Love in the Ruins

A year after Katrina crashed the Big Easy's party, former local WELLS TOWER returned to check up on New Orleans's most beloved outdoor escape, the path on top of the Mississippi River levee. But, as he found, biking the high lonesome trail is no longer such an easy thing.

Katrina Floods New Orleans, September 2005     Photo: courtesy, US Coast Guard

There is a feeling of disquiet along the Mississippi River this morning. The water, usually the color of wet cardboard, glows an alien, electric blue. Clouds slide in from the Gulf of Mexico looking like they've been dragged through pools of used motor oil, and far on the southern horizon but headed this way are thunderheads bleeding black tendrils of rain, an army of marauding man-o-wars. I hunker down on my old maroon mountain bike and crank with a panicked vigor. It's September in southern Louisiana, hurricane season, and only a fool could stare into that storm-darkened sky without visions of Atlantis.

Well, I'm on high ground, at least—outside Baton Rouge, pedaling southeast along the gravel path that traces the spine of the Mississippi River levee, which snakes for 120 miles or so between here and New Orleans, a town I once called home. This part of the levee—a sloping, grassy ridge I'd guess is about 40 feet above the river—offers the only thing close to a vista in this terminally flat terrain, but this is not a trip I'd recommend to connoisseurs of pristine views. This leg of the river slinks through one of the country's greatest concentrations of oil refineries, toxic-waste incinerators, and fire-belching petrochemical plants. They line the river like dragons at the trough. The local atmosphere is allegedly so hospitable to rare tumors and exotic carcinomas that this route is known to locals as Cancer Alley, a moniker that does not appear on the brochures of bed-and-breakfasts in the region.

I'm taking two days to ride the levee not because I have a taste for toxic scenery but for weirder reasons that have to do with my particular love for New Orleans and my complicated feelings about this keloidal welt of earth, which for years has perverted the Mississippi and ostensibly guarded New Orleans while ensuring that, someday, it will all likely be rinsed into the Gulf.

When I lived in New Orleans, from the summer of 2002 to the spring of '04, I visited the levee daily to escape for an hour or two a city that, contrary to its best-known epithet, has never been a particularly easy place to live. I remember first meeting my backyard neighbor, who greeted me with a photograph of a gun-shot corpse she'd stumbled across nearby. "See how fresh he was?" she said, pointing out with pride the blood dripping from the dead man's mouth. (I lived in a "good" neighborhood, by the way.) My first hurricane season, I was the only person on my block anxiously boarding up windows, not having yet learned that heavy weather was properly confronted with a half-gallon jug of brown liquor and a cooler full of ice. I moved away in time to dodge Katrina, too much a fretful East Coast type to put down roots in soil perpetually sagging beneath my feet.It was not lost on me, however, that the sense of looming cataclysm—the feeling that each day might be your, and the city's, last—was part of what made New Orleans the most intoxicatingly vital, intriguing place I've ever been. I was then, and am now, in love with the city. But whenever the darker aspects got me down, I found the best panacea was pedaling along the levee path, a place I hold much dearer than Jackson Square or the oak cathedrals of St. Charles Avenue. On the levee, the sunsets were wild outrages enacted in rainbow-sherbet hues—an effect, perhaps, of the noxious effluent from the industryscape across the way. On the levee, riverborne breezes, smelling faintly of diesel, cut the city's airless fetor, which on summer days could make you feel as if you were drawing breath through a rotten sponge. On the levee, I could actually see the river, otherwise hidden from view, and be sure it was flowing at nonlethal levels. On the levee, most folks showed up in spandex, which was comforting: You could see nobody was packing heat.

After an hour or so on my bike, I'd go home restored in spirit. Butreturning now, a year after Katrina, with roughly 60 percent of New Orleans still in ruins, a longer voyage seemed required. So I set out from Baton Rouge full of desperate, nostalgic superstition—and the inarticulable hope that drives one to revisit a journey taken with a friend, now dead. On the path you once traversed together, you hope in some dim compartment of your heart that, somewhere along the route, she'll magically appear beside you, alive and well.

SIX GIANT BENDS IN THE MISSISSIPPI from Baton Rouge, in the town of Geismar, I zip past the abandoned hulk of the Workshop Lounge, a strip joint destroyed not by foul weather, I'm guessing, so much as lack of big spenders in this part of the state. It seems naked ladies are in less demand these days than "specialty chemicals." That's what they're busily manufacturing, amid spewings of dense white smog, at the mammoth Hexion plant across the river road, which is obscured by a column of stalled traffic.

