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April 2, 1996
West Texas, which I had been dreading, turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Our first two days in Texas were NOT a success, what with intentional rudeness by drivers, loose and aggressive dogs, sandstorms, etc. But what a turnaround! We did a deviation from the established route for a while, and everything seemed to change. Even the landscape became more inviting.
In Van Horn, we connected with another rider we'd met the second day out in California, and kind of leapfrogged with him for the next two days. Then he pulled ahead. In Alpine, Texas - a giant misnomer by West Coast standards despite its 4800' elevation - we had an amazing experience. C. rode into town with two broken spokes. No bike shop. No parts. Via some wonderful folks in the Kiowa Art Gallery, we were put in touch with local cyclists who searched and phoned and finally connected us with the one man within approximately 100 miles who had the parts and the expertise to do the repair. Now we both carry spare spokes. (Cables we both had - spokes, no.) It was an astounding outpouring of community support for strangers in need. Alpine is a charming, artsy-ish town where I least expected it. Zero pine trees, tho. Mostly creosote bushes, yucca and scrub. But the mountains all about are starkly, stunningly beautiful; and the movement of light among and upon them is almost mesmerizing. Plus, it has a terrific little bookstore (one of three in town).
Near Alpine, Texas
After Alpine we had a long - 4 days worth - elevation drop to Del Rio. But elevation declines don't happen in Texas the way they do in California. It is by NO means all downhill. As a matter of fact, it is mostly UP hill (or so it seems). It is all long roller-coaster inclines. Up, up, up, and then a drop which might be a foot or two more than the incline. And then up, up, up again. It's really difficult to believe that one is descending at all.
Marathon, Texas: mis-use of hitching posts
After Del Rio the weather changed. Not only did we finally get some rain, but it was cold. Bitterly, atypically, cold enough for locals to talk of snow. We shortened our daily increments accordingly, having done 73 miles on the first rain day, heading for Austin and our mid-ride rest days with friends. The weather we were experiencing was the fringe of the extreme climate in the central and northern midwest. It stayed with us for 36 hours.
We'd spent a full week on route 90, from Van Horn to Hondo, before we left to head northeast to Austin. It was like leaving an old friend. 90 was very good for us - wide, clean shoulders, good surface, and minimal traffic until closer to San Antonio. But the state routes were even better, with one exception. For almost the entire trip, I had been using the under-road drainage culverts for personal needs. But on the flat farm roads, the "refinement" of a culvert isn't often available; one must therefore throw discretion (etc) to the winds - as it were. Once into the hill country, this problem was remedied. Minimalist modes of travel such as this DO tend to alter one's sense of necessity.
The Texas hill country is truly lovely. Not as green as we expected, but lovely nonetheless. And more wooded than Alpine. (Alpine, in spite of its name, is home to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, which should tell you about the terrain.) It is a pleasure to ride rolling hills, such as I am used to. It felt so ... normal!!
It is, however, Texas. Texas roads are all but lined with official signs. Signs for everything. Every two miles the Adopt-a-Highway signs. Aquifer signs. Surface test signs. DUI signs. "Don't Mess with Texas" signs (anti-litter). The most disconcerting, I find, are the ones before many - but not all - communities declaring that the public water system is approved by the State Health Department. Also, all the hunting and bow-hunting signs. As I climbed out of one culvert in the rain, in my yellow plastic head-to-toe suit with helmet and visor cap under it, it occurred to me that I could easily be shot as an alien emerging from the sewers. I wasn't. But not too much later, three young cows watching traffic took one look at this yellow apparition on a bizarre conveyance, and bolted. Turned tail and fled. All the grazing animals watch us warily. These youngsters took no chances.
I am, I must finally admit, enjoying Texas tremendously, much to my own surprise. In spite of its ... what? presence? in-your-face-edness?, the people are open and warm, friendly and helpful. At least in the boonies they are. Maybe the people difference is merely the rural-urban dichotomy, and Texas has SO much more rural than most states.
Passed an hour in Bandera - again a stunning courthouse (even the smallest, dustiest of towns often has an imposing courthouse) - "The Cowboy Capital of the World." It was delightful. I found myself mentally moving in.
Our routine usually is to be in the saddle by 7:45 (it was 6:40 on the 89 mile day) and stop for a big meal after 25-30 miles. Then finish the day's increment - another 20-30 miles - and find lodging. (We have camped less often than we'd planned, due to excessive winds, rain, unavailability of campgrounds, extreme fatigue or exposure. Hopefully after Austin we will turn this trend around, since motelling is getting costly.) Then we do a little food shopping: "dinner," the daily reward, morning nibbles; do laundry, clean up, munch. We FILL the trash baskets in these rooms with food packaging, banana and orange peels, etc. Carolyn, my companion, then zonks out for the night. She is sleeping far more than she normally does, and I am much less. But for Academy Awards night, she is OUT by about 7:30 every night, while I sit up and write or read.
When I left home, I did not bring a book along because I was paring every ounce. I'd never traveled without a book before. It was VERY alien. So I found a used bookstore in Safford, Arizona and picked up a mystery novel. The only time I read fiction, as a rule, is on vacation. In Alpine, I went into Front Street Books to get another of like kind, but came out with Stephen Harrigan's A Natural State: Essays on Texas, which I'm enjoying very much, and would even if it were NOT in context.
Texas is an accumulation of dozens and dozens of mostly small counties. We have already been through fourteen, plus another three to get into Austin, and I don't know how many after that. Nor do I know at this moment how many there are in toto. It must be an administrative zoo. But I am saddened by the fact that we are now leaving the empty sectors and returning to human habitation. We have left the edge. It will be different from now on.
Some 25-odd years ago, a dear, elderly artist friend of mine told me, "As you get older, you'll acquire a taste for chamber music and the desert." The former - the music evolution - is well along already. West Texas is the catharsis for the latter. West Texas has won me over. Even I find it hard to believe. But I love it.
© 1996 BFZ
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