Triplogue - Texas to Louisiana

 

15 April, Navasota to Coldspring, 66 miles

It was odd. Today we traveled towards the East all day, but culturally it felt more and more like the South, while the landscape provoked Proustian memories of my childhood in the North.

It was a slow start, due to the continuing unseasonably cold temperature and the poor quality of the morning’s coffee. Once astride our saddles, the countryside between Navasota and Richards looked identical to the heartland of my native Wisconsin, full of green rolling hills and cow-filled pastures. It was only when we stopped in the small hamlets of Anderson and Richards that this illusion was shattered, for we had unmistakably crossed the invisible line delineating Redneckland. The general ambience had become distinctly Faulknerian –heavy, sweet-smelling and sinister. Nearly everyone we encountered eyed us suspiciously, even menacingly, and they all drove pickups with gun racks visible through the rear windows and barking hound dawgs in back. The white menfolk all wore coveralls and baseball caps advertising towing services and the like, while the black folk averted their gazes whenever we would look at them, or timidly wave at us from their front porches. In nearly every exchange of the day, the only word we could distinguish when addressed by someone of either race was "y’all," to which we’d nod our heads and smile.

East of Richards we entered Sam Houston National Forest, and I was once again struck by the familiar landscape. This time we were riding through the piney North Woods, along deserted straight roads paved with squished deer. There was even a lakey-smelling lake with bass fishermen and wading herons. The whole experience –all of my senses carrying me back to some imagined pastoral scene from my childhood—made me forget that we were still in Texas.

After lunch in New Waverly –where Fred ate a slice of pie bigger than his head—the paradigm of the South firmly took root once and for all. While we were still in the National Forest, it was heavily populated, mostly by African Americans. Cars and abandoned appliances littered the yards; empty cans of Malt Liquor filled the ditches. I was thrilled to cross the first streamlike substance billed as a "bayou", yet somewhat less excited by the road, which carried scary high-speed traffic and had no shoulder. It was a relief to arrive in Coldspring, where we were to dine with Fred’s hilarious Aunt Anita from Houston.

Anita and her cousin Laura arrived shortly after we did, and they were lots of fun. When we offered them cocktails (we’re now carrying a flask of scotch with us on the road for the sorer days which terminate in dry towns), Anita said she preferred vodka, and proceeded to pull a bottle out of her bag, along with cups and ice cubes. I asked her if she had been a girl scout.

The two women had grown up in Louisiana and gave us tips on where to stop on our upcoming journey. We all had dinner in a triple-wide trailer/restaurant. I had promised Fred that I’d eat a chicken fried steak before leaving Texas, and realized my opportunities were numbered. I regretted my choice as soon as it arrived, however, since what sat gooily upon my plate was one of the nastiest food items I’ve ever ingested. When Anita asked us if we’d be eating dessert, I thought I’d puke. She urged us to stick around for a few days and stay at her lake house nearby, which sounded mighty tempting. But I had just committed to meeting my brother two days later in DeRidder, Louisiana. And after over a thousand miles of Texas, I’m kinda ready to be in another state.

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Fred, his aunt Anita and her cousin Laura

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The closest thing to a live armadillo we have seen

16 April, Coldspring to Silsbee, 76 Miles

I can’t believe that we are still in Texas. We’ve been riding here for over a thousand miles and we are both ready for a new state, but it won’t come today. The last days have been more ordeal-like than idyllic, cold, headwinds and my aching knee torturing me. At breakfast things began to turn around.

Our waitress was charming, the breakfast scrumptious and the weather beautiful. People in the diner asked us about our trip. This was the Texas I had come to love before Austin. Along the way we mentioned to someone that we liked this part of Texas and the part before Austin but not around Austin. "That figures" she snapped back, "no one there is from Texas, they’re all rude."

After breakfast we rode through the "Big Thicket." The first time Andy told me that was the name of the area I misheard him, I thought he had said the "Big Brisket." Couldn’t imagine why they’d name a forest after a cut of beef, but this is Texas.

The Thicket was big, we rode through it most of the day and the brush and trees shaded us from the strong cross winds that blew throughout the day. The sun beamed down on us, Andy even took off his shirt in a futile attempt to even out his tan. Before we knew it we’d knocked down over 40 miles and arrived in a highway junction/town called, of all things, Thicket. The whole route was dotted with general stores like the ones we lunched in. The most interesting one was after lunch in a place known as Honey Landing.

They’d seen a lot of cyclists there and were ready to offer advice. First, the route that the map proposed was preposterous; it would take us miles out of our way. They suggested that we take a different road that would shave off 19 or 20 miles, which was hard to fathom because our map predicted 20 miles until Silsbee. Andrew and I both contemplated stealing a stuffed armadillo that was on the shelf at the store. Instead we posed for photos with it.

