Thursday, January 31, 2013

P4W2 Day 25 Simmesport, LA - Natchez State Park, MS 82 miles

My goal today was to travel north into Mississippi, the 49th state
I've to.  The route in the morning took me due north.
I pedaled on a massive windswept levy of the Mississippi River.
Water control and diversion structures were everywhere.  It would take a lot
of study or a stop in one of the many Army Corp of Engineers offices
to determine what all the structures where for and where the water was headed.
Many, many birds inhabited the river bottom lands still left flooded;
white pelicans, bald eagles, countless hawks, pileated woodpeckers, and wood ducks were all seen today.

I made 70 really slow miles as the west wind throttled me full-tilt.  In fits
and starts I pulled the winter biking garb back out of my bike bags; it
had gotten pretty much ignored over the previous week and I had a hard
time finding it and then putting it on...once I was on the levy there
was no place to stop or hide from the wind over the flat miles to the
river crossing.  The big bike was a partial blockade from the wind!

By mid-afternoon I had crossed the big river on a wide and (now needless to say...)
windy bridge.  The Mississippi with a cold clearing wind whipping it into a
muddy froth, looked pretty intimidating if I was to get blow off the bridge...maybe a 150 foot swan dive.
This marked the third time I had crossed the river on my bike trips.  In
Minnesota, the river is, obviously, considerably smaller.  There is a lot of
erosion between here and there to create that kind of mud load.  Chocolate milk has nothing on the Mississippi this far down.

Natchez, MS is a really nice town.  It has sweeping views of the river and
stately red brick buildings.  In a lot of ways it resembles a smaller version of
Williamsburg, VA.  I had three good stops in town.  The folks at a really nice
visitors center gave me some route advice.  I stopped at the Natchez Coffee Company and
gave the owners son a geography lesson on where I had pedaled over the past 3 weeks.
And I stopped at Trippe's Western Auto to get my bike tires changed.  Chris
Trippe, the owner, was a great guy.  He told me that his grandfather bought and
owned one of the original Western Autos in the 1930s.  Chris's store remained
an independent franchise after the other stores were taken over by by Sears in a buyout
years ago.  He had added a bike department to his store due to the popularity
of bicycling here.

My goal for days was to intercept the historic Natchez Trace Parkway in order to cut through a
wide swath of the Deep South on a good road.  I had done a bit of homework on the
Parkway and read that it was a bikers dream.  This is spot-on.  Late in the day
I finally left town and got on the Parkway for the last 10 miles of riding.
A smooth, quiet, and pretty road with great scenery.  Dozens of deer hurdled off in front
of me.  Frogs chirped from river bottoms before their likely re-hibernation due the
recent cold snap.  I even treed a raccoon that wasn't quite sure what to make
of me in the new-found cold twilight.   Stately oaks, beeches, hickories, and pines line the Parkway.

For folks in my reading audience that may be considering a bike trip of their own, the
rolling topography of Natchez Trace might be for you.  The scenery is apparently outstanding during spring
bloom and fall color seasons.  There are lots of places to stay along the Parkway,
and motorists appear really cognizant of bikers; for the first time during the P4W2, I had
motorists stop in both directions to let a biker past safely.   Wonderful!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hi Paul from everyone at OWLS - we're all enjoying your ride from your colorful tales of adventure everyday! Thanks for taking us along for the ride!!! We also appreciate you keeping us posted of your progress on the Talk Station WTKF 107.9 every Tuesday and Thursday at 8am - it's been great to hear your voice! We've raised almost $6000 so far for the pelican pool, so we're looking forward for you getting home - not only because we miss your cheerful face around the shelter - but also so we can get down to brass tacks and get started on the long awaited PELICAN POOL!! The Pelicans are waiting!! Be safe and we'll see you soon!!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

P4W2 Day 24 Mittie - Simmesport, LA 104 miles

The roosters from the nearby farm started warming up at 3 AM this morning and were in full chorus by 5.  The night air was hot and humid and some mosquitoes escaped my lethal swats in the the sleep was light and restless.  Maybe three good hours.  After my radio interview was over I was sliding down the road.  Rhett was still in his house;  I don't think his level of inebriation was going to lend itself to milking the Holsteins or catching steelhead this morning.

Today was a rich and varied day of riding across the deep south.  It felt like a long day - not only because it was long but because of the tremendous variety of things I saw.  Even a flag rooting for the football team from the frozen tundra.

