Day 35        

The Storm. New Orleans to Long Beach, Mississippi (75miles).

On reflection I was a little disappointed with New Orleans, but maybe that is because I had hoped for too much.

After breakfast I returned to Canal Street and cycled down to the Mississippi River to see the bridge used in the movie ‘Deja Vu’ which starred Denzil Washington. This is also just along the river from the ‘Natchez’ the only authentic steamboat in New Orleans and which takes tourists on a two hour dinner cruise up and down the Mississippi. This morning the steamboat, like the river, was shrouded in mist.

Shrouded in mist. The Paddle Steamer 'Natchez', Mississippi River, New Orleans

Shrouded in mist. The Paddle Steamer ‘Natchez’, Mississippi River, New Orleans

Returning along Canal Street I turned into Bourbon Street, heart of the Mardi Gras and cycled through the French Quarter one last time on the way to ending my short hop through Louisiana and onto my sixth State, Mississippi, for an even shorter hop.

I stopped at a gas station just before joining the Chef Mentaur Highway to buy drinks and snacks and, for the first time since leaving Los Angeles, I encountered a sales assistant encased behind a plexi-glass booth. There must be a good reason for this security precaution, but I wasn’t about to hang around to find out why. I made my purchases and left quickly.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

Chef Mentaur Highway (US90) is the main hurricane evacuation route out of New Orleans. Although my research had suggested that there were numerous opportunities for food along this road, I hadn’t taken into account the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina; there was not one building still standing. It was a very lonely and depressing ride and I was glad that I had eaten before leaving St Charles Avenue.

As I cycled I saw the ruins of motels and other businesses that had been completely decimated by the hurricane that had hit this area so dramatically in August 2005.  Over 1800 people lost their lives and an estimated $80 billion worth of damage was caused by one of the most deadly hurricanes in America’s history.

What we (back in the UK) saw on the television news reports and in the newspapers was the sight of iconic New Orleans under many feet of water. What we didn’t see was the destruction caused by the winds which had reached 175mph at their peak. The water damage although dramatic, was minimal compared to the havoc wreaked by those deadly winds. Even today, more than two years later, evidence of the devastation remains visible. There are trees down, piles of rubble where buildings once stood and small boats lodged in trees and the undergrowth where they had been picked up and tossed about as if they were toys.

The road was eerily quiet for the first twenty miles passing through the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Reserve and because of the mist I could barely make out the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. This is the world’s longest bridge built entirely over water and measures nearly 24 miles in length.

The first sign of habitation after leaving New Orleans is Venetian Isles, a name that conjures up an image which unfortunately is not supported in reality. The gas station here still shows 2005 prices, but I’m sorry to say it is no longer operating, another victim of The Storm. After Venetian Isles I continued along the US90 past more evidence of the hurricane which had laid waste to huge swathes of this wooded area.

Beyond Venetian Isles the road was as flat as a pancake, passing between Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and the Gulf Coast. All along this narrow spit of land were the most explicit signs so far of the destruction meted out by Katrina. Where once had stood elevated waterside houses now stood just piles of bricks on concrete footings. It was made all the more apparent by the sight of mail boxes at the entrances to what had once been residential driveways but which now led to nothingness. A few houses have been rebuilt but they look sadly lonely among the desolate acres of wasteland.

I did see a group of alarm installers working on a new build project and stopped to talk. They had been driving up and down the US90 looking for this particular property and had passed and re-passed me on three or four occasions. Everyone has a story about Hurricane Katrina. They told me how the winds had whipped up the waters from the Gulf of Mexico to a height of thirty feet hauled it across Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain destroying everything in its path and then just kept on going. I was astonished to see and hear that reconstruction was taking place. It takes a very brave person who has lost everything to start re-building, knowing that another natural disaster is extremely likely in the future.

About an hour later, after I had stopped for a natural break behind some enormous rubbish containers, a car pulled up and the occupants asked for directions to the nearest gas station. Unfortunately I was unable to help, and they set off up a dirt road looking for their goal. I genuinely didn’t know it at the time but as it turns out, if they had followed me, four miles down the road they would have come to the only gas station that was still operating in a fifty mile radius.

Crossing a small iron span bridge I found myself at this gas station-cum-grocery store. The mileage on my route sheet suggested that I was in Waveland, but when I enquired of the store owner where I was she replied “Pearlington Mississippi”. “When did I leave Louisiana?” I asked. “When you crossed that little bridge” she responded pointing back over my shoulder. My route sheet was way out. I still had fourteen miles to go to Waveland. I was more than a little disappointed with myself having made such a basic mistake in my planning.

I took advantage of the gas station’s facilities to buy some lunch and as I sat on a bench outside the store, I was joined by hundreds and thousands of midges. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but there were lots of them. Even my jungle formula bug spray seemed to have little, if any, effect.

