Bike Nielsen 2006

The Nielsen Big Muddy Adventure
There is freedom in boarding a plane with two small bags that weigh about fifteen pounds and knowing that there isn’t more in checked baggage. Items will still elude you in those two small bags, but not for long.
Most people have a No-Turn-Around Distance for vacation. This is how far you can drive down the road and still go back for critical items like a cell phone or important medications. The distance is much shorter for non-critical items like the favorite jeans that you washed at the last minute. When you pack for a bicycle trip and under fifteen pounds, there is practically no turning around. Everything is still at home. And if you go back to get something, you better be willing to carry it.
The planned trip
We have always wanted to pedal or paddle the length of the Mississippi River. Since we don’t have unlimited time and money, we looked at the map to see how much of the Big Muddy we could cover. We decided Memphis, Tennessee would be a good starting point and New Orleans would be the goal. And because we are used to temperate, dry weather, we decided to hit Mississippi in August.
Day Zero
Santa Barbara, CA to Southaven, Mississippi, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee
Start time: 7:24 am PST
End time: 5:15 pm CST
Today’s mileage: a few thousand air miles
Total bike mileage so far: 0 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.79 was the cheapest we saw.
Weather: 97 degrees and high humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
The Farthest we were (culturally) from home today: the State-run liquor store not only had George Dickel Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey, it had it in three sizes.
Animals for the day: A housefly that traveled from Denver to Memphis on the shoulder of the guy in 8C.
The first stop was Denver, where we had lunch. The arbitrarily-chosen restaurant called ITZA WRAP featured large tortilla-like things that contained whatever was stipulated from an exhaustive list of three items and four sauces. Each of our items cost $6.99 and we each had a bottle of water. John handed the checker twenty dollars and received 2 cents in change. John looked at Berta, slack-jawed. He didn’t count on $2.25 for a bottle of water. Seven dollars didn’t seem like a lot until it was doubled, taxed, and washed down with some corporation’s tap water. In retrospect, John would have forced Berta to choke down her lunch dry and would later refill a now-valuable eight-ounce airline water bottle with water from an airport drinking fountain.
Arriving in Memphis, we needed a van-taxi that could accommodate our bike boxes. We had already learned that motel choice number one was sold out, so the free shuttle it offered was out. The boxes aren’t heavy, and they have convenient handholds; however, two of them won’t fit in the trunk of a sedan. We had no trouble securing the services of a van, especially one with a driver who immediately added $9.50 as “extras” to the fare. He took us to Southaven, a Mississipian suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. It took about ten minutes and the total charge, including those “extras”, was $31.00. We did need to visit two motels with no rooms—a Comfort Inn and a Quality Inn—before finding an America’s Best Value Inn that had a room for us. We noted that this is not called America’s Best Price Inn. The wireless Internet access is available within a 20-foot radius of the front desk. Our room is not within that radius.
People ask about assembling bikes that have been boxed, and we casually, flippantly, mention that we just straighten out the handlebars and attach the seat and pedals and voila! We are off! The first thing you notice when the boxes emerge from the baggage carousel flaps is that at least one axle protrudes from the cardboard. You anxiously inspect the spokes for damage. Berta reattached her brake cable three times before it was properly routed. If you close one eye, your seat can look straight but be completely akimbo when you open both eyes. This description minimizes the stress of constantly panicking that some item was left out. Cables get unthreaded, zip-ties get lost, and the bikeshop lets some air out of the tires so they survive the flight. Those last pounds of air are the hardest ones to achieve with a hand pump. This process of readying the bikes takes about two hours. Voila!
Day One
Southhaven to Robinsville, MS, the third largest gambling area in the United States.
Start time: 7:20 am
End time: 10:30 am
Today’s mileage: 31.2
Total bike mileage so far: 31 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.89
Weather: 97 degrees and high humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
The Farthest we were from home: Near the hush puppies at the lunch buffet.
Animals for the day: A Cardinal who flew across our path and a dead bloated raccoon
Count of cheap pens so far: 2
The funniest place name: Arkabutla Road
The roads in Northern Mississippi are mostly straight on a grid, and undulate only slightly. Two times, we pedaled up maybe 30 feet and immediately descended the other side of the hill. Much of the roadside was covered with a vine we read about: kudzu. We heard it covers much of Mississippi, which was evident in some areas today. The vine grows up thirty foot trees, then hangs down and touches the ground again. It almost completely covers small outbuildings. The roads had well-manicured greenways for many feet on the shoulders. Beyond the grass, it looked like the vines overtook the roadside fences and made hedges out of them. At intervals, we would hear some buzzing bugs like cicadas, with our speed changing the perceived tone of their music.
Berta and kudzu vines
Drivers in this area are very courteous to bicyclists, as courteous as people from Wisconsin, and maybe even approaching Canadian Courteousness. Many people slowed precipitously and waited for oncoming traffic before passing us with plenty of room to spare. Two people returned our “Thank You” waves, and only a few people seemed annoyed with us. It might be the “Look at Those Fools” effect, but everybody does seem quite hospitable here. Even in the buffet, people who really weren’t in the way said “Excuse Me”. It is delightfully contagious to hear someone say that.
Out of the Memphis area, we traveled south and then directly west. As we approached the Mississippi River, we crested a rise and left the hilly terrain behind for the flat treeless fields ahead. The trees of the riverbank dominated the horizon. It was clear where the influence of the river reaches. For several miles, we rolled alongside fields. We don’t know for sure the fields were cotton, but that is the prevalent crop here, and there were signs with what was possibly a stylized cotton ball and the term “FiberMax”.
The winds today were pleasant out of the Southwest. A weak headwind on a hot day is almost preferable to a tailwind because it keeps us cooler. The heat, which was not fully developed by the time we stopped, was manageable while we rode. Our thermometer indicated 98 this morning. We stopped a few times to discuss the route and quickly approached a liquid state in the sun. Most of the buildings we entered had air that felt like a blizzard at first, but really was only cool after we stood in it for a while. It brings to mind the phrase “breaking a sweat”. Why “breaking”? But then, why do we “cut” a check?
We are considering raising funds for the Livi ord inistry in Northern Mississippi. The sign, common in the south, was mounted on a small trailer with translucent sides that have horizontal tracks holding plastic letters and the interior can be lighted for maximum impact at night. The inistry would like to buy a few consonants for five hundred, Jack. They had four i, didn’t they get at least an M?
We are staying at a casino in the Tunica area. Fifteen years ago, this area had very few hotel rooms. Now, there are over 6000 because Mississippi voted to allow gambling, and all the
casinos have hotels. There are a few apartment complexes, gas stations, and Best-Western type motels in the area, but nothing else. The casinos dwarf the landscape. The law allowing the casinos was ambiguously written that the casinos had to be on Mississippi River water, so some are well away from the river on ponds periodically refreshed with river water by way of twelve-inch pipes from the banks of the Big Muddy. Inspectors from Jackson visit every month to test the water, making sure that the ponds truly contain river water. More recently, the law was rewritten to allow only casinos on the river itself. No other casinos have been built since the original group, possibly because the water level on the river varies some fifty feet. We were on a pretty permanent-looking dock that on closer inspection floated up and down, constrained by two large standards.
The sky was filled for most of the day with big, crisp, billowing cumulonimbus clouds on a bright blue. This was especially lovely with the tiered vista of wide, brown river, large bleached sandbar and green trees in the foreground. By evening, the sky was completely clear in our West-facing window as the sun set across the Father of Waters.
Day Two
Robinsville to Clarksdale, MS, near the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-playing talent
Start time: 7:25 am
End time: 3:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 72.3
Total bike mileage so far: 103 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.79
Weather: 95 degrees and high humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.5 out of 5
The Farthest we were from home: at a convenience store display of several styles of Pork Chitlins, Pork Cracklins, and sundry other Pork Fried blank-lins.