First thing in the morning I made my way down to Oberlin, a sleepy swamp town in the heart of the state.   They had a neat sign announcing the entrance into town.  I also figured that a second-tier college in Ohio was named after this little hamlet in the middle of a world of water.

In Oberlin I bumped into Jim Riley, a sage retired pharmacist that  had decided many moons ago to call the sleepy town his home.  He treated me to breakfast at the local diner, and I met a number of nice retired folks that told me about their very unique part of the country. 

East of Oberlin the country got abruptly flat.  Pine trees gave wave to rice fields and crayfish (crawfish) traps.  The season for these crustaceans was just starting with the early spring warm-up, and I saw several fishermen tending their traps.  The boat/buggy really is an unusual contraption for navigating through flooded rice fields - kind of like half boat, half car.  The metal wheel in the back is for moving through the water as well as over dikes that separate one field from the next. 

So I weaved among rice fields for about 30 miles today.  I saw many many birds, including a peregrine falcon.  Gulls, terns, and snow geese inhabited the flooded rice fields.  Turtles crossed the road often.  I save some from auto tires, but many more had already been squashed.  The strongest south wind of the trip blasted my starboard side for about 2/3 of the day.  For the other third I had incredible tailwinds that lifted me north by northeast towards the Mississippi River.   Moving across the state today was like moving a checker  - some east, then north, then east again, etc.

Pine was the flare of Day 23 and crawfish the flare of Day 24.  In Mamou I stopped into a local fish market.  A couple nice college guys told me about fishing for crawfish and how to eat them.  So I bought a pound and put them in my panier (the double plastic bag to avoid crawfish juice spillage was a good idea).  An hour later I sat down roadside and ate them.  I wasn't particularly adept at getting the tail meat out, and ended up impatiently eating the tail just like I do shrimp - Beowuf style (shell and all).  And the Cayenne pepper they boil crawfish with - not good for saving one's ration of water while biking with a fearsome crosswind!

After the town of Ville Platte I abruptly departed the flooded rice fields and pedaled through the really pretty Chicot State Park.  That's where the state arboretum is located.  I had forgotten how many species of oaks occur in the southeastern U.S.

The weather was very threatening today, but for the most part held off.  With the hot humid air, even given some passing rain bands ahead of an approaching front, I left the rain jacket packed away.  The lightning and tornadoes held off.  I pressed on through many quaint small towns, across many muddy cypress creeks, and very close to the mighty Mississippi.

P4W2 Day 23 Silsbee, TX - Mittie, LA 99 miles

The bulk of today was spent in a wide shoulder on
two lane interstate roads.  I ran a serious slalom course
all day, weaving in and out of pieces of tires, small rocks,
spark plugs, and a really wide variety of other objects.  I even became a packrat and picked up an old pair of pliers.  Most
notably, however, I weaved in and out of loblolly pine debris -
chips, bark, sticks, and even some logs.  The loblolly is king
around here, and hundreds of trucks passed me enroute to paper
mills and sawmills.  It is only fitting that I post a photo
of loblolly bark, very similar in appearance to that of
the ponderosa pines of the Rockies that I traveled through two
weeks ago.

That kind of noise I experienced today and days recently past  - a south wind whining into my right ear, and trucks whizzing by my left ear, has made studying impossible... I brought a little pocket tape recorder with me to listen to my dry voice remind me of some really laconic fisheries and statistical formulas I need to know.  The sound of my own voice reciting some of this stuff also has turned out to be a pretty rough thing to listen to!

Some of the trucks at stop lights were
close enough to me that on the sawlogs the rings were easy to
count; their wide spacing indicated a growing season that almost
never stops.  Here it is in January and I am wishing for a cold
spell.  Even the mosquitoes have hatched down here already.  Some have invaded through the small cracks in my tent fly and I am swatting away as I write this. 

I said goodbye to Texas and entered Louisiana around midday.
Folks seem friendly here.  And the posted speed limit is less than Texas, which sure makes riding less of a rear-view mirror task than it seemed to be on two-laners in Texas.
A week ago I hadn't seen a riverbed with water.  Now water is
everywhere.  In this low-lying part of Louisiana - just
north of the bayou, the cypress stream are filled with tannin.
So you have tea colored water running over picturesque white sands.  The streams are higher due to the really heavy rains these parts received a couple weeks back.

