March 4 2011 by Jason Fogelson
The bad news: The temperature is 27 degrees Fahrenheit outside when I wake up at 7:00 am in my room at the BEST WESTERN PLUS St. Christopher Hotel in New Orleans.
I can't pick up my motorcycle until 9:00 am this morning, so I get ready, pack my things, and head down to the lobby for breakfast. I keep it light, just a bagel and some coffee (okay, and a muffin). The lobby cafe is abuzz with activity, a nice mix of young and old, tourists all sharing stories of their nights on the town, making plans for the coming day.
It has warmed up a little, to 32 degrees, as I check out of the hotel. I'm still pleasantly surprised by my first BEST WESTERN PLUS experience, and very pleased by the very reasonable hotel bill. I've found my new New Orleans hotel, and I will be back.
I arrive at EagleRider Rentals at 9:00 am on the dot, and get the rundown from Ryan, the shop manager. I'll be riding a beautiful black 2010 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic, the perfect bike for a long ride. The bike is in perfect condition, with just over 20,000 miles on the clock. I load my gear into the saddlebags and top box, and then spend a few minutes tinkering with my new GoPro Helmet Hero. I'm going to try mounting the little HD camera on the engine guard of the E-Glide, and set it to take a photo every 5 seconds. We'll see what I get. I'll move the camera around during the trip, and I'll post a selection (if any are interesting or good enough) on Flicker for you to see when I return home. Should be fun.
Ryan convinces me that he has a better route than I had planned, and prints out some maps for me. I'm heading for Jackson, Mississippi today, and I had plotted a fairly direct route that took me across the Causeway, a 24-mile bridge that crosses Lake Ponchartrain. Opened in 1956 (southbound) and 1969 (northbound), the Causeway is the longest bridge in the world, so I was looking forward to riding it. But Ryan's argument is a good one: It will be very cold over the water today, and the ride is straight as a ruler and boring as all get out on a motorcycle. Instead, he suggests that follow US 90 East out of New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast into Mississippi, and then pick up US 49 North in Mississippi. It will add about 40 miles to my ride, but it will be a much better day.
Ryan's advice was excellent. Despite the chill, it's a beautiful day. The crisp air and clear skies raise my spirits as a scoot along the coast.
New Orleans is still recovering from the ravages of Katrina, and the damage continued along the Gulf Coast. But the homes along the Gulf Coast seem to have bounced back more quickly than those in the city, and the beauty of the area is enhanced by some very lovely new construction. Most of the homes are built on tall pilings, and perch like storks above the beach and grasslands. It's a really elegant, unique area, and it's easy to see why homeowners are reluctant to leave, despite the ravages of nature.
As I approach Gulfport, Mississippi, I notice how white and clean the long beaches are. I don't see any evidence of the damage from the BP oil spill. I'm certain that it has taken a lot of work to do the cosmetic work to make things look clean again, and I know that it will take many more years to repair the environmental damage.
At Gulfport I pick up US 49 North, which will take me all the way into Jackson. I decide to push along past Hattiesburg before I stop for lunch. Hattiesburg is the home of the University of Southern Mississippi. Traffic through town is slow, with lots of construction blocking the road. But that gives me the opportunity to admire the Federal revival architecture of the campus, which borders the western side of the highway. It looks like a really nice place to go to school, if you're into that whole Temple of Academia kind of thing.
I finally pull off of US 49 when I see signs for "Historic Downtown Collins" at US 184. A mile east, and I discover the two block-long Collins, Mississippi, a quaint little Southern town if there ever was one. There's only one restaurant open in town, the Main Street Café. I arrive just after they've closed down for the day - but Steve, the manager, invites me in to the kitchen to load up a plate of leftovers. I select a roasted chicken breast and some collared greens, and Steve loads me up with double what I asked for, along with some ribs and corn bread. The food is fresh and delicious. Crystal, one of the waitresses, brings me some sweet tea and a slice of red velvet cake. The restaurant has cleared of customers, but one local guy sits down at my table and introduces himself. His name is Curly, and he's a biker. He recently retired from the Mississippi State Auditor's Office, but his real vocation has been riding his Harleys. He regales me with tales of 600-mile days, riding the Lower 48, and organizing HOG Rallies. He's a real road warrior, and a joy to talk with. I'm sure I'll see him on the road some day - probably far, far from Mississippi, on the way to a fabulous adventure.
Back on the bike, I ride on to Jackson, and quickly locate the BEST WESTERN Executive Inn. When I check in, Henry at the desk tells me about a big event that's happening at the Coliseum on the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, right across the street from the hotel. It's the Dixie National Rodeo and Livestock Show, one of the major events on the US Pro Rodeo circuit. I park my Electra Glide in the secure gated lot, bring my gear into the room and head across the street to check out the action. It's Friday night, and the box office sign says "SOLD OUT." I throw myself on the mercy of the box office manager, but to no avail. Miraculously, a single ticket gets released just as I turn to leave. I'm in, and for just $20.
I've never been to a rodeo before. I've seen them on television, but it's never occurred to me to attend. I'm very glad that I was in the right place at the right time tonight. The atmosphere inside the Coliseum is both relaxed and charged with enthusiasm. The crowd ranges from infants to octogenarians, and everybody is entranced with the action. The horses and steers are the real stars of the show, delightful with their enthusiasm and athleticism. I don't know anything about rodeo, but it is immediately apparent when a rider rises above the competition, even before the scores hit the board. I have as much fun watching the competition as I do watching the crowd, trying to imagine being part of a tradition like this. It's a great immersion, one of the happy coincidences that keep me on the road.
After the rodeo, I break one of my rules, and grab some fast food for dinner. Please don't be too disappointed in me - I promise to eat better for the rest of the trip.
Miles ridden: 240
Next: Jackson, Mississippi to Demopolis, Alabama