Baton Rouge

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on January 22, 2005]
Hi, folks! I know it's only been a couple days since I wrote, but a lot has happened. Louisiana is certainly turning out to be a different traveling experience from the other states I've passed through!

Friday was one of those days when nothing goes quite as expected. I woke in the morning (in a city park, remember) to find Opelousas blanketed in heavy fog. I had a short day of riding ahead of me, so I decided to walk to a restaurant and get breakfast while waiting for my tent to dry.

I asked a few passersby for a restaurant that might have some local flavor (as opposed to McDonalds, which was the first place they all named when I asked about breakfast) and wound up at a greasy-spoon diner with a menu that could have been anywhere in the country. I had to put Tabasco sauce on my eggs rather than the Crystal sauce that has been the standard condiment everywhere else I've eaten in Louisiana so far.

The fog was just beginning to clear when I got back, and my tent wasn't any drier, so I put it away anyway. I tried to pay the folks in the park office for my overnight stay, but they insisted I could only pay the guy who hadn't shown up to take my money the night before, and he wasn't any more present in the morning, so I left without paying.

As I was leaving the park, I met two other bike tourists, an elderly couple from Lafayette (about 25 miles south) who turned out to be the authors of the Bike Louisiana Web site. They strongly discouraged me from following US-190 toward Baton Rouge. They said it had lots of bridges without shoulders. I figured, hey, no sweat; there were lots of bridges without shoulders on the road I took across the border! They didn't say that one of these bridges was FOUR MILES LONG. They also didn't tell me that the campground I was counting on was not open to me. Either of those facts would have caused me to reconsider, but instead they kept saying that the route featured on their Web site, which would take me 50 miles farther north, was much more beautiful. I didn't find this argument convincing.

I stopped for a second opinion at the tourist information center in town, and the staff there assured me that US-190 had been repaved and now had a very nice shoulder except on a few bridges, and that there was no need to detour farther north. I headed off down the road feeling a little bit smug that I had better information than those recreational tourists from Lafayette who probably hadn't set eyes on the highway since it was repaved.

The shoulder was smooth, and I had a nice tailwind, and I made excellent time all the way through Krotz Springs and across the Atchafalaya River, which is at least as wide at that point as the Mississippi is in St. Louis, but only about half as wide as the Mississippi is in Baton Rouge. Then I turned south on the state highway that would lead me to my campground in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge.

Now, I've heard of the Atchafalaya Swamp. I was looking forward to camping in the refuge, not so much because I was eager to sleep in another swamp, but because it's famous, and because it's national land. My map showed a campground about three miles down a state highway from 190.

The road was marked as a state highway, but it was unpaved. Or rather, it was under an inch of gravel. This was no temporary fix; the road was paved in an inch of loose gravel and left that way. It was extremely tough going on my bike. I suddenly thought to wonder whether the campground actually existed. I tried to call the agency responsible for the refuge, but they didn't answer. I decided to go back to the highway, not so much because I couldn't get through the gravel that afternoon, but because if I did sleep three miles down that road, I'd have to get back through the gravel first thing in the morning!

Turning back turned out to be the best decision I've made in a long time, because next came the four mile bridge. It was not shown as a bridge on the map. It was not marked in any way with signs: "Danger: no stopping, next 4 mi." We just started across, and there was no shoulder and no way off. In broad daylight it was no problem -- the cars could see me half a mile away and had plenty of time to get out of my lane and pass safely. But crossing it in the morning fog would be incredibly stupid ... and unavoidable, since I wouldn't know where I was until it was too late!

As it was, I got to see all I need to see of the Atchafalaya Swamp over the side of the bridge, and I arrived safely on the other side in the little town of Lottie. I stopped at a convenience store and told my story to the clerk, who said that campground is only open to hunters anyway! I think she may have confused it with another at the nearby wildlife management area, since I don't believe hunting is allowed in a refuge by definition, but for all I know she may be right.

She said there was only one hotel between Lottie and the outskirts of Baton Rouge, and it was probably booked solid. I called ahead, and they said they were indeed full up, so I hit the road again with the prospect of riding long after dark, as I hadn't done since I was north of Dallas. But when I got to Livonia I decided to stop in at the hotel and ask again. The desk clerk said a room had just opened up! It's been a while since I've been so grateful to plunk down $60 for a hotel room!

I had no trouble riding into Baton Rouge this morning (Saturday); I crossed the Mississippi around noon on another big scary bridge with no shoulders. [I later learned that I should have taken a ferry a few miles away.] I immediately got off the highway onto the Business Route, which was named on street signs as Scenic Hwy. It led me past all sorts of refineries and auto scrapyards and other scenic places on the way to downtown, and I got a flat tire. The fumes from one of the refineries were so bad I put on my dust mask, and when I took off my glasses later to clean them, the glass lenses were pitted!

I went and paid my respects to the Mississippi downtown, where there's a levy about 20 feet high with park benches along the top. The current is much faster than I expected it to be on such a wide river, about 10 mph. All the tugboats on the river idled their engines while a paddlewheeler of tourists gave a calliope concert for the entire riverfront; as soon as the music stopped, the barges started moving again.

The downtown library didn't have the maps I was looking for, so they sent me to a larger branch that was on my way to the campground. The second library turned out not to carry the maps either, so I'll have to look for them in New Orleans. I ran some other errands on the way out of town but started to get anxious about setting up camp, as a cold front was blowing in.

When I got to the campground, there was no one in its office. A sign advised me to go ahead and set up, so I did so at the far end of the lot. There were a lot of spiders in the grass, but they were harmless, so I went ahead and set up camp. I had everything situated and was about to have some dinner when the owner showed up and told me they no longer allow tents! She wouldn't make an exception and told me noplace else in town would take me, either. I had no choice but to pack up and leave as the sun was setting.

Fortunately there was a motel just a mile farther down the road, and the owner gave me a rather foul-smelling suite for the price of a regular room. Tomorrow morning I'll go to church and hope to meet some folks who will help me feel better about Louisiana. Really it's not the state's fault that my maps have let me down! And the food here is excellent. So wish me luck! I'll be in New Orleans in a few days! --Ben