In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
31 Aug - 6 Sep 2005
by Brian A. Hopkins

In which the brand new BMW F650GS Dakar and I sally forth amid the after-hurricane chaos to check on my family in Gulfport, Mississippi, traveling over 1,700 miles in less-than-ideal conditions. Sorry, no pics. You get more than enough of that on the news, and somehow I just didn’t feel right stopping and snapping photos of everything. It wasn’t a sightseeing trip.

 

Pre-Departure:

My Mom, Dad, and Grandmother live in Gulfport, MS, as do my wife’s father and 3 sisters (along with all the associated cousins, nephews, nieces, et al) – a fairly large group of “We done rode these suckers out before!” types. With Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast, I talked to my Mom and Dad on Sunday the 30th, trying to convince them to abandon ship. “Twelve hours on the road will put you at my front door,” I told my Dad. His reply was that I hadn’t been watching the news recently. Sure enough, CNN, the Weather Channel, and every other news source were showing bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling like crippled ants on every artery leading away from the coast. Gas station lines were horrendous (or so I thought at that time; turns out, it would only get worse). “So take the little scenic backroads,” I told him, suggesting several routes, knowing that, like most people in this country, he’s forgotten how to travel without using the interstate system. So what if it took 14 or 15 hours to reach me? “Or just get as far north as you can, then get a hotel somewhere.” He wasn’t buying. They’d ridden these storms out before. If they left, they didn’t know when they’d be able to get back to their house. They had their animals to worry about. Grandma (who’s 88) doesn’t travel well. And so on.

Monday morning, as the storm pounded them, I spoke to my Dad at 10 a.m. Mom and Grandma were hunkered down in the laundry room (central location in the house), while Dad was doing exactly what I do in a storm: pacing the house, peering out every window to see what’s going on, and standing ready to combat the intrusion of Mother Nature into his domicile. Dad said it sounded like a freight train was bearing down on them. He couldn’t see across the yard to any of the houses around him because of the blinding wind and rain. “I think I’ve lost about 80 percent of the shingles off the roof,” he told me. I asked how he knew. “Because I can see them all over the yard.” He could also see that the roof was gone off the greenhouse that I had built for them about 9 years ago. He said it sounded as if the garage doors might have blown in because there was a lot of racket coming from the garage, but they were afraid to open the door and check what was going on out there. He’d heard at least one tree come down on the roof, but didn’t think it had punched through into the attic. And they were taking on water in the bedroom on the east side of the house.

There was nothing I could do except tell them to be careful and that I’d call back later to check up on them again. When I tried to call back at 10:45, I got that rapid busy signal which indicates you’re not getting through. As Monday progressed and what little news coming out of that area painted a grim picture, I continued to get either that signal or the “We’re sorry, but your call cannot be completed at this time” recording.  

As Monday agonized on, the news just got worse. I tried calling every 15 or 30 minutes with no luck. Give me Oklahoma tornadoes over these friggin' hurricanes any day of the week.  Tornadoes don't pound on you for eight to ten hours!  They generally breeze through (no pun intended) and it's all over in 15 minutes or so.  And Oklahoma weathermen, despite still not having a clue when or if it's going to rain, have gotten damn good at pinpointing the tornadoes, generally telling you the exact intersection at which they've touched down (valuable information if you're just down the street!).

Monday night, I got out my motorcycle touring checklist and started pulling gear and equipment together, ticking them off on the checklist. “What are you doing?” my wife asked. I told her that she knew what I was doing. I told her that if damage was as bad as they had said t would be, I probably couldn’t reach the Gulf Coast in my truck, four wheel drive or not … but the Dakar could make it. I had just the previous weekend mounted a set of knobby tires on the bike – Dunlop 606’s to be precise. The GPS was mounted. I had bought the hard cases for the bike. In short, it was ready for traveling.  

Tuesday dragged on with no word. Just that steady stream of bad news on the television.  Most of the focus was on New Orleans, which had me worried that they just couldn’t get camera crews to the Gulfport/Biloxi area because the damage was so severe.  I agonized over whether I should leave or not.  My biggest fear was that I would pass them somewhere on the road.  I knew my Dad would have been smart enough to have plenty of gas and an “escape bag” containing the essentials they would need for survival.  If the situation was completely untenable, they’d be trying to reach me. But what if they were hurt?  What if the garage had collapsed on his vehicle and they had no way to escape or simply couldn’t get through because all the roads were now blocked?  I paced and I fretted and I see-sawed back and forth about hitting the road. My wife and I couldn’t turn off CNN, desperate for any news. Whenever they did report on Gulfport and Biloxi, it was all bad, completely focused on the beachfront where the devastation was nearly 100%. Our families lived about 8 miles inland; surly the storm surge hadn’t extended that far?  Aggravatingly, there was little or nothing being reported about the rest of Mississippi.  

I packed the bike and waited. For every reason I thought of to leave, I thought of two other reasons to stay and wait in the hope of hearing from them.

Wednesday morning, Sarah, one of my wife’s sisters, finally managed to get a cell phone signal and called out.  My wife’s family was fine. Sarah didn’t know about my parents and grandmother, but said that she would try to get over there and check. Though Sarah's home had weathered the storm with minimal damage, the motorcycle shop that they'd opened just a couple months ago was completely gone, along with all the bikes and merchandise inside.  She didn’t get to relay much information because the cell phone connection lasted only a couple minutes.  All attempts to reestablish contact failed.  Just after lunch, we got another call from Sarah.  My parent’s were “okay,” but my mother was in tears the whole time Sarah talked to her. My mother said, “I can’t believe Brian’s not already here.”  (Ouch.) Again, the connection was lost after just a couple minutes and couldn’t be reestablished.  We didn’t know what “okay” meant.  We didn’t know the extent of the damage to their house or if they were receiving fresh water and food.  

Wednesday afternoon, I strapped the last of my things on the bike and geared up. The news was full of reports of rioting and looting and raping and the general collapse of civilization as we know it in that area of the world.  “Are you taking a gun?” asked my wife.  I showed her the Beretta 9mm in my bags.  Fighting back tears, she suggested I carry it in a shoulder holster.  She asked me not to go when I backed the bike out of the garage.  She was afraid I’d ride off and become just be one more person she couldn’t reach and had to worry about. That was a very real possibility, I knew. I assured her that I’d be careful, that I would assess the situation down there as quickly as possible and get them out if necessary.  I wasn’t going down there to help them fortify a hopeless situation; I was going down there to take charge and make them face reality.  There’s no sense standing guard over a shattered shell of bricks and some material belongings.  

“But what if you can’t get through?” she asked, her eyes full of tears.  

“Then I’ll turn around and come home,” I told her, “with nothing lost in the attempt but some time and gas money.  But don’t worry, I’ll get through.”  

Then I started the Dakar and began the journey.

