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Three-and-half years have passed since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees and tried to wipe the Mississippi Gulf Coast off the map. But it hadn’t wiped away the memories of spending an episode of my life there, nights swaying in a gentle Gulf breeze on the hammock at Nichol Noff’s in Gulfport with a cold Dixie beer or the mad dashes across Lake Ponchartrain Bridge out of Slidell, the needle on my speedo hitting triple digits, throttle wide and cylinders screaming as I raced to get to the French Quarter. Good times.
So when I found out that Victory Motorcycles had a 2009 Cory Ness Jackpot waiting for my return to the Big Easy, the taxi driver couldn’t get me to New Orleans Power Sports in Kenner quick enough. I shared the details of my journey with shop owner Leonard Maraist and crew, my sense of Homeric adventure tempered by their words of warning about the city. I would place their words of wisdom in my pocket, next to the tablets of my own experiences in the city, but I was here to ride, to rumble down the dark, narrow roads of the Quarter once more and to chart a new course through old stomping grounds. There will always be only one New Orleans. And it happened to be Mardi Gras.
It’s early morning, I’m late, and my GPS has led me to a dead-end on Canal Street where the ferry launches. The boat’s still on the other side and I’ve got an itchy throttle hand. I give Brett Barre over at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World a jingle
Horse-drawn carriages line up in front of Jackson Square waiting to give tourists a historical tour of New Orleans. I take my own tour on the Cory Ness Jackpot.
asking for an alternate route. He sends me up Tchoupitoulas St. and onto Highway 90 over the Greater New Orleans Bridge toward the West Bank. The air is cool but tangible and the clouds to the south toward the Gulf burn with the red of morning. Humidity is a way of life in these parts, even in the mild winter months, and a well-ventilated jacket is a boon to making the thick air bearable.
The route rolls through an old neighborhood of wooden houses with small porches and grey-tombstoned cemeteries. I pass a pub past its prime, Rita’s Bar and Soul Food spray-painted freehand on the side of a fading yellow and purple building. The awning over the door hangs by a few nails, but the vacant building still harbors stories of music-filled nights, stiff drinks and cheap, greasy grub.
Feb. 24, 1857 was an important day in New Orleans. It is the day of the first organized Mardi Gras parade, when six members of a group called “The Cowbellians” would join 52 locals and parade with two decorated floats as “The Mistick Krewe of Comus.” I wonder what the original “Mistick Krewe” would think of the work of Blaine Kern’s artisans and of the billion-dollar impact Mardi Gras is said to bring the city.
Leviathan, the lead float for the Orpheus parade, is 140-feet long and holds 100 riders. Victory’s Cory Ness Jackpot is about 8-feet long and supported one rider – me!
Leviathan looms 20 feet above as I position the bike for the photo shoot, its marbled eyes “like the eyelids of morning” according to Job. Its mighty maw is open wide, pointy white teeth and a red forked tongue. The scaly, giant green head of the mythical sea creature comes to life during parades, moving side to side, steam bellowing from its mouth and nostrils. Over 100,000 fiber optic lights are spread out over the three-part, 140-foot long float, and hidden speakers provide a monster’s roar as 100 riders climb aboard on Lundi Gras for the Orpheus parade. The shining LEDs of Leviathan reflect in the chrome of the Jackpot’s slash-cut dual exhaust, the factory custom motorcycle worthy of leading its own parade.
A group of school kids enters the hall as a tour guide tells the story of Orpheus. I overhear how it was founded by crooner Harry Connick, Jr. in 1993. She tells how Orpheus, the son of the Greek god Apollo and the muse Calliope, could play the lyre so beautifully that his music could calm stormy seas. Some of the young boys are more interested in us and the motorcycle than they are the tour guide’s spiel. I see potential riders of tomorrow in their fresh faces.
Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World is a larger-than-life fantasy land of floats and cartoon creations. The daily tours of the facility are a popular attraction year-round. They even offer a Krewe of Roux tour where you get to sit down to a gumbo cooking demonstration by one of the city’s top chefs after checking out the carnival floats. Better yet, you get to chow down some of that gumbo and sample a little bread pudding when the cooking demonstration ends. Oh, c’est si bon!
I head back across the river. You don’t get the full breadth of the Mighty Mississippi standing at its banks, but look down while coming over the New Orleans Bridge on a motorcycle as a full oil tanker navigates the bend toward the French Quarter below you and its immensity begins to sink in. Traveling back into the city be prepared when you stop at the toll booth to pay your $1. If you ain’t movin’ fast, the drivers behind you have no qualms about getting on their horns. I didn’t even have time to fish out a buck for the toll lady before the blares started behind me. I call it New Orleans’ etiquette.
Coming over the bridge offers one of the best views of the skyline. I jump off on I-10 East, ride past New Orleans Arena, a building-sized banner of New Orleans Hornets point guard CP3 draped down its facade. Next to it sits the iconic Louisiana Superdome, an architectural wonder designed in 1967 when it held the title as the largest fixed domed structure in the world. Its white dome is complete again, thanks to $193 million in repairs after Katrina tried to make it an open-air arena.
