The glamorous lifestyle of a touring cyclist.
The muffled chime of my watch alarm chirping through earplugs at six am announces the start of another day. The strong southeast wind blowing against our nylon and aluminum doublewide rudely proclaims what awaits us for our day on the road. Eventually I emerge from the warm, albeit somewhat rank embrace of our shared sleeping bag and face the gray skies of the southern Gulf Coast. I rush to fire up the stove and brew two cups of hot dark motivation as Jen packs up the bed and prepares for yet another long day in the saddle.
Try as I may, I can no longer deny that summer has come to an end. Fantasies of warm riding under sunny skies have been progressively crushed by the persistent headwinds and ever-colder days of the Gulf Coast November. Daylight is at a premium, and the undeniable lack of it requires a disciplined approach to cover the sixty miles a day that will get us to the Atlantic Coast on schedule. No more ten am starts or mid-day beers; for better or worse, riding has become a job and I must admit that many days the stoke is a little hard to muster.
Out of New Orleans, Jen and I followed wide, trash cluttered shoulders over the bayou formed between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Saint Catherine under sunny skies. New houses built on 15-foot concrete stilts tell a story of a people who who understand the risk that living a few feet above sea level entails, but choose to make their stand here anyhow. Black clouds on the eastern horizon and strong gusts announced our soaking an hour before we rode into it. We crossed the Pearl River into Mississippi soggy-cold and pushed hard to reach Waveland by nightfall. Marine fog swallowed the night as we searched in the dark for Buccaneer State Park. Murphy's Law mandated a flat tire and my lack of motivation to wrench in the dark on a shoulder-less road required pumping every quarter of a mile to keep me rolling. The hulk knocked loudly on the door of my psyche, but I managed to keep him in check. We pitched our tent in the primitive site at the park nestled conveniently inches from the railroad tracks; you get what you pay for I guess. I neglected to zip the tent up completely and woke to a swarm of mosquitos buzzing around my head. None escaped my rage, but the pint of my own blood smeared on the inside of our tents among their body parts made the execution a little superfluous. Revenge, however made me feel a little better about the fresh track of bites along my receding hairline.
The morning dawned cold and dark and we continued east along the white sand beaches of the Mississippi Coast. We blew through Bay Saint Louis, Gulfport, and Boluxi Mississippi riding 40 miles of concrete boardwalks that separate the beach from Highway 90. Casinos, fishing boats and a plethora of seafood restaurants tell of an economy dependent upon tourists that have been slow to return since Hurricane Katrina decimated this coast with sea waves over 55 feet high in 2005. We cut the day short at Ocean Springs and arrived at the Gulf Island National Seashore Park just before dark. Raccoons helped themselves to our food bag while Jen and I showered; at least the dirty little bastards didn't get to the whiskey.
A new day and temperatures in the low forties invited the opportunity to wear every stitch of clothing we own. We stopped for a minute to watch the Brown Pelicans feed in the Davis Bayou on the way out of camp and I spotted a 10-foot alligator basking in the sun 50 feet from where we stood. She didn't respond when I called her to come closer nor when I offered to feed her my cute wife; no wonder the dinosaurs went extinct. It is funny how the small things lift your spirits and seeing one of these giant reptiles in the wild renewed my excitement for the unknown road ahead. Back on wide shoulders of Highway 90, Jenny and I pedaled into the wind towards Pascagoula on the quite Sunday morning. We passed a man parked along the side of the road blaring music from a huge stereo in the back of his truck into an empty field. He spotted us riding by, turned the speakers towards the highway and cranked God Bless America and pumped his fist into the air as we pedaled past. Some things you just have to see to believe. We crossed into Alabama in the afternoon, turned south and caught a rare tailwind covering the twenty miles to Dauphin Island in Mobile Bay as the sun sank low over the Gulf and the biting chill of a clear night set in. Morning welcomed with the nylon of the tent slapping violently in the east wind. We packed up in anticipation of starting the day with a quick ferry ride over Mobile Bay to the town of Gulf Shores and reaching Florida by nightfall. We pedaled across the street to the ferry terminal and were welcomed by a "Ferry closed due to high winds" sign across a locked gate. My heart sank as I realized that we were going to have to bike 100 miles around the bay to cover the distance that a two mile ferry would have delivered us.
With stoic resolve we reversed our direction and pedaled back into a stiff crosswind towards the urban center of Mobile, Alabama. Navigating in and out of cities is my least favorite aspect of touring across this country, and Mobile is not a cyclist friendly metropolis. Busy four lane roads void of shoulder and frequent stops to navigate on the iPhone got us north of the city, back on Highway 90 and crossing the mouth of the Tensaw River in the late afternoon. The inevitability if being caught in the dark weighed heavy on my shoulders as Jen and I did our best to power against the strong eastern wind and the substantial rainfall promised for the night. With a sinking heart, we passed our campsite for the night and headed into Spanish Fort to buy groceries. A huge storm brewing off the coast and 100% chance of heavy precipitation in the forecast for the next two days required restocking of supplies for an inevitable day hanging out in the tent. Jenny pedaled hard, but I could tell she was not having fun; to tell the truth neither was I.
Darkness fell as we arrived at the grocery. I waited outside, feeling, and no doubt looking quite dejected. After nearly five months on the road, the life a vagabond starts to lose it's appeal a little. As I sat planning the best route back to camp, a man dressed head-to-toe in University of Alabama apparel approached in a motorized shopping cart.
Bottom's gonna fall out'a the sky here in anotha' hour or two, where y'all staying tonight, Brad inquired as he motored out of the grocery store.
Down at the State Park by the bay, I responded unable to even recall the name of our intended home for the next couple of days.
Brad frowned, Hell, that sounds miserable. Y'all be gator bait down there. How many of y'all are there?
Just my wife and I sir.
How would you like to take a hot shower and sleep in a bed?
I felt pretty safe accepting the invite without conferring with my lovely wife and soon Brad was drawing me a map to his home on the outskirt of town. Within the hour Jen and were settling into our room with a queen bed and drinking beers by the fire with Brad while his wife Saundra cooked us hamburgers.
We slept in this morning and ate eggs with toast for breakfast. It is 40 degrees and raining outside and Brad has extended our invitation indefinitely. Jen is roasting a chicken for dinner and we will celebrate an early Thanksgiving tonight and head out again tomorrow under a clearing sky. I cannot express in words the gratitude I feel towards folks who open up their doors to complete strangers such as Jenny and I. As much fun as this journey has been, the road can wear on you a bit and weaken one's resolve to finish what was started. The kindest gestures of hospitality; a warm bed, a hot shower and a home-cooked meal refuels my soul with determination and reminds me of the goodness that runs throughout the core of this country.
Onward to Florida and what tomorrow may bring.