 

Wednesday Evening, 31 Aug 05:  

It only took a mile or two of interstate to realize that the BMW, with all my gear loaded on the back, wasn’t going to fly like the wind. At anything over 70 mph, the front end was dancing about and threatening a serious tank-slapper.  As 18-wheelers screamed past me and I got caught up in their turbulence, I was in serious jeopardy of losing control of the bike.  The new front tire must be poorly balanced or something.  Or the bike just wasn’t going to do those kinds of speeds with the D606 tires, which are billed as 90/10 tires afterall – that’s 90% OFFroad. I had a similar problem when mounting Metzler Karoos on my Triumph Tiger, but it wasn’t this serious. With the Tiger, the front end wobble had lessoned over time, as the tire scrubbed in. I could maybe hope for the same improvement here.  But in the meantime, I needed to get off I-40 before I became roadkill.  I took the nearest exit and accepted the fact that it was going to be a very long ride from OKC to Gulfport. I’d been riding the bike to work for the last week at speeds up to 80 mph with no problem, so a big contributor to the problem had to be the load. The only way to lighten my load would be to leave my camping gear behind, but I had no idea where I might have to bivouac beside the road in Mississippi. I’d already cut everything else to the bone, keeping things like clothing to a minimum, and I'd foregone carrying any food or emergency supplies for myself or my family.  I’d even set aside the small axe that I'd wanted to take in case I needed to cut a path through any downed foliage.  The only heavy items that I could have perhaps done without were the Beretta and my Maglight … but the latter seemed rather essential and the former had eased my wife’s mind.

Already, mere minutes into the journey, I was wondering if I was on a fool's errand.  Doubt's the worst pillion to carry on a motorcycle, though, so I did my best to put such thoughts out of my mind and concentrate on the road.  

I was hoping to make it into southwestern Arkansas before dark. However, checking the GPS to see when the sun would retire made it clear that I wasn’t going to see Arkansas tonight unless I planned to ride in the dark.  As it was, it was 9:30 and pitch black when I rolled through Broken Bow, Oklahoma (extreme southeast corner of the state) and sought out a campsite at Beaver’s Bend State Park. I put up my tent beneath a moonless sky, using the bike's headlight to kick aside rocks and sticks. It was hotter’n Hell with not a hint of precip, so I left off the rainfly in order to keep the tent cooler. I crawled in and tried to sleep, worried about what I’d face tomorrow.  Again I was assaulted by doubts.  I wanted to call my wife to see if she had heard anything further, but of course I didn't have a cell phone signal.

Beaver’s Bend was much quieter than the last time I was there.  There were hardly any other tents and I had seen only a few RVs motoring through that area of the park. A hoot owl started asking his timeless question.  Somewhere in the forest some animal literally screamed, and a second later there was a great rustling of wings as something large swooped over my tent enroute to discover WHO was being eaten alive.  

Sleep was elusive. My mind was busy imagining all the situations I might encounter tomorrow.  What if they were hurt? What if the National Guard turned me away at gunpoint?  What if their house was a pile of rubble and I had no earthly idea where they were? What if?  What if? What if?  

Something came snuffling and rustling around my tent.  “What the hell is that?” I wondered. I got out my flashlight, eased the tent flap open just enough to look out, and stabbed a beam of light into the darkness. I’m not sure who was more surprised to find our faces little more than a foot apart, the armadillo or me. Picture his surprised expression, if you will: ears at full attention, onyx eyes as big as saucers, and little porcine mouth in a startled “O.”  He spun his armored personnel carrier body around as if it was on wheels and motored away into the darkness at something approaching lightspeed.  Laughing, I clicked off the light and resumed my quest for sleep, the sheep I’d been counting now taking on the shape of armadillos, which don’t jump fences very well at all.  

Total mileage for the day: a meager 226 miles.

 

Thursday, 1 Sep 05:  

I was up 45 minutes before the GPS predicted sunrise. I was packed and mounted no more than 20 minutes later, then it was up a steep bank and through some trees to the park road and motoring south.  I congratulated myself on having entirely missed the Park Ranger, thereby saving myself the $8 camping fee. When a rabbit darted out in front of me, I reminded myself that every critter in the state was probably still out and about their nightly errands.  Rabbits don’t bother me, but I’ve had my fill of hitting deer, thank you very much.  

I’d no sooner thought about them than there they were: three deer standing on the right side of the road, watching me coming.  “Just stay right there,” I whispered.  “Don’t you fucking move.” They didn’t. I was patting myself on the back for having spotted and avoided the forest rats, when two deer suddenly came charging at me from the opposite side of the road.  I had quit scanning the left side of the road as soon as I’d spotted the deer on the right – pretty damn stupid of me.  Both deer were running like every hunter in Oklahoma was hot on their hooves. The nearest one was on a direct collision course for the side of my Beemer!  

Swerve left or swerve right or hold my line?  Swerving seldom works, ‘cause who knows what the friggin’ deer is gonna do? They all have kamikaze running through their veins. With less than a second to decide, I didn’t take any evasive action and there really wasn’t time to brake (especially not with the totally unimpressive brakes on the Dakar). Instead, I raised my left boot from the peg and prepared to deliver a massive kick.  I was out of the seat, standing up on the right peg, determined that I was going to just boot that sonofabitch to the ground and ride right over it.  When this is over, Bambi, you are going to be explaining those tire tracks down the middle of your back for weeks!  I am not going to crash here!  

The deer was so close, I swear I could smell it.  I could clearly see the fear in its eyes.  The deer didn’t want to collide with me any more than I wanted to collide with it. At the last instant, it leaped. I ducked, and the deer sailed by, just barely missing my head.  Then I was past it, laughing nervously, berating myself for not doing a better job of scanning the roadside.  

Coming into Idabel, Oklahoma, with the rising sun prompting me to switch back to my tinted visor, an approaching motorist flashed his lights at me.  I slowed down a bit, expecting a speed trap.  Instead, there was a dog standing in the road ahead … only, as I drew nearer, I saw that it wasn’t a dog, but a coyote, closest thing to a wolf that you’ll find in Oklahoma.  

The coyote didn’t budge as I approached.  He stared right at me as I slowly rode around him.  Just stared with those dark unfathomable eyes. I got chills up and down my spine. What sort of omen is this? The wolf has long been a totem for me, a spiritual familiar if you will.  And here’s the wolf’s kissing cousin standing in the middle of the road trying to tell me something. Turn back?  Hurry? I’ll be watching out for you? I just don’t know.  

I turned in the saddle and looked back as the first buildings of Idabel echoed the exhaust note of the BMW Dakar.  The coyote was still standing back there, watching me.  

It doesn’t get any eerier.  

I considered stopping in Idabel for breakfast, but I felt the need to cover some ground, and the deer and coyote encounters still had me a bit creeped out. I was wrestling with the nagging feeling that this trip wasn’t going to go well.  Part of it stemmed from worry and anxiety. Part of it came from the outcome of my last road trip – that whole “Death of the Tiger” business that you can read about on my website (http://bahwolf.com), the short version of which is that my Triumph Tiger’s engine threw a rod and the bike left me stranded in the Four Corners area of New Mexico.  No reason to feel the Dakar would let me down, mind you – in fact, the bike was running beautifully, with the exception of that high speed wobble – but this was my first significant trip since that fateful outing and, well, “once bitten, twice shy,” as the cliché goes.  Add to these feelings the coyote encounter, and I had a spine-tingly “someone’s walking on my grave” trepidation that I just couldn’t shake.  

Anyway, after topping off the BMW’s gas tank and changing the visor on my Shoei, I hot-footed it for Arkansas, following that series of 90-degree turns Highway 3 makes as it leaves southeastern Oklahoma. The only reason I can come up with for why the road zigzags the way it does through there is that a bunch of landowners must have held out and insisted that the road be laid out between property/section lines “back in the day.”  It makes for a strange conclusion to Highway 3, however, which runs a nearly straight southeasterly course from OKC to this point.  

