The Enjoyment Equation

Traveling by bicycle, as in life, not every day is wonderful. Most of the time it’s great fun, but then there are the days it feels like we’re just slogging through the miles. What makes the difference? There are so many things that car passengers never give a second thought that are critical to those of us pedaling the same byways. Just think about it.

Road conditions – Cars barely register uneven pavement, cracks and bumps. But each of these impediments is amplified by the narrow wheels of a bicycle. Chip sealing is the worst. Take loose gravel over fresh tar and you get a rough surface guaranteed to loosen several teeth. Sometime we get lucky, and the highway department in an attempt to save money neglects to re-coat the shoulders. We love those penny pinching counties that leave us with smooth pavement. It adds a mile an hour to our speed.

Width of the shoulder – I call this the white knuckle factor. On a road with narrow crumbling shoulders there is no escape from the traffic. Those huge semis that pass by usually give us a wide berth if possible. But on two lane roads, with oncoming traffic, there is nothing scarier than feeling the slip stream of the truck suck you and your bicycle along. Give me a good wide shoulder, and I breathe much easier. Better yet, give me a small country lane, devoid of traffic and I am in heaven.

Weather – There is no rolling up the windows and sailing through the rain on a bike. Neither is there heat or air conditioning. We are at the mercy of whatever the weather gods deliver. Wind can be friend or foe, depending on whether it’s pushing us along or punishing us with great resistance. Too hot or too cold can be miserable. But there’s nothing more pleasurable than a lovely warm day cycling through the sunshine.

Terrain – This one is a matter of personal opinion. I rather like the challenge of rolling hills and charging up the inclines. I’m a chicken on the downhills, using my brakes rather than flying down at breakneck speed. Rich, on the other hand, would be happier if the world were flat. And he happily screams down the downhills. To each his own. There is no doubt that hills are tiring, particularly at the end of a long day’s ride.

Equipment – It’s easy to take my bike for granted. When it hums along smoothly it’s my best friend, my trusty steed. But when the gears start slipping I can get pretty cranky. And I begin looking for a bike shop. Flat tires are always a hazard, but our Armadillo tires do provide some good prevention. And Rich is very good at replacing the inner tubes. I really need to work on that…

Scenery – The miles go by ever so much more quickly when there’s great scenery along the way. We see it at 12 mph so we have plenty of time to look around. And that’s the whole point of cycling, to see the countryside.

 

Food – To a cyclist, food is critical. The calories we burn up day after day give us the privilege of eating whatever we want, and lots of it. It’s also a highlight of our day. There’s no better rest stop than taking time out at a good restaurant to refuel. And no bigger disappointment than poor food. We’ve earned it, after all. It better be good. Oh, and ice cream is a necessity, of course. We also have to be attentive to the availability of food. More than once we’ve cycled long distances to find restaurants closed or out of business. That is a big bummer.

After 12 days on the road so far, we’ve run the gamut on all of these factors. Our moods and enjoyment often fluctuate throughout the day as conditions change. This morning’s travel on a busy road with no shoulders and endless hills felt brutal. But when the shoulders widened, the pavement improved and the land flattened out, life suddenly got much better. When the sun came out as well, we knew we’d reached the far positive side of the enjoyment equation.

 

 

 

 

 

The Morning Commute

Progress to date: 10 days, 450 miles

It wasn't exactly a traffic jam. But we encountered our first fellow cycle tourers on our morning ride out of Johnson City. For about 16 miles we followed the Adventure Cycling Route for traveling across country along the southern tier. So it wasn't surprising to meet others on that stretch. We always enjoy stopping to talk to other touring cyclists, and our first exchange was with a young man cycling solo from New Orleans to San Diego. It was his first long distance trip, and he seemed to have it pretty well figured out. The next one was a woman fully loaded who didn't stop on a long downhill – we wouldn't haven't either.

Molly crossing a stream

Finally we had a long chat with another couple headed for the Hill Country. They gave us helpful advice about an upcoming stream crossing followed by steep hills. I still managed to soak one foot in the splash, but it was still better to be prepared. It was at the top of a super steep climb that we met a local cyclist. It turns out he's done the Great Divide and other amazing cycling challenges. He was doing repeats on the hill known as “the wall” but he was very complimentary about my making it up fully loaded.

The remainder of the day's ride completed our travels through the Hill Country. But not before challenging us with some hair raising dips and climbs with no shoulder and city traffic rushing by as we entered the outskirts of Austin. Despite being mid-afternoon, there was no lack of cars and an occasional pickup truck intent on intimidating us as he thundered by in close proximity.

We had our first Warm Showers stay that evening and were well taken care of by Don and charmed by his young children. It's always a joy and a privilege to be hosted by other cyclists. This trip doesn't have many opportunities for such home stays, so we especially appreciated the hospitality.

Morning took us right into the fray of the real rush hour commute in Austin, triggering not so distant memories of our own work life. But rather than dashing off to jobs (lucky us!), we cycled along the ubiquitous and well designed bike lanes of Austin to reach a MetroRapid bus. Boarding at the originating station gave us plenty of time to load our bikes on the rack in front and haul our gear onto the bus. For the next hour and a half, we let the bus driver deal with city traffic and deliver us to the far northern side of the city. This was Rich's solution to crossing a big metropolitan area, and we agreed that it was well worth our $3.50 combined fare to save us 25 miles of cycling hassle.

Using a MetroRapid bus

Coming out the other side of Austin, it was clear that we had left all the hills behind. With barely undulating terrain, and only a cross wind to contend with, we made rapid progress heading NE out of Austin. It was no coincidence that Rich's mood was boyant as we left the big city behind and entered the countryside once more.

