Searching for the end of the earth, East Bank edition,March 5 and 13, 2023

Louisiana geography is complicated. Divided by the Mississippi River, southern Louisiana has an East Bank and a West Bank, even though with a curving river the East Bank is not always to the east. In the swampy landscape south of New Orleans, on the East Bank there are roads that head out into the marshes, roads that just stop when they run their course. There is a similar situation on the West Bank but I will have to take that journey in another blog.

Over the course of a week I took two long bike rides on those dead end East Bank roads. For the first, I found on the map the town of Hopedale LA . It is in eastern St. Bernard Parish, about an hour’s car trip from our home in New Orleans. On March 5 Tootie drove me out to Hopedale LA so I could cycle back. Our car reached the end of the road. We stopped in the middle of the terminating highway.

Tootie and Rosie got out to see me off. We pulled my bicycle out of the back of the car. It is a Bike Friday, New World Tourist model, a folding bicycle that I did not fold in this situation. I really like the way it rides on a smooth surface. It is less effective in the extremely bumpy city streets of New Orleans. (I use two other bicycles for city rides.)

I watched Tootie and Rosie drive away. It was quiet and solitary feeling as I started cycling back in the direction we had come.

Much of southern Louisiana lacks what is traditionally thought of as a coastline, a defined beach that fronts the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, most of southeastern Louisiana gently devolves into the Gulf. The border between land and water become indistinct. It is out here that over time so much land is being gradually lost. This process has been accelerating in recent decades and its causes are multiple. There is a lack of sediment because levees now line the Mississippi River. There are canals dug by various parties including the oil and gas industry. The sea level is rising because of global warming.

The maps below show first a distant view and then one more close up. The Mississippi River is the thin looking waterway in the lower center. Fifty years ago there was much more land out here.

The blue line shows the route of my first bike ride.

Counterintuitively, out here in the swamps the highest land is along the Mississippi River or along the waterways called bayous. The paved road from Hopedale back towards New Orleans follows several bayous as it winds back in a northwesterly direction.

There is a boat launch in Hopedale where people drive out here with their boats and park their vehicles. It looked like a pickup truck convention.

On this Sunday morning there was very little car traffic as I bicycled back towards New Orleans. It felt peaceful.

Near Hopedale is the settlement of Shell Beach, which is really not a beach. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 hit St. Bernard Parish harder than almost anywhere. There is a memorial at the foot of a street in Shell Beach.

The majority of the population of St. Bernard Parish lives within levee protection. These levees still did not prevent huge flooding during Katrina even in those “protected” areas. However, out here in Hopedale and adjoining Shell Beach it is BEYOND levee protection. Many or even most buildings I saw this morning had been raised to astronomical heights. Some of these are second homes, which Louisianians call fishing camps. Many are primary residences; I honestly do not know which.

My bicycle ride continued along the bayou.

On a stretch through the marshes dead trees littered the landscape. I assumed they died because of salt water intrusion.

My highway passed through a huge and expensive looking floodgate. It gave the impression that life inside this levee would have a better chance of staying dry. Indeed, past this point I no longer saw houses on stilts.

As a bicyclist for much of the way I was able to stay off busy roads as the population density increased. Highway 46 is paralleled by the older Bayou Road, which follows the former route of the Bayou waterway, the waterway itself having been relocated about a quarter of a mile away. At about the halfway point on Bayou Road the road is blocked. Either the road washed out in a flood and they never fixed it, or locals just like not having so much car traffic. A bicyclist can just climb around the barrier.

Most people in outlying St. Bernard Parish live less than twenty miles from New Orleans but the Parish has always had a distinct cultural history, a distinct language even. This was a rural culture, different from the city culture of New Orleans, and also different from the rural Cajun culture of western Louisiana. A group of Spanish speaking settlers from the Canary Islands came here way back in the 1780’s. Known as Isleños, they mixed with French and English speaking locals over the decades and centuries. Some of them owned African slaves, whose descendants also now live here. Up until part of the twentieth century an eighteenth century form of Spanish was spoken by many locals. A large percentage of political and business leaders in St. Bernard Parish even now have had Hispanic surnames, including the infamously racist mid-twentieth century political boss of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish Leander Perez.