The “Welcome to Arkansas” sign got a little “Woohoo!” and a fist pump from me as I passed it, simply because it seemed to have taken an intolerable amount of time to get there. I was discovering that I certainly can’t cover ground on the little BMW the way I can on my ZZR1200.  

A direct line to Gulfport would take me through Texarkana and down through a significant portion of Louisiana to cross the Mississippi River at either Vicksburg or Natchez – just briefly nipping the southwestern corner of Arkansas, in other words – but I was worried that a lot of people fleeing New Orleans might have followed I-49 to the north.  They might be holed up all along I-20, from Shreveport to Vicksburg, having bought all the available gasoline.  Of course, I’d had no news of the situation since leaving the house the previous afternoon. For all I knew, all of southern Louisiana might be under martial law by this time.  So I decided to traverse the southern length of Arkansas, working my way eastward via Highway 82. Texarkana became Magnolia became El Dorado as the morning wore on. I finally ducked down into Louisiana and the town of Bastrop, where I turned east again on Highway 2.  

Gas stations were starting to feature inflated prices, lines, and signs on some of the pumps saying “No gas.”  One of my worries was passing the BMW’s point-of-no-return, that distance where I no longer had sufficient range to get back to the last place where there was available gas. I decided that I’d better play it safe. With a range of something like 240 miles on the Beemer’s small tank, I decided not to travel any farther than 100 miles without topping off.  With the bike averaging in the low to mid 60’s, that was only about a gallon and a half, but I definitely didn’t want to run out of gas.  

Just west of Oak Grove, Louisiana, I spotted a little country-store-slash-gas-station with just one pump that still had gas and no line, so I pulled in to top off.  At the diesel pump, there was a guy with a 250 gallon tank in the back of his pickup. He was pumping away, the sale on the pump already reading over $500.  Noticing his truck bore Mississippi tags, I went over to ask him about the roads to the south.  Would I be able to find gas? Were there trees down across the road? What about the police and the military?  

The guy was John Jones, owner of Barefoot Lumber in Florence, MS. He needed diesel for his business and there was none to be had where he lived, so he’d driven this far north, bought the tank, and was taking the diesel back.  His wife and daughter were with him.  “Where are you heading?” he asked, and I explained.  “You’ll never get through. There’s no gas and the roads are blocked with everything imaginable.”  I pointed to the bike, screwed on my best “Adventure Rider” face, and told him I could ride over or around most things I might encounter (doing my best to convince even myself). “You’d better find a gas can and carry extra gas then.”  I explained that I had called a gas station in Natchez the day before and they’d told me they still had power and were selling gas.  I’d figured that if I could top off in Natchez, I could just maybe coast into Gulfport on fumes. He pointed out that just because there was gas there yesterday did not mean there was gas there today.  

“If you go,” John said, “– and I’m not trying to scare you here, mind you – you’d better be prepared to see some horrible things. There are dead bodies everywhere.”  

Sure sounded to me like he was trying to scare me.  Truth be told, he was, too.  

When I saw his wife Debbie trying her cell phone, I asked if she had a signal, because I hadn’t been able to reach my wife all morning on my own phone. She did have a signal and offered to let me borrow her phone so I could check in.  While John and his family went into the store to pay for their diesel, I called home and got chewed out for not having called sooner.  My explanation that I hadn’t had a cell phone signal didn’t suffice.  My wife had been worried to death. When I told her what John had said and that I was worried I might not find gas after this stop, she wanted me to turn around and come home.  Her sister Sarah was trying to leave the area and couldn’t find gas to get out. My wife had been calling around all morning, using the internet to find phone numbers for gas stations in every little podunk Mississippi town. The few that she’d been able to reach on the phone (including a station in Natchez) had told her that they had no gas. I explained my 100 mile point-of-no-return strategy and promised her I would turn around and backtrack to a known source of fuel if I had to.  That seemed to satisfy her.  

When I went in the store to return Debbie’s phone, I found the three of them sitting down to chicken-fried steak dinners.  There were four plates. John explained that he’d mistakenly ordered four meals instead of three and told me I might as well sit down and eat. Was it obvious that I hadn’t eaten all day? (This was about 2 in the afternoon.)  

“Look,” he said, as we ate, “if you’re determined to go, here’s the route you need to take.”  He proceeded to outline a route down 65 to Natchez and across the river, the way I’d been planning to go anyway.  “I’m betting you won’t find any gas south of I-20, so you’d better fill up in Tallulah.” He gave me his card. “If you get in trouble, if you need ANYTHING, you give me a call.”  

Several people at other tables overhead the conversation and wanted to know where I was heading. When I told them, they all shook their heads and said I wouldn’t be able to get through. “It’s bad down there,” they said, “really bad.”  

After eating as much as I could get down, fretting about the time that I was wasting, I thanked John and his wife. He said again that I was to call him if I needed anything, anything at all.  “I hope your parents are okay,” he said.  Nicer, more caring people you could not possibly hope to encounter on the road, that’s for sure. Thank you, John and Debbie.  

I turned south on Highway 17 in Oak Grove.  At I-20, the gas stations were open, but the lines stretched a quarter mile or more. I grabbed the interstate and shot east to Tallulah. The situation there was worse. I knew I had enough gas to reach Natchez and, worst case, if there was no gas to be had there, I probably had just enough to double back to I-20 ... maybe. I didn’t want to wait in line for an hour or so.  As it was, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to make it into Gulfport before dark. I knew there were curfews in effect. And who knew what obstacles or dangers might lay ahead that would only become more complicated in the night? I couldn’t afford to waste time sitting in gas lines here.  

I turned the Dakar south on highway 65 and pressed on.

On Highway 65, I started seeing the first signs of storm damage. Nothing major, just a few trees torn down. I was the only traffic heading south. There was a steady stream of vehicles going in the opposite direction.  Many of the vehicles had multiple cans of gas strapped to luggage racks.  I scanned the drivers’ faces as they passed, searching for some indication of what lay ahead. The road was straight and boring, with Mississippi Delta farmland on either side.  Somewhere – it might have been the town of Waterproof – I came across a gas station that still had gas.  $3.49 per gallon. There was a sign on the pump: “$10 limit. Cash only. You MUST pay in advance.  Absolutely no gas sales after dark.”  I went in and handed the woman a $10 bill, but told her the bike wouldn’t take more than $4 at most. I’d only come about 70 miles since topping off in Oak Grove.  

I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last gas station stop for me. I was about 300 miles from Gulfport – approximately 60 miles beyond the range of the BMW.  

I asked a cop at the gas station about roads to the south and the availability of gas. He said he didn’t think there was gas available anywhere to the south and he didn’t think I could get through to Gulfport, but he admitted that he really didn’t know anything for sure.  Several other motorists, all leaving southern Louisiana, confirmed the fuel shortage and told me I should turn around and go home.  “You don’t want to be driving into that mess” was the consensus.  

Highway 65 carried me to the bridge over the Mississippi River at Natchez. “Welcome to Mississippi.” I wanted to give a little warhoop, but I was depressed by what I could already see on the far bank.  The gas stations there were either roped off with signs saying “No gas” or beset with long lines of cars. I could join the lines, which didn’t appear to be moving at all, or press on and hope to find gas somewhere ahead. Waiting in line meant getting into Gulfport even later. Pressing on meant running the risk of being stuck alongside the road with a 400 pound motorcycle with an empty gas tank. Since I was only 30 or so miles into a full tank anyway, it hardly made sense to wait in line … but I knew that without gas, I would fall short of reaching my destination.  