Stuck in their sluggardly vehicles, those folks don't even see me flying along up here. I'm all alone: no cyclists, joggers, or strollers. Not even a disaster gawker, the newest species of tourist to swarm the Gulf Coast. But there's not that much to gawk at around here: Though this neck of the river swelled at least 12 feet in the three hours after Katrina first ran into the Mississippi 130 miles or so south of here—the water rose about 20 feet at that spot—the storm didn't make it here, sparing southern Louisiana a toxic-chemical bath of apocalyptic proportions. The sense of relief was apparently so overwhelming that nobody's much mentioned that the hurricane successfully swamped a few refineries to the east of New Orleans, dumping 170,000 barrels of oil—much of it into Louisiana's ailing wetlands. (This volume, though not to be sniffed at, pales in comparison to one of history's worst oil spills, the Ixtoc I exploratory well's hemorrhaging of an estimated 3,333,333 barrels into the Gulf of Mexico from June 1979 to March 1980).

Having chased the river for going on 40 miles now, I have yet to share any of T.S. Eliot's sense of fearful wonder when he described it as "a strong brown god," in his poem "The Dry Salvages." Lying flat on its back beneath a groaning oaf of a barge grinding through the channel, the river strikes me as more of a rough old whore—a one-eyed, gap-toothed, 400-pound truck-stop hooker with a mustache who, if she could just get free of her pimp, would stomp every ass in the land. The weary receptacle of countless kiloliters of ignoble fluids pouring from every urban gutter, cornfield, and industrial sump from here to Minnesota, the Mississippi inspires considerably less divine awe than the federal levee system itself, a 1,607-mile network that's arguably the most astounding feat of human brilliance and insanity this side of the Bomb. The Great Wall of China—what, repelled a few thousand Huns? This monster has survived a three-century assault by the third-largest river system in the world with only a few famous ruptures. Millions of people live under its protection. The Great Pyramid couldn't even protect its solitary ward from the sanctioned thievery of prying archaeologists.

Over countless millennia, the Mississippi River made Louisiana out of eroded fragments of no less than 30 other states, whose soils once tumbled south to spill across bayou country when the river jumped its banks. But with its flooding rights revoked by levees—from 1718 to 1803, the French used increasing amounts of slave and immigrant labor to shackle the river from Baton Rouge on down—the Mississippi vomits earth that might otherwise become Louisiana wetlands into the Gulf of Mexico at a ridiculous rate. (On average, 40 acre-feet get dumped before you've had your coffee.) Since 1932 alone, 2,117 miles of Louisiana coastline has vanished, with 34 additional miles sloughing off each year. And everybody knows the best flood-protection system at Louisiana's disposal is not the levee system but the wetlands, which shrink storm surges by a foot for every 2.7 miles traversed.

Before the levees were in place, hundreds of square miles of wetland stood between Lake Borgne, on New Orleans's eastern flank, and the Gulf of Mexico. Think about it. Its enclosing wetlands deprived of sediment for over two centuries, the lake is now little more than a scalloped embayment on the Gulf's shore. When Katrina hit, a 15-foot wall of water surged through Lake Borgne, toppling floodwalls and pretty much annihilating the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. Had the Mississippi never been leveed, the storm surge wouldn't have hit the city at such lethal heights, but, of course, without the levee there would have been no city for the surge to spare.

VOYAGING ON THE LEVEE, I'm learning, is a good way to announce to the locals that you're either up to something or a kind of despicable idiot. Outside a Shell refinery, a large, unamused woman with shoulders that would unnerve a longshoreman steps from a little steel booth camouflaged amid an intestine of ductwork, whips out a stout-handled broom, and begins violently whisking her threshold in an attitude of surveillant hostility, her knuckles standing out like walnuts. As I pedal briskly away from her, a guy astride a stalled four-wheeler, drinking beer next to a dumpster on the river road, watches my progress through a bend in the river with a look of squinting disbelief. A couple of miles past the refinery, I take a water break within sight of a trailer park, where two truant teenagers are watching a third turn lazy donuts on his bike. Their heads pan toward me for an appraising moment, so I raise a friendly hand to the fellow cyclist. He ponders the gesture for a moment, then flips me the bird.

Though today marks my return to the levee, I saw New Orleans a few days ago, on August 29, when I succumbed, along with a bristling horde of national media, to the arbitrary pretext that 365 days had passed since Hurricane Katrina blew through.

