Some days on this trip really stand out as highlights. Days when it all seems like a delight, and the hard work slogging up hills and through bad weather pays off. Thursday was one of those days.
Our night behind the petrol station proved to be a noisy one indeed, but at least we (and the tent) managed to remain quite dry, which is a huge blessing when it comes to getting moving in the morning. We made sure to get our tent packed up pretty quickly, as apparently the manager of the place didn't actually know about us camping out back, even though the people working there had given us permission to camp. We spent a little bit of time on breakfast and maps and checking Sundance's newly patched tyre, but still got going fairly promptly. Luckily, the highway was nowhere near as busy as it had been the previous night, and we had a reasonably stress-free cruise along it until the time came for us to turn right on the supposedly rough and nasty road we had been advised against.
Americans are nothing if not cautious. The "terrible" road was nice and quiet, and with none of the crazy race drivers we had been warned about. Mind you, we were wise to have waited until daylight to head down this road, because in the dark we would have missed the beautiful scenery. We happily ambled along, enjoying the wonderfully sunny weather and discussing the apparent ethnic divide in people's reactions to us. Just before we had set off on our bikes that morning, a pair of black girls had come up to us and asked what we were up to. They were really impressed when we told them, and asked to have their photo taken with us, which we happily went along with. Now, we have noticed that white people tend to tell us to be safe, ask us if we have lost our minds, point out the discomforts we are courting, and so on. By comparison, African Americans tend to get really excited and enthusiastic about our trip, and kind of treat us like we are celebrities of some sort. It's interesting, because we get the feeling that although segregation is no longer enforced, it still seems to prevail in a voluntary form, with black and white cultures viewing and reacting to the world in very different ways. We have a theory that white people are generally more reserved than black folks, and find their boisterous joie-de-vivre to be intimidating - leading to the (in our experience, completely mistaken) impression that African Americans are dangerous or unruly. With that in mind, it makes us all the happier that both ethnic groups seem to welcome us equally.
In any case, as we rode on, the landscape continued to become more coastal, and after a few kilometres, the bitumen stopped, and we were left with a packed dirt road. We shrugged and kept going, and found this to be one of our most enjoyable stretches of riding yet. The road was basically completely abandoned, we were surrounded by beautiful countryside, and the dirt underneath our tyres was getting sandier and sandier as we went along, occasionally riding through large, shallow puddles. We actually also figured out a way of mounting the camera on the handlebars of Yana's bike, so we have a few little videos of us cruising along that bit. Might have to see about getting that uploaded sometime.
After a brief discussion we decided to make a detour, in the name of actually hitting the beach and the Gulf of Mexico. It meant tacking about 16km onto our day, but we figured it would be worth it. We finished our little meander along the road and past the Katrina-splintered trees, crossed the freeway, and found ourselves back on a bitumen road. We had a very nice tailwind as we headed for the beach, and upon our arrival, we took our various victory photos, as we had now officially crossed the United States north to south, and not by the most efficient route, either.
Of course, we also made sure to symbolically dip our front wheels into the Atlantic:
After a celebratory serving of ginger snaps, and a Moon landing-like footprints-and-photos interval on the beach, we headed back to the freeway, braving a stiff headwind in order to do so. As we would have to follow the freeway for a while, it was very nice to see that there was an access road on the side that we could go on instead. Unfortunately, that one petered out after a while, and we had to move onto the real thing. Luckily though, the traffic was reasonably sedate, and we cruised our way to the Mississippi Welcome Centre, which is where the tours of the Stennis Space Centre start. This was probably the least welcoming Welcome Centre we've encountered, and it took a little bit of cajoling to get the folks there to let us put our bags somewhere safer than just the front porch, but they ended up locking them away in a little storage room, and we locked our bikes to a railing. We were just in time for the last tour of the day, actually, as the dirt road and the little jaunt to the beach had consumed quite a bit of time.
As we waited for the bus that would take us to Stennis, we had a look around the little bus terminal building, which, among other things, boasted a roughly 2 metre tall space shuttle made of lego pieces. Wowie!
After seeing the various facilities, the bus dropped us off at the on-site museum, where we grabbed a bite to eat in the 1950s-themed cafeteria, then looked around at the exhibits including some office furniture that belonged to Wehrner Von Braun, the command module capsule from Apollo 4, a real chunk of moonrock, and the like. Sundance's favourite exhibit, though, was the real N1 engine (the same kind that was used on the Saturn-V rockets) out the front.
Before too long it was time to re-board the bus and head back to the Welcome Center where we collected our bags and bikes, saddled up and rode off into the sunset, literally. On a few occassions during this trip we've intended to head west, but the cold weather has prompted us to go further south. Having reached the coast, we really do have to go west now, at least for a while, so we'll be heading into the sunset from now on. And what a gorgeous sunset we started this leg of the trip with. We rolled down a quiet back road towards the Louisiana border, through the town of Pearlington, and marvelled at the hues of the sunset on the clouds, the stillness of the evening, and the beauty of the trees weighed down with dangling moss. Photos don't really do it justice, but we can try;
We crossed over into Louisiana, and rode along with a banshee of a tailwind, powering through the 2000-mile mark of our journey, along a pleasantly flat, smooth stretch of road which unfortunately seemed to go on far too long. Eventually we grew weary and stopped for directions and snacks. We wound up at a restaurant in a Vietnamese community to the east of New Orleans where the food was tasty but the service was patronising (i.e. the waitress clearly thought that since we're Caucasian it was acceptable to tell us not to bother with reading certain parts of the menu, brought us western cutlery without asking if we would be using chopsticks, and the food required a great deal of extra hot sauce to make it acceptably spicy). We also received a voice mail message from our couchsurfing host, Darryl, checking how we were going, and discovered that we were out of phone credit so needed to buy some more before we could call him back and let him know our ETA. We stopped at a petrol station, astonished the folks working there with our tales of cross-country bike exploits, and then powered the last stretch of the way into New Orleans, to Darryl's place. There we were warmly received, dumped our gear, showered, and fell into bed, feeling extremely accomplished.
The following day we arose fairly late, and set out with Darryl for the town of Shreveport in the north-west of the state. We're currently at a get-together of local members of the couchsurfing community. The drive took us through Baton Rouge and on to Lafayette, where we stopped to pick up some slacklining gear at a camping shop, and said hello to the staff at the local rockclimbing gym. We had a Cajun meal for dinner, bought some groceries, and headed out to the farm where the get-together was happening. A group of folks were gathered around a campfire, drinking and chatting, so we met everyone, set up our tent, engaged in a drawn-out alcohol-fuelled political discussion, and eventually made it to bed.
The next morning (barely, morning) we arose to a soggy, foggy day. We headed to a local flea market to look around, where Yana bought a bracelet and necklace for a whole $2. Then we returned to the farm, for a yummy dinner of chicken stew prepared by our host Josh. Sundance was feeling creative and made a veggie curry to go with it, and eventually after chewing the fat with the other people present we climbed into our tent and headed for sleepy-land.