next Friday, 4 days away. The only possible riding options were to go south to Baton Rouge, a full day's ride with a terrifying bridge to cross. Or ride north to Natchez, two days ride. We sat at the ferrry landing looking rather forelorn trying to figure out what to do.
As luck would have it, two men with a van and a semi tractor trailer cab took pity on us and offered us a ride to Simmsport on the other side of the river. We were relieved and elated as we loaded bikes and bags into the van. Brian climbed into the semi tractor-trailer cab with the man who made the offer and I climbed into the van with Butch. Butch was an extremely heavy black man wearing tattered work pants and black T-shirt. He was good natured and kind but extremely quiet. I babbled on and on trying to get him to speak, but he only uttered a few sentences with that slurred speech that seems so prevalent among southern blacks in this area. In the hour we drove I only managed to learn that he's not married and works in the logging industry for Georgia Pacific. A few additional tidbits about the area, and that was it. I sure do wish he'd been more open. I think I could have learned much from him. But we were ever so grateful for the ride. "When in need, you will be provided for."
Although the temperatures had started to warm ever so slightly, and I mean getting into the high 50s instead of low 50s, the storms seemed to be getting more violent and frequent. In Simmsport, the town where Butch and his friend dropped us, we labored over a decision of staying in their very rundown, dirty, crummy city park, checking into a motel, or trying to continue on. We opted for the motel which proved to be the wisest choice. Within an hour the rain started. Two days later we were faced with a similar decision in Mamou, although there was no city park. We chose to stay in an el cheapo motel for two nights as another storm raged all around. And we are talking violent storms, real heavy rain, lightening, and tornadoes. A dangerous situation for riding that we didn't want to risk. Although we have to wonder how long these storms will continue and how much will our progress across Texas be effected.
We continued along the back roads of the heart of Cajun country in western Louisiana passing by towns and mailboxes sporting the french names of the Acadian (shortened to Cadien and Cajun) people who settled here. Le Beau, Le Moyen, Beaucourte, Dumainss, and Bergeron, of course. Brian was so delighted to see Bergerons running for state office or running an Antique shop. Only here and in the extreme northeast U.S. do you find many Bergerons.
Everything was starting to look so much like the plains of the northern midwest states. Still too many trees. But large open fields, huge farm equipment, grain elevators next to railroad tracks, just a lot more open spaces. We could even once again see the town water towers from many miles away. Brian was overjoyed. Riding through the trees in a tunnel like fashion had really bothered him. He much prefers wide open spaces and grand vistes of the west. Funny for a boy who grew up in south Florida. You'd think he'd find open spaces to be too daunting. But, in many ways I feel the same. There's nothing quite like riding up to the top of a small hill to overlook a vast open country before you, and of course, all those other little hills that also lay before you.
Riding west from Mamou, LA we had a day we will never forget. It all started just after we passed the small town of Oberlin. We pulled over in a convenient driveway to check our maps. Next thing we know, Dempsey a medium sized retired man came over to offer assistance. He was curious to know where we were headed. Often when we stop like that people either just ignore us or simply wave. It's not often that they actually come over to talk.
Then no more than two miles down the road we finally saw another bike tourist coming the other way. For weeks we'd been wondering when we'd start seeing folks coming east. We'd been guessing there may be bikers starting in San Diego at the beginning of January, so we wouldn't see them until mid to late February. Seeing someone this early was quite unexpected. It's always good to pass bikers coming in the other direction. We can get all sorts of information about roads, terrain, people, campgrounds, etc that the average motorist wouldn't ever think is important. In this case we learned that the roads in Texas have great shoulders and we'll start seeing fewer and fewer trees once we pass Navasota.
This particular tourist was quite interesting, a thin man about Brian's height 5' 11' with a blind right eye, wearing baggy black rain pants, bright yellow jacket, and purple hat, he was possibly the most minimalist bike tourist we've ever encountered, even more so than Wynn Davis. He rode a yellow and silver 7 speed road bike with real thin tires, only one chain ring up front. He carried one small sleeping bag on the back, a waterproof sleeping bag cover on the front, and then only two teeny, tiny bags that would have just barely fit our repair tools. He does no cooking at all and must have only one set of clothes. His gear weighs just 12 lbs. But, all he is doing is riding. Since Dec 12, 5 weeks, he had ridden from San Fransisco to San Diego to Louisiana where we met him. He says he's averaging 70 miles a day. That's the same type of milage we did on our first cross country and we didn't get to see a thing along the way. We find taking our time and seeing everything to be much nicer. This guy was an early retiree like us. Eight years ago he sold a software business and has been doing all sorts of different things since; backpacking, horse riding, and biking long distances across the country. In fact the previous summer he was riding with a large cattle drive through Scottsbluff, NE just a few weeks prior to our arrival there. We just couldn't quite understand why, with all the time available, he seemed to be in such a hurry.
We continued to meet incredibly nice people that day, from the young couple with 4 young kids who stopped to eat at the same cafe we stopped in to the owner of the store called Singleton Canal. An unusual man, short and rather chubby, who real nice but rather paranoid. "Don't ever let anyone know what you're doing." he told us. The big grin on his face led us to believe at first that he was joking. But we soon learned he was serious. He told us he plays all sorts of games to make sure anyone who might be watching his place would never know whether or not he was there. We wondered why this seemingly really nice, gentle man could possibly have reason to be so concerned.
It seemed that every time we stopped we ended up in a long convrsation with whoever happened to be at that spot. So, to get to our destination, we finally had to keep on riding and not stop. Otherwise we would never get anywhere.
