Texas Bicycle Diaries

Jul 8th, 2018 in Adventure

Part III of HarrisonFM Wandering resumes on disembarking Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train in San Antonio, TX.

I was left with a mild crisis of sorts on getting into San Antonio. It was midnight, and I had nowhere to stay. The city, despite being the country’s 7th largest via population, has no hosteling, and few folks on Couchsurfing. Fortunately, one I contacted gave me a tip that If I was going to stealth camp in town, I could try the city’s park, Brackenridge, so I made my way there. I didn’t get much of a tourist experience of San Antonio, but I at least bicycled along the touted Riverwalk to get there.

I’ve never camped in an urban park before, and it’s an eerie feeling. I chose a relatively open space near a parking lot, as I didn’t want to thread through dark pathways and stumble upon anything I shouldn’t be stepping into. When my bike light shone into the hedges near where I chose to lay down my tent, they lit up with sets of eyes like something you’d see on Halloween. They turned out to just be stray cats. Phew. Too long after dawn, I woke up to the sounds of landscapers in an unfamiliar green environment. I broke down my tent and rode for Austin, an 80 mile dash.

Why did I bother with all that? Couldn’t I have just taken Amtrak to Austin? Simple, public transit sucks in Texas. On Amtrak, I would have had to layover overnight for the 7 AM train to Austin, and pay to check my bicycle a second time. I’m not pressed for time, and camping in a park is preferable to sleeping in a second-rate train station. I see it as transactionally more in my favor to do something weird, save myself fifty bucks, and get to my destination in the evening rather than the morning. I’d describe the bike ride as pleasantly uneventful, with lightly rolling hills, and quiet roads through quarry and farm country, notable for a quick stop in San Marcos for lunch. An overcast day made the ride a cinch.

My destination was on the Southern edge of Austin, Calpulli Quetzalcoatl (Calteque). This Native space would be my first dalliance with WWOOFing; a work-trade service for volunteers interested in agriculture. Well, Calteque wasn’t much farming, I did instead get a good amount of exposure to cob-based construction, which is essentially building with clay. I adapted back to living with minimal amenities like tenting, preparing meals in an outdoor kitchen (no mercy for raccoons) and even got to a place where I could enjoy showering sans heated water. The routine there generally involved waking up early, preparing a light breakfast, and then working hard until the sun became too powerful.

The people on the farm were a cool lot. Ryne, a North Dakotan long-term Wwoofer who functioned as my senpai, direct coworker and source of guidance for much of my time. Tito was the farm’s manager, and gave us direction for what to do when onsite. His two daughters were frequently with him, who were generally a joy to be around. The last regular associate was Daniel, who was involved in his own DIY projects and with organizing the local religious ceremonies of the Nahuatl.

The highlight of my time at Calteque was attending a sweat lodge Daniel organized. It took place in a dome-shaped hut with a central firepit that was covered with tarps and blankets, and then stones were superheated on an outside bonfire and brought inside in increments. Inside, under the weight of the heat, we sang and offered intentions or prayers. I thought as a regular practitioner of hot yoga in NYC, I’d stand it well, but I wound up waylaid by its end. My mind reeled as the intensity ramped and the regulars were leading chants and playing instruments. The shower and refreshments served after felt like a deliverance.

In Austin, I happened to have a confluence of friends and good folks. I met Michelle King, owner of Noisy Ghost PR, who I worked with digitally when I ran my NYC music blog, Neat Beet. I saw Steve Bearden, another cross-country cyclist I met last year who lives in San Marcos. I saw Stillwell, an esports promoter I game with who relocated to LA, in town for Dreamhack. I also saw Neil, who performed with Jess Williamson, whom I covered in Atlanta, and Lynn, a Norwegian backpacker I met in New Orleans. That’s a lot of different people to meet with in ten days, and I felt really fortunate to have so many random people drop into my life for a moment.

Austin’s cycling infrastructure is there. It’s not hard to navigate anywhere around on bike, there’s decent amounts of lanes, and a lot of recreational spots near the river. I happened to have the misfortune of residing in one of the least cyclist friendly places near the interstate and adjoining highways, but I don’t begrudge Austin too much for that. The real question with cycling in Austin is if you can withstand the heat and humidity to get out and ride.

As I wound down my time in Austin, I started trying to figure out the quandary of how I’d get to Taos, New Mexico. Taos is nowhere near any public transit from Texas, and its area was my next intended destination. I eventually decided on a two-pronged approach: I’d try soliciting a ride on Craigslist, and if that fell through, set out for a 650 mile bicycle ride through West Texas to get there. Of course, I wound up doing the bike ride.

Before doing anything so rash however, I decided to head up to Dallas first to visit Vorsh, a friend from World of Warcraft. I quit WoW a decade ago, and haven’t looked back, but it was highly influential at that time in my life. Vorsh was one of my closest allies in the game, someone who I digitally fought shoulder to shoulder with and got to join the large roster of people I’ve met in real life that I met gaming. He’s worked full-time in finance since graduating university a few years after me, and now he’s married, owns a home in the suburbs, and is renewed in his Christian faith. He still finds some time for games though, and we got to share that great comaraderie that comes with co-op gaming (Monaco, Risk of Rain) on the couch for a brief couple day reunion.

