“So, you think this thing is going to hit Key West?” I asked Jon Watkins on the telephone. It was two days before the hurricane actually did so, and about five days before we were leaving for the trip. But, it was looking for all the world like it was headed straight out of the Atlantic, and would make a direct hit on our final destination.
“Probably,” he said, “but it’s not even a true hurricane yet. Even if it does gain strength, it won’t be more than a Category 1, and those people have been through much worse.”
“Heck, we’ve ridden through worse,” I lied. In fact, we’ve both been out several times in tornado weather – not on purpose, mind you, but you know how these things come up once in a while when you’re miles from home. With no radio on the bike, you’re pretty much at the mercy of your own sense of the weather, and whatever information you can gather during gasoline stops. In fact, I had ridden within ten miles of a tornado just a year before, having made a run to St. Louis to pick up some photography equipment before last year’s trip. On the way back the wind and rain came up like crazy, and I hot-footed it into a gas station. As I was pulling up on the bike, a newspaper rack was doing an end-over-end through the parking lot. Turned out it was 70 m.p.h. winds due to the nearby tornado.
We had planned this trip a year ago after our desert run. We take a big motorcycle trip together every year (our wives are very understanding). We make it a point to skip the big rallies in favor of traveling somewhere we’ve never been and where we are likely to be the only two bikers in town.
Two things gave me hope that our trip would not have to be canceled due to the weather. First, I trusted Jon’s intuition about these things. He’s a good ol’ Texas boy who used to work on the oilrigs out in the Gulf, and he’s actually been through a couple of hurricanes on the job. He assured me that they are no fun, but with the proper precautions, or just the good sense to avoid them, you can survive one with no problems. Surely the Keys would be in good shape.
Second, we were not even leaving Kansas City for three days, and even so, we were not making a straight run to Key West. We planned on spending Saturday night in New Orleans – drinking away the night in the French Quarter. Surely the hurricane would be well past Key West by that time, and the cleanup well underway by the time we arrived at our destination.
A couple of days later, Katrina hit Key West, and it was, in fact, a Category 1 hurricane. Jon, Jim Norris and I got together for a few drinks after work to discuss our plans. Jim is a friend who does not ride motorcycles, but after hearing of our plans to make the Key West run from Kansas City, he had jumped at the chance to drive the chase vehicle. Jim is a photographer like me, and he thought this would be a great opportunity to spend some time getting some landscapes and sunset shots. He owns a big diesel Ford pickup truck, and would carry the luggage and supplies, and share the costs of the trip. That was great for us. We wouldn’t have to pack the bikes down with luggage, and in the event something happened, we would have a chase vehicle on hand.
On Friday, August 26 (our departure day), we called the real estate agent in charge of the house we rented, and they assured us that the house was still there in good shape, and so were the Keys. They were still having rain, but the hurricane had passed them and was innocuously wandering into the Gulf. It hadn’t been too bad, she said. Still, we decided that it would probably be best to hook the trailer up to Jim’s truck – just in case. We could leave it in New Orleans and pick it back up on the return trip.
Jon, Jim and I met at 11 o’clock on Friday morning and headed south. The run to New Orleans was easy, but occasionally, the radio told of the strengthening hurricane that was sitting in the Gulf of Mexico with no particular landfall indicated. Perhaps it would be Houston, or Beaumont, or Lafayette. Or maybe New Orleans.
We arrived at the Best Western Landmark Hotel in New Orleans at about 2:30 a.m. and hit the sack. It was already Saturday, and we had a lot of drinking to do that night. But Katrina wasn’t tired. She was now a Category 2 storm.
I don’t sleep as much as I should. I have an internal clock that wakes me up somewhere between 5and 6a.m. every day. Drives my wife crazy, because even when I can sleep in, and when I clearly need it, I can’t. It’s rare for me to sleep past 7 o’clock. Saturday morning was no exception. I woke up spot on 7a.m. and after attending to the morning rituals I flipped on the television. And there she was…
Katrina had spent a busy night sucking up the warm weather and getting stronger. She was now a Category 3, and more ominously, she was starting to slide north. Houston and Beaumont were probably safe. New Orleans was getting nervous.
Jon, Jim and I met in the lobby at the prescribed time of 10 a.m., and signed up for the shuttle to the French Quarter. It was set for a 1:20 departure. We had some breakfast and went back to our rooms to get ready for the day’s events. Jim and I decided to use his truck and to go to some of the local cemeteries and shoot some of the mausoleums there, as they are ancient and beautiful, and when would we have a better opportunity?
We returned to the hotel in time to catch the shuttle, but I decided it was probably not a good idea to leave my camera bag (with about $5,000 worth of equipment in it) in the truck. I had to borrow his keys and ran back out to retrieve it. I stuck it in my room and returned to the lobby just in time to catch the shuttle to the French Quarter’s edge.