I got talking to a young man called Chris who hails from Alabama. As usual the subject was my trip and when Chris found out how far I had come he said “Wow, you’re like Forrest Gump!”  Little did he know that my girlfriend back in the UK had also nicknamed me Forrest. The conversation then turned to the flying pests and Chris asked “Where in your entire trip, has been the worst place for midges?” “Right here” I exclaimed pointing to the floor. “Thank you” he replied “I keep telling my friends that I’m not going to move here because of all these midges” And then, as if to illustrate exactly how annoying they were, I found one swimming in the bottle of milk that I was drinking.

Chris wished me well for the rest of my ride and as I cycled off he paraphrased a line from the film and shouted after me “Ride Lee, ride.”

Welcome to Mississippi. I almost missed this inconspicuous little sign.

Welcome to Mississippi. I almost missed this inconspicuous little sign.

It is difficult to adequately describe the emptiness of the last forty miles and although I experienced it first hand, it really didn’t sink in until I eventually reached Waveland a whole town in the process of re-building. Waveland was “ground zero” for Hurricane Katrina. More than fifty people lost their lives in this small town of just 6,000 people.

After Waveland it is a couple of miles to Bay St Louis, a town which as its name suggests is perched on a bluff above the Mississippi Sound and the Bay of St. Louis. As an indication of how flat today’s ride has been, this bluff rises to just 31 feet above sea level but even so it is the highest elevation at the water’s edge on the whole of the Gulf of Mexico.

On August 29th 2005 when Katrina made landfall here a thirty foot high tidal wave demolished the two and a quarter mile long bridge between Bay St Louis and Pass Christian. Today a sparkling new bridge has been built to replace the old.

A beautiful stretch of white sand beach between Pass Christian and Gulfport, Mississippi

A beautiful stretch of white sand beach between Pass Christian and Gulfport, Mississippi

I had intended staying at the Magic River Campground, about four miles in land, but I’m beginning to give up all thoughts of camping now. My budget had been $80 per day for accommodation and food but that has been blown on more occasions than not. I’m just going to enjoy myself and forget the expense. After all, this is a once in a lifetime trip. Or is it? There are some places that I would like to re-visit and some places that I have learned about whilst travelling that I would like to see, maybe one day I’ll return.

Riding along the beach front US90, I was unintentionally causing a bit of a traffic jam. The road was being repaired and two lanes were coned off, so there was only one lane available in each direction and no shoulder or path for me to cycle on. Drivers seemed reluctant or incapable of overtaking. Where I had the opportunity I would dart inside the cones to allow a few vehicles to pass, before I encountered mounds of sand, gravel or other road building materials and then I would have to return to the road once more.

It was on one of these forays into the coned off areas that I attempted to ride over a small pile of sand. Unfortunately the sand was so fine that acted like quicksand and it was impossible to pedal through. My wheels stalled and I fell to the ground as if in slow motion.

The thing with falling off your bike slowly is that it hurts. Not only does it hurt but you also get cuts and bruises. If you come off whilst travelling at speed you tend to skid across the surface, you might get some grazes but it certainly doesn’t hurt as much as falling off slowly. So picking myself up, laughing at the stupidity of the situation and re-packing my bike I found that I had blood pouring from a couple of wounds to my left knee, I had yet another injury to supplement the pain in my ankle and my shin.

You can avoid the embarrassment of falling off your bike if no-one sees you. Hopefully no one saw me. Oh yes they did! One of the construction workers driving a little 4×4 caged machine roared up to check on my welfare. I’m ok apart from a dent to my ego!

Having picked myself up, dusted myself down and started all over again, I continued on my journey on the look out for a hotel or motel. I was busy admiring the beautiful spotlessly clean but empty beaches along the Gulf Coast for a few miles when I saw an advertisement on the back of a wooden bench on the beach. The advert was for a bed and breakfast a few miles back the way I had come, in Long Beach. After telephoning and getting directions I cycled back (carefully avoiding another mishap) and found the very new and very elegantly presented Long Beach Lodge.

The owners, Dan and Gina Miller, used to run it as a retirement home but they have recently had a change of direction. I should have realised that a business that could afford to advertise itself on the beach was not going to be cheap. At over double my daily budget limit it certainly wasn’t, but what the heck. There also didn’t appear to be any alternative apart from riding into Biloxi about twenty miles further on.

Like every other small town along this part of the Gulf Coast, Long Beach is still showing the scars of Katrina; decimated foliage and numerous empty lots where houses and businesses had once stood.

Aerial photo of Long Beach, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The house in this photo only survived because it was built using hurricane proof materials and standards

Aerial photo of Long Beach, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The house in this photo only survived because it was built using hurricane proof materials and standards

Dan and Gina invited me to dine with them and their chef tonight and I accepted their offer. I say “invited”, obviously they are going to expect me to pay; it is a business after all, but the food was wonderful and the company was excellent. Once more the conversation was dominated by Katrina. Gina offered me a number of books to peruse, with varying accounts of the storm, all of which contained some very impactive photographs of the aftermath. It all just reinforces the affect that those dreadful few days has had on these communities. I made a note of some of the book titles intending to read them when I returned home.