I only dropped in for the weekend, and Vorsh gave me a ride to his office in Plano, where I waited out a storm at a very corporate Starbucks before setting out on my bicycle for Denton, a trivial 20 mile ride. The one fellow I was in contact with on Craigslist indicated he’d meet me there the following day, and the city had a nice vibe, so it wasn’t hard to pass the time. I wound up back in a much hipper coffee shop / bar hybrid tip-tapping the day away. I Couchsurfed for the night with Elijah, who accommodated me despite working until 11pm doing sound for a school board meeting. By that time, I had little hope that my ride would be coming through the next day, so I got myself ready to tour, mentally.

A critical part of bike touring a scorched environment like West Texas is getting out early. The ideal riding time is at first light, where the road is just barely visible under a brightening horizon. It takes a while for the rising sun to bake the landscape, so I generally budget as late as 1pm as a cutoff before a midday siesta as the weather becomes unbearable. On a good day, one can clear out 70-80 miles by then. Around 5 or 6PM, as the daylight fades, there’s an opportunity for another 3-4 hours of riding until dusk grips the land. Besides being generally unsafe to ride at night, it’s difficult to scout out a place to camp & any mechanical issues are greatly complicated, so I generally want to be encamped at sunset unless I have a sure spot to go.

Back to Elijah, he wanted to treat me to a diner breakfast before his day started, and Scavenger never refuses an offer like that. So instead of getting out at 5:30, I got rolling at 9, which made my first day through Decatur and north just shy of Wichita Falls probably the worst of my journey. Of course, I could have tapered the miles down, but y’all know I’m stubborn A.F. I hoped to do 70-100 miles a day through this mostly flat terrain and finish the trip in 8 days, and was about on track for that pace. The first half of my ride was on the 287 highway skirting the Oklahoma border, which is just about shadeless, but at least has a safe shoulder.

For three days, I found myself riding that highway northwest, and fared much better once I adhered to my schedule. Of course, it’s naturally synergistic with stealth camping, which is generally how I get around these faraway places, as they lack backpacker oriented amenities. RV lots and city parks were my camping targets, and I didn’t feel unsafe in these tiny pockets of humanity amid a sea of emptiness.

Those towns that serve the agriculture community, and cater to passing auto traffic were the highlights of that bike ride. A stop in Memphis was particularly notable, as a thunderstorm materialized out of nowhere and put the town on tornado warning! A wise librarian kept me from leaving before the town was hit, and we hunkered down expecting the worst. The storm was through in a flash; I was able to set out a mere hour later. That storm dropped 1/10th of the city’s annual precipitation in an hour. Later that night, encamped in Clarendon, the winds from another storm passing miles away knocked my tent down. The weather is no joke in this area, and its wrath can come upon you suddenly.

My halfway point was Amarillo, the windswept capital of the Texas Panhandle. The city’s vibe felt to me like that of a giant truck-stop. Freight traffic (cattle processing in particular) was a solid percentage of the vehicles that bypassed me, including an endless stream of trains. A track was literally adjacent to me up until I crossed the New Mexican border, it’s a shame that passenger trains are no option on it. The librarians said that the area once had passenger rail, but as the population urbanized, mostly towards Dallas-Fort Worth, its service ended.

I Couchsurfed twice more on this trip, once in Amarillo with Joe, a cyclist an order of magnitude more crazy than me, who told me of his career climbing (and cutting) trees for the state of California, his bicycle rides through India and China, all the while having never donned a shirt in the time I was at his home. He gave me a can of pepper spray to take on the road, for dogs or people. He found himself in Amarillo after retiring to enjoy a lower rent and taxes.

A day’s ride northwest through remote ranch country, in the tiny town of Channing, I surfed with Molly. She is an Austinite who found herself all the way up there doing work at Boys Ranch, which is an outdoors developmental area for at-risk boys. Her home and chill attitude were such a reprieve that I took a day off there despite it being really out there.

I crossed into New Mexico at the curiously named town of Texline, and from Clayton, the border town where I spent my first night in New Mexico, I was left with two more days rides to get to Taos. The first took me through the emptiest stretch of land yet as the plains finally yielded to the Rocky Mountain range in Cimarron. Cimarron’s forests had recently suffered a bad wildfire, and the road was only re-opened to thru traffic the day before I came in! Much of the Southwest and Mountain states are under intense fire safety restrictions from the light Winter and subsequent drought conditions. My last day into Taos took me through the burned area, which had a pleasant campfire smell, I thought.

So, just like at the start of this chapter, I was on my bicycle and planning on getting into Taos with no clear place on where to stay. However, my luck changed this time though, and on my way up to Eagle’s Nest, I met Jackson, a fellow cross country cyclist who was curious about my journey. He asked if I needed anything; I told him that I was headed to Taos and about that night’s plight. His ride was two years past and he had stayed in the town, so he put me in touch with Steven, an elderly fellow who would be able to help. I was given an address (and a phone number that didn’t work), and after bicycling down from Angelfire through hail and lightning, I found myself that afternoon at Steve’s doorstep in Taos.