St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shivering Oranges

Shivering Oranges

It turned cold down here and so instead of moving a little north into Mississippi last week, we went a little south to Bayou Segnette State Park on the SE edge of New Orleans (pronounced naw-lins) last week. The temperatures dropped to 33 overnight twice, and it rained and blew reminding us of an April shower. This was “break into normally scheduled programming” weather for the locals!

Heated shelters opened for homeless and those without heaters; winter cap and coat drives were on for the poor; a 15-car pileup closed a Baton Rouge icy bridge; schools were closed and road workers shutdown until temperatures rose above freezing the next afternoon. At our park on the edge of the Big Easy, several neighboring RV’ers stopped over to worry about us freezing in our popup trailer.

We have an electric space heater and use an electric blanket in the camper and can stay comfortable down to zero outside, so it was no problem. Our neighbors, mostly southerners, hunkered down in their big heated vehicles waiting it out. However, a sprinkling of us Canadianers and Midwesterners bantered about in short sleeves and baseball caps, “won’t see dis nice weather in Manitoba til May.” “Ja, you betcha, Ma’s in der gettin lathered up with SPF 30—she burns if it gets above freez’n.” “Ja, dose Canada da grees are bigger dan da US ones, much worser,” and so on.

Along the entrance road to the campgrounds, a new flood wall is taking the place of the old breeched one; stronger, prettier, and topped with 12 feet of concrete to let New Orleans, much of which is at or below sea level, get through the next big 100 year flood. With Katrina, the levees failed and nearly 80% of the city flooded. We drove through the northeast part of town where boarded up houses and flood damage mixes with repaired homes and businesses. Lots of empty buildings.

We put on our light winter jackets and tromped the French Quarter at 10 am Monday, wondering why hardly anything was open, the restaurants not cooking, and the streets empty except for the beer, liquor, wine and food trucks refilling the hundreds of bars and restaurants from the weekend crowds and garbage trucks hauling away the evidence.

We managed to get a beignet, a square donut without the hole, the specialty of CafĂ© du Monde along the waterfront. Canvas walls rolled down and flapping in the cold wind, the few customers inside gave themselves away with the familiar “eh’s” and “uff da’s” of the far north. Rugged Japanese tourist families roamed the empty parks, preying on strangers to take their pictures as they lined up in front just about anything.
We walked to Bourbon street, and through the even more colorful areas of town; all buttoned up waiting for a warm night. The stiff east wind rattled posters promising floozies, booze, and jazz inside the door, shaking them as if the scantily clad women were shivering. Margo clutched her purse in reaction to TV news warnings of packs of I-pad, I-phone and purse snatchers prowling the porticoed old streets.

We warmed up in museums; the old U.S. Mint and the Louisiana State Museum with exhibits remembering Katrina and the history of New Orleans. The Katrina display was new, with dozens of film clips running live reports gleaned from the Courics and Brokaws of disaster. Whipping palm trees, crashing waves, floating cars and houses backed by a deep rumbling soundtrack in darkened rooms with lights flashing like lightning. One theater screen was an askew house wall; behind framed windows of were TV screens showing hurricane footage as if we were looking right through the windows.

A few shops were open, selling dried alligator heads, voodoo dolls, tee-shirts beads and tourist gimcracks. Margo had a hard time finding a tee-shirt tame enough to wear in Cushing. In all, it was rather disappointing to see the French Quarter so deserted. Cold weather is hard on iniquity.

Another cool rainy day, we drove south to the ocean in Placquemines (plack a min) Parish, a finger of land stretching far into the Gulf. Highway 23 parallels the west levee on the Mississippi extending 60 miles south of New Orleans. We were after evidence from the big spill.

Here and there were rows and fields of orange trees, some bare and some bearing. Only one fruit stand was open. “There are about 500 acres of orange trees in this area with about 100 trees per acre. There are many small owners, but my boss is the biggest with 100 acres or so and rents more. We raise tomatoes (they had some fresh picked ones for sale) and lots of cool weather crops now, broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, greens. We have yams, and other things on hand. We will be planting our 2011 gardens starting in a few weeks,” the short mid-thirties, bundled up woman tending the stand told us.

“The orange picking season started in late November and we will be picking fruit for about 6 more weeks as different varieties ripen. We raise Samatsu, Navel, Blood and a few other varieties of Oranges. My boss raises and sells thousands of orange trees each year to other states. There used to be more orange growers around, but it keeps dwindling. Each season is different; this year we have a good yield, and the price is pretty good. We have some lemon and grapefruit trees, but mostly oranges”

“We have to spray the trees for bugs and diseases that attack the tree itself. The fruit doesn’t get wormy like apples because of the thick rind. However, in the last few years a disease that makes brown ugly spots on the orange fruit has come in and we have to spray with copper, a fungicide, to keep it from spoiling the looks of the fruit.”

“Oranges can stand cold weather, it makes the fruit sweeter if we get some before harvest time. It can get down to about 18 degrees for up to 4 hours without damage to the tree and fruit, something that very rarely occurs here. The trees are pretty tough!”

