My private dock by Valentine Lake in Kisatchie National Forest.
My private dock by Valentine Lake in Kisatchie National Forest.

Backsweat in the Bayou, Ennui in the Southeast

Billboards can be very misleading.

Leaving New Orleans, I had a single greenback clipped in my wallet and over a dollar in loose change piled up in my cupholder. 30 miles or so down I-10 I stopped at a Love’s gas depot that housed both a McDonald’s and a Chester’s Chicken. I approached the counter of the former and popped the question:

“You guys do that Mix n’ Match 2 for $2 deal? I saw it on a bill—”

“No, no we don’t do that.”

Distraught, I settled for a single Sausage McBisuit, foolishly adding a layer of cheese that doubled the price of the tiny sandwich – $1.19 plus tax to $2.25 – and, alas, my accumulated change did not meet the new sum. So I swiped my card, and was promptly told I must use the chip function. And to further salt my wounds, the burger baggers ignored my ticket, adding minutes to what was supposed to be a breezy, efficient pit stop.

For the past few years I have obsessively compartmentalized my time and money – for me, a day’s quality is less about what I see or do or drink or eat and all about how efficiently I navigate such pleasures. I know that I am most productive between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., most lethargic after lunch, most sporting to get a drink between 5 and 8, when it’s cheapest and also when it’s easiest to meet with friends for an hour or so and not feel pressured to drag the hangout deep into the night. So on summer weekends in Portland with nothing to do I’d usually try to write in the morning, take my bike out after lunch and find a place to string my hammock up; nap through the afternoon and hope to find a happy hour companion before settling in for a film come evening. It sounds a bit dull having it all spelled out like that, but hey, that’s my life.

I’ve carried this sensibility on the road with me, tallying up every cent and setting goals based on base-10 values on my online bank statements. My luggage system is well-honed and my campsite routine has become, well, pretty routine – tent, hammock, dinner, hammock, tent, fours of deep sleep then stirring awake to forest sounds, trying to ignore them for a couple hours and falling back asleep between first light and sunrise.

On the highways it is easy to reduce each day to a matter of miles and money; when real life intervenes, it’s often a hidden blessing. My second day in New Orleans I decided to bike out to the east end of the city, to the Vietnamese community of Versailles that I “researched” once in an “American Studies” course. I slapped on my little cycling spanks and my hiliter-yellow vest, then pedaled past many derelict buildings and empty, overgrown lots until I arrived at the Dong Phuong Bakery, where I was treated to a vegetarian bahn mi for $2.25 and one of the best steam buns I’ve ever had, loaded with pork, Chinese sausage and boiled egg. The ride took about an hour but was mostly flat and windless, though in the Louisiana humidity I was sweating profusely. After lunch and a nice phone chat with Cousin Sam, I started back, never ceasing to sweat. Intermittently throughout the ride I pulled my iPhone out of the back pocket of my vest, wiping away beads of sweat from the screen before checking my route and attempting to snap photos along the way.

My haul from the Dong Phuong Bakery.
My haul from the Dong Phuong Bakery.

When I got back to Mid-City I reached for my phone to dial up Sydney, an old friend from college I was staying with. We had talked about getting lunch or a drink; all throughout my ride, I figured that I would confront this ambiguity after my light Asian brunch, and a quick phone chat with Sydney would dictate the trajectory of my afternoon. So I clicked the black home button – and nothing. I pressed and held down the lock button, and nothing. I pedaled anxiously over to a Popeye’s, bought a surprisingly pricey small sweet tea ($2.20!), plugged the phone into the wall – more nothing. It was within that heavily air-conditioned chicken palace that I had to reckon with the embarrassing reality that I had sweat through my iPhone 5 and killed it. Additionally, my laptop was locked inside Sydney’s house, and I outside without a key. For the first time in months I had no access to digital communications, and seemingly no control over the course of my day.

As much as I wanted to view this as some kind of sign from God that I must break the bonds of social media and finally be free and all that, it was inevitably frustrating that I had – just hours ago – made vague plans and had no way of following up on them. Two competing impulses emerged: spend the rest of the day wheeling around to obscure corners of the city, stringing up my hammock wherever looked most hospitable, alternately reading and napping – or camp out on Sydney’s back porch, cooking refried beans on a campstove and waiting for her to get home. I chose the latter.

In hindsight this decision is a prescient microcosm of my state of mind at this late stage of the trip. Weeks ago, just outside of Flagstaff, trying to fall asleep in my hammock while warding off fears of bears and rogue bear hunters, I realized the whole solo-camping thing was beginning to get old; all night I eagerly awaited first light, when I could pack up and start heading towards my cousins’ comfortable home in Show Low. Lighting out from Santa Fe I felt the same, foregoing a night in Big Bend National Park just so I could see my old friend Alex Lang in Austin a day earlier. Between Austin and New Orleans I stuck to the Google Maps-approved route, and aside from two nights in National Forests and a spontaneous stop at the craziest Bass Pro Shop I’d ever seen, I barely “explored” anything. I mostly floated through the Bayou and the Delta, and in the case of Alabama and Mississippi, I drilled through at a constant rate of 80 to 100 m.p.h. Driving through East Texas I passed easily a hundred Historical Markers and didn’t pull off at any of them.

