The Ride Home – August 15-30, 2003
In 2003, Harley-Davidson celebrated its 100th anniversary by sending out the word to all Harley owners and riders to “ride home” to Milwaukee for the party of the century. Four organized rides headed toward Milwaukee, originating from Washington, DC; Baton Rouge, LA; Portland, OR; and Las Vegas, NV. Mom, Terry and I joined the South Central Ride by heading down to New Orleans and playing tourist, and then starting back from Baton Rouge. It really was one long party on wheels, and here is our story.
Friday, 15 August 2003
We started the Ride a hair after 3:30 in the morning, and pushed straight down to Marion, IL. The weather was gorgeous – hazy and humid in the very early morning, but bright and sunny throughout the day. We spent a large part of the run on Hwy 57, which proved to be a lovely road, not too crowded. There was a lot of road construction going on, but it didn’t hold us up at all.
First fun thing along the way: We stopped for breakfast at an Iron Skillet, and on our way back to the highway (which proved to be a very convoluted and not well labeled route) encountered another biker, who pulled up beside us, took in the rig, and exclaimed, “Cool!” He also applauded our helmets.
We got to Marion at 13:00, after way too few hours of sleep, so we started out our Marion stay with a nap. The Hampton Inn had a pool just the right temperature to refresh us after we woke up, and we took a walk to Red Lobster for dinner. Mom took a stumble along the way, but wound up with only a few scrapes that our resident nurse quickly treated.
We had fascinating company at the Hampton: on our return from dinner, we found a tiny little bright yellow and white Bandolero-class race car, which literally fit in the load bed of a pickup truck, parked at the motel. We learned that the owner was selling the racer to a fellow in North Carolina. That mini-race car was my first photo of the trip.
Saturday, 16 August 2003
This was another pounding day, burning up the miles with a run down to Jackson, MS. We went through bits of multiple states, from Illinois to Missouri to Arkansas to Tennessee to Mississippi. The loser was Arkansas – the roads in that short stretch were in the poorest condition, and neither Arkansas nor Missouri were big on telling us much, like how far it was to the next city. Guess they really wanted you to wonder where you were and how long it would take you to escape.
My thrill of the day was seeing a crop duster at work. We saw this small plane swooping down on a field ahead and to our left, and then we saw the spray engaged. He finished just before we reached the field, and banked sharply up and over to fly right over us not sixty feet off the deck on his way to the next field. Wheee!
Just as we arrived at the first exits for Jackson, the clouds that had been building during the afternoon dumped their load in a cloudburst. We were so close to our exit, but just not quite close enough – we got thoroughly soaked in record time, especially when some bloody van went whipping past us and doused us with a roostertail of water from a huge puddle in the road. We pulled into our Hampton Inn, squished our way upstairs, and started stripping off and draping things to dry.
We decided to head off to church, since we couldn’t do much else in a thunderstorm and the service was only 45 minutes away. This time, we called a cab. Of course, by the time the cab dropped us at the cathedral, the rain was over and the sun was back out ...
Mass was a treat; we had the Bishop as our celebrant and the music was delightful, with a really gifted female cantor. We walked back to our motel, taking in the sights between the Capitol and our new home away from home, including the Governor’s mansion and the state fair grounds, which were the scene of a hunter-jumper horse show. We didn’t have time to drop in and watch, though.
Jackson was having its own version of Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” and DC’s “Party Animals” – the city had been taken over by catfish! The downtown area had a whole school of them, including a grilling chef catfish reading his recipe book, a groom catfish in a tux, a waiter catfish snootily proffering a tray, and even a catfish with the most amazing Snidely Whiplash-style handlebar moustaches! Alas, I didn’t have my camera handy to catch any of them, nor did I see anything in print describing this fishy situation.
Sunday, 17 August 2003
This morning, we did a quick load of laundry a bit earlier in the trip than we had planned, to deal with all our soaked stuff, and then hit the road for Vicksburg to tour the battlefield. Wow! The opening film wasn’t nearly as good as some of the presentations we saw a couple of years back on our Piedmont/Shenandoah Civil War tour, but the 16-mile driving tour was gorgeous. The battleground was incredible, all steep hills and deep ravines that must have been a nightmare for the armies to fight across. All we did was go up and down and up and down in 95-degree heat. It was beautiful and the monuments were impressive, seemingly numbered in the thousands; much like Gettysburg, only greatly more contained. The grounds include a museum built around the raised remnants of the ironclad City Class river gunboat Cairo, which is really something to see. All that’s left of Cairo is a wooden skeleton with boilers, engines, and guns, but they’ve built a ghost of the ship around what’s left of her, so you can see what she looked like.