Animals for the day: A crane who had white wings with heavy black trim, an Armadillo handbag curing on the side of the road, three turtles in an aquarium in the grocery store
Count of cheap pens so far: holding at 2
The funniest place name: Mhoon Landing
Today’s route
The weather when we left the Fitzgerald Casino and Hotel was just about perfect for bicycling. Near the end of the cycling day, the thermometer on John’s handlebar read 111 degrees for a short time. It was hard on the bike, but there were some positives: we avoided the busy roads, there were no hills ever, and the pavement was good for much of the way. The surface got rougher as we moved farther from the source of gambling tax income. At one point, though, we were having trouble following the route a lady suggested and backtracked some miles twice. In the middle of this pedaling to and fro, we were at least three miles down a road when it turned to dirt. That was a low point in the day, and proved that we both can swear like sailors.
Those directions we got were fine, we think, it was just that we remembered details like “then you come to a three-way stop”, but not those of the more crucial variety, “and turn right”. It turned out that if we had walked maybe a half-mile in the dirt, we would have avoided at least ten miles, but we couldn’t know that from standing at the edge of the asphalt.
During the thrashing, we stopped at a Mississippi State Welcome Center. We had seen it once already, but mistook it for a detention center because it was nearly surrounded by chain link fence topped with two feet of rows of barbed wire. On our second pass, we rode briefly on the big highway and around to the front and saw the “Welcome to Mississippi!” signs. Once inside, we were given ice water and Dueling Directions from the man and woman who worked there. “You go over the railroad tracks and take the road on the left, just on the other side,” she said. “No, that road is so curvy, so go all the way to Moon Lake and turn at the BMW place,” he volleyed. (That was the second time today someone commented that a route had too many curves. We began to joke about road signs indicating a curve ahead: “Oh no, another CURVE!”) Their argument went on for ten minutes, and then they announced that they would confer and tell us what they decided. We drank more water and opened up the computer, thanks to Berta, to look at our map software. It supported and expounded upon their suggestions, and we made some notes on the local map they offered. Later, we saw the “BMW place”, which was a small grocery store on the lake, not a car dealership. Most of the cars we see are American makes, with a sprinkling of Japanese sedans. We couldn’t picture a BMW dealership in this area.
Leaving the welcome center, we saw a semi on the highway lose two tires that passed the semi as it slowed, the tires bounding five feet in the air. The tires stayed on their side of the divided highway, didn’t hit anything, and rolled off into the ditch.
Did you know that Pork Chitlins have no Trans Fat? Maybe that makes them heart-healthy.
We have had some priceless interactions today. We asked for directions frequently and were rewarded with the best information available. We asked in the Post Office in Lyon if they had a spigot where we could fill our bottles. They filled our bottles and refused payment for the cold bottled waters they gave us as well. We talked for about fifteen minutes with three women in a grocery in Lula. The oldest of the women said she couldn’t ride a bike over to someplace that sounded close. One of the others pointed out that she wouldn’t be able to bike that far as long as she believed she couldn’t. The first allowed that she was probably right. They asked about our trip and we heard about one of their sons who is working in the New Orleans area. They offered to fill our water bottles with ice, but we know from experience that ice doesn’t last long in this heat.
Berta at the Lula Police Department
We are amazed that folks here don’t know about a town twenty miles away; we have heard it before from people in small towns who don’t know how far it is to the next town or how to get there. Most people will try to give directions, though. One lady stopped her car next to us while we looked at the map at an intersection. She was apologizing for not knowing well what we asked, so she waved to a person in a car passing her. The second car realized her gesture, and backed up about twenty yards to sit driver-side to driver-side. Those people knew the road straight ahead would go all the way to Clarksdale, so we got our information. As we rolled away—don’t sit still too long—we heard one say she was from Chicago. They introduced themselves and continued talking while another car drove around them. This interchange happened at the outskirts of a town that looked like it had only hundreds of people.
After spending the day in miles and miles of cotton fields and very tiny communities, we are in a town that has five or more motels. We had very good Mexican food very close by and were able to use the guest laundry.
Day Three
Clarksdale to Cleveland, MS
Start time: 6:50 am
End time: 11:30 am. Yippee!!
Today’s mileage: 46.2 with one flat
Total bike mileage so far: 148 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.95 in some of the smaller towns
Weather: 95 degrees and high humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.0 out of 5
The Farthest we were from home: looking at huge fields of rice and sorghum
Animals for the day: a white crane lifting off from a field, and many sandpiper-like birds that hang out near the crops.
Count of free cheap pens so far: 3
The funniest place name: Mound Bayou
Today’s route
As we wind our way around the rural South, we can’t ignore the dilapidated houses with young men and women standing around during the day. Apparently, these people have no jobs; however, many people who do appear to have jobs also seem to be very poor. It is not unusual to see abandoned houses and their associated out buildings overgrown with vegetation. The sense of poverty is overwhelming. We asked a guy if we were on the road to Roundway. He said, “Yes, but there’s no town there”. He was right, of course. There was an old water tower, a health center that hadn’t seen a patient in years. There was a very large barnish building made of corrugated steel. There were a couple of guys with work trucks there, dismantling the building. Eventually, there will be nothing in Roundway.
Despite our perception of heavy poverty in this area, a joy of life flows from these polite, kind people. If you stand by the side of the road looking at a map, someone will stop to help with
directions. Viewing what we have seen so far, we can’t help but be grateful for our life back home.
One of the many tributaries in this area. In the full size of this picture, you can see a few hundred dragon flies above Berta’s head. They don’t bother us.
Churches are everywhere. Even in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest town, there can be a church. One would conclude that spiritualism is big in Mississippi. Church signs often have letters after the name like: AME, CME, ABA. MB is popular: Missionary Baptist. When there are two Missionary Baptist churches within a mile of each other, does that mean they were good missionaries or bad missionaries? Most church signs have the preacher’s name, but there are quite a few titles like: Pastor, Elder, Doctor, Reverend and Minister. Some are complex titles like: Doctor Reverend, Elder Pastor, Reverend Pastor and Doctor Reverend Pastor. Church signs also have taglines like: Planting seeds of faith to reap a harvest of souls, A place for you, You always have a friend at New Life, Visitors are never strangers. The local telephone directory is about a half inch thick and there are almost four pages listing churches. (The back page of the telephone directory shows the silhouette of a marijuana leaf and in bold type it says,”It makes you respond to “hey stupid” ten seconds slower.”) We saw a sign in a field on the anticipated building site of a church. It will be the “Newer New Hope” church. Hope just gets newer and newer every day.
John got a flat tire today and we were very lucky it happened near the shade of a grove of tall nut trees, and that it was kind of early in the day. Berta tried to help by handing things to John when he needed them, but it wasn’t long before sweat was dripping off of his nose. When he finished, he removed the surgical gloves he wears to avoid getting grease on his hands. There was about a tablespoon of sweat in each glove. That’s how it works in this humid heat. We stay pretty dry on the bikes, but boy do we melt when we stop!
We followed small country roads today and saw very little traffic. Some small roads here are named by the towns or roads they join. We were following New Africa Road and faced a fork in the road. The one fork had a sign: “Bobo New Africa Road”, and the other fork was not marked.
We were able to ask a man nearby which road we wanted. It turned out that we needed the non-Bobo road. It is probably true that roads are marked about as accurately everywhere. It is probably common that the state highway maps all over show roads with numbers when the locals and the signs show the descriptive name of the road. It is just that people who know where they are don’t need maps and signs. And people who ride bikes in stupid heat need to know they are on the right road. Maybe on the next trip, we will bring a GPS setup to work with the maps.
At one point today, we were confronted by a big piece of farm equipment rolling down the road towards us. It was a John Deere 9650 STS with some sort of boom across the front that made it wider than the road. We might have successfully limboed the boom, but decided to stop off the pavement until the behemoth. Here is a picture of the tractor we found on the Internet, without the wide part:
We had our second breakfast this morning in Shelby at David’s Diner. The place was empty, except for David, his wife and a customer. As we were red-faced and dripping, the weather became the topic of conversation. The customer, a farmer, looked at us as if we were addle brained. “That must take something out of you being in that heat and all? How come you’re not sunburned?” Because we are witches and warlocks with the magical SPF powers! The wife brought a gallon pitcher of ice water to our table without being asked. Questions were answered and then we heard that this area has not had a drop of rain for three months. The farmer moves his hands a foot apart and says there are cracks in the fields “this big”. We talked about the water pumps run by diesel engines that adorn almost every field. Without rain, farmers are forced to pump their 150-foot wells with these big engines. A neighbor has a fuel bill of $60,000 a month, the farmer says. A fuel truck visits that farm every other day with something like 4500 gallons of diesel for the 30,000 acre plot. Local farming will have to wait until next year for profits.