We opted to skip the shortcut and steamed into Silsbee. A quick stop at a Dollar Store yielded one of my first up-close-and-personal white trash experiences. I watched a drunken b**** berate the African-American clerk for supposedly overcharging her on some item. After doing our laundry we dressed and went for dinner to a steak buffet. The waiters were careful to keep their distance as we ate for fear they might lose an appendage in the fray. We waddled back to our Motel, updated the website and crashed.

17 April, Silsbee, TX to DeRidder, LA, 78 miles

We have made it out of the Lone Star State alive – just barely.

Fred and I had decided last night that we’d stray from the prescribed route in order to shave off some miles and get our butts to Louisiana as quickly as possible. It meant riding on some busier roads, but at least those had shoulders. The worst part of the day by far was on the quietest road, where the traffic was deadly. The numerous logging trucks were bad, but the pickups were worse. Every backwoods redneck cracker hillbilly rube seemed intent on running us off of the shoulderless road between Kirbyville and Bon Wier. In spite of this constant human menace, our real adversary was the wind again, however. We’ve been fighting it all the way from Blanco, before Austin, but today it was blowing particularly stiffly. I fantasized about a bike trip where my daily destination would be a function of which way the wind was blowing –definitely something to be tried some day.

The notable events of the day were these: I endured yet another flat tire between Evadale and Buna; In Bon Wier we stopped long enough to eavesdrop on a conversation between a group of adolescents in which the only word I understood was "possum"; This evening in DeRidder we went in search of Cajun cuisine and stumbled upon a charming establishment called "Taco Bell. Seated near us was a big group of dudes in coveralls speaking…French! Were they Cajuns? No, they said, they were from Quebec and worked in the paper mill; Brother Marty knocked on the door of our hotel only minutes after I left a message on his answering machine. He drove all the way from Minneapolis in less than two days to join us, and he seems to have a lot more energy than we do. We’ve already informed him that tomorrow will be a low-mileage day…

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About time for a new state!

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Celebrating 2000 miles on the road

18 April, De Ridder to Mamou, 66 miles
Guest Rider/Writer - Marty Broan-Andy’s brother

"Goin’ down the road, feelin’ bad,
Goin’ where the climate suits my clothes,
Goin’ where the water tastes like wine,
Don’t wanna be treated this away" - Elizabeth Cotten

My car stereo cranked this road-trip anthem while crossing into Louisiana from the Ozarks, home of the Whitewater scandal and, it quickly became apparent, more than a few Deliverance-esque inbred roadside gawkers. The scenery slowly morphed from snow-stained bleakscape in Iowa to full-fledged summer in Louisiana. After an abnormally long winter in Minnesota, that song felt pretty true to me—every part except for the water tasting like wine, of course.

Andy and Fred called me two days ago and said I should meet them in De Ridder, their first town in Louisiana. As soon as I crossed into De Ridder, I checked my voice mail for A+F and found that they had just arrived to the Best Western directly across the street from the pay phone. Fortuitous! They appeared nearly comatose and Taco-Bell stupefied, having experienced yet another longer-than-expected day, only to be greeted by the character-less town of De Ridder. What they needed was an injection of energy, fresh legs and enthusiasm—neither of which I was able to muster after 17+ hours of driving. I was definitely feeling not-so-fresh.

The festivities began, nonetheless, and I was humored that I won the bike naming contest. The names that I picked for them were Siegfried and Roy, the scary Vegas tiger-taming couple that A+F appear to emulate. I suppose I had an unfair advantage in the contest, knowing their special affinity for the over-tanned Deutsch robots. The promised Texas treats were a Tex-ass flag bandana and some odd roadside booty—a home made beauty parlor sign that uses bad clip art as samples of their work. We then drained the last of Fred’s scotch stash (De Ridder is in the middle of Louisiana’s only dry parish) and quickly passed out in front of the comforting glow of late-night TV.

The next morning, we mistakenly wandered into the world’s largest Wal-Mart to find some supplies—q-tips, bear mace for aggressive dogs, an air horn and A+F’s new favorite candy, Reese’s cookie cups. We narrowly escaped before succumbing to anxiety attacks.

On our way out of De Ridder, everyone was distantly nice - like they really think you’re satanic freaks from the North (which we may be) but still treat you like God’s children because they will go to hell if they say anything bad about you. Under each smile are some firmly clenched teeth. Nice is still better than mean -- cars here stop politely for you to cut across three lanes of traffic, give you a remarkably wide berth, and honk only to be friendly (Andy’s still not convinced it is friendly and sneers with every passing horn. He now gleefully responds to honkers with his new Wal-Mart air horn, which is more anemic than we had hoped).