We passed on taking a Mississippi River cruise when we got a look at the boat, which was a fair bit less than appealing. Instead, we cruised historic downtown Vicksburg – which was pretty much closed for renovations. We headed back toward the highway and found a late lunch at a Cracker Barrel, and then rode a 60-mile stretch of the lovely, historic Natchez Trace back to Jackson. The Trace is a two-lane road with virtually nothing along it except trees, crops, bayous, rivers, creeks, and lots of beauty. Also, absolutely no traffic. The Trace began life as an Indian trail, and then became the major transportation route between Nashville and Natchez. Interstate highways have taken over the burden of traffic, but the route of the Trace has been preserved as a truly scenic drive.
Monday, 18 August 2003
We took on the bit over 4-hour run from Jackson to New Orleans, and our newest Hampton Inn home in the Garden District, with the St. Charles streetcar running just outside our front door. We had another hot, bright day, and although we got rained on a bit, that didn’t happen until after we’d parked the bike and gone walking.
Lunch was at Copeland’s, a Cajun steakhouse about eight blocks from our hotel, and it was magnificent. Mom and Terry split a ribeye, while I had a teriyaki sirloin. We split our two sides, garlic mashed potatoes and a huge head of broccoli. Yummy!
After lunch, we stopped at the hotel for essentials, and then headed out in spitting rain to take the streetcar down St. Charles to Bourbon Street. We strolled down Bourbon Street – which is even seedier that I remember it being back in about 1984 – and stopped at the Cajun Seaport for a Coke and a few dry minutes. We continued on our way to the Place du Armes, and stopped at a praline shop and had fun with the clerk while Terry and I shipped sweets home. By the time we came out, the clouds were gone and the sun was pouring down. Terry read the map and we took an informal walking tour of the French Quarter, past the Convent of the Ursulines and other landmarks. All of the building tours were either over for the day or didn’t run on Mondays, but we saw all the famous old houses from the outside and peered in through gates at gardens and hidden gems. We finally made up for a lot of missed walking from the days we spent pounding on the motorcycle!
We wound up our French Quarter tour at the famous Café du Monde for beignets and frozen café au lait. It’s a good thing there were three of us, because a single order of beignets has three big pastries in it!
After our snack, we strolled along the river Moonwalk, and then rode the Riverwalk street car all the way around its loop, ogling the traffic on the Mississippi River. We got off at Canal on the way back and invested a few bucks in the slots at Harrod’s, and then walked back to catch the streetcar back up to our hotel and home for the night. Cheese and iced tea were laid out in the lobby, so we had yet another tasty snack before going up to our room and doing our hand laundry. Our entertainment during teatime was the hotel’s resident parrot, named Antonini.
Tuesday, 19 August 2003
Today we headed down to the Riverwalk and bought tickets on the Cajun Queen for a cruise down the Mississippi to the site of the Battle of New Orleans. The cruise was pleasant, and the amount of shipping traffic on the river was impressive. Hopefully, I got some good pictures of the New Orleans skyline.
The battlefield tour began with a house that had nothing to do with the battle: it was a summer house built in 1835 by a wealthy family escaping yellow fever season in the city, and the U.S. Park Service maintains the house simply because it stands on the property where for three weeks in 1813, the campaign for control of New Orleans raged as the last major conflict of the War of 1812. They use its empty rooms as staging areas when reenactors come out to replay parts of the battle.
There is little to see on the battlefield itself, but the Park Service tour guide was entertaining. Basically, the British failed to make it all the way across a winter field with a ditch – the Rodriguez Canal, separating the fields of two different families – to dislodge the Americans from behind their makeshift rampart. The Brits had rowed 60 miles in from the Gulf in freezing rain, losing over 200 men to hypothermia before the battle even started. The Americans had flooded the field, turning it into a sea of freezing mud. They had the river on one flank and a swamp on the other, and the Brits couldn’t beat both the terrain and the Americans. The Brits succeeded on the other side of the river, overrunning and capturing the American artillery, but too late to affect the main battle.