Our intention, as we drove Hwy 23 south, was to follow it to the Gulf and see if we could find a souvenir BP tar ball to bring back for show and tell at the Men’s group. Another RV’er told us they had camped at Grand Isle, a state park a little west of where our road would lead, and all they found was a few tar balls along the beach—nothing else from the spill at all.

The whole road south of New Orleans followed the Mississippi west bank levee and the big shipping channel that lets ocean boats up river You couldn’t see the water over it from our road, but you could see huge ocean liners and tugs sticking above the ridge, only a few hundred yards away, as if they were in another lane of our highway. Occasionally we turned out drove to the top of the levy to see the rusty ships headed to and from the ports to New Orleans.

One roadside area was piled high with vast mounds of black crushed coal, the size of coarse road rock. Next was a series of high wheat elevators, the round concrete ones you might see along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.

“Barges coming down the Mississippi, loaded with western coal sent by train to the Mississippi and loaded up north are unloaded here, piled and then reloaded on to big ships headed to other countries as is wheat and corn. Lots of it comes from Minnesota,” said the attendant at a gas station-casino nearby. Casinos here are often just a few slot machines in a room off a restaurant or gas station. If they really wanted to get my business, they would turn the gas pumps into slot machines; you pay for your gas and throw in an extra dollar to get a chance at getting it all back!

The last 25 miles of the road had some big flat drained fields, pasture to large herds of cattle. Although the grass was mostly brown, clover was bright green and the cows were out grazing. Occasionally there were forests of live oak or other green leaved plants, short and ocean wind blown along with marshes and a continual string of housing; mostly trailers and manufactured and messy, often up on stilts.

Oil production facilities lined the last 10 miles of the road. Vast security fenced lots filled with cars and helicopters support the offshore drilling/pumping platforms. Fenced crude oil tank farms; pipelines running helter skelter, and one huge huge Conoco-Phillips refinery, separated from the Mississippi by levees obscured the wetlands.

Five miles from the end of the road was the first hill we saw a limitless flat land of water and tidal marsh. A prominent hill far ahead turned out to be a “sanitary landfill,” truly oxymoronic. Windblown garbage littered the road, and atop the huge pile, trucks unloaded; bulldozers pushed and compacted and thousands of gulls dove in for food scraps before it all was covered with a layer of dirt.

The ugly scene set the pattern for the last few miles of the road into the Gulf. Narrow roads turned to gravel, one side the tidal ponds and hundreds of shore birds wading in abandoned pipes, hurricane strewed tin roofs, and other man made waste; the other side fenced lots filled with oil company tanks, pipes, equipment; much of it salt water rusted, ugly and abandoned and other lots still in use, security fenced and just plain ugly. It reminded us of a vast wrecking yard and dump that had been placed in some of the most pretty wetlands you can imagine.

Oil production here has been ongoing for 75 years with the bulk of the efforts starting in the 1950s and then as the easy-to-find oil in the shallow marshes ran out, pushing on out further and deeper into the ocean living the litter of old fields, tanks and equipment behind. Debris dumping appears to have been going on just as long!

“The junk is mostly just as bad as you go out into the Gulf waters,” a local man fishing along the road at the end told me, “but it doesn’t look so bad as it is underwater! Most of this land is still owned by the oil companies and although it looks abandoned, is still used at times; the pipelines from farther out come through here, pointing to ugly rusted huge pipes and junctions coming along the roads and the rusting tanks nearby. Maybe they will clean it up someday. It would make a wonderful wildlife refuge.”

“The main problem here with the spill was the local fishermen were told they couldn’t fish or collect seafood in the Gulf around here anymore. They just opened it up again last month. They couldn’t make a living, and of course the businesses who depended on them had trouble too. There was some oil cleanup around here—out farther from the shore, but that’s gone except for a few tar balls on some beaches. Can’t see anything left. Some folks are still bothered about eating the fish and shrimp and stuff they catch here, but most seem to think it is OK again. The oil dispersants (detergent like chemicals dumped to break up the oil) are more worrying for us than the oil itself,” said a fisherman holding his rod and reel fishing in a small tidal pool lined with debris and opposite a rusted old security fence surrounding an abandoned oil tank farm when I stopped to talk.

“About the only think left you can see from the spill are all the lawyer signs along the road trying to get us to hire them to get money from BP!” he laughed. “Lots of folks have applied for BP money to cover their losses. Twenty billion from BP has corrupted many honest folks and attracted lots of scum in a greedy feeding frenzy. That brings in the big sharks with law degrees. I think the money might hurt us more in the long term than the oil spill!”

We plan to ooze along to another Louisiana park for this our 5th week on the road. Right now we think that we will head back north at the beginning of March, but it all depends on Margo. Last week we parked over a fire ant hill, and after a few days they figured out there was fresh meat in her bunk and bit her up a lot before I got them under control. By tying her hands, I got her to stop scratching the raw skin and am spraying her down with benzocaine regularly until the stinging subsides. By the time you read this she should be fine, or in the hospital.