By Ben |

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on January 15, 2005]

It's hard to believe it's been only a week since I left Austin! Here's what's transpired since I wrote last Friday morning...

Gypsy didn't get up until about 11:00, and she pronounced the weather unfit for a trip to Pedernales Falls, so we played a couple games of Settlers of Catan and then I rode on to Cat's. The trip took only a little over an hour, which surprised me and caused me to underestimate the following day's ride.

Cat has made great use of the three years since her graduation from Grinnell. She's been working in her field of anthropology with the same tribe of Kalahari bushmen featured in The Gods Must Be Crazy, and some of the photos she took there ( turned out so well she bought herself a home digital photo studio (which is to say a really fancy printer), complete with framing machine. Then she got certified to do a handful of different kinds of massage therapy, and she went into business doing that. To top it all off, she got an inheritance that allowed her to follow her mother's footsteps into real estate management, so she's renting both halves of a duplex and bought a house for herself. The house was extensively (and eccentrically!) redecorated by its previous owner, so she has her hands full undoing some of that damage... when they're not full of her other jobs! We had a good time catching up with each other's adventures.

I left her place at about 9:30 in the morning, so as to miss rush hour, forgetting that it was a Saturday! I followed TX 71 most of the way to Bastrop, a town which, despite a name that suggests something you might use to flog an incorrigible child, was "voted most historic small town in Texas." I didn't stop to find out why but buzzed on through to the nearby state park. I was glad to have more than an hour before sunset, because it was my first time pitching my new tent. I know, that was stupid, but it all turned out well. The rainfly was missing a few bits (since the folks at the store were unable to locate the bag it came in), but I was able to improvise them using the spare parts I picked up in St. Louis.

I thought Sunday's ride might be too ambitious, but it turned out to be just right. I started to feel some knee pain in the late morning, but I took a leisurely lunch break and it cleared up. The weather was gorgeous in the afternoon: mid-70s and partly sunny. I got my first fire-ant sting of the trip when I stopped to take off a layer and stepped right in one of their millions of large hills. Somehow an ant got all the way up to my knee and then stung me four times in a neat row, which promptly swelled to the size of a nickel. I was lucky to get only one! I had thought the ants were dormant this time of year, since I hadn't seen them venture from their hills, but then I hadn't tried stepping in one.

Monday was hot and humid. I had to put everything away damp, and the laundry didn't even start to dry until midday when the sun came out. There were an unusual number of vultures along the road, but aside from that the ride was pleasant, following a lot of back roads with hardly any traffic (which made the vultures a bit more unnerving!). Because of the heat, and because I ran out of the foods I was craving, I was very tired by afternoon. My plan was to ride into Navasota (the only town I would pass through all day), get groceries, and then ride two hours south to a campground I knew of, but I was so tired I was tempted to get a hotel room instead. Then, on the way into town, I spotted a city RV park beside the little municipal airport! I set up camp and then rode without my trailer (zoom!) into town for groceries. My only neighbor in the park introduced himself; he's a former printed-circuit-board magnate now living in his parents' RV because his wife kicked him out. He says that I'm the fourth bicycle tourist to pass through this month.

Tuesday was oppressively hot and sticky. I stopped for lunch in the tiny town of Roberts. I have never waited so long for a hamburger in my life. I saw the waitress put it on the griddle right after I ordered it, but the griddle must have been cold or the burger frozen, because it was at least 20 minutes in the making, probably more like 30 judging by the number of country-music videos I watched. (I have to say, some of them are a lot of fun.) I had plenty of time to stare at the menu and estimate what the bill would be, and I left what I thought was a skimpy tip due to the unreasonably slow service. But when they rang up my order, it was several dollars less than I expected. I objected, saying I had ordered extras on my burger, and the staff thought this was hilarious. They said, "You may have to pay for tomatoes and jalapeños up north, but here in Texas those come with the burger!" I played along, though in my experience you're as likely to pay extra for tomatoes in Montopolis as in Minneapolis. I was happy to pay less for the burger, and my stingy tip was now quite generous... and when I got outside I found that all my laundry had dried...

Shortly after that I rode into the Sam Houston National Forest, the first federal land I've passed through on this trip. (I passed close to Manistee National Forest in Michigan but didn't venture inside.) It's beautiful and very peaceful ... at night. In the daytime it gets "healthier" (in neocon terminology) by the truckload. When I went to boil my water for supper, I discovered I'd left my stove in Navasota... I never took it out from under the campsite's grill the night before. I took this setback as a challenge... I doused a rolled-up bandage in fuel (methyl alcohol) -- a little less than I would have used in the stove -- and used the resulting fireball to start a pile of twigs burning in the grill. I've never seen twigs burn so fast and hot! My water was ready in half the time it would have taken with the stove. Of course the twigs generated a lot of soot all over my cooking bowl, but that was easily cleaned up. The next day I found a wad of fiberglass insulation (which is what the stove had used for a wick) on the side of the road, so I didn't have to sacrifice any more bandages to future experiments.