I had telephoned Mayor Ray Nagin's office to see if there were any important press gaggles I ought to go stand on the periphery of, but in the usual New Orleans style, the woman I'd talked to had neglected to return my calls. So I went down to St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward to stare dumbly at the American Pompeii. In St. Bernard, I drove past numbing acres of ranch homes with lines of lake silt up to their gables and chest-high jungles of weeds in their yards, bare lots where the homes had been scraped off, and the gutted shells of mold-splotched cottages with hopeless FOR SALE signs out front. I passed a burger joint that looked like a giant hand had crumpled it; the ghosts of drugstores, payday-loan places, and big-box husks; and a sad billboard ad for cheap wine that read REVIVE, RENEW, RIUNITE. The scene got me thinking about what comparatively cheerful, handsome places the local cemeteries are.

I drove back to town through the Lower Ninth, where the tsunami surging through the breach in the Industrial Canal had torn houses from their foundations with such force as to leave the sewer and water pipes beneath pretty much destroyed. I didn't see anybody down there except for a solitary teenage boy, who stood on a street corner with his jeans unzipped, one hand browsing around his underpants in distracted self-solace, while he gazed at cars passing under a dead traffic light.

I headed out to the neighborhoods of Lakeview and Gentilly and saw mullet and bream leaping happily in the London Avenue Canal, where temporary walls of iron sheet piling stood in front of the still-unrepaired gaps in the canal wall. A few hundred yards up from the breach, hard-hatted Army Corps of Engineers employees were at work on a set of floodgates. The walls themselves were nearly complete, though I was surprised to learn, in a later conversation with an anonymous ACE representative, that Congress has appropriated funds to restore the canal walls only to their pre-Katrina height, despite the outcry of the 1.4 million people these walls are supposed to protect. Washington, as it turns out, drove an awfully shrewd bargain when it came to rebuilding the flood-protection system. For the repair of 220 miles of levee and floodwalls around New Orleans, Congress has allocated only $6 billion. Which is considerably less than what we spend in a month in Iraq.

IF NEW ORLEANS WERE A BICYCLE, it would be the one I'm riding now: a machine of ancient vintage, deeply neglected, all but broken, but still beloved. Mail-ordered 20 years and thousands of virtually unmaintained miles ago, my ride is a primitive mountain bike made of something like recycled iron skillets. In repose, it radiates an elegant decrepitude. Occasionally, though, while in motion, it suffers from trembling jags that would impress a Canal Street drunk. Still, it served me well when I lived down here, and it knows the territory, so I felt we should make the trip together.

Another trait my bike shares with New Orleans is unpredictable violence. As I strained at the pedal wrench while dismantling the thing for travel crating, the bicycle bucked the tool in the manner of a matador flicking away his cape to lance a charging bull. I punched the rusty chainring with all my might, gouging a deep and well-greased wound shaped like Florida into my middle finger. Like a baby inhaling before it turns loose a good cry, the wound was dark and still. For a moment. I wrapped a sock around my hand and stepped out to the emergency room.

But I find that as I pedal along, my bike's gears slipping endearingly, I'm grateful for the wound. The raspberry leakage spreading on my cycling glove makes me feel the tiniest bit less guilty about the fact that this long and winding ride won't take me near anything resembling a climb.

I'm a couple dozen miles past Geismar when the levee path slips away from the river road just south of the town of Convent. No longer traveling parallel with the thoroughfare, I naively expect a modicum of peace, as well as a decrease in exhaust fumes. But I soon catch a whiff of woodsmoke and look down to see where a householder has set a sofa, among other things, aflame. I was hoping to see some wildlife. Moments later, I see an egret. Then a fox! The same brilliant orange of the garbage fire, he streaks across the path.

A mile or two later, I hear a clacking noise, the sound of a quickrelease flapping as my bike prepares to throw a wheel.

I'm busy mechanicking when someone bellows, "Goddammit, Tiger, get your ass over here!"

Tiger?

It's an awesome animal, flanks sleek and rippled like an Arab charger's, head like an anvil, teeth that could hold railroad tracks in place. Broad paws send up explosions of dust as it gallops toward me.

I look down the levee to see a guy in a camouflage jacket holdinga slack leash and frowning at the brindle-coat pit bull growing ever larger in my field of vision. I hunker behind my bike and hastily formulate a plan: I'll club the dog with the leaden frame. But as the beast gets closer, the bludgeoning strategy seems less appealing, so I mount up and start pedaling madly. For about half a mile, Tiger and I sprint downriver, our tongues lolling and lungs heaving in unison. For a beat I toy with the idea of tossing my carrot-cake-flavored energy bar at him, but Tiger doesn't look like a vegetarian. And he's gaining. Just as I'm trying to decide which extremity to feed him first, the dog runs out of juice. He scowls at me in my rearview. If he had a fist, he'd be shaking it.

