I left Uncle Sam’s Motel about 8:30 this morning. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get the pack ready in less than an hour every morning. But, hey, at least the tent was dried out. I was feeling well-rested, and most of the pain in my shoulders had subsided.
I set off down Highway 61 for a few miles, then turned onto LA-44. This road cuts through LaPlace, and connects with a road that goes by many different names depending on where you’re at, but which I’ll call the River Road. The River Road runs exactly parallel to the levee, and if I have options about which route will get me to my goal (in this case, Gramercy) I’ve generally gone w/ the River Road b/c just above it, always, is the Mississippi River Trail. As I recently discovered, this actually runs the whole length of the river. However, as I observed first-hand, that fact does not mean that all parts of it are the same. It’s well-paved about as far as an ambitious person on a bike riding from New Orleans would want to go. Then it turns to gravel.
Of all the terrain I’ve walked along, the paved portions of the trail are by far the best. Certainly much better than walking against traffic on a 4-lane like Highway 61. And better, really, than a sidewalk…which tend to be erratically placed and uneven anywhere outside of the downtown of a major city.
My goal for the day was ambitious: 16 miles. By the time I’d climbed back up onto the levee and headed down the trail, I was already more than 3 miles in, and feeling confident. The only real regret I have about taking the trail is that it decreases the likelihood that you’ll meet people, but if you’re looking for safe and fast, it’s great. I followed it until I stopped for lunch at Connie’s Grill, where I took a picture of the waitstaff. I asked them both about whether they knew of any “traditional” music around the area, and they both said no, but the waitress told me about a tradition along this portion of the Mississippi involving enormous bonfires lit along the levee on Christmas Eve, I’ve got more about this saved for a future post.
The next few miles passed relatively uneventfully, but by the time I stopped for a Gatorade in Garyville, my feet were causing me serious pain. Still, I trudged along through the industrial zone between Garyville and Gramercy. By the time I made the outskirts of Gramercy—16 miles from my start point—the sun was sinking fast. I had conceded that I’d probably be spending the night camping on the far side of the levee when my father called me to give me the numbers of a few churches in Gramercy.
As luck would have it, the first number he sent was for Rev. Dewaine Parker of Bridgepoint Church. I called Rev. Parker and explained my situation, asking him, as I had the priest two days prior, whether or not he had room in the backlot for a traveler with a small tent. Rev. Parker told me to come on over to the church, which was just a few blocks away.
I arrived in the middle of the worship band’s Saturday practice. If I hadn’t been so exhausted, I would have liked to have dug out the audio recorder. But in any case, I learned from one of the church’s growing number of members that it was Rev. Parker onstage w/ the guitar. As I caught my breath and wiped away the sweat and grime accumulated over the day, Wesley (that was his name) and I talked about my trip, and I gave him one of the cards with the web address on it.
Not too long after, band practice ended. After a closing prayer, Rev. Parker descended the stage to give me a very hearty handshake. He took me outside to show me the lot…he explained that since the church was located in Gramercy’s downtown (he and the other congregants had been busy converting a storefront) staying back there actually wasn’t very safe. After I mentioned something about staying on the far side of the levee, he also issued a warning: on Saturday night, there’d be a lot of folks up there drinking and likely to harass a camper.
And then he did something totally unexpected. He said “Why don’t you come camp out in our yard? It’s just down the road a ways…” I hopped into a little pickup with the church’s youth pastor, Evy, with my pack in the back. He had spoken about my trip a bit inside the church, but we had a good conversation about his involvement with the church on our short drive. By the time we pulled into the family’s driveway, I guess the Rev. had already decided that it was just too cold for me to sleep outside, and so he offered to let me stay inside. We talked as his wife, Stephanie, made dinner, her apologizing that she, a fine Cajun cook, had planned on spaghetti for post-practice dinner.
Even though I never got to sample her best dishes, I was more than thankful for the hot meal—a considerable improvement over the energy bar I planned on. Seated around the table were Evy and the couple’s three children: Anne, Angela, and Jared. After plates had been cleared, I talked a while with Stephanie, who quizzed me on the difference between a Cajun and a Creole (I passed). The family let me have access to a shower much-needed, and we passed the rest of the evening watching TV together on a giant couch.
The next morning (today, actually), Stephanie made a delicious breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits, and toast. It took me a little while to re-pack my backpack, as it does most mornings, but when I was finished we took a bunch of photos together. Evy and the Rev. Parker and I hopped into the minivan and they drove me out to Manresa, a Jesuit retreat facility. Before they left me to return to my walk, we prayed together. I was raised Catholic, and so improvising prayers is not something that comes readily to me, but both of these men were eloquent and deeply heartfelt. I hope that my simple contribution, “Thank you for these wonderful people” at least imparted a tiny portion of the incredible recharge that being around them gave me.