We saw a lot of rice growing today. We saw another grain that we described to the guy in David’s—he said that was Milo, which we have since learned is also called grain sorghum. It has kind of wide corn-like leaves and a central stock. On top of the stock is a head of brown grains that collectively are about the size of a soda can when it is young like we saw today. The head gets bushier as the grain matures.
A picture of Milo we found on the Internet
As we were leaving Watsonville this morning, a truck passed us then stopped to make a left turn waiting for oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, the Toyota moving in the same direction didn’t stop and we witnessed a rear end collision 60 feet away. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be seriously hurt; we talked to the parties, called 911, and saw the police speeding to the accident scene as we continued down the road.
One of the nicest people we met today was Kathy, who runs the convenience store in a town nearby. She was very interested to know about our trip, John’s glasses-mounted mirror, what kind of bikes we ride, how we stay cool and several other questions. She, like some of the people we meet on these rides, told us about her own probably far-removed experience with exercise and followed that with a comment that she should get back to it. Kathy sold to us a cherry-limeaid drink for Berta and grape juice for John. As we stood, staining our teeth and replenishing our energy, she gave us the happy news that we were five miles from town. In actuality, we were six miles from where we are staying at the Hampton Inn that is on the northern edge of town. Kathy’s son Hugh has a best friend named Crow (“yes, like the bird”) who owns a restaurant just next door here. We wanted to go there, but food was needed at 3 and they didn’t open until 5. We went to the Guadalajara Restaurant instead. That makes two nights in a row for Mexican food in Mississippi. Last night, the platters were a foot across and we scoffed as we both cleaned our plates. Today, the platters were smaller, so John asked for another copy of his. “The… whole… plate?” our server stammered. That came quickly and John dispatched quesadilla plate number two. These servers probably get the cooks out of the kitchen and discuss where John puts it.
Day Four
Cleveland to Greenville, the “Queen of the Delta”, MS
Start time: 7:00 am
End time: 11:00 am.
Today’s mileage: 48.4 includes traipsing around town
Total bike mileage so far: 196 miles
Local Gas Prices: We look at gas stations and see Hawaiian Punch and cold air, not for the prices right now
Weather: 98 degrees and the Weather Channel says the humidity is 35%. No way!!
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.0 out of 5
The Farthest we were from home: for the two minutes we stood on the smoking deck of a casino boat.
Animals for the day: Red wing blackbirds, a deer, and a beagle/black Labrador pair who argued over who chased us down the road
Count of free cheap pens so far: 5 includes the cheap pen on this desk and the one someone ran over in the parking lot
The funniest place name: Delesseps Street in Greenville
Today’s route
Today was a day of rich experiences where we met many remarkable people.
There is no end to examples of map/street sign discrepancies. We went a few miles on small streets to get over to Leflore Avenue. Within the next two miles and without any turns or curves, that road name changed twice, to Memorial Boulevard and then Brooks Avenue. We stopped to discuss whether we missed our turn. We were looking for Highway 446, but we were off our detail map (read: lost again). We decided we had not reached 446; soon, our bluff was called when Brooks Avenue dead-ended at Tim Jones Highway as noted on a peculiarly Mississippi road marker. These markers are four foot posts sunk into the grassy shoulder near an intersection corner. The post is painted white and the street name is painted in faded black vertical block letters. Three letters on this particular sign were painted backwards, presumably so that after you passed your turnoff, you could look in the mirror and recognize the error of your ways.
In an effort to reconcile Tim Jones Highway with Highway 446, we entered the Boyle Post Office across the street. The two enthusiastic employees there bolted out of the back room and peppered us with questions, comments, and suggestions. They talked at the same time, and we tried to keep our knees bent and our racquets ready for the next volley. They said this was Highway 446 (count on postal workers to know street names), that the traffic on it is “horrendous” (that was not true for us), that Highway 1 is much better (it was great!), and that Greenville is “only 45 minutes away”. John commented that he cannot pedal 55 mph. They
insisted we HAVE to go to Vicksburg, which we have already planned. And then the shorter woman, who had good vocal projection and a showy leash for reading glasses around her neck, just about fainted at how beautiful Natchez is. “Oh Natchez is sooo fine.” She placed the back of one hand on her forehead and the other hand over her heart as she swooned over it. Their enthusiasm was infectious.
Highway 446: trees are rare around here. Usually, we ride through farmland
We stopped in Benoit and needed to eat. At the Citgo gas station, they knew where the town restaurant is, but not if it is open for breakfast. It wasn’t ten yet, but we had already been 25 miles. The restaurant was two blocks and two hours away from being open, so we had tasty hot wings washed down by Hawaiian Punch and finished off with a cherry pie. We talked with the proprietors who bemoaned the lack of rain and were proud of the number of chicken wings they sell. “They’re not too spicy; they have just the right amount of spice.”
We rolled into Greenville glowing and ready to stop. The temperature according to the on-bike computer was 105. While checking in, we had to sign a paper that asked if we would need special assistance if the hotel were evacuated. John announced that he would need help in an emergency. The clerk said she would be out the door before us, but would urge us on. “You best take care of yourself,” she would yell while running for her own life. “Pick yourself up!”
We asked for a recommendation for lunch, but as luck would have it we chose a different, priceless spot. The area around here looks like an abandoned movie set from 1950, so we were pretty disappointed at the lack of choices. We rode around for a while until John spotted “Café”. We had to go around the block to negotiate one-way streets, and almost didn’t see the place again. It was Jim’s Café. Gus Johnson saw us locking the bikes outside his place, opened the door and insisted we bring our bikes inside. His business card says he specializes in: “used cars, land, whiskey, manure, nails, fly swatters, racing forms, motorcycles and parachutes, wars fought, safari’s organized, revolutions started, assassinations plotted, governments ruined,
uprisings quelled, tigers tamed, bars emptied, rooms emptied, excuses verified, impossible done immediately and miracles a little longer.” Lunch consisted of Cajun gumbo, spaghetti, mustard greens, fried okra, rolls, unsweet tea and vanilla cake for $8.00, which delighted John. Berta, who likes fish a lot more that John does, had almost the same meal except with fried catfish, butterbeans, and hush puppies. Gus, who is first generation Greek-American with a southern accent, is a voluble and nimble conversationalist. He had ongoing concurrent interaction with about six different customers and workers. The hundreds of items on his wall have many themes: local history, military memorabilia, movie stars, local famous writers, and notes of appreciation from recipients of his generosity. Gus has run the place since 1959. The conversation stopped and restarted several times while we were gearing up to go. After a few goodbyes, and a reassurance to him that we would visit the museum down the block, we left.
The Greenville Museum is open normal business hours, but there is a doorbell to ring for entry because the door is locked. Ben Nelkin answered the bell and turned on the museum lights as he invited us in. Ben assembled and maintains the museum, and many of the displayed items are from family scrapbooks. That works because his family (by blood and by marriage) seems to have been prominent Greenville citizens for generations. The exhibits were very well done and covered a wide range of subjects. Ben asked where we come from and, upon hearing, said he will be in Santa Barbara next month for his son’s wedding. Later, we asked him about the many articles and pictures of people with the surname Markuson, which is exactly John’s mother’s maiden name. Ben said, “Stick around a little longer, and we may end up kin.” I think he said his aunt married a man from the Russian Jewish Markuson family, and that man was a prominent city leader. It’s a small world.
In downtown Greenville, there is a block that includes three houses of worship: the Hebrew Union Congregation (organized in 1880 and the current building built in 1906), St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and the First Baptist Church of Greenville..