A little while later, with dusk descending and an aerosol mist sifting down from the clouds, I turn off the path near Convent and bump and jounce through weedy hummocks down to a plantation turned bed-and-breakfast, where I've booked a room for the night. I've covered almost 70 miles, and I'm drained and spangled with briar scratches and the leggy remains of crushed mosquitoes. I grab dinner up the road at an amazing restaurant where two large soft-shell crabs go for an unheard-of $11 and three bucks gets you a Budweiser served in a goblet big enough for half a dozen goldfish. I totter back to the inn and sleep like a hammer.

I'm up early the next morning and go in to breakfast at seven o'clock. I meet the proprietress, whose name I don't catch, and the housekeeper, who's introduced as Miss Pat. I explain that I'm headed down to New Orleans. Miss Pat mentions that she lived there all her life—until the storm, which forced her up this way. With eggs congealing on the plates, we fall into a ritual shaking of heads and uttering of platitudes in the solemn, overwhelmed manner people lapse into when discussing horrors too big to say anything meaningful about.

"It sure was an awful thing," the innkeeper says.

"An awful thing," I concur.

"Yep," says the innkeeper.

"Yep," says Miss Pat.

IN 1851, A CONGRESS-DISPATCHED civil engineer paid a visit to New Orleans and came away so dismayed, he remarked to his mother that the public good might best be served if the Mississippi were to sweep the city away entirely. In the aftermath of Katrina, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, told the press it was his belief that rebuilding the city didn't make sense and that it should be, in large part, put under the bulldozer's blade. Evangelicals brayed from all quarters that Katrina was God's way of punishing a sinful city, some citing as proof the likeness between satellite images of the storm and snapshots of a human fetus in utero.

Though it's my position that these people might benefit from being flung on the nearest flaming debris heap, it's true that a vengeful god might find ample reasons to wipe New Orleans off the map (none of which have to do with the French Quarter's neon daiquiri stands or the swaybacked Bourbon Street strippers who perch on tourists' crotches for a fee). Indeed, to find America at its most dismal, you need look no further than New Orleans. Before the storm-induced diaspora, a quarter of the city's residents lived below the poverty level; literacy among its residents hovered around 40 percent; the murder rate was the highest per capita in the country, with housing projects turning out corpses with a grim, Baghdad-like efficiency; and the brutality of the police force was an institution as firmly entrenched as the Rex parade on Mardi Gras morning.

But among New Orleans's catalog of ailments, the vacant despondency that overwhelmed it on the morning of the 29th seemed a sort of woe the city had never known before.

From the French Quarter, I trekked over to the Superdome, where a jazz funeral for Katrina was supposed to be winding up. No brass bands were in evidence, but the scene was funereal all the same. The place was deserted except for two plastic grocery bags slowly circling each other in the asphyxiating heat. A news van passed by, a video camera angled out the sliding side door. I set off over vacant sidewalks cracked and sprung with hip-high weeds, traveling past remembrance ceremonies devoid of citizens but thronged with TV correspondents fumbling on camera for the proper chord of ponderousness and hope while their pancake makeup eroded in the heat. I ventured on, uptown, to my old neighborhood, not far from Audubon Park.

By noon, New Orleans already sweltered beneath a dizzying heat that made you feel like you had a car battery balanced on your head. How the late-summer sun, magnified by tin or asphalt shingles, must have felt to people stranded on their roofs for three days last year, I preferred not to imagine.

The streets in the Garden District, which for the most part had stayed dry during the storm, were silent. Every now and again, the gasp and wallop of a nail gun would pierce the stillness—or I'd hear the roar of 13-year cicadas, which, in grub form, had somehow slumbered safely in the ground with the floodwaters overhead.

I cut over from Prytania to my old block of Camp Street. The house I used to live in was still standing, if mangily, with a couple of clapboards missing and a few shingles absent from the roof. The view from the porch had changed, however. The duplex where a geriatric lady drug dealer once lived had burned to the ground, along with the house next door. In their place was a scalped lot. A disembodied stop sign lay where some front steps used to be; dangling from a pole at the intersection was a downed power line that somebody had gratuitously knotted into a crude black noose.

AFTER BREAKFAST AT THE INN, I drag my bike up the levee's dewy flank. The sky is like a bruise, clouds drawing to an ominous point. I'm still beat from yesterday, and I've got fifty-something miles to go, ground I'm sure I won't cover before the lurking storm hammers me at last.

