As I entered the city of New Orleans on the levee-top bicycle path, I saw this unusual combination of signs, apparently warning bicyclists to yield to low flying aircraft.
I make a habit of stopping at bicycle shops for the scoop on any new city; but I was too early for the four I found. Instead I found an open coffee shop and lingered through second breakfast and first lunch; trying to dig into a PHP and CSS coding problem while an older lady (with self-described mental issues) at the next table repeatedly engaged me in outraged conversation about every newspaper article she was reading. Shortly after she left I was approached by a guy with curly dark hair who asked the peculiarly-worded question I’ve heard several times along the way: “Do you belong to that bike out there?” Regardless of how many bicycles were outside at the rack, my fully-loaded touring rig is conspicuous. I answered affirmatively with a smile, because it means an interesting conversation had begun. I was not disappointed. “Are you Sean?” he asked next. Unused to notoriety but having become accustomed to near-magical coincidences, I was only slightly thrown off balance. It turns out Adam was a friend of a friend, and he invited me to stay with his family. It’s a small world.
The next morning I went wandering the city by bicycle, riding around the lake at Audubon Park, past Tulane University, and along Magazine Avenue, until I eventually wound up downtown at the French Quarter, where I found an impromptu jazz concert in progress at Jackson Square. I listened until hunger got the better of me, and I set off in search of Cafe du Monde for coffee & beignets.
Heading back to Adam’s house I saw NOBS bike shop was open, so I stopped in and had a nice chat with John, the owner. John is a successful BMX racer (he had several 1st place trophies on display) as well as a really nice guy, and his shop focuses on service. John recommended a near-by restaurant, Jacques-Imo’s, with the sound advice to get in by 6PM or face a long wait for seating. I took his suggestion to heart and was able to walk right in and sit down at the bar. Not even 15 minutes later the line was six parties deep, but I was already enjoying my shrimp-stuffed catfish, mashed sweet potatoes and beets. Later that evening I accompanied Adam & his family to the Maple Leaf bar for a show by Big Sam’s Funky Nation which was nothing short of phenomenal. About 1AM I ran out of steam and walked the few blocks back to Adam’s house; I think I could hear Big Sam’s trombone nearly all the way there.
Saturday came and I left Adam’s house for the final time because Lanny and David, two of my friends from Minneapolis, had flown in to celebrate my arrival in New Orleans. I met them at the Avenue Pub where one of the locals, on hearing about my journey, insisted on buying me a (delicious!) Stone Brewing Company “Supremely Self-Righteous” black IPA.
Sunday’s plans took a routinely surprise turn for the amazing when the Crescent City Cyclists annual Christmas ride passed the front door of our rental house just as Lanny, David and I were wheeling our bicycles out. They invited us to join them on their way to NOLA Brewing, where they insisted we share the free food and beer. They then took us on a wonderfully convoluted tour of the city, a route we never would have deduced on our own, which including two more stops at club member’s houses for dinner and then dessert. But the magic didn’t just stop there.
At the dessert stop I was introduced to King Cake, where I of course found the baby in my piece. (Customarily I would have been obligated to pay for the next cake, but they good-naturedly refused.) As we were leaving we received two final gifts: a nearly full pan of brownies and an offer from Joe, the club’s president-emeritus, to give us a private bicycle tour of New Orleans.
Monday we toured the D-Day Museum, an experience which both moved me to tears and gave me a bit more context for understanding my late grandparents’ occasionally puzzling behavior. That evening, while locking up the bicycles in front of Bicycle Michael’s next to D.B.A. for a show by Washboard Chaz, I found myself first heckled-by and then engrossed-in a deep conversation with Clayte, a bike-shop employee who had ridden the ACA Southern Tier Route from New Orleans to San Diego as I was planning to do next. On going inside D.B.A., I found the trifecta of Washboard Chaz’s musical trio, Brooklyn Brewing’s ever-so-tasty Chocolate Stout, and a woman named LaRinda who denied being a voodoo princess despite evidence to the contrary. She was both a fascinating person who had survived Hurricane Katrina and a good dancer.
Tuesday, while waiting on the front porch for Joe’s personal bicycle tour of New Orleans, a young woman pulled up with a Prius, an ink-jet printer and the self-described weird request to use the electrical outlet on the outside of our rental house. David and Lanny just shook their heads in amazement; somehow these kinds of unique experiences just seem to routinely follow me around.
Shortly thereafter Joe arrived and proceeded to show us architecturally impressive features, including a plethora of large houses owned by famous people (actors, athletes, statesmen, etc. in too-quick succession for my name-challenged memory to retain), three cemeteries filled with massive mausoleums, and entire neighborhoods still rebuilding years after Hurricane Katrina. The tour concluded with lunch and Joe inquired about my plans for the immediate future, offering to host me for the night if I needed a place to stay.
Lanny and David prepared to fly back to Minneapolis as the afternoon drew to a close, and I realized how incredibly home-sick I was. I purchased an Amtrak ticket for the next back to Minneapolis and called Joe to let him know I was on my way.
My love for bicycle touring hasn’t changed, but the focus has shifted. Riding bicycles and camping, initially just for the fun of it, has become a means to an end of meeting people and appreciating the wonder that still exists even in the “modern” world. High-speed travel promotes the notion that the world is a collection of discrete destinations, while moving at bicycle speed shows there are no destinations; everything and everyone is connected and interdependent. After enduring far too many heartbreaking events over the last ten years, my first two months on the road have restored my faith in humanity. The magic and changed attitude I found on the road have followed me back to Minneapolis, and I’m enjoying seeing familiar faces and places through this new perspective.