Friday, July 16, 2010

Life Back Home

It has been nearly six months since Adam and I left on our trip, and so much has changed since then.  It feels like a lifetime has passed.

When we left, I was looking forward to becoming a father several months after our return home.  Now I still plan on becoming a father, but it must wait some time; we lost the baby just a week after I got back to North Carolina.

We didn't make it all the way across the country like we had planned, but the trip had a very complete feel about it nonetheless.  Austin was a great place to stop, and a wonderful city to spend a week in.  We made new friends, visited with Adam's family spent time visiting the places that form such a large part of his childhood memories.  It was wonderful for me to see such things; it gives me more insight into the character of my best friend. 

Coming home was a challenge.  Losing the baby was hard for me, and much harder on Karen.  On top of that, getting used to having a schedule, waking up in the same place each morning took some getting used to.  Within a few weeks, I forgot the phase of the moon, the position of the stars at sunset and dawn, and I would be surprised by changes in the weather, all things I knew without even thinking about when we spent most nights outside without a cover. 

I ride my bike as transportation much more often than before I left.  Cary is not considered a great place for bike commuting, especially if you're headed to Raleigh or Durham.  However, after averaging 60 miles a day across the desert, a 12 mile trip to North Raleigh seems like a silly thing to balk at.   It's still to be seen whether this healthy new habit is permanent or not. 

More than anything else, I look for opportunities to get back out on the road on my bike.  A few weeks after returning from Austin, I was back out with my sister, for a trip from Raleigh to Williamsburg.  Just last week, Adam and I got back together for a short trip through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Adam and I both discovered that we enjoy writing about our journeys nearly as much as we enjoy the trips themselves.  The writing crystallizes the experience in our memories, and provides a valuable record for us to look back on later.  Therefore, we have decided to continue this blog to document our continuing travels, whether they be on cycle, train, car, plane or boat. 

Adam and I are both still unemployed.  I'm looking for a job, and Adam is returning to school, to get a Master's Degree from the University of Texas in Lubbock.  We are planning to develop a small business that will allow us to travel for a living, and hopefully this will start to take off over the next couple of years.  So here's to an unending source of new blog material.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Back in the Saddle in Austin

I expected to have a horrible time in Austin.  I was in a foul mood when we  arrived, and expected to spend lots of time sitting around waiting to go home, stewing the whole time.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  We had an incredible week, with hardly a minute of down time.

We had two sets of wonderful hosts who put us up and put up with us while we were in Austin.  Phyllis is an old friend of Adam's mother, and we stored our bikes and gear at her house.  Phyllis and her husband, Arlie, cooked us several delicious meals and we spent a good deal of time at their place.  She told us when we arrived that she had bought a lot of extra food in anticipation of our arrival, so Adam and I did the thoughtful thing and ate as much of their food as possible so that none would go bad.

One of Adam's friends from the Army lives in Austin, and he was generous enough to loan us his car and his wife for most our stay.  Joe had an extra car to get him to work and back, and his wife Marlena had the free time to show us around the areas she knew, and play tourist with us, as both she and Joe are recent arrivals in Austin.  We also spent our nights at Joe's house, as they are closer in age to us, and less likely to be upset with our late night departures and arrivals.   

Over the course of the week, Adam and I began to get used to automobile life again, although we still managed to get out on our bikes quite a bit.  We figured out a much better route between Phyllis's house and downtown Austin, and we rode there and back several days.  We even took a day trip out to Pedernales Falls State Park for one more day of country riding.  But the distances between Joe's house, Phyllis's house and downtown were just too great, and we slowly developed a dependency on the car again.  We got stuck in traffic jams for the first time in two months, and the delay was more unpleasant than usual, as we had almost forgotten what it was like.

During his time living in Japan, Adam developed a taste for two-stepping at honkey tonks.  We decided we needed to visit a honkey-tonk while in Texas, and several locals had told us that the Broken Spoke, south of downtown, was the only authentic honkey-tonk around.  Marlena was free to join us for the evening, so we got her a cowboy hat, jumped in the car, and headed out.

The broken spoke has been in Austin for nearly half a century.  Willie Nelson played there before he had a beard. Vintage cars and buses dotted the lot, permanent decorations that match the aesthetic of the place perfectly.  As we walked up to the door, it called to mind nothing more than "Porky's Place".  After paying our cover and making our way past the small dining room at the front, we passed the bouncer and entered "the last real music hall in Texas".  A long, low room with wooden plank floorboards was flanked down either side by sitting areas filled with wooden picnic tables.  At the far end was a low stage, upon which a band was playing.  The lead singer of this band had hair like a comic book character.  Black and waxed, it looked almost like a helmet, coiffed to an immense height.

The entire center of the hall was crammed with couples two-stepping to the music.  Most of the men were in the cowboy uniform - boots, hat, jeans, button-down shirt and a belt buckle large enough to serve as weapon.  The ladies' outfits were more varied, but many wore the traditional boots, long, loose skirt with a sleeveless blouse and cowgirl hat.

We watched for the rest of the dance, and immediately we were schooled in the etiquette of  country dance halls.  Marlena, a not unattractive young lady, was sniped immediately from our side.  In Texas honkey-tonks, everyone still follows old fashioned customs, men asking women to dance when a song starts up, paying no heed to age differences or lack of familiarity with potential partners.  Marlena did not sit another dance out for the remainder of the evening, except the few times she had to leave the floor to rest.

After watching this, Adam and I took another couple of songs to try to figure out the dance steps, and we plunged right in.  The first young lady I asked to dance had on Converse Chucks, just like I did, and I figured she might not be too offended by my two-stepping skills.  She wasn't - she turned out to be from NC herself, a UNCW grad, and we had a great time mangling the steps, careening around the floor and laughing ourselves silly.  

We then proceeded to dance the night away, with a different partner for me each time.  I even got asked to dance by a cute Mexican girl!  A couple of the girls I danced with were kind of disappointed by my dance skills, but I got better as the night went on (hindered by Corona Especial) and by the end of the evening I could handle the two-step and their corrupted version of a waltz.

