West vol. 10: Masquerade

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Down on the bayou

New Orleans, Louisiana

19 March 2014

Dear fellow-travelers,

When I saw the supermarket on the outskirts of Conroe, Texas, I was barely five miles from the trees where I’d woken up, but I pulled over anyway.  It wasn’t that I needed to buy anything in particular.  I’d just reached a point at which I couldn’t see a grocery store without imagining that something inside would quiet the signals my body was sending my brain.

Going into a store always meant leaving my cart outside the door, and I usually made a point of asking an employee if this was okay.  I didn’t want to get hassled for leaving the cart somewhere obstructive, and I figured it couldn’t hurt in case someone tried to walk off with my gear while I was in the dairy aisle.  Talking to an employee also gave me a chance to demonstrate that I wasn’t deranged or on drugs, always good things to establish up front.

The day before had been a little trying, and I was particularly keen to start the morning well.  Rather than catching the first employee I saw, I cleared the cart with the man at the customer service counter – it felt somehow more official that way – and got to work.  My recent diet had been heavy on gas station food, so I went for the most supermarkety things I could think of.  I picked up a bottle of apple juice, some granola, some chocolate chips, and some rice pudding, and rang myself up at the self-checkout station.  It never makes sense to carry granola in the cardboard packaging, so I chucked the box into the trash can by the curb along with my receipt, stowed the food in my cart, and was about to hit the road when I heard a shocked female voice say, “Stealing!”

“Aha,” I thought.

Good retail security guards have a way of moving casually at speed, so it seemed promising when a burly unobtrusive fellow came out as though he were curious about the weather and only happened to see me.  He also made sure, in that first vague glance, that I hadn’t hidden stolen goods behind the shopping carts or flung any merchandise to a fleeing accomplice.  Then he asked if I needed any help.

So far, so good; but the more I tried to respond to his escalating questions like a normal person, the smoother and more sarcastic he got.  Not so good.  When he got around to indirectly accusing me of theft, I told him I’d happily get my receipt from the trash.  Even as I dug around in the garbage, though, he didn’t really believe I’d thrown anything away to begin with; and when I handed him the receipt, he didn’t believe it was mine.  The food in the cart was a match, though, so it was almost as if I’d purchased what I’d bought.  He never did slip out of stop-thief mode.  I’d walked forty miles the previous day and then slept on the side of the highway – next to a mattress store, of all things – and by the end of our conversation, it wasn’t much fun.

I was unwashed, unshaven, and unkempt.  I looked poor.

A few days earlier, I’d wandered through the camping area of the Sherwood Forest Faire just east of Austin.  Most of the adults were dressed in tights, faux fur, and leather, the way rogues, vagabonds, and other outlaws dress.  I was the one guy in the office who hadn’t read the memo.

The days grew warmer, and the ditches on the roadside filled with water, frogs, and crickets.  There were still dead deer and pigs and armadillos on the shoulder, but the possums became the main concern.  A rotting possum is a bad thing to step on at night.  I’d imagine it’s even worse than stepping on a fire ant nest, which got to be such a regular occurrence that I almost stopped worrying about it.

In the middle of the longest week of the walk, I was nearing the town of Kountze when a logging truck veered toward me on the shoulder.  It didn’t stop, so I stepped out of the way; but then it kept crawling along until it halted right beside me.  The window was down, so I took off my sunglasses and looked up into the cab.

The driver was an older man, a little grimy around the collar, more than a little dilapidated.  He asked what I was doing.  Over the idling engine, I shouted back that I was walking across the United States.

“Where are you planning on sleeping?”

“Probably Silsbee – do you know if there’s a motel in Silsbee?”

He pondered for a while.  “I think so.”  Then he said something I couldn’t quite catch, because of the noise of the engine and his dental issues.

“What?” I shouted.

“Would – you – like – a – blow – job?”

“No, thanks,” I shouted, and kept walking.

By the time I pitched my tent the next night, on the left bank of the Sabine River, I’d walked all the way out of Texas.  It took a stretch through a forest where I’d been told in all seriousness that I’d be lucky not to get shot, plus a final blind sprint in the dark across a bridge where I could easily have been hit by a car; but as I fell asleep to the roar of Louisiana traffic and the sighing of Louisiana trees, I couldn’t help but feel a goofy kind of contentedness, which lasted right up until the rain got so heavy that it flooded my tent.

Louisiana was not what I’d expected.  I’d expected swamps, but not vast tall forests so quiet it felt impolite to sing.  The industrial earplugs littering the roadside at least fit the logging theme, but I didn’t understand the innumerable car washes and small scrap metal yards.  I couldn’t help but grin every time I saw a sign at a pipeline crossing reading DO NOT ANCHOR OR DREDGE, not because I couldn’t imagine the consequences of a massive petroleum spill, but because the signs reminded me how far I’d come from the lands of CALL BEFORE YOU DIG.  In Louisiana, the expression “dirt cheap” doesn’t make sense.  There are roadside businesses that thrive on selling dirt, presumably so people can thicken the water enough to post signs in it warning passing drivers not to anchor or dredge.