Bayou Road is the site of at least two plantations homes. The Kenilworth plantation house is listed as being built in either 1759 or 1820. It looks nicely fixed up and by modern standards not particularly large, Wikipedia says this lovely house is owned by a Chalmette dentist.

Civil War General P.G.T. Beauregard’s plantation home birthplace is marked by a homemade looking marker. The Contreras Plantation house burned down in 1962 and this monument was supposedly put there in the 1960’s by supporters of Leander Perez. Back in New Orleans the famous statue near City Park of General Beauregard was taken down about five years ago. Out here his legacy survives.

On Bayou Road there was a festival on this particular Sunday, the Isleño Fiesta. It seemed very country, like a county fair. It was not something one would see in New Orleans. Parked cars lined this country road.

I guess I should have stopped at the festival but I did not. By bicycle it was only about seven miles further to suburban Chalmette, the seat of St, Bernard Parish. From there I bicycled the further ten miles to my home in New Orleans. I was home at our second floor condo in the Lower Garden District by mid afternoon.

BIKE RIDE TWO

Six days later I bicycled again through Chalmette but then took a different turn. My mission this day would be to cycle as far down the East Bank of the Mississippi as possible, to the end of the road at a place called Bohemia.

and a closeup map

The Mississippi River continues to flow south from New Orleans for almost a hundred miles as the water gradually descends to sea level. Strategically New Orleans was founded by the French to guard the mouth of the Mississippi. There were reasons even then that New Orleans was placed a hundred miles upriver, Way downriver the land becomes less stable, even less able to support an entire city. On the stretch south of New Orleans the river continues to be at a higher level than the surrounding land with a natural levee supporting the highest ground along the river. This natural levee has been augmented over the past hundred fifty years by manmade levees along both sides of the river.

There is a highway on each side of the river as it flows south. I was attempting to cycle the East Bank highway as far as it went, a distance by road of about fifty-six miles from our New Orleans condo. As opposed to my previous trip, this time I would first bicycle downriver and to then call Tootie and Rosie to come pick me up.

On a Saturday morning I pulled the Bike Friday out onto St. Mary Street in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. Our condo is in this almost hundred-fifty year old building.

Because of the curves in the Mississippi directions in New Orleans are best thought of as upriver or downriver rather than east or west. It is about a mile downriver cycling from my home to the Central Business District.

Downriver from the Central Business District is the French Quarter. Burgundy Street is a smooth cycling route.

I cycled onward downriver through the city, from the French Quarter to Faubourg Marigny, then Bywater, then over the St. Claude Avenue Industrial Canal bridge to the neighborhood of Holy Cross, also called the Lower Ninth Ward.

Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”) lived in this neighborhood almost his entire life, until his death in 2017 at age 89. He even rode out the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in his Lower Ninth Ward house. He almost drowned but he didn’t!

Just beyond the Lower Ninth heading downriver one crosses into St. Bernard Parish and the towns of Arabi and Chalmette. While this is suburbia, the houses are very close together, New Orleans style.

Chalmette LA, is not as isolated as it used to be but is still culturally unique. The New Orleans “yat” accent is still very much heard here. I would think middle class transplants from somewhere else would have trouble fitting in, even though some areas look quite upscale.

PJ’s is a New Orleans chain of coffee houses. I stopped in its Chalmette location for an oat milk latte, one pack sugar, which I sipped while reading The New Yorker on my Kindle. There was a long line of cars at the drive-thru but the only other person inside was a woman cutting real estate deals on her phone. A Nelson Mandela quote on the wall seemed a little woke for Chalmette.