First stop - Hilltop Groceries, a half-full store with a 101 Dalmations snow-globe collection in the window, courtesy of several McDonald’s happy meals. I bought a coke in one of those little 8 oz. bottles and the lady at the register somehow chose the topic of how Coke made in Mexico often has "fingers-‘n-shit" in it. She said a friend of hers found a thumb in a V-8 and was paid off by their PR execs in a couple bucks worth of coupons. I think she actually WANTS to be one of the lucky ones some day, like Charlie and the golden ticket in Willy Wonka. I pray my Coke is American and find additional comfort in my clear glass bottle.

During our next stop, a bus-load of high school girl athletes drives into the gas station and throw some racy remarks like "wooooo! Bend over!" It confirms my suspicion that we’re out of the hard-core Christian parish…

The amount of roadkill along these rolling roads is startling. I can’t help but think of a hot new enterprise down here—roadkill welcome mats. They would be very simple to make since they already are quite flat, and the armor on the armadillos is especially well-suited for scraping mud off of shoes. Supply certainly wouldn’t be a problem since these surprisingly thick pine forests toss copious amounts of dillos, possums, skunks, nutria and coons into the asphalt altar to pick-up trucks.

We make it to Oberlin for lunch, already an infinitely more interesting town than DeRidder. After riding down the main strip (which is truly a rockin’ two block showcase for the high school students to zip down in their pick-em-up trucks), we find our only two choices for dining are a pizza joint and a crawfish/catfish place. Every town has to have at least two restaurants—one for the blacks and one for the whites. "We don’t mean nuthin’ of it," the ‘non-racist’ whites say. The catfish is tasty, if not way greasy and the only adornment in the place is a photo of Shaquille O’Neal with the owner.

The last 20 miles on to Mamou are flat in the extreme. Along the road are sculpted pools of dirty water--breeding grounds for jillions of crawfish. They look like rice patties, but this is definitely not Bali. We are entering the heart of Cajun country. Even in the flats, welcome mats abound.

There was a particularly nasty dog gauntlet in the last few miles. People down here love their dogs mean and nasty (like those scary Rottweilers in the "The Omen"), but usually caged. Several houses in row seemed to agree to set their dogs free on us simultaneously. We had a slight collision while frantically readjusting to battle formation. Fear not, though. I travel with two well-armed cyclists who expertly crippled two dogs with pepper spray. Immensely satisfying.

The ride down main street tells us accommodations will be scarce and primitive. We ultimately end up at a "tragic pit" called the Bamboo Inn – a double-sized trailer next to a mosquito breeding pond. After some authentic cajun food (shrimp etoufee on catfish and gumbo), we went to a couple of Mamou’s many bars. The Cazan Bar and Hotel is decrepit but filled with turn-of-the-century character. Our first encounter is with Sue—an overzealous, horny forty-something with no front teeth and a skimpy cowgirl outfit, packing more than its share of cottage cheese. In Andy and Fred code, she offers us TMI (too much information). Her first husband is a lieutenant for the prison nearby and proudly cornered 3 escaped convicts and shot them to death. She says she’s single now but the folks around her say otherwise. In fact, they roll their eyes in her presence, saying she’s always out for fresh meat. It’s not hard to tell that she’s trouble. Gayle, the bartender, is clad in a skimpy leather vest and tells us which places to avoid (basically the one black bar).

The Casanova Bar across the street is truly the heart of Cajun culture. We quickly meet Tante Sue - wife of Fred, as in the famous Fred’s Lounge. The rowdy French-speaking octogenarian sat us down and instantly made us feel at ease. She is a total hoot. If you are within 100 miles, make that 1000, you must seek her out. Scary Sue from across the street followed us in to the Casanova to talk to me (I guess she smelled my hetero blood) and her intentions are clear. I try not to reveal my nausea when she places a Playboy bunny sticker between her boobs and coyly looks at me. Meanwhile, A+F share some chuckles with a couple of older lesbian Cajuns. A brutally honest harmless redneck kept asking Andy and Fred, "So why the hell are you DOING this trip?" I encourage him, since I, too, would like to know their motivation. I’m just not as persistent. A dozen or so older Cajuns are in the back room playing poker and the French card game of La Boule. This place should be preserved for the ages, as it embodies such sincere hospitality and a culture fighting the black hole of Wal-Marts and MTV. Somehow they preserve it here, with weekly performances of true Cajun music and free use of their odd patois. One bitter pill to swallow with the culture is an undercurrent of racism. For instance—I told Tante Sue how much I enjoy Cajun music and Zydeco, and she frowned and quickly retorted, "but that Zydeco isn’t ours, it’s the black people’s. It’s much different." I suppose the addition of a washboard makes all the difference in the world between blacks and whites down here.