Baptists on the left, Catholics with the steeple, and Jews on the right
In preparation for our trip to Mississippi, we consulted a book called “Off the Beaten Path in Mississippi”. In it, they describe a restaurant called Doe’s Eat Place. Don’t question the typing there, that is the name: Doe’s Eat Place. This was the view from John’s seat:
The view from the table in Doe’s Eat Place
That’s Aunt Florence in front. Doe’s has been named one of the top steak houses in America. The building looks horrible. The floor where we sat droops seriously towards the rear of the house. The window-mounted air conditioning unit above John’s head was on maximum and restricted our conversation to only topics we wanted two other parties and six workers to hear us shouting. We arrived when the restaurant opened, at 5 pm. Within ten minutes, a server asked us what beverage we would like while we “waited for the cook to arrive”. Around 5:20, she offered us salad and hot tamales, which we accepted. The salad was simply crisp lettuce, nice tomatoes, red onions, and a very tasty lemon vinaigrette. The tamales were very good, although we are not connoisseurs. We finished those appetizers, and the server took our meal order around 5:35 for when the “cook gets her”. Actually, it wasn’t too long after that we accepted a ten ounce filet mignon to split (keep in mind that we ate at Jim’s not that much earlier). We hadn’t specified a side, but we did get one. It was French fries, and not some healthy baked organic potatoes. These were fried, no doubt about it, and they were as good as fries get. We exited Doe’s through the kitchen, just as we had entered, and thanked the cook for standing next to a 800 degree oven in 101 degree heat.
On the walk back to the hotel, we talked with two groups of people who were outside their homes. The young kids were playing basketball. They asked a lot of questions, but froze with incredulity when they heard we had biked from Memphis. We assured one boy that, yes, we do drink a lot of water and Gatorade along the way. He said in that beautiful high voice of a young boy, “If you didn’t drink water and Gatorade, you would faint!” Yes, we allowed we would. This group and the other people we talked to on the way demonstrated a look that simultaneously says 1) that’s amazing, 2) they might be lying, and 3) Boy, are these people dumb!
Day Five
Greenville to Vicksburg, MS
Start time: later
End time: later
Today’s mileage: 99 miles in a car, 28.1 on the bike
Total bike mileage so far: 224 miles
Local Gas Prices: We actually paid $2.87 per gallon. Bleh!
Weather: started hot, got cooler and a little rainy after we stopped
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5 out of 5
The Farthest we were from home: at the site of the battle of Vicksburg
Animals for the day: a hawk, three horses, and Crack Bambi
Weather: Temperature 97 with what we consider high humidity, some rain
Count of free cheap pens so far: Wow! This one must have cost three cents! 6.
The funniest place name: Nitta Yuma ties with Yazoo City
Today’s route
If you look at a Mississippi state map along the west side of the state, there are medium-sized towns every two inches until you look south of Greenville. Then, you see a gap you almost can’t span with your index finger and thumb. There is a bed and breakfast at Glen Allan on Lake Washington, but they had no room for us. The road from Greenville to Vicksburg is way too far to ride on a bike in super heat. So, we rented a SUV, put the bikes in the back, and covered the lodging vacuum in ninety minutes. We made the reservation at 8:30 am, rode four miles to the wrong side of town and then to the right side of town to find the rental office, then drove like law-respecting banshees to make it to the Vicksburg office before it closed at noon. We made it with five minutes to spare and relinquished our air-conditioned vehicle for the open-air variety.
In stark contrast to the rest of Mississippi we have seen, Vicksburg actually has hills. The locals think they are huge hills, and they are compared to the surrounding area; however, none of the hills are more than a quarter of a mile long.
We were glad to negotiate the tricky streets of Vicksburg safely, and arrived at a brand new Hampton Inn that is right across the street from the Vicksburg National Military Park Visitor Center. The service here is impeccable, even by the high Mississippi standards.
The Vicksburg National Park has monuments to all of the groups who fought there
We try to secure hotel rooms on the bottom floor to make moving the bikes easier. Sometimes, like today, we are forced to use an elevator to get to a room on a higher floor. Two people and two bikes will fill up most elevator cars, and people avoid joining us in the elevator. Today, a guy in a fancy suit looked in and we insisted there was room. We did suggest, however, that he not touch us. We are pretty smudgy, and he was wearing a cream suit with cream shoes and a chocolate brown vest and tie. His brother was about to be married.
The tour of the Park is about 10 miles on a one-way road, depending on your choice of route. All along the tour, there are monuments and signs on both sides, showing the positions of each state division during the siege on Vicksburg from late May to early July in 1863. After about twenty stops, we realized that every sign listed who led the force, what state the group represented, how many people were killed amongst them, and how many were wounded. The first part of the tour was on lower ground, where Union forces advanced on the Confederate soldiers who tried to defend the higher ground. The siege ended on July 4th when the Confederates surrendered.
The cars on the tour meander from one curb to the other, so randomly that the passengers must be yelling “No, that one! The Missouri one! Now the Illinois one!” This is complicated by the fact that the type on almost every plaque and monument is etched or raised of the same material as the background. You can read the text from one angle only, and from a distance typically shorter than the distance from the pavement. We vote to use our tax dollars for a little contrasting paint around here.
Inside the park, a young white-tailed deer still with spots stood in a clearing. Instead of darting into the woods right behind him, he bounded in a serpentine route across the open grass. He came within a few yards of John before zig-zagging ahead of us. We decided this deer is Crack Bambi, cousin to Crack Bunny who lives in our yard and has similarly limited survival instincts and possibly a drug problem. We saw Crack Bambi’s mother nearby in the woods, who was probably whisper-yelling “get.. over.. here! Now!” and pointing her hoof emphatically at the ground.
We took the long way around, fearing that we would miss something significant if we didn’t. About half way through, we started hearing thunder and seeing lightening. We stopped at the display of the resurrected Union steam powered Cairo, an iron-clad, stern-wheeled gun boat that was sunk by a Confederate mine. It was the first known electrically detonated mine, and the first armored gun boat to be sunk. Looking at the boat instills fear, even today, for it bristles with cannon.
Looking at the bow of the U.S.S. Cairo
We have visited many battlefields in our travels and this one is no different in that it causes personal reflection that there must be a better way to settle disputes than resulting to human carnage. 19,233 of us died at Vicksburg.
Day Six
Vicksburg to Natchez, MS
Start time: 7:30 am
End time: 5:08 pm
Today’s mileage: 98 miles. Ugh.
Total bike mileage so far: 322 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.99 per gallon
Weather: Highest on the bike thermometer: 111 degrees. Lowest during the day: 87 degrees.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0 out of 5. It was a long day.
The Farthest we were from home: In Port Gibson, when we decided to push on.
Animals for the day: White Cranes that consort with cows, a small green lizard
Count of free cheap pens so far: 7. They’re everywhere!
The funniest place name: Choctaw
Today’s route
The road we took leaving Vicksburg is a twisty, two-lane, speed limit 35 mph, lightly traveled road. It was as pretty as any road we have seen on any trip. Trees lent shade to our path, so the temperature stayed moderate for a while. Through the few breaks in the trees, there were sloping meadows of bright green grass. There were scattered houses—some looked like vacation cabins, others were clearly primary residences. We have finally reached an area in Mississippi where the land has a few bumps in it, so our route today was up and down. Most of the ups were mild enough, and some of the downs were excellent.
Magical Roads today
We saw a printed vinyl banner in front of a church that said: “Karate for Christ” and wondered if the printers had to call back to make sure they got it right. Jesus and karate? It seems unlikely. We wondered if they enlist kids from other denominations because what if both kids in a match are doing karate for Christ? Who would win? And what do they yell instead of hai-ya? What would Mr. Miagi think?
White cranes are common birds in this area. We have seen cranes or herons every day on this trip. Today, most of the cranes we saw were hanging out with livestock. These are some of the first cows we have seen. The cranes stand at the hooves of their buddies and both species seem completely comfortable with each other. The cows are more accepting of bright lycra than the birds are, but we did catch a picture of them together.