I pressed on.  

I took Highway 84 out of Natchez, heading east through richly-scented pine forests.  Highway 84 is a major byway, mostly divided 4-lane.  I was the only vehicle heading east and as the late afternoon progressed, there were fewer and fewer vehicles in the opposing lane.  Damage became more prevalent. There were a significant number of trees down. Homes with shingles missing and roof damage. Collapsed utility buildings. Debris here and there. But the road was clear.  I watched for signs of electricity in the homes that I passed, but didn’t see any. When the stop lights quit working, I knew that I had finally entered Mississippi’s “dead zone.” When I had left home, CNN had been reporting that something like 80% of Mississippi was without power.  

It was along 84 that I started to notice how the African American people of Mississippi had come together to help one another.  You’d see a home beside the road and seated out front, perhaps around a smoking barbeque pit, there’d be a whole extended family enjoying the evening and each other’s company (much too hot to be indoors with the electricity off, of course). Off to the side, there’d maybe be a half a dozen tents where friends and relatives who had fled the coast were camped out. I’d wave as I passed and they’d wave back from their lawn chairs.  

All the gas stations along Highway 84 were roped off.  “No Gas.”  

As the miles droned on, it became more and more obvious to me that I was going to wind up pushing the Dakar.  

Where 84 met I-55, there were several gas stations, one of which was still open. The lines of cars stretched for miles. I got on I-55 and headed south to the next exit, a little town called Bogue Chitto.  There was one gas station with just a few vehicles sitting at the pumps.  It wasn’t until I stopped that I noticed no one was actually pumping anything. Rumor was that a truck would be delivering gas in the morning. These were people sleeping in their cars, hoping to fill up tomorrow.  I talked to everyone I could, but the story was the same.  There was no gas. The roads to the south were blocked. You don’t want to go to Gulfport.  

I checked my odometer.  Checked my map. I had passed the point of no return.  

There was a house across the street with a family sitting out front on their porch. I walked across and asked if they had a gallon of gas they would sell me.  Just one gallon is all I need, I told them.  They didn’t have any gas.  

My best chance of finding gas might be in sticking to the interstate, but I felt that heading any further south on I-55 would put me too close to New Orleans. I needed to go east, but there was nothing but pine forests between here and Hattiesburg. And I suspected Hattiesburg, just 60 miles from the coast, might have taken a pretty good hit from Katrina.  I couldn’t count on them having the electricity needed to run gas pumps. And they would be under curfew.  

I got on the bike and went east through the silent little burg of Bogue Chitto. I didn’t get far, though, before I came to the Bogue Chitto River and a bridge that was out. I’m not sure if the hurricane took the bridge out or if it’s been under construction for some time – work on the bridge actually looked “pre-hurricane.” All I knew for sure was that I was stopped and would only waste more time and gas by doubling back and finding another way over the river to the north or south.  

Beside the road was the most stereotypical hillbilly family you could imagine. Dirty bare feet.  Coveralls with no shirts underneath.  Straw hats. They looked like they’d just walked off a movie set. Several of them had walked out to the road to stare at the bike while I sat there contemplating my next move. “Guess I won’t be going this way,” I said to a guy who looked as if he’d spent his whole life plowing fields. He had one of those t-shirt tans under his coveralls, arms brown as mud from a point just above the elbows and beluga whale white above, the sun-darkened ring around his collar from which the term “redneck” had originated.  

“You kin get ‘round,” he said.  “Foller the crick down thataway.”  He pointed.  

“I can get through to 583?”  

“Yep.”  

I thanked him and asked if he might have a gallon of gas that he’d be willing to sell me, explaining that I was going to wind up a gallon short of reaching my destination.  

“Ain’t got no gas.”  

His detour worked. Down around by the “crick,” then up and over an old plank bridge worn smooth by generations of Bogue Chitto folk, then down a rutted dirt road that went under the far side of the bridge that was under construction.  I was glad I hadn’t ridden the ZZR.  I did wonder, though, as I was riding down into the river bed under the close, dark trees, if I might have been set up for some sort of ambush.  Guess I’ve seen too many horror movies.  

Coming up the far bank of the river, I passed a guy giving his kid a ride on an ATV. I asked if he could spare a gallon of gas. He got all suspicious looking, revved his ATV, and said he didn’t have any gas, that he’d drained the last cup or two out of his lawnmower just so he could give his kid a short ride on the ATV. Then he zoomed away before I could say thanks anyway.  

As I turned south on Highway 583, the damage intensified.  There were pine trees and power poles down on the road, along with all manner of debris. Few of the homes were untouched. All were missing shingles. Most were missing significant sections of roof. Many had trees through the roofs – huge Ponderosa Pines that tower 70 to 100 feet tall and smash flat anything they come down on.  I wove my way through the debris field, going offroad where necessary, jumping the Dakar over branches, “thump-thumping” over downed power lines, worried about getting a flat tire the whole time. I was carrying a bottle of Slime tire sealant and a small air compressor (powered from the BMW’s accessory outlet) for such an emergency, but didn’t have spare tire tubes or even a patch kit.  

This area is a predominately black population.  I passed family after family, out on their porches or in their front yards to escape the heat indoors. I’d wave and they’d wave back. Whenever I saw a family fairly close to the road, I’d pull over and asked them how they were doing, if they were holding up okay. They’d ask where I was going and if I needed to stop and rest.  I turned down several invitations to stop for dinner or stay the night.  Here were these poor black families, many sitting beside the shattered shells of their homes with no idea when they might have electricity or be able to go to the grocery store again or whether their cousins in New Orleans or Biloxi were dead or alive, and they were worried about MY safety.  

No one had a gallon of gas they could spare me.  And each stop only wasted more of the precious fuel that I had.  The sun was going down. Though I felt safe traveling among these people, I knew that once it got dark I could probably no longer approach them as I had been.  That’s not a racial observation, mind you.  Mistakes happen under such conditions as we were experiencing.  These people had every right to put the safety of their families first and foremost, and I wouldn’t blame them at all for being nervous if approached by a lone motorcyclist in the middle of the night.  

Near the little town of Ruth, Mississippi, I came upon an old man whose home was totally surrounded by downed pine trees – HUGE pine trees – most of which had managed, miraculously, to miss his home. It looked as if he had literally chainsawed his way out his front door.  Though it appeared he had been working all day long, his home was still buried in pine boughs, one of which had collapsed the back corner of his home.  When I rode up, he was sitting on a massive tree trunk – over 3 feet in diameter – from which he had cut off all the branches.  He looked totally exhausted. The tree was stretched across his front yard, parallel to and less than ten feet from his home. It had snapped in two at a point about 40 feet up from the ground.  The section on the ground was 80 feet long.  Had it come down on his roof, his house would be completely flat.  

We exchanged stories and I explained my gas situation.  He said he wished he could help, but he didn’t have any gas. I knew that wasn’t true, because he had gas for his chain saw, but perhaps everything he had for his saw was already mixed with oil, which meant I couldn’t use it in the bike. I thanked him and went back to the bike to press on. He followed me out to the street to look the bike over, making the usual comments about not knowing that BMW even made motorcycles.  I told him I needed to get moving because it would be dark soon and I needed to find that gallon of gas, thanked him again, and told him not to work too hard moving all those trees in this heat.  Then I reached for the starter button.  