But, that night we met probably the nicest of all people at the supposed "campsite". just outside of Deridder, LA is a fish and game area where one is supposed to be able to pitch a tent. After looking around a bit, we concluded that it would be safer to try the Nichol's Landing campsite instead. After wandering around looking for someone who might be able to tell us something about where to pitch a tent, we stumbled across Cecilia. Cecilia is an absolutely wonderful lady aged 48 whose wrinkle free face looks no more than 35. Shorter than me, or reasnable weight, dark shoulder length hair that she likes to keep in a ponytail, and dark brown eyes that always have a grin in them. She's of Mexican descent, grew up in east Washington state, and married a man of French descent and moved to this region of Louisiana 20 years ago to be with him. Recently seperated from her husband, he's living in the house and she is living in the mobile home out at their "camp". She now has taken a job with Wal-Mart, after 20 years of not working, and was absolutely thrilled with the computer training they are providing.
Well, Cecilia took us under her wing for the night. Opening her home, we were given the run of her porch. A huge screened in porch that seemed to be 3/4 the size of her trailer, it had a working 1940s Sears Kenmore gas stove, an old Franklin type wood stove that we stoked up for heat, a couple sofas we used for beds, and a nice picnic table. We got hot showers, a chance to watch the weather report, and stove for cooking. Cecilia also tried to give us most everything she had in her kitchen, but we had to gently refuse. This is a woman who's just getting back on her feet. We did not want to take advantage of her. Just having a nice warm place to spend the night was enough for us.
We got her address and promised to write. It always is amazing how a chance meeting, such as this, winds up with a friendship that lasts for many years. I can't begin to count the number of people we've briefly encountered during one of our trips with whom we continue to keep in touch even many years later. When people ask what in the world would posess us to travel in this mode rather than in a motorized vehicle, I'd have to say it's the people we meet.
Our one night with Cecilia was all too short, I would have loved to stay for a few days to get to know each other better. But, We do need to get to San Diego sometime this spring. So we headed on the next morning. But, in this one day we met more wonderful people in such a short time than most any other place. We will definitly remember west Louisiana and Cajun country folks forever.
Texas. We entered Texas on Superbowl Sunday, January 28, 1996. Brian proceeds to announce that at long last we are finally west. Now I've always heard that once you enter Texas you never leave. That really is intended to mean that you will carry some of it in your heart and soul for the rest of your ife. But at the speed with which we travel, in our case we may actually be physically in Texas forever. Actually, we plan to take bout 1 1/2 to 2 months to cross with lots and lots of stops along the way. So Texas had better just get used to us.
The temperatures hit an absolutely wonderful 75 degrees as we explored the Big Thicket National Preserve. The preserve was created to save a very unique, although ordinary looking, habitat that exists in between the swampy jungles of the southeast and the dry desert of the southwest. The preserve is an interesting compromise between extreme environmentalism and commercial exploitation. Being a unique classification, a preserve saves the forests, trees, and wildlife in a region. However, oil, gas, and mineral exploration is still permitted. We did have to wonder how one could go about mining the region without disrupting the trees. Of historical interest, during the Civil War, Texans who didn't believe in the confederate cause hid in the Big Thicket. Confederate generals would occasionally come through, burning the frorest, trying to capture all hideaway men. Many did escape, fortunately.
We spent the night at the refuge, our list night in the tent for a long week. A quick visit to the ranger station to get a permit and you can essentially camp anywhere you like as long as it's 200 ft. away from the main road and hiking trails. We camped right in back of the visitor information cabin. It was still warm as we prepared our dinner. But we just barely finished eating when it started to rain. Little did we know that this was the beginning of the long 1996 winter freeze that took much of the country by surprise. For us it was just a light rain with some chilling afterward.
The next day Mothernature reached down from the Artic north strewing her icy hand across the continent. It was cold, 35 degrees, when we got up and it remained cold, 39 degrees, all day long. With every stitch of clothing we had on our bodies we rode on west to the nearest town with a motel, some 64 miles away. We knew the temperatures were going to plumet for the night and we decided it would be safer to be inside.
There comes a point when living outside that it simply gets to be more than you can handle. For us, a 7 day ordeal of close to zero temperatures and freezing rain was it. We couldn't stand the idea of riding in it all day and then trying to camp for the night. It was time to rent another car. We had planned to get one to visit San Antonio and Austin in a few weeks to avoid having to ride in these big, high traffic cities. We simply pushed the time up a bit while waiting for the cold to clear.
We drove to San Antonio over ice covered roads and bridges getting a bit nervous at each car on the side of the road or each accidnt we saw. But we made it with no incident, bikes, bags, and all. We would spend three days exploring the city, then head for Austin for a day or two. With any luck, warm weather would finally come our way by the time we got back to Cleveland where we got the car in the first place.
Appendix A - Route
Rt 1 and back roads Simmsport to Plaucheville Rt 107 to Big Cane Rt 361 to Le Beau and Washington Rt 103 around Opelousas Ro 104 to Mamou Rt 104 and 26 to Oberlin and DeRidder Rt 190 to state line
Rt 190 to Bon Wier Rt 363 to Kirbyville Rt 96 to Silsbee Rt 418 to Kountz Back roads to Cleveland
Appendix B - Camp sites
Green Acres Campground ($), Sportsman Motel ($), Willie's Campgroind and Bar ($), Bamboo motel 2 nights ($), Cecilia's couch
Texas Motel in Kirbyville ($), motel in Kountz ($), Big Thicket National Preserve, M&M motel in Cleveland ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.