The blazing sun was nearly at its zenith by the time we made it to the Canal street ferry. Both Wiley and I had made a last minute and half-hazard attempt at packing, throwing preparedness mostly to the wind (regretfully so after our first blowout not 10 miles out of New Orleans and without a spare tube). For some reason or another the ferry terminal in Algiers had become inundated with water and was temporarily out of service. As the announcement made its way up the line of motorized vehicles, cars sidled from their spots, slated for the Crescent City Connection’s elusive motorist-only bridge. As cyclists are concerned, there is little recourse other than hitching a ride with a truck with an open bed. However, there were no takers and we were left alone on the pier nonplussed twiddling our thumbs, trying to decide if we should start biking in the direction of the next ferry, some 30 miles out of the way. We still hadn’t reached any kind of consensus when the ferry gates unexpectedly bleep-bleeped in their customary signal of entry. Apparently the issue had been resolved and by two o’clock we were crossing the great Mississippi at its most expansive and profound bend, watching the receding steeple of St Louis Cathedral, as our journey to the Louisiana bayous began.
From the ferry landing at Algiers Point begins a bike path coronating the Mississippi River Levee that can be traversed intermittently for at least as far as the city of Luling, 28 miles upriver. The vantage point from the levee’s perch affords a panorama of both the River and its ancient floodplain. It is however no Acadian tableau of serenity and mirth, but rather a major artery of commerce – a hyperlane – bustling day and night with barges and their containers in tow, amassed and concatenated in aqueous caravans, no doubt servicing the myriad of industry that line the river like malevolent drones of a Galactic Empire.
This section of river is afterall Louisiana’s infamous “Industrial Corridor”, dubbed “Cancer Alley”by its detractors. The 85-mile extent of sinuous river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is dominated by some 130 petrochemical plants, producing 7% of the nation’s chemicals and 15% of its volatile waste. It is uncertain whether industry or poverty is to blame for the region’s disproportionate cancer rates; notwithstanding, a host of pedantic works have alleged “environmental racism” regarding the socioeconomic factors in the locating of this particular industry. It is nevertheless an aesthetic amalgam that is both Gone with the Wind and Star Wars: Greek-revival antebellum homes with their canopied avenues of antiquated oaks, break up the homogeneous subdivisions of working-class suburbs that frame those futuresque cityscape-factories: stacks spewing fire and billowing smoke; men in coveralls and neon-colored hard hats operating the machines’ multifarious external moving parts; mechanized tentacle-like elevators span both River Road and river bank, as raw material is extracted and then finished product expelled to and from the River’s profusion of amphibious vessels. At night the factories are a scintillating opulence of yellow lights, an otherworldly fabrication that is a testament to private industry – the black block infrastructure that enables our quality of life.
At Luling we veered away from the River’s industrial expanse and ducked into verdure-ensconced Old Spanish Trail, that transcontinental highway of yore, which has, since the advent of the Interstate, receded into relative obscurity, but remains one of Americas great byways, once connecting Cajun country’s self-proclaimed “catfish capital of the universe”, côte des Allemands, to at least a national market. With the last vestiges of daylight we bought a couple of those famed filets in the old town of Paradis; and in darkness, alongside Petit Bayou, we found an old cemetery in which to pitch our tent. With the extending shadows of a receding sun, materialized a scourge of mosquitos and futilely armored in layers of clothing, I hovered over a coleman and hastily made our supper before finally collapsing in the refuge of our a tent after our first day on the road.