The second largest state. Las Cruces to Fabens (77miles)
Why the second largest state? Because, despite what many people outside of America think, Alaska is actually the largest state in the US of A and not Texas.
Breakfast was taken in the company of a number of American Servicemen and women, no doubt on their way to or from the nearby Fort Bliss Military Reservation, home of the US Air Defence Artillery Centre of Excellence.
On checking-out I was presented with a copy of my debit card receipt which included three different taxes; I expect to pay State and County taxes but lodging tax! Correct me if I’m wrong but this is a hotel? I paid for hotel accommodation; surely any lodging tax should be incorporated into the cost of the room? I don’t believe it. (Thank you, Victor Meldew).
Las Cruces has a large retirement community and for the first few miles of the day I headed south through the attractive neighbourhood of Mesilla passing alfalfa fields and more pecan groves on the way to the Texas border.
I had the wind behind me again for a while this morning and after crossing the Rio Grande again I cycled on towards San Miguel, where the wind was getting quite strong off my left shoulder. I witnessed a small wind vortex. I can’t call it a tornado, but you get the idea, a funnel of wind which had been made visible by the presence of sand it had picked up from around the pecan groves.
This morning I also saw my first bunch of recreational cyclists, out for a Saturday morning ride. Actually it was quite a popular area for cycling, I counted at least three different groups of riders on this road, maybe because it is so flat?
I passed into Texas sometime around 10am this morning, just before I turned onto Country Club Drive and passed the tennis club and the large luxurious houses of the suburbs of El Paso. I decided to go with the flow and the opulence of the area and so I stopped for elevenses and coffee at a Starbucks.
Soon I was joined by Phil the tennis professional from the local club who was wearing a Tour de France T shirt. We chatted about my trip and it turned out that he had been quite a successful cyclist before taking up tennis coaching. He had won a number of races in his category. Phil is quite short and very slim, so I’m guessing that he would have been a bit of a climber, his legs didn’t look like they would have the power for time-trials.
Also in the coffee shop were a couple from California. They were on the way back to the coast having spent three weeks in the desert camping and rock climbing. They had to cut short their trip because the extreme wind had snapped a pole on their tent.
Afterwards I rode on, and for the first time on the trip, I was in shirt sleeves. It was 65º degrees and with the wind behind I made good time though the eight miles of lumpy El Paso hills which were heavy with traffic.
(Ex) President Bill Clinton was in town today, drumming up support and money for his wife, Senator Hilary Clinton’s campaign in her bid to become (firstly) the Democratic nominee and then perhaps the next President of the United States. The political commentators are saying that in a few days time when Texans vote in their Primary, that Texas will decide who the next President will be. Hilary is falling behind Barack Obama in the polls. Very little is being said about the Republicans. Maybe because their nominee has already been decided (John McCain), but also maybe because of the greater significance of the Democratic race: for the first time in history there is a woman and a black man who both have a realistic chance of becoming American President.
El Paso had been my intended day 15 stop, but having made up a few extra miles yesterday (to avoid camping in the LeasburgState Park) and with a generous tailwind it meant that I could push on through this busy city. I had originally intended to stay at the El Paso hostel, in downtown. Passing by I couldn’t help thinking that this olde worlde building looked quite out of place in its surroundings of glass and steel modern buildings. It might have been quite an interesting stop over. There are actually many budget hotels and motels in El Paso, with prices starting as low as $19 per night. I had done lots of research when planning my trip, but the Internet never threw up any of those places. It is a wonderful resource, but the Internet is only as good as the information stored on it.
I decided to aim for Fabens, about 30 miles out of El Paso and as there is only one motel in the town, telephoned ahead to check availability and to book a room.
Leaving El Paso along Paisano Drive I noticed that every house had bars on the windows and doors, not a very reassuring sight. Little did I know that in a few years time this border town was going to erupt into one of the centres of drug related murders as various drug cartels sought to achieve dominance of the multi-billion dollar drug trade.
My route then took me along Delta Drive which is a kind of ‘no-mans land’ along the Mexican border. Over to the right and beyond the oppressive looking tall grey concrete wall separating the two countries, I could see a huge Mexican flag flapping in the wind.
The rest of the afternoon’s riding along North Loop Drive felt strange. It was as if there was no sense of community in the places that I passed through. There was very little in the way of residential property, just mile after mile of small run down businesses. It didn’t help that I had a thumping headache all afternoon. It wasn’t until I reached MoonCity that the outlook became more rural again and the pecan groves re-appeared.
For its size (population 8500+) Fabens seems to have very little to offer a visitor. The only motel in town is a couple of miles off my route and appears to be aimed at passing trade from the nearby I-10. I spent the evening picking at food which I had purchased from the limited grocery choices in the gas station next door to the motel. I confined myself to my room as there was nothing to see or do locally. My arms were very sunburned, I hadn’t appreciated the intensity of the sun, which probably also explained the headache that I had been suffering from.
Don’t sit there or he will get angry. Fabens to Sierra Blanca (69miles)
It’s Sunday morning and it is a beautiful start to the day. I’m setting off in shirt sleeves to have breakfast at the sign of the Golden Arches. Ronald is the only person serving breakfast in this small town. I do have my arm warmers on though not because it is cold (it isn’t) but to protect my sunburnt arms.
The weather forecast for the next few of days is excellent. Well, excellent if you are looking to sunbathe, not so good for long hours of cycling. Today it is anticipated to reach 90°.
The sky is big and blue. Does that make sense? The sheer vastness of the arid Texas landscape makes it appear as if the sky is higher here than back home.
It is going to be flat again for the majority of today, with 1000 feet of climbing this afternoon. I’m getting spoilt. I suppose I should make the most of it, because tomorrow I have a big mountain to climb. Next week there will be three or four flat days before arriving in the west Texas hill country, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first town after leaving Fabens is Tornillo, which is the Spanish name for a small shrub which bears yellow – white flowers and pods called ‘screw beans’, which are used as cattle feed. This place grew up around the cotton trade in the early 1900’s and although it was a thriving community boasting a number of large Corporations, its economy suffered during the depression of the 1930’s. Coupled with the growth of El Paso, the town never recovered and now it only remains as a symbol of the early development within El Paso County. There isn’t much here, but I did find a grocery store where I could stock up on snacks and water.
What is it with dogs and bikes? My calves got a bit of a work-out in Tornillo, riding away from a couple of local strays. Later in the morning my heart and lungs joined in with an aerobics session as I sprinted away from a large Alsatian at over 25 mph.
Apart from the dogs the morning was peaceful and traffic free, I don’t think that I saw more than three vehicles today. I did have a railway line for company for most of the way, but that too was quiet with only one train passing me by. The sun was warm and the roads were flat and well maintained. Shortly after finishing my usual late morning snack I stopped by the side of the road for a natural break. Jumping down onto a dry river bed I suddenly found myself knee deep in powder fine sand. Having extricated myself from what could have been a precarious situation, I rode on towards Fort Hancock (which is featured in the film The Shawshank Redemption) and then to McNarry. Here I left the US20 that I had been riding on all morning in favour of Ranch Road 192.
Something happened along this road. I’m not sure what exactly but maybe it was all in my head. Suddenly I found myself thinking that this was a dangerous location.
Granted it was very quiet, but no more so than the rest of the morning and granted there were no buildings just sand and cacti; but I kept thinking that if something did happen to me it would be days before anybody found me. All sorts of irrational thoughts were going through my head. Maybe it was the conversation about guns that I had with Sylvianne and Marianne. Maybe the seed of doubt that Glyn had planted in my mind had germinated.
Whatever it was, I let my imagination run away with itself for about ten miles until reaching Esperanza and the first vestiges of civilisation: real life Rancheros. Two lady Rancheros on horseback to be precise and others in pick ups, rounding-up cattle. How cool is that!
Move ‘em on, head ‘em up, Head ‘em up, move ‘em out, Move ‘em on, head ‘em out Rawhide!
Set ‘em out, ride ‘em in. Ride ‘em in, let ‘em out, Cut ‘em out, ride ‘em in Rawhide.
Lunch stop was a short distance away at the ‘Desert Outpost’ adjacent to the junction of the US80 and I10. It is what can only be described as a truck stop in the middle of the desert. Just don’t expect to find any gas, because all 10 pumps were empty. Oh and by the way they don’t take credit cards either!
Just as I was leaning my bike against the building a couple were leaving. They came over to ask about my trip and the man pointed out how worn my rear tyre was. We talked for a few more minutes before they headed off to their car parked a short distance away on the parking lot. Like most of the grocery stores and gas stations that I had encountered, this sold a variety of supplies. On one side of the store was a truckers diner, the walls hung with old advertisements; the seating an eclectic mix of chairs and bench seats.
There were only two other people in the diner so I sat myself at a table near a window from where I could see my bike. As I did so, the waitress came over and said to me “Don’t sit there, I’m not sure if he’s coming in today but if he does he’ll be angry. That’s his chair and he won’t sit anywhere else.” I never ascertained who ‘he’ was but I moved anyway. What a great lunch. Spaghetti and chicken with garlic bread and help-yourself-to-the-coffeepot. Afterwards I bought some water and snacks before returning to my bike.
Strange, what is that on my handlebars? From a distance it looks like a ball. On closer examination I found that there was a large orange perched on my bar bag. Under the orange was a small handwritten note. From the contents I can only deduce that it had been left there by the couple that I had chatted to for a few minutes when I had first arrived:
I just wanted to wish you luck – the hardest part is over. After West Texas it’s mostly level and pleasant the rest of the way. And the road is also gonna get a lot better! I’m leaving you with an orange as little will taste better in such a place as this (and after so many miles). If you need advice on location s or run into any trouble, feel free to contact me – I know this Country all too well after years as a touring musician. Keep on pedalin’. John Crocker
He left his phone number and e-mail address.
What a coincidence. Whilst writing this chapter I Googled Jon Crocker the man who wrote the note. He’s a well respected acoustic rock musician who plays 12 different instruments and he’s touring Ireland and England in May / June this year (2008). Maybe I’ll pop along and say hi.
After lunch I joined the Interstate 10, well not exactly the interstate, but the red stone and asphalt frontage road alongside it, entirely devoid of traffic. A short way along the ten miles of this road I had yet another rear tyre puncture. I’m getting quite frustrated by this. I specifically chose this particular brand of tyres having used them without incident on a six week tour from London to Barcelona and back in 1996. I’ve lost count, how many have I had in just over two weeks?
The route continues along the I-10 to a small border patrol point where all traffic even bicycle is stopped. I was able to queue jump my way to the front of a line of stationary vehicles about 200 yards in length. The Border Patrol Guard was very friendly and after showing my passport and explaining my journey, I was off again, continuing the climb to Sierra Blanca. This is my stopping point for today.
Sierra Blanca is a small town with a population around 600 at an altitude of about 4500 feet. It was named after the nearby Sierra Blanca Mountains which rise to a height of about 7000 feet and was built in 1881 at the junction of two transcontinental rail routes; the Southern Pacific and the Texas & Pacific.
There was a choice of two motels, but when it came down to it there was only ever going to be one real winner; the very rustic Sierra Lodge Motel. Built of local stone and looking like it is stuck in a time gone by with wooden hitching posts and a windmill it is the most authentic looking olde-worlde Texan motel that I have seen to date. It is just a shame that the quality of the room interiors didn’t quite meet the expectation that the exterior promises. Opposite the motel in the old Railroad Depot which served both railroads is the Hudspeth County Museum.
I bought some breakfast cereal, milk and assorted food items in the nearby grocery shop and then went for dinner in the only available option, a small family run Mexican restaurant. It won’t be a late night tonight. I’m going to put my clocks forward an hour to cheat time again because after about 30 miles tomorrow I will be leaving Mountain Time and entering the Central Time Zone.