I pedal out of Convent past a behemoth collection of towering grain silos; it looks like the world's largest six-pack of malt-liquor tall boys. I cycle past lusterless cliffs of anthracite, sugarcane fields, and sugar refineries so close to oil refineries you wonder how much light, sweet crude you're stirring into your morning coffee. I roll, inadvertently, onto the grounds of a gorgeous industrial facility, its huge carriageways, pipe complexes, and storage sheds all stained a vivid vermilion by some kind of dirt, which is evidently the place's chief product. A pickup truck crunches past me with a few workers in the bed; they're a brilliant red, too. I take a couple of photographs and get back in the saddle. I'm a few hundred yards down the path when a second pickup heaves into view. Before I can dodge it, the driver's door swings open and out steps a uniformed man with a head like a cinder block.

"I heard you been taking pictures," he says.

I admit that this is true.

"Let me see your camera."

"No, thanks," I say.

He sucks his teeth and gets back in the truck and places a call on his cell phone. He reemerges, still sucking his teeth but also trembling at the lip in barely repressed ill will. "I gotta say, it's migh-tee suspicious—you being out here like this."

I shrug.

"Let me see those pictures," he says.

I tell him thanks, anyway.

Another interval of tooth sucking ensues, and then the guy says, "We can do this two ways: Either you erase 'em or I make you wait here a few hours while I call the Department of Homeland Security."

I erase the pictures. Then he makes me scroll through the memory card to be sure. I show him a picture of a house, a parking lot, and a frog. "It's a tree frog," I tell him, adding that if it poses a threat to homeland security, I'd be happy to delete that one as well. I get back on my bike. The pickup makes a U-turn and creeps along behind me for a mile or so. I indulge a detailed fantasy about a day, years down the line, when I'll have a hard time explaining to a child about the lunatic era in American history when it was a matter of federal concern that a man had paused in his travels to take a snapshot of a dirt factory.

SOMEHOW A BEAM OF SUN has pierced the quilted sky and follows me like a searchlight.

Forty or so miles northwest of New Orleans in St. John the Baptist Parish, I ride through the backyard of a scrap-metal plant, where a backhoe is clangingly sculpting a drumlin of flood-ruined cars. Thirty miles out, I lose the levee at the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which shoots me down onto the shoulder of Highway 61. For the next few miles, I jockey for lane space with semis, navigating fan belts, hubcaps, and sprays of safety and nonsafety glass while praying against ruptured tubes—and experiencing very little of the wayfaring romance that inspired Bob Dylan and others to sing about this road.

At the far side of a causeway, in the suburb of LaPlace, I flag down a cop for directions back onto the levee. He wants to know where I've come from, and I tell him. He looks at me and says, "Son, that's a hell of a long way to ride on that old bike you got."

At 20 miles out, in the home stretch, the levee's dirt lane turns to asphalt. The going should be easier here, but a headwind sweeps in from the river and tries to bully me back upstream. I feel a sudden temptation to turn around, but I have to make New Orleans. Riding down into Jefferson Parish, I see lots crammed with FEMA trailers, blue-tarped roofs. A tide of damp spirits washes over me—and, as I pass beneath the ductwork of an Archer Daniels Midland plant, so does a silver chemical mist that smells like manure boiled in rancid wine.

I finally creak into view of the city, panting, my water bottles dry. I round a curve and there's the spartan Huey P. Long Bridge. It's a vista that once meant a lot to me, but today it doesn't do a thing to lift my mood. The levee itself has gone to seed. Its banks are shaggy with tall brown weeds, the mowing crews engaged with more dire problems. The city's pervasive silence has overtaken the levee path as well. It's Saturday afternoon, a time when, pedaling past the stilt houses on the riverbank, you used to catch the scent of a crab boil or sausages sizzling on the grill. The houses are all empty now. The private strip of land between the river and the levee used to teem with high school kids sullenly necking or smoking furtive joints, but it's bare this afternoon. No cyclists, either, or the packs of Tulane and Loyola coeds who used to jog up here in little more than underwear. At this moment, I feel a sudden empathy for a man I read about in The Times-Picayune yesterday. Another denizen of the levee for whom, perhaps, the restorative magic of the place gave out, he came up here recently—depressed about Katrina, according to the paper—and killed himself.

My bike has slipped into a terminal funk as well, its gears rasping with clotted mud and skeins of grass, and I have to stand on the pedals to get it to move. I catch sight of the spot where the path ends, but the cold wind redoubles itself and I can only creep forward. On the river, a casketlike barge slides upbehind me, bound for the Gulf and beyond—places far from here. It overtakes me at a glacial clip, so I start to give chase. But just then the sky falls apart, and the rain pours down in the worst sort of way.

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