I spent Wednesday passing in and out of Sam Houston National Forest, ending up back inside it. The only interesting thing that happened was that I stopped for lunch in New Waverly at a concession trailer that had been designed for biker rallies. The couple who operated the place were motorcycle bikers for a while, then attended rallies with their food trailer, and somehow wound up serving breakfast tacos to commuters in New Waverly. We chatted for a while, and they gave me my ham-and-egg taco for free.

Wednesday night the weather finally broke. I was all snug in my tent by the time the storm started, and I felt rather smug -- putting in earplugs to sleep through the thunder -- until I discovered that an enormous puddle was forming beside and under half the tent! I felt like the fourth little pig who built his house out of nylon and couldn't get the door unzipped when the wolf came. Fortunately the bottom of the tent stayed watertight, and the puddle soaked into the ground by morning. I hadn't been in such a heavy rainfall since Ludington (almost six months ago!) and had forgotten how much dirt it kicks up. The tent was filthy in the morning! I decided since I had a short day of riding ahead of me, I would wipe the tent down thoroughly before putting it away, but this took about two hours. It was 10:00 by the time I hit the road, and then I stopped to use the Internet at a library for an hour. (This explains the "not dead yet" message you received from me.)

I stopped for lunch at a little roadside store advertising "hot tamales." The guy would only sell them by the dozen, because, come to find out, they were frozen that way. But he warmed a dozen up for me, and I ate them all at one sitting with a grapefruit for dessert/digestive aid. They were pretty sad little tamales, each about the size of half a hot dog, but they hit the spot.

I had planned to stop for the night at a campground called Tombigbee Lake, in the Alabama-Coushala Indian Reservation, but when I was a few miles from the place I saw a sign for another campground whose location would shorten the next day's ride by about an hour, so I went there instead. The proprietress is from Athens, Greece, and although there were a half dozen trailers parked here and there, I seemed to be the only person actually staying the night. As I was pitching the tent, I noticed that a ladder leaning up against a nearby tree was making a groaning noise when the wind blew. When the sun set, a light outside the bathroom shone right on my tent. Hmmm... I moved the ladder to the bathroom wall and unscrewed the light bulb: two problems solved! (I put everything back in the morning.)

I was on the road at sunrise Friday morning, knowing I had a full day's ride ahead of me. I made good time, mostly on two-lane back roads frequented by logging trucks. I was all set to report that, as in Oklahoma, no one in Texas had yelled at me from a car window. But today some Texans had to go and spoil it. They didn't yell per se, but several honked angrily, and two called 911 to complain about me, and one flipped me off. The sheriff's deputy who stopped to talk to me just made sure I hadn't been doing anything unsafe or illegal to inspire the calls and let me go again. I guess Midwesterners haven't cornered the market for passive aggressiveness after all.

It was a beautiful day for riding, though a bit chilly in the morning. I stopped midday to remove a layer, and I inadvertently left it on top of the trailer rather than stowing it inside, so it won't be traveling any farther with me. Fortunately long john tops and bottoms are sold separately.

For the past few days I've been trying to decide whether or not to ride into Beaumont, TX. On the one hand, an old friend used to attend the UU church there, and Sunday is fast approaching; but on the other hand, I haven't heard from her in years and have no idea whether she still lives in the area or what her married name is, and more to the point, once I got into town it would be difficult to go into Louisiana from there without riding on an Interstate highway... so I decided against it.

On the road I saw a little Suzuki Sidekick pickup... I think my bike has a longer wheelbase, and my trailer definitely carries more cargo. But it was fitted out with oversized wheels so that it looked like a baby monster truck. Mounted on the grill was a little blackboard, and written on this in chalk were the words, "Men fear me, women want me."

I stopped for the night at Village Creek State Park, east of Lumberton, which in turn is north of Beaumont. I opted for a "pack in" campsite with no electricity, etc., so instead of being surrounded by Friday night partiers, I have a little patch of woods and creek all to myself. It's a beautiful last night in Texas.

A few random reflections...

  • The national forests are irreplaceable treasures! Go see them while you can! You may be wiping your butts with them tomorrow. I'm not joking. It's open season on trees out here, a penny an acre, while supplies last, and the less useful species that also happen to live here are just out of luck. It's not legal to hunt most of them, but try and keep 'em off your bumper!
  • My Austin hosts had warned me that Texans can be a little self-obsessed... I was prepared for the omnipresent Texas flags and Lone Stars and various improbable objects shaped like the state (though the tortilla chips were a surprise). What I'm still having trouble with is that when I passed between College Station and Houston, I could pick up two different radio stations dedicated to playing only songs about Texas! These were in addition to the Tejano (Mexican polka) stations.
  • Where I come from, "y'all" is a plural, familiar pronoun. Down here it's singular and formal, "all y'all" being the plural and "you" reserved for kinfolk. I knew such a dialect existed and that I'd probably pass through its territory, but every time someone calls me "y'all" I look around to see who else they're talking to. (Notice I have no trouble using "they" as a singular pronoun.)

Catch all y'all in Louisiana! --Ben