Some more stories from the road.
There is little more unsettling than arriving in a ghost town well after nightfall. After plans to camp on Dauphin Island fell through due to nuclear mosquitos and a lack of public land, I biked across the Dauphin Island Bridge, a three mile span that skims the surface of the ocean before rapidly rising to nearly ninety feet high in its center section to let boats pass. It wasn’t until a few days later that someone asked me if I stopped at Dauphin Island. I said that I did, briefly, and they told me a vague story about a man who drove to the bridge’s peak and hurled four young children to their deaths. I wasn’t sure if I believed them until I Googled a picture of the bridge some months later and the name Lam Luong dominated the search results. This had happened less than four years before my summiting the artificial mountain by bike.
Back on the mainland I had two options. Bike to Bayou La Batre, of Forrest Gump fame, along the route I had planned to follow into Mississippi, or continue north toward Mobile, some fifty miles away. I watched the sun set as I coasted down the slope of the bridge toward the peninsula that reached out to receive me, so even the twenty mile option seemed grim. More than fifty miles into the day and running on greasy pizza from one of two restaurants open on the Island, it was one of those times that I wondered why I had chosen to put myself in this situation. No phone call I could make, even if my phone had battery, would make this any easier.
I decided to stick with the plan, to bike to Bayou La Batre in the post-sunset glow that backlit the woods and made the presence of objects visible only by the lack of glow where they stood. Pedaling through the undulating dunes, I thought I saw sailboat masts and shrimping rigs reaching their tired claws up through the thick groves of swamp evergreens. Ghosts of a hurricane or the elusive intent of mankind. Passing cars were frightening based on their intent alone, so desolate were the mysterious surroundings.
There were faint incandescent glows from the forest, bridges over estuaries filled with sullen shrimping boats, and inconsistent safety bumps on the shoulder that threatened to derail me as I wove into them. But none of the spookiness of darkness in the middle of nowhere could match the sixth-sense grabbing, hair-raising eeriness of laying down to sleep outside in a half-empty ghost town. After somehow gaining the blessing of the Harley biker Paul who had authority over the biggest church in Layou LaBatre, I found the two biggest trees in their back lot and fought with the tangled masses of my hammock straps.
I climbed in after having no access to running water or an enclosed bathroom since leaving Dauphin Island. It was dark but far from silent. Sleep seemed distant but desperately needed. Camping is glorious when it’s on your terms, in a national park or a friendly host’s backyard. When you are strung between two trees in a town you haven’t really seen, every crackle or caw activates the adrenal glands and primal instincts. I envied cowboys who could run frayed rope around their campsites to keep rattlers out and huddle together with revolvers in their hands or under their hats. Nothing messeed with them. And there was nobody within a hundred miles of their home on the range, except for the Comanches. When they got you, at least you knew who it was that had your hair in their hand.
Here I had no clue who or what was rustling, be it an alley cat or an axe murderer, and no amount of reasonable thinking could quiet my overactive mind. Even a deranged psychokiller could not exactly predict a lonesome and exhausted cyclist rolling into his town and camping behind a church with a badass patriarch. Still, I didn’t know what color the building fifty feet away from me was, so I couldn’t be sure of much at all.
Dolphins and birds sleep with half their brain at a time so they can remain afloat or alert. It is considered a massive luxury that we place both sides of our brain in sleep mode simultaneously. I have yet to master the hemispheric model of rest that animals enjoy, so that night was a hellish cycle of eye-opening noises and aggressive R.E.M. sleep that my muscles forced on my paranoid brain. If there is an evolutionary advantage to our all-or-nothing sleep pattern, I have yet to hear about it.
Some weeks later I’d recall waking up on the ground in the dewy pre-dawn, my hammock having slowly slid down the tree trunks in the night, and think about those cowboys. If they didn’t get scalped or snakebit, they’d had a successful night. Unless one of them slipped into his boots and a black widow nibbled his toe while he was out riding. It’s the damnedest thing, that for every grim and noisy thing we can conjure in the night, it’s the silent and easily-swattable ones that pose the biggest threat. Even a mosquito that made it into my netting could have left malaria or West Nile and long after it had died somewhere in Bayou LaBatre, I could find my condition worsening in Louisiana or beyond. Neither the mosquito nor the spider benefits from our demise. This perversion of the food chain is largely lost on those who can lock their doors at night.