This is the story of a hastily thrown-together cycling trip from New Orleans, LA to Biloxi, MS on April 26th, 2011, the Monday after Easter. As usual, I underestimated the amount of time it would take to pack for such a trip, a mistake that results in little sleep – maybe four hours! My day begins long before dawn – 5:00 AM. I stuff everything on my checklist into two large panniers, kiss my wife, and roll out.
View NOLA to Biloxi by Bike in a larger map
Yellow indicates main route. Orange and blue mark last-minute changes to the plan. Click, double-click, and drag the map to interact or open the larger map.
As a cyclist, the thing that troubled me the most about my route from New Orleans to Biloxi was the crossing of the Industrial Canal into New Orleans East, a hindrance that would make or break me within the first half hour. After much deliberation on the subject, I decided to take the route that was longest yet safest – the Seabrook Bridge near Lake Pontchartrain. This turned out to be very easy, and I had a good laugh upon reaching the other side. Still, I was quite relieved to be in New Orleans East. Then, the wild dogs showed up!
The first wild dog attack happened on Franklin Avenue, before crossing into the East. Three tiny but menacing pups pounced onto the road. With a bloodthirsty look in their eyes, these small Ewok-like creatures nipped at my ankles for no less than six blocks.
Wild dog encounter number two was thankfully only a very scary close call. In New Orleans East I passed an Autozone store and took a left onto Morrison Ave. I remember exchanging morning greetings with a gentleman hanging out outside of the Autozone. Moments later, I lifted my head to survey the road and I spotted a pack of four extremely large pitbulls trotting towards me! Had these dogs been lifting weights? These could have been the nicest dogs in the world, but I wasn’t sticking around to find out. I turned the bike around and headed back towards the Autozone. The gentleman was still standing outside. I warned him about the wild pack of dogs, and he started for the store. I attempted to make a block around the problem, but only ran into dead ends. I had to try Morrison again. I carefully made my way back to the Autozone where the man, still outside, assured me that the dogs had gone into a neighborhood, “You’re all clear!” Well, that’s good for me but bad for someone else in that neighborhood. How do the folks out here deal with these wild dogs roaming their streets? I continued up Morrison, but not until after I had crossed the canal median. The pack had moved on.
About a half an hour later, on Hwy 90, a very large mutt came screaming across an abandoned lot, charged right up to me, and nipped at my heals very briefly. Luckily, he was not interested in my very loud yelling. My heart was pounding, and I stopped to gather myself. I thought very seriously about calling it quits. I thought about buying a can of mace. Then, I thought about how I was wasting time, and I simply kept going.
As I continued east on Hwy 90, I passed over several bridges. Some of the bridges were small, leaving little room for a cyclist. Luckily, these small bridges were typically also short in length, so I simply waited for traffic to pass and quickly crossed.
Pictured below is Fort Macomb at Chef Pass. The purpose of the fortress was to protect the Chef Menteur Pass which connected Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and consequently, the Gulf of Mexico. This stronghold was built in 1822, garrisoned by the Confederate States of America in January of 1861, and then retaken by Union forces the next year. The following is from the Fort Macomb Wikipedia entry:
In 1867 the barracks caught fire, after which the fort was largely abandoned. It was decommissioned in 1871. The fort and its land are now owned by the State of Louisiana. While some efforts were made to open it to limited tourism in the late 20th century, the decaying condition of the fort was judged too hazardous for public visits. The similar but better preserved Fort Pike some 10 miles (16 km) away at the Rigolets has been the regional example of a coastal fort open to visitors. A portion of the fort’s old moat has been turned into a canal as part of a small marina. Unfortunately, the wakes from incoming and outgoing boats is wearing away the outer wall of the fort and accelerating the structural damage.
Saint Catherine’s Island/Petites Coquilles (see images below) is a spit of land between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Saint Catherine on Hwy 90. On this narrow tract, sometimes less than 800 feet wide, many new post-Katrina fishing camps and homes are under construction. * Side-note: This also happens to be where 1950’s blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield met her untimely end on June 29, 1967, as her vehicle struck the back of a stopped tractor-trailer.
