Sunday, July 24, 2011

Trail Ride to the Fountain of Youth



"Isn't it a lovely day for a bike ride?!" I exclaim cheerily on the phone at 10am on Saturday.

I am lobbying hard on this call as I am restless, not having been able to sit on my bike for days due to good old-fashioned Southern flash floods down here in New Orleans.

A mild 85 degrees Farenheit, only a dab of humidity, with the sun shining pleasantly--this is a rare phenomemon on a mid-summer's day here. I knew that the odds of talking my friend Clancy into driving 45 minutes away to Mandeville, cycling ten miles to Abita Springs Brewery, and then ten miles back with a belly full of beer, were a little higher on a stunning day like today.

The small time adventure for du jour was to begin in Mandeville, the 1830's development of real estate baron Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville who also owned a plantation in New Orleans located in the present-day neighborhood of Marigny, adjacent to the French Quarter. With its milder climate and proximity to Abita Springs, Mandeville began as a weekend getaway for the well-to-do of New Orleans who would take a steamboat across Lake Pontchartrain, listening to live music being played on board by jazz greats such as Kid Ory and Papa Celestin.

Without neither a steamboat nor New Orleans wealth, Mandeville is still an attractive destination to me on this sunny Saturday. The plan was to drive 24 miles over Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, on the longest over-water bridge in the world. Originally the brainchild of de Marigny, his vision was to create artificial islands in the Lake linking them with the Causeway like the Florida Keys. The islands were never created, but the bridge eventually was in 1948 by the state legislature.

From there I proposed a ten mile bike ride along the Tammany Trace Trail. Formerly a railroad track, the once-abandoned trail system was purchased by St. Tammany Parish from the Illinois Central Railroad in the early 1990's and converted into a bike and pedestrian path using local and federal dollars. Thirty-one miles with thirty-one bridges from beginning to end, today it still connects the towns of Covington, Abita Springs, Mandeville, Lacombe, and Slidell, passing through natural springs, a state park, and suburban neighborhoods, over swamps and streets and former train trestles.

And, like all good adventures in this part of the world, the journey planned involves a good drink. Our trip was to take us to Abita Springs, home of Abita Brewery. Formerly a settlement of Choctaw Indians, the small town was inhabited by French settlers in the 1700's. By the early 1900's, like Mandeville, Abita Springs also became a weekend getaway for the New Orleans elite who took advantage of cooler climates and cleaner waters created by natural springs.

In the 1980's the waters took on an equally therapeutic purpose, becoming the home base for Abita Brewery, now one of the most popular and ubiquitous of a large handful of local breweries in the New Orleans area. Abita beer is a faithful old pal of mine at each and every bar I've met down here. So naturally, once at Abita Brewery, the agenda included a tour of the current brewery, lunch at the former brewery now serving as a pub, and then a cycle back to our car in Mandeville.

"Sure," Clancy utters, with a bit of sleep, a mild hangover, and overall reluctance in his voice.
Not many are willing to schlepp out of New Orleans on the weekends, but as a recent divorce, for the time being, Clancy is somewhat of a captive audience for my ideas of adventure.

By noon we arrive in Mandeville. It is just over the lake and barely forty minutes away, yet it is as different as possible from the Big Easy as can be. Driving to the trailhead in old Mandeville, we cruise by large cookie-cutter houses sandwiched side-by-side to one another, large surburban mom-mobiles, dogs and picket fences. We arrive at the trailhead next to the old depot where there is a Saturday open-air market going on with middle-aged ladies selling pickled okra, pickled eggs, pickled pickles, quilts, elaborate dog ties involving glitter and gold lame, and other handicrafts native to the North American housewife. We could have easily been in the Mid-West, Upstate New York, or anywhere USA.

When Clancy and I finally begin our bike ride, I am delighted by the pristine, paved trail flanked on either side by tall pine trees and ground cover foliage. It reminds me of the Campbell Creek Trails in Anchorage, Alaska, near my old apartment, though I am certain I won't have to deal with charging moose here. On this trail we pass over and ride next to swamps, with pockets of cool air delivered from nearby springs.

Without the honking cars, cat-calling, crater-sized potholes, and on-going construction that I've become accustomed to on my daily commute to work in New Orleans, the ride on Tammany Trace seems to last forever. My vehicle of choice is my cheap but trusty old second-hand mountain bike with hybrid tires; Clancy's bike is even cheaper, a heavy steel frame with cruiser tires, resembling something from a Pippi Longstocking movie. But we are not in Alaska, and so there is nothing wrong with our low-rent gear on this beautifully paved trail on this Louisiana day.

Without the usual survival-mandated stimulation, we are footloose and fancy free, feeling 15 years younger. We carry a conversation, race eachother, capture some dramatic action shots with our phones, watch turtles pass underneath one of the trail bridges, and exchange brilliantly clever jokes involving a turtle hospital.

