Harley-Davidson Road King - Good Intentions

I visited Louisiana and Mississippi with the best of intentions: Do a travel story about the great places you can visit on the outskirts of New Orleans, and maybe encourage readers to go and spend some money in a place that dearly needs it right now. But you know what they say about the best intentions..

Highway 59 between New Orleans and Jackson runs straight as an arrow past farmers selling sweet potatoes from the back of pickup trucks, strip-mall towns with rows of small houses sporting neat yards and open-sided garages, and green pastures stretched out in front of weathered barns.

I rode this piece of road on a cool, overcast day, with dark clouds above promising a wet Mississippi night. Early in the evening, with the light of day fading, the Road King beneath me developed a bit of a wobble.

I pulled over to investigate the problem near a weather-beaten fruit stand and a restaurant called Shady Acres. The rear tire was flat, bulging sadly in the gathering gloom of a rainy night.

While I waited for Mark Frederick, my companion on the trip, to figure out that I'd been waylaid, I walked over to check out the restaurant, dreaming of hot coffee and a homebuilt hamburger. The faint scent of peaches, home-baked bread, and French fries made my stomach growl, but the sign on the front door told me Shady Acres closed at 6 p.m. My watch read 6:20; the place was dark and locked up tight.

Mark showed up a few minutes later."Flat tire," I said, pointing to the rear of the bike."You're kidding," he groaned. Then he glanced at the caf. "At least we can get something to eat.""No such luck," I answered, pointing to the sign.

Mark looked up at the dark clouds and back at my tire, and then shut off his bike. His Dyna's starter had been erratic all day, so we'd probably have to push-start it to move on.

Then it started to rain, a widely spaced spatter of heavy drops bearing the promise of a deluge."Is it just today?" Mark asked. "Or is it the trip?"

We had flown into New Orleans to take in some warm Southern weather, eat some touffe and jambalaya, and get a break from the Minnesota winter. We had timed our trip to coincide with the early part of Mardi Gras and had managed to locate a couple of bikes to borrow and a cheap hotel with a vacancy.

This was our first planned day of riding, and it had been a long one.

The problems started early on. Mark's Dyna sputtered and died about 30 miles into the ride. We rolled up an onramp and pushed the bike onto the shoulder of the adjoining road. Gas was just barely sloshing in the tank, so we checked for spark. The plug gave off a fat, blue arc, so that wasn't the issue. Next, we pulled the fuel line to see if gas was flowing. It wasn't. Off I went down the road to buy a gas can and a gallon of gas.

We gassed the bike up, cranked it over and...the starter began to make terminal noises. It cranked the engine one or two revolutions, then made a sound akin to a tin can full of BBs rolling down the street.

After 10 minutes of this drill, the starter caught and the bike fired. Down the road we went, to fuel up the bikes and grab a snack.

At the gas station, Mark's starter again did its tin-can-BB act. Just down the road was a nice, big hill. We strained to push the bike up the hill and after a hard push down, the big bike bump-started to life.

This was about 4 in the afternoon, and we had another 150 miles in mind for the day. We decided to hump it to Jackson, Mississippi, on the freeway since we'd burned so much daylight, then explore some of the back roads we'd come to sample the following day.

Fifty miles later, the back tire of my Road King went flat.

As the rain fell, we tried to figure out how to fix the tire. Our first thought was to see if it would take air. Could be a slow leak, right? A drywall screw protruding from the tread told us otherwise.

We knocked on the door of a house next to Shady Acres, hoping to use a phone book to find a place that could repair the tire. Howard, a friendly 60-something gentleman, answered the bell.

"You boys are in trouble," he said. "Not much would be open 'round here this late in the day.

He thought for a moment, and said, "Have you tried Fix-A-Flat?"

We hadn't.

Howard gave us directions to a nearby convenience store he thought might carry the stuff, and we thanked him.

Now we had to start the Dyna.Just for the hell of it, Mark thumbed the starter, and the bike rumbled to life. A pleasant surprise on a day filled with surprises of the other kind.

It was pitch black out by the time Mark returned with the Fix-A-Flat. And it was still raining off and on.

I spent 10 minutes digging through saddlebags for the Cruz Tools set I had packed. After opening every single compartment in the bags at least twice, I found it, complete with a flashlight-one I had neglected to put batteries in.

But wait, I had packed new batteries-somewhere. After another 10 minutes of digging, I found them.

Then I couldn't figure out how to turn the light on. I pushed the button on the back of the light, turned the beam, took it apart, but nothing happened.

"Dude, this isn't like you," Mark said, looking on. "You are always prepared."

We maneuvered a concrete block under the bike and strained to lift the heavily loaded Road King onto it.

We put a full can of Fix-A-Flat into that tire and...nothing. This leak was not going to be plugged with canned goo.

We called every service station in the area, but, not surprisingly, no one was willing to come out and fix a tire at 8 o'clock on a Friday night.

So we rolled the Road King into Howard's garage for the night and loaded all the gear and the both of us onto the Dyna to head up the road to find a place to stay. The result was a heaped mess of a bike draped with bags bungee-corded on every possible space. I had so little room behind me, I had to wear my camera backpack backward, the heavy bag protruding from my stomach, pushing Mark up onto the tank. We were quite a sight.

We rode into nearby Hattiesburg to look for a hotel and maybe a shop to fix the tire. A lowered Honda Accord packed with young guys slowed down to point and laugh as they drove past our loaded-down circus show.

Thankfully, we had some friends back in New Orleans. One took pity and agreed to haul us and the bikes to a dealership in Jackson. So instead of riding scenic back roads, we spent the next day loading bikes and riding in a truck.