Adam scored a dance with a particularly popular young lady, and she danced with him to the exclusion of everyone else for the rest of the evening.  I caught a couple of resentful glances shot his way as he and his new friend, Jodi, would stand together at the end of a song waiting to start the next dance, without giving any hint that they would allow anyone else to intrude.  Resentful they might have been, but they were all careful not to let Adam see their feelings.  No matter how much beer was being consumed that night, it was not enough to convince anyone to confront Adam.

We danced until the lights came on and the band packed up.  I hadn't closed down a bar in a long, long time.  Marlena doesn't drink and was generous enough to drive her half-drunk, half-dazed charges back home.  We had only driven ten minutes or so before I realized that my credit card was at the bar, with my tab.  We got back just in time to retrieve it before the staff left, and good thing too, as they were going to be closed for the next few days, and I would have been eating on Adam's generosity.

We carried that good feeling with us for the rest of our time in Austin.  Like I said previously, we had hardly a down minute.  Adam's new friend, Jodi, is a silversmith jewelry maker, and we spent some time with her, looking at her shop, visiting her neighborhood and finding good places to eat.  We ran with the Hash Club downtown, visited the University of Texas at Austin Natural History Museum, and the UT observatory, where we got to show off the knowledge we got at McDonald Observatory.  One of Adam's Army friends, now a PhD candidate at UT got us into the rare and old book repository, where we got to view 500 year old manuscripts written by John Smith, among others.  We spent a day sailing on Lake Travis west of Austin with Adam's unlce.  Actually, only part of the day was spent sailing; most of the day was spent leaning over the side of the boat, paddling across the glassy water.

We stayed well fed, and drank too much.  The time flew by, and before we knew it, we were loading up the UHaul for the trip home.  Our last morning in Austin, I was to meet Adam at Phyllis' house to pack our final bags and head out.  I arrived a bit before him, having been separated the night before.  I got all my gear loaded, and hopped on the bike one last time.

I cruised up and down the streets of Phyllis' neighborhood, letting the memories of the past two months wash over me.  It had been so wonderful, and I don't know if I will ever get the chance to do something so grand ever again.  The bright green sprouts of spring filled the yards of the houses I passed, and flowers were blooming everywhere.  It was warm with a slight breeze blowing the flower's fragrant scent across the road as I pedaled.

It was finally over.  No more miles to make, to more camp to set up or break down, truly the end of the road.  We had miles and miles yet to cover, but interstate miles are all the same, and nothing to look forward to. I couldn't quite wrap my head around it.  It was a strange feeling, but not totally bitter.  I was looking forward to seeing my pregnant wife, who had begun to show in my absence.  Now that my thought were bent towards home, I began to miss other things as well, things I had not thought about in weeks.  My family, my bed, my dog.  I looked forward to seeing my friends at Tai Chi class and riding my bike (it's different at home -I missed my usual rides!).  It had been two whole months since I had been on my mountain bike!

Thus our departure was bittersweet.  I never wanted the trip to end, but everything has to end, and Austin was about as good an ending as I could have hoped for.  We said our last goodbyes, crammed ourselves into the cramped, uncomfortable cab of the truck, pointed the wheels east, and drove.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Crashing in Austin

Silence and weak gray light filled Doc's house in the morning, when I woke.  This fit my mood well.  Over the past week, I had been growing more and more uncomfortable with Austin as our final destination.  For Adam it was a perfect ending spot - he has family, friends and fond memories there.  I wanted to keep going.  I had no particular love for Austin, and I didn't look forward to sitting around for a week, living with strangers, until it was time to pick up the U-haul that Adam had committed himself to and drive back to Raleigh.

It had all come to a head the previous evening.  Just before we reached Doc's house, I told Adam that I wanted to keep going after we hit Austin.  He would have to stay for his family's U-haul, but I wanted to press as far as I could, and might Adam pick me up with the truck 8 days later on his way home, if he was willing?

I feared that this would upset Adam; it was, after all, his trip to begin with and I attached myself.  I felt bad about abandoning him in Austin, and I didn't know if he would want to come out of the way as he drove home to pick me up in Georgia or however far I made it.

Adam was more receptive of the idea than I could have hoped.  He enthusiastically supported my striking out alone, assuring me he would be quite fine flying solo in Austin.  I was somewhat apprehinsive of all the time alone, but it felt better to push as far east as possible.  I loved life on the road and wasn't ready to stop, then or ever.

I called Karen that evening to let her know my plans, excited at the prospect of my continuing journey.  This idea got an acutely hostile reaction.  Long silences were broken by short statements, mostly repeating the same things.  Karen forbade me to go on without Adam, and I refused to say that I wouldn't.  The conversation ended coldly and we hung up.

Now in the weak light before dawn, I crept to the kitchen and attempted to make coffee as quietly as I could in a strange kitchen with my normal pre-coffee morning grace (non-existant).  The attempt was partially successful, and I took my coffee out back and sat beside the Seebek's pool.

The conversation with Karen sat heavily on my mind as I sat by the cold water of the pool.  Should I continue? How angry would Karen be?  Could I pretend to be in Austin while actually continuing to ride?  That would make blogging awkward, to say the least.  Our premature retirement from the road had been bothering me for days, and just when I thought it was all going to work out, here it was back in my face, along with a heathly dose of resentment for my wife.

I determined to look on the bright side of things, and enjoy what time we had left of our trip.  The day was cool, and the wind appeared to be calm.  I was still the only person up at the Seebek household, and I was congratulating myself on my apparently successful stealth efforts when June walked up the driveway back from her morning walk.  She had been up well before me, as had Adam, writing in his room.  The only person whose sleep I protected with my creeping about was half blind and 3/4 deaf Doc.

Before long, June had the smell of waffles drifting through the house, and we all sat down for a breakfast together before we left.  They were vegan waffles, as is the entirety of the Seebek's diet.  Thus it was with some trepidation that I approached the table, but my fears were soon alleviated.  June is famous (according to Doc) for making delicious vegan food at her church, and the waffles were evidence why.  No one would ever confuse them with waffles full of eggs, white flower and butter, but they were excellent in their own right.  The real Vermont maple syrup that Doc had stockpiled in his garage helped a great bit.