At 69 feet, or 21 meters, above sea level, the town of Opelousas felt like an island.  The streets were buckled and the air was heavy, but at least it was possible to step off the asphalt without plunging waist-deep into an algal slough.  I was heading for a house on the south side of town, past sagging shacks and lanes where people sat in parked cars in the dark or walked with dogs and children, laughing.  I reached my destination just before the forecast rain set in, at the end of the longest three-day haul of my life.

When I reached the house, the lights were off, but the car by the door suggested my host was home.  There was no answer when I knocked and rang the doorbell, but the key to the door was right where I’d been told to look, so I let myself in and found a welcome note in a circle of lamplight on the kitchen table.  There was a light under the door at the end of the hall as well, and someone on the other side was listening to the radio in a room that must have been fitted with blackout curtains; but again, there was no response when I called “Hello” and knocked.  I stayed awake until two in the morning and woke at four to find the radio off.  When I checked the carport, it was empty.

It was still cold and raining outside as I assembled my luggage in the kitchen.  I had a system for loading the cart, and the first things to go in were always my spare jugs of water, so I picked those up and stepped out into the carport.  In that instant, I realized that closing the door behind me had been an exceptionally bad idea.

The key, my rain jacket, all of my warm clothes, my shoes, my phone, and my host’s phone number were all an arm’s reach away, but breaking down the door to reach them seemed ill-advised.  What was particularly vexing was that I remembered my host’s welcome note had ended with explicit instructions on what to do if I locked myself out, and I could remember having read them, but I couldn’t remember what they were.

Prominent signs on the street warned would-be burglars that the area was under a neighborhood watch.  As I checked each window of the house to be absolutely sure it was locked or painted shut, and checked every mat and flowerpot to make sure a key hadn’t been hidden beneath it, I consoled myself by reflecting that no burglar in his right mind would be out in this weather without an umbrella, a jacket, or shoes, so my behavior probably couldn’t have been construed as criminal.

In the end, it turned out that the ninety-year-old woman who lived across the street had my host’s number.  I didn’t have to cross the Mississippi barefoot after all.

For a thousand miles, I’d been traveling downstream along a system of pipelines and tanker truck routes delivering oil and gas from the Great Plains to the Gulf of Mexico.  I’d seen a sizeable refinery in Artesia, but that in no way prepared me for the sight of the storage and processing infrastructure on the lower Mississippi.  There were chemical plants the scale of small cities, looming over the river in tangles of ductwork and bracing, glimmering with aircraft warning lights and billowing with storm clouds of their own emission.  I reached the outer fringe of this environment on the way into Baton Rouge, and that’s where I made the personal acquaintance of ExxonMobil, the third-largest company in the world.

On the north side of town, at the intersection of Highway 61 and Evangeline Street, I came face to face with a gigantic sign.  It read:

EXXONMOBIL AND BATON ROUGE

GROWING TOGETHER

WORKING TOGETHER

The slogan was painted in bold red letters on the corner unit of a massive tank farm, and essentially served as the city’s welcome sign.  I thought it was interesting, and I had a moment while I waited for the traffic light to change, so I pulled out my camera and took a shot of the sign from across the street.

As soon as I cleared the intersection, an unmarked car swerved honking onto the sidewalk behind me, and the driver leaned out the window.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I’d been asked this question many times before, but never in this tone of voice.

“I’m walking across the United States,” I said.  “Who are you?”

“City police,” he replied; and as he stood up out of his car, I saw he had a gun and a bulletproof vest.  He also had backup.  A uniformed officer in a squad car and two ExxonMobil security guards arrived on the scene almost immediately.  They were physically impressive and completely in control.

They told me surveillance cameras had caught me taking pictures.  They’d received phone calls about someone taking pictures.  They wanted to know why I was taking pictures.  They wanted to see my camera.  They wanted to see what was in my cart.  They wanted me to explain what was in my cart.  They wanted identification.  They told me it wasn’t very smart to take pictures, especially after 9/11.  They took my ID card and phoned me in.  They surrounded me.  They told me the terrorist threat was elevated after 9/11.  They told me it wasn’t very smart to take pictures.  They wanted to know why I was taking pictures.  They wanted to know if I’d taken any other pictures.

“I’m walking across the United States,” I said, for possibly the tenth time.  “I’ve been taking lots of pictures.”

“Have you taken other pictures of oil facilities?”

“I walked across Texas,” I said.  “There were hundreds of miles where it was nothing but oil facilities.”

“So you’ve taken other pictures of oil facilities?”

“Yes.  No one ever had a problem with it.”

It went around and around.  I explained repeatedly that I would happily delete the picture of the sign, but that I’d have to connect the camera to my laptop first, and that the downloading process would take about fifteen minutes.   I could unpack my gear and take care of it right there in front of them on the side of the road if they wanted me to.  Mostly, I was worried that they’d confiscate my camera.  They already showed no intention of giving back my ID.  It was the kind of situation that I imagine activists train for, but I hadn’t planned to be an activist that evening, and I didn’t know the drill.  They were making calls – who was I supposed to call?  They were taking down my information – if I so much as looked at their badges, would that only make things worse?  It didn’t help that I hadn’t found a single place to pee since I started walking that morning.  Now the sun was setting.  I’d developed pretty impressive bladder control since I hit barbed-wire desert country back in December, but this was getting ridiculous.  I decided I shouldn’t tell them that I’d spent the night sleeping next to a nuclear power plant.

