THE SLEEPLESS NIGHT
Waves of rising heat turned the rural Mississippi horizon into a scene that would have pleased Claude Monet. Distant objects appeared as blurry shimmering blobs vaguely representing the actual features ahead of us even after I managed to blink the stream of perspiration from one eye or the other. Dripping sweat dried instantly upon contact with blistering tarmac. I could feel the drops quivering on my elbows and watch them fall from the corners of my sunglasses. I did not dare remove one hand from the bars to wipe away the liquid. In fact, it would be impossible to loosen my grip for fear of a near instant and messy death. The trip was not the relaxing holiday weekend as I imagined it a week prior when I agreed to the long bicycle camping tour.
My best touring buddy Jim called me on the phone one sticky summers day to ask me what my plans were for the upcoming Independence Day weekend. He noticed the 4th fell on a Monday, and that meant a three day holiday. It didn't take much coaxing to talk me into a three day bike tour. Plans were quickly set.
We decided to ride to a water park about eighty miles away from New Orleans located near the Mississippi coast just a few miles inland from Bay St. Louis. It would be our first time cycling to McLeod's Family Campground. All we knew about the place was the presence of a river and primitive camping. It was a little farther than either of us cared to ride on a two day weekend but with that extra day to rest up for the return trip it seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit the only campground within one hundred miles of New Orleans not yet visited by us on our bikes.
The place was next to the Jourdan River where we could swim and cool off during the afternoon heat - a must for summer touring on the Gulf Coast.
We got our usual early start on what turned out to be the hottest day of this millennium. By ten a.m. the temperature was ninety-five degrees with humidity at ninety-five percent. That means the heat index on a blacktop road under direct sunlight is somewhere near 130°F. The only available breeze was created by our moving bicycles. Sweat dripped steadily on hot asphalt as we pedaled a reasonable pace with purpose toward the distant horizon. Water was gulped by the gallon and the three water bottles on my bike's frame became a necessity rather than a luxury.
That type of heat required acclimation just like high altitude. There is no substitute for training and living in a brutal climate. It was an extremely hot day even for two fit guys who were used to heat. We pushed on with thoughts of shade trees and cool rivers in our minds. Any rest breaks would only allow the temperature to climb a few more degrees so we stopped only long enough to fill water bottles when they became empty.
For most of the morning heat was our only enemy. Then we eventually turned north onto Mississippi highway 603.
We could tell by looking at the map that 603 could be a busy road but never in our wildest heat-induced hallucinations could we have imagined the situation we found ourselves enduring on that highway from the far edge of Hell. 603 was an extremely narrow two-lane shoulderless road that proved to be the only north-south route connecting Interstate 10 to the beaches for fifty miles in either direction. To make matters worse, the roadside was lined with loose, deep pea gravel that meant certain loss of control for any vehicle that should stray onto it - especially a loaded down touring bike with one inch tires. Some mixture of hard-headed stupidity and machismo drove us on.
Except for one short break in the action, the first five miles was a steady stream of cars and trucks. They all traveled at sixty miles per hour, they never slowed down one bit while passing, and they never gave an inch! Every fifth vehicle laid on the horn while passing us and several launched litter out of their windows as they went by.
My hands were aching from the death-grip I held on the handle bars while my eyes riveted themselves to the white line. Three inches to the right and I crash and burn in the loose gravel, three inches to the left and I'm a hood ornament. About then my arms and shoulders started to complain but I couldn't relax for even a second. "Concentrate and don't screw up" said a voice inside my head.
Steady traffic in both directions was kicking up a decent breeze but stress was keeping the sweat dripping from my chin and elbows. I didn't dare reach for a water bottle. If we stopped we would loose our position and never be able to get back on the road surface.
We eventually got one break in the never ending stream of traffic for about thirty seconds. As I snatched up a water bottle and gulped the hot water inside I heard Jim yell from behind me, "You couldn't drive a nail up my ass with a sledge-hammer right now!" That made me laugh and I sorely needed humor at that point.
Thank God that stretch only lasted five miles. We really hammered the pedals to cover the distance as fast as possible.
I was relieved to see the turnoff ahead and whipped a left turn across two lanes of traffic like a Manhattan bike courier. Relief lasted but a moment. The road ahead had been completely covered with deep gravel since the printing of my map.
Two hot, exhausted tourists limped down the gravel road three miles in low gear straining to hold a straight line and breathing clouds of dust raised by the occasional passing car. "Who's idea was this, anyway?" became the slogan of the day.
At last! The gate to the campground! Could that be the end of our misery? Not hardly.
To get from the campground office to the primitive camping area we had to travel down a tire-rutted dirt road, another gravel road, then bicycle along a power line clear-cut. Finally we had to dismount and push heavily laden bikes down a "path" through the woods to the river.
Well, I must admit that our campsite was wonderful. We found a secluded spot along the river bank completely shaded by huge hardwood trees.