The nice ladies at the Louisiana welcome center back Merryville called ahead to the White Sands Campground and said that the owner was very talkative.  They had a tough time getting him off the phone after making sure the place was open for business - or kind of open for business.  And the White Sands Campground is where I found myself for
the night after pulling in around dusk.  Rhett Pitre was a very, very colorful camouflage-dressed Louisiana native
that proceeded to charge me zero for the primitive camping (read: no shower) and then tell
me about his life - more or less his whole life.  I asked him to substantiate the holes where he was shot many years ago, and there they were.  Same goes for where he was hit with a pool stick. I wasn't sure how my request to take a photo of him and his chihuahua would be received so I kept my camera in my jersey.  Barred owls
and herons squawked from the nearby river bottom as Rhett talked well into
the night on the porch of his canoe livery.  Rhett occasionally punctuated the night air with giddy shrill whistles that would get the attention of dogs barking from farms nearby.  He encouraged me to eat all of the fried fish and other fried trimmings that the boys had cooked for him down at their swamp camp.  By the end of the evening Rhett had convinced me that he could catch, trap, shoot - or drink - anything the Bayou had to offer.  I politely declined his repeated offers to take Bayou sized swigs from his whiskey bottle.  I fought off tiredness and swatted bugs until I could resist sleep no longer.  I was glad I had a tent; the couch on the porch he suggested I crash on smelled very much like a cross between a wet dog and the deep south fried dinner whose odor had fully permeated my bike clothing.

Wow.  Steinbeck and I could have shared notes on this journey.

Note to Craig and Greg from the Houston bike club:  Great hearing from you guys! And thanks for offer to send photos:  my e mail for photo attachments:

Sunday, January 27, 2013

P4W2 Day 22 Sam Houston National Forest - Sillsbee, TX 101 miles

One of the most interesting things about a bike trip is that it is a 'blind voyage.'  By that I mean that you don't really know what anything is going to be like until you get there.  There are exceptions, like well known national parks and such, but for the most part you just see things as you bike to them, without any pre-existing knowledge.   The same goes for where you plan to stay each night.  In the morning, it kind of goes something like,  'the weather looks good, I am not sure about the winds, the road is pretty flat, my legs are wicked tired but will eventually cooperate, and there's a town like a hundred miles off that I think I'll go for. '

The camping in Sillsbee couldn't be any more different than last night's quiet sleep under the tall wispy pines in a national forest.  I am in an RV park with barking dogs, railroad tracks nearby, and U.S. Highway 96 right next to me.  A couple very pleasant southern men needed a bit of computer help this evening, and we took up conversation.  One of them asked me which RV was mine.  I pointed to the unformed backpacking tent that was laying in the grass between us.

My route today took me through loblolly pine flatlands of southeast Texas.  I passed a really nice westbound rider from Stockholm.  I reckon these parts are different than Sweden (and cheaper!).   Strong south winds blew threatening clouds off the nearby Gulf of Mexico all, but the raincoat stayed in the panier for a 22nd straight day.  Wood chips lined the side of the road for almost every mile, indicative of the importance of wood products to this part of the state.  The motorists were quite pleasant today, given the many narrow roads I found myself on.  The many stray dogs left me alone.  Some were simply content munching on dead stuff along the side of the road.  Trash was plentiful along the roadsides.  Robins and bluebirds were active.  Spring is definitely here...I saw two magnolias in full bloom.  And Ms. Lona, at the cafe that bears her name in Rye, Texas, sold me fried catfish, french fries, and fried okra....southern flare for the first of my 3 dinners tonight.  I think I am in the deep south now.  She threw me a softball of a question and asked if I wanted homemade peach cobbler with my meal.  I should have told her I wanted the whole pan. 

It really is amazing that I am still in Texas.  I would now rank the state as one of the most naturally diverse in the country, behind California but ahead of almost every other state.  West Texas, its deserts, and its 50 mile views might as well be on a different planet.  Ironically, the one constant over my whole time in Texas was the south wind, which was surprising given that it is the middle of January.   Except for an occasional mile or two in Texas, I never got the three perfect cycling conditions all at once - light traffic, a smooth asphalt road, and tailwind; it is a real rarity in bicycling to have these all come together.

And on my last full day in a really big state, finally a 'biggie' sighting fitting of the state itself.

