Forrest Gump country. Long Beach to Bayou La Batre (62miles).
Over breakfast this morning Dan and Gina and all the other guests staying at the lodge wished me well for the rest of my trip.
Today will be my last day in the State of Mississippi; I told you it would only be a short hop. This afternoon I should arrive in Alabama for what will be an even shorter one before arriving in Florida sometime early tomorrow.
Leaving the Long Beach Lodge, I first stopped off at the Friendship Oak, a Live Oak tree in the grounds of the Campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. This tree has managed to survive not just Hurricane Katrina, but countless other hurricanes and tropical storms during its 500 year life. Legend has it that if you meet someone under the Friendship Oak you will remain friends for ever. I didn’t meet anyone.
I returned to the US90 and continued along this coastal road towards Biloxi. Photographs of this road that I had seen in the books back at the Lodge and which had been taken shortly after Katrina gave the impression that the road had been hit by an earthquake rather than a heavy storm. The road had been ripped up by the force of the wind and then rucked up like a carpet runner.
In addition to the road repairs and despite the cleanup, there are other obvious signs of destruction. The boardwalk between Gulfport and Biloxi is still a mangled wreck; mile after mile of beachfront real estate has been totalled, as have restaurants, gas stations and other businesses. One structure that did survive intact was the 19th century Biloxi Lighthouse; maybe the fact that it is made of cast metal (the first of its kind in the Southern States) was in its favour.
It is Saturday and I hope that the traffic this morning will be a lot lighter than yesterday afternoon. I have at least another sixteen miles of road works to negotiate on the way to Biloxi and I don’t want a repeat of the embarrassing spill that I had yesterday.
Although the world’s media chose to fixate on the city of New Orleans, the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina actually covered an area of land in excess of 90,000 square miles, which is nearly equal in size to the whole of Great Britain. Biloxi was at the centre of that massive destruction. This city of about 50,000 residents was almost entirely flattened with at least 5000 residential homes destroyed.
The coast along here used to be lined with floating casinos, all of which were destroyed. The $700 million per year Gulf Coast fishing industry was almost eradicated overnight as two thirds of the harvestable and lucrative oyster beds were wiped out and the debris from the casinos and thousands of other broken buildings and structures lay in the coastal waters preventing fishing vessels from operating.
The casino industry was quickest to react to the disaster and the rebuilding of this once booming gambling centre soon began. The only problem was that the construction workers brought in to rebuild the town’s infrastructure found it difficult to find accommodation as so much of it had been destroyed.
Just like the Bay St Louis Bridge, the bridge connecting Biloxi to Ocean Springs had been was washed away, leaving just the pylons that had once supported it. Today as I rode across the new bridge the rebuild is almost complete, needing just a couple of hundred metres of handrail to be fitted. Three lanes that had been coned off to protect the road workers now served as my own personal bicycle lane across the new sandstone coloured causeway.
Ocean Springs was the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi valley. It was established in 1699 by the French who called it ‘Old Biloxi’. I stopped there at a McDonald’s restaurant to take advantage of their ‘bottomless cup’ policy for soft drinks and also to get some ice which I put into a plastic bag to create a makeshift icepack. My ankle and shin were very sore today. It wasn’t painful to ride, just when I walked. You could hear the soft tissues around my left shin beginning to ‘crunch’, a sure sign of crepitus.
After leaving Ocean Springs my route continued along the dead flat, dead straight and dead boring Old Spanish Trail to Gautier (pronounced locally as Go-Shay, but the French would probably pronounce it as Go-Tee-Ay). Here I was flagged down by Mac McMillan. After 40 years with Northrop Grumman shipbuilders, sixty-one year old Mac has now taken up gardening. Mac had been busy pruning trees when I met him. We stood by the roadside chatting about my ride and about Katrina. He pointed out to me areas as large as ten city blocks that had been used as makeshift salvage yards for the thousands of tons of debris. Each section devoted to articles of a similar nature, for example one area was used to store refrigerators, one was used for cars and another for boats.
After about an hour, Mac could tell that I was itching to get on with my ride. And so, after exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses, I pressed on for the final eleven miles of Mississippi roads. I entered Alabama just before Grand Bay and then rode a further eight miles through arable farm land to Bayou La Batre.
Bayou La Batre is known as the seafood capital of Alabama and it has a large Asian population which accounts for over one third of the 2400 residents. This large Asian population is predominantly made up of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants who came to the area shortly after the Vietnam War. They chose to settle in Bayou La Batre because back then it fostered a shrimping industry that is similar to Vietnam’s.
Today, shrimping is still a main industry in this town. Bayou La Batre featured in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, firstly as the home town of Forrest’s army friend ‘Bubba’ and then later as Forrest’s home when he was a shrimp boat captain. Bayou La Batre was also the location for the launching of Walt Disney’s pirate ship the Black Pearl which featured in the trilogy of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films starring Johnny Depp.
Ahead of me tomorrow lays the Mobile Bay. There are two options for crossing this expanse of water which is 24 miles wide at its maximum. The first option is to take the ferry from Dauphin Island to Fort Gaines; the second option is to cross the bay by bridge in Mobile. However, by leaving the US90 and riding into Bayou La Batre, I had already committed myself to the option of taking the ferry.
So, I need to get my backside into gear early tomorrow. I want to catch the 9.30am ferry from Dauphin Island to Fort Gaines. As the ferry is about 21 miles from the hotel I will need to leave here at about 7am to ensure that I have time for any contingencies such as punctures. I haven’t yet decided what my destination will be for tomorrow evening: at the moment I am thinking it will either be Gulf Beach which is 62 miles away as I am tempted to stay with the friend of George Doyen (one of the three Council officials that I had met in Silsbee, Texas.) You remember? The man with a friend who owns the $6million mansion. Or maybe I’ll just head on to Pensacola which is about 80 miles away.