By the time we arrive at Abita Springs, the sun starts to rear its cruel, unforgiving head and it begins to heat up, and we have sweat through our shirts. Abita Springs is a charmingly restored town, with a restored train depot and the Abita Opry music venue. There is a medium-sized outdoor pavilion designed by turn-of-the-century New Orleans architect Thomas Sully, and a park with a play area for children. I begin to feel as if I am on the set of one of my favorite tv shows from my childhood, Little House on the Prairie, and begin walking around when it starts to sprinkle, immediately creating dampness under the powerful Louisiana sun. Upon inquiring as to the whereabout of the brewery, we are directed about a mile or so further down the trail.

Clancy and I make haste as the sky quickly descends into an opaque grey. About a quarter of a mile down the trail, large barricades appear, and behind it, a half-naked trestle under construction for restoration. Determined to sip a free pint of beer (or two), we walk our bikes down what looks like a former ravine, now possibly a horse trail. After crossing a narrow footbridge over a spring, we quickly ascend another horse trail nearby and find ourselves on a stretch of wide road behind a large, industrial-looking building. At last.

Upon locking our bikes to a stop sign in front of the brewery--the only bikes in front of the brewery--we make our way inside and it begins to thunder. We are a pair of soggy, mangey mutts by the time we make it to the courtyard, waiting with about 75 others to enter the brewery and start the tour.

Where New Orleans is a hodgepodge of colorful characters, local and transplants of different races and sizes, just outside of town here, I am surrounded by what looks like an alumni party of LSU. There are large men in polo shirts, and women with full faces of makeup, ironed hair, and revealing tank tops. And there are lots of them. And then there is Clancy, barely 115 pounds, skinny little white legs protruding from damp jean shorts, thick-rimmed glasses perched on his Irish, freckled face; and then there's me, also soggy, but Asian, well-tanned, flip flops, an old exercise shirt and a pair of well-loved hiking shorts brought down from the mountains of Alaska. Unlike in New Orleans, no one is speaking to us and we stick out like sore thumbs, being tossed about in line by people noticeably larger and dryer than us, all of us thirsty for beer.

After sipping a free pint for 20 minutes, the tour still has not begun, and I'm not enthusiastic about watching yet another non-informative informational video with objectively bad synthesizer music blaring in the background, packed in line like sardines with sorority girls and large frat guys. With a break in the weather, Clancy and I decide to return to our bikes to make it back to old Abita Springs, so that we can eat lunch at the old brewery pub on the other side of the horse trail.

Only after we ride away does the thunder and lightning strike, rain coming down like water out of a spigot. I am nervous as is Clancy, on his old school bike made with enough steel that could probably conduct electricity better than a lightning rod. His tiny white freckled legs are spinning the fastest I've ever seen them, and by the time I catch up to him, he has hopped off his bike.

But, instead of making his way down the trail in the same artful manner he did before, I watch him hurl his bike down the ravine like a bag of potato chips. He runs down the trail, into the cover of the forest, chasing his bike seat which has flown off the bike en route into a couple trees. The panic and calamity reduces us both into peels of laughter, and on our way to the old brewery pub, I watch his seat pop off a couple more times.

"I'm fine," he claims between chuckles. "With a little butt pressure, the seat will be fine."

Eventually we arrive at the pub. Once perched on bar stools inside, we are surrounded by a magical row of glowing taps. I select my third Abita light for the day and he picks an amber. We practically swallow our burgers whole, chase them down with fries, and sip more beer, hoping the weather will relent.

But even after more than an hour, it refuses to do so.


Deciding to tackle the unavoidable, we wheel our way home for ten miles. I'm having troubles seeing through the drops assaulting my face. Clancy's keys fly from his pocket at least twice. His seat leans to and fro, popping off now and again. I am now less appreciative of the cooler temperatures making this Louisiana rain an uncharacteristically cold one, creating a bit of a chill in me. Riding through the sheets of water coming down on us slows our pace. It's a ridiculous situation, stressful really, but at least the lightning has more or less stopped and we are kept warm by hilarious laughter with every mishap. It's the response of children who are without a care in the world. Or adults who are a little tipsy with a little beer and a little fear.

An hour later we are at the car, sobered up by the ride and the rain. Our hands are shriveled from being submerged in water for so long, and our bellies are sore from laughing so hard. On our drive back to the city, water oozes from my clothing onto his car seat and pools up underneath on the floorboards.

Sometimes I have really stupid ideas. I have not lived here very long, but I know Louisiana well enough to understand the phenomenon of flash floods, even on the sunniest summer day. But the thought of a trail ride, the thought of funny little old towns just outside of big time New Orleans drove me to defy logic on a momentarily clear Saturday morning bookended by days of flash flooding. What is the source of my annoyingly persistent quest for a small time adventure? Maybe I do it to keep from getting bored of the place I live in. Maybe I do it to keep my mind stimulated. Maybe I do these things to keep me looking young; well into my thirties, I am often mistaken for being ten years younger.

Or maybe it was just the beer.

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