P4W2 Day 21 Oldenburg - Sam Houston National Forest, TX 97 miles

I was thinking that today would be a repeat of some of yesterday's
pickup truck avoidance.  The first 20 miles was - heavy traffic and
narrow shoulders, even on a Saturday morning.  This picture below
really captures the essence of biking in East Texas.  A narrow two-laned
road with minimal shoulders, a blind hill, and a curve after that.
Every other state in the nation would have this road posted for 45 mph.  You can
see the posted speed limit here, and some of the roads just like this over the
past couple days have been posted for 70 mph.  That's fast driving
even for an interstate highway.

After 20 miles my bike maps routed me on some quieter farm roads, and
the day's flare changed considerably.  Rolling hills and neat farm
country greeted me for the next 40 miles to Navasota.  A number of
day riders from the greater Houston Bike Club passed me, enroute to
doing a day-into-night super stout 200 miler.  That is a serious day
even with a tailwind.    One of the things Texas does right on its
highways is to post historical markers (thousands of them in the state). 
One of old dwellings that I visited
was constructed rot-resistant chestnut beams.

One of the day riders recommended that I stop into the Independence, TX
general store.  It was a great bunch of folks there.  The owner and I
talked at length about the people from many different nations that had been
through his store.  His logbook chronicled it all.  

The store owner also told me that he recently heard the local meteorologist
claim that winter around here was about over.  I was skeptical of this claim
but started looking around more.  The roadside grasses around here have that
kelly-green hue of early spring.  Late in the day I entered the very pretty
Sam Houston National Forest.  It has beautiful stands of tall loblolly pines
that had somehow been spared of the saw.  Frog sounds were abundant in the
creeks, as were slider turtles sunning themselves.  Terns fed actively in impounded
Lake Conroe.  I think spring is here:  hard to believe given the cold gripping
much of the country.  On another 80 degree day, many of the vehicles that drove
by had their windows up...seemingly because their AC was on!

It's been a wonderfully clear
stretch of weather I've had for the trip.  I've been waiting for the full moon for a while.
It would be fun to ride a few miles tonight with the full moon, but my legs immediately exercised veto power over the idea. 

I've seen the moon waxing through cold nights in the desert and now warmer nights as I
sit here, finally back in the southeast U.S. 
My point-and-shoot camera doesn't do it justice, but on a 60 degree clear and breezy January night
I had to post a picture of the moon rising above the stately pines in the national forest campground.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

P4W2 Day 20 Kyle - Oldenburg, TX 94 miles

It was amazing how abruptly I pedaled out of the Hill Country
first thing this morning upon crossing I-35.  The land east
of there is much flatter.  And the southeast type weather
is in east Texas - hot and humid.  Today was 85 F.  I can only imagine
what it would be like in the summer here. 

Many sights and sounds became familiar to me today.  When an increasingly
greater amount of traffic wasn't rumbling by, I heard cardinals,
chickadees, and a tremendous number of bluebirds.  Red tailed hawks
were a familiar sighting.  I even saw a crested caracara, a bird I had
not seen since my last time in south Florida.    Trees we are familiar
with in the east that I passed today included hickories, white oaks,
and my first loblolly pines of the trip.

The vibe of East Texas is dramatically different than West Texas from
a biker's perspective.  Here bikes are UFOs (unwanted fleeing objects).
One full sized truck-trailer today unleashed his horn on me from a mere
five feet away.  Bike shops have some real start-up spirit about them in east Texas...seems like a tough place to bike!

Today I passed two historic courthouses.  One was located in Lockhart,
the other in LaGrange.  Both of these late 19th century limestone buildings
were several stories tall and had very pretty bell towers.  These stately structures
really framed the town squares.  La Grange has a quilting museum with very
tasteful murals on the west side of its building.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

P4W2 Day 19 Kerrville - Kyle, TX 101 miles

Today felt like the longest day of the tour so far.  Changes of weather and scenery and road conditions.  This day had it all.  In the morning I started rolling in cool, dense fog and made 20 easy flat miles to Comfort.  Mesillas felt like a textbook New Mexico town last week; Comfort felt like a textbook Texas small town today.  It had stately 19th century limestone buildings in its historic district.  Enough money was being put into the old part of town to maintain it and several very tasteful shops that sold me several thousand calories of pastries.   Skeeter the reconstruction builder took my photo in front of the old Comfort saloon (with its original windows intact from the 1870s).  I pointed to where I thought I was in Texas, pretty meager after a week of hard pedaling!   The Adventure Cycling Association Southern Tier bike route is not the straightest route across the country, but has largely kept me off the interstate highways and exposed me to the true flare of the land.  Comfort, Sisterville, Blanco, and Wimberley were all very nice, tasteful towns that I passed through today.  The countryside had that savannah-type feel: grassland broken by scattered live oaks and junipers.  The smell of juniper permeated the air today.