Fort Pike (pictured below) is located at the northeast corner of Saint Catherine’s Island/Petites Coquilles, just before the Rigolets Pass. Like Fort Macomb, Pike was constructed to protect the water routes into New Orleans.
The following is from the official Fort Pike website:
Begun in 1819 and completed in 1826, Fort Pike was named for the explorer and soldier General Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) whose name is also attached to Pike’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Fort Pike is the first of the Third System fortifications, a group of brick and masonry structures built between 1816 and 1867. The fort was designed to withstand attack from land or sea.
The original armament of Fort Pike consisted of 32-pounder and 24-pounder cannons; the exact number of each type is unknown. At various times the fort held other types of cannons. The wartime garrison was approximately 400 men; in peacetime it varied between one and 80 soldiers. Fort Pike’s role in the military affairs of the United States prior to the Civil War varied considerably. During the Seminole Wars in the 1830s, Fort Pike served as a staging area for many troops en route to Florida, and also as a collection point for hundreds of Seminole prisoners and their black slaves who were being transported to Oklahoma. Cannons were removed from some of the casemates to convert them to cells. At one point in this conflict, only 66 soldiers guarded 253 Indian and black prisoners.
Similarly, during the Mexican War in the 1840s, Fort Pike was a stopover for soldiers bound for Texas and Mexico. In between these wars, Fort Pike was largely abandoned and left in the care of a single ordnance sergeant.
In 1861, the silence of Fort Pike was broken. Before the actual start of the Civil War, the Louisiana militia captured the fort. Confederates held it until the Union forces took New Orleans in 1862, whereupon the Confederates evacuated Fort Pike. Union forces then reoccupied the fort, using it as a base for raids along the Gulf coast and Lake Pontchartrain area and as a protective outpost for New Orleans. The Union also used Fort Pike as a training center, where former slaves were taught to use heavy artillery. These troops became part of the United States Colored Troops, who played an important role in the outcome of many battles, including the siege at Port Hudson. Yet, in spite of all this activity, not a single cannonball was ever fired in battle from Fort Pike.
Fort Pike was again left to the care of an ordnance sergeant from 1871 until it was officially abandoned in 1890. In 1972 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation for significant historic sites.
The trip continues east into Mississippi, towards Pearlington. The terrain gets very swampy resulting in many more small bridge crossings. Also, I noticed a trend as I passed through places with “Island” in the name: Prevost Island, Weems Island, Honey Island, Desert Island, and Brown’s Island. After the trip, I looked up these locations on a map. To my surprise, not a single one is an actual island, simply low-lying marsh riddled with bayous and canals.
Just past Pearlington, MS, at trip mile #45, I turned off of Hwy 90 onto Lower Bay Road. This stretch was gorgeous with smooth roads, heavily wooded forest on both sides, and no cars in sight. The route meandered down into Bay St. Louis, where I ravenously tore into chicken and biscuits at Kent and Sue’s Quick stop.
In Bay St. Louis, MS, I paused on Lakeshore Drive, just before the train tracks, to take a photograph of Lakeshore Baptist Church. The church steeple stood oddly on the ground beside it. A very nice woman, tending to her garden across the street from the church, explained that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the original church, and all that was left was the steeple. The building pictured below is a temporary home for the congregation, and when construction on the new church is complete, they will place the old steeple back on top. The woman across the street asked where I had biked from, and I briefly explained my trip. She unflinchingly offered me a bottle of water, as if we’d known each other for years. Some might say, “It’s just a bottle of water”, but I was stunned by her trust and generosity. I had pointed my bicycle east, left the comfort of my home, biked 60+ miles into a still-devastated community, and I was being offered free water. Maybe I was feeling the effects of an extended cycling trip, but this simple offering touched me deeply.