I jump off at Canal St., the famous corridor where parades like Zulu and Bacchus run and the gateway to Bourbon St. I turn left down Decatur St. toward Jackson Square, see the grey spires of Saint Louis Cathedral against a cerulean sky.
Saint Louis Cathedral, founded in 1720, is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the US.
The building is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the US, founded in 1720, and its steadfastness is synonymous with the spirit of New Orleans. It is the centerpiece of a trio of famous buildings, Cabildo to its left and the Presbytere to its right.
Cabildo’s Spanish Colonial architecture gives you the feel of being somewhere in Europe. It is the site where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803 and currently serves as the Cabildo Museum, housing artifacts from the Native Americans that preceded European settlers to the area. The museum’s collection also features the Iberville Stone that marks the founding of the first French settlement on Louisiana’s coast and includes relics from the Battle of New Orleans.
It’s mid-afternoon, but the patio of Café du Monde across from Jackson Square is packed. I catch a whiff of chickory-infused coffee and powdered sugar as I stand under its green and white canopy watching an impromptu sidewalk concert by an Asian girl playing an electric violin and a Tracy Chapman-lookalike on acoustic guitar. I continue on foot down Decatur, resisting the urge to pop into Central Grocery and order the best muffuletta around. I hold out for a spicy kabob of gator and the biggest BBQ shrimp around from the vendor at the French Market down the street.
Getting back on the bike, I rumble up and down the tight, vertical streets of the Quarter, the boom of the Jackpot’s pipes performing its own symphony of sorts. The roads around Bourbon are a maze of one-way streets. My guard is on high,
About the only way you’re going to get across Bourbon Street on a weekend night is with a police escort. A marching wedding party approaches from a side street.
as cars will pull out at any moment from the numerous cross streets, and pedestrians do not yield the right of way and will walk out without hesitation against a red light. The streets are a mix of uneven brick and broken concrete, so I wouldn’t recommend taking the French Quarter on a rigid unless you’re masochistic.
Stopped at a light, I watch a tiny, dirty-faced boy beating a bongo, playing like music is in his soul. His dredlocked mother strums melodies on a worn guitar as his dad provides beats for the boy to follow. The family uses music as a method to scrape by on handouts from passersby, but despite their plight they seem happy, happiness that only the sense of family can bring.
The time has come for a trip down Bourbon Street. To make matters interesting, I strap a GoPro video camera on my head. Girls from the strip clubs at the top of Bourbon run behind doors and peek around corners. Bouncers give me the ol’ stink eye. A good-ol’ boy with his Big Ass Beer walks by and flips me the bird with a laugh, while an old guy with missing front teeth riding a BMX bike pops a wheelie next to me when he figures out I’m filming. The ride is a comedy of double takes, head shaking and finger pointing, human nature at its finest, and for that moment I was the King of Mardi Gras and the Cory Ness Victory Jackpot was my float.
While I love The Big Easy, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a place that I once called home. I love that you can buy the biggest, freshest shrimp around right off the boats.
As much as I love the city, it was time to make a beeline for the Coast. I hop on I-10 East out of the city, hit Crowder Blvd, head south, then turn left onto Chef Menteur (Hwy. 90). It doesn’t take long to leave the city behind and enter the wetlands of Southern Louisiana. Riding through the channels and forests of fallen trees, I come to a point where Katrina washed the road away where Lake St. Catherine and Lake Ponchartrain meet. I pull over to check out Fort Pike State Historic Site but it’s closed. The brick and masonry fort was erected after President James Monroe ordered the placement of an extensive coastal defense system in reaction to the War of 1812, but absorbing the brunt of mighty storms has taken toll on its remnants.
The road is rural and quiet. I peek for gators’ eyes in the brown waters as I pass over numerous small bridges. The forest thickens and the stretch is straight and deserted so I open it up until the road ends. I keep right, turn toward Waveland, my heart racing as I creep closer to the strip of coast just beyond that I once called home.
I am encouraged to see shopping centers and restaurant signs flashing in Waveland, the first of the towns along the Mississippi coast on Hwy 90. I am not encouraged to see the sun fading behind purple clouds on the horizon over the
Snapping turtles, alligators, water moccasins, swamp monsters – the bayou ain’t no place for city folk to get lost.
Gulf of Mexico. By the time I hit the Bay St. Louis Bridge, the storm is upon me, big drops, and the downpour is heavy. Water beads up quickly and I dodge waves splashing over the retaining wall from cars traveling in the opposite direction. To this point of the journey, the scale of Katrina’s wrath had eluded me. But coming over that bridge, as I strained in the fading light to find the familiar, desperate for a landmark, a building, a recognizable pier out into the Gulf, all I see are the ghosts of trees.
We ride out the storm in the comfort of a Quality Inn next to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum. Seeing the coliseum wrings out faded memories, like Ozzy Osbourne after drinking tequila poppers in the parking lot or the unforgettable three-hour Metallica marathon. A promo for the Biloxi Blues Festival flashes on its marquee tonight.