It was unbelievably hot today.  No sooner did I leave Comfort than I spotted a red shouldered hawk - my first of the trip - nest building high atop a cypress tree overlooking the river.  Which season is this supposed to be!?  And why am I carrying winter gear across the country?  With the bulk of the nation gripped in cold, I wished the sun to go away.  I suspect it got to 85 F today, mighty hot given a really challenging roller coaster of a ride across the eastern half of the Hill Country.  The heat really took some energy out of me today, especially over the last 80 miles of the day.  

I am starting to wonder if there is a way out of Texas.  The great folks at Arrowhead Bicycles in Kyle, TX fit me in on short notice this evening for a quick check of the bike.  They changed my chain, my third of the trip...a sure sign I have been mashing the pedals pretty hard.  But while I was there I made the mistake of looking at the Texas map.  Phew! 

P4W2 Day 18 Campwood - Kerrville, TX 95 miles

Today was a markedly different day than Day 17.  I entered the Texas Hill Country first thing in the morning.  It was very pretty land.  The limestone rock give it the appearance of the
Kentucky hills  - the famous bourbon country - south of Louisville. I was routed on very quiet, litter-free roads that were often very steep.  My goal was not to stop on any of the hills today after a tough slog yesterday.  I was only
partially successful:  I got off the bike going downhill at one point, fearful that a rough road and a steep descent was a potential
recipe for a broken something or another (but probably nothing I haven't broken before).  Keeping the bike from getting away from me was a chore all unto itself on the downhill
pictured here.  And the weather today:  on the steep ascents I searched out the shade today.   80 degrees in mid-January!  What a change from a week earlier when I woke at the base of Emory
Pass, NM to frozen everything.

It really is amazing how quickly the climate has changed.  In just about 100 miles by the crow-fly I've moved from desert scrub
into beautiful rolling hills full of junipers and live oaks. Many of the creek bottoms now hold water.  I crossed the Frios and Guadalupe Rivers today;  these are gin-clear limestone creeks
whose banks are lined with sycamore and bald cypress trees. 

Even the towns were pretty today.  Ingram is a nice town on the banks of the Guadalupe River that had tasteful murals chronicling the history of the area. There were some comical billboards
to help take my mind off of tired legs.

Today I also noticed a change in the bird life.  Many of the species we are familiar with on the east coast were seen in abundance today:
mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees.  I also saw bluebirds (likely the western bluebird), scrub jays, and a couple large flocks of wild turkeys. 

I can't leave the Hill Country without commenting on public lands.  In the second largest state in the country, I am amazed to find so little public
land.  The Hill Country  - as lovely as it is - is lined with 'No Tresspassing' signs and high barbed
wire fences that parallel every road in the area.  The seemingly endless miles of fence - to keep people out and huntable mammals in - gave me a greater appreciation for public spaces in other parts of the country - spaces that all folks can access for their recreational enjoyment.  Texas needs more places like these - and less
barbed wire - but I am not holding my breath for things to change anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

P4W2 Day 17 Comstock - Campwood, TX 108 miles

On another day of tough headwind I also battled a rough road for the full distance today.  Pour Oreo cookies into really gooey pancake dough, bake to a crisp, and then try driving a match box car over it...that was the best analogy I could come up with in riding an aluminum-framed touring bike over the chip-sealed roads today. 

The first 60 miles were flat, bleak, and trashy.  Unfortunately, the best part of Del Rio was looking at it in the rear-view mirror.  I needed some comic relief, and little did I know it would come in the form of a package waiting for me in the Bracketville, Texas post office.  My friend Chris sent me a nice sized bag of Hog bars, along with a good dose of his very original humor.  I was laughing so hard that the the postmaster wished me to leave her zip code.

