Higher Ground

I once had a boyfriend in Alaska who told me that he could never imagine a life without wilderness. At the time, I could not relate, despite the fact that by that I had already tasted the pleasures of the great outdoors. Only now since I've moved to New Orleans do I realize the impact of having lived for six years in a state like Alaska, so massive and so wild. Even in the thriving metropolis of Anchorage (wink wink) I had access to state parks with dozens of trails up and around dozens of hills, at 3-5,000 feet elevation.

In New Orleans, the local currency is culture. Walking down the streets of the Riverbend area or the French Quarter, there is no shortage of interesting cafes, bars, and restaurants, historic buildings, galleries and museums. Plenty of stimulation for the mind, plenty of food and toxins for the body.

But a little air is nice too. In a city which is 50% below sea level, there are no vistas to be had. And after a month here, I have begun to yearn for higher ground. Here, that means 12-17 feet above sea level at most. So yesterday, on a 80 degree afternoon, almost chilly by Louisiana standards, I took my bike to the levee (formally called the Mississippi River Trail), a few blocks from my house and hopped on the bike path, where cars are prohibited. In a Forrest Gump-like fashion, I rode. And rode. And rode.

Within New Orleans proper, the levee is flanked on either side with tools and instruments of industry and commerce. On the water side barges and cargo ships park or float by. On the city side, factories, storage units, and other block-like buildings take up the real estate. Clanging of tools and buzzing of various motors or engines remind you that you are in a shipping area. Water pumps, bulldozers, and even helicopters can be found on this stretch of the trail.

But within these stretches are little pockets where the loner-types I know so well from Alaska construct the bayou answer to cabins; wooden-shanties on stilts, close to but tucked just a bit away from the electrical towers and barge ports.

It doesn't take long before the scenery starts changing. With the growing hum of cicadas, the foliage also gets thicker. Waterside of the levy starts looking like
an excerpt of a bayou and it is easy to imagine what the banks of the Mississippi looked like before they were augmented for industrial purposes. On the city side of the levy, factory buildings are replaced with houses, and the further from New Orleans proper you get, the larger the houses are. With the abundance of space, there are small horse stables. At one house you can see a large parade float being constructed in honor of the Saints.

Later on along the path, you can see an exclusive neighborhood called "plantation estates". Judging by the size and landscaping of the trees, and the history of that side of the vicinity, this property likely comprised a plantation back in the days when agriculture and slavery were a part of the Southern consciousness. Tennis courts and golf courses are also now in this stretch of the path. Opposite these houses, on the waterside, the terrain starts to resemble a jungle in Panama, with large banana plants and other tropical-looking foliage taking over.

And, as with most areas in or near New Orleans, you don't need to go very far before you run into a neighborhood watering hole. In the Jefferson section of the ride, you'll find the River Shack.
At various times the River Shack has served as a grocer, restaurant, and bar, for the last 100 years in the very same building that stands today. It drew recent attention when toxic asbestos shingles were removed for safety purposes, revealing a facade full of colorful advertisements from a time long past. The current owners now don these painted signs proudly. Live music and typical Louisiana fare are available here.

In Alaska, I was never much of a cyclist. Frankly, I was scared of real mountain biking and found the accompanying saddle soreness to be somewhat humiliating. At most, I would occasionally ride my cruiser on a paved trail. In fact, at certain points I was somewhat hostile towards cycling and gave my former climbing partner quite a bit of grief as she replaced climbing and me with a couple of dumb bikes in her recreation heart. But here, in the still, swampy heat, the only breeze I have found as of yet is the one I catch from my bike. And, in the process, my DIY cooling system has forced me to tour parts of the city I would not have otherwise. True wilderness in New Orleans is pretty much gone and you will not find it on the Mississippi River Trail. But with 22 miles to play around with on a smoothly paved path, protected from the terrifying New Orleans drivers, the levee trail offers a bit of a cure for those suffering from urban claustrophobia. Highly recommended for anyone staying in the city for a significant amount of time.


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