Freewheeling, uphill at over 20mph. Sierra Blanca to Kent (71miles)
So, having set my clocks forward an hour last night, I found that I couldn’t set off until 8am (real time 7am) because it was too dark. Doh! However it did give me the time to eat my breakfast whilst watching a beautiful sunrise. I was also pleased to see that the rustic windmill was turning rapidly and that the flag on the museum opposite was billowing in the strong wind, a wind which appeared to be blowing in my favour.
It was blowing in my favour and the 32 miles to Van Horn where I had my second breakfast (I can’t really call it elevenses today as it’s far too early) were covered in a little under two hours. I really enjoyed this early morning riding; the roads were similar to the red rock and asphalt of the I-10 frontage road, gently undulating through Eagle Flat and the Carrizo Mountains, with the last two miles into Van Horn a very fast descent, dropping about 800 feet.
The town of Van Horn can trace its roots back to the elementary need for water in a desert and thank not just one, but two men named Van Horn. Major Jefferson Van Horne discovered the wells 12 miles south of the current town in 1849 when he was en route to command the troops at Fort Bliss in their fight against the Native Americans. Ten years later, Lieutenant James Judson Van Horn took charge of the army at Van Horn Wells. The excellent drinking water and the mild climate encouraged more and more pioneers to move to the area.
The Texas and Southern Railroad was completed in 1881 and Van Horn became an important water stop for the freight carrying steam trains. Ranching and mining together with the railway encouraged settlement in Van Horn. With the advent of the highway system it has now become a popular stop on the I-10 boasting its own airport and wind farming industry as it moves into the 21st century.
Leaving Van Horn, not only did I have a strong tailwind, but the road was flat. It’s another day of stunning wide open vistas, with just the railway and enormously long locomotives for company. As I rode through the Wylie Mountains region I counted 103 carriages on one of the trains that passed me on its way to Van Horn.
I stopped to eat at a restaurant attached to a gas station on a small elevation overlooking the I-10 about 20 miles out of Van Horn. It was only just over an hour since leaving Van Horn, but as there is nothing between here and Kent (another 17 miles further down the road) I restricted myself to a light lunch. It was a shame because the restaurant had an all-you-can-eat buffet, which was proving very popular with the only other diners; a large group of Border Patrol Guards and State Troopers. Over lunch I began to think that if the wind remained in my favour I could perhaps manage the next 70 miles to Fort Davis.
After lunch, my route was along the I-10 all the way to Kent. The wind grew much stronger and stayed on my tail for the next hour. At one stage I was freewheeling uphill at over 20 miles per hour. Leaving the I-10 at exit 176 onto the state road 118, my direction of travel changed from easterly to southerly, meaning that the wind was now blowing across me and making it very difficult to keep the bike in a straight line.
Shortly after passing Kent’s derelict old school building which had been destroyed in a fire, I pulled into the Kent Merchantile. It is situated on a small crossroads with a railway line. It was only 2.15pm. Fort Davis was 53 miles away, but the wind was now too dangerous to continue. A number of high sided trucks had even left the I-10 and were parked up in the gas station forecourt adjacent to the Merchantile, their drivers waiting for the wind to subside.
The manageress of the store agreed to let me camp on the ground behind her building. Although there were rest rooms for truck drivers there were no bathing facilities, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wait until I reached Alpine tomorrow before I could get a shower.
As it happens, I didn’t put my tent up tonight. I thought about the couple that I had met in El Paso and remembered them telling me that the wind had damaged their tent poles. I couldn’t risk that happening. In a corner of the plot behind the main building of the grocery store was a small metal shed, no bigger than about 4’ x 2’. I figured that if I cleaned out all the spiders and rubbish it would become an acceptable makeshift bedroom, even though my legs would be sticking out. It was a long afternoon reading, watching the trains and traffic go by whilst waiting for the shop to close so that I could put my plan into action.
People do the strangest things. I was dumbstruck when one particular eighteen wheel Freightliner pulled into the gas station; the female passenger rested her feet on the dashboard and then, taking out a disposable razor, proceeded to shave her legs whilst the driver filled his truck with gasoline. Woman, have you no dignity?
Mike, the shop assistant was left in charge at about 6pm when the manageress went home. I was hoping that the wind would ease off tomorrow otherwise it would make the ride into the Davis Mountains very difficult and dangerous. When I asked Mike what his assessment of the wind was for tomorrow, his reply of “you never can tell around here” didn’t fill me with much confidence. However my options for tomorrow were very limited; 50 miles to an expensive Indian Lodge Motel, 54 miles to Fort Davis or 78 miles to Alpine.
I really wanted to make Alpine as I needed to change my rear tyre and Alpine has the only bike shop between here and Del Rio which is another 210 miles further on. As the store opened at 6.30am I planned to get coffee and breakfast and be away by about 7am, even though it was likely to be dark still. As it turned out surprise, surprise my night in the metal shed wasn’t conducive to good sleep. The store may have shut at 11pm, but the gas pumps were a credit card pre-pay self service and so throughout the night there was a steady stream of trucks and cars filling up on their way to or from El Paso. That is not to say that I didn’t sleep, it was just that I was woken up three or four times during the night. Also it was very, very cold again.
Cora to the rescue. Kent to Alpine (78miles)
The wind did ease off overnight and in fact the morning was to turn out very calm and very warm. I didn’t quite make the 7am start, but I wasn’t far off after I had drunk my coffee.
Today I’m planning to visit the McDonald Observatory on my way to Fort Davis and then onto Alpine.
For the last three days I have been spoilt. The riding has been easy and apart from the short climb into Sierra Blanca, flat. Today was to be a different story. The sun was off my left shoulder by about 10am, so I knew that I had changed direction as I had been riding directly into the sun for the past few days. Also, there is something over 2000 feet of climbing from Kent up to the Observatory and boy did I notice it. When I asked questions of my legs today, they could hardly respond and I found myself grinding out the small gears and grovelling up the hills.
About 16 miles from the observatory near the junction of the SR118 and the SR166 I saw a State Trooper parked up. I was keen to break up the ride and so I pedalled over to the car. The tinted electric side window slowly opened as I approached. “Howdy” said Scott the State Trooper, “You sure are pedallin’ some”.
Scott, it transpired had been one of the State Troopers who had been in the restaurant at lunchtime yesterday. He had also been one of a pair that I had seen in the Merchantile when I first arrived. He told me that when he first saw me in Kent he had thought that I was hiking. Now he could see that I was biking.
We chatted for about half an hour, during which time he told me of his career in law enforcement and how he had come out of retirement as a Police Officer to join the State Troopers. He was now involved in traffic enforcement, but like the majority of other Troopers in the area, was engaged in an operation designed to ‘regain the border’. If you remember this area is close to the Mexican border. There have been a lot of illegal immigrants entering the United States. Looking around at the desert terrain it is easy to see why. It must be extremely difficult to monitor the hundreds of miles of border. Scott told me that he was working 12 hour days for 13 days at a stretch, staying in motels overnight. Money didn’t appear to be an issue for this particular operation.
Scott tried to convince me to take road 166 to Fort Davis, which would have meant missing the observatory. It sounded nice; flatter and with lots of wildlife on view, but I was determined to take the shorter hillier road. Just before I set off again, He warned me about the possibility of encountering mountain lions and bears along the route. Thanks! He also warned me of feral hogs weighing up to 600lbs. Thanks again!
Eleven miles further up the road and Scott passed me in his car. “Keep on pedalling’” he encouraged. If I see him at the observatory I will be very annoyed. He could have offered me a lift. No, I’m only joking, it’s a lovely day. Scott is the only person I saw all morning. The ride although hard was scenic and rewarding. I think I’m finally over all that chesty, cold stuff except for maybe a bit of a tickly cough. Perhaps now I can start to really enjoy this trip.
At an altitude of nearly 7000 feet the McDonald Observatory is a leading centre for astronomical research, it is located in one of the world’s darkest sites (there is certainly no light pollution here) for astronomical observations.
It was originally built with an endowment left in the will of Texan banker William Johnson McDonald. In 1939 when the first telescope was built it had a reflector of 82 inches, which at the time made it the second largest telescope in the world. There are now four telescopes and the observatory is owned and operated by the University of Texas. On various nights throughout the week visitors are invited to join the ‘star party’ when they can take a constellation tour to observe celestial objects through the telescopes.
I took lunch in the observatory café, whilst chatting with a couple of motorcyclists. The man had retired from work the previous week and together with his wife was taking some early retirement time to travel from Dallas to the Big Bend National Park. I’d been hearing about the Big Bend from a number of other people who had tried to encourage me to visit there, but unfortunately it was about three days cycle away and there was no way that I could fit it into my schedule. Maybe I will do it on another occasion when I’m not so limited by time and route.
After the morning of climbing there was a long descent to look forward to after lunch. So having changed out of my sweaty, smelly clothes at the observatory (remember I didn’t have a shower last night) I set off for Fort Davis, stopping only briefly to admire the Prude Ranch.
First established in 1897 by Andrew Prude as a working ranch, Mr Prude moved his wife into a small log cabin at Limpia Creek. A few years later he built a wooden farmhouse for his family whilst at the same time, expanding his ranch by purchasing an additional 1250 acres of land. He increased the size of his house in 1911 to a two storey ranch home which he called ‘The Big House’ and then in 1921 when the Southern Pacific Railroad was built he started a guest ranch for city dwellers to enable them to get a taste of the big outdoors, a bit like that film ‘City Slickers’ starring Billy Crystal. Unfortunately a severe drought and the 1930’s depression forced Prude to sell most of his cattle and land. He did however continue to operate a smaller full time guest ranch. Now this guest house and ranch are a very popular tourist destination offering a riding school, a rodeo and a summer camp for boys.
I arrived in Fort Davis a little before 2.30pm. Worried that my rear tyre wouldn’t last much longer I decided to phone ahead to the bike shop in Alpine. I couldn’t find a public phone so popped into the library to ask directions. Jeff Davis County library used to be a general store, built in 1873 by O.M. Keesee. As well as carrying out private banking, he also sold clothing, groceries, cradles, guns, whiskey, coffins, tobacco, spittoons, wagon wheels and harnesses. Phew.
The librarian Toi (pronounced Toy) very kindly telephoned the shop for me and then handed me the phone so that I could speak to the shop keeper. Success! I established that he had a tyre of the correct size in stock but unfortunately I also found out that the shop closed in under two hours. I said that I would try and make it before closing time, but I wasn’t very confident. I secretly hoped that he would offer to stay open late for me. There was a still twenty four miles to go and a strong headwind to contend with. This left me in a bit of a quandary. I cannot afford to wait around for the bike shop to open in the morning as I have a challenging ride ahead of me tomorrow. Ordinarily, a late start should not be too problematic, however on this occasion it would be. From Alpine to Marathon it is over 30 miles and then there is nothing but 55 miles of desert to Sanderson, so I really could not afford a late start. I didn’t think it was achievable if I left Alpine any later than 8am as the sun would be setting around 5pm.
Suddenly a voice piped up “Am I allowed to drive you there in my car?” Sitting behind the desk, just out of my immediate eye line was an attractive young lady named Cora. I was a little amused and also a little touched by her question. It’s not as if I would be breaking any law by accepting a ride, but Cora was concerned that I would not be fulfilling a commitment to myself if I accepted her offer of a ride.
Nevertheless, I didn’t need to be asked twice. It took me a few minutes to strip everything off my bike and load it into the back of Cora’s car and within ten minutes we were on our way to Alpine.
Texas is one of the few States remaining that has land which is still primarily privately owned. Most of the other States has land which is either National Parks, Indian Reservations or controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. If an oil or gas company wants to lease out some of its acreage to explore for resources, Cora gets called in to research the ownership patterns of that land. Apparently the owners of the ground surface may not be the owners of the minerals etc. or anything else in the below surface ground. It is a situation which is known as ‘split-estate’ a term which originated here in the UK during Queen Elizabeth 1st reign. 19th-century homesteading laws gave settlers free land but tended to leave the mineral rights with the government.