After climbing Doc's windmill to scout our route for the day, we headed north from the Seebek's house, south of San Marcos.  A short day of riding would take us through the small college town of San Marcos and into Austin and our final destination.   I was in a brooding mood as we pedaled out of Doc's neighborhood and onto the highway.

Between San Marcos and Austin is an ever-shrinking strip of rural land, and we got our last glimpses of small herds of longhorn cattle as we pushed northward.  The road became thick with giant trucks hauling loads to and from the numerous concrete plants in this limestone rich region.  They were loud, fast and huge, but for the most part they gave us plenty of room on the narrow two-lane roads and we were able to enjoy the scenery.

Disturbingly quickly, urban development replaced our pastoral surroundings.  First we passed residential subdivisions carved unceremoniously out of green pasture land.  The road widened to four lanes and we started seeing gas stations, high schools and strip malls.  Residential and retail development had almost completely taken over when a sudden squall drenched us and we passed one more little ranch beside the road.  Partially wooded, with a clear stream running from a small pond, a for sale sign sat beside it's ornate gates.  Adam wondered aloud at the possiblity of convincing his father to make the purchase with him.

Crossing under one of the many interstate highways ringing Austin, the clouds broke and steam rose from the pitch black asphalt.  On the northern horizon, downtown Austin was briefly visible, it's tall office buildings stabbing into the angry sky, sunlight breaking through the dark roiling clouds and glinting off the glass covered surfaces.  A hard, forbidding view, I thought.

For the rest of the day, we experienced the worst kind of riding.  Multi-lane, high traffic conditions, where all of your attention must be focused on maintaining position and being aware of all the morons that make up the world's drivers.  Stoplights not timed for slow vehicles rob your momentum at the bottom of hills, and drivers love to cut you off, only to stop in traffic immediately after, causing you to brake abruptly. 

As we approached downtown on Congress Ave, conditions improved slightly.  The last few miles were downhill, and as retail increased on the sides of the road, traffic slowed down and we were traveling nearly the same speed as the cars around us.  At last our view of the horizon opened up again as we came near the bridge over the Colorado River.  Downtown Austin was laid out before us, the shining golden statue of The Goddess of Liberty tall above the Capitol Building directly in front of us.  Unabashed tourists that we are, we stopped a passing hipster and had the reluctant young man take our picture with the skyline in the back ground. 

A short few blocks through downtown brought us right to the grounds of the Capitol Building, thick with tour groups and herds of children in matching t-shirts on field trip excursions.  We spent the better part of an hour sightseeing, gawking at the buildings and getting in the way of traffic.  Checking the time, we decided it was time to be on our way to make it to our host's house before evening, and we mounted our bicycles for the very last leg of our journey.

It was horrible.  For those of you from the Triangle area, imagine biking down Capital Blvd at rush hour.  Horrible traffic, angry drivers, small lanes, multi-lane roads and large hills were the prominent features.  My memory of this stretch is a blur of roaring engines, gaudy signs, and strip mall after strip mall, one indistinguishable from the next.  

My already sour mood worsened.  I hated the traffic.  I hated the road.  I was angry with Adam for locking himself into the U-haul.  I was angry with Karen for forbidding me to head on alone.  I was angry at the stupid hills for not being flat.

In any endevaour, attitude is crucial to performance, and as my attitude darkened, my body began to fail.  My shoulders hurt, my butt hurt, I was tired, my legs began to cramp.  I had climbed the Rockies, cresting the continental divide with burning legs and scorched lungs, but with a smile on my face.  In the suburban hills of Austin, I finally broke. Like an evil feedback loop, my thoughts and my environment fed each other and I spiraled downward as we trudged on.

I was sick of it.  It was all over and I wasn't ready to be done. I was being forced to quit halfway through, and now I had to sit here in Austin for a week while Adam visited old friends and toured the sights of his childhood.  I hated the thought of it and I grew sullen and bitter.  It had only been a few hours since we arrived, and I already hated Austin.

Monday, May 3, 2010

San Antonio

Just so everyone's up to date - if you haven't heard yet, we made it home safe! I'll cover San Antonio in this post, and finish up the rest of our trip in the next post.

(Adam's photos inserted and his comments in italics)

Our time in San Antonio was great!  I had no prior conceptions of what the city would be like, and I was blown away.  Adam used his couchsurfing membership to hook us up with a great couple with an incredible old house just a few miles north of downtown and the Riverwalk.  Steve and Jayne got us set up in our own separate bedrooms in their totally restored 100 year old house (my bed was a 400 year old antique), then sat us down to give us the house rules.

Rule 1:
Anyone that stays must spend at least one night with the owners of the house, drinking too much and telling their story.

That is all.

Evidently Steve and Jayne are very popular in the couchsurfing network, due to their incredible house and their gregarious personalities.  One of their absolute favorite things is having houseguests and hearing all of their stories.

After telling us they don't feed their house guests, they fed us a delicious gourmet meal with fresh baked bread and pesto sauce, and opened a bottle of wine handpicked from their wine cellar.  We then fulfilled the terms of our contract, and due solely to our sense of propriety, helped Jayne polish off the bottle of wine as we told our tale. 

It took much longer than absolutely necessary to get our story told.  Storylistening is an interactive art with Janie, and we would get only a few sentences out before Janie would jump in with comment, anecdote, or amazing tale of their own bicycle touring done on a recumbant tandem all over Europe.  The evening felt a bit like a tennis game, bouncing lines back and forth.  It took some focus and strength of will to get the story straight and complete, especially as our excessive sense of duty had compelled us to finish off several more bottles of wine.

In addition to his many other talents, Steve is studying to become an official San Antonio tour guide.  The next day, he took us all over town, pointing out old buildings designed by famous architects, structures left over from the World Fair, and lots of the famous houses and public works of art.

