Leaving Fort Desperate

November 30, 2012

I slept soundly in the tower above the Civil War battlefield at Port Hudson. During the Civil War, the Confederacy’s name for Port Hudson was Fort Desperate. The Mississippi River, one of their few outlets to the rest of the world, was essential to the industry-poor South. One historian called the Union’s 48-day siege on Fort Desperate a “progressively miserable period for the confederate soldiers inside the fortress.” Their supplies ran out and they ate horses, mules, dogs and rats to survive. The longest siege in American history ended when General Banks surrendered to the Union on July 9, 1863.

No ghosts or bad dreams haunted me, but I was cold. I wore most of my clothes to bed. I went down from the tower in the morning and ate oatmeal yet again. A week ago I bought a variety pack of fruity-flavored oatmeal and it was surprisingly tasty. My progressively miserable period of eating plain oatmeal was over long before I turned to dogs and rats for sustenance. After eating, I packed my stuff and went into the bathroom to run warm water and hot air over my hands.

I had a warm pair of gloves that I wore everyday while riding to work in the month before flying to Florida. The day before flying out, when I was packing, I could only find one of them. I threw a pair of leather work gloves in my bag just so I would have something. So far I had hardly needed gloves, but the last few days had been chilly. The leather gloves were cold in the morning but if I kept moving my fingers they were OK.

After riding out of the park I turned left toward the Mississippi River. For the first time since New Orleans it wasn’t windy. I experienced the full warmth of the sun and the full reward of my pedaling. I felt like I was flying, even while going uphill. After an hour I had shed two layers, something that hadn’t happened in the last two days.

I crossed the big brown Mississippi on a brand new bridge near New Roads. It had wide shoulders, so I stopped for a moment to watch all the water from east of the crest of the Rockies, and all the pesticides of the Midwest, and all the other liquids from the majority of the country flow towards the Gulf. The river looks slow at a glance but it churns and ripples, carrying whole trees and distorting their size so they look like twigs.

On the west side of the Mississippi I continued on through a couple small towns. On the outskirts of one of them I saw in the distance a bicycle headed my way. I immediately assumed (and hoped) that it was another bicycle tourist. This was a safe bet, because there aren’t many bicyclists in rural Louisiana. The few that I saw were usually riding at me on the wrong side of the road (On the West Coast, we call this upstream riding behavior “salmoning”). A minute later the cyclist was close enough that I could see the panniers on his bike.

Seeing another bike tourist when you’re in the middle of nowhere is like seeing family unexpectedly. You bond quickly over being the only people in hundreds of miles doing the same thing. Especially in Louisiana, where some residents have never been out of the state and most think bicycling on the road is crazy.

The cyclist, a retired Swedish guy named Bjorn, was on his way to Miami Beach from San Francisco. Since retiring, Bjorn has toured all over Europe. Two summers ago, he rode from Vancouver B.C. to Mexico. We talked about our tours and shared some advice on sleeping and finding water. He slept behind a Post Office the night before and I told him the tower was a fine place to sleep. Bjorn was on the way to New Orleans, so I gave him some advice on getting there which can be summed up as “Do something other than what I did.”

Swedish cyclist.

Today was a pleasant day of pedaling. I rode along the Mississippi River and through small towns and sugar cane farms. My Adventure Cycling map said there was free camping in a city park in Simmesport, so that was my destination.

Cows grazing on a dyke. The Mississippi RIver is at the top of that hill.

I envisioned a quiet city park a short walk away from a restaurant where I could get a big greasy meal and order a beer. I couldn’t wait to spend an evening stuffing myself in a warm restaurant. Unfortunately, the park was on the outskirts of town. The nearest restaurant was a place called Rosie’s Diner, which looked promising. After setting up camp, I walked into town in the dark. Even though my bikes and bags were all locked together, I was still nervous about them.

I walked with a flashlight in the ditch for a couple miles alongside the highway. I’m sure I made it into the police blotter section of the next day’s newspaper.

The lights were off and all the chairs were on the tables at Rosie’s Diner. The sign said open but it wasn’t. I kept walking in the ditch (there were no sidewalks in town either) to look for another restaurant. I had to settle for a convenience store attached to a gas station. They had a couple booths, and a menu that included catfish, chicken tenders, burgers and pizza. I got a big greasy pizza and ate most of it. It was warm in the store so I hung out until I got bored of reading and writing in my journal. Several different people wearing head-to-toe camouflage came in and ordered food while I was eating.

After walking home in the ditch, under a shooting star I fell asleep. Now that I had crossed the Mississippi, Texas was the next (and last?) big milestone.

Honey Bun. I ate lots of these.

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