Cycling Through a Blast Furnace

“Just as the Mediterranean separated France from the country Algiers, so did the Mississippi separate New Orleans proper from Algiers Point. The neighborhood had a strange mix. It looked seedier and more laid-back all at the same time. Many artists lived on the peninsula, with greenery everywhere and the most beautiful and exotic plants. The French influence was heavy in Algiers, as if the air above the water had carried as much ambience as it could across to the little neighborhood. There were more dilapidated buildings in the community, but Jackson and Buddy passed homes with completely manicured properties, too, and wild ferns growing out of baskets on the porches, as if they were a part of the architecture. Many of the buildings had rich, ornamental detail, wood trim hand-carved by craftsmen and artisans years ago. The community almost had the look of an ailing beach town on some forgotten coast.”
― Hunter Murphy, Imogene in New Orleans

Every year during the New Orleans Writing Marathon I make a point of crossing the Mississippi River on the Algiers Ferry. This year a group of poets decided to walk through the French Quarter and make the crossing. I’m no poet, but the rules aren’t too strict, so I tagged along.

I love riding the Ferry, though I have done it more than a few times. The Algiers Ferry moves cars, pedestrians, and cyclists from the dock at the foot of Canal Street across to the town of Algiers on the West Bank. Even though you are going from the Eastern half United States to the West, due to the twisting river the boat actually goes sort of in another direction. There is something about crossing the Mississippi, though I always think of the ferry as the spot where John Goodman’s character committed suicide in the series Treme. If you’ve ever seen the film Déjà Vu this is the ferry the terrorists attack.

The day was incredibly hot and humid and we maneuvered our route to the ferry to use as much shade as possible. The trip across is two dollars, cash only, no change – I always take a stack of ones and quarters with me when I go to New Orleans for the ferry and the streetcar.

Saint Louis Cathedral from across the Mississippi River at Algiers Point

Two women and a dog In the middle of the river on the Algiers Ferry.

On the Algiers side we went to a trio of spots to write. First was breakfast at Tout de Suite Cafe, which was very good. Right next door was the excellent cafe/coffee shop Two Birds, One Stone – they had a back room full of pinball machines and big tables, a perfect place to write. The young owners were very accommodating to our group – I want to visit again and recommend you do too. I wrote snippets of text at both, then we walked on to Congregation Coffee Roasters for a third stop. I decided to churn out a poem, since that was what everybody else was doing.

Rented Furniture

A worshipped monolith
made of translucent plastic
red and stained
a machine of fire and water

A cylinder, a totem
raised on a dias of wood
life that needs washing
escape and revelation

We didn’t make the payments
and they took the furniture
when we were gone
and returned to find
an empty room, with
only a bong on a wooden
wire spool table

It was still fairly early, but some of the others had to get back to do a radio broadcast – everybody piled back on the ferry for the trip back.I was distracted by two bike share rental bikes at the ferry terminal and, checking the map on my phone, discovered there was a bike trail on the top of the river levee on the Algiers side – so I opened the app on my phone and unlocked a bike – deciding to go for a ride.

New Orleans Bike Share Bike

The New Orleans bike share bikes are built like a tank, and as heavy as one – but the city is flat so that doesn’t cause too much of a problem. It took me a minute to find the control and downshift so I could climb onto the Levee and the swept handlebars took some getting used to. But soon enough I had it all in control and was moving down the smooth levee trail.

I rode south (or more exactly, downriver – the Mississippi curves) for a few miles, down past the Naval station. It was fun – the view of the river and giant ships and barges on one side – the picturesque streets of Algiers on the other. The path sort of petered out and I rode back, past the ferry station and upriver to the giant double bridge… the Crescent City Connector. That was about seven miles and about all I felt up to, so I rode back to the ferry and parked my rented bike.

It was a lot of fun, but there was one problem. It was so hot. It was like riding through a blast furnace. There was no breeze at all – no cooling relief coming off of the river. The top of the Levee is very exposed, not a bit of shade. The burning sun, the boiling air, and the famous New Orleans summer humidity made for a sweaty, exhausting ride.