We like our hosts and the city so much we stayed an extra day.  The restaurants around where we were staying were excellent, and we got great recommendations from our host.  Downtown, the bustling Riverwalk was great.  It was a bit commercial, and overrun with national chain restaurants, but the public art built into the walk itself was unique and funky.  With passages beneath waterfalls, plants rendered in lifelike concrete, locks and a surprising variety of waterfowl, the Riverwalk was captivating.

 A trip down Adam's memory lane - The Alamo

 The best Mexican bakery in San Antonio

We convinced Steve to ride with us on the next leg of our journey.   Adam and Steve rode together on Steve's tandem while I followed behind.  Having a local guide immediately paid off and we stopped at a french bakery to stock up on supplies for the day. 

Dwight taking a spin with Steve on the recumbent trike         
Adam and Steve ready to ride to New Braunfels

Spring had arrived.  We covered so many miles east on the night train from Del Rio that we had crossed from the arid regions of West Texas to a more humid zone resembling North Carolina.  It had been chilly and wet for most of our time in San Antoino, but it was warm and sunny as we pedaled north out of town.  The clear air was full of the smell of blooming flowers, lush green vegetation and wet earth.  It brought me very strongly back to the summers of my youth, and the feeling I'd get when I would head out on a brand new adventure, with no responsibilities and no one to answer to.  It was a strangely pleseant feeling, one of freedom and discovery mixed with the strongest homesickness I have felt in a long time.  It lasted all the way to New Braunfels, where we stopped for lunch.

Adam had been looking forward to this since he was in Iraq, when he got a care package filled with New Braunfels Smokehouse jerky and whatever else kind of meat can be shipped to the desert and not spoil.  The food was up to the hype, and the brisket was good, but by this time I was beginning to grow a bit weary of beef.  Not a frequent beef eater at home, I was beginning to feel the effects of a West Texas diet.
After a quick and cold swim in the Comal River, we met up with Janie, who dropped off Adam's bike and picked up her husband.  We asked if they would like to have one more meal with us, and they said in that case, we couldn't miss eating at Coopers Barbeque, the BEST barbecue in Texas.  "Oooh", I thought.  Barbecue again.  But I sucked it up, and I was glad I did.  It was a sight to behold.  You walk in the door and up to a brick pit.  They pull the lid off to reveal row upon row of cooking meat.  Sausage, brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, all crowding each other for space and sizzling over the coals.  You point and grunt, and the meat guy skewers a giant piece, chops off a chuck the approximate size you indicate with your hands, dunks it in a vat of sauce and slaps on a tray, which he then hands to you.  The food was very good, but it was the memory that was worth the stuffing I took.

Cooper's BBQ with Jayne and Steve  

The sun was setting by the time we pulled out of Coopers.  We had 15 miles to go to make it to our next host's house, and we were already late.  We raced through the dark past fields and cows.  Pulling up to the house, we breathed hard from the push.  We looked forward to a shower and a good rest. I was still stuffed from Coopers.

We were welcomed into the house and told not to worry - Don and June Seebeck had waited on us for dinner and they were taking us out as soon as we had a chance to clean up.  There was nothing for it but to smile graciously and get ready to eat, one more time.




Doc Seebeck operating his windmill and Dwight climbing it

Dinner was not bad, and the company excellent.  Doc looked older than he was, as he's a brain cancer survivor.  Blind and deaf on one side of his head, he has more energy than Adam and I put together.  We ate at his favorite Mexican restaurant in San Marcos, where they fix the vegan meals that Don and June (also a cancer survivor) demand.

After dinner we got a tour of Don's house and land.  He has a giant RV, which he used to help him bike over 100,000 miles in his lifetime.  He would put in his miles in a race or fundrasing event, and Jen would follow along behind with a comfy home for him at the end.  Hanging on the wall of his garage are several old bicycle frames he rode to death - they literally fell apart after too many miles.

All across the southwest, we had been seeing the old metal windmills used to pump water into cisterns to provide water for cattle.  Don had acquired a couple of these old windmills and had them erected in his yard as ornaments - the best yard ornaments ever.  Especially since he let us climb to the top and check out the view before we rode away in the morning.  

After a late night, we got up early.  This day's journey would bring us to Austin, Texas.  We knew this as our final destination; this would be our last morning waking up on the road.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

El Paso To Alpine - Pictures

I'm sure the music plays, but Feleena doesn't twirl, and there are no handsome young strangers dead on the floor (as far as I know). But this is the original Rosa's Cantina, which inspired Marty Robbins' famous "El Paso".  Behind is the hill the hero of the song died upon.


We pulled off the side of the road during a stint on I-10, and picked up a mesquite thorn that went right through Adam's puncture-proof tire.  We stood on the side of the interstate in 30 mph winds fixing the flat. I used the extracted thorn to attach my homemade hatband to my hat.


We left the interstate to head south at Kent, TX.  Kent now consists of a post office and a gas station, both run by the same lady.  She runs back and forth depending on where she is needed.  Kent, evidently, used to be a more substantial community, as this hollowed out shell of a school attests.  It looks old - they haven't made schools like this since before the 50's, when cinderblock, ugly functional public buildings took over.  There was graffitti inside that was at least 20 years old.  It was a great place to stop for lunch, sheltered out of the howling wind.

After a brutal day of fighting strong headwinds winds while climing from one plateau into the Davis Mountains, we came around a bend in the road and saw our destination - the McDonald Observatory.




The original telescope, with an 82-inch mirror, was built in the 30's, and has been in operation ever since it is located in the darkest spot left in the Continental US.  Unfortunately for us, that didn't help much as the moon was near full, and we could see at night as if the sun was still up.

We took the public tour of the Observatory, which included a tour inside the 107-inch mirror telescope, built in the late 60's.

After the tour, we came back to our host's house.  John Kheune works for the Observatory, which is run by the University of Texas, Austin.  He and his family live on site, and are often visited by these creatures.  Most locals consider Javelinas to be pests, but I thought they looked tasty.  When I opened the door to take this picture, John's cat darted outside.  Horrified, I raised the alarm, but was told that the cat would be OK, but don't let Trinky Doodle (tiny little dog) out, because the javelinas would make short work of it.