We had a tasty Cajun lunch on board the ship – jambalaya, red beans and rice, and a wonderful bourbon bread pudding – and sailed back to the city. Then we caught the city bus to the New Orleans Museum of Art to see the special display “Jefferson’s America, Napoleon’s France,” celebrating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. It was a good show. There were many artifacts and works of art on loan from France and the Smithsonian and Monticello, and even one artifact – a carved stone Natchez Indian ceremonial tobacco pipe in the shape of a kneeling man – on loan from the Milwaukee Public Museum. Small world!
We caught the bus back to Bourbon Street, bought postcards on the way to the streetcar stop, and finished the day with a Baskin Robbins stop. Yummy!
Terry checked out the bike for tomorrow, and thought that the front brake pads might be wearing unevenly. To deal with that, we changed our itinerary, deciding to bypass the causeway over Ponchartrain, to stop at only one plantation – Nottoway – en route to Baton Rouge, and then to take the bike in for service at the Harley dealer in Baton Rouge.
Wednesday, 20 August 2003
Today began the official Ride Home, as we arrived at Baton Rouge and gave an interview to Vince Condella, the Fox 6 weatherman from Milwaukee who is making the Ride his feature story opportunity. Whee!
The day didn’t go quite as planned. We had intended to tour Nottoway plantation along the scenic route on the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. What we learned, however, was that state roads in Louisiana are not particularly well marked: signs were sometimes spotty, and never provided an indication of direction. Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn on Hwy 1, and wound up making a large circle in the wrong direction. We saw a lot of petroleum refinery docks! Oh, well. We gave up on plantations and set a direct course for Baton Rouge and the local Harley dealership to get the brakes and rear tire checked out.
Now, this will require a little bit of backstory. The day before we left on the Ride, Terry got a voicemail message from Vince Condella, the Fox 6 weatherman. Vince said that he was going to be doing the Ride himself and sending back stories along the way to Milwaukee, and that he’d learned from Mom and Terry’s postman – who does professional photography on the side – that Terry and Mom would be doing the Ride and might make good interview subjects. Terry called him back and left a message on his voicemail, explaining just a bit about the “Biker Babes” and saying that we’d be happy to be part of his story. She also left him information about when we would arrive in Baton Rouge and where we’d be staying, since it was clear that, because we were leaving so early, we wouldn’t be able to connect with him before we were all in Louisiana.
Anyway, as we pulled in at the dealership, I saw a guy offloading a large, professional video camera from an unmarked white van. Mom and I dismounted in our usual involved production, attracting the usual amount of attention, and Terry wheeled the bike into the service bay just as Cary, the Fox 6 producer, came up and asked if we were the ones who’d spoken to Vince Condella. Turns out that Vince had shipped his purple Harley down from Milwaukee, and was looking it over right next to the service bay. We laughed about the exchange of voicemail messages, got introduced to Vince and his cameraman, and then just settled in for fun. We chowed down on jambalaya and garden salad dished up gratis by the dealership, chatted with a lot of nice people, and ultimately stood in front of the camera with Vince for our interview. It was fun! Of course, we didn’t get to see the story until well after we got back from the trip ... but we heard about it almost as soon as we hit home, since all the neighbors had seen it.
We signed up for a free Rider’s Edge class being offered the next day, about riding in groups, and Terry bought oil and ride pins. Baby checked out fine – the tire and the front brakes will need to be replaced when we return to Milwaukee, but would be fine for the rest of the trip. We hopped back on and headed out to find our motel, and once again, our timing was exquisite: we checked in, brought in all our luggage, started checking over our itinerary – and saw the sky absolutely open and dump. For the half hour from 15:45 to 16:15, we were under a severe thunderstorm warning, and it poured. We sipped Dr Pepper and watched the sky fall.
Close to 17:00, we headed out again to Casino Rouge, a steamboat permanently moored beside a large land structure, for a bit of slots and a dinner buffet. The rain had stopped and the ride was fine. The slots were cold, but dinner was good. We cruised a bit of downtown, where we’ll party tomorrow, and then went home.
Read Part Two