Words and photos by Miranda Miller, 3-time Canadian National Downhill Champion and 2017 World Champion.
Winter in Squamish shrieks “time to head south,” and we were happy to follow the migratory pull. Tucson had become our go-to to kick off for training season, but this year, the thought of returning to climb Mt. Lemmon for the 10th time no longer excited me. Routine and working hard had become a safe place, but there's been a bit of a personal seismic shift in this past year. I still craved the challenge, but I was tired by the format. I needed somewhere new, a “place-for-no-reason,” a place offering the opportunity for each day to be unique. Rumblings of the levels of cool for Austin, Texas had reached me and these, combined with memories of Tom Robbins’ book ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ had New Orleans on my mind...
I too was finding myself at a point where I wanted to conform to my inner being. I have found a peace that has allowed me to be more content with who I am and patient with my experiences, no longer looking ahead to the next event but instead paying attention to thoroughly enjoying what I’m doing and who I am. I want to use my time, not waste it. So we planned our ride from Austin to New Orleans: 1100km, over 7 days through rural Texas and Louisiana.
We were about to experience small town life in the southern USA! Homogeneous is the simplest way to describe ourselves and our upbringing, so we were excited to experience an area that, although was English speaking, would be foreign to us. We left home buzzing with excitement, worried we’d forgotten a charger or our chamois wouldn’t dry in the humidity. Myles was persuaded to bring his Kindle, knowing he’d never read it, and Remi packed a camera that never left his bag. To blend in, Myles and I had matching RealTree Camo Crocs. Jesse had a road bike with tires too wide for the frame, while I and my brand new Kona Libre had a full 30km under us. We were ready!
In Austin, the more people we told about our trip the more our excitement curdled into fear. Fear, it seems, is a powerful and popular tool. We learned of the group of cyclists that were plowed by a truck not far from our route. We were warned trucks would buzz and roll coal on us. We were advised the following: The locals might not like you. If anyone confronts you, don’t talk back. You need more lights, more reflectors, and maybe consider buying a gun. I lay in bed that night wondering, “Have we made a terrible mistake?” But off we went with our lights flashing a weak warning.
Day 1: 150km Austin to La Grange
It was a slow start. We were reluctant to be leaving Austin so soon. We liked it and had made new friends. Maybe we were just nervous to be leaving the comfort we had already found there.
We were neophyte bike-packers, so there was a fair amount of stopping and starting as we fine-tuned our setups, loads and balances. There was a 10/10 Urgency Emergency Bathroom Break. I discovered that, on no account, should I walk in dirt in my road cleats. All this took entirely too long, but, finally, we were out of the city and on our way.
Just as we had settled into the comfort of riding we hit dog country. These dogs were fast, mean and I believed that they really wanted to get us. Not only did we have to watch out for MegaCabs, but now, we had pitbulls and german shepherds snapping at our heels hoping for a shin bite. I was anxious and I didn’t like it. How long would this go on? There was no way I could sprint from here to New Orleans! Maybe I wasn’t ready for the great unknown?
Lunch was a welcome break. We fueled up at the magical gas station that is Buc-ee’s with over 100 pumps and every kind of meat snack you could dream of! The selection overwhelmed me so I panicked and bought boiled eggs and cake balls.
We had what would be our first and only coal rolling experience just outside Bastrop, but fortunately it was just as we turned off the highway and into the state park. We were now on a quiet park road where we didn’t have to worry about traffic so we could pin it through rolling hills next to one another. It was exactly what I needed to relax and regain my belief in how awesome this trip was going to be.
A few hours later, we toasted the day with a Shiner Bock at a bar named Beerz about 10km from La Grange. The locals were friendly and laughed at us when we asked for water. We were doing it. This was Texas.
Day 2: 169km La Grange to Lake Conroe
We got to the continental breakfast before 6am so we could get on the road at a more timely hour. It was at this breakfast that Myles would discover the Honey Bun, a sweet packaged treat that boasts 590 calories with 70g of carbs. Available at almost all gas stations, this magical bun would fuel Myles for the remainder of the trip.
This was the day we learned, through a sad sandwich, that it’s pointless to stray from tacos from lunch. They’re always more reliable.
This was also the day I had a “moment” when our route forced a hike through a muddy construction site, resulting in me tearing a huge hole in the butt of my new Rapha bib, while simultaneously filling my road cleats with mud. I wasn’t feeling hot or skinny enough yet to have my butt hanging out, but I quickly got over it. Why waste the energy when there’s no choice?
We rolled on through farmlands of huge ranches and beautiful giant live oak trees. In the middle of a wooden bridge, we found a ripped off hog leg. We had been learning about ‘feral hog eradication,’ so this leg was exciting to us.
Lake Conroe is home to Margaritaville Resort, a magical sounding place, but it was outside our price range so we settled for gas station Modelos drunk on the lake dock of the Jack in the Box to wind down after another successful day on the bike. At 168km it was the longest ride I’d ever done.
Day 3: 170km Lake Conroe to Kountze
This section of the journey brought roads a bit more bumpy and straight. To pass the time, Snus joined the party. I’m not a chick who chews, so I left it to the boys, but nobody warned Jesse about the time limit and strength. We found ourselves having a longer-than-usual break in a Brookshire Brothers parking lot while the contie breakfast left Jesse from both available exits.