Cora works in the oil and gas industry, carrying out a job that is known as ‘landwork’. Cora calls herself a ‘landman.’ Shouldn’t that be landwoman? Her job is to establish where ownership of land lies and then formulates leases for land/mineral owners to sign. No drilling can occur until landmen like Cora ensure that everything is legitimate. It can be a terrible thing when a huge pocket comes in (a successful drilling spot) and the lease turns out to be bogus. The drilling companies can and do get sued and lose millions of dollars.
Cora doesn’t think her job as being glamorous, but it is very important in the multi-million dollar oil and gas business and she really loves the research and solving the puzzles and history of the land.
I may be mistaken but I believe that she said that her Grandfather is the current owner of the Prude Ranch; or at least I’m sure that she said there was some family connection.
It was really interesting hearing about Cora’s work and the 24 miles to Alpine flew by, rather too quickly if I’m honest as I was enjoying her company. When we reached the tiny bike shop I unloaded my bike from her car and I made sure that I got her e-mail address. And how did I repay Cora for her generosity? By inadvertently leaving in the back of her car the sweaty, smelly cycling shirt that I had changed out of at the McDonald Observatory. I was so embarrassed. I made it my intention to e-mail her as soon as possible to apologise.
‘The Bike Man’ is the name of the small but well stocked cycle shop in Alpine. When I entered the small wood panelled shop, John Elsbury, the owner was more than a little surprised at how quickly I had managed to cover the distance between Fort Davis and Alpine. That was until I let him into my little secret. His shop is a treasure trove of goodies for cyclists. A new tyre, a dog dazzler, a mirror and two tyre liners all made their way into my shopping basket. I hadn’t intended buying tyre liners, but John showed me some examples of goathead thorns (tribulus terrestris). This is a small low-growing weed that grows so flat to the ground that you probably wouldn’t even notice it unless you were looking for it but which has a particularly vicious looking five-spike thorn. I decided then that I should invest. Hopefully I will now be puncture free for the rest of the trip. Oh how wrong I was to be. John gave me advice on and directions to a couple of motels and a laundry. Although on this occasion it was my body that was more in need of cleaning rather than my clothes.
As I retired to bed, my plan for tomorrow was to make Marathon by 10.30 (have elevenses) then take on more food and water and cycle on through the barren 55 miles to Sanderson, hopefully to arrive by 5pm.
Train wreck and snakes. Alpine to Sanderson (86miles)
What the heck! It’s six o’clock and the fire alarm has gone off. At least it sounds like the fire alarm. No wait. It’s the alarm at the Fire Station which is situated around the back of the motel. The next thing I hear is the fire engines racing off to a call.
Despite my early morning call I still left Alpine a half hour later than I had intended. What am I doing with my time?
As I ride out of town I ask myself, what on earth is that smell? It smells like gasoline. I don’t recall smelling it when I arrived last night. The smell stayed with me for the first five miles out of Alpine. Then it wasn’t the smell that I had to focus on but another puncture. What was the point of those anti-puncture strips? I can’t believe it. It wasn’t a goathead or any other thorn. In fact although I found the puncture, I couldn’t find any reason for it.
The US 90 out of Alpine follows the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The landscape through the Chihuahuan Desert is open and flat, with a variety of cacti. I saw my first deer today. It walked across the road about 100yards ahead of me. Just as I was about to photograph it, it got spooked by a car. With a hop (or was it a leap or a bound?) it was back across the road, over the fence and away.
Despite leaving Alpine later than intended (there’s a pattern emerging here) and despite having to deal with the puncture, I arrived at Marathon at 10.45am only fifteen minutes behind my schedule. It didn’t matter, because the only restaurant in this small town (population 455) didn’t open until 11.30am anyway. So I wandered around, found a library and logged on to the internet whilst listening to the two librarians discussing their love lives.
Marathon, gateway to the Big Bend National Park, was founded in 1881 by an old sea captain A. E. Shephard who named the town after the plains of Marathon in Greece of which the area reminded him. That should give you some idea of what the scenery was like.
I returned to the restaurant and decided to have a proper lunch here because for the coming 55 miles there is nothing and nowhere until the next town, Sanderson. Whilst waiting for my meal I caught the local news on the television and what I saw answered a number of questions. A 124-car Union Pacific train en route from Louisiana to California had derailed outside Alpine during the night causing 85 cars to jump the tracks. In doing so, approximately 1,500 gallons of a substance similar to mineral oil had spilled from the train and had to be removed and transported away together with the soil that had been contaminated. It could have been much worse, the last 4 of the derailed cars contained the chemical Tetrahydrofuran but fortunately none of those tanks had ruptured and none of the chemical was spilled.
Tetrahydrofuran is a highly flammable chemical agent which is used in the cleaning of plastic and rubber. It is an irritant to many of the human body systems and inhalation or exposure to it causes coughing, dizziness, headache, nausea, sore throat and unconsciousness. Well, that explains the alarm at 6 o’clock this morning and the smell of gasoline as I rode out of town.
After my early lunch just as I was preparing to set off, a family from Florida arrived in their people carrier. We chatted for a while and when they learned that I was heading towards Florida, they suggested that I should pay a visit to Plant City, near Tampa. When I enquired as to why, they told me that Plant City was home to a strawberry festival. It sounds kind of interesting, but Florida is three weeks away. I will check it out on the internet nearer the time and if it is within a reasonable detour I may well pay Plant City a visit.
I set off again through the Chihuahuan Desert towards Sanderson. Well blow me down, twenty minutes later and I was sat at the side of the road repairing yet another rear wheel puncture. I really don’t think much of these anti-puncture tyre liners. In fact I had become so disillusioned with them that I ripped the rear one out. I will not be using them again.
I feel as if I have wasted about 2 hours today, dealing with a couple of punctures and then wandering around Marathon. I suppose that ‘wasted’ is probably not the best word to use. I hadn’t wasted time, because I had nothing else to do except cycle. Maybe it is just the best way to describe the frustration I felt about the unnecessary delays.
The wind was out of the south today and directly into my face. I found myself wondering if I had become anaesthetised to the scenery. The miles were passing me by and I didn’t seem to be appreciating the stunning scenery. I made a mental note to myself to drink in as much of the striking desert panorama as possible.
Arriving at Sanderson, ‘Cactus Capitol of Texas’ at five past five I had a choice of a couple of cheap motels and opted for the Outback Oasis Motel. The delays earlier in the day had caused me to ride harder and faster than I would have liked, and coupled with the hot temperature, I arrived looking and feeling completely drained. Taking my helmet off, I found that I was now sporting a new hairstyle, a sort of tri-mohican, where my hair had been shaped by the ventilation grooves in the helmet and then dried in place by the hot desert sun. Lovely. Very attractive.
This motel has an interesting feature; in a small room just off the reception (a fancy word for what in reality is no more than a large vestibule) the owners Roy and Ruth keep a small exhibition of live snakes and spiders that are native to the local area. Ruth gave me a short tour of the snake room. Fortunately they are all kept in glass cages each of which have descriptions and explanatory notes attached. It was very interesting.
I quickly unloaded my bike and went into town to locate the library before it closed at 6 o’clock and to e-mail my apologies to Cora.
Later on I was in the shower when I heard a loud knocking on the door. “I’m in the shower” I called back. The knocking continued. “I’m in the shower!” I shouted. I heard a muffled voice, but couldn’t make out what was said. Later, after getting dressed I ventured out into the dark to walk the short distance to Paddy’s Pub and Restaurant.
“Hi, you must be Lee” I heard. I looked around and there in the small car park was a man I had never seen before. “That’s definitely a cyclists limp” he continued. It turned out that this was Steve and that he and his wife are touring cyclists. They were staying at the motel on their way from Atlanta to California. He had elicited my name from the visitors’ book in reception. I forget that I limp, although it is not cycling related but the legacy of numerous football and running injuries. It was Steve who had been knocking at my door whilst I was in the shower.
We chatted for a while and I couldn’t help noticing how toned and tanned he looked, a bi-product of many hundreds of miles of cycling. Steve and his wife are serial long distance cycle tourists, having done a number of coast to coast rides across the States. He invited me to join him and his wife for a drink in their room but I politely declined as I wanted to eat. It had been a hard day and all I wanted to do now was replenish my energy levels. I made my excuses and wandered off to the restaurant.
I had a really nice (Mexican) meal at Paddy’s Pub, supplemented with three bottles of beer. Not an ideal way to re-hydrate but I felt that I deserved it. Bonnie, my waitress, was originally from New Jersey and had cycled down to Sanderson seeking work. She had also spent some time in the UK and had been stationed at Lakenheath, the American Air force base in Suffolk. She said that she was in her 30’s but I’m afraid that her weather beaten features made her look considerably older than her years claimed. She recounted the time that she had got lost whilst cycling in downtown Houston. As a single female she said that she had felt very vulnerable, as if she was wearing a sign that said ‘Rob Me’.
Between serving customers, we talked about my route. When she learned that I was intending to ride into New Orleans, she told me of the precautions that she had taken when cycling there. Ordinarily she said that she carries a large hunting knife when she rides (gulp) but some of her Texan friends had convinced her that the knife was not enough, so she bought herself a small .22 pistol. I found it hard to imagine this slip of a woman wielding a large hunting knife, let alone a gun.
New Orleans is beginning to sound like a dangerous place. I’m getting really worried now and also quite disappointed as I hoped that it would be a highlight of my trip.
I am the law. Sanderson to Comstock (89miles)
I have an appointment with a judge today, Judge Roy Bean, and knowing his reputation I have to be on my very best behaviour and I cannot be late. Apparently he has a very peculiar way of dishing out justice and punishment. I’ve got quite a few miles to cover today so breakfast will have to be in Dryden about 20 miles along the US90.
There are subtle changes in the landscape this morning, the scenery is becoming greener, a change from the reds, browns and yellows of the desert that have dominated the past week. The plant life began to change too and the mountain ranges that had been the backcloth to the stage setting of my ride, faded away.
Oh deer, oh deer, oh deer. Yesterday I saw my first deer of the trip, today I saw three more on the outskirts of Dryden. Unfortunately all three were lying dead by the side of the road within 30 yards of each other, no doubt having had the misfortune to encounter a car or truck.
I reached Dryden at 9.45am for very early elevenses. There is nothing other than a gas station-cum-general store (which was perfect for my requirements) and a couple of derelict buildings.
As I entered the store I took off my camelback and placed it on one of the chairs in the small area set aside for dining, then I ambled around selecting various snacks and drinks from the shelves. After paying for my provisions I sat down on the chair only to find that I was sitting in a large pool of water. The mouthpiece of my hydration system had wedged open under the weight of the backpack and all the water had flowed out. I felt really embarrassed as I mopped it up, but the store keeper was really good and didn’t get annoyed despite the fact that there was about two litres of water on her shop floor. In the end we had a bit of a laugh, I ate my food, bought some more water and said my goodbyes leaving Dryden with a very un-dry backside.
The headwind was still very strong and it took me until 2pm to cover the next forty miles to Langtry where I was meeting with the judge. Judge Roy Bean is one of the most colourful characters in west Texas or, I should say, he was.
In the 1880’s the towns and tented camps that grew up around the new railroad construction descended into lawlessness. The railroad companies appointed Roy Bean as Justice of the Peace in an attempt to restore some semblance of order and to protect their investments. Very soon Judge Roy Bean (JRB) began to live a life in which fiction became so intermingled with fact that he became a legend in his own lifetime.
The basis for this man’s infamy was the decisions that he made as the self styled “Law west of the Pecos River”. Not only did his home double as a courthouse, but he was not above breaking off legal proceedings long enough to serve customers in the saloon or billiards room, which were other businesses that he carried out from the same building.
JRB had a ‘library’ of just one law book. It was a single volume of the 1879 Texas Statutes. Even then he rarely consulted it, preferring instead to call upon his own ideas of justice. When asked why he only had the one book, JRB replied “Every year or so they send me a new book, but I use them to light fires”. Since there was no jail in Langtry, he deemed that all offences were punishable by fines and of course he pocketed all of the monies!