After a short break, we walked back up to the telescopes for a private tour with John.  We snapped these pictures during the walk up the mountain:


The lights in the observatory are dimmed to keep the researcher's eyes adjusted to the dark.  The red light in the elevator has a much longer wavelength, which doesn't cause the pupil to contract as much.


After our private tour, we went back for the public "Star Gazing Party".  We were surprised by the crowd.  Our earlier public tour had perhaps a dozen people in it.  There were well over 100 people at the star gazing party.  We were told that in a few weeks, during spring break, there would be over 1000. 

At the Star Gazing Party, the tour leader used a super powerful hand-held laser to point out stars and constellations.  We learned a bunch of new constellations - Sirius, Andromeda, Pegasus were among the ones new to us - and the only new ones we retained.

I took this picture at the party with a 30 second exposure - you can see the movement of a couple of the stars behind the telescope during the exposure:


From the McDonald Observatory, we made our way south to our rendevous with "Bikeman" John in Alpine Texas.  He owns the only bike shop for 210 miles in each direction, and we desperately needed new inner tubes, as we had had several encounters with mesquite thorns.  Here is one of the decorations adorning his shop - a longhorn skull fashioned out of bicycle handlebars and a banana seat.

After stocking up on tubes in Alpine, it was south to Big Bend National Park.  Just outside of the park, we ran into our first patch of Blue Bonnet flowers - the state flower of Texas.  Adam screeched to a stop and began snapping pictures.  They had a thick, sweet perfume that we have detected many times since then on our ride, often without even being able to see the flowers themselves.

Within a few hours of that last picture, the wind had picked up to a steady 20mph, with gusts that had to be at least 40mph.  We were leaning at 10 degrees while riding straight to keep from being blown over.  The gusts pushed me off the road more than once.  Riding off the road is sketchy in mesquite country.
A few miles into the park, we spotted our destination for the night - the Chisos Basin, hidden in these mountains.  We were going to stay with another Warm Showers host at the Ramuda - a converted stables now used by the trail maintenance workers for the park.  We still had over twenty miles to ride around these mountains and up into them, then down into the basin.

By the time we crested the pass, the sun was down, and we were greeted with this sight.  It is a famous view, known as "The Window".  I almost crashed, driving off the twisting descent as my gaze kept lifting to the Horizon. 

The next morning, we walked up out of the pass for a day of hiking.  Back at the top of the pass, we got a much differnt view of the Window, from the same spot:
We did an 8 mile round-trip hike up the Lost Mine trail, which climbed up and out of the Chisos Mountains to the south.  It was a chilly, windy day, and we were being sleeted on by the time we hit the summit.  The views were spectacular, however, and it was well worth the climb.

The day after our hike, we got up and headed out for our boat trip down the Rio Grande.  I'll pick up with those pictures in my next post.

Right now we're hanging out in Austin, splitting our time between Adam's family and sightseeing.  There's so much to do here, I haven't had time to sit down and really work on a blog post in the last few days.  Perhaps the chance will present itself - but it seems like we might be busy from sunup to sundown until its time for our departure.  I will, however, make time to post the pictures from our Rio Grande canoe trip before we leave.

Monday, March 8, 2010

R & R

We are in San Antonio.  Dwight and our host, Steve, are off on a tandem recumbent bike ride around town and I'm staying back, working on some rest and recovery.  I find R&R a bit difficult because it requires me to not be doing.  The only problem is of all the doing I've done over my life, this bike riding is causing me the most physical pain.  Enough that two days ago in Del Rio, TX, I told Dwight I wasn't going to pedal another mile.  My feet have gotten quite messed up, more than Iraq, Ranger School, or SF training ever did to me.  Maybe I'm just not taking it easy enough on myself without the safety conscious army to worry about me.  Or, more likely, I've just worn out my bike shoes and was too stubborn to stop until my toes looked and felt like cocktail weenies that were on fire while still attached to my feet.

Regardless, once we made Del Rio, I was ready to rent a car and drive to Austin, where I knew friends, family and barbeque awaited us.  The previous two days of riding from Marathon to Langtry to Del Rio, were some of the worst weather and strongest headwinds we had faced.  All I could think of was, this is supposed to be vacation, I don't have to prove my toughness to anyone, and this just isn't fun anymore.  Cold, rain and wind don't make for enjoyable riding conditions.

What we did do was ride the Amtrak from Del Rio to San Antonio.  Not sure the bikes would get on the train, but they did and we took the easy ride to the home of the Alamo.

I have had many childhood memories come back to me since we've crossed the border into Texas.  The strongest memories came flooding into my mind when we found our first bluebonnet, the state flower of Texas.  I hadn't seen them in the wild since we left Austin in 1990.  All the places my parents took me, McKinney Falls, Pedernales Falls, Enchanted Rock State Parks, the LBJ Ranch, all started crowding my mind and my heart.  All my family, especially my Grandparents, were moving through my vision like a slide show.

Now, here in San Antonio, visiting the Alamo, where all my childhood heroes perished defending our future freedom and way of life, I find myself especially reflective.  This is one of the main reasons why I embarked on this trip, but it is coming at an unexpected time and place and resulting in unexpected emotions.

After these days of rest, I think we're going to ride the rest of the way into Austin.  Swing through New Braunfels, San Marcos, and maybe Lockhart on the way.  Then barbeque, TexMex, and Thai for a week.

Next week, I expect we will leave Austin with a load of furniture from my Grandparents, and a truckload of memories and drive the rest of the way back to Raleigh.  Not sure that I'm comfortable calling that place home either.  Maybe the girl who asked if I was homeless was more correct than she knew.  I suppose I will have time to explore that thought when we get to my birthplace, Austin.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gone to Mexico - Please Send Passports

Still no decent cell coverage, we have a tenuous wifi connection I hope to use to post this.

