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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Rob Martineau
Rob has run, walked and biked all over the world. In 2013, he set out on a series of walking trips, walking 2000 miles through West Africa, Haiti and the American South.

City Walks

A Hike Through New Orleans

start

Following the Mississippi River

From Memphis to New Orleans

Over the winter of 2013, I spent five days walking through the cities of Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The time spent crossing these cities was a small part of a 600-mile walk through the American South, following the Mississippi River from Tennessee to Louisiana. Through this experience I learned that walking in a city such as New Orleans can be just as exciting and thought provoking as walking along a beautiful trail in the mountains.

  • Trail length: 20mi

Walking in Memphis

Though there are guided walking tours to show tourists haunted or historic landmarks, it is rare to walk clean across a city – particularly in the South. In that part of the world everyone goes by car. In Memphis there are no sidewalks. In Baton Rouge people drink from drive-thru bars. The murder rates are so high in parts of New Orleans that people nail signs to their porches with the instruction, Thou Shalt Not Kill. The size, the perceived threats, and the way the cities are designed mean that few people would think of hiking through.
 
But when you go on foot you’re exposed to the landscape in ways that others aren’t. You see things slowly. In a city – particularly one as mad and beautiful as New Orleans – you begin to cut through its layers when you walk. As tourists, we head for verandas, cathedrals, café culture. The beautiful old town. But if you walk thirty miles through slums, underpasses, backstreet bars and backstreet temples, you see the place in a different light.

Rough country

I’d been walking for two months by the time I came to the edge of New Orleans. I’d spent most of my days wandering dirt tracks in the swamps and I camped each night, often woken by sirens, followed by a sheriff’s flashlight. Much of Mississippi is empty cotton fields, delta forests and lone shacks. The air is thick and humid. At dusk, mosquitoes as big as flies rise from the ditches. Coming to the Bayou – the coastal swamps at the head of the Gulf of Mexico – the air gets thicker still. The mosquitoes come in droves. The trees weep. 
 
Where the city meets the swampland in the west, the roads are raised from the water on stilts. Men fish from the bridges. Dead owls litter the highway. They are drawn to the headlights after dark, one fisherman said. The frogs roar above cars. The land fragments.

The city’s fringes are rough country. Everywhere to the north, people are warned of walking here. In Mississippi, people see New Orleans as home of the Devil. Since its time as a French port the city has had a reputation for debauchery. New Orleans is a city of Voodoo shrines, carnival houses, shotgun shacks, howling blues.

Highway 61

On foot the city dawns slowly. Highway 61 follows the eastern bank of the river, past the great oil chimneys of Norco, and the low mud plains of south Pontchartrain. At its edge it is low rise – rows of rundown wooden dwellings, trailer parks, projects. These areas are as rural as they are urban. People graze horses in their yards and cut up chickens on their porches. Dogs chained to laundry lines rise to their forelegs as strangers pass. Old women peer from their curtains to see about the barking. Tire stores, fast food restaurants and bail bond shops line the main strip that heads downtown.

For four hours I walk the rural outskirts before coming to the suburbs. I’ve walked or run through countries all over the world – across the Ukraine, Haiti, West Africa and the Balkans – but the landscapes of suburban America are among the bleakest places I’ve passed through. As a built environment there is monotony like nowhere else I’ve seen, with row-upon-row of mist-colored cement, grey-green lawns and forlorn Stars and Stripes hanging from the porches. I walk closer to the city.

Desolate spaces

I have always been drawn to desolate spaces. The outskirts of New Orleans – swathes of them ripped up by Katrina and never rebuilt – are as desolate as cities come. But passing through, the city’s beauty grows. Coming to the riverbank you reach the worn lamp-lit streets of Treme, the old French quarter, the pastel shacks of Bywater. Like the mountainside on route to the summit, a city’s fringes are worth the trek to reach its heart.

I’d hiked two months to get to New Orleans, a few days of which were spent walking in cities where everyone stared and no one understood why I was moving on foot. Walking is something to do in nature, people said. They took me for a vagrant. But crossing long distances on foot involves passing cities as well as fields. Looking back, the long walks through the American rural and suburban landscapes were some of the most absorbing of my journey.

Plan your travel

When to go
New Orleans is great year round, but very hot in July and August. The city really comes to life during Mardi Gras (February) and Halloween.
How to get there
If you're flying, New Orleans airport is well-connected. Otherwise the city is easy to reach by bus or car. If you want to walk the 600 miles from Memphis, you can fly there easily too.
Visa
Normal US entry requirements apply.
Gear
For the city you don't need anything special. For the longer hike along the river, good lightweight hiking shoes are a must. A good backpack.
Length of Trip
To walk through New Orleans you only need a day. For the trip from Memphis, allow at least a month to six weeks.u00a0
Difficulty
A reasonable standard of fitness required.
Accommodation
New Orleans is full of hotels and guesthouses. For the more remote parts of Mississippi a tent is needed.
Food and Drinks
Louisiana and Mississippi are full of wonderful restaurants and bars.