I was so worn out that when I made it back across the river I was lazy and took a streetcar through the French Quarter (still had a dollar bill and a quarter) back to where we were meeting. A long day, a hot day, but a nice time.

Can’t wait to go back.

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Cannot Tame That Lawless Stream

“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”
― Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Natchez Paddlewheel, New Orleans

The Neon Bible

“If you were different from anybody in town, you had to get out. That’s why everybody was so much alike. The way they talked, what they did, what they liked, what they hated. If somebody got to hate something and he was the right person, everybody had to hate it too, or people began to hate the ones who didn’t hate it. They used to tell us in school to think for yourself, but you couldn’t do that in the town. You had to think what your father thought all his life, and that was what everybody thought.”
― John Kennedy Toole, The Neon Bible

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius J. Reilly, sculpture on Canal Street.

Oblique Strategy: Always first steps

Six down, ninety-four to go.

While working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately.

Next up is The Neon Bible, the first, and next to last novel by John Kennedy Toole. He is the author that wrote the famous A Confederacy of Dunces and created the amazing character, Ignatius J. Reilly.

It is not as well known as Confederacy of Dunces, and the author didn’t even seem to think much of it. He said, “In 1954, when I was 16, I wrote a book called The Neon Bible, a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South—and the fundamentalist mentality is one of the roots of what was happening in Alabama, etc. The book, of course, was bad, but I sent it off a couple of times anyway.”

So I picked up the book, with low expectations, but it had a slim page count, and I loved A Confederacy of Dunces – so I was sure it would be worth the effort and time.

And it was – not entirely successful as a novel, even as a bildungsroman, but it contains some amazing scenes and descriptions of life in a hell-hole little city in a beautiful Mississippi valley. It’s pretty observant and socially aware for something written by a sixteen year old.

Kayak in the River

“Maybe freedom really is nothing left to lose. You had it once in childhood, when it was okay to climb a tree, to paint a crazy picture and wipe out on your bike, to get hurt. The spirit of risk gradually takes its leave. It follows the wild cries of joy and pain down the wind, through the hedgerow, growing ever fainter. What was that sound? A dog barking far off? That was our life calling to us, the one that was vigorous and undefended and curious.”
― Peter Heller, Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River

A while back, on my trip to New Orleans, my son Lee and I were in Crescent Park, hanging out for a few minutes, looking at the giant muddy expanse of the Mississippi River and the ships, tugs, and barges cruising past. A guy in an open-water kayak paddled by, going downstream, and I snapped a photo, wishing I had my longer lens. Other than the familiar automatic action of raising my camera and pushing the shutter, I didn’t think any more about it.

Ryan Caruso in his kayak, Mississippi River, New Orleans

Now, back home, I’m looking over the photos I took on my trip. I checked out the kayak zoomed in a bit closer and noticed it was covered in sponsor’s signs – including one for “Operation Smile.”

Ryan Caruso in his kayak, Mississippi River, New Orleans

It didn’t take much internet searching to learn that this was Ryan Caruso, kayaking a thousand miles from South Padre Island Texas, to Panama City Beach Florida, to raise money for Operation Smile – a charity to provide needed surgeries to children around the world.

He tracked his route here, and kept a blog of the trip. Lee and I saw him on Saturday, July 15 right at 12 noon – here’s his blog entry for the day:

JULY 15: Day 23

By 8 in the morning, my sailboat friend, which I finally learned his name but I will call him whom I’m calling “Military Man,” caught me up. We talked for a moment before he passed me once again. A half-hour later, I had entered the industrial harbor of New Orleans. For 5 miles, I passed barge push boats (no barges just the boat), sitting along the channel being fixed or repainted or pulled from the water to inspect the haul.

I radioed to the Harvey Locks letting them know I was five minutes away and slide in almost immediately into the lock. The guys running the lock were very interested in the voyage, and I explained as I always do what I was doing and why – it’s all for Operation Smile. They told me to make sure I updated New Orleans Traffic Control when I got onto the Mississippi. The lock filled with water and only my kayak, as the lock was empty besides for me, rose 6 feet so as to be level with the mighty Mississippi before the lock doors opened. One of the gentlemen of the lock lowered down two cold water bottles with the caps tied to a rope. The key to my heart – well, two keys to be precise.