“Hold on a minute, young fellow.”  (At 44, I’m still wondering when people will quit calling me that.)  “Come to think of it, I might have some gas.”  He hobbled off to a shed behind his house, while I sat and waited.  A minute later, he came out of the shed with a 5 gallon can in tow.  From the way he was having trouble carrying it, I could tell that it was full. I got off the bike and walked down to take it from him.  

“I just need a gallon,” I assured him, as I opened the fuel cap on the bike and started pouring in gas.  Actually I probably took less, knowing the old man was worried that he might need that gas for his own family.  

“I’m sorry I can’t just let you fill ‘er up,” he said.  

“Not a problem,” I assured him.  “This is all I need. If necessary, I know my dad will have gas in his vehicles that I can siphon off to get back out of there. I just need enough to coast into Gulfport.” I pressed a five dollar bill into his hand.  

“Oh, you don’t have to…”  

I insisted that he keep it.  I thanked him again, shook his hand, and gave him one of my cards, remembering John Jones’ gesture. “If you’re ever in Oklahoma and need anything…”  

Then I was back on the bike and moving again, no longer worried about whether I would have enough gas to make it.  Who is it that’s quoted as having said “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers”? [Addendum: of course this line comes from Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire.] Disaster really can bring out the best in all of us.  My trip was proving that whatever bad things were happening in New Orleans – and other places as well, perhaps – were anomalies.  The real human response to disaster, the NATURAL response, was seen here along the roads that I traveled, where the genuine concern for one another – even for strangers – was evident. It didn’t matter that I was white and most of these people were black when it came to offering me a meal and a safe place to sleep.  I’d been worried enough to bring the 9mm, but there’d been no one on my journey who’d done less than wish me good luck and do what they could to speed me on my way.  

The sun was setting as I rolled into Tylertown and turned east on Highway 98, another major artery in southern Mississippi. 98 would take me into Hattiesburg, where I could connect with Highway 49 and shoot for the coast.  There were more direct routes, but 583 had shown me that there was still a lot of debris on smaller roads. I was worried about navigating through this stuff in the dark – and, of course, there are always those damn deer to worry about.  I was also getting pretty tired. I’d been in the saddle nearly nonstop (except for eating lunch with the Jones family) for over 13 hours. My ass was complaining that at some point in time the seat on the Dakar had become a two-by-four.  

Just outside of Hattiesburg, in the suburb of Bellevue, I was assaulted by lights. I’d been riding in the dark so long that I’d forgotten what electricity looked like. How did these folks have power when no one else did? I haven’t a clue. It felt strange having to stop for traffic lights again. Rolling into Hattiesburg proper, though, everything went black again.  It was about 9 p.m. Traffic was actually rather heavy and I worried at every intersection that some motorist would run me over.  Without street lights, it was every man for himself.  

Then I hit a police road block.  

As I drew closer to the head of the line, I could hear the cops talking to the drivers ahead of me. They were asking for ID and turning aside people who didn’t have a Hattiesburg address. Everyone was being chewed out for being out after curfew and told that tomorrow night the police would start arresting curfew violators – no excuses.  

When I reached the front of the line, I didn’t even bother pulling out ID. I tipped up my visor and told the officer that he wasn’t going to like me at all.  “Why’s that?” he asked.  

“Because I’m from Oklahoma.” I explained that I was trying to reach Gulfport to check on my parents.  

“You can’t get to Gulfport,” he said. “Highway 49 is impassable.”  

I went into my spiel about how I could ride around or over most things.  

He shook his head. “Unless you know some secret backroads into Gulfport, you can’t get there. Highway 49 is completely blocked off.”  

“Can I at least try?” I asked.  “It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to go and I don’t even have gas to get back out of here. As it is, I’ll coast into Gulfport on fumes.”  

“I’ll let you through,” he said, “but you won’t be able to make it. And don’t let me find you out in my city after dark.”  

I thanked him and refrained from pointing out that it was already “after dark.” His city was a mess, homes and businesses smashed and stripped by Katrina.  The right lane was a pile of bulldozed debris, leaving only one lane for traffic. The ragged edges of this mess seemed to be reaching for me, yearning to snatch me from the bike or tear the flesh from my bones. Everything was boarded up and, sans lighting, it looked like a besieged city in the middle of a war zone.  

A couple miles down the road, I turned right onto Highway 49 and began the final leg of my journey.

Good old Highway 49. How many times have I driven it? When I was going to school in Memphis and my wife-to-be was still living with her parents in Gulfport, I must have run that stretch of 49 from Gulfport to Jackson a thousand times. Back then, the speed limit was only 55 (it’s 65 now), which always seemed intolerably low; I lost count of how many speeding tickets I got.  The road undulates through towering pines and the local cops would wait on the other side of a hill and tag you with radar before you ever saw them.  It used to take me, what, less than an hour to travel from Gulfport to Hattiesburg? I remember visiting the University of Southern Mississippi my senior year in high school. Flint Creek State Park is somewhere along this stretch of road.  I can recall family outings to the lake there.  Is it near Wiggins? And Wiggins is, what, less than 30 minutes from my Mom and Dad’s?  

The shoulders of 49 were packed with debris.  Huge pines had been cut in two and bulldozed to the sides of the road.  The splintered ends of telephone/electric poles jutted from these ramparts, extending over the trench that the highway had become.  The banks of this eerie River Styx on which I traveled were a great towering mess, each individual component indecipherable under the cover of night: twisted corrugated metal, shredded plywood, vehicles, glass, splintered lumber, and – judging from the smell – dead animals.  I could barely see over it. I should have been able to spot landmarks, roadside businesses and intersections that I’ve known since I was a kid, but I didn’t recognize anything.  It was as if Katrina and the night had conspired to camouflage everything I might remember. Power lines were stretched across the road every few miles. What if one was to become wrapped up in the BMW’s tires?  I could just imagine the BMW being snatched to a halt like a fighter jet landing on an aircraft carrier, with me hurtling onward until gravity assisted me to the pavement in a none-too-gentle asphalt dance.  

In places, the highway was reduced to just one lane where piles of debris had spilled back from the shoulder and into the road.  These obstacles rose up out of the darkness with no warning.  I knew that plowing into one at speed would likely result in death, leaving me impaled amid the rubble. The things I couldn’t see scared me more than the things that I could.  Ragged branches extended from the piles like hands reaching to pluck me from the bike. Unknown objects in the road tested my countersteering skills.  

It took forever to reach the sign for Wiggins.  30 minutes from here? It seemed more like a lifetime.  

A military convey came barreling past me, the Humvees and trucks traveling much faster than I was comfortable with.  I pulled in behind them and tried to hang on their six, reasoning that their vehicles would clear anything in my path, but they were going too fast and I was worried about what they might kick up. A length of cable or two-by-four tossed back at me could have disastrous consequences.  There were also a lot of 18-wheelers on the road, hurtling southward at 70, 80, even 90 mph, unbelievably fearless.  The cop who’d told me Highway 49 was impassable hadn’t known what he was talking about. Evidently, information from within the disaster was no more reliable than information from without. But perhaps his information was just a few hours old. Perhaps if I’d tried to come through here just hours before dark, I would have encountered the tree-cutters and bulldozers that had cleared all this mess from the roadway. The trucks were probably carrying emergency supplies down to the coast.  It made sense that Highway 49, the major artery between the Gulfport-Biloxi area and points north, would be cleared just as fast as humanly possible.  