Cows and Cranes
The town of Port Gibson was our destination today. It is a leisurely forty or so miles from Vicksburg on beautiful quiet roads. It has two famous claims. The first is that General U.S. Grant, who was burning all of the Confederate South behind him during the Civil War, left Port Gibson alone as he said it was “too pretty to burn”. Grant may have been drinking heavily that day. The comment of “too pretty to burn” is up for discussion as far as we are concerned. Maybe that is because we see a very thin slice of towns. It’s not like we will ride up and down the streets looking for something pretty. The second claim to fame is the steeple of a local church that is topped with a golden hand pointing towards heaven. The gleaming hand on the tall dark-grey steeple is striking, no doubt about it.
We ate at the Sonic drive in, and when our waitress said she wouldn’t stay in the solitary local motel, we knew the day was going to be longer than anticipated. We headed back to the Natchez Trace Parkway (NTP), where commercial traffic is prohibited and maximum speed limit is 50 mph. The NTP closely follows the original Natchez Trace trail, so it starts in Nashville and ends in Natchez. The trail was mapped by the French in 1733. By 1820 it was an important wilderness road with 20 stands (inns) along the trail. We stopped today and saw the “sunken trace”, which is a section of the original trace deeply eroded into the soft loess soil. It was fun to see the remains of a trail blazed by the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians. Aside from being a long day, it was just about perfect for bicycle riding. The road surface was good, the traffic light and the scenery, at times, almost magical.
The Sunken Trace
Day Seven
Natchez to Gloster, MS
Start time: 7:30 am
End time: 5:08 pm
Today’s mileage: 42
Total bike mileage so far: 364 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.94 per gallon
Weather: Highest on the bike thermometer: 106 degrees.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.734 out of 5.
The Farthest we were from home: While in a grocery store, looking at twenty square feet of instant snapshots of hunters displaying the animals they shot.
Animals for the day: A howling hunting dog and a couple of chasing dogs
Count of free cheap pens so far: 7. None here—not included for $39.85. Neither is soap.
The funniest place name: Homochitto
Today’s route
When people give directions, they give them with an agenda that the recipient may not share. Mostly, people assume you are asking directions because you want to get somewhere as soon as possible and with the fewest opportunities to get lost. So, for example, they will suggest you go two miles on a busy highway, then bear right and go up and down a shoulderless twisty road for a couple of miles. After following these instructions at the end of a long hot day, we recouped overnight and needed to return exactly to the spot where we received the directions the afternoon before. Only this time, we had looked at a map of downtown historic Natchez. Armed with information, we dawdled through the antiques-store studded town and along a quiet road before we reached our destination. It was a laughing kind of cussing moment.
About 10:30, we came across a small store, in the middle of nowhere, where we decided to have a soda. We have a fondness for Hawaiian Punch and bought a quart bottle to share to go with a ham and cheese sandwich. The sandwich was home made and delicious. We decided to have another quart of Hawaiian Punch and a couple of ice cream sandwiches. When we asked if we could fill our water bottles at the outside spigot, we were told that the pipe had burst and the water was rusty, but one clerk asked another if there was not a damaged container of bottled water in the storeroom. We filled our bottles from the alleged “damaged container.” Our perception is that there was nothing wrong with the bottle and we were enjoying a favor because some people perceive bicycle travelers as impecunious. Whatever the reason, we were treated with kindness.
We thought we were in for seventy or more miles today, but saw the Glostonian Motel and Restaurant at about forty miles. It wasn’t hard to decide to stop.
At just under forty dollars a night, you can enjoy the many amenities of the Glostonian: one electrical plug that can handle a grounded plug, one for non-grounded, a bare bulb over the sink, a steady dripping stream from that sink, fancy dark paneling that is 98% free of holes, a seam in the door panel where sunlight comes in, and no distracting phones. The bathroom rug is still wet from the previous occupant and the bathroom fan has a bearing going bad. We shan’t discuss the floor. We are both still wearing our shoes because we have already washed our feet. Oh, and there is no wireless. Did we mention that today is our twelfth wedding anniversary?
There is a restaurant here that is nice and clean with a faux-nautical-cowboy-hunting theme. John had asked earlier how late the restaurant would be open and was assured that the buffet would be available until 2PM. At a quarter to two we entered the restaurant and found the steam tables empty. Panic time. We sat down at a table and after 5 minutes of solitude John approached the kitchen to see about food. The staff person said we could have a side order. It turns out side orders include hamburgers. They were actually quite good—handmade fresh patties, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup on nice sesame-free buns (the best kind).
We do have full cable on the TV, so we are watching a movie (what, would we go use the exercise room?). The movie is Hunt for Red October, which is a movie equivalent of classical music. If you set the volume for the dialog, you risk your eardrums during the action scenes. If you can stand the volume during the action, all the people talk like the teachers in a Peanuts movie. This would be a non-issue with a remote control, but this television has no remote control and only the down channel button works. No one has screamed about the noise, at least not that we have heard over the torpedo explosions.
The Homochitto River
A while ago, the skies opened up and rained for about fifteen minutes. We stood outside on the porch to feel the cooling of the rain and to appreciate that we are not riding in the downpour. Phil and his very slight male tabby cat came over to talk to us. Phil works at the tire shop next door and has lived in this motel since just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of Houma southwest of New Orleans. He left because of some family problems that were very hard to hear, and surely harder for him to tell. When John heard that Phil lived in Houma, he told about being in Houma with the Red Cross. At that, Phil reached out and gave John a multi-step handshake and John did his best to keep up. If it weren’t so touchingly human, it would have
made a great comedy sketch (Norwegian in Mississippi doing the jive handshake). But in that gesture, it was clear that Phil was expressing his heartfelt thanks.
Phil knows that Santa Barbara is on the coastline and says he watched coverage of mudslides in California recently. It is interesting to hear what people gather about other regions. He asked if house prices are high, and we avoided embarrassing us both with details. During the whole conversation, Phil stepped forward and backward as if dancing to his own rhythm, missing the cat’s tail by a hair. The cat didn’t move. Phil asked if it gets cold in Santa Barbara and if we see a lot of movie stars. We said we try to be cool about it when we do see celebrities, but he allowed that he would ask for an autograph if he got the chance. As our odyssey through Mississippi ends, we are reminded of all the kind, generous and engaged people we have met.
There is a spider on the outside window sill that has a leg span of about two inches, and it isn’t one of those pansy daddy long legs spiders. John touched it and Berta said, “Eeew! I can’t believe you touched that.” He touched it again, just to be sure.
The area here looks a lot like the forests near Kings Canyon or Lake Tahoe. It seems like we have climbed a bit, but if you look at the atlas, there isn’t much elevation in Mississippi. In fact, it looks like the maximum elevation is less than 600 feet. Even so, in the last two days, we have entered a different type of terrain that includes mostly evergreen trees. We saw a truck lane on a hill today, which is an indication that a hill is real. Logging is the big industry here, and there are six logging trucks in the parking lot. John counted the rings on one of the logs on a truck and they seem about sixty years old. The owners of the motel own a big local logging company, and some of their drivers live here.
Day Eight
Gloster, MS to Zachary, Louisiana
Start time: 7:30 am
End time: 11:30 am
Today’s mileage: 42
Total bike mileage so far: 406 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.91 per gallon
Weather: Highest on the bike thermometer: 106 degrees.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 3 out of 5.
The Farthest we were from home: Over Crawfish Etouffee at dinner
Animals for the day: A Pig family with a step-boar, a cow stampede
Count of free cheap pens so far: 8, with one of those confusing motel notepads where you end up writing on the cover page with the logo on it
The funniest place name: Tickfaw State Park
Today’s route
Small towns are excellent sources for breakfast. In stark contrast to the accommodations at the Glostonian, the food was very good. Berta had eggs over hard, grits (with sugar and butter like all self-respecting diners would), link sausage that was a lot more like linguica than like Jimmy Dean, and a big warm biscuit. We selected orange juice from concentrate out of the refrigerated display, Except for the unfresh orange juice, we challenge you, try to find a better breakfast.