Chalmette suburban housing abuts the Meraux oil refinery. Once past that industrial area the landscape along the Mississippi River opens up.

There was a distinctively south Louisiana graveyard on the highway.

Eight miles below Chalmette at the settlement of Poydras LA I turned right to head downriver, rather than the left turn which would have taken me where I had cycled the week before. This time I cycled through a formidable looking floodgate and a sign announcing my entrance into Plaquemines Parish. My map showed thirty-seven miles further down this road to where it would end at the settlement of Bohemia.

Just by looking at buildings that were either damaged from previous flooding or because they were now built on stilts, it was immediately apparent that flood protection downriver below this flood wall was less effective. There was much less traffic on the highway, with a car only every few minutes. I felt like I was entering another dimension, quieter and mildly bizarre.

Plaquemines Parish (population 23,000) occupies the final lower end of the Mississippi River banks on both the east and west sides of the river, the sides connected by ferries at two spots. The east bank I bicycled on appears to be less populated.

The landscape looked like a lesson in survival; a testament to the human desire to keep one’s neighborhood and home even when doing so might seem to an outsider to make little sense. Unlike the region I had visited the previous week near Hopedale and Shell Beach, there were fewer bayous and thus fewer pleasure boats and commercial fishing vessels. The Mississippi is generally only used by ocean going ships and commercial barges. The highest land is along the river. The river seemed a wild and dangerous fast flowing beast always lurking unseen on the other side of the levee.

Just beyond the afore mentioned concrete floodgate, and still within commuting distance to New Orleans is a partially abandoned suburban development called Braithwaite Park. It used to include a public golf course. My friends and I drove down here and played that course in the 1980’s and again in about 2001. It was likely the only golf course in America that had a Budweiser machine in the pro shop. Today parts of Braithwaite Park are a wasteland, having been flooded at least once, maybe multiple times. I know the golf course is no more. Do you abandon your slab built brick home, or do you repair it and hope it does not flood again, or do you spend a bunch of money and raise it up?

Plaquemines Parish appears to have sizable government money coming in from somewhere, probably oil and gas taxes. Looking relatively new and fronting the neighborhood is this public building labelled Braithwaite Auditorium. It looked weird lurking here, built to withstand the next storm.

Heading south by bicycle for the next thirty-something miles there was very little traffic on the two lane highway. What the map called “towns” were really just groups of small houses hugging the levee along the river. Most looked like poorer Black neighborhoods, usually including small churches, but without stores or any other commercial establishments.

I passed by these men looking at a raised Louisiana graveyard.

The Mary Plantation house has been lovingly restored. I guess when the floodwaters come, they come.

All along the way were occasional houses, some raised in the air, some not, some abandoned.

As I neared the parish seat of Pointe a la Hache I passed through the poor neighborhood of Phoenix LA. This community must have a long history..

I chose a spot to park the bicycle and walk up the levee and look at the river. It flowed like a torrent; dotted with ocean going vessels and full of rushing water at a much higher elevation than the surrounding landscape.

For twenty-five miles along the east bank of the Mississippi I had seen only a few houses but no public buildings and only one small country store. This made the sight of three enormous public buildings in southern East Bank Plaquemines Parish so startling.

The first was Phoenix High School. The building which opened in 2012 looks larger than it is because it is vaulted up one story as a presumed flood avoidance measure. Wikipedia puts its student body total at about two hundred.

I have said this in other blogs but it bears repeating: having bicycled all over America; our country looks dramatically underfunded. Frankly, when cycling through it, much of built up of America looks like shit, depressed and falling down. There are five exceptions; areas where America seems to be throwing TOO much money, at least when looking at them from the curb while bicycling by: (1) college campuses, (2) hospitals, (3) military bases, (4) rich people’s neighborhoods, and finally: (5) courthouses and jails, The Criminal Justice System.