Last night’s storm gives the coast one last cleansing in the morning before moving north. I head back down I-90 toward Long Beach, back toward what I once called home. Friends with a GPS who provided relief work after Katrina had told us our house was gone, but I still felt compelled to visit the slab where it once stood to see if at least any memories remained.
I barely recognize Marcie Drive. A metal radio tower sits where the first houses on my old street stood. Trees are stripped and scarred, the few that weathered the storm. I see a handful of houses still standing near the railroad tracks of the dead end street. I try to remember how many houses we were from the corner, but can’t. I ride until it dead ends, questioning what I saw, and ride back. The black mailbox says 109, my old address, but the house looks smaller, and an apartment complex sits right behind it in what once were wetlands. But it’s my old
house, minus the tall, thick pines that once shaded it and the majestic magnolia tree that sat outside the Florida room. A closer look reveals a water line about three feet up on the tan bricks. I waver between disbelief and relief, ebullient to see it still standing.
Just east of my house stands the Friendship Oak on the old Gulf Park College campus. A green and white sign proclaims “I am 500 years old and I survived Hurricane Katrina.” Its trunk bears the scars of a tidal surge that has left the buildings of the campus deserted. But the oak remains, and a stream of cars cruise by despite the campus being closed. The people of the South remind me of the mighty oaks that line Hwy 90, deep-rooted and immovable.
The beach to our right looks inviting. People power walk along the seawall, and the familiar wooden piers that stretch out into the Gulf are slowly reappearing. The view ahead toward Biloxi is filled with the multi-storied buildings of the casinos that line the strip. The Hard Rock Casino is
The Friendship Oak is over 500 years old and has weathered mighty storms like Hurricanes Camille and Katrina.
hopping, a barrage of neon lights and the sound of sliding slot arms waiting just inside its front doors.
Preparing to leave Biloxi, the sun shines from strange metallic structures to my left. The peculiar buildings are known as the ‘Ohr Pods’ and are part of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. The facility honors the self-styled ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi,’ George E. Ohr, and houses a collection of his pottery. The architecture of the pods, designed by Frank Gehry, warrants a visit themselves.
The three-lane Ocean Springs bridge is a big contrast to the tight, two-lane roadway that felt like it sat right on the water that I remember. The new bridge rises high and is smooth beneath the Jackpot’s wheels. On the outskirts of town sits Davis Bayou and Gulf Islands National Seashore. The road is thick with vegetation as it leads to the William M. Colmer Visitor Center. The facility is fresh and clean, and the work of local artist Walter Anderson depicting the region’s animals and ecosystems livens up the walls. I check out those ecosystems firsthand with a hike on the trails through the marshland.
The Victory Vision and Cory Ness Jackpot were capable touring mounts as we traveled through the wetlands and bayous of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region.
It’s getting dark by the time we hit Pascagoula. The town’s Chevron Refinery is lit up, specks flicker from tall industrial stacks. Pascagoula is steeped in industrial lore, home to a naval station and Ingalls shipbuilders. As much as I’d like to explore what the town has to offer, I hit I-10 instead and head back toward the Louisiana border.
The next morning, when I hear the tour guide say “There are about a million ‘gators in Louisiana, and the population is still growing,” I wonder if taking a tour into the Honey Island Swamp is a good idea. Sure, I wanted to see the predators in their own habitat and to watch the guide feed them marshmallows, but in the back of my mind I keep hearing banjos and thinking about Deliverance. I overcome my fear and climb into the flat-bottomed, 20-person boat. It was worth it. We saw ‘gators. Plenty of ‘em. We passed a beaver dam, saw a big feral pig bolt through a thicket, and even heard the story of an animal they claim is kin to Bigfoot that lives in an unreachable area of the bog. After that, the boy next to me keeps thinking every bird call coming from beyond the cypress trees is the screech of the swamp thing.
As much as I dig the bayou, it was the first Saturday of Mardi Gras parades and I hadn’t hit the night time Bourbon Street scene yet. A trip to the Daiquiri Shop and 32 oz. of thick, red Jungle Juice helped set the mood. Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras is an experience everyone should have in a lifetime. Music spills out of every venue, from jazz to blues to funk, revelers hide behind feathered masks and shed inhibitions, beads and baubles hang from around everyone’s necks. Bead throwers on balconies beg for boob shots from women passing below. The air smells of spilled booze and sweat.
Police sirens from two motorcycle cops clear a path from a side street as a wedding procession comes dancing through, led by the bride and groom in white and complete with its own marching brass band. Even a downpour
People cheered and danced along during an impromptu street party when the wedding party and its brass band came marching through.
couldn’t quell the spirit or clear the streets as groups gathered under eves to wait out the deluge. The festivities wane into the wee hours, and there’s little sleep before the alarm rudely reminds me the party’s over and it’s time to fly back home. I leave, content in the knowledge that they still know how to “Laissez les bon temps roule” in good
Visiting Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.