Gloster is at a junction of two highways, but to call it a nexus of activity would be an exaggeration. There is a car dealership of considerable size, which is surprising given that the town is seven by five blocks. Nearby, a concern sells steps to set outside the door of a mobile home. There are many such step-blocks on display, but most obvious is the set that leads to the door of the business, neatly improved by a wooden ramp.
While bicycling, motion in the bushes caught our eye. Berta said, “Deer!… Dogs!” There were two hounds in the tall grass, bounding ahead of us and pulling away on the slight uphill. This continued for at least a hundred yards, until they stopped on a dirt driveway and howled at us while we caught up. If they were calling for backup, we didn’t wait around to find out. At another point, we caused a stampede of cows in a pasture. It happens at least once on each trip.
The roads leading to Gloster are fine for bicycling. As a matter of fact, most of the roads we traveled in Mississippi are reasonably new and have adequate shoulders. Near Centreville, the suitability of the roads for bikes takes a serious nose dive. The evil has a name: Rumble Strip. A rumble strip is a series of divots carved into the shoulder of the road that is designed for shaking sleepy swervy drivers awake. A driver would know the rumble strip while dialing the cell phone and eating a Big Mac—put one tire on to the rumble strip, and the pickle will shake out of your burger. As inconvenient as that may sound, it pales in comparison to riding over a rumble strip on a bike. It causes Death Grip and Big Eyes. Rumble Strips can be good, believe it or not. When they are more than two feet from the edge of the pavement, they create a protective forcefield for cyclists who can ride separated from motor vehicles. The rumble strip on our route was not this benevolent kind. It was brand new, eight inches wide, and less than a foot from the edge of the pavement. It put us in the roadway, and we hated it.
And that was the good part!
There was no sign at the border of Mississippi and Louisiana because we were on a small highway, but we knew the state we were in by the leprous road surface. How can two states, presumably with similar budgets, weather, and traffic, have such radically different road quality? The bumps came quickly and in perfect synchronization with heavy traffic. In an effort to locate a better road, we stopped at a Texaco gas station to get a map. It’s not that we didn’t have any clue about our route—we studied the route on the computer—it is just not practical to get and carry maps ahead of the states we enter. Instead, we hope for a free map from a state welcome center, or resort to buying a lesser commercial map. So we walked into a major brand gas station and asked if they had a map for sale. The worker said no, and two large customer guys asked, “where’ya goin’?” John said, “we just want to find the safest way… to … New Orleans.” They scoffed, which was insulting, and basically said, “Good luck.” We muttered as we left.
The next gas station was a completely different experience, and an example of Bike Trip Wisdom. If you meet a surly person, move on, and the next person will be nicer. There were about five people in gas station number two. The guy who makes deliveries in this area said the road we were on was as good as any, but “watch out for Scotlandville”. That was not the last time we heard that. In our experience, the people in “tough” neighborhoods look at us just about the same way as people in fancier areas—with a combination of amusement and disbelief. In any case, the group in the gas station cracked us up with comments about our sanity and what lay ahead of us.
Actually, it was shortly after this conversation and before we got anywhere near Scotlandville that we decided the bicycle portion of the trip was over. The road had a lot of 55 mph traffic, no shoulder, bad pavement, and many distractions for drivers. None of the cross streets looked any better.
Traffic near Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Maybe next trip, we will use some sort of software to see the road conditions ahead of time and GPS to show us the way. Without that, we decided to stop at a brand new Best Western that descended from heaven just for us. We used a phone book to locate an Enterprise car rental location in the next town and they picked us up a few hours later. We secured a van that has presto-whamo disappearing seats that allowed us to put both bikes in the back with no trouble at all
We drove a few miles to a restaurant the ladies at the motel recommended, and began planning for phase two of this adventure: working for Habitat for Humanity in the devastated Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Stay tuned…
Where we are staying and the location of Musicians Village
It is Friday, August 11, 2006. We have completed our second day working for Habitat for Humanity in the Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Our project is Musicians Village, a plot formerly occupied by a school, where 81 homes are planned. For miles surrounding the Village, the land is low and flat and most buildings look abandoned. As a symbol of the beginning of the rebirth of this area, there is a McDonalds that looks like it will open soon after a complete rebuild. There are some intersections that have completely new signals. These examples stand out as rare renewal amongst the decay.
Musicians Village
At Musicians Village, we have been tasked to install sub flooring in preparation for tile in the kitchen/dining room, bathroom and laundry room of each house. We have neither particular skill nor experience with sub flooring. It just seemed that two pigment-challenged people in Louisiana in August should work inside. The sheets are ¼” thick, 3’ x 5’ and weigh more than they look like they would. The project is much like a big puzzle: the only rule is that gaps can be no greater than 1/8th inch. The first several sheets are in place in a few minutes, but the last small pieces around the cabinets can take an hour. The two of us are working at a rate of slightly more than 1 house per day and there is material available for six more houses. We worked with Kathy from Virginia, a teacher who is a super worker/chatter/director, and Petra, a pleasant young woman from Canada, eh. Kathy went home today as her two weeks’ work is up. After one day on the job and with Kathy’s departure, we have been pronounced experts, so we give other people directions and pointers.
Inside a house in Musicians Village
Hot! Boy oh boy, it’s hot! Whatever construction workers make in Louisiana, it’s not enough. Physical work in this climate produces rivulets of sweat running down the chest, back and off the nose. Set your hand down flat on a dry surface, and you leave a moist imprint. The perspiration-dust combination is kind of doughy. At least on the bikes we generated a breeze. Inside these mostly finished houses and especially in the bathroom, with no window, it’s hot.
Tools on a volunteer work site are scarce, and we have started to act like animals because of it. Today, we became frustrated at the lack of tools, so we went to Lowe’s and bought our own. Then, we guarded them like a wallet at Mardi Gras. When someone enters the house we make sure our tools don’t leave with them. The Lowe’s is about a mile from the work site, and it had many more customers than we have ever seen in our hometown big hardware box store. When we passed Lowe’s twice after that, there were even more cars in the parking lot. There were about twenty workers in the parking lot looking for jobs, similar to California labor lines.
Future homeowners in Musicians Village are required to put in 350 hours of “sweat equity” with Habitat for Humanity, and we had two future homeowners working with us today. Some of the families knew what house will be theirs, and they could see their houses in progress. A pair of women came by who have houses in this first phase. They talked with a woman in an existing home across the street for a while. The ladies we worked with had not been assigned their houses yet, and they would look wistfully down the street when they talked about getting their new houses.
One choice the homeowners have is exterior paint; the combination of color in the blooming neighborhood is reminiscent of Disneyland. The colors so far are peach, white, purple, green, grey, yellow, orange and brown; none of these are pastel or muted or in anyway quiet. They are just the colors you would expect in New Orleans: rich, deep, and vibrant. You can look across the street at the existing houses and see the mark of the highest water level during the flood: it
was about four feet. The houses in the Village are built on blocks five feet off the ground, unlike the houses across the street that are built close to ground level.
The effects of the hurricane are evident everywhere: stop signs, one way signs, and street signs are often missing or turned the wrong way. Even though we are people who navigate by street names, we have been forced to remember things like “turn left at the school”. Within neighborhoods, we stop at intersections because we don’t know if there used to be a stop sign there. The speed limit seems to be whatever your rental car can do over the pothole ridden pavement. The local streets are an alignment shop’s dream with potholes occasionally six inches deep. Navigation is already complicated with Louisiana’s love of one-way streets and some very strange intersection configurations. We made a left turn once that put us between two oncoming streams of traffic, protected only by a slim median.
There is debris everywhere in the Ninth Ward. There are large piles on every street, and cars sitting in deep grass in front yards. Almost every house still has the spray-painted inspection report from the search for survivors. Sometimes, the paint only says “TFW”, which we think stands for Toxic Flood Water. Most of the time, there is a large X with codes we don’t understand. It’s a little like the flammable codes on laboratory liquids. Even when the code indicates perfectly safe properties, it still looks dangerous. The inspection marks are depressing and eerie. On one house, it said, “pets fed and watered need pick up.” The houses across the street all show that they were inspected on 9/12, which was almost two weeks after the hurricane. There are many broken windows and a lot of roof damage. It looks like approximately ten percent of the houses in this area are occupied. Most of those have a FEMA trailer and a few cars in the yard. We haven’t seen the Lower Ninth Ward, where the damage is even worse.
