Cajun Orange Grower

November 28. 

I left the hostel early after saying goodbye to some new friends and hearing one last story from one of the employees. It was about how guests at the hostel who fly out of New Orleans can’t bring their their drugs or drug paraphernalia with them. He said he just found three crack pipes under a bed, which he knew were empty because he tried them.

Pedaling away from the hostel of depravity felt great, except for the stiff headwind and some of the coldest weather on the trip. I had no idea where to go, and my map ended at the city limits. The Adventure Cycling route goes through Baton Rouge, 65 miles from New Orleans, so I went in that direction on Highway 61.

Highway 61 runs between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River. It has heavy traffic and big shoulders. I’m sure there’s a better way between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – possibly a a meandering route along the Mississippi River – but I never made it to a computer to look it up. I was still in a hurry because I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to Austin. A few days later, I realized I was making good progress and I stopped hurrying, but I hadn’t realized that yet.

Wind, as many bicycle writers have noted, is worse than hills. With hills, there’s an end in sight. Or if there isn’t, you know they will end sometime. Wind can blow for a day or a month. An hour of riding into the wind doesn’t usually reward you with 15 minutes of tailwind, the way an ascent is rewarded with a descent. The prevailing wind blows from west to east across the Southern United States. I got lucky on this trip – I had tailwinds about as frequently as I had headwinds. But west of New Orleans the wind was really getting me down. While looking at maps the night before, I though maybe I could make it beyond Baton Rouge today. Now it looked like I would be lucky to get halfway there.

In the middle of the day, I stopped for my first non-Subway fast food of the trip at a McDonald’s. Mostly, I just wanted to get out of the wind and off my bike. I ordered an ice cream cone and a cup of coffee. The ice cream was delicious. I was craving sugar all morning. An hour later, I shut my book and went back out to lean into the wind and ride slowly.

I had great luck with books on this trip. I started with A Confederacy of Dunces. The book takes place in New Orleans and is the funniest fiction I have ever read. The book chronicles the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, an academic turned hot dog vendor. He finds employment because his mom makes him. He stays employed because his jobs lead him to championing a series of faux social causes, which he takes on to impress and outdo Myrna Minkoff, his ex-love interest.

Back in Manatee Springs, my campsite neighbor gave me a copy of “Travels With Lucy.” It’s a self-published book by a guy named Chris Buerki. It’s about his year-long ride across the country with his dog Lucy. If you can get passed the typos, the book is really fun. Buerki describes himself as blurring the line between adventurous traveler and homeless alcoholic (or something along those lines). He partakes in some wild adventures – like arson – that you won’t read about in more mainstream bicycle-touring books.

The first part of Buerki’s route was similar to mine, so I got to ride through towns I had just read about. Riding through the backdrops of the more momentous adventures and near death experiences in the book gave me a sense of wonder. Buerki’s meandering route, lack of any time or financial restraints, and his canine companion made me a little jealous. When I finished those books, I found several more gems in free bins at public libraries.

Late in the afternoon I rode towards a fruit stand on the side of Highway 61. A lively cajun man was running around outside the stand and slapping high-fives with people passing by. I had lots of food and not much room for more, but I wanted to buy a couple oranges. The cajun guy ran up to me and gave me a high-five. He asked what my name was, and I had to say it three times before he understood. “Oh Olliwah!” he said. His name was Charlie. He asked about my trip and he grabbed a bag of oranges and told me he wanted me to take them. I explained that I only had room for a couple oranges. He looked at me like I was crazy, and then pulled up one of the bungees on my front rack and stuffed a bag of oranges underneath.

I thanked Charlie and he gave me his phone number. Then, he sprung back into action and grabbed a bag full of satsumas. By now, I knew that arguing with him was useless so I let him stuff the bag under my bungee and I thanked him again.

Charlie at his orange stand.

A weeks worth of citrus. I ate every single one.

Feeling energized from my encounter with Charlie, I pounded the pedals and rode on into the wind. The sun was going down and I needed a place to sleep. I was surrounded by swamps and bayous in an area called the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area. I explored a dirt road off the highway in search of a place to sleep. It went through the swamp for 50 feet, and then ended in a mud hole next to a pile of fish carcasses, so I kept going.

Five miles later, I got to a tourist information center in the middle of the swamp. My plan was to walk into the office and charm them into offering me a place to sleep. I did my best to look helpless and the woman at the desk gave me a map and a bag of Louisiana tourism chips. She suggested that I ride another five miles to a boat launch where I may be able to sleep.

her shift was over in 20 minutes so I went to warm up in the bathroom until she came by to lock it. After that, I followed her out of the parking lot, where she locked a gate. I pretended to adjust my pannier as she drove away. Then I turned around, pushed my bike under the gate, and gorged myself on oranges in the empty tourist park.

I rolled my sleeping bag out under a covered picnic. It was a cold night and I didn’t sleep very well but at least I stayed dry.

Self portrait on the swamp-walk at the tourist center.

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