New Orleans is magical this morning, and it is still asleep.
No one stands on the balconies of the famous Creole Townhouses, and the streets are empty. The motorcycle crawls through the narrow alleys quietly and respectfully, slowly breaking out toward the highway. Within minutes, we are outside of town, riding on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, in the hazy swamp that surrounds the city. An array of tall, naked trees sticks out of the brown water around the road, a reminder that this is Bayou Country — strange, bewitched, and mystical.
A mere hour later, after crossing the mighty Mississippi, the road rises up and becomes detached from the ground. Supported by poles that are stuck in the swamp, it turns into the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge. It is over eighteen miles long and raised high above the bayou. A few minutes after entering it, everything disappears. All you can see around you is the pavement shooting into the horizon both in the front and back, and the steam coming up from the swamp deep underneath, where alligators lurk. The experience is both exhilarating and troubling. The two lanes are narrow with no shoulder, and a short concrete railing at the side of each of them guards the vehicles from falling into the abyss below. My attention is dedicated to keeping a safe distance from this railing, and to watching the side-winds and the passing trucks. I also need to battle my fear of heights and the confused perception of riding in the middle of the sky.
About halfway through the bridge, an exit sign points to the Atchafalaya Welcome Center. I lean on the handlebars to push the motorcycle onto the ramp, so I can take a break from the strenuous riding. Down below there is a vast, empty parking lot. I pull over, keep the engine running, and get off the bike A random song is playing through the speakers. I take off my gloves and touch the screen on my phone, looking for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Born on the Bayou. Within seconds John Fogerty’s voice rips through the silence of the empty parking lot:
“I can remember the fourth of July, runnin’ through the backwood bare.
And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin‘ chasin’ down a hoodoo there
Born on the Bayou
Born on the Bayou”
A friendly biker wearing a blue bandana approaches me. He ignores the music and doesn’t notice the intended relevance of the song’s lyrics. We stand around and chat for some time, and he suggests that I check out the visitor center. I take his advice, turn the engine off, and head in. Inside, there is an audio-visual presentation about the area’s wildlife, and a coffee machine. A guy is putting coffee beans in it. His sleeves are rolled up, exposing a set of tattoos on his forearms. A biker. He and I stand by the coffee machine and talk about our riding trips and about the custom kits he’s put on his Fat Boy. It feels great to be a part of this network of bikers spread across the country.
I get back on the bridge, this time more prepared for it, leaning into the ramp in anticipation. In the remaining miles I am able to take my mind off the risk, and simply enjoy the experience.
Past Lafayette, the interstate continues in a straight line, piercing through the green grass of Louisiana’s West Gulf Coastal Plain. Two peaceful hours pass-by, and then a small sign announces the Texas state-line. As a child I imagined Texas to be the home of cowboys; the place where heroes ride wild horses with revolvers hanging from their belts. Thirty years later I am here, riding my own horse of steel.