A woman appeared at the work site at about 11:30 this morning. She was standing on the sidewalk with a lunch truck parked in the street behind her. The shiny panel of the truck was open to expose a large bin of cold bottles of water. She also delivered bags with generous lunches for us. The apples in the lunches were crisp and still cool. The woman, a retired school teacher, lives in New Orleans. She thanked us many times for our help in rebuilding her town. Picture a sixty-five year old, proper, Southern woman. That is what this woman looked like. She was gentle, kind, exquisitely coiffed with perfect makeup and took the time to drive a meal truck into the Ninth Ward to give volunteers food and water. The truck had a logo on the door that indicated it was usually used for Meals on Wheels by a church.
There are quite a few soldiers here in their large vehicles, clips inserted in their sidearms. They ride by, perched on the open door frame, ready for action. From our perspective, there are also a lot of police on the streets. There are pseudo-uniformed security personnel from the private company Blackwater. They seem loud and aggressive, and they too, have guns on their belts. Berta has witnessed three people being hand cuffed by New Orleans Police, but that was in the French Quarter, where things are pretty much back to normal.
After lunch, a guy stopped at the site in a truck with a snowball machine in the bed. Around here, what you would call snow cones or shave ice are called snowballs. In any case, this guy pulled up and made snowballs for us for about an hour. There are easily more than a hundred workers on the site, and it seemed like everyone got a chance at a cold treat. Many of the workers are twenty-somethings, who are presumably less impacted physically by the heat and the work than those of us who can only reminisce about being in our twenties, so they got in a mini snowball fight.
It has rained here almost every afternoon. The rainfall is heavy but localized, so a mile away from the rain the pavement is dry. Water runoff is an obvious problem and a factor in how the flood got so out of hand. After a ten minute rain, some areas are flooded with puddles five feet into the roadway. Like the Midwest, there is a lot of lightening around here and we have enjoyed what we have seen. When you are inside, a thunder storm can be quite enjoyable.
We talked to Annette, a future home owner. She is a young woman who is ready to laugh. We asked her about how she was dealing with her post Katrina life. She said, “You just have to be up because if you think about it too much it is really depressing.” She has been displaced, and almost everyone she knows has been displaced. Her work force is much smaller than it was and she says that it is much easier to list the coworkers who have returned than the ones who haven’t. She misses the vibrancy of her former neighborhood. She misses her neighbors. She wants her aunt to return. She wants what you and I want.
HfH Two
For the transition from bicycling to working at Musicians Village, we went to WalMart with a list. We selected some non-neon shirts and shoes to work on a construction site. For $25, you can buy steel-toed heavy-duty work shoes with slip-resistant soles and stylish uppers. What you don’t get for $25 is evidence of any attempt to lighten these shoes. We estimate each shoe to weigh two pounds or more. We, who thought 400 miles of cycling would put us in pretty good shape, were practically paralyzed for the second day of work. By day three, we crossed the open area of the work site like it is the Gobi desert. Actually, it is kind of like the Gobi desert, but we shuffle our huge heavy feet like we have been walking for a week. By the end of the day, we have no control of our feet. The shoes decide the vector of our feet. Carpeting in the hotel jumps up and cuffs us. It is like being a toddler again. We are wearing these shoes after hours, too, so we walked like bozos with chronic fatigue syndrome several blocks over to Harrah’s Casino for the biggest casino buffet we have seen. Berta used the heavy-shoes excuse to have another pecan praline.
On day three, the site director (they change often) came to inspect our work and told us two things that were in direct conflict with our initial instructions. We were able to turn some fiberboard sheets through ninety degrees to accommodate his requests. He was asking us to avoid seams in the underlayment near high in house traffic areas, which made sense.
We work from 7:30 to 2:30, which gives us a couple of hours in the afternoon to try to lower our core temperature and raise our blood sugar. We drove to find a WalMart we mapped on the Internet. There are so many boarded-up businesses for miles around here that we aim for the suburbs to find a location that is open. Close by, even huge chain stores like Walgreens and McDonalds are abandoned. Even ten miles from where the real flooding was, roofs opened up during the storm caused severe water damage. We were in an upscale mall in Metarie today—with Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Godiva Chocolates, Williams Sonoma, and Banana Republic as examples—that had extensive openings in the ceilings. A cashier told us that it is one of two malls open in the New Orleans area.
We shopped in Metarie, drove into St Bernard Parish: there is destruction everywhere
We entered that mall after going to a laundromat (yippee, clean clothes!) and trying a P.F. Changs Chinese Bistro. We feel apologetic about eating at national chains, but the only local places open are on Bourbon Street, where the prices are “through the roof”, according to a lady we talked to on the street. We had blackened burgers at Remoulade’s on Bourbon Street and took a walk after dinner at about 7:30 on Sunday evening. We were fleeced out of $20.00 by a smooth-talking southern schoolmarm for two cheap hats to “feed the homeless” and an additional $8.75—before tip—for a mint julep from a surly bartender. While we were waiting for the mint julep, a couple close to their seventies walked in and asked what a hurricane is because the sign advertised hurricanes. The bartender responded that a hurricane is fruit punch, dark rum, and grain alcohol. The lady had an “oh, dear” look on her face and decided to have a mint julep. Berta ordered one because she has never had a mint julep and thought New Orleans would be a good place to have one. She reports that a mint julep is a lot like a mojito. If you’ve never had a mojito, it’s a lot like a mint julep.
All of the bars on Bourbon Street have ear-splitting music and within a two-block span, about eight businesses were pornographic. These places have numerous posters of completely naked women. There was a time in my life, John speaking, where I would have found that wonderful. Now, with my advancing years I find these smutty businesses degrading to women and downright revolting. Other people didn’t seem quite so affronted by the sight, but then, other people evidently had a higher drink budget than we did.
We drove into St. Bernard Parish to see how it is doing. There are large lots in this area closer to the coast with hundreds of FEMA trailers lined up. There is basically one two-lane road down there, and houses are spaced far apart in large, wild, swampy, tree-studded lots. Most buildings have obvious wind damage from the storm. Some trees are down, and we saw several completely collapsed mobile homes. Scattered houses are in a state of repair, with no exterior so that we could see into the house where the drywall was also removed. Most of the houses have a trailer in front, with the plumbing in the trailer attached with a long line of four-inch PVC
pipe to the sanitary sewer. Some of the trailers have long wooden ramps to accommodate people with wheelchairs or walkers.
Some damage in St Bernards Parish
The work at Musicians Village on Saturday was a little slower, and we spent some time evaluating the dwindling supply of fiberboard for our project. The pace and the heat allowed us to talk for a while with Paula. She works at Musicians Village on Saturdays because she has a real job Monday through Friday. Paula is not a future homeowner there—her mother, Jeanette, is. Paula and her daughter, Brionne, come to work for grandma and her 350 hours of “sweat equity.” Before we put down the subflooring, we need a pretty clean plywood floor. The three generations of females in this family spent the day bent over at the waist to use chisels and hammers to break up the large globs of dried paint and wall mud left by the wall crews. They swept the floors in endless pursuit of dust and dirt.
Paula says her daughter did not want to stay in Texas, where they fled the storm. She wanted to return to her small private girls’ school. At the same time, Paula and her husband did not want their daughter to see any more of the actual loss and damage. They haven’t been able to live in their house yet, and had problems when they tried to find a house to rent. There were landlords who wanted up to $4000 per month for a three-bedroom house, and others who wanted an eighteen-month lease. Paula said they just had no idea how long they would need to rent. The rents and the terms were so steep that they decided to buy a second house instead. Brionne still has not seen their primary house—they don’t want to expose her to it until it is nearly normal.