The good folks at Harley-Davidson of Jackson were able to fix both the tire and the starter in short order, and we started out again the next morning-now three days into our four-day trip-in search of at least a taste of those winding roads we'd heard were waiting but had yet to see.

Our luck hadn't changed, however, and by midday the weather in Mississippi had taken a turn for the worse. The temperature had dropped well below 40, with rain dripping heavily from ever-blackening skies. This wasn't the scene we'd had in mind when we planned this trip, so like a couple of dogs that had missed the fox, we decided to drag ourselves back to New Orleans.

Of course, we had trouble finding the freeway onramp, which would have made our approach painless, and ended up sitting in traffic on a stoplight-lined boulevard in Jackson. Once through that, we found a winding road that led back to the freeway. That one road turned out to be the best part of the Mississippi ride. It wound past shaded homes and an oak-draped river valley. Too little, too late, but at least it was something.

Soon enough we were on the freeway again, burning our way back to the Big Easy. The rain picked up, and I started to realize my decision to leave my riding boots and jacket liner at home was a huge mistake. I had an Aerostich jacket and pants on, which kept my upper body and legs dry, but was also wearing a pair of light hiking shoes that soaked up water like a sponge. Worse yet, the canted floorboards of the Road King angled my legs forward, making a perfect funnel for rainwater to run down my socks.

I was so cold and miserable we stopped at a Wal-Mart, where I bought the cheapest pair of rain boots I could find-a calf-high pair of black rubber units that had a lovely red stripe around the top. We used to call these "pig boots" when I was a kid due to the fact that the local farmers used them to walk around in pig pens. I also bought two pairs of wool socks and a half-dozen packets of chemical hand warmers.

Then we headed over to a Wendy's for a burger, chili, fries, a Coke and a huge vat of coffee. It was one of the most memorable meals of the ride. Hot food in a dry, warm place on a cold, rainy day is one of life's great pleasures, and you're missing the point if you don't savor it.

With pig boots on my feet and hand-warmer packets in my gloves and socks, the rest of the trip passed as comfortably as a rainy, 35-degree, three-hour ride possibly can.

Back at the hotel in New Orleans, we showered, changed into dry clothes and set out on foot down Magazine Street in search of a good meal and a cold beer.

Part of our mission that night was to check out the Mardi Gras madness on Bourbon Street, so after huge hamburgers and a couple of pints of Abita Ale, I asked the bartender about catching a cab down to the world's most infamous street party.

"Dude, good luck tonight," he said. "I've got a two-hour waiting list for cabs running now, and it's early yet."

We decided to walk toward Bourbon Street, hoping to hail a cab on the way. Walking in the rain down Magazine, a good four miles from our destination that night, Mark and I again debated if this was going to be one of those trips where nothing goes right.

After walking about a half-mile, Mark hailed a cab. The cabbie was heading to Bourbon and happy to give us a ride.

"This is it," Mark announced. "The trip is turning around for us."

Bourbon Street was hardly what I'd call paradise. The scene is perfect for those who find college frat parties heaven, but I'm long past those days. We did find a couple of great bands, however, and after a couple more cold beers, we felt maybe the trip really had begun to turn.

During the next few days, we were charmed and amazed by the people and places of New Orleans, whose shabby elegance, great food, terrific music and distinct character prompted Mark Twain to remark that you haven't seen America until you've seen New Orleans.

What we saw of the rest of Louisiana and Mississippi was mostly shrouded in rain and repairs, reminding us that travel doesn't always bring what you seek, nor do trips always go as you plan. That's travel-and life-and if you can't enjoy the unexpected discoveries of both, you're wasting your time.

And by the way, I did finally figure out how to turn on my new flashlight. Next time I get a flat on a dark, rainy night, I'll at least have that.

Provided I remember to pack it.

Louisiana and Mississippi Ride Guide

Although Katrina's effects are still evident as you travel through the South, Louisiana and Mississippi are ready for visitors. The road along the coast east of town, between Gulfport and Biloxi, is in fine shape, but the homes are still heavily damaged and only a limited number of businesses are open. As you head west and north, however, an increasing number of businesses are operating.

Rental MotorcyclesEagle Rider has a branch in New Orleans, but they were closed at press time due to damage from Katrina. The owner anticipates reopening within the next year. Check status at www.eagleriderneworleans.com.

You can also rent motorcycles in Baton Rouge at:Harley-Davidson/Buell of Baton Rouge(225) 292-9632www.harleybr.com

HotelsBooking hotels in advance is one of the most important parts of traveling in Louisiana post-Katrina. As of this spring, the hotels were full of workers and displaced residents as far north as Jackson, Mississippi. Book early and be sure to confirm your reservation.

Road ConditionsNearly all roads in Louisiana and Mississippi were open as of this spring. In the New Orleans area, the Lake Pontchartrain bridge on Hwy. 90 was out, but could easily be bypassed by taking Hwy. 10. Do bring some Fix-A-Flat, as the heavy construction going on increases the likelihood of picking up a nail or screw.Travel InformationThe Louisiana Office of Tourismfree.info@crt.state.la.us(225) 342-8100www.louisianatravel.com

Mississippi Division of Tourism Developmenttourdiv@mississippi.org(601) 359-3297(866) 733-6477www.visitmississippi.org

Routes to Ridewww.swampscooters.netMotorcycle club Web site. Lots of good information here, including good section on Louisiana back-road routes. Click "Articles" and scroll down to "Favorite Roads" by Clint Adcock.

www.milebymile.com/main/United_States/Mississippi/region_byways.htmlWeb site with list of scenic routes in Mississippi. Includes country music trail, rock 'n' roll highway, Natchez Trace Parkway and more.