JRB’s notoriety reached a peak in 1896 when he circumvented a ban on prize fights. He promoted the heavyweight world title fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher which he staged on a sandbank in the middle of the nearby Rio Grande, which at that time was Mexican territory. In doing so he outwitted the Texas Rangers and of course made a handsome profit as the promoter.
Even though he never met her, Judge Roy Bean was infatuated by the English actress Lily Langtry. So much so that he named his building after her: ‘The Jersey Lilly’. However the drunken itinerant that he employed as a sign writer made a mistake and misspelled her name, using two L’s instead of just one.
Here are some examples of the JRB brand of justice:
Upon searching a dead victim JRB found a Smith & Wesson revolver. He confiscated it for being a concealed weapon and promptly imposed a fine of $41 on the dead man, which just happened to be the exact sum of money that he had also found on the corpse.
In another case, contrarily to the above judgment, JRB declared it preposterous to forbid a man from carrying a gun. When a man who had been arrested by a Texas Ranger for carrying a concealed weapon was brought before him, JRB ruled: “That won’t stick. If he was standing still when he was arrested he wasn’t carrying a concealed weapon because he wasn’t going no place. And if he was not standing still, he was travelling and it’s legal for travellers to carry weapons……. case dismissed”
In a case of where an Irishman was accused of killing a Chinese worker, JRB browsed through his law book, turning page after page before declaring: “Gentlemen, I find the law very explicit on murdering your fellow man, but there’s nothing here about killing a Chinaman. Case dismissed.”
In a case of horse stealing, he sentenced the young horse thief to hang. Having granted him the opportunity to write a last letter to his family (and reading it over his shoulder as wrote it) JRB discovered that the man had $400 which he was sending home to his family. JRB suddenly changed his mind, declared that there had been a miscarriage of justice and re-sentenced the man to a fine of $300, telling him that he must leave town by sundown. Remember of course that all fines were kept by JRB. I’m just surprised that he didn’t fine him the full $400.
Judge Roy Bean has been immortalised in film and TV. In 1940 the film ‘The Westerner’ was based upon his life and earned an Oscar for Walter Brennan as Best Supporting Actor. In 1955-56, a television series called Judge Roy Bean was syndicated and finally in 1972 JRB received the full Hollywood treatment when Paul Newman starred in the title role of the film ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.’
A final note on this colourful character; Judge Roy Bean is also rumoured to have actually been the famed ‘Billy the Kid’ a young outlaw from the north west, who was presumed dead. Legend says that, after being shot and ‘fatally’ wounded ‘Billy the Kid’ managed to get to the Pecos River and float all the way down to the area that is now Langtry. There he renamed himself after his favourite food (beans) and took up the post of a law abiding judge. No one will ever know if it is true but it sounds like a good story.
The Judge Roy Bean Visitor Centre situated just off the US90 at Langtry has free admission and contains the Lilly Langtry house, an exhibition, a tiny opera house and a cactus garden. I enjoyed the short detour and recommend it to you if you are in the area.
Despite it being another hot afternoon, I toyed with the idea of trying to make Del Rio tonight which is another 60 miles past Langtry. With a bit of luck I figured that I could cover the distance in about five hours and arrive at 8pm, a very late finish but there was method in my madness.
Del Rio is the next town on my route where I could find a motel and secondly I wanted to replace my bottom bracket which had frustratingly developed a clicking noise shortly after leaving Marathon yesterday. Why couldn’t it have happened before I arrived in Alpine? I could have replaced it there.
However, that plan was scuppered very shortly after leaving Langtry. After the stiff climb out of Eagle Canyon the wind picked up and for the rest of the afternoon I was battling hard against it; at times reaching only 7 or 8 mph on the flat. I even had to pedal downhill just to make double figures and there definitely was no freewheeling at all this afternoon. Another harsh climb from the Seminole State Park to Comstock was the final straw in this afternoon’s ride.
Before reaching Comstock I passed by the ghost town of Pumpville. Pumpville was first established in the 1880’s as a water stop for railway steam engines. The railroad company built a depot, pump house and general store. A community then developed around these facilities with the ranchers using the railroad as a means of getting their livestock to and from the market. However the advent of diesel engines was the nail in the coffin for the small town as the new trains did not need water. The railroad company dismantled their structures leaving only the ranching community behind with little means of meeting their livelihood.
Three hours after leaving the JRB visitor centre I arrived at the Owls Nest RV Park where my research had told me that camping was possible. It was just getting dark and late this afternoon my shadowy cyclist friend had joined me for the first time since Blythe and Brawley. However, not only was the Owls Nest closed but I couldn’t find a suitable camping spot and the shower room was locked. In the end I decided to bed down in the disused laundry room. At least I was out of the elements. I cooked up some of my emergency food rations of soup and noodles and then for the second time in three days I went to bed after a very hard day’s cycling without having the opportunity to bathe.
It wasn’t the terrain or the distance that beat me up today, it was the wind. Beaten up but not beaten.
Just after midnight I was awoken by the sound of vehicles and voices. Peeping out through the window and careful not to be spotted I saw two 4 x 4 vehicles each towing a boat on a trailer. The two owners let themselves into a static trailer. I had no doubt that they were either on the way to or from the lakes in the Amistad National Recreation Area which is about 20 miles further on towards Del Rio.
It is a leap year, so beware! Comstock to Bracketville (65miles)
Early the next morning, just after first light and to avoid bumping into the boat owners, I left. This morning I felt at least two gears stronger than I had felt when I finished last night.
One mile up the road and I reached the hamlet of Comstock. And what did I find, the Comstock Motel. Damn! This didn’t figure in any of my research otherwise I would have stayed here last night. Actually…. no.…wait a minute it’s not open. It turned out that the motel was undergoing remodelling and wouldn’t be open for business until the summer. I felt a bit better knowing that. Opposite the motel is Holly’s Garage and I popped in here to enquire whether or not there was somewhere locally that I could get a hot breakfast. Helpfully, the chap pointed to a small house around the back where he said the lady sometimes cooked breakfast.
Confused, I rode the short distance down the gravel path to the house that he had pointed out and I was met by the owner, Julie. It transpired that Julie’s house doubles as Holly’s Garage Diner. So there I was at about 7.30am sitting in Julie’s front room, eating breakfast and drinking coffee. The menu was handwritten on a brown paper bag. I felt as if I was intruding until five minutes later when a local man joined me and he also ordered breakfast.
Propped up just inside her front door Julie keeps a rifle and an umbrella. I hope that she selects the right one for the job; it would be as difficult to shelter from the rain with a rifle as it would be to shoot an umbrella.
Leaving Comstock, the US90 crosses over the Amistad Reservoir and passes the US Border Patrol Firearms Training facility. It continues on through the Amistad National Recreation Area, a tiny water sport and fishing specific community of Diablo where there are a number of RV sites devoted to meeting the needs of boaters and fishers. Thereafter the road continues on to Del Rio.
Del Rio – Ciudad Acuña is one of six bi-National metropolitan areas situated along the United States – Mexico border. That is to say two towns or cities of different nationalities (in this case American and Mexican) that are so geographically and immediately adjacent to each other that they can be viewed as one larger metropolis. The other five examples are San Diego & Tijuana, El Paso & Ciudad Juarez, Laredo & Nuevo Laredo, Eagle Pass & Piedras Negras and finally Brownsville & Matamoros.
I arrived in Del Rio at 11.15am, as the temperature reached 70º, then after finding the bike shop (Lakeside Sports, Veterans Boulevard) I left my bike in the capable hands of Frankie to fit a new bottom bracket whilst I went off to get my hair cut, a task I had been trying to achieve without success since El Paso.
I wandered into the first hairdresser that I found, ‘Plaza’, about five minutes away from the bike shop. It is a ladies salon, but I’m not proud. “Do you cut men’s hair?” I enquired. The manageress nearly fell over herself as she rushed to get me into the chair. She originated from Mexico and moved to Dallas in 1969, but after a road traffic accident in which her brother was killed, she moved her family to Del Rio where there is apparently less traffic but more work opportunities. “How long are you staying here (in Del Rio)?” she asked. Disappointed to learn that I was just passing through, she explained the mindset of Mexican women; all they want to do is find a husband! Hopefully she doesn’t realise that it is a leap year and that today is February 29th.
After paying a paltry $11 for my haircut and then having lunch in a nearby Chinese restaurant for just $6, I wandered back to the bike shop. Not only had Frankie replaced my bottom bracket but he had also tuned up my rear derailleur and lubricated the chain, all for just $28, the price he had originally quoted me for the part alone. I showed him my appreciation by leaving a handsome tip and I then set off to complete the rest of my afternoon ride.
Leaving Del Rio, the US90 passes Laughlin Army Air Field. Established in 1942 during World War 2 when there was an obvious need to train more pilots, this area was chosen because of its good weather and vast openness. Staying with the aeronautical theme, in 1911 Del Rio was the site of a landing by Galbraith Perry Rodgers during the 1st transcontinental flight across the USA by a plane, an astonishing feat coming a mere 8 years after the Wright brothers first flew in Kitty Hawk.
On reaching the top of the first hill out of Del Rio, it was fun to sit and watch the private jets, light planes and military aircraft taking off and landing a mile or so further down the road. Oh, by the way, the US90 and the railway run alongside the northern perimeter of the airport runway, so don’t forget to ………. duck!
Thanks to a smooth and flat road I was enjoying the ride this afternoon and I was thinking of a very early finish. But after crossing the bridge at Sycamore Creek the County line changed. The road surface which had been perfect in Val Verde County immediately changed for the worse as I entered Kinney County and my speed was reduced by about 3 mph. I’m amazed that there should be so much difference in road standards between the two Counties. Despite this I found the riding this afternoon much more relaxing than I had done of late, and arrived at Brackettville just after 4pm.
Tonight I was staying at Fort Clark Springs, site of a 19th Century old Fort. Fort Clark was built in 1853 and served as a base for various infantry and cavalry units firstly during the American Civil War, then during the Indian wars and again during World War 1 (during WW1 it also housed some German prisoners of war). The conclusion of WW1 and changes in military technology saw an end to the need for horse mounted troops and the Fort closed in 1944.
Since 1946 Fort Clark has been a guest ranch and more recently a golf course and motel complex. For authenticity it was on a par (pun intended) with the motel at Sierra Blanca, but with much more modern facilities and it was by far the most comfortable accommodation I had stayed in on the trip to date, but yet it was also the most reasonably priced.
Later I rode back into town and whilst my laundry was ‘cooking’, I stopped at a roadside ice-cone seller and got talking with the owner, a Mexican lady named Ceci. Every so often we were joined by one of her friends; they exchanged a few words in Spanish before the friend disappeared. The conversation turned once again to my marital status and before I knew it I was married. No not really, but Ceci was keen to pair me off with her friend. I politely declined. What is it with Mexican women? Surely I’m not that desirable. Actually I know that I’m not.
Dinner tonight was another Mexican meal in a small diner at the crossroads in town. On my return to Fort Clark, I was lucky enough to see a herd of deer grazing in the moonlight next to the ‘Empty Saddle’ horse statue; the statue is a tribute to the US Calvary. What a delightful sight.
Welcome to the Texas Hill Country. Brackettville to Leakey (70miles)
I had to eat in Brackettville before leaving this morning, as there is no other food option until Camp Wood, which is about 48 miles away. So I returned to the diner where I had dinner last night and joined some railway workers for breakfast. They had been involved in the clean up operation following the train wreck in Alpine a couple of days ago and this weekend they were scheduled to carry out some routine maintenance but they weren’t happy as they were anticipating rain. Rain, I remember that. Horrible wet stuff. But three weeks and over 1500 miles into this trip and I haven’t got wet, yet.