At the first chance, they replaced their garage door because it had the search/rescue spray paint on it. Paula said they couldn’t stand the reminder. They cleaned up and painted over the water line on the outside of their house immediately for the same reason. Paula says that it has just been about a month since she has been able to think clearly and start being her normal self. It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to realize that she has been depressed since the hurricane. She tells an absolute horror story of being bilked out of $30,000 by an unscrupulous
contractor. Her neighbors were hoodwinked by the same guy and nobody talked to other neighbors about the problem. Fortunately, Paula will not tolerate such behavior and is pursuing the deadbeat contractor through legal means. The existence of people who would take advantage of others, especially in light of such devastation, is disheartening.
HfH Three
When we arrived in New Orleans, we remarked on how much trash there is in the streets. At first, we assumed the piles were months old; however, we realized that they changed often. Paula, the lady we talked to the other day, told us the trash pickup happens every other day. People make a pile, a truck and a small bulldozer come by, they pick up the pile, then the people make another pile. This sounds like progress, right? It turns out that all of the trucks drive to New Orleans East and drop the trash there. The people in New Orleans East don’t like the new landfill, especially with how quickly it grows. Mayor Nagin led a suit against the waste company, and today a judge ruled to close the landfill. That sounds like progress, right? Now the trucks will need to drive a lot farther to deposit their loads, so the cleanup will take longer. How many steps forward, how many steps back?
People in this region ask “How ya doin?” and wait a little while for an answer. Storekeepers say “Y’all come back now,” even when we just told them we are pedaling for many miles away from their store. Some guys here call each other brother and it comes out “bra”. When we suggest that someone have a good day, they respond with “alright.”
In the week that we have been at Musicians Village, there has been visible progress on repair to the existing houses across the street. The trash was removed three times that we saw. We were eating lunch one day while watching two women, standing in knee-high grass, trying to start a string trimmer. John walked over and Berta could hear from across the street when the women said “Here comes the muscle!” Using his Y chromosome, John did the choke-ignition-flingarm thing and the engine buzzed. He handed the trimmer to the younger of the ladies, who stalled it right after he turned to leave. He started it again, and the older lady ended up doing the work. Halfway through the task, she replaced the string in the trimmer and got it going again. Within an hour, the house had its new haircut and looked ready for the school year. Of all the houses on the street, this one looks the most cared for, but there are boxes visible in the front window and we only saw those women that one day.
There is renovation anywhere you look in New Orleans, but it is unclear sometimes whether a project is a result of hurricane or flood damage. The three McDonalds in this area have undergone extensive remodeling. There are many signs placed in the grass median between the one-way streets indicating an old business is NOW OPEN. There are also numerous signs for mold removal, house gutting, tree cutting, stump removal, reroofing and medical services. One sign indicates: houses gutted for $1.00/sq ft. This is the hottest time of the year—when tourists stay in their own kind of heat—so maybe this is when they do most of the maintenance in this area. Our hotel is redoing bathrooms (until 7 p.m., thank you), and the downtown area on Canal Street is getting new bricks in the sidewalks. We were in a nice suburb, driving on a big city street that was in the middle of the repavement process. The suburb was about ten miles from where the big floods were, and there was little evidence of wind damage. It seemed like the roads were pretty good there around the repaving. We wondered if the people in this area were just better at completing the financial assistance forms, or if they knew someone who distributed the funds. It is hard, even as temporary people in this area, to avoid questioning the distribution of resources.
We have become “experts” at installing subflooring, so today we are being switched to installing house siding (a skill we know nothing about). The siding, we are told, is made from cardboard and cement. The rules are more complex than no gap greater than 1/8th inch, despite one of the leaders telling us that siding is “just like” subflooring. Siding is kind of like subflooring, given that
you need to measure it; however, you don’t need a ladder to install subflooring, and the fiberboard subfloor material won’t crash to the ground if you don’t hold it up. With siding, the rule of three applies: install no piece shorter than three feet, no seams within three feet of each other, and no seams within three feet of a window or a door. Plus, each piece of siding must overlap each other by 1 1/4th inches. Apply a nail every 12 inches and place tar paper at every seam. Pretty simple, huh. Oh, and siding has to be cut to fit around windows and doors and molding. We cut the siding with an electric tool that looks like small short jawed scissors. One more thing, if you spend ten minutes making a complicated cut to go around a window, then carry the piece normally, it will break. You must enlist a team and all of you carry the delicate piece like a nitroglycerin-filled Faberge egg. Also, try to line up the siding on the front of the house with the siding on the side of the house. And this, and that, and blah blah blah. The details were numerous.
Very soon after the siding challenge began, Berta realized that five guys on a thirty-by-four-foot porch were enough. The houses that needed siding on the front had no steps and no railing on the porch that was over five feet off the ground. We had to climb a ladder to get on the porches. John and Ted took the left side of the front door, where there were two windows; Dave and his sons Zach and Jake took the other side, where there was one window. Three men and their sometimes differing opinions on the best method in that area were enough. Two teenagers and their often-hassled little sister were trying to help as well as they could, but young people sometimes make sudden movements that make Berta nervous. The mother was most helpful in taking down dimensions and returning with cut pieces of siding. Berta decided to do other things, so she found a caulking gun and started in. Caulking is kind of like typing. You can be a whiz on the keyboard, but the second someone watches you typing, all coordination leaves your fingers. Caulking is an art, and for most of the day, Berta was quietly making some beautifully caulked seams.
Putting the siding on the houses
Several times during the day, a car would drive slowly by and the occupants would look expectantly at us workers, waiting to catch someone’s eye. When it happened, they would wave and say “Thank you for what you are doing”, or simply give a thumbs up. One man drove by, honking his horn to be sure we saw him. Other people who looked like tourists would drive by and take pictures.
At lunch time, we could select a sandwich from a huge cooler full of freshly made sandwiches. Each sandwich was in a baggy, with the type of filling abbreviated in permanent ink on the baggy. HC, TC, T, PBJ, C were our choices. We had mayonnaise and mustard packets to lubricate the HC we normally chose. There was a selection of chips (why list any of them besides Fritos?), cookies, and a Gatorade selection of varying concentrations in large insulated jugs. We sat on or near the sandy ground, talking amicably, with folks from all over the nation, trying to keep food and dirt separated. Our front porch siding team leader, Paul, is from Kauai. He encourages jokes to be told during lunch. It wasn’t quite the comedy club but some folks can tell a good joke.
Tools and supplies are stored in shipping containers and are remarkably well organized, thanks to the volunteers who oversee them. The number and variety of these donated resources is remarkable. We estimate there were fifty ladders, hundreds of hammers and nail pouches, a big box of utility knives, cases of shop towels, miles of extension cords, and big buckets of nails. Most items were there when we needed them. The temperature at the back of these containers is quite high so there is no dallying while selecting or returning tools.
We have noticed that all the volunteers are here for essentially the same reasons and it is exciting to be around folks of similar ilk. HFH is a faith based organization so in the morning there is a brief inspirational talk (aimed at making the volunteers feel good about themselves) followed by a prayer. Some of the tee shirts worn have comments about FEMA, Katrina, Bible passages and one read, Stop Reading My Shirt! While taking a break under one of the houses—it’s cooler there—Berta spotted a bible passage written on the house supports.
Ted and Mary are friends from Wisconsin who are here for about a month. Mary has three months off and is planning to do other Habitat work and a little traveling before she goes back to work. Ted said he quit his job to do this. They are both staying at Camp Hope, which is a few miles down the road. It was an emergency shelter after the storm, and now is a place for volunteers to stay for $100 per week. The price includes meals, air-conditioning, and decent showers according to Mary.
So as we finish our little tome, we sit in air-conditioned splendor. We’re flying home this evening and are excited at the prospect of just being home. Of course we’re leaving thousands of people behind who no longer have a place to call home and that gives us cause for reflection. We’re not sure how many times we have said to each other on this trip how lucky we are. There is comfort in the fact that many Americans want to help the people who suffered from Katrina. We have seen just one small segment of the damage, just in Louisiana and not the neighboring states; and, we have seen just one small part of the restoration. It will take years for the people in this area to rebuild and we will be mindful of that when considering what charities deserve our contributions. This has been a bittersweet experience for us and we hope you have enjoyed it as well. Goodbye.