From New Orleans to Lake Charles: Bikin' in the Bayou
"Bienvenue!" the festive signs proclaim from the town limits. Only when one rolls closer does the translation "Welcome" appear in its tiny font. A preference for French isn't the only thing unique about this road connection. Traveling from New Orleans to Lake Charles on the swampiest routes in southern Louisiana, I've found out that the roads in Bayou Country are often the only dry spots of land around. That's life in the southernmost parishes. And although my Gold Wing 1800 has touring amenities enough that it practically drives itself, it couldn't possibly blend in here unless it had a rear prop or paddles.
Day One - New Orleans to Grand Isle (140 miles)
For the first leg of my trip I head south from New Orleans on US 90 to LA 1. This is the only road that will take me furthest south in Louisiana, to Grand Isle State Park. I'm warned several times about the law down here where the speed limit is 25 mph. You'll get no sympathy from the patrolman even if you're only going 26 mph, especially with out-of-state plates. This makes LA 1 extremely long and slow-going, but it gives me a chance to soak in the sights and sounds of life on the bayou. The steady, clanging sound of pile drivers can be heard over the hum of the Gold Wing and it reminds me of that dreadful Mardi Gras graveyard scene at the end of Easy Rider. "I don't think they'll make the parish line" runs through my head. Then I recall the fate of George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) and pray for better luck.
Land becomes increasingly spotty as I get closer to Grand Isle. Through the towns of Larose, Cut Off, Galliano, and Golden Meadow, I keep one eye on the speedometer. The deeper I get alongside the widening bayou, the more fishing vessels I see tied to docks beside the road. The bayou begins to seem more like a lake, and fishermen cast their bait from the roadside in the late afternoon.
Fishing, of course, is the main form of sustenance for most residents in the area. The Grand Isle population is only about 1,500, but during the summer, events like the Grand Isle International Tarpon Rodeo lure 15,000 vacationers to the little island. The slow, simple way of life at the bottom of the bayou is occasionally juxtaposed with views of offshore drills and oil refineries sunk like great monsters in the soupy muck not too far from the road. Somehow, the locals don't seem to notice - they just throw their lines into the water and gaze out upon long swaths of yellow and orange sunset, totally oblivious to any signs of industry other than their singing reels.
The road becomes the only strip of land not partially submerged by the salty water of the Gulf as the sun dips lower. As it meets the horizon in a huge pink ball, I arrive at the very tip of Grand Isle, where LA 1 ends. On the left, a scrabble of pipes resembling a colony of giant spiders supports the workings of a large oil refinery. On the right is the entrance to Grand Isle State Park, a well-kept park with beachfront camping, and full RV hookups, fishing and crabbing piers, and a lagoon and pond - a natural habitat preserve where the bayou has deposited silt for centuries. With a sky full of stars, the washing of the waves, and a soft pallet of sand to sleep on, this is the place for me tonight. Strolling the darkness down the beach before going to sleep, I come upon locals wading the surf with lanterns and spears, gigging flounder. Grand Isle also has plenty of reasonably priced motels, but catching a slice of local life camping at this pristine state park is worth the trouble of setting up a tent.