I often return to Louisiana (LA) Highway 553 here in the lowlands surrounding the town of Monroe. It’s a road close to home that I take when the sun is bright, the road is dry and I have time. I imagine all riders have a road such as this.
Spring buds are unfurling beside Forty Oaks Farm Road as I head toward the country. Children in schoolyards scream and chase each other under a warm noonday sun as I ride by, while men from Cajun prairies farther south deliver the year’s first harvest of live crawfish.
But I want something besides crawfish for lunch today, so after a left onto U.S. Route 80 and then another half mile, I stop at Belle’s Ole South Diner. I order fried catfish and substitute sweet potatoes for grits. Soon I’m biting into a thin rough coating of deep fried cornmeal surrounding thick, warm fish cooked so closely beyond its raw point that it almost disintegrates on my tongue. I linger over my catfish for a while, and then I resume my ride east on U.S. 80.
I cross the Ouachita River on Louisville Avenue, and turn left onto Riverside Drive, which leads me into Monroe’s garden district and onto Forsythe Avenue. Stately old homes displaying white columns, wavy glass and money occupy this place. Here and there surrounding the houses are manicured lawns with massed azaleas at their peak, distracting all that pass by with their best red or white blossoms. I keep to Forsythe until turning north onto U.S. Route 165.
From U.S. 165, LA 553 meanders westward along the crooked Ouachita River into farm country. The road is narrow, bumpy and under endless repair because it sits in a swamp, which is spongy. I know each bump, where all the tar snakes lie, and except for an occasional new asphalt patch I know what waits around each bend. I’m not out here to explore.
LA 553 boasts a real pet cemetery, and you can ride atop a 20-foot high levee running alongside Horseshoe Lake. Crossing this levee leads to a local park on the Ouachita River, where you can fish for a while or relax at a table in the shade of oaks.
I pass the park and take the first curve, aware of undulating asphalt just off center. I add speed before gliding over smoother road leading deeper into the swamp. On my right, the large green fans of palmettoes rise from black water beneath ash and red maple. The grassy bank of the levee rises on my left.
The road curves into a tunnel of overhanging branches. Patchy shade obscures the pavement, but there is little deadfall. On either side, where paved shoulders might be, there are only deep ditches filled with water.
I come into more curves. Leaning toward one mirror for the first, I then straighten up for a few seconds before hanging off toward the other while always searching the road ahead. Beyond the last curve lies a stretch of treeless road running next to the levee. I decide to mosey rather than to power out of this curve. This means that I’ll also mosey through the stretch.
Bright sunlight bathes the road. I continue to mosey, enjoying the easy motion, sightseeing for anything new. I press lightly on the front brake before turning into a sweeper. Beyond the turn the levee swings away to the left. The trees fall behind as the road opens onto plowed fields extending into the distance.
Vultures drift high above, black silhouettes against a pale sky, as I settle into the bike. I shrug and raise my elbows for a moment to let the breeze cool my armpits. Wind whistles across my helmet, mixing with road feel welling up from below. The engine spools up to a high mechanical whine, I quick shift, the bike jumps and I quickly use all of third gear. Then it’s up into fourth—the speed gear on this road—and I stop glancing at the climbing numbers on my speedometer. This is my warm-up.
After another half-mile I tiptoe over loose gravel at an intersection before arriving at the pet cemetery. Among the small grave markers is a stone effigy giving testimony to Muff, a retriever who now dwells in a place where its master is always kind and the fleas don’t bite.
After a U-turn at the pet cemetery and a mile farther, I’m again close to the river. An ancient swing bridge rusting on its turntable sits in the water. It serves now only as a relic. Across from the bridge on the other side of my road are ball tanks, gleaming in the sun, part of a chemical plant that exploded 25 years ago, sending a shock wave felt for 10 miles.
I turn around at the chemical plant, and soon I’m creeping back over the loose gravel at the intersection. The road ahead is clear for a full mile. I’m feeling limber and confident. My speedometer shows two low digits when I start to crank. I zip through a shallow dogleg and then lower my head behind the windscreen before twisting the throttle to its stop. The bike shoots forward. The road ahead narrows in my vision as I fly with a roar into a moment of exhilaration, a brief moment of wonderful focus on the singular act of staying upright in open air on a motorcycle rocketing down a rural country road.
Sprinting down a straightaway is fun, but curves have more to say. This one—the same sweeper as on my outbound ride—is approaching fast. I shift to the left on the seat in anticipation. After a light press on the front brake, I begin to move my right forefoot over the rear brake lever as I pick my line. And then I’m swinging into it, leaning hard left, craning my head up to see and feeling through the rush for any hint of a tire breaking contact. Life is simple at this instant. Yet I twist the throttle a bit more, pushing a bit more with no one to tell me no, living the last sentence of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, “Hells Angels,” the one about a motorcycle being a means to an end, to a place of definitions.