I got my hands on a copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and it has put me in a philisophical, wistful, sabatoge-ey state of mind. Forgive me if I ramble.

It was the perfect reading material to prep me for a river trip down the Rio Grande. His description of a rafting trip down doomed Glen Canyon before it became Lake Powell has always moved me. Awe at the grandeur of wilderness, sadness and anger over it's loss and contempt over it's commercialization.

Above all, the importance of wilderness, not just for the sake of preservation (or, as was the case with the creation of our National Forests, for a timber reserve) but as a salve for our souls. Adam has the sentiment permanently at hand, the Abbey quote "wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit" tatooed around his thigh.

It certainly seems like a luxury to me, sometimes. We took a guided overnight trip through the Santa Elana Canyon in Big Bend NP on the Rio Grande. Travelers on guided tours live in scenic luxury. Our meals were prepared for us (filet mingon, pancakes and sausage as compared to our usual pasta and grits). Our dishes got cleaned. Our trash was packed out. Our guide, Little Billy was incredibley knowledgeable and friendly - and we had him all to ourselves. We decided when to stop for meals, we got input on our campsite, and we set the pace.

I couldn't take much more of it. Don't misunderstand, it was great having Billy there to help guide us through the tight spots, teach us the flora and fauna, and tell us local stories. In fact, Adam and I both agree that Billy is the best guide we've ever had. He would be a great companion on any camping trip.

However, in my experience, camping has always been a socialist activity. We all share the chores- cooking, cleaning, setting up and breaking down - everyone works till the work is done. This capitalist form of camping is alien to me. I felt like a heel, sitting there reading Edward Abbey while Billy prepared our food and cleaned our dishes. (I wonder what Abbey would think of that)

The social dynamics of campsite labor aside, the trip was phenominal. It was a step more removed from real life than the rest of the trip has been so far.

First, it's important to understand how removed I feel from my former life I felt already. This whole bike trip has made me feel disconnected from the real world. Scratch that. This is my normal life. Wake up, pack up my sleeping gear get on the road and ride till I'm hungry or tired. Talk with Adam.  Stop and investigate whatever piques my curiosity. Buy food. Cook it. My other life, the life of cars, bills, deadlines, routines, obligations and constraints - that's my abnormal life.

I thought about my car the other day - the first time in weeks - and couldn't remember it clearly.   Does it even have a cd player? Stick or automatic? Doesn't matter, I didn't spend long thinking about it.  I speak to my wife on the phone, and while I miss her terribly and love her with all of my heart, it is a surreal experience. I can see her face and remember her voice, but that doesn't seem like my life. It's someone else that's going to be going back there - I'm going to get up and ride every morning for the rest of my life.

The trip down the river magnified all of these sensations. The whole of my existince consisted of water, rock, boat, and companions. In my abnormal life, when I do my meditation, it is a fight for the first ten minutes to quiet the noise in my mind, the clutter and rush of daily life. The moment I closed my eyes to meditate on the river, all I saw was swirling water. No traffic, no houses, no infrastructure. Civilization did intrude. 19th century civilization. Mexican vaceros, cowboys, ranged down to the river, roping stray cows, splashing in the river. Billy spoke to them in spanish, letting them know of the stray cows we passed just upstream.

It's not that I felt even more disconnected - I didn't even think of my abnormal life at all. Rippling water, blazing sun and scouring sand washed it all away.

Tuesday night we camped in Mexico. River tours are allowed to camp and hike on the Mexican side, with certain restrictions. We discussed hiking south, perhaps stopping in Belize to let our family know where we are. A lack of food supplies thwarted our plan.

Coming out of the canyon was like coming out of a movie theater into the afternoon sun. Civilization asserted itself. Tourists appeared on hiking trails along the river. Fishing gear began to appear along the bank.

As we pulled out and loaded our gear back on to our bikes, normal life began to reassert itself. Once again, our path was bound to the asphalt, not the river.

We rode out of the mountains this morning, into Marathon, tx. There is a sense of sadness for me. It's all downhill now, literally and figuratively. No more mountains, and our trip is more than half done. It looks more and more like we're going to stop in Austin.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

No Cell Service

It has been an exciting and eventful week, with limited acces to cell networks and Internet. We've taken some of our best pictures yet, and I have been holding off on writing, hoping to find a place to upload. It now looks like it might be some time before that happens, so I'll have to move forward with no pictures. 

We struggled against strong headwinds uphill into the Davis Mountains two days after leaving El Paso. It was spectacular scenery, each climb through a twisty canyon brought us to the edge of another volcanic plateau, before getting into the higher mountains.

The Davis Mountains are one of the darkest regions left in the US, with very little light pollution. This dark hole is home to the McDonald Observatory, which boasts three large telescopes, an 82, and a 107 inch, and a much larger composite telescope built for spectrometry.

We stayed with John, an observatory employee, whom we found on the warm showers list. His family and his pets were gracious and generous hosts, feeding us and giving us backstage tours of the telescopes.

At a "star party", put on by the observatory, we got a look through many of the smaller telescopes on site, and learned some more constellations. We were especially excited about this. Spending so much time laying outside, looking at the stars, we have been looking for some more education on what we were seeing.


Before leaving, John called ahead for us down to Alpine, home of the only bike shop for hundreds of miles. The shop would be closed when we arrived, but the owner was willing to meet us and sell us some inner tubes, as the mesquite thorns have been tearing through our supplies of spares at an alarming rate.

After yet another wearying ride against the wind we pulled into Alpine and called the Bikeman, also named John. Unfortunately, he was occupied, and could not meet. Fortunately, he was occupied at a BBQ, and invited us to join him!

After a donation to the family crisis center, we had a great meal of brisket, potato salad, beans, and beer.

Afterward, John the Bikeman invited us to spend the night in the back of his shop, to share space with his friend Jim, who is renting out some space there. We spent a great evening at the local bar, Railroad Blues, before crashing on the floor of the shop.

The next day, winds were strong out of the southwest, and we had decided to skip our intended trip south to Big Bend National Patk, cutting out 100 miles of fighting the wind. At breakfast, however, we were befriended by a local businessman, Ron, who offered to drive us halfway there, if that would tip the scales.