After Bracketville, with 70 tough miles completed, I think I subtly said goodbye to the American southwest and said hello to the Texas hill country.  The scenery got pretty again.  I saw many deer, wild turkeys, and armadillos in just a few hours of late day pedaling.  Great horned owls hooted in the distance during one of many stops to eat still more food (~10,000 calories today, only 6 of 15 Hog bars left as I write this).  I got into river bottoms full of live oaks, of course an evergreen species familiar to folks who live or visit along the U.S. South Atlantic coast.   And I even crossed a couple shady spots with hickory trees, another sure sign that the P4W2 miles in the great American desert are about behind me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

P4W2 Day 16 Sanderson - Comstock, TX 88 miles

I thought today was going to be easy.  Howling dogs, long-haul trucks, and freight trains kept me up two-thirds of the night.  The last third I crashed in the laundry room of the campground.  By the time I awoke it was 8 AM and a bicycler going the other direction assured me it was all downhill to Del Rio.

The net elevation change to Del Rio is downhill.  But Highway 90 crossed multiple side canyons entering the lower Rio Grande, so the route today was a roller coaster affair.  And then, there was the old  fickle wind.  Today it blasted me head-on for the entire day.   Westbound truckers driving at or above the 75 mph speed limit would hit me with their own dose of headwind.  I buried my head into my left shoulder a lot today, to avoid get a pushback from the truck wind blasts while steering the bike using the rearview mirror.

When I finally relegated myself to a slow slog across the desert, I noticed a bunch of things.  This part of Texas, with the exception of dry river canyons, really flattens out.  And gradually things turned greener today.  And for the first time since Day 1 I even saw actual clouds.  I suspect that the climate is slowly changing, finally influenced  by the Gulf of Mexico. 

Today lacked wildlife.  Or perhaps my head was facing the pavement longer than usual.  But this area has some beautiful limestone rocks that are used for home flooring and furnishings.  One of my procrastination stops featured really pretty tables and benches made of limestone blocks... likely weighing pretty close to my bike today. 

This is a quiet part of Texas where I find myself, and very peaceful when the trucks aren't rumbling by.  The air is still desert-clean and the stars are shining.  It seems torn between climates.  A chill is in the night air, reminiscent of the cold and snowy Davis Mountains just 100 miles back.  But crickets are chirping in the middle of January, indicating that the sub-tropical climates of the Texas Gulf Coast can't be all that far away.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

P4W2 Day 15 Davis Mtns State Park - Sanderson, TX 113 miles

I knew by the time night rolled in today that the cold mountain air of the morning would feel like eons past.  I rolled out of pretty Davis Mountains State Park with everything on to keep me warm, and rolled down hill through the very pretty little town of Fort Davis.  I stopped to snap of photo of the stately Jeff Davis County Courthouse, named after the president of the Confederacy. 

I then passed through Alpine, another tidy west Texas town.  The water and the fish are lacking in these parts, but the wildlife is really amazing.  This morning's best sighting was a flock of wild turkeys right along the side of the road.  Roll by and they are happy.  Stop and they are gone. 

By midday I find myself in Marathon, another quaint town in Texas mountain country that is the gateway to Big Bend National Park.   Over lunch a couple cowboys instructed me on how to find all heads of cattle on ranches thousands of acres in size.  I felt the contrasting lifestyles, perhaps they did too:  cowboy hats and boot spurs vs. sun burned legs and biking tights.   This really is a diverse land of ours.

The afternoon featured the wide open southwest spaces that have dominated my life for the past couple of weeks.  From Marathon, I actually had a double marathon on the almost deserted US Highway 90 in order to make it to my destination, Sanderson.   If one is claustrophobic out here, don't live back east.  All afternoon I could see 50-plus miles in every direction, including all the way down to the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend Park.  In a strange turn of weather, I was actually glad it was not any warmer for a long ride.  What a change from just a few days earlier.

The desert wildlife continued to impress me:  javelinas, white tailed deer, numerous hawks, and my first pronghorn antelope of the trip were all spotted over the last 50 miles of the day.

Sanderson is a small town that is 75% vacated.  One of the locals informed me that this area is in the midst of a severe decade-long drought.  The feel of the town kind of fit the feel of this windy, dry and barren land deep in the heart of Texas.

P4W2 Day 14 Van Horn - Davis Mountains State Park, TX 87 miles

This morning I continued my trek along I 10 under sunny skies and calm
winds.  After about 20 slow miles as I eased into the day I was again
relegated to the shoulder of the freeway.  I climb to the crest of a
small hill, and that's when it started, like somebody flicking a light switch. 
Tailwind, lots of tailwind.  I sailed east on the freeway shoulder at
20 mph without pedaling hard.  The miles were peeling off. 