The Ranch Road 334 out of Brackettville isn’t a particularly good surface for cyclists and it is also full of challenging hills. It was about ten miles along this road that I came across Tom. He hails from Houston, but for the last nine months Tom has been on the road with his bicycle. He started his cycling trip by leaving Houston and heading east to Key West, then he returned west and cycled to Las Cruces and now he was headed to Pennsylvania. I guess he doesn’t have a job then. When I first met him, Tom was sat by the side of the road in his bivvy bag drinking from his water bottle.
At first I thought that he was just resting from an early morning ride, but it turned out that Tom was sleeping by the side of road at nights and where I had found him this morning was where he had spent last night.
“These hills sure are steep” he said. I’m glad that somebody else thinks so I thought to myself. “Aren’t you worried about snakes and other animals?” I asked. “Naw, once I see them snakes sunbathing by the side of the road that’s when I’ll start being careful. It’s too cold for them at the moment” he replied.
Tom told me of a skateboarder he had met who was skateboarding across the States to California. Apparently he was carrying just a back pack and riding a board about 4 feet long by a foot wide. I have never fathomed out how he would cope with some of the mountains that I had encountered, but it must be extremely difficult to skateboard up hill and very dangerous coming downhill without any brakes. Tom also told me about a group of three cyclists that had passed him the previous day, two brothers and a sister all heading to Austin. Maybe I’ll catch them up.
Austin hadn’t been in my original plans, but when Cora learned that I was intending to bisect Austin and San Antonio, she convinced me to take a detour to one or the other and then persuaded me that Austin would be a good option. So, in three days time I would be heading for Austin, music capital of Texas.
Tom told me that he was only heading as far as Camp Wood today, so I didn’t offer to ride with him, as I figured that he was slower than me and I didn’t want to be held up. I wished him luck for the rest of his trip and went on my way.
Despite the dark clouds threatening rain all morning, it wasn’t cold and I rode in shirt and shorts, without socks. The landscape was changing again with trees becoming more and more evident. There were plenty of animals such as deer, goats and wild turkeys around today; at one point along the ranch road I scared a group of five wild partridges, only one of which flew off immediately. The other four must have taken stupid pills, because instead of flying off they tried to out run me, a cross between waddling and wobbling, their heads swinging side to side they ran along the grass verge for a good two minutes, every now and then ducking into the bushes which lined the road, only to find their way blocked by a chain link fence. Eventually they came to their senses, found their wings and flapped off.
Be careful of what you wish for. This ranch road was very rough and I was getting a bit frustrated by it. My experiences so far had been that state roads were better maintained than farm roads or ranch roads and I hoped that when I reached State Road 55 the surface would improve. It did, but about a mile down the road and I had a puncture. On this occasion, and for the first time, it was the front wheel and it had been caused by a common or garden needle thorn. Fortunately a front wheel puncture is a lot easier to deal with than a rear one because there are only two panniers to remove and no tent etc.
Although the route from here to Camp Wood is hillier, the road surface is better and I arrived at about 2pm to the sound of a live band playing on the small town green. Standing in the middle of the crossroads with a bucket was Wes a fireman collecting donations for the towns’ volunteer fire-fighters. Cars, motorcyclists (of which there were lots) and pedestrians that passed by were all subjected to a firm but non-confrontational appeal for contributions. I donated a few dollars to the cause and was invited to join the free barbeque that was accompanying the band.
Funding for the music and food had been provided by the town’s sheriff who was up for re-election. I’m sure that this type of campaigning would not be allowed back in the UK.
Over lunch, Wes asked “Are you going over our hill?” Taking ownership for local sights and features has been a regular feature of conversations that I have had with local people. “You won’t find a purtier ride” he continued, “but be careful of the youngsters racing down the hill in their cars”. I knew from the route profile that half of the remaining twenty one miles into Leakey was a stiff climb up the road 337. It was difficult to drag myself away from this west Texan generosity, but I had a mountain to climb so I thanked Wes for his hospitality and after stocking up on drinks and snacks at the gas station, set off over the ‘purty’ hill. Wes was correct it is a pretty ride which I would put on a level with Emory Pass.
Although I never encountered any boy-racers, a number of motorcyclists passed me in both directions. At points on this hill and to accommodate the hairpin bends which have a precarious looking drop off into the valley below, the speed limit is just 15mph. 15 miles per hour. I wish. Once again I was into my bottom two gears with sweat pouring off my face, down my nose and onto my cross bar. But compensation for the tough ascent came in the form of a fast downhill.
There are two words to describe this afternoon’s ride: satisfying and rewarding, cancelling out all the negative feelings I had before lunch.
Leakey pronounced Lakey (population 387), styles itself as the motorcycle mecca of Texas. This would explain the large number of motorcycles I had seen in and around Camp Wood and on the hill this afternoon.
I pitched up at the D’ Rose Inn (voted Ride Texas Magazine readers choice #1 bed and breakfast “just don’t expect breakfast” (Ride Texas Magazine, March 2008)) at 6.05pm and hoped that the owner wouldn’t be too strict on her advertised closing time of 6pm. As it happens, Debs (the ‘D’ of D’ Rose) was happy to make up a room for me whilst I walked the short distance up the road to buy a well earned ice cream and some beer.
When I returned I sat on the porch outside my room (which was named ‘Peace’) eating and drinking whilst chatting with Debs and a couple of other guests. Miss Rose (the ‘Rose’ of D’ Rose) is a single lady who bravely sold up her house on the east coast and moved here three years ago to set up this bed and breakfast business.
A keen motorcyclist, Debs will only accept motorcyclists and bicyclists in her small inn. It wasn’t easy for her, firstly having to contend with an establishment that previously had a seedy reputation for (whisper it) – prostitution and secondly the pre-conceptions of the local people when they learned that bikers would be staying in their town. Debs has obviously done a fantastic marketing job, because now hanging on the wall are various awards from the local Chamber of Commerce.
My initial reaction to the D’ Rose Inn was that it was a bit overpriced, nearly twice what I had paid last night at Fort Clark Springs. But there were very soft plump towels, a good soap dispenser in the shower and good company. On reflection, as my trip unfolded and I removed my self-imposed financial limit on accommodation, it probably wasn’t as expensive as I had first thought.
The day that the rain (almost) came. Leakey to Kerrville (69miles)
Today is the 2nd March, Texas Independence Day. I don’t know if this will have a significant impact on my ability to find accommodation later this afternoon. Having made the decision to divert into Austin, I have now got to re-schedule the next five days riding to meet the changes to my overnight stops.
Today I will either ride to Comfort or stop at Kerrville. Like yesterday, the forecast for today is rain. Although it was cloudy all of yesterday, it didn’t rain. This morning it is similarly overcast.
On the way to breakfast at ‘Nena’s Café’ next door to the D’Rose Inn, I found a dollar bill lying in the grass. A few yards further on and I found a five dollar bill. Result! That will pay for breakfast. Maybe somebody came home the worse for wear last night and is now waking up this morning a little lighter in the wallet.
I had been told that ‘Nena’s’ is owned by a German, so as I walked in I tried out my pigeon German. “Guten Tag” I said to the lady who I assumed to be the owner, Nena. “Wie gehst?” It turned out that the lady wasn’t the owner but his wife, an American after whom the café had been named. I felt a little bit foolish.
John and his wife, the two motorcyclists that I had spent some time chatting with on the patio last night joined me and a short while later Debs arrived.
As we were finishing our meal we were joined by an elegantly attired man. I say elegant, that’s if you don’t count the Mickey Mouse tie and Mickey Mouse watch that he was wearing! He turned out to be the local priest. What was his rationale for wearing the Disney tie and watch? So that he can engage with the younger members of his congregation. Just as I was about to pay my bill, I found that John taken care of it. A win double, first finding $6 and now not having to pay for breakfast.
Yesterday I had said to Debs that I was pleased that the most difficult hills in west Texas had been completed. This morning she said that she felt I was being a bit premature, the major hills into and out of Vanderpool and then on to Hunt, were as tough if not tougher than anything I had experienced to date in Texas. John chipped in by saying that he had ridden the roads on his motorcycle and he felt that I would have to walk at least part of the way. I like a challenge, and as I’ve never been beaten by any hill (this doesn’t include off road mountain biking) I was determined to prove them wrong.
John discussed some of the next few days of my journey. He mentioned the crossing at the Atchafalaya River, just over the border in Louisiana. He said that he had seen cyclists being picked up by truck drivers and ferrying them across this busy stretch of road which doesn’t have a shoulder. Whilst researching this area I too had read about that notorious road but at this moment in time I think that I shall be crossing the river at a different location.
The first six miles of the road 337 out of Leakey were under repair, the top coat having been removed ready for resurfacing and I had to use all of the width of the road to avoid the worst of the grit and gravel as best as I could. It’s just as well that today it is a quiet Sunday morning and therefore there is no traffic on the road. Then, just as the road repairs petered out, the hills started.
The first of the three major hills into Vanderpool wasn’t too bad, but then again it was relatively short, taking me only about 15 minutes followed by a quick downhill. The second was longer, taking twice the time. As I reached the summit I was surprised to see a large man sitting on a deck chair next to his car which was parked on the hillside, a huge camera hanging around his neck. We chatted about his hobby of photographing motorcyclists, but he told me that he had little passing traffic today, probably because of the weather. So he took my photo instead. He said that I was about half way to Vanderpool and that although there was only one major climb left, it was as long as the previous two put together. “There is a 50mph rated bend off the top of this hill” he told me “but I just cruise around it at 70mph”.
When I reached the bend I could quite believe that he did exactly as he said. It is a steep rocky descent with just a single bend in it and lined with sparse vegetation, I didn’t cruise down it; I feathered my brakes all the way to the bottom.
Half way down the hill and the next climb became visible. Looking ahead and to my left I could see a parade of headlights as a group of motorcycles made their way towards me. That should make the photographer happy I thought. As they passed me I gave each rider my now standard greeting, raising my left hand in acknowledgement. This camaraderie between bicyclist and motorcyclist had been on-going since the beginning of the trip and I found almost without exception that I got a favourable response; whether it was a single motorcycle or a gang of riders wearing their colours.
The last long climb towards Vanderpool was rewarded with an equally long descent. OK so the hills were tough, but not insurmountable and I certainly didn’t have to walk any of them. “Well”, I thought to myself “Texas, is that all you’ve got? Bring it on!”
And so I stopped for a coffee at the gas station / general store just outside of town at about 9.30am. Two pairs of Mexican motorcyclists arrived about ten minutes later, riding Harley Davisons, all gleaming chrome and custom artwork paint-jobs. They had ridden in from Blanco a small town near Austin and were en route to Bandera, Cowboy Capital of the World.
After the coffee break, I set off. One mile down the road and I stopped to wrap my entire luggage inside plastic bags in anticipation. The sky was black and the wind had picked up. I was convinced it would soon be raining. This was also the bottom of the next hill. Unlike other hills where I had been playing mind games with myself and saying, “I’ll just make it to the next bend” and then deliberately going on further and further, this hill is straight up with no curves, kinks or bends. It is all laid out before you. What you see is what you get. The reward, however, is a fast downhill towards the Lost Maples Natural Area.
It was a stunning ride through an area of outstanding natural beauty full of limestone cliffs, deep canyons, dense woodlands and numerous clear streams. The Lost Maples State Natural Area gets its name from the Bigtooth Maple trees growing here. This particular variety of tree is a relic from the ice age over 10,000 years ago but there are not many left (hence the name lost maples) they are few and far between.
I was enjoying myself today. The terrain was hilly, but after the first twenty miles they became a lot shorter and sharper. I cycled it as if I were riding my road bike not a fully loaded tourer; out of my saddle attacking each small incline. Suddenly after 42 miles I felt the ‘bonk’. If this was a marathon road race, it would be called ‘hitting the wall’. My energy reserves were depleted. I needed to stop for food. The nearest town was Hunt, another ten miles on, so I made do with some snacks and a drink. Twenty minutes later I was back on my bike, crossing and re-crossing the Guadalupe River about a dozen times.