We accepted his offer, and it has been a great decision!  We rode through the park entry at 3:30 in a surreal atmosphere.  A wind storm had picked up, and we rode through an alien landscape of jagged peaks and rugged washes in a brown murky haze. 40 mph gusts of wind slammed into our flanks, threatening to push us off the road as we began to climb. 2500 verticle feet later we crested the pass and rode down in the darkening night to our destination, the bunk house for the trail workers at the park. One of the guys here is on the crew, and also on the warm showers list.

Today we took a 10 mile round trip hike up into the mountains, where we found more spectacular scenery, and more wind threatening to blow us off the trail. By the time we reached the summit, snow was again blowing in our faces.

Tomorrow we have scheduled a river expedition down the Rio Grande, through one of the park's famous canyons. We splurged on a guide, and are looking forward to having someone fix our meals and set up camp on our two-day, one night trip.

There is no cellular service in the area, and no access to Internet, so this will not go out until tomorrow morning.

We have been keeping a good pace, and we broke 1000 miles of riding before we got to the observatory, and we're currently at around 1200 miles total for the trip.

Not sure when I'll be able to post again, we won't have cell signal for a couple days at least. Next time I get to a computer terminal, I'll have so much to post!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This Is Why They Said Don't Camp Near The Border

The weather cleared up and we got in a healthy 60 miles after Luann
dropped us off in downtown El Paso. It has been colder the past few
days than anything we have yet experienced on this trip. Even though
it's dry, it is very windy, and the temperatures are staying in the
forties.

It was really cold last night when we found a spot to camp. Just
outside of McNary Texas, within shouting distance of the Mexican
border, we found an apparently uninhabited stretch of knolly
scrubland, perfect for finding concealment not far from the road.

Within minutes of stopping, I had on every bit of cold weather gear I
had with me, and the temperature continued to drop. We had a quick
dinner of peanut butter sandwiches, and got in our warm sleeping bags
shortly after dark.

We have heard coyotes howling in the dark many nights in the desert.
Last night, when they spoke up in protest of a passing train right
after we laid down, we were a bit unnerved with how close they
sounded. They could not have been more than 100 yards away. Indeed,
when morning came, we found frozen scat within fifty feet of our
campsite.

Sometime later in the night, I was awoken by a persistent sound. It
seemed some sort of off-road vehicle was driving back and forth, the
rough sound of the engine growing and fading, then growing again, over
and over. As I laid there, the realization slowly dawned on me that a
helicopter was circling nearby.

With each pass, the sound grew louder and louder. I had been cacooned
in my sleeping bag, shut off from all outside light. I drew back the
drawstring and pulled my head out as the sound became a roar and the
helicopter passed directly over us, not 100' off the ground. To my
horror, the inside of my bivy sack lit up like Monday night football.
We were directly in the beam of a searchlight.

Dwight - uh, Adam, are you awake?

Adam - of course.

Dwight - so, they see us, huh?

Adam - obviously.

Dwight - so, what do we do?

Adam - what CAN we do?

Dwight - hmm...

Adam - yeah

I pulled back the cover of the bivy sack, watching the helicopter as
it circled, keepig it's light trained on us. Presently, a second light
floated into sight, and a disembodied voice call out "¡bueños nochés,
Señors!"

Dwight - uh

Adam - good evening!

The speaker continued in English, "What are you guys doing here?".
From there, a suprisingly friendly Border Patrol Agent proceeded to
quiz us on our names, where we we coming from, our destination, and
our homes. He decided the two guys wrapped up like mummies laying
beside two bicycles loaded with gear were not, in fact, border jumpers
who had decided to stop for a nap, 500 yards across the Rio Grande, in
17 degree weather.

He concluded with, "well, we're looking for two guys out here, but
you're obviouly not them. You guys go back to sleep."

Yeah, right.

17 degrees showed on the thermometer when we woke this morning. My
fingers hurt trying to stuff all of our gear, wet with melting frost,
into their respective bags  Cold to start, and it stayed cold the
whole day. All day long we rode in jackets and gloves, and still our
fingers and toes never warmed up. Tonight's not supposed to be as bad,
we look forward to a low of 35.

We have gone around 75 miles today, putting our total at 950. We
should (knock on wood - a precious commoditty around here) pass 1000
miles tomorrow on our way to shelter at the famous McDonald
Observatory, right outside of Fort Davis!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Cavalry Drives a Mini-Van

It has been an eventful few days.  We have climbed some tall mountains and seen some great sights.  We had our best campsite so far in the Gila National Forest outside of Silver City, and our best ride, from Silver City to Gila Hot Springs on near deserted high mountain roads.

No matter how spectacular the natural wonders, equally memorable are the interesting and incredible people we have been meeting along the way.  All along our route we have found friendly faces and helpful attitudes.

In Bisbee, our host (who saved us from a cold night searching for a campsite in the dark) took us down this tunnel, which was not on the published walking tour:

It was an underground (literally and figuratively) art gallery.  There was some beautiful and colorful graffiti down there, far past the reach of any outside light:

The Warm Showers list hooked us up with Patrick and Elieen in Silver City.  Patrick is a former cross-continent cyclist, and his wife is an accomplished fiddle player.  She put on a short show for us our second evening there, playing Irish jigs, marches, and aires. 

While in Silver City, my map geek side surfaced.  Elieen works at the public library, and Patrick took us by to visit.  I found the map chest, and we spent the next hour going over USGS topo maps of the terrain we planned on crossing the next few days:

Here are Patrick and Adam inspecting Adam's swollen toe in the middle of the library. A spider bite seems to be the consensus diagnosis.


Also, in answer to Mom's question - the wound from the loss of the unimportant part of Adam's knee is doing great - as I said it was an unimportant part.

In Silver City, we had our first encounter with other cross-country cyclists. Tony and Brendan are on the same route we are, and caught up to us in Silver City. We spoke for a while and exchanged website information and said our goodbyes, reasonably confident that we would run into them on the road again.  Check out their blog at http://justanotherbikerideacrossamerica.org/ .