We headed straight for a bar that Jim knew about, but I couldn’t help but notice that everywhere there was a television, pictures of Katrina were on it, and the local news and weather forecasters had commandeered the airwaves to keep everyone posted.
The French Quarter has a unique little drink called a Hand Grenade, which is sickly sweet and doesn’t taste much like alcohol even though it is about 90% so. After several of them as the day wore on, I got a bit chatty as I tend to do, and started striking up conversations with the bartenders and waitresses here and there. No, they were not scared of the hurricane – they’d been through many of them. No, they were not planning on leaving the city. It would blow over in no time.
We had seen much of the Quarter as the sun was setting, and had hit several bars by that time. We had a great dinner at The Court of Two Sisters and then went to the bar and met a bartender who had worked there for about eight years. Conversation turned toward our destination, and he said he used to live in Key West and gave us some contact names of friends of his. Then I mentioned we were riding down, and he got a shocked look on his face and said, “You guys are on bikes?” I told him that they were safely back at the hotel, and we were going home by taxi. But, I had misunderstood his query and he corrected me. “You been watching the weather?”
I told him I had glanced at the television at just about every bar in the Quarter, and further that I had talked to a lot of the locals who were not concerned about it. Should we be? He shook his head and said, “That’s what the standard line is down here. Nobody wants to look like they’re scared. But they announced about an hour ago that this thing is now a Category 4, and it’s looking more and more like it might hit New Orleans. If I were you, I would get back to your hotel and get some sleep,” – he was politely implying that I was in no condition to ride any time soon – “and then get the f*ck out of here while you still can.”
That set me back a little. It was the first time I had heard any local admit that they were nervous about the storm. The bartender said he was leaving as soon as the place closed, stopping only to pick up his wife, who had already packed.
About 11 p.m. I had had it. I rarely get very drunk, preferring to maintain a good buzz instead, but after all, this was the French Quarter, and I was feeling little pain. I heeded the bartender’s advice and tried to collect Jon and Jim, but they had wandered off to another bar, so I called them on Jon’s cell phone. They had not seen the look on the bartender’s face, nor gotten his advice as directly as I had, so they were not ready to leave. “Well, just be ready to go by 8a.m.,” I shouted into the phone, but I don’t think they heard me. I grabbed a cab and headed back. During the ride I could not help but notice the heavy traffic and the lengthy lines at the gas stations. Most of the lines were out into the street. Every station had at least 10 cars waiting for every pump. I got a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach because I remembered that we had not fueled the truck for some time prior to reaching New Orleans the night before.
At 3 a.m. I awoke to a familiar sound. They were blowing a siren across New Orleans, like the kind we get in Kansas City when a tornado is nearby. I fumbled for the remote and turned on the television, and through bleary eyes, I flipped through every local station and some national ones, and discovered that Katrina was being a bad girl. She was now a Category 5, and she had made her final turn north – making a direct beeline for New Orleans. They had not called for mandatory evacuations yet, but we could assume it was coming.
I remembered our fuel situation, so I stumbled around and got dressed, still feeling a bit woozy from the night’s activities. I was preparing to go to Jim’s room to get the truck keys, but when I shoved my hotel key card into my pocket, there they were. I had never returned them after my run back out to retrieve my camera. There was a stroke of luck.
His truck is a 2005 model with all the bells and whistles, including a fuel mileage indicator and “miles until empty” readout. It read “76 miles.” Considering the huge gas lines I had seen earlier, I was a bit nervous about the ability to find any fuel. But, the streets were pretty empty now, so I suspected I would have no real trouble. How wrong I was.
No, there were no lines at the gas stations… because there was no gas. I drove through nine stations before finding diesel available at the tenth one, and that was the only fuel product they had left. Glancing at the “miles until empty” indicator, it said 26, which would not even have gotten us across town. I breathed a sigh of relief as I was filling the tank with $3.29 per gallon life. Came up to over $70 worth.
Back at the hotel I watched the television with rapt attention as Katrina spun her way toward me. She was scheduled for landfall at about 7:00 a.m. the next day. It was 6 a.m. now, and I figured 25 hours was cutting it pretty close. Rang Jon, then Jim, and told them both that a Category 5 hurricane was about to blow up our asses if we didn’t get the hell out of there. They grumbled agreement and we said we would meet in the lobby at 6:30.
When we convened, Jim said that he was nervous about getting fuel, and they were relieved that I had already done so. High fives all around, and later in the trip they bought me a round of drinks for good thinking. I told Jim that if we had needed gasoline instead of diesel, we would still be looking for it. He replied with a phrase that has stuck in my mind since then. “You should always be able to get diesel. This country runs on diesel, including the military. If you can’t find diesel, it’s time to find a gun.”