The only other traffic on 49 was police cars.  They seemed to be running in packs of 4 to 6, tightly spaced, lights flashing.  For some reason, most of these groups were actually heading north.  

There’s the turn for Harrison Central High School. For four years, I'd either ridden a bus or driven my own car up 49 to make that turn.  How long had it used to take to get home from here?  15 minutes? Seems like hours tonight. Are they using the high school as a refuge for evacuees? As a staging center for rescue efforts? I don’t know.  

As I drew closer to Gulfport, there were police at every intersection, their flashing lights ricocheting from Katrina’s chaos. In the utter darkness, amid the destruction, I barely recognized the major intersection of 49 and Dedeaux Road. This was where we used to turn into the old neighborhood, but that was before Community Service Road was put in, before dockside gambling had increased the businesses in this area a hundredfold. Is that the Post Office? I can’t tell.  Everything is cloaked in darkness and obfuscated by damage and debris.  

I actually missed my turn.  I only knew I’d passed it when I saw the signs and entrance ramps for Interstate 10 (cordoned off). I hooked a u-turn at the next intersection, wondering if the police stationed there would stop me. I waved to them as I passed by. They merely nodded.  

Minutes later, after riding over more power lines and weaving through shingles and tree limbs, I pulled into my parents’ driveway.  It was nearly 10 o’clock . The neighborhood was utterly black. As I shut off the bike, someone from across the street pegged me with a flashlight beam, so I decided it might be a good idea to switch the bike’s headlight back on.  I was pulling off my helmet and gloves when my Dad came walking down from the front porch.  

“Boy,” I said, giving him a big hug, “the lengths to which some people will go to get attention!”  

My Mom came down from the porch next, then the neighbor from across the street was there, just watching out for them.  (Never know what some outlaw motorcyclist might be up to in the middle of the night.) We went in the house (which appeared to still be standing!) and my Dad asked if I wanted some water or a cold Pepsi.  

“You’re kidding, right?  How would you have a COLD Pepsi?”  

He pointed to an ice chest.  “They hand out ice right down the street at the Relief Center. Ice.  Bottled water. Supposed to get MREs tomorrow.”  

I laughed. “If I’d known you were living in the lap of luxury, I wouldn’t have been in such a big hurry to get here!”  

Total mileage for the day: a very long and tiring 637 miles.

Friday, Saturday, & Sunday, 2 - 4 Sep 05:  

My plan had been to get down there and rally the family for a hasty retreat. Turned out their situation wasn’t that desperate.  Though they had no electricity, they still had running water.  The tap water wasn’t safe to drink, but it was fine for showering and such (residents were warned to keep the water out of their eyes, ears, and mouth). Because they had gas appliances and the gas supply hadn’t been interrupted, they even had hot water and a stove on which to cook meals. Bottled water, ice, MREs, and random grocery items (never knew what you were going to get, might be a bag of peanuts, might be toothpaste and toothbrushes, might be canned goods, etc) were distributed daily at a Relief Center just down the street. So, I was a long way from being the “cavalry to the rescue,” but the trip had still been necessary, if only to reassure myself that they were going to be okay.  If they'd only had working telephones or cell phone towers still working in the area, I could have talked to them and probably saved myself a trip.  At the very least, I could have delayed the trip a few more days until getting there was somewhat less harrowing.  Now, here I was, in the "blackout zone," worrying my wife because I couldn't get a call out to her.  Last she'd heard, I was somewhere in northern Louisiana/Mississippi concerned about running out of gas.

I spent the next three days cutting, dragging, and stacking tree limbs at my Dad’s and grandmother’s, clearing the mess that Katrina had made. I’d have given most anything for a chainsaw, but Dad only owned a couple handsaws.  The heat and humidity were brutal. Of course, the more you worked, the more water you consumed.  And there was no air conditioning inside to escape to.  By the second day, the mountain of limbs and trash by the road was large enough that I couldn’t get anything else stacked.  “Guess I’m done,” I told my Dad.  Not long after this statement, a backhoe came down the street, dragging the piles from in front of all the houses out into the middle of the street.  A bulldozer followed, plowing everything into a small mountain on the street corner, which was later removed. “Looks like they solved your problem,” my Dad said with a chuckle, and it was back to work for me.

Damage to their home had been confined to the roof.  Nearly all of the shingles and a good bit of the tarpaper was gone.  There was a hole over the garage on the southeast corner.  Because he was unable to get up on the roof, my Dad had paid someone to tack down a tarp over the damage the day after the storm.  Even though my Dad had supplied the tarp and materials, this enterprising individual had charged him $70 for what couldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes – ‘nough said on that. Because he had the cash to do it, my Dad got a roofing crew lined up immediately, rather than wait for the insurance company to pay off.  He took plenty of photos of the damage to eventually show the insurance adjustor. If you’re ever in such a situation, I suggest you do the same thing.  Your insurance company allows this, as it falls under emergency repairs to mitigate further damage (and cost to them).  Just make sure you have photos to show the damage that was repaired and, of course, save receipts for everything that you spend.  Unfortunately, there were no shingles to be had in Gulfport . (Two days after I left, however, the roofer brought shingles in from out of state and had a crew on the job – they wanted to get busy ASAP, of course, because they were all out of work, just like everyone else on the coast. As of this writing, the roof is nearly finished.  Because my Dad acted so quickly, I imagine his is one of the first roofs replaced in Mississippi – if not THE first.)  

My grandmother’s roof had received similar damage, but she had recently had her roof redone. The new shingles had been put down on top of the old ones, confusing Katrina.  The hurricane had only stripped off the new layer, leaving the old shingles, which had managed to keep out the rain.  Mom and Dad had taken on water in their garage, kitchen, and bedroom – and would take on more if they got any serious rain before the new roof was done. The last night I was there, we were awakened at midnight by a thunderstorm. The three of us paced and fretted as water dampened the already stained sheetrock ceiling in their bedroom and kitchen. Out in the garage, water was pouring in where the roof was damaged (guess the tarp wasn’t very well placed). I made sure the water wasn’t coming in on my BMW where it was squeezed in between my Dad’s two vehicles. Fortunately, it didn’t rain too hard or too long and there was little or no wind.  

Amazingly, the walls of the greenhouse that I’d built for my Mom were still standing. The roof was gone and the wind had broken in the glass door, but the rest of the structure was still sound. I must have done a decent job building it. I’ll need to go back and repair it when things settle down, though.  

Grandma was funny. Middle of my second day there, she came over and started whining about how all her neighbors had huge piles of brush and debris out in front of their houses.  She didn’t have a stack in front of her house.  Her yard was a mess and she was worried about what the neighbors would think. Normally, she’d hire some teenagers to do the work for her, but she said just couldn’t find any of them.  Oh my. So, I went over and spent that afternoon cutting, dragging, and stacking at her place.  Once she had a big brush pile, she could be happy, right?  Hardly. Third day, she realized everyone else had picked up all the shingles from their yards (shingles were everywhere – right after the storm, most yards were carpeted in them).  “I would pick them up myself,” she said, “but I just don’t think my back could take it.” At the time, I was collapsed on the floor, sucking down cold water, trying to recover from a couple hours of tree limb removal. “I’ll be over in a little while, Grandma,” I told her.  When I’d sufficiently rehydrated and caught my breath, I went over and picked up all the shingles in her yard. Now she had a pile of shingles out by the road in addition to the pile of brush and garbage.  