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You can find all this inside the Bass Pro Shop in Denham Springs, LA.
You can find all this inside the Bass Pro Shop in Denham Springs, LA.

What I’ve confirmed so far on this long drive is that I am not an introvert, that I am more excited by people than by Nature but that I need the latter to appreciate the former – and vice versa. Also, there is simply too much cool shit to see, too many detours to be had. At the Love’s gas station on I-12 I met an odd man with greased-back hair and a white v-neck who drove a white minivan – he began our brief acquaintance by asking if I had come from the West and if the gas here is “the right price.” After purchasing my bullshit Sausage McBiscuit and filling up my thermos with horrible coffee, I saw him outside of the Men’s room, holding his shaving kit and examining a map of the continental United States. I approached.

“…so where are you headed to?”

He was headed east, bound for New Orleans and, eventually, the Colorado Plateau. I gave him a couple of recommendations, and to his ecstatic delight, told him that camping in National Forests is free (he had been sleeping in his car in Walmart parking lots). He then gushed on and on about the beaches on Florida’s North Gulf shore – Pensacola, Seaside, and Destin. After a particularly poetic description of Seaside, his wife emerged from the bathroom just as he was telling me that best thing about Seaside is that it’s all white people, that there are no minorities – “it’s very…very special.”

I cinched up a little. But looking at he and his wife, who both spoke with slight accents and were clearly ethnic minorities themselves – I want to guess Romanian or Azerbaijani but am probably horribly mistaken – his ostensibly racist comment became an adorable, very poorly-worded but interesting observation. Seaside is “special” to the man (who’s name I can’t recall) simply because it’s homogeneity is so foreign to him – I gleaned from his scattered remarks that he and his wife had driven down from New York City and have probably lived there for some time. I like to think that he would speak in similarly awed terms of an Alabama beach town comprised entirely of Haitian fisherman.

At the end of this arc of our conversation I made some half-hearted joke about Portland being just like Seaside, that it’s all white people, then resignedly tacking on, “for better or for worse.” I still don’t know what I meant by that, and in the moment I didn’t feel like continuing on the topic so I just shrugged and started saying nice things about Flagstaff.

Now that I’m writing a blog, though, I can dig a little deeper. Between bike rides through Mid-City New Orleans and Midtown Atlanta I’ve seen more interracial couples – and groups of friends – than I saw in three years in Portland. This isn’t all that surprising to me, nor – even worse – do I, as a tourist, mean to treat Atlanta and New Orleans as exotic curios, as strange havens of racial harmony. Like the man in the Love’s station said, “places just are how they are.” From a distance, though, Portland’s brand of progressiveness, wealth and whiteness feels particularly snobbish, overbearing, and even hypocritical when cast against the rest of the nation. Portland’s cyclists wear colorful, top-of-the-line helmets; most commuters sport $100 waterproof Ortlieb panniers and bike lights that rarely dip below 100 radians. Biking around Austin – a city that is similar to Portland in countless ways, from its politics to its public swimming holes to its friendliness to cyclists and vagrants alike – I noticed that almost nobody wore helmets. In New Orleans, I found it both annoying and adorable that the majority of other cyclists insisted on ignoring the flow of traffic and the big white arrows painted inside the wide, accommodating bike lanes (in Portland, you can’t bike in the wrong direction for more than half a mile without being snarled at by fellow cyclists or self-righteous motorists).

I said I would dig a little deeper; if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of racial politics in America, well, that’s not happening. I guess the main takeaway is not to judge a part of the map before you spend some time there – and it’s amazing how easy it is to catch yourself doing this. Just before crossing over the Sabine River that separates Texas from Louisiana, I was confronted with an enormous billboard that featured a nostalgic image of a man fishing at sunset and the phrase, “This is God’s Country.” Meanwhile my bumper and windshield were confronted with thousands of flies, which in their cumulative splatter gave the effect of a light summer rainfall – though much harder to wipe away from my car. Having only blazed through “God’s Country” at 85 m.p.h., I can attest that there are an awful lot of dumb bugs in East Texas, but who knows how many dumb people. It may be safe to assume that there are a lot of Christians and a lot of Republicans in that part of the country, but they all might have more black friends than me. I think I have three.

Some of East Texas's less charming billboards.
Some of East Texas’s less charming billboards.
What my bumper looked like after East Texas.
What my bumper looked like after plowing through “God’s Country.”

Now that my bank account is steadily descending to the $3,000 threshold I set over a month ago in Portland, it is almost time to wrap up the adventure and return home. My last stop will be Asheville, NC – I’m currently staying with my old friend Jeff in Charlotte – where I plan to do a bit of cycling along the Blue Ridge Parkway and renew my Insta-game with a newly revived iPhone 5 (the rice trick still works!). I’m hoping to revisit the Great Smoky Mountains, which I barely remember from a family vacation 20 years ago – hopefully this bullshit hurricane won’t keep their facilities closed for too long. Then I’ll hop on Skyline Drive and glide back up to I-66 – and quickly reacquaint myself with what idling on a Northern Virginia freeway feels like, and – finally, after all that – a Call of Duty session with Dale.

I’ll keep ya posted.

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