In Gila Hot Springs, we ran into our most colorful crowd yet. This tiny campground was tucked in a bend in the river in a little valley near the end of a 14 mile long, one-way road mountain road. It had three little pools dug out, fed by a nearby natural hot spring.

The campground was inhabited by a crowd of RVers and campers, the likes of which I have never seen. There was a crazy/hyper man named Bill, his wheelchair bound wife, and her service dog Lightning in a pop-up pull behind, Josephine and her well lived in, dirty old van-sized RV,  (and not pictured below) two surfers from Florida bound for California (we had noted their car passing us earlier - who drives with a surf board in New Mexico?), and a grizzled old hippie whose name, conveyance and form of shelter remained a mystery.

And they all soak naked.
But hippies are wise in their ways, as we were to learn. Getting out of the 110 degree water into 25 degree air, then making it back to your campsite, drying and changing while staying reasonably warm is an impossible task. I was shivering and cold to the bone by the time I got in my sleeping bag, and it took quite a while to get warm enough to fall asleep. So our morning soak was done hippie-style. There is nothing better than taking a dip in hot water upon waking up and seeing the thermometer on your bike's computer display this: (if you can't see it says 20 degrees - 30 min and 4 degrees after waking up)
The cliff dwellings we visited that morning are a great segue from people to places. A series of caves between high mountains have made the perfect hiding place for many of the successive inhabitants of this land. The mix of natural grandeur and historic culture is incredible.


At the cliff dwellings we met our second group of touring cyclists - Sundance and Yana, two Aussies whose itinerary makes me feel like a wimp. They started in Ontario and are heading for the west coast, where they hope to find a yacht to crew en route back to Austrailia. They, too, are writing a blog about their adventures, check it out if you're interested: http://meanderingmarsupials.blogspot.com/
Wisely, they had paused in El Paso and rented a car to check out some of these more northerly areas. As we were to learn, it can get cold and wet quickly.


Since the cliff dwellings were at the end of the long mountain road, we had to turn around and head back out. Clouds were rolling in and the wind picked up as we approached the climb out, the longest, steepest stretch of road we had yet faced. A pack of javelinas charged across the pavement as we rode, not twenty yards in front of us. As I frantically tried to get out the camera, the little pork chops huffed and snorted and stomped out of sight. We had been hearing about these creatures for days, and it was a treat to get to see them.

The climb was long, slow and hard.  The beautiful vistas I remembered from the day before on the same stretch of road-

Had faded into snowy, fast moving clouds by the time I struggled through the pass:

By the time we reached the bottom on the other side, snow was falling steadily, and I was trying to convince Adam that we should look for paid accommodations for the night.  We lucked out with our place to stay, and ended up with a nice cozy cottage for 50$/night.  The owner was a retired NC State professor (!) who was a former long distance horse-riding camper, so she has a soft spot for people like us. 

By the time we were inside and settled in, the scene outside made us happy we had found shelter.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, all the more so as we knew we had a warm den to retreat to.

In the morning, we found that more bad weather was predicted for the next three days.  I was of a mind to wait out the storm in the snug little cottage, but our food bag was getting light, and there was no store nearby that could provide us with and groceries, nor any restaurant. There was supposed to be a break in the weather for a while that morning, so we packed our things, said goodbye to Frances, and headed out in the snow.

It was very pleasant at first, with a light snow blanketing the trees, and rocks, leaving the canyon walls bare and stark in their contrast.  Before long, however, the snow had soaked through our gloves and jackets, and we began to freeze.  Snow began to accumulate on the bags on our bikes and Adam's beard.  My fingers started to burn.  The thermometer dropped from 35 to 34.  As we climbed numerous small hills, I began to sweat, threatening to soak through my hat and shirt.  Meanwhile my fingers ceased to burn and went numb instead.  They felt like frozen hotdogs stuck in gloves.  The thermometer dropped to 33.  I was worried that if it dropped below freezing, we would start to risk frostbite. 

You notice there are no pictures from this leg of our trip.  We only stopped once so I could add another layer of clothing, we were intent on making it the 20 miles to San Lorenzo, where there was supposed to be a store and cell service.  We were not in the mood for piddling around framing shots.

Clumps of snow were falling off my hat as the wind picked up and the icy snow stung harder against my face. I began to wonder how much more I could take.  If a pickup truck had passed our way, I would have flagged them down, but for once there was less traffic that could be desired. 

Nothing has been more welcome than the sight of the sun starting to push through the clouds, and the feel of the snow getting lighter against my face.  It continued to clear, but we did not get warm or begin to really dry out till we pulled into the only cafe in San Lorenzo.

From San Lorenzo we took a good look at the weather and the road before us.  There was supposed to be a break in the weather for a while, but the snow was supposed to close back in on us before evening.  We had 2500 feet to climb, and it appeared that while we were in a dry spot, the pass before us still looked quite frosty. 

For once we decided to play it safe, and we called Adam's family friend Luann to come pick us up from El Paso.  It was torture sitting around for a couple of hours in perfect weather, thinking about the climb we were passing up.  At least it gave us a chance to check out the bakery run out of a trailer behind the house of a clan of "Not-Mennonite Mennonites", as described by the waitress at the cafe.  Not where you'd expect to find a gouremet bakery, but we keep our eyes open for good bread wherever we go.  We found this place on a tip from the Wise Hippies of Gila Hot Springs.

Luann arrived and put us in her minivan and took us to her home in El Paso.  So instead of hunkering down in the snow, we sit around drinking coffee in her sitting room,
watching the olympics on her 60" HDTV and mixing drinks at the wet bar,
and lounging and reading and writing on the computer in her library:
All while hanging out with Barney and Karen,
and eating Luann's delicious homemade chili.

We'll wait out the bad weather here, and probably head out Tuesday afternoon.  Our highest elevations are behind us, and we plan on taking our time exploring southern Texas, a place I have never been, and Adam's childhood home.