I think it was when I was picking up shingles that the garbage truck came by, emptying everyone’s trash barrels.  (Gulfport really was good about quickly restoring such services.)  Remember that there’d been no trash pickup since sometime before the hurricane. Remember that there was a lot of spoiled food that had been thrown out.  And where do you think the bodies of dead animals had been tossed?  Plus, even though this neighborhood had running water and working plumbing, they were warning folks that the sewage systems weren’t up and running and advising them not to flush waste.  Waste was to be collected in plastic bags and put out in the trash.  (To tell the truth, we ignored that advice, even though the city was saying that whatever went down the sewage system might very well come back up.  Crapping in a plastic bag and carrying it out to the trash does not sound like fun, though.) So … trash cans were best given a very wide berth. Only here comes the garbage collector. I have NEVER smelled anything so horrible in my life.  As the truck passed me and I got a whiff, I doubled over and nearly vomited. If Death Incarnate has a smell, that has to be it. A thick, milky-white substance – pure liquid rot, I’m sure – was leaking from the rear of the truck, leaving a snail trail on the neighborhood streets. As soon as I was done retching, I retreated for my grandmother’s house, hand over my mouth and nose. Grandma happened to be coming out the front door with some cold water for me.  “Run!” I yelled at her. Poor woman, she probably thought another hurricane was coming or something.  

That first morning, I walked through the old neighborhood to see the damage and visit my wife’s father.  (The wife and I lived on the same street back in high school, from 1976 to 1979, hence the romance that blossomed and continues some 29 years later.)  His house had somehow escaped relatively unscathed.  He and his girlfriend seemed to be doing okay.  They had food and water, but were short on gas (like everyone else).  The rest of the neighborhood was in shambles.  The worst damage came from pine trees (but there were plenty of roofs that Katrina had totally removed, collapsed carports, busted windows, and so on).  I was thankful that my parents and my grandmother had had all those damn pine trees removed from their yards a long time ago.  There was a huge one down across my grandmother’s back yard, courtesy of her neighbor. The tree had missed her covered porch by just a couple feet (in fact, I did a considerable bit of cutting on it to clear her a path from her back door around to the side of her house – but the trunk, some two or three feet in diameter, would have to wait for a pro with a chainsaw). If you ask me, the whole neighborhood had too many friggin’ trees to begin with – pine and otherwise. Katrina did them a favor ripping all the damn things down.  

My sisters trucked in a load of supplies from Atlanta: gas, water, groceries, and whatnot. (They even brought Mountain Dew, which everyone knows is the nectar of life.)  I was able to fill the tank on the BMW (with gas, not Dew).  I took a 5 gallon can of gas down to my wife’s father.  We had more water than we would ever use, so I distributed some to the poorer people who I knew didn’t have a vehicle to go out and get their own (without a working vehicle, it was a long haul back from the relief center with cases of bottled water). Neighbors everywhere were looking out for each other, constantly bringing over extra bags of ice and other items whenever they came back from the Relief Center. If you had plenty of something, you shared. Two of the nights that I was there, the family across the street fed us.  They had a propane grill and were cooking all the food they’d had in their freezer (plus food from my Mom's freezer that she'd sent over).  They had a gas generator keeping the freezer running, but knew their gas wouldn’t last long, so they cooked enough to feed everyone, including an interloper from Oklahoma. We gave them 5 gallons of gas for their generator.  

The elementary school down the street was set up as an evacuation center. People from Biloxi who’d lost everything were brought there.  I saw one old woman sleeping on the bare concrete sidewalk in front of the school one afternoon as I went by and felt terrible for her.  Worse, I wondered how bad it was inside the school, if she had preferred sleeping outside on the bare concrete.  

I got to experience MREs – that’s “Meals Ready to Eat” for those without a military background.  The chemical heating system in this latest generation of G.I. rations is absolutely amazing. If you’re not careful, you will get seriously burned. It helps to read the instructions through completely before starting, instead of performing each step as you read it (as I did).  The instant you pour water into the heating bag, it becomes a raging inferno that you can’t hold in your bare hands.  Of course, where are the instructions printed?  On the side of this bag. It would be better if they were on the side of one of the cardboard cartons or something. I’d like to say the food was delicious, but that’d be a lie. Adequate, I’d say. Maybe better than expected. If you were in a fox hole somewhere in Iraq, though, I imagine it tastes pretty damn good.  

Though Mom and Dad had no phone to call out, they were getting plenty of information via radio and television (battery operated).  By the third day that I was there, some banks and stores (Home Depot, Walmart, etc) were opening up for business and gas was being brought in for sale at select stations (even if the lines were horrendous and there were limits on how much you could purchase). I’d done about all I could for everyone and there was no sense hanging around consuming more emergency rations. Everyone was fine with the exception that they were getting a bit tired of having to take a flashlight with them to the bathroom. Mom and Dad had more than enough gas to leave if they ultimately decided they needed to. Though it was obvious they didn’t want me to go (if nothing else, I bring a great deal of levity to any situation), I figured I’d better head home.

 

Monday, 5 Sep 05:

I packed the bike and geared up that morning.  Gave them both a hug and told them I loved them.  Then I headed north on Highway 49. There were road crews out repairing power lines and putting up new poles.  I gave each crew a big wave as I passed.  You know those poor guys were overworked.   I just wish there'd been crews in Dad's neighborhood putting the poles back up.  (As of this writing, they are still without electricity.)

I’d planned to take Highway 53 up through Poplarville, but I missed the turn somehow. Maybe Katrina had taken down the sign, but it was more likely that I just wasn’t paying attention. I was having a hard time concentrating on my riding, the events of the past few days chasing each other around in my head. I wound up going through Hattiesburg again, turning east on 98. I took a wrong turn on the other side of Hattiesburg and somehow wound up heading south on I-59 (easier than it sounds because to stay on 98 here, you actually have to jog a bit north on I-59).  “Wake the hell up and pay attention to where you’re going!” I yelled at myself inside my helmet. There wasn’t an exit for miles, so I rode down through the ditch in the median and hooked a u-turn. I generally don’t do that on the interstate, since it’s not only illegal but dangerous.  In this case, I was too aggravated with myself to ride several miles out of my way.  

Between my arrival in Mississippi and my departure, the love bugs had gone apeshit.  (My Mom says Katrina brought them in.) Clouds of them were everywhere, thick and disgusting. They plastered the BMW. They plastered me.  It was 40 miles, stop and clean visor.  40 miles, stop and clean visor … Yuck.  You actually get enough of them splattered on you that it stinks.  If you’re not from the south and aren’t familiar with the love bug phenomenon, consider yourself lucky. Why don’t those damn bugs get a hotel?  

In a little town called Foxworth, I turned north on 587, which follows the west bank of the Pearl River. I’d only gone a few miles up the road, however, before encountering a roadblock.  “Road Closed” said the sign, with no indication why.  Generally, if they really don’t want you using a road, they block it off better – there were just a couple sawhorses here, easily ridden around – and give some serious warning like “Bridge Out” or “Road Washed Out” or “Ride Beyond This Point and You Will Die.”  This didn’t sound very serious, so I decided to ride on a ways before turning around and backtracking.  