We chose DQ over Sonic for dinner, and to add insult to injury, Jesse had a nice big bite of a chicken sashimi burger. He seemed to survive this though, and had a peaceful night to end his torturous day.
Kountze was a small town, with limited options so we are proud to announce: We were able to become The First Canadians to Ever Stay at the Kountze Super 8 (Unofficial). They’ve had people from Alaska, but never Canada!
Day 4: 135km Kountze to DeRidder
This was the shortest day of the trip and had no elevation, so we were able to rip into Louisiana in time for lunch. We crossed state lines to be welcomed by a sign that read, “Fill the Ice Chest, Load the Four Wheeler.” We sure were in Louisiana now!
Shortly after our arrival, I found a dead chicken in a bag. I don’t mean boil-in-a-bag, or 3-for-the-price-of-one. I mean, a Rhode Island Red with it’s head, feet, feathers, in a plastic shopping bag. It will be forever a mystery and subject for speculation.
The town of DeRidder had captured, for some completely unknown reason, our collective imaginations, and made us laugh, from the instant we saw its name on the map when first planning the trip. DeRidder, Louisiana. It leapt out at us and called our name. The best part? It was a great time.
We had Gator Bites (tasted like a chicken crossed with a prawn...crawn?) and Crawdad Po’ Boys for lunch, and our waitress brought a second round of beers without asking, which surely would never happen anywhere but DeRidder.
In the convenience store by the hotel, we met Dave, a local member of the US Army who had just returned from Syria. He laughed at us for knowing nothing about the military. He had joined up to secure the benefits to look after his family, and he told us he’d love to move to Canada one day. His idea of fun was going to Lake Charles to hunt and fish. New Orleans didn’t excite him too much.
Day 5: 145km DeRidder to Opelousas
Opelousas was one of the bigger towns we stayed in, and we rolled in fairly early again, allowing time for a little exploration. Arriving by bike allowed us to see all parts of the town. You’re not on a freeway and choosing your exit based on your destination. Instead, you approach from the back roads and you get to feel it.
We hadn’t booked a hotel, so after entering Opelousas, we pulled over to formulate a plan. We stopped at a gas station where a car with a busted up window was parked outside and an old man struggled to stay upright on his bike. A truck pulled up in front of us, loud music blaring. I waved at the guy inside. Next thing we knew, the truck door flung open and a big man climbed out calling, “Y’all need some water?” He opened up a cooler in the bed of his truck and fished out four waters, apologizing that they weren’t colder as he handed them around. He introduced himself as Melvin Chambers from Opelousas and told us all the good places to eat in town. In return, he wanted to know all about us.
This generosity and curiosity really exemplified the way everyone approached us. It was amazing. Everywhere we went, people wanted to know how we ended up at their gas station? How’d we get to their town? Where were we going and where’d we come from?
Day 6: 170km Opelousas to Baton Rouge
I woke up feeling the dread of the trip coming to an end, and so did the others. Having discovered the speed at which you can move through mountain-free terrain, we added an extra loop to our day. We were comfortable in our journey, and the day's final destination was no longer the highlight to us.
We ate lunch in a town, New Roads, which felt like a California beach town but in Louisiana. We rode some punishingly bumpy roads as well as perfectly paved and windy ones through a golf course community. We caught our first sight of the Bayou and the mighty Mississippi.
Approaching Baton Rouge, it was obvious we were in a more industrial and rough part of town, and indeed, a lady slowed her car to call out a warning to be safe. We kept constantly moving, loving our ability to see all the facets of the place and found that no matter the ‘part’ of town, it was rare not to receive a nod or a wave in return to our greeting.
Day 7: 190km Baton Rouge to New Orleans
I had surpassed my longest ride by this point and done back to back 100 mile days. So what was 190km?
Our route followed the Mississippi the entire way. It was not the scenic tour we anticipated but rather an industrial park of oil refineries, steel, and coal. It seemed that it was only these industries that were keeping the communities we rode through alive.
We stopped to eat at Mikos Seafood, and for $9, we enjoyed easily the best lunch of the trip! As we sat on the sidewalk, Poncho, who was helping out his daughter with the sale, came over and joined us to find out where we’re from. We learned that his brother had started Mikos after he returned from the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t doing very well, so they were trying to make some extra cash by adding lunch trade. Poncho himself had been the fourth employee hired at the Marathon Oil Refinery down the street. Before he retired, he had traveled around to help other locations. He grew up speaking Cajun French, but not many speak it anymore. A dying language. He was soft spoken and keen to tell us about Louisiana. He also warned us of the dangers of New Orleans.
Rolling into New Orleans, we discovered that the party had already started. We had 1100km in our legs, and we felt we were exactly where we were supposed to be. I end the story at our arrival in New Orleans, as it was a night that had to be experienced, not explained. We were on a living spree, and like they say in Louisiana, “come as you are, leave different.” That was exactly what we were going to do.
For this trip, Miranda Miller rode a Kona Libre gravel bike with a mullet made up of RED eTap AXS and XX1 Eagle AXS parts. Follow her on Instagram to see more of her adventures.