Nancy Irwin is currently in the midst of an extended road trip to South America, and is filing reports on the go. This issue finds her in the Big Easy.
Okay, so I lied. It’s a lot more work than one would expect, packing for a long road trip by bike. The rain suit alone takes up half a saddlebag or so it seems. I left with more than one sweater, more than one pair of shorts. (Why do we call them a pair?) I have so much stuff with me it feels like my bike is overloaded.
I left Toronto late on New Year’s Day. My best friend Cheryl Stewart drove from New York City in one day, then put together the “trailer in a bag” while I finished packing. She helped me bleed my brakes—a last minute job that came after replacing brake caliper seals. We drove over the Rainbow Bridge and saw the beautiful Niagara Falls before finding the perfect motel. I made it, out of town and on the road toward El Salvador, where a BMW rally awaits me.
We had two glorious days to catch up while driving south. The snow had melted and the roads were clear. It was just above freezing. Made me feel like a wuss. Cheryl assured me that I wouldn’t have managed two hours riding in the 2C weather. And she was right. We drove, watching my BMW enduro Casper bob on the trailer all the way to Tennessee, where I had two different friends to visit. We arrived just before the storm.
I know Canada got it! There was snow in 49 of the 50 states. I was snowed in. Cheryl left me at the home of one BMW rider I met at the summer rally. I did a bit of work on Casper in his garage (where he hosts Airhead Tech Days). And then he trailered me south to visit a friend I met in Africa when she was bicycling and I was motorcycling. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, so we had a lot of catching up to do. Good thing, because I was there for five days waiting for the Arctic storm to pass.
Finally, there was a day I was able to leave. It was above freezing, the ice had melted, and the next day it would rain. I left the Knoxville area in the afternoon, waiting until the ice was gone, and drove to Chattanooga, at one point thinking my electric vest was no longer working. When I saw frozen waterfalls coming out of the sheer rock along the side of the highway I realized it wasn’t just me. It really was cold! I was never so happy to descend the mountains.
The next day I made it to New Orleans. What an amazing place! I have always wanted to visit the famous city. After my delay in Tennessee I didn’t plan to spend more than a day. But New Orleans is an incredibly friendly place. And I was so well received. I stayed with one friend from Toronto who now lives there, working in disaster relief. Both she and a friend of hers gave me tours of the city. I loved being there.
New Orleans is incredibly vibrant, and the friendliest place I’ve been in memory. Everyone greets each other on the street. The porch culture is amazing—as I experienced it staying in a primarily black neighbourhood. The architecture fascinated me: colourful and decorative houses that do not all look alike are a treat for the eyes, as are all the Mardi Gras decorations that seemed to appear on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
And a wander through the old French Quarter, built three feet above sea level is delightful and was unaffected by Katrina. It’s a party town where people walk the streets with drinks in their hands, going from bar to bar. The music on Frenchmen’s Street is incredible.
My bike found a safe parking spot in front of a bar called Vaso. And I had the loan of a spare helmet to take a friend for a ride. It’s that kind of friendly. And the attitude is contagious. The slogan, “be nice or leave” speaks for itself. I can’t remember ever being in a place where people are so happy and proud to live where they are. They don’t say it. They radiate it.
And the cemeteries, oh my! They build brick ovens, essentially, and bury people above ground because the water table is so high they’d have floating bodies if they buried them. The tombs are often double tall, and bodies are shifted from the top level to the bottom as new family members arrive, until they disintegrate.
I learned all about why it flooded in 2005. There was a big canal the Army Corps of Engineers had built as a straight line for ships to come through to avoid the twists of the river. The storm surge pushed straight through it. I learned that land is disappearing from the Mississippi delta at a rate of one football field an hour, and that land was a storm break. Water is being pumped out to use in the oil industry, which is compressing the land and it’s sinking.
I was taken where the ship broke through the levy, which is a wall meant to hold rising waters in. It broke in more than one place, due to shoddy construction. There are places where streets have houses clearly missing, but you have to go to the poorer districts to see that.
I also experienced a kind of racism I’m not familiar with and I heard talk of the blatant kind. I learned that in the capital of slavery it was the poorer neighbourhoods that flooded. Many in the lowlands like the Lower 9th Ward had no home to move back to. And many died in the flood. Canadians came with boats and saved people in one of the hard to reach districts, and are well loved in St. Bernard Parish. Later Brad Pitt founded a project called Make It Right NOLA, which I’m told saved the neighbourhood from elimination by rebuilding houses. And I saw a new monument dedicated to Soloman Northup whose life is the subject of the film, 12 Years A Slave. It marks the old slave market. Gulp. I saw beautiful mansions on St Charles Avenue. Loved them! But I saw only white people there.
I feel incredibly fortunate for all the support I have had in both preparing for and starting out on my journey. It feels like one of those rights of passage adventures that young people have had throughout time—you know, the big journey? But I’m heading into my second Saturn Return (an astrological transit that occurs when the planet Saturn returns to the same place in the sky that it occupied at the moment of a person’s birth). Now at the border of Mexico, I have advice. Go to rallies, to events. Meet people. Invite them to your home. And then when you travel, visit them. And don’t let all the warnings stop you! It’s the people we meet who make the places. And you have to leave home to better appreciate it.