In 2004 my father’s side of the family celebrated its first-ever family reunion. The reunion was a remarkable occasion for me because I met two cousins for the first time who were both cyclists. Both are avid roadies and one, Mike, does brevets and has even been to Paris-Brest-Paris.
I was no longer the oddball in the family. I was now only one-third of the family oddballs.
Hurricanes are said to have a dirty side and clean side. Due to the rotation of a hurricane the worst of the storm surge occurs to the right of the eye as it makes landfall, but that’s not why it’s called the dirty side. The dirty side of a hurricane is where the greatest amount of picked up debris can be found. Katrina’s eye hit Pass Christian, Mississippi, just a few miles to the west of Gulfport.
In 2010, with the Gulf Coast beginning to finally recover, our family planned our second reunion. We were able to bring much of the family present in 2004 back together and this time Mike and I planned to do what cyclists do: ride together. The next morning, Mike and I rolled out before the heat struck. We headed north out of Gulfport and into the countryside, passing the marina where his father and mother had a boat when Katrina hit.
Mike showed me the spot where his parent’s boat was deposited by the storm, completely upright. After bracing it, they used its little refrigerator to keep food and even slept in the bunk for a few nights.
Mike lived in St. Louis and began driving down with gasoline and supplies once the roads were clear. I sent out e-mails through a network of friends and coworkers who took my extended family’s plight to heart. Donations of clothing, toys and even cash poured in. Every time someone handed me a check I cried. Mike and I traded e-mails almost daily about how everyone was doing. Not only were his parents displaced, so were his sister, brother-in-law and their children. He’d give me an address, I’d box things up and ship them off.
As we rode we passed home after newly constructed home that was either for sale or rent. Periodically, a gap appeared in a row of houses. I would look down and see a front walk ending in grass or at a concrete slab, the site of a former home that for reasons too heart-rending to guess, had simply never been rebuilt.
When we arrived in New Orleans, the BP oil spill was nearly two months old and oil plumes were plowing into the shores of the Gulf. The oil was the top topic of everyone with whom I spoke. In their voices was dread, borne of first-hand knowledge how disaster can permeate a person’s entire life. No one could speak of the coming oil without referencing Katrina. And every conversation about Katrina was brought present-tense with a discussion of the efforts to cap the well and devastation the oil would visit upon an area just beginning to experience hope after rebuilding from Katrina.
Some people I talked with spoke first of the environment and wildlife that would destroyed by the oil. Some spoke of the lives that would be ruined by the second crippling interruption of the coast’s fishing industry. For others, the rebuke to tourism was the great fear, that even people like me—those with ties to the region—would stop visiting once and for all.
Any time I travel, one of my favorite things to do is experience a local group ride. On our final day in New Orleans I rose at dawn once again to head out and hook up with the local Tuesday morning training ride.
Due to poor navigation on my part, I arrived at the start of the ride some minutes after their departure, so I put my head down and started chasing. The ride is an out-and-back on a bike path built atop one of the levees and is easily the smoothest surface I rode in the entire parish.
After chasing for a good 45 minutes, I saw the group on its way back. I slowed down, let them pass, turned around and began to chase. I figured the group might be more likely to accept me if I chased them down from behind. With my heart rate pinned and legs begging for mercy or death—the same thing in my case—I gradually cut the distance to the group until a rider at the back took pity on me. With the gap to the group at about 15 feet, he began to soft pedal and dropped back to me. Once I was on his wheel, he shut the gap down and earned my gratitude.
That’s when it hit me. The peloton is my family of choice. We take our pulls and do our part. We look out for each other, share the fun, the work and even the suffering. But it’s the kindnesses you’ll never forget.
If you value independent media, please lend your support to RKP.
To learn more about our new subscription program, please read this.