We were protected from the merciless sun but there wasn't even a hint of breeze so we pitched camp quickly, changed into our swimsuits and hit the river without further delay.
At last things were looking up. The river bank was shaded by a canopy of leaning trees and the water was substantially cooler than the air. We sat neck deep in the refreshing water as boaters and water skiers flashed by. Some fairly decent sights in two piece swimsuits caught our attention as the boats passed. Maybe the torment experienced earlier was worth it.
When the sun dipped behind the tree line and the day began to cool slightly we dragged our wrinkled, water-logged bodies from the river and ate supper. Dusk was upon us as we cleaned up around camp.
A little later, just about dark, came the mosquito invasion. The flying insects quickly drove us into our tents for an early retirement. Just as well because I was fully worn out. It was still eighty-five degrees outside as I lay on my foam pad with sweat running down my sides. Locals were still water-skiing by moonlight and didn't stop until nine that evening. Soon thereafter I dozed off.
All at once I was jerked back to consciousness by the sound of toenails on Cordura® nylon. I fumbled for my glasses and my flashlight and finally got them both focused outside toward the noise. There on Jim's rear bike rack was the biggest raccoon in a three state area trying to dig through the top of his panniers. In our haste to escape the insect hordes we forgot to hang our vittles out of critter's reach. Jim was still sound asleep, so I took it upon myself to save his equipment (and breakfast).
After carefully unzipping my tent I reached for a handy bicycle shoe outside. I lobbed the size 10 grenade in the coon's direction expecting him to explode off into the night. He did exactly that but not before picking up my shoe in his teeth.
Then it was my turn to explode into the night. Sock footed, flashlight in one hand, my remaining shoe in the other, I took off waving and screaming like an attacking Comanche warrior.
At least he had the decency to stay on the trail before climbing a fat tree. I launched my last shoe at close range and scored a direct hit bringing down that allowed me to recover my other shoe.
Jim was awake by that time and wondering why I was sprinting through the woods spewing curses in my stocking feet. I debriefed as Jim held the flashlight whilst I hung the food from a high branch.
It was 10:15 p.m. and way past my bedtime. After re-living the episode in my mind I managed to repress the adrenaline and fall asleep. Temporarily. I awoke to apparent silence, the kind of silence only heard outdoors at night, my ears straining to pick up any sound that may be the cause of my awakened state. The sound I heard was a very soft padded rhythm. I reached for my light and once again directed the beam out through the screen door of my tent. I nearly jumped out of my boxers at what I saw. Standing no more than three inches away was old ringtail peering in at me, his whiskers poking in through the mosquito screen.
The first two words that flew out of my mouth at high volume not only was an insult to him and his mother, but suggested that his brothers and sisters were also his sons and daughters.
I was pleased to see him move in a direction tangent to my position and without either of the two shoes parked just outside my tent.
That raccoon proceeded to terrorize us for an hour or so, climbing all over our bikes, inspecting us at close range, and using every trick in a vain attempt to gain possession of our hanging food supply. We would have slept better had we just handed over the food.
I am not certain just how long our friend hung around because at 11:30 a large group of campers kicked off their 4th of July party. Our fellow campers cranked up the stereo, set off an apparently limitless supply of fireworks, and sang to the music at the top of their drunken lungs.
The party was a hundred yards or so from us through dense woods and undergrowth. Even though I couldn't see them at all, the revelers sounded as though they were inside my head. Soon Jim woke up and recited a rather poetic string of vulgarity that referred to alleged mass inbreeding among the local campers specifically and rural residents in general.
By the time the eastern sky began to glow I knew the words to the song "I Want My MTV" by heart. They must have played that tune fifty times throughout the night while screaming out the lyrics in adulterated harmony. At 5:00 a.m. there was but one pitiful voice remaining to sing along. As I lay in my tent with bloodshot eyes cast skyward, I devised a dozen good plans that would allow me to kill him and get away with it. Those fantasies were very enjoyable. My favorite included slow strangulation with my bare hands while blaring the tune "Fool For The City".
My daydream was interrupted when Jim offered me one hundred dollars to do him in. The guy passed out a few seconds later.
We both managed to get an hour of restful sleep before the heat drove us from our tents. Without conversation we folded up our belongings, loaded the bikes and headed for the front office to check out.
The girl behind the desk asked us if the back campsites were quiet enough for us. I considered answering her question with an anatomically impossible suggestion but somehow restrained myself. Jim simply asked her where had she spent the night. "Certainly not at this place!"
Luckily we hit highway 603 early and didn't see five vehicles the whole ride. We stayed at a State Park twenty miles south on the Gulf Of Mexico and spent a very relaxing day and night there.
Memory is a funny thing. It often likes to associate itself with unfavorable events. To this day, whenever I hear that song by Dire Straits, I cant help thinking about the "4th of July from Hell".
COPYRIGHT © Joey Donnelly
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Joseph A. Donnelly