Maps of the road into Hunt hadn’t revealed much in the way of population, but since time immemorial, humans have settled beside rivers, so there was no reason why this river should be any different. And it wasn’t. Rustic European style houses line the banks, a couple of conference centres front onto the water and clapboard houses perch on the hillsides overlooking the river.
The European feel of this area is no doubt in partly linked to the large German immigration that took place between 1830 and 1850. In 1842 several German princes and noblemen got together to assist those who wanted to emigrate from Germany. They thought that a German state in the New World would not only open up new areas of commerce and industry for Germany but would also help to relieve a growing over-population problem. Texas was thought to be the Promised Land for this new German state. Today there are still examples of German annexation of this area, I saw one house bearing the title ‘Schills Haus’ and then later passed by an American / German restaurant.
I pulled up at a small grocery store in Hunt and as I paid for some well deserved refreshments, one of the two girls serving in the shop asked me: “Are you here to see Stonehenge?” “Stonehenge?” I queried, “But that’s in my Country.” “We have our own version here in Hunt” she replied “And we have Easter Island, too.”
Intrigued I asked for directions and, finding that they were only about a mile and a half off my route, decided to take the short detour just out of curiosity.
Sixty per cent as tall as the original and ninety per cent as large in circumference, Hunt does have its own Stonehenge. Sharing the field with the mock stone circle are a couple of imitation Easter Island stone heads. Although not actually made of stone, and starting out as a joke in 1989 between two neighbours, Hunt’s Stonehenge developed into a full blown imitation of the monoliths, made of plaster and graphite-covered metal mesh and steel frameworks. One of the ‘stones’ is reputed to be home to a family of skunks, whilst another is hollow and apparently houses bats!
The remaining thirteen miles into Kerrville were uneventful and although it remained dark and overcast, it didn’t rain.
It took a little while to find a suitable motel for the night and when I did, there was a motorcyclist busy working away on his ride in the car park. As well as the raised hand greeting to motorcyclists, I had also developed the opening gambit of “Do you want to trade?” This tended to break the ice whenever I met a motorcyclist at a café or gas station. It had started out as “Do you want to swap”, but I don’t think that the English version was understood and so I changed my greeting to include the more American-style verb.
However on this occasion, I got no reaction from the man. Actually I did get a reaction, it was “No, not even if your bicycle was a Cannondale” said without an ounce of humour. His wife, a large busty, tattooed lady was more engaging and chatted with me about my trip. Suddenly when I mentioned that I was contemplating a long ride to Wimberley tomorrow, the man perked up and became much friendlier. Apparently he had spent some of his youth in a summer camp at Wimberley and had a thoroughly good time in the small town. “Oh you’ll love it” he said. “There’s even a drive-in movie theatre.” Well if I needed a selling point to get me through the 90 miles to Wimberley tomorrow, there it was. This was an opportunity not to be missed, a genuine 1950’s style drive-in movie theatre.
Dinner tonight was taken in the restaurant across the busy road opposite the motel, before retiring to bed and to reflect that today’s ride had had just about everything. Hills to climb (and descend), tranquil river riding and outstanding natural scenery. I couldn’t help thinking that the only sight that would have improved today’s ride was that of the manicured fairways and greens of a parkland golf course.
The stars of Texas. Kerrville to Wimberley (87miles)
Last night it had been 78° when I went to bed. It had been overcast and humid and feeling very much like there was a thunderstorm in the air. What a difference a night makes. I awoke to a temperature that was some 30° colder. But I was right. It had rained overnight and now the Weather Channel was giving out severe weather warnings for strong, cold, Northerly winds.
For the first time since climbing Emory Pass in New Mexico, I decided to wear my roubaix leggings this morning and I also substituted my helmet for my woolly hat. The initial riding was along a quiet but blustery riverside, and then on towards Comfort along the State Road 27 which was littered with armadillo carcasses.
Comfort, ‘Star of Texas’, was established by German settlers in 1854 who were so pleased with the picturesque site and pure water that they named it Camp Comfort. In my opinion the small population of about 2500 inhabitants of Comfort are very lucky indeed. They are lucky to be living in such an attractive town. Nearly all of the old stone buildings in downtown are intact. In fact Comfort has the most complete street of original stone buildings in Texas which, because of a relative lack of motor vehicles, are almost entirely free of the discolouration and grime normally caused by vehicle pollution. The downtown is so striking that nearly all of its buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although it was only 17 miles since breakfast, I was cold (the temperature having dropped another 3° since leaving Kerrville) so I was on the lookout for coffee. And boy did I find it, at ‘High’s Coffee Shop’. The best coffee on the planet I was promised. Not only was the coffee good but there was scrumptious chocolate and hazelnut cake, melt-in-the-mouth bacon, cheese and chive scones and tangy orange and pecan cake. No, not all at once, I saved some for lunch. But what started out as a fifteen minute coffee stop stretched out for an hour and a half. Firstly by chatting to Renée the waitress and secondly being shown around the building next door which was being renovated so that the café could extend into it. My final distraction was looking at books of old black & white photos of the town from way back when.
Renée explained the dead armadillos that I had seen. In the 1930’s a rancher used to breed the animals to use their shells and tails for making lamps, ashtrays and baskets. However, armadillos don’t breed well in captivity and only come out of their burrows at night. This made the business difficult to manage and the rancher stopped trading after a few years. A few decades later and another entrepreneurial businessman started up a similar commercial venture, which once again failed to thrive and so the animals were set free. Ironically there is now an abundance of them living wild in the neighbourhood.
There are two things that I wanted to see before leaving Texas; a Rodeo and Texas Longhorn Cattle. This morning was an opportunity to see the later as one of Renée’s customers owned some and invited me along to his ‘chateau’ to see them.
Leaving Comfort a lot later than I intended, my route for the rest of the day took in lots of hilly riding, mainly down to and then up and away from the Guadalupe River, again whilst fighting against the (as promised) strong wind. I had lunch whilst huddled against the rocky roadside, keeping as low to the ground as possible to reduce the effects of the wind, before riding on to Blanco.
Although Blanco is a popular tourist and resort area in the Hill Country that attracts campers, anglers, and hunters I didn’t get the right ‘vibe’ from the town. A busy State road running through the centre didn’t help in my evaluation and so, despite the already tough day, I decided that I would tackle the final twenty four miles into Wimberley. I’m glad that I did.
Wimberley is well known for the many artists and authors who make their homes there. Voted the number one tourist place to visit in Texas, one of America’s top ten small towns and the number one place to retire to, Wimberley has an abundance of handicrafts, hobbies and souvenirs available in several quaint shops and studios clustered in and around the town square at the joining of several roads. What Wimberley doesn’t have is chain stores. Well, there is a “Dollar General” store (which is the equivalent of our Pound Land) and a “Subway” sandwich shop, but both of these are so far outside of the town centre as to be insignificant.
I booked in to the Wimberley Inn, a tranquil almost intimate accommodation whose grounds are full of ornamental shrubs and plants and surrounded by live oaks and cedars, it is reasonably expensive but is devotedly maintained by Melissa, the owner. It is also just around the corner from the open-air Corral Theatre. The theatre was built in 1948 and it is the only outdoor movie theatre in the United States that shows first-run films. Unfortunately it is also only open during the summer and so my reason for coming to this town didn’t come to fruition. Oh well, I’ll just have to come back some other time when the theatre is open!
Live music capital of the world. Wimberley to Austin (40miles)
It is only 40 miles to Austin so I decided to make this morning a relaxed, late start with breakfast in the Wimberley Café, overlooking the town square.
The BBC was in town yesterday I learned from overhearing a conversation at the next table. I think it was to report on the new on-line voting system, which Wimberley has and it is the first time in the United States that it will be in use for the Presidential Elections.
The weather today was a lot warmer than yesterday, and the wind had dropped too, so when I did set off riding it was with long sleeves but no jacket. Road 3237 out of Wimberley however was a fraught 16 miles of narrow carriageway with no shoulder and no pavement.
The first town I reached was Buda the Outdoor Capital of Texas. Once a quiet railroad community it is now becoming one of the fastest growing communities in central Texas because of its close proximity to Austin.
It was here that I stopped at a Walgreens Pharmacy. Every night and day I had been applying sudocrem to my backside to help prevent saddle sores and rashes due to sweating. It’s a thick antiseptic cream which is marketed in the UK for babies’ nappies and nappy rash. Somewhere I had lost my tub of the cream and I wanted to replace it. Not that I was suffering from any sores or rashes, but prevention is better than cure.
I wandered up and down the aisles looking for an American version without much success. One of the shop assistants took pity on me and asked me what I was looking for. “Oh, you want butt cream” she exclaimed when I explained. I thought that she was joking, but no, there actually is a product called ‘butt cream.’
It is amazing what some people will disclose about themselves to a complete stranger. Whilst queuing to pay for my ‘butt cream’ in Walgreens I chatted to the shop assistant a Scottish lady. She revealed that she too had been a keen cyclist. However, having met and married an American she moved over here. As part of the immigration process she was required to have a number of inoculations. The medication affected her coccyx and now she cannot ride any more.
As I left the store I spotted a car with Florida tags. The number plate had the American National Motto ‘In God we Trust’ across the top but underneath was the humorous line ‘In Bush we don’t’. Now that is either a reference to the State Governor Jeb Bush, or to his elder brother the President George W. I know which one my money is on.
It has been an extremely lazy morning, riding at a sedentary pace. I worked my way through the quiet undulating suburbs, passing lots of new building developments.
On the way to the Capitol Building I stopped to buy some more puncture repair patches, I’d run short because of the number of unexpected punctures that I had the misfortune to have.
The Capitol Building in Austin was once the third largest building in the world. It is built out of local pink stone and stands in grounds full of mynah birds with four statues: one as a monument to the volunteer firemen, one the Alamo Monument another is the Confederate Monument and the fourth is Terry’s Texas Rangers Monument.
Monica Lewinsky’s ex-boyfriend’s wife is in town today. Hilary Clinton is using Austin as her base for the Texas Primary which is happening today. The press and TV are all saying that Texas will decide. Today could be an historic day for the United States, with Texas likely to vote for Barack Obama, forcing Clinton to concede. I won’t be staying up to watch the result on TV but I will be very interested in learning the result in the morning.
I found myself a motel out towards the east of centre of town so that the ride tomorrow morning wouldn’t be through too much busy rush hour traffic. I then wandered back in to town on foot to explore 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Streets which is home to the Austin music and bar scene for a couple of hours before returning to the motel.
For the last three days I have been riding as if I were on my road bike, attacking every little hill. I really must slow down, this isn’t a race and there is only one deadline to catch my flight back home on the 31st March I must get back to riding as a tourist again; my legs are now beginning to feel tired in the evenings. But then again, I am already thinking about planning a next tour and I am even considering building a new touring bike.
That’s torn it! Austin to La Grange (79miles)
Well Texas didn’t decide. What it did was to ensure that the Democratic Party nomination process would continue. Against all the expectations of the political commentators, Hilary Clinton won the Texas Primary.
Today I’m heading into logging country. Maybe I’ll see some lumberj…. oops sorry you cannot call them that. That is now considered a derogatory term. Instead, they are called woodsmen or loggers. I will also be riding through a few state parks. I can’t say that I am disappointed to be leaving Austin because I’m not. Personally, it is an OK kind of city, but historically San Antonio (for me) might have been more interesting and so with the benefit of hindsight maybe I should have gone there instead. Oh well you live and learn.
Although I had been staying in a motel on the east of town, I still had to cycle sixteen miles before I was clear of the urban jungle, crossing the Colorado River again for the second time on the trip, then passing by the international airport and through the green and pleasant area of the McKinney Falls State Park.
A short while later and I had the first real test of my navigational skills. Ahead the road 973 was closed due to major road redevelopments, and not having a map (partly because the ride into Austin had been a detour from my planned route and partly because I wasn’t carrying maps anyway) I had to rely on my keen sense of direction to get me back on track.