“New Orleans Traffic Control, this is 18-foot white kayak entering the Mississippi from the Harvey locks and will be following the eastern bank to the industrial locks. Just giving you guys a heads up.”

“18 foot … what kind of boat?”

“A kayak, sir.”

“Kayak?” A chuckle. “Kayak, this is Traffic Control. Thank you for the update. We will ensure traffic knows you are out there.”

For the next hour, I left the radio on to channel 12 so I could listen to water traffic on the Mississippi. I heard a lot of the barges talking about the “kayaker.” They must have had a hard time seeing me because other boats would always have to update different boats of my location. I was asked to wait while a ferry boat started up and took of into the center of the river but after awhile I safely entered the inlet for the industrial lock.

A barge with chemicals was currently entering the lock and since no other boats can accompany barges with dangerous chemicals I was forced to wait. My sailboat friend was there, and the lock had told me to enter behind him. Military Man had been waiting for an hour and together we had to wait another one.

I pulled off the ICW after only 26 miles. I found a spot where the wake barrier rocks had fallen away and I slid into the main land. These rocks make landing impossible if I don’t want to destroy the haul of my boat. Yanking the boat through thick marsh and tall grass, didn’t take long and soon I was walking the 15 minutes to the main road. Upon reaching the main road, I only had to wait a minute or two before my Uber arrived to take me to Walmart. I feasted on Taco Bell across the street – since there was no Cajun restaurants near me – and then made my way to Walmart.

As I waited for the Uber back to my kayak, rain came down like I hadn’t seen in days. I dove into the passenger seat as the rain hammered the window. By the time we made it back to my hidden kayak, the rain had stopped and I slowly made my way back down the old forgotten gravel path. After arranging the food into dry bags, I realized I may have bought too much. I guess I will know tomorrow when I pack the kayak in the morning.

I leave the safety of the ICW for the next 5 days, tomorrow. Hoping for calm winds and no stories to write about.

So when Lee and I saw him, he was following the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. He had entered the Mississippi at the Harvey Locks a bit upstream, and was paddling down the river past us until he reached the Industrial Canal Locks only a bit farther. At that point he would leave the river and enter the channels of the Intracoastal Waterway again (and stop to take an Uber to Walmart for supplies).

What an amazing thing. First, his kayak voyage – an impressive feat. Add to that the fact I, from only a glimpse of a kayak on the river, could track down the whole story while sitting here at my laptop.

Crescent Park

There is nothing more boring than riding an exercise bike. In order to try and get my bad-weather (ie over 100 degrees) exercise going, one thing I like to do is watch POV YouTube videos of other people riding their bikes in more interesting places than my spare room. I know that’s pretty bad – but you have to do what you have to do.

I mounted a monitor and speakers to my bike, and watch videos while I ride. One of the ones I like to ride to is this hour-long ride around New Orleans.

At the nine-minute fifty-second mark in the video, the riders climb over some crazy rusted-steel arch-shaped bridge. I’ve wondered what that thing is… it looks like it’s in the Bywater area, but I can’t be sure.

The other day, on my last day in New Orleans for the writing marathon, my son Lee and I drove down to the quarter for lunch and I mentioned the strange bridge. He knew exactly what I was talking about and we hopped in his car and drove there.

Crescent Park Bridge, New Orleans

It’s a really cool park, Crescent Park, built along the Mississippi from the French Market area down to the Bywater neighborhood.

The bridge takes pedestrians (and cyclists, if they carry their bikes) over the levee and the railroad tracks into the park. It’s a beautiful spot – a new favorite in the Big Easy. I have to visit it with my bike next time.

My son, Lee, on the Crescent Park bridge.

The river and the Hwy 90 double bridge from the Crescent Park Bridge, New Orleans

Turning around, looking back the other way from the Crescent Park Bridge, Bywater Neighborhood, New Orleans

Bywater, from the Crescent Park Bridge, New Orleans

The river and downtown, from the Crescent Park Bridge, New Orleans

Walking Along the Levee

“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”
― Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Walking on the levee
New Orleans