During our long walk back to our trailer, we see three cops pull over a young wasted driver, who unwisely gets out of the car and staggers toward the cop car. The cops see us stop to watch and emphatically tell us to keep walking. If there’s one thing I know NOT to do in Louisiana, it’s not to challenge an angry cop. The drunken idiot’s fate appears certain—get the shit kicked out of him by some rabid troopers and sleep face-down on the floor of the local jail. Our "hotel" room is adjacent to some obliterated nedrecks who seem to be only capable of saying "fuckin’" and "fix my truck." They friskily bounce off the walls (ours) until we attain some unsettled state of sleep.

19 April, Mamou to St. Francisville, 80 miles

Strangely configured day, sort of like a meal where you eat dessert before the appetizers. Woke up early to the revelry of our neighbor arriving home from the previous nights party. They were hooting, hollering, banging on the walls, playing music from their pickup and generally rollicking. We loaded up our bikes and headed back downtown for breakfast.

Across the street from Fred’s lounge we dined. At 8 am people started to roll into the bar. We first learned about Fred’s from my aunt when we met her for dinner a few nights before. It opens one day per week for five hours from 8am to 1:30pm pretty unbelievable that a business can operate this way. A live Cajun band plays, people drink and dance. We had the good fortune to meet the gracious wife (Tante Sue) of the now deceased proprietor of Fred’s and her friend Lynn the night before.

After breakfast we strolled across the boulevard and walked into another world. As the door opened we were hit by a wind of smoke and blaring Cajun tunage. Lynn and Tante Sue had reserved a place at the bar for us and before we could say "Stoly" we each were endowed with a bloody Mary and were swaying to the music. When Fred’s is open they broadcast the music live on a local radio station. The announcer was hilarious, a huge Cajun dude rattling his spiel in French peppering it with words like "vacuum" and other americanisms. Before we knew it, it was time to leave. As we said goodbye Tante Sue insisted that we stay so she could sing us another song. She dedicated "If I had five days left to live I’d give up three to die in your arms" to us and I nearly cried. At nearly eighty (she has great grand children) she lives the fullest life you can imagine, and somehow we had won her heart.

"IHNE" was the first thing out of my mouth when we got on our bikes, usually a drink is the last thing we’d do on any given day, today we began with it. My system was out of synch and we had been on bikes for six days without a break. We originally opted to ride only about twenty miles, but the conditions were too favorable to make it that short. Besides, Andy and Marty had worked out a shortcut that would eliminate 30 or forty miles from our day. As we rode out of town we stopped for water and discovered that there were two new responses from folks when they found out about where we were going and for how long. African Americans usually said "y’all crazy" or made some gesture that translated into the same. The Caucasian populous usually asked us why, the less inventive ones "how y’all payin’ for this?"

Today marked our first riding incident. Andy took a solo spill from his bike at cruising speed. No great damage, just a little red badge of courage in the form of some road rash. The shoulder was very badly paved and he caught his front tire in a crack, stopping the bike short and flinging Andy and Roy (his bike’s new name!) to the ground. Luckily he landed out of harm’s way and was back on his trusty steed within a few moments of falling. (donations for Andy’s band-aid and anti-bacterial cream can be sent care of …. ) All kidding aside, we are more than thankful for how uneventful the trip has been in this regard. The biggest casualty of the fall was the Virgin that adorned Andy’s handlebar bag. We hope that we can restore the Virgin of Humpty again.

Our dreams of a shortcut evaporated when we discovered that the ferry across the Mississippi we intended to take no longer operated nor was the road on the other side of the river passable. We improvised and took a road toward Baton Rouge. That plan didn’t work. The hotel we intended to rest at was full, so it looked like we’d have to ride another 25 miles towards the city, re-route back towards St. Francisville or camp. Option "D" made itself available: a sweet older woman offered us a ride north to New Roads just across the river from St. Francisville. This would get us to the ferry before it closed and across ol’ Miss before sunset.

St. Francisville surprised us. Gloria had painted a picture of a poor and retched backwater, but we discovered a rich little suburb with more lawyers per capita than southern California. We tried to stay at cutesy little B&B’s with no luck; everything was full. Settled in at the very generic 60’s inn at the edge of town on the highway. Dinner was at the hotel restaurant as Eagles tunes as covered by the lounge act in the bar trickled in.

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Tante Sue and Lynn: more than friends?


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