The images below are depictions of the Lakeshore Baptist Church before/after Hurricane Katrina, images are from the website Rebuild Lakeshore: a ministry of Lakeshore Baptist Church
And finally, at approximately trip mile #62, I reached the beach near the Silver Slipper Casino in Bay St. Louis. The remainder of my trip would be spent biking the wide beach sidewalks – all the way to Biloxi (with the exception of the Bay St. Louis Bridge). With the winds steady at 10mph and gusting to over 20mph, sand quickly found it’s way into everything: water bottle, shoes, eyes, pants, gears, phone, and camera. With the probability of 40 more miles of this sandblasting, I decided to change into long pants.
Following the beach in Bay St. Louis was easy at first, and then I ran into a bit of ongoing construction. Crews are still working on the road, seawall, and sidewalk. With that said, the road is open, and the path is also navigable by bike. The beach road leads all the way up to the brand new Bay St. Louis Bridge. Another victim of Hurricane Katrina, the Bay St. Louis Bridge is an example of how to make the best out of a bad situation. In short, Bay St. Louis rebuilt the bridge, but they widened it significantly, adding a protected, separate ten foot wide lane for pedestrians, turning this two-mile stretch of concrete into a park. Every tenth of a mile, a marker reports how far you’ve traveled. This is accompanied by permanent artwork depicting local sea life. I was fully impressed. Louisiana, take notes.
If you were to pick up a Long Beach/Gulfport/Biloxi paper, or tune in to local talk radio, you might notice that “sand” is currently a buzzword in the region. Here’s what I learned. The sand on the Mississippi coastline is not Mississippi sand – it’s Florida sand. We’re talking over 30 miles of beach, from Pass Christian to Biloxi alone, covered in Florida sand – that’s a lot of sand! Now imagine that you’re a taxpayer in Mississippi, and you’re being told that clean, white sandy beaches attract exponentially more tourists than naturally occurring, not so shiny Mississippi beaches, like the ones that I remember seeing here as a kid – which were quite an improvement over Louisiana beaches. The taxpayers are sold on white sand as an investment for tourism, and sand is brought in from Florida. But then something happens in the spring. The wind blows, and the sands move onto the road. Quagmire initiated.
Sand on Hwy 90 is a problem. Cars don’t handle sand well. Wheels slip, cars turn without warning, brakes become less reliable, and air systems clog. Secondly, the sand must be removed from the road, which means that construction crews working around the clock, block entire sections of a very busy, sand-covered highway. Thirdly, the sand being scooped up off the road can not simply go back on the beach, not with all those toxic car chemicals, so the sand is loaded into trucks and dumped into a Mississippi landfill. This Florida sand has quite a life cycle, right? By the way, we’re talking about a lot of wasted sand. One Gulfport news story reports up to 6,000 yards of sand hauled off per day. While I don’t quite understand why anyone would want to measure sand by the yard, I do know that it sounds like tons.
In my humble opinion, I wonder why there is so much sand on the beach. In some of the images below, you will notice stairs that lead from the sidewalk by the road, down to the beach. In many cases, these stairs are completely covered. Why so much sand? Engineers are attempting to plant dunes and erect special fences to block some of the runaway sand. Hopefully, something proves useful. Until then, maybe Mississippi should hold off on the importing of sand and shift that cash to something more useful, like pumping in pretty Florida water. Good luck, Mississippi!
Day one ended at the home of friends Jinger and Dave in Gulfport, MS. It was so nice to see them again and tons of fun to get some time with the little ones. Also, I was super excited when Jinger cooked up black eyed peas, smothered greens, and okra for dinner. Shock and awe!
On day two, my dream of taking a boat out to Ship Island was crushed by inclement weather – thanks again, wind. Instead, I cruised up the beach to Biloxi to see what I could find.
I recorded a conversation with Coach Holmes of Tallassee, Alabama (now residing in Biloxi) as he discussed his career in football – both as a player and as a coach. The Edgewater Plaza Shopping Center in Biloxi, MS was a little noisy, but the stories are worth it. To hear this story and others please subscribe to the Slices of America Podcast.