The detour took me along a quiet but pretty road to the tiny village of Bader, where I stopped for elevenses. But the most striking thing about this road was the amount of rubbish that I saw on the roadside. Until now, I hadn’t encountered any litter, but this wasn’t just litter; it was refrigerators, sofas, construction debris and other assorted household crap. What a shame.
More riding on farm and ranch roads lined with oak trees, interspersed with pines and passing numerous taxidermy businesses offering to stuff hunting trophies brought me to the most historic town in Texas, the town of Bastrop. This town got that title in 1979 when 131 of its buildings and historic sites were entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Early in Texas history Bastrop almost became the capital but was beaten to it by the town that was then known as Waterloo. Waterloo won because land prices were cheaper there. Waterloo is of course now known as Austin.
Bastrop State Park is the first of two conjoined parks and is open all year round for hiking, picnicking, swimming and golfing and it encompasses 3,500 acres of loblolly pine, cedar and oak trees.
Here was the golf course that I had been craving a couple of days ago when I had ridden from Leakey to Kerrville. It is quite a bargain to play here, at only $20 for a round of golf including a cart. I didn’t play, but after paying my $2 admission fee to the park, I set off to ride along the park road which I had previously read about and which had been described as a “roller coaster” of a ride.
Roller coaster ride it certainly is. It is also seventeen miles of beautiful forest riding on virtually traffic free roads. At times I was out of the saddle, leaning my weight over the handlebars, grovelling up the hills then freewheeling down the other side. I would like to say that the hills were challenging, but I’ll be honest; murderous would be a better description!
The sunlight filtering through the canopy of trees was throwing a dappled shade onto the ground and was making it difficult to ‘read’ the road at times. One bump that I didn’t read caused my rear left pannier to become loose. It caught in the spokes of my rear wheel, tearing open a compartment of the pannier and depositing my tools and spare parts all over the road. I suppose it could have been worse. I could have fallen off the bike when the pannier became trapped.
Bastrop State Park seamlessly transitions into Buescher State Park. Except that there is a seam; two large cattle grids mark the boundary of one park and the start of the next. By the time I reached Winchester another 10 miles further on, I was feeling very tired, which I put down to not having had enough to drink.
I thought perhaps that this town was the home of the Winchester rifle, but it isn’t. The rifle takes its name from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, founded by Oliver Winchester.
Another sixteen miles and I arrived at La Grange. The city is nestled along the Colorado River and is surrounded by oak, pecan and pine trees and has a rich and diverse history including German and Czech heritage. After crossing the Colorado River yet again (this time on a bridge without any side barriers) I found a motel adjacent to a Tex-Mex restaurant. The restaurant proved very useful later in the evening.
La Grange also has a very active cycle club ‘Velo Club La Grange’ which in 2007 was voted USA Cycling club of the year. The competition judges clubs on several key areas including race promotion, membership composition, instructional clinics, seminars, club activities, charitable contributions and racing performance. Just a few categories then! Congratulations.
The day that the rain DID come. La Grange to Navasota (70miles).
Today began with the temperature at 57° and humidity at 96%. The Weather Channel was forecasting the threat of hail later in the day, so I dressed in anticipation of rain in a long sleeved rain top and leggings. I didn’t believe that it was cold enough for hail.
Re-crossing the Colorado River over the dodgy, side-less steel bridge I arrived back in La Grange looking for breakfast opportunities shortly before 8am. The restaurant that I been recommended was actually shut, not just closed, but no longer trading. Instead I found ‘Latte on the Square’ which as its name suggests is a coffee shop. It sells the nicest hazelnut vanilla latte, and fortunately also sells hot sandwiches. Like any good coffee shop it is also patronised by the local law enforcement officers, about half a dozen or so came and went as I ate my breakfast.
Around the corner from the coffee shop is the old Fayette County Jail, which is reputedly haunted. One of the suspected spirits is said to be that of a Fayette County woman who murdered a hired hand and then committed suicide by staging a successful hunger strike. Another legend says the skeletons of several prisoners remain chained to the walls under the sand and silt from the Colorado River when it flooded one time. The sheriff couldn’t (or didn’t want to) get them out in time. This old County jail is now the local Centre of Commerce. I wonder how the staff feel about working in a so-called haunted building?
Riding on from La Grange my route took me north east through Rutersville and then Oldenburg passing the Sterling B. McCall Old Car Museum which has cars dating from 1908-1967. Then I passed by St. Martin’s Church, the self proclaimed ‘smallest Catholic Church in the world’ at Warrenton. Well it may not be exactly the smallest in the world (Cross Island Chapel in New York has a floor area of just 51inches by 81 inches) but at just 12 ft. x 16 ft. and with 12 wooden pews it is small and seats about 20 people. It only has one service a year, on November 11th – All Soul’s Day. I then arrived in Round Top, with the wind very much in my face.
Round Top has a population of just 77, but it also boasts three inns or motels, a restaurant and a coffee shop. Why I wondered? Well during the spring and summer this area is an antiques centre attracting thousands of sellers and buyers, with the roads lined with sellers’ wares and huge marquees erected on rented fields. I have no doubt that the local people who rent out their land have made a fair few dollars from this business venture.
It was only 10am when I arrived, but I fancied early elevenses and so stopped at the restaurant (because the coffee shop wasn’t open). It was whilst sitting in this rustic building drinking coffee that it started raining. Not bad, after nearly 4 weeks. I wasn’t trying to avoid riding in the rain, but I did have a second coffee hoping the shower would pass. Then to my good fortune, just as I was preparing to leave, it did. I am sure that I cannot continue being this fortunate.
The scenery today was very British-countryside-like in appearance; verdant green, rolling hills, farmland and very, very quiet roads for the next thirty five miles to Independence, an historic ghost town complete with ruins, restored buildings, cemeteries and other points of historical interest. But it is also very much a live town if that is not a contradiction in terms. The Grocery Store had to be my lunch stop as there are no further eating opportunities until Navasota, which is another 22 miles further on. The Grocery Store in Independence has it all and is a great place to stock up. It also has a fabulous little room out the back which doubles as a stock room / diner. Complete with a couple of large screen televisions I sat down to freshly cooked pizza in the company of three local men who were drinking beer and watching an old John Wayne film.
The owner of the grocery store keeps a visitors book of tourists (mainly cyclists) who have stopped at his store. He is also the first person I met on this trip that appeared to be a George Bush supporter. We had quite a long chat about the 9/11 attack and American political policy in general.
At the start of the day I hadn’t believed that it was possible for it to hail today, it just wasn’t cold enough. However, during the hour or so that I had been in the store, the temperature had dropped dramatically and so I wrapped up against the elements before commencing the final stint for the day. It was just as well that I did, because ten miles down the road and the rain came. This time there was no avoiding it.
Not only did it rain, but it was also accompanied by thunder and lightning. I figured that I would be safer staying on my bike with the tyres to insulate me rather than sheltering by the side of the road.
An hour of cold, wet, windy conditions brought me into Navasota. By the time I had located a motel I was saturated on the outside but my rain jacket had passed its first test with flying colours as no water had penetrated it. Why am I getting paranoid about the rain? You can only get so wet. Once you’re wet, you’re wet. It can’t get inside your skin. Next to the motel was a small diner, which was just as well because I didn’t fancy travelling too far to eat as the rain was coming down in rods and did not stop all night.
Houston, we have a problem, a couple of problems! Navasota to Coldspring (66miles).
The temperature dropped even more dramatically overnight and snow was threatening when I awoke the following morning. Towns as close as ten miles away had received a covering of the white stuff which was the first time in sixty six years. Fortunately, although it was cold, the rain had stopped.
Breakfast was taken in the small diner next to the motel where I had dinner last night and which was shared in the company of local hunters and loggers.
I’m not sure what the temperature was when I left Navasota, but an hour later as I rode through Anderson it was still only 37°. It was also very windy. I was in for a hard undulating morning, through more cultivated farmlands and onwards towards the logging communities in and around the Sam Houston National Forest; a forest of about 170,000 acres intermingled with privately owned timber lands and small farmsteads.
Sam Houston was one of the most colourful and controversial figures in Texas history, he was Governor of two states and President of the Republic of Texas. The city of Houston was named after him. He was born in 1793 and as a youth he spent much of his time with the Cherokee Indians, in the mountains of Tennessee, developing close ties with them.
When the second war with England broke out he joined the army, rose through the ranks before resigning to study law. His studies lasted only a few months before he was elected to public office. He served two terms in Congress and was elected Governor of Tennessee. He quietly resigned from politics when his very short marriage failed and he returned to live with the Cherokees for 6 years, adopting Cherokee citizenship. He became a trader, advisor and special envoy for the tribe and it was in the later capacity that he first went to Texas (which at the time was under Mexican rule) in an attempt to secure a land grant for the tribe.
At the outbreak of the Texas Revolution and after the fall of the Alamo in 1835 Houston was elected Commander-in-Chief of the armies of Texas. In 1836 his forces defeated Santa Anna and gained independence for Texas. Houston was then elected the first President of the Republic of Texas.
After the annexation of Texas by the United States, Houston was elected to the U.S. Senate. He was unhappy that Texas seemed to be moving toward secession (the withdrawal of eleven Southern States from the United States Union which led to the American Civil War) and so in 1859 he ran for Governor as an Independent Unionist and was successful. Despite his efforts, however, the people of Texas eventually did vote to secede, and he was forced out of office in 1861.
I stopped in the tiny hamlet of Richards for elevenses, from where I also phoned ahead to a motel in Coldspring, to ensure that I had a room for tonight. It was far too cold and windy to be camping which had been my original plan.
After leaving Richards Farm Roads 149 and 1375 took me to Lake Conroe a huge 50 square miles in size, which today because of the cloudy skies and cold temperature was grey and uninviting. The roads then took me to the Sam Houston National Forest and my first encounters with logging tucks, huge eighteen wheelers carrying their wares of pine trees to the mills. I’m pleased to say that despite the size of these monster wagons, the drivers were some of the most courteous that I met, giving me a wide berth as they passed by, despite the narrowness of the road.
At 12.47pm today I clocked up my 2000th mile of the trip, not point-to-point mileage but total distance and I’m still a complete day ahead of my schedule. A short while later, I passed by a Ranger Station in the forest. As I did so I became aware of a slowly moving vehicle approaching me from behind. Unperturbed, thinking that it had just emerged from the Ranger Station; I continued to pedal expecting it to pass me by in seconds.
What happened next both surprised and disappointed me. A grey pick-up truck pulled alongside me, and a crushed up beer can was thrown from the passenger window, bouncing off my crossbar and hitting me on my right hand before spinning off into the grass verge.
Wheels spinning, the truck then raced off into the distance. What am I going to do, ride after you and catch you! I’m disappointed because this was the first unpleasant experience that I have had in nearly four weeks of travel and flies in the face of all the positive encounters that I have had. There’s always one dickhead to spoil things.
Three miles later and I arrived in New Waverly, still seething about the incident and knowing full well that I would be treating every grey pick-up driver as a potential suspect.
Stripping off to change into fresh clothes before entering the Waverly House Restaurant helped my mood to improve, as did the cheery waitress who was celebrating her 27th birthday today. After lunch the weather also got better, the cloud broke and the sun came out making it feel a lot warmer than the 45° it had been when I first arrived in this town.
After lunch there were more undulating heavily forested roads for twenty six miles to Coldspring. My motel, the San Jacinto Inn on Highway 150 is a couple of miles before the town, so after unpacking and removing everything from my bike, I bagged up all my dirty clothes and rode into town to seek out a laundry and food. It wasn’t too difficult to find the laundry; it was at the first junction next to a gas station.
As I loaded my washing into the machine I realised that there was no vending machines and therefore no washing powder. Fortunately another washer donated some of his. He wasn’t very talkative so I broke the silence when I spotted a uniform going into his machine. I had seen this type of uniform a couple of times recently and wondered what it was. It turned out to be from the local State Penitentiary, Jason (that’s his name) is a corrections officer. After I had broken the silence Jason wouldn’t stop talking and he showed me over his car, a bright yellow Saturn sports car, which he is very proud of.
