A Hike Through New Orleansstart
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.
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.
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.
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.
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