Evidently the road was closed because they hadn’t cleared it of hurricane damage yet. There was nothing in the road more serious than the things I'd ridden over and around on my way south (with the exception of one power line hanging down across the road at about head height – I’d have hated to run up on that in the dark, as I actually had to duck under it). I pressed on, eventually coming out on Highway 84 in Monticello. 587 was the most desolate stretch of road I had ridden, though. I never saw another vehicle, nor even people out at their houses.  It’s a nice stretch of road that could have been entertaining at speed … if the road hadn’t been full of pine cones, needles, and limbs.  

I’d been passing up gas stations all morning.  The ones that were open had long lines of cars.  Near Brookhaven, I decided I’d better stop and join a line.  For 45 minutes, I leaned against the bike or paced back and forth in the hot sun. When the truck in front of me would start up and move, I’d grab the bike and push.  The guy in the huge SUV behind me never shut off his engine.  I could hear his air conditioning cycling on and off.  And doesn’t that just say everything about our gas situation in this country? When I finally got my turn at the pump, gas was $3.99 a gallon.  

Highway 84 would have taken me back over the Mississippi River at Natchez, but I turned north on Highway 33/61, sticking to the east bank, hoping it might be a more interesting ride than Highway 65 in Louisiana.  It wasn’t. In Vicksburg, I grabbed I-20 and crossed the river, eventually exiting to the north for Arkansas. It was interesting to watch the world slowly return to normal around me. First, the traffic lights started working. Then every gas station was open. Then the lines of cars vanished. Then, there, holy crap, that gas station has six pumps and only one customer!  Further on, there’s some guy out mowing his front lawn, and I know that I’m back in the real world.  

I wound up stopping in El Dorado, Arkansas, where I treated myself to the decadence of a hotel, air conditioning, television … and, the first phone call I made after letting the missus know where I was, was for a pizza. The cute little Dominoes delivery girl that came to my door had probably never been greeted with quite so much gusto. I tipped her handsomely. The pizza was absolutely delicious.  

Total Mileage for the Day: 429 miles.

 

Tuesday, 6 Sep 05:

The next morning, I wove my way through twisty Arkansas backroads (there truly are no bad roads in Arkansas!) to Mena, where I grabbed the Talimena Drive, which traverses the crest of the Winding Stair Mountains into Oklahoma. It was as scenic as always, but the mowers had come through just ahead of me and strewn grass cuttings all over the road. The BMW and I still managed to spend some time on the edge of the tires, though.  

Oklahoma backroads carried me further west, until I finally just couldn’t stand it anymore and just wanted to be HOME. I cut north to I-40 and opened the bike up to 80 (wishing that I was on the ZZR, so I could be doing 120 or so). The front end wobble was no longer quite so noticeable (but definitely still there).  Passing through my neighborhood, there was no one outside – same as always. I always expect my neighbors to be out, to turn and look and wonder where I’m returning from, the bike so dirty and plastered in bugs, my boots dappled with strange exotic varieties of mud, a weary set to my shoulders, but it doesn’t seem to matter where I’m returning from or what time of day, nobody ever notices.  And so the triumphant voyager slips quietly down his gravel driveway and into the garage, the door up because my wife is expecting me.  The dogs – always my welcoming committee – are excited.  No one comes out of the house, so I figure they didn’t hear me, and just for grins I get my phone out of my tankbag.  

“I am SO tired,” I tell my wife when she answers, “and just wish I was home in your arms.”  

“How far away are you?” she asks, her tone saying that she actually thought I'd be home hours ago.  

“Oh, not far.”  

“Where?”  

I can’t help it; I laugh.  “I’m out in the garage.”  

Total Mileage for the Day: 441 miles.

 

Acknowledgements, Sappy Observations, and Whatnot:

The bike is clean again and the journey’s over (at least as much as it’s ever over). I’ve had time to reflect on the things I saw and the people I met.  The Mississippi Gulf Coast will never be the same as I remember it, but then it hasn’t been the same since the casinos came in. For a brief time, I imagine it’ll be much like it was in the Fifties.  You’ll actually be able to walk for miles on the beach.  Perhaps it would be better left that way?  

But even if you change the geography – wipe the landscape clean of our extravagances – the people remain the same.  Good southern stock, stalwart and palliative of heart.  Black, white, and otherwise. In such trials, we find our true selves and learn of what stuff our brothers are made. The stories coming to light in the wake of this storm are rife with heroism and demonstrate a love for fellow man that transcends race and belief. If you would have faith in anything, have faith in your own ability to stand in the face of such things and the knowledge that your neighbor will stand with you. It’s what makes us human, this love for one another.  Sure, there were aberrations. We all saw them on the news. But that’s all they were: aberrations. I saw the real measure of Americans in every mile I rode.  

Thanks to John and Debbie Jones of Florence, MS for lunch and fellowship. Thanks to those families whose invitations to dinner I didn’t have time to accept.  Thanks to the man who gave me a gallon of gas along Highway 583 (I wish I had gotten his name). Thanks to all the National Guardsmen (and women) and police officers assisting with food distribution and rescue and everything else on the coast, especially at the Relief Center in the parking lot of the mall at I-10 and Highway 49 – as well as the Red Cross and all volunteers there doing the same.  Though these people worked some very long and hard days in the heat and humidity, they were always smiling and genuinely seemed to care.  Thanks to the neighbors in and around my parents’ home in Gulfport.  

Thanks to BMW for providing me with such a reliable and capable machine. The F650GS Dakar really is a pleasure to ride. My only complaint was the tire wobble and that, no doubt, is my own fault – after all, I’m the one who mounted the tire. If everyone rode an F650GS and got 65 mpg, we wouldn’t be paying such high prices for gas, ya know?   The BMW attracted lots of admirers at gas stations and other stops.  Though becoming more popular, it's still not a bike that you see often (most riders in the market for this sort of bike opt for the much less expensive Kawasaki KLR650).  I got the usual comments – from "I didn't know BMW made motorcycles" to "If it's a BMW, where are the jugs?" – but mostly I just got a lot of folks telling me what a beautiful machine it was and admiring the fact that it was designed to take me – comfortably – most anywhere I wanted to go.  Dualsport riding is all about compromising on machines, too far to the left and you've got a bike that performs great offroad but can't be ridden more than an hour or so onroad without killing you, too far to the right and you've got a great streetbike that can't hack the smallest of obstacles offroad.  The jury's still out for me on the F650GS Dakar (I need to crash it a half dozen times or so on challenging terrain before I'm sure where it falls on the dualsport sliding scale), but it had certainly proven itself to be the perfect machine for this trip.  Not only had it gone everywhere I'd asked it to, but that one day I had managed to spend almost a solid 15 hours in the saddle without being crippled at the end of the day.

Next stop for the Beemer and me is an F650 rally in Arkansas.  Maybe I’ll see you there?  Between now and then, walk over to your neighbor’s and ask them how they’re doing. Don’t wait for a natural disaster to get to know them.  

Total mileage for this trip: 1,733 miles.  And I'll leave you with one of the few pictures I took on the trip, the bike on the road between Mena, AR and Talihina, OK.  Beauty, eh?

 

 


Brian A. Hopkins
at Road's End, Oklahoma City
12 Sep 2005


Copyright © 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-08-01 19:34, www.bahwolf.com