Quickly I hit my exit to go southeast on Texas Highway 118 into the Davis
Mountains.  I sat at the exit, wondering;  Was it time to make a big route change
to ride a dreamy tailwind east?  It sure was tempting.  I turned off onto
the quiet 118 and climbed the first hill on the rough chip-sealed road.  My
speed was cut by 2/3 compared to minutes earlier.  I started second guessing

That commenced an afternoon-long tough but lovely climb into the beautiful Davis Mountains
of southwest Texas.  The University of Texas MacDonald Observatory is located
here, and its easy to see why - far removed from the dust or lights around
other parts of the state. 

Really slowly I climbed on the rough road.  In broad daylight I saw peccaries, whitetail
deer, and mule deer.  With the change in elevation, scrub bushes and cacti gave
way to junipers and pines, and amber field grasses that bent with the volatile
crosswind.  Cackling ravens soared through crisp blue air.  Coyotes howled in the
distance.  Canary-breasted meadowlarks crossed the road right in front of me.  I had the road all to myself.
For about 10 miles of climbing today, I had the unusual experience of pedaling
by snow banks while sweating profusely.  I looked for the lowest gear on my bike
on a couple steep stretches, and the bike slowed to 4 mph. 

Coming off of the observatory mountain, I was then flying east again, and
the day's last tailwind was pushing me forward.  The last ten miles of the day
was a wonderful downhill.  The trip's first whitetail spied me from the roadside
and flitted away at the last moment.  Shortly before dark I made my way into
the peaceful Davis Mountains State Park.  The wind had died again.  I started a
hot dry fire, accompanied by a mule deer doe that had smelled my dinner.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

P4W2 Day 13 Clint - Van Horn, TX 97 miles

In the morning I abruptly left the traffic of El Paso behind me and had some roads close to the Mexico border all to myself. Again I was in the flat, dry, and quiet country of the Rio Grande valley as low mountains arched in front of me on the Texas and Mexican sides of the river. Fort Hancock Texas came and went with the literal blink of an eye. Morgan Freeman had long since departed.

There were many bird sightings today. A couple waterfowl impoundments held thousands of birds, including mallards, pintails, and I am sure many other duck species my amateur eye could not identify. One species that did stick out from the others is the white pelican, and several had taken up winter residence in the pond. I have seen white pelicans now in all corners of the continent except the northeast.

The bulk of the day after I turned true-eastward into the Texas mountain country felt like the Mojave except for busy I-10. After dodging the super-highway for a long long time, I was finally relegated to biking on it for about 30 miles. Many many buteos lined the roadway, and I got very close to several brightly colored red tailed hawks without spooking them.

For many miles today there was frontage road that bordered I 10. It was an unusual experience being so close to that volume of traffic and associated noise, but having the road completely to myself. For about ten miles I was headed eastbound on the frontage road while it was sandwiched between the breakdown lane for the I-10 westbound travelers and a long long freight train that was headed in my direction. It made for an interesting visual experience of modes of transportation across the second largest state in the country.

Friday, January 18, 2013

P4W2 Day 12 Radium Springs, NM - Clint, TX 89 miles

Today was a tale of two halves.  In the morning I continued down the picturesque
Rio Grande valley.  This back road towards El Paso was wonderful.  I stopped and
met some fellow cyclists at a local coffee shop in the lovely southwest town of
Mesilla, New Mexico. 

My way was often lined with pecan trees - tens of thousands of pecan trees.  Like with my comment on the chiles from Day 11, I wondered how
many pecans humans eat.  It seemed like the pecan groves would go on forever. It made for very pretty cycling.  I got the taste for pecans badly and
stopped along the side of the road to put a few in my bike jersey.  One of the farm workers told me New Mexico ranks third behind Georgia and Texas in pecan production.

Later in the morning, I got the really appreciate how dry things get out here.
Even the great blue herons vacated this section of the Rio Grande.  Today I passed many churches with beautiful architecture.

By mid day I made a big sweeping turn east into the outskirts of El Paso.  Phoenix
had spoiled me with its city-wide bike lanes.  In El Paso, there was no bike lane,
and even the sidewalk had a myriad of troubles to either walk or bike it.  Wind
bit into me and cars blew by me through tight roads lined with endless strip malls.
Human control fences are everywhere in and around the city.  Gates guard stores.
So, late in the day, it was good to be creeping out of El Paso and heading east.  Not
all desert cities are the same when it comes to quality biking. 