On this empty highway I passed the jail. Why does tiny Plaquemines Parish need such a facility, jacked up to prevent flooding? Who paid for all this? How many criminals could Plaquemines Parish possibly have?

Lastly, there is the Parish courthouse, also startingly fancy and new. The Parish seat Pointe a la Hache does not even look like a town, just a country store and a clearly new modernist courthouse sitting by itself on the two lane highway in the swamp, a hundred yards from the river levee.

Next to the courthouse was that store, only one of two stores I saw in the entire thirty-five mile stretch south of Poydras LA. The store and restaurant bills itself only as Hunt Brothers Pizza. Inside were friendly people. I had brought with me and eaten earlier my usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After more than fifty miles I was still hungry. I asked if they could make me a $6.50 cheeseburger. I should have stayed to eat inside and mingle with the locals but instead went down the road looking for somewhere to take a break outside. It was windy, chilly, and overcast.

Up on the levee overlooking the wild river there was a bus-stop looking shelter with a bench at a semi-abandoned ferry terminal. This would function as my picnic spot. Befitting my presence in southern Louisiana, home of good food, the cheeseburger was delicious. I tried to do some reading on my Kindle but gave up after a few minutes.

There were very few other buildings in the “town” of Pointe a la Hache. The only older looking houses were abandoned.

My map showed four miles more of a dead-end highway, with a “town” of Bohemia LA near the end. I had the road to myself. In my half hour of additional bicycle riding on this highway I only had one passing vehicle. Beyond were marshes devolving into the Gulf of Mexico.

Bohemia LA turned out to be just a few mobile homes with trash strewn yards sitting a hundred yards or so from the Mississippi River. Residents could not see the river because of the levee. The last actual building here at the end of the road is the Bethlehem Judea African Baptist Church. It seems to be waiting for the next storm to carry it away.

I had telephoned Tootie to come pick me up but she had not yet arrived. One mile past this church the road looped at the end. There was nowhere to sit down on the empty highway so I just circled around on the bicycle. I felt totally alone.

After she picked me up we parked the car and walked up with Rosie onto the levee to take in the view of the river before driving back to New Orleans.

5 responses to “Searching for the end of the earth, East Bank edition,March 5 and 13, 2023”

  1. I haven’t commented on your adventures in a while. I’m busy doing my usual bicycle advocacy stuff.

    I like these two tours of the Mississippi & southern Louisiana. The Louisiana homes on stilts, although much larger, remind me of fire towers in New York State Forests. Unlike many of the homes on the North Carolina Outer Banks, these houses appear to where long time residents live. The homes on stilts nearest the ocean on the Outer Banks appear to be 2nd homes or rentals. I’m less than certain the cost of continually reconstructing homes and civic infrastructure (court houses, jails, schools, roads, etc.) after natural disasters, in my opinion, does not fully justify rebuilding at government or out of the area residents’ expense.

    P. S.: My web site (under construction for a while but with many photos of the NYS Canal System) is operational.

  2. What a wonderful account of these unusual rides, especially #2. Thank you.

  3. absolutely loved it

  4. Another great one, Paco. I remember when I was down there in the mid-sixties, driving around that particular area “looking for adventure in whatever came my way, “ as Steppenwolf used to say, when my car got shot at by some toothless Yat, no doubt because my hair was too long. Leander Perez was worse than George Wallace, his hatred for integration was so immense. Your photos capture the essence of the area so well. It’s amazing to me how little seems to have changed visually. Let’s hope it’s a helluva lot different racially.

  5. Another great one, Paco. I remember when I was down there in the mid-sixties, driving around that particular area “looking for adventure in whatever came my way, “ as Steppenwolf used to say, when my car got shot at by some toothless Yat, no doubt because my hair was too long. Leander Perez was worse than George Wallace, his hatred for integration was so immense. Your photos capture the essence of the area so well. It’s amazing to me how little seems to have changed visually. Let’s hope it’s a helluva lot different racially.

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