jueves, 20 de septiembre de 2012

Danger Pipeline!

I fucked up breakfast. Just as the oatmeal was ready, the coleman toppled over, scattering sustenance to the ants. There are thousands of them. Ants in day like Mosquitos at night. What more, Wiley’s stressing about money; he’s got something like $10 in his pocket and that’s it for the entire trip. Cheap breakfast and free internet, we spent a better part of the day at McDonald’s working on our kickstarter campaign. It’s there that we made our first contact, or so we thought.
Christine is in her late thirties but looks older. She wore her damaged piebald hair in a ponytail, cascading down and around her McDonald’s visor like a fez. She is thin and wiry and her mouth seemed to run away from her face when she talked; and man does she talk. As soon as she gets off work, she promised to take us to Mom’s house on the bayou for a real Cajun meal of shrimp and okra gumbo, followed by interviews with her fishermen relatives. We were planning on hanging round here till about that time anyhow.
Christine stole time from her cleaning duties to chat us up. When Christine was 19 years old she killed a man - shot him in the face. Although she was acquitted on self defense, people round here never got over thinking her crazy. Her story is cut short. Enter a middle aged man with a sinewy face; his eyes obscured by a red baseball cap worn low. Christine gets his attention. "Hey you, when you going to pay me that $40 dollars you owe me". He’s caught off guard; takes a moment to regroup and he's all smiles. He pushes up his hat to reveal darting blue eyes. He hugs on Christine. "Oh so you ain't going to pay me?" she says with a simper. He takes it in stride, like a good joke between friends. "I've already forgotten about it" he replies. His voice is raspy, like someone who’s been smoking since infancy. "That's OK, cause one of these days when you find something you own worth $40 or more broke, you'll know I got mine and I too will have forgotten about it". More smiles and laughter. He scampers off. Christine turns to us and exclaims very matter-of-factly, "he's a crackhead". "You can't lend money to a crackhead and expect it back" I can’t help but kibitz. "They're all crackheads,” she says. “They're my friends. I was a crackhead too, but I stopped all that. I'm in therapy now. Been off it 2 months now."
As it turns out, Christine’s cousin, the fisherman, the one that she wanted to introduce us to, he's also a crackhead. Her offer to invite us to dinner and introduce us to her people, was somehow less appealing. "Man, we got a long way to go. How far away do you live again? 5 miles. That means 5 miles there and 5 miles back. 10 miles is a long way on a bicycle. We better push off. Got to get to Raceland tonight. Hey thanks so much for the hospitality. Have a great one y'hear. It was swell meeting you. Bye"

We followed Old Spanish Trail until it drops off into the bayou and comes out something else, something new. I’m sure it must continue again someplace, where it’s been preserved, restored, or resuscitated for nostalgia's sake, the old transcontinental. It did however pick a good place to die. Twin bridges span Bayou Des Allemands, one newly large and the other antiquely puny. We traversed them both several times, I on one, Wiley on the other, trying for the perfect shot of a cyclist coming upon this quaint little hamlet to the backdrop of an orange sky. At an eclectic dockside fishing camp, decorated in all manners of Cajunesque bric-a-brac, we stopped to watch that last spark of gold fizzle on an aqueous horizon. Joining us from the house across the way, Wayne Yupe, x-oilman raconteur; he saw us role up to his dock and came to welcome us to this little corner of the world.
Between contracts with the petroleum industry, it’s here that Wayne entertains tourists at his fishing camp and front porch – if you buy the gas and the seafood, he’ll take you on a boat ride tour of Cajun Country. Wayne refused the camera, but spoke languidly about all things but oil. Wayne is 52 and he's mostly retired from drilling these days. Ask him about the Oil Spill and Wayne will tell you that BP is not to blame. Around here, oil spills happen all the time, but they aren’t the main the issue; according to Wayne, the levy system is. Wayne grew up on this bayou; he lives right next door to the house in which he was raised. His parents were fishermen and ran a small seafood shack. Sure enough, the remains of a tin hovel sits careened and half submerged in the bayou - the vestiges of Wayne’s family’s business and an augury for those that remain. The only thing Wayne fishes for these days is oil, and the occasional tourist of course. "See those pipes sticking out from the dock - all that says is that I'm an oilman,” Wayne proudly extols, referring to the dock’s jagged pilings, evidently salvaged from some abandoned rig. Wayne points a finger down the bayou; all manners of pipes can be seen jutting from the water like leadened swamp grass. “Those pipes are over 30 years old. That was all land when I was a kid. This whole bayou was just a channel then, no bigger than my front yard. It's at least a quarter of a mile now,” he reminisces. Wayne is particularly incensed about coastal erosion, of which he reiterates that oil is not the culprit. But even Wayne has to admit that the oil industry has taken advantage of people. The installation of the pipelines of which Wayne is so pleased, have butchered the wetlands to the orts and ends. Anyone who's been through this section of Louisiana can see that oil is as important to economy and culture as fishing once was, and for some, still is. But when the fishing industry fell prey to a foreign seafood market, it was the oil industry that has given these people their livelihood. A life without oil is a life of poverty, according to Wayne, who choses to lay the blame for coastal erosion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Surely the president’s moratorium must have had a grave impact? "I know of no one who lost their job, but I sure know a lot people who quit their job,” Wayne retorts, alluding to a fraud-ladened BP compensation fund. "People don't realize, but BP’s gonna get their money back and we’ll be the one’s paying for it in the end.” And it’s with that warm and fuzzy thought that we rode our bikes into the darkness, back across the bridge over Bayou Des Allemands, to the high school football field, where we cooked up a couple of filets, got drunk and passed out to the mechanized hum of a million mosquitos.

lunes, 10 de septiembre de 2012

The River Galactica

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.