One of the most intriguing facets of a bike trip is how abruptly new situations pop up.
The most memorable I've had was bumping into ' Bicycle Bob' in Sault St. Marie, Michigan,
who gave me a carillon concert high atop that lovely city.
One of the reasons I went through downtown El Paso is to get a serious bike tune up
at 'Crazy Cat Cyclery.'  I hadn't been in the store for 30 seconds before a reporter
put a camera and mic in my face, and ironically I happened to be in Texas. 
On a snowy October day in Alaska in 1996 I watched Lance Armstrong's battle with cancer commence in a soulful and somber news conference.   His epic struggle back to the top of a difficult sport seemed like a feel-good fairytale, a story that folks from all walks of life could embrace. 
Turns out it was a fairytale.  Here's my take:
Choose your inspirations carefully. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

P4W2 Day 11 Gila National Forest, N.M. - Radium Springs, N.M. 88 miles

Today was a wonderful day of bicycling.  Little did I think it would be when I woke up...everything I had was frozen.  I had forgotten a really basic key to not getting dehydrated when winter camping.  While the H2O is still liquid, put it in a pot that can be heated with your stove!  My couple plastic water bottles were bricks of ice that could not be thawed. 

After a warming morning fire, I starting really slowly up the mountain road - because it was steep, I was tired, and I was fearful something would break and my frozen hands would unable to fix it. The desert sun is everything to warmth  - when I got to the top of Emory Pass at 10 AM I felt like a new man with the relatively balmy 20 degree temps, abundant sunshine, and no wind.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it really is remarkable how different a flavor a bike trip can take on with simple turns in the road.  I think this is more the case on a bike than in a car because on a bike you can hear and see everything for such much longer...everything is in slow motion.  This route through the Gila National Forest could not have been any more indirect getting eastward.  But it was immensely quieter and more scenic that being pulled into the slipstream of endless long haul trucks on I-10.  For 60 miles of pedaling today, I had essentially empty roads.

I had wanted a fix of trees  - having been over the scrub bushes of the desert for a while and knowing 500 more miles of scrub awaited me in Texas.  It still fascinates me how the altitude changes the mix of vegetation.  On the highest hills of the Gila National Forest, beautiful Ponderosa pines with their russet bark grow on the north facing slopes where there is just enough moisture to keep them happy.  Indeed, this is the first true forest I've seen all trip.  I couldn't help contrast the longitudinal breadth of the forest in the desert southwest with places farther north.  I pedaled across 1000 miles of Canada before it felt too dry for trees; this far south, trees like the Ponderosa just cling to the slopes with the greatest precipitation, and those are few and far between, even in the high-altitude Gilas. 

Today felt 'southwest.'  After dropping off of Emory Pass I made my way to the Rio Grande River valley.   I stopped in Hillsboro and the general store there, a place where authentic cowboys eat.  One guy looked like he walked right off the movie set, but Hillsboro is no place for show biz and he had dirt on his hands.  Great place to eat, the store is.  Plenty of wall art.  I guess in some years, there's enough snow for snowshoeing.  Hard to believe.  I haven't seen even a cloud for two days.

Farther down valley I ran into field after field of chiles.  How many of them can the planet eat?  Chiles were everywhere.  Even on the road shoulder.  Even made into wreaths.  Suddenly the road signs announcing entry into New Mexico made sense. 

A while later I crossed the Rio Grande River for the first of several times over the course of the afternoon.  Hard to believe that this is the same river where I had caught the lovely Rio Grande strain of cutthroat a couple years earlier...and much farther upstream.

The wildlife was as varied as the terrain today.  In the forested mountains, stellars jays, chickadees, and juncos.  In the desert valley, kestrels, merlins, field hawks, roadrunners, ravens, mule deer, and coyotes.  And since the Rio Grande had a little bit of water (in spots), it was only fitting that I saw the ubiquitous great blue heron, my first of the trip.

Finally, a certain Duke student has pledged extra support for OWLS given each 'biggie' I photograph over the course of the trip.  In Hatch, N.M., today, I hit the jackpot.  I don't think there were strict height restrictions to his pledge, but some of the critter biggies deserve at least partial credit (especially the steer).  Uncle Sam is a true biggie, dwarfing the unassuming man that little realized he was about to be put on a pedaler's blog.