With the bikes in the trailer, and three raging hangovers, we left the parking lot at about 7 a.m. They had not started “contra-flow” yet (where they have all the highways heading out of town and no lanes heading in), which was a good thing, because they were recommending everybody flee to the west. We wanted to go east. The interstate was not terribly busy in the direction we were going, so it took us only about 30 minutes to hit the east side of town. By 9 o’clock we were cruising unabated down Interstate 10, and our hangovers had subsided to a large degree. I sat in the back seat of the truck looking at the Gulf of Mexico and the ominous clouds off in the distance, but over our heads the sun was shining and the weather was beautiful.
Finally, Jon and I had had enough of this truck business while there were two perfectly good Harleys in a trailer in the back, so we asked Jim to find us a parking lot to unload in, and we pulled out the bikes and geared up. We agreed to stick together in case something happened, but Jon and I would ride.
Back on the interstate again, the clear roads lasted for about 20 minutes. As we approached Biloxi, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic flowing at about 45 miles per hour. Pulling a trailer, Jim was no match for us, and with cars jumping in and out of lanes all around us we lost him shortly thereafter. Inexperience with hurricanes had caused us not to consider that everybody on THIS side of it would be running east, just like us.
It took us two hours to get from city limit to city limit in Mobile, Alabama, and 3-1/2 hours to get across Pensacola, Florida. Most of the time we sat on the highway with our bikes turned off, standing next to them smoking a cigarette. It was incredible traffic – like leaving a Chiefs game – for about 10 hours. All the while we watched the clouds roll up over us, and I got a good picture of the outer bands of Katrina as she worked her way northward.
For the first 350 miles we could always see those cloud bands, either beside us or in the rearview mirror. Then we would get stopped in traffic for a long stretch, and the clouds would slip up over us again coming out of the Gulf. The weather behind us was always dark and ominous. That day we only got rained on a few times, and there was never very much of it.
At one point, I walked up to a car with an open window as we were standing on the highway and asked the driver if there was any new news about the impending storm. He told me that Katrina had reduced to a Category 4 hurricane, and I said that this was good news. But he informed me that even so, they were predicting 100 mile per hour winds 300 miles away from the eye. Several times during our ride (or while we were waiting on the highway), concerned motorists commented that we had better get the hell to someplace safe on “those bikes.”
At one gas stop about 300 miles out, they were boarding up the windows of a gas station. I thought this was interesting, considering the comments from the motorist, and took a snapshot with Jon and the bikes in the foreground. I contacted Jim on the cell phone, and he had made arrangements for three rooms in Gainesville, Florida (as close as he could get).
Sixteen hours after we started out that morning, we were in Gainesville.. My phone had 14 missed calls on it – friends checking on my well-being. But, I had called my wife several times during the day and let her know of our progress, so they would have called her for updates. I was glad we were out of harm’s way and looked forward to a good night’s sleep. Yet, I stayed up another hour and watched the news reports as the hurricane got closer to landfall. My body’s internal clock was right on time, and I woke up at 6a.m. and watched Katrina slowly, ferociously, slam into New Orleans as a welcome sunrise was coming though my window. She brought the biggest storm surge in recorded history at 29 feet, or seven feet higher than the previous record.
I had planned on writing this article about our bike run, spending particular time on the ride around the Gulf Coast and what it’s like to ride over the Seven Mile Bridge and to be in Key West on a bike. We did spend several days in a beautiful, rented house and several nights on Duval Street at the bars. We chose to stick to the more conventional bars, and as you may know, Key West has an openly gay/lesbian lifestyle, but it’s not as overt as you might imagine. However, I did get propositioned by a 250 pound. drag queen as I was coming out of a bar and walking by a ticket booth for a show called “Transformations on Ice.” I have a clear picture in my head of what THAT show was about. I smiled and told him (her?) that I was married, and threw in “to a woman.” The four of us – Jon, Jim, the drag queen and I all laughed, but we never broke stride.
Key West is a great town with a real Caribbean feel, and the three of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The bars are great, the ride is magnificent, and the ocean water is that special turquoise blue that we are used to seeing in places like Cancun. You ride on a ribbon of highway, hopping from Key to Key, seeing wide expanses of ocean on your left and right. You see islands both big and small, ride over one of the largest bridges in the world, and yes, see the damage wrought by recent hurricanes. Don’t get too complacent as you are riding, though, because on one or two of the Keys you have to avoid the damn endangered “Key Deer” which run wild and are apparently bred for the purposes of killing motorcyclists.
Once you get to Key West, you can ride right up to a marker indicating “Southernmost Point in the USA”, and perhaps you will have a couple of cute German tourist girls walk right up to you and say in broken English, “It has always been lifelong dream to sit on a Harley man’s motorcycle.” (See the picture) We obliged, but eschewed the ride offer, because after all, I am married – to a woman.
Of all the pictures I took, though, I have to admit that my favorite is one of a Mexican restaurant. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the lifestyle, culture and recent news events, with the inscription “KATRINA, YOU SLUT” painted on the front door.
Story & Photos by Bruce Stimpson