As I left the laundry and was securing my neatly folded clean clothes onto my rear rack, three young men (and I’m being polite here) approached me. “Give us your bike” they demanded. At first I thought they were joking but when one of them grabbed my handlebars and started pulling I knew they were serious. I wrenched the bike out of his hand, jumped onto the saddle and using some appropriate expletives towards my would- be-muggers I rode like the wind.
I’ve experienced nothing but kindness and consideration for nearly four weeks but now have had two unsavoury incidents within the space of a few hours. I’m going to try and not let them cloud my judgement, but you can be sure that I will start being a little more cautious. Up till now I haven’t bothered to lock my bike and have felt comfortable leaving it unattended (albeit in sight) whilst I’ve been in cafes, restaurants, gas stations and laundries. I think that is just about to change.
The eagle has landed. Coldspring to Silsbee (76miles)
After yesterday’s two unpleasant incidents I awoke this morning hoping that today would bring better experiences. Riding back into Coldspring, I passed by the site of the attempted bike-jacking and found a rustic looking diner for breakfast. It was freezing cold again this morning. Freezing Cold! It was the coldest day so far. Only 29°, but fortunately there was no wind chill and it was bright and sunny. Even so I had no qualms in ordering a large cooked breakfast and coffee.
The clientele in the diner were elderly and one customer Bill was obviously the wealthiest. Not only did he pay for his three compatriots’ breakfasts, but after they had left he joined me for coffee and a chat and then paid for my meal too.
Bill has retired to Coldspring from Houston and now lives and hunts on fourteen acres of land that he owns. Apparently it is lawful for a landowner to shoot and kill deer on his own land. Hogs are considered vermin so they get slaughtered too. I don’t remember how the conversation got there, but Bill told me that he had once eaten armadillo and described the taste as a cross between chicken (doesn’t everything) and fish.
Leaving behind Bill’s hospitality I cycled off feeling more positive about this little town than I had done the previous evening.
In order to combat the cold, I decided that today was the day to wear under my bike helmet the American Eagle bandana that I had purchased two and a half weeks ago in Threeway. Houston, the Eagle has landed.
Today’s ride was through an area known locally as ‘The Big Thicket’. This National Preserve is approximately 100,000 acres large and full of swamps, forests, plains, and deserts. It is a crossroads of bio-diversity with wet bogs sited near to dry sand hills and bluebirds nesting near to roadrunners (meep! meep!). There are 85 tree species, more than 60 shrubs and nearly 1,000 other plants including 26 ferns, 20 different types of orchids and four insect-eating plants. Nearly 186 kinds of birds live or migrate through here. It is also home to fifty species of reptiles such as frogs and toads and a small but rarely seen population of alligators. I didn’t see them either. I’m not an expert but I did spot pine, mahogany and oak trees. There were also magnolia trees, but unfortunately they were not in bloom.
Woody Woodpecker and his pals were busy as I cycled through their forest. Sounding like a glockenspiel orchestra as they tapped away, pecking their beaks noisily on the tree trunks. They were accompanied by the deep bass sounds of the many bullfrogs that live in the marshy land adjoining the road. What a racket.
Having said yesterday that the drivers of the eighteen wheelers were more courteous and considerate than regular car and truck drivers, there is always an exception to the rule. I knew that he was coming from behind, but still one driver found it necessary to sound his horn as he pulled up alongside me on the narrow forest road. And what a horn! I nearly fell off my bike the noise was so loud.
On the way from Lake Livingstone I met up with a couple of cyclists who were travelling in the opposite direction. One was English and towing a trailer with a Union Flag hanging from it. The other was an Irish-Canadian.
The English cyclist had started his trip in Jacksonville, Florida fourteen days earlier and had caught up with the Irish-Canadian, who complained to me that he had been taking his ride peacefully, calmly and relaxed until the two met. Then it had all changed. “He’s a monster” he protested. “I was only doing 50 miles a day until I met him, now we’re doing ninety to a hundred miles a day!” You won’t be doing that sort of mileage in a few days when you get into the Texas Hill Country or the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona I knowingly thought to myself.
Then it hit me, if I followed the Adventure Cycling Association route, I could complete the ride across Country in two weeks time. As it is I have nearly four more weeks to go. Not that I wanted the ride to end, it was just the reality of how far I had already come and what I had left to complete.
I noticed with shock that the English cyclist was wearing an IPod. How stupid (again a thought that I kept to myself) given the narrowness of the road, the size of the logging trucks and the fragility of a bicycle. He should concentrate on staying alive rather than listening to music.
The logging trucks were out in force today, to and from the woods and the paper mills where the timber is made into plywood and the pulp into paper and cardboard for export to China.
The route for today for the most part followed a railway line, but it wasn’t always visible from the road, hidden away in the thicket of the Big Thicket. Travelling through Honey Island and into Kountze my route took me along some pretty residential roads, lined with azalea trees.
Today, despite the cold and because the route was predominantly flat I completed my ride early, arriving in Silsbee by 4pm.The Pinewood Inn was my accommodation for tonight. This modern brick built motel was taken over by the American Red Cross in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
On Saturday 24th September 2005 Hurricane Rita (a category 3 hurricane) made landfall on the Texas – Louisiana border with sustained winds of about 125 mph. Billboards were twisted and snapped off their poles. Large trees were uprooted, many crashed into houses. Highway signs were shredded and lay on the shoulder. Any flimsy metal or weak wooden buildings were tossed about. Huge areas of South East Texas and Southern Louisiana went without electricity and no one knew when it would be restored.
Families that had been driven from their homes in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina just twenty-six days earlier and who were living in shelters in Texas had to be relocated when those shelters closed. The sheer number of evacuees travelling inland overwhelmed a system that the Texas authorities had implemented and which was believed was superior to the Government response to Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of Texans trying to flee the coastline found themselves stranded by the lack of petrol. Interstate 45 near Dallas had resembled a car park.
My hotel receptionist was one of those Silsbee residents evacuated. She left town for a year taking her very young children with her so that they were not exposed to the devastation. Fortunately her house was undamaged. Unfortunately her parent’s house which had stood just 150 feet away from hers was destroyed. It must have been an awful time for them, but this little town appears to have recovered. During the next week or so I hope to be travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. This whole area was devastated not only by Hurricane Rita but also by Katrina.
I should be leaving Texas by about lunchtime tomorrow, making a total of fifteen days in this State. I will also have to put my clocks forward tonight because of “daylight savings”.
Unfortunately, the long-range weather forecast for Baton Rouge and New Orleans is not looking good. I also notice that I need to change my tyres again. The front one is the original that I started out from LA on. The rear, which was changed in Alpine only 11 days ago, is now looking a bit slick. It is not desperate, but Baton Rouge, three days away is the nearest bike shop and has to be my target.
Into Cajun country. Silsbee to De Ridder (76miles)
Breakfast this morning was taken at the sign of the golden arches. ‘McDonalds’ on road 105 was a National Guard staging post during the clean up operation after Hurricane Rita. This morning is was the venue for an impromptu Silsbee Council meeting.
Tucking into my bacon and egg McMuffins, drinking coffee and pouring over my maps, I was quizzed about my trip by three elderly gentlemen sitting a couple of tables away. “Come and sit here” said one indicating the empty seat opposite him.
“I’m a bit deaf and can’t hear what you’re saying but I’m sure it is interesting.”
It turned out that the three gentlemen were Butch Suitt and George Doyen, City of Silsbee Council members and Darrell Shine a Land Boundary Surveyor. Although it had been two and a half years since Hurricane Rita had hit, she still dominated the conversation. Living in a country that rarely if ever suffers from these natural disasters I found it difficult to understand why; but over the next couple of weeks I would gradually come to appreciate the devastating effects that hurricanes (and in particular Katrina) has on these small communities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the US government agency tasked with Disaster Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery Planning. It gave each victim of the hurricane $2,000 in disaster assistance. For the most part this was used wisely, but Butch told me stories of people using the money to buy large screen TVs and other non essential items. He also complained that evacuees treated their hosts with contempt, for example by leaving rubbish strewn about and by damaging their properties. This included churches that had been set up as makeshift shelters.
Butch also argued that victims must bear some responsibility for ignoring evacuation advice. There was, after all, five days notice that the storm was coming.
Despite the kindness, charity and compassion shown by the residents of Texas and Louisiana, the bad side of humanity still managed to emerge. One Silsbee resident filed a false claim with FEMA stating that a mobile home in Kountze was his main residence, in order to receive the $2k. It transpired that the mobile home wasn’t his but actually belonged to a friend. Not only that but after evacuation this man then broke into the mobile home and stole his friend’s belongings. The false claim delayed the genuine owner from receiving his disaster funding and cost the perpetrator 6 months in a federal prison.
Before I left their company, George Doyen gave me the name and address of a friend of his who lives in Gulf Beach. Apparently the man’s house is a $6m mansion. George assured me that I would find a warm welcome if I was passing.
Leaving Silsbee, my route along the US96 took me first to Buna. A small town for whose residents logging and farming remains important, although there are numerous oilfields to the west and north of town which were discovered in the 1940’s and have supplemented the town’s economy. Yesterday the town hosted the Redbud Festival. The festival is named after Cercis canadensis a small tree which in winter bears tiny, round dark red buds and which is abundant in this area. It is an annual parade organised by the local Chamber of Commerce with beauty queens, floats, music and a rodeo. Blast, I still haven’t seen a rodeo.
Outside a café I met Joe and his daughter with their three genuine American branded mustang horses. Apart from the rancheros near to Esperanza, these were the first horses that I had seen being ridden. Joe is very proud of his three mounts and took great satisfaction in showing me the mustang brand on each of them.
The US96 was very busy, even though it was Sunday morning, it was also very long and flat and boring. Fortunately after another six miles I turned off onto a more scenic but grittier farm road to Bleakwood and then to Bon Weir before crossing the Sabine River and finally leaving Texas.
Texas has been fantastic. Whilst Arizona and New Mexico were generally more scenic, the Texan people definitely made it for me, with their outstanding hospitality and friendliness. As one Texan lady explained, “We’re so very isolated out here that we have to look out for each other.” Sadly, there was no State sign signifying that I had entered Louisiana, so I took a photograph of the first sign that I saw which indicated that I was now in Louisiana.
The first town that I reached in Louisiana was Merryville, passing an Indian burial ground on the outskirts. I stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, but I have to be completely honest here, I found it very difficult to understand the deep Southern accent. I also found it disappointing that no one seemed to know anything about the Indian burial ground that I had passed. So I’ve had to research it myself.
In the early 1800’s members of the Atakapa – Coushatta Indian Tribe led by their Chief, Red Shoes, settled in and around this area. Indian mounds, shards and arrow heads have all been found in this location. As this particular area was near to Spanish Territory, it afforded the Indian Tribe greater protection and therefore they were able to maintain a livelihood through hunting and fishing.
Twenty miles further on and I arrived at De Ridder and checked into the Stagecoach Inn. The receptionist booked me into the disabled room as it was cheapest, but also the largest. The Inn is first class; it has exceptionally well appointed rooms, a small swimming pool and a large reception area which also doubles as a breakfast room. They even provided me with washing powder free of charge.
Having completed my chores I walked the few yards to the (surprise, surprise) Mexican restaurant next door, where unluckily I learned that you cannot buy alcohol in this County on a Sunday. Oh well, not to worry, the food was excellent as was the service.
Retiring to bed and checking out the weather, I was pleased to learn that it was forecast to get warmer for the next two days, but not so pleased to hear that rain was now predicted. Contrary to yesterday’s weather forecast the Weather Channel was also reporting that it should be dry for Baton Rouge and New Orleans in a few days time. In the grand scale of things I’m not travelling very far on a daily basis, but there just doesn’t seem to be any consistency to the weather forecast so I’m not counting any chickens just yet.