Eventually they gave me back my ID and let me go.

“You should be careful,” said one of the city police, in parting.  “This is a dangerous neighborhood.”

In a way, he was right.  Out of all the places I’ve traveled, the corner of 61 and Evangeline is the only place so far where I’ve been surrounded by hostile armed men.  It also turns out that the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil facility, which includes one of the largest refineries in the United States, has the highest accident rate of all the petrochemical plants in Louisiana.  It’s a hideously dangerous place to live, not only because of the constant air pollution, but also because of the regular chemical spills.

The neighborhood surrounding the refinery is visibly impoverished, and all of the residents I saw were black.  They were surprised to see me walking down the street, and not because I looked homeless.  I drew suspicious stares when I reached the neighborhood near the university where I spent the night, too, but not because I was white.  The only people who seemed to think I looked normal were my hosts for the evening and their circle of friends, all tropical ornithologists used to months in the field in the Amazon.

I kept my word and deleted the ExxonMobil file off my camera as soon as I unpacked.  I don’t know what kind of warning flags are tagged against my name now in government databases, in part because I’m not exactly sure what it was I did wrong.  I never did see any signs forbidding photography at any of the oil or gas facilities I passed on this trip.  The slogan I photographed was intended for public view.  You can even take a look at the sign yourself using Google Street View; and in fact, it was only by zooming in twice on Street View that I was able to see the placard at the intersection of 61 and Evangeline reading:

WARNING

THIS INSTALLATION IS A

FEDERALLY PROTECTED

ENERGY FACILITY

If you ever visit Baton Rouge as a private citizen, it might be best to refrain from taking a picture of ExxonMobil’s civic pride sign.  If, however, you happen to visit Baton Rouge as the operator of a Google camera car, you’re probably all right.  In fact, there’s not much point taking a picture as a private citizen, because Google’s already done it for you.  I can’t help but wonder what efforts the third-biggest company in the physical world is making to harass the second-biggest company in the virtual world on account of this photograph.

The walk from Baton Rouge to New Orleans took three ragged days.  I had already wrenched my left knee one more time for good measure in Batson, Texas; now I strained both calf muscles and started to experience a recurring pain in my chest, in addition to the popping I felt in my shoulders every time I took a moment to stand up straight.  A couple of bloodily broken toenails.  The temperature see-sawed violently from day to day, but I kept at least one jacket on regardless, because both my shirts were so badly shredded that I couldn’t afford to walk into a store without covering up.

I spent my last night on the open road camped on the Mississippi levee, by a long row of barges and a tall ocean ship named the Orient Dispatch.  The next day, it was just a question of reaching shelter early enough to rest before heading downtown to catch the night’s parade.

I’d arrived in New Orleans the day before Mardi Gras.

In a blaze of brass music, shivering crowds lined St. Charles Avenue, hopping up and down to stay warm and stumbling over beer cans, trinkets, and each other.  Quentin Tarantino sailed past pelting people with miniature tambourines, and my hosts, strategically costumed as Dr. Schultz and Elle Driver, received one from his own manic hand.  A minor deluge the next day soaked the Society of Saint Anne on its way down Royal Street, and as the afternoon wore on and I lost track of everyone I’d met, I finally retreated indoors and sat down.

Cycads and skyscrapers.  Broken windows and prayer flags.  Wrought-iron balconies, gas lamps, and shotgun houses painted violet, poppy-red, and tangerine.  Enormous pipes to drain the river out from under people’s homes and crawfish heads strewn in the street.  People darting through the night with tubas wrapped around their chests like snakes.  Streets named Desire and Mystery, and shops named Spider Meat Market and Inhibit Menswear.  It’s the only inhibition in town.  Short of menswear, anything goes.

Buildings weigh anchor and reveal themselves as ships.

One night my host took me to hear some real New Orleans jazz.  The room was full and close and dim.  One moment I was laughing, and the next I was close to tears.  Then back again, and back again, ten seconds at a time, in no relation to the music or the people I was with.

On the tenth of March, I went to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, put my hands in the water, and called the walk done.  I’d walked across the American West, the United States, and North America, from salt water across the divide to salt water on the other side.

I have nightmares about getting pulled over by police, about still being on the road, and about the state of Louisiana getting bigger.  I wake in the night with my calf muscles cramping.  I still haven’t managed to buy a fresh vegetable, but I ate a bowl of spaghetti sauce this morning, and that seems like a promising step.

Outside the window, Highway 610 rushes toward the interstate.

Imagine yourself on a plane.  You’re still at the gate, and the people next to you are wrestling suitcases, adjusting travel pillows, and loosening their shoes.  It’s a seven-hour flight from Seattle to New Orleans, with a stop in Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta.  It’s been days since you slept more than two hours at a time.  You pull down the shade and turn the gasper vent away.  You buckle your seat belt.

You never feel the moment when the plane takes to the air.

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