At the Rainbow Courts Motel

With the sun streaming down, the afternoon's heat grew as did our thirst and weariness. With little break in the journey besides refreshment stops, we were both relieved to complete our 58 miles for the day. The Rainbow Courts Motel Rich had targeted in Rockdale turned out to be a real gem. Almost hidden from view at the road, we entered a flowery lane and passed into a beautiful campus with pretty motel units and cabins. In the center was a green populated by Adirondack chairs and several friendly cats. I knew immediately where I would spend the remainder the afternoon. And soon all thoughts of a bustling commute through the city were easily forgotten.

 

A Day with LBJ

Entrance to the LBJ Ranch

It was the perfect day for sightseeing, and we took full advantage of it. Having only 42 miles to get from Fredericksburg to Johnson City by back roads left us with plenty of time in the middle to explore the LBJ Ranch.

Even the ride to the entrance was enjoyable. Following the Pedernales River on Ranch Road 1 through beautiful green grounds, we could see the ranch across the way. With the sun shining down through a perfectly blue sky and temperatures still in the comfortable range, it was idyllic.

Junction Schoolhouse

Our first stop was at Junction School, the one-room schoolhouse where LBJ first attended school and later signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with his former teacher at his side. From there we wound through the grounds and made our way over to the ranch house. Right outside was the Jetstar plane that LBJ flew from Washington directly to the ranch while President, which he dubbed Airforce One Half since it was so small.

Tickets to tour the “Texas White House” were a bargain at $3 and we had a wonderful guide who took us through the house. In addition to describing the rooms, he incorporated insights into LBJ's personality, likes, dislikes and habits. What made it all especially interesting to us was that it was history that was within our own lifetimes, and easily within our range of memory. The furnishings, clothing and accessories in the home were of an era that was entirely familiar. And we could relate it all to a President we remembered.

But what gave us the greatest shock was stepping into the dining room. There on the walls was the same mural we had in our home for 26 years! In this case it was wall paper that featured a tranquil domestic scene of a bridge with a village down below and a mountain in the distance, repeated all around the room. In our house, it was a painting done on a single wall by the former owner of the house, which we preserved for all those years. We'd always thought it was an original design, yet it must have been copied from this same wall paper pattern! Little did we know we had this in common with LBJ.

LBJ Ranch
Molly at the gazebo

We took our time viewing the additional buildings and exhibits before finally moving along. The weather had heated up by then and we arrived in Johnson City very ready for our afternoon DQ cones. Our motel had beautiful grounds which included a very nice small pool. Taking a cool dip after cycling felt heavenly. I followed that with hanging out in the lovely gazebo surrounded by roses. It was a wonderful continuation of the day.

It was still warm when we walked home from dinner. The sun was low in the sky, casting its golden hour glow on a huge expanse of wildflowers. I wasn't alone in stopping to take photos. It appeared to be very popular with the locals. Having learned how much he treasured his ranch land and his love for National Parks, it seemed a fitting finale to our day with LBJ.

Johnson City wildflowers

 

 

Hill Country Day Tripping

With the Texas Hill Country being one of our primary destinations on this trip, we decided to make Fredericksburg our home base and stay three nights there. Normally, we plan our accomodations only a day or two ahead of time, but with the bluebonnets at their height we discovered that rooms were booking up quickly, particularly over the weekend. Rich nabbed reservations in one of the few remaining motels with space. While that could have been a risky proposition, luck was with us and the very new managers at the modest Miller Inn put us in the newly renovated “Lone Star Suite.” It felt good to unpack our panniers and settle in for a spell.

Dinner at Silver Creek Beer Garden

The weather forecast for our stay was not the greatest. Clouds and thunderstorms dominated the days, and it made planning a bit iffy, but fortunately the worst we got was some heavy mist. And we even saw a bit of sun. Evenings were mostly delightful, with comfortable temperatures and good opportunities to sit outside and enjoy some local music.

Molly and cowboy at Java Ranch

Mornings found us at the Java Ranch. It was a treat to be able to take the time for a leisurely coffee and breakfast before starting our days. It seemed to be popular with cyclists, as we met a group of folks from Minnesota and an itinerant biking enthusiast there both mornings. I rather liked the local cowboy.

In between we did our day trips with the luxury of leaving our gear behind. Our first adventure was to visit Luckenback. Little more than a collection of old time cowboy buildings and the site of many an informal music gathering, it is normally a quiet sleepy place. Not so when we visited! It was the day of their annual half-marathon. Not only did we cycle alongside the stream of runners heading for Luckenbach, but the place was overrun with fit, sweaty people and the paraphernalia that comes with a major sporting event. It wasn't your typical Luckenbach, but did make for a fun atmosphere. It also meant that there was a band playing in the Dance Hall at 10 in the morning, and we marveled at plenty of runners with enough energy left to do the Texas Two Step!

Scenes from Luckenbach

It was no big surprise that on day 2 Rich wanted a rest day, but I didn't. So we each pursued our own desires. Rich indulged his love of history by going to the National Museum of the Pacific War.

An old cottage along my bike ride

I headed out on a route recommended by the local bike shop, which turned out to be a real gem. And it taught me a lot about the Hill Country. Prior to arriving, I wasn't sure just what to expect. All I knew was that it was where the wildflowers were at their best. With the term “hill” in the name, I didn't know whether we'd be scaling big peaks or rolling over gentle slopes. As it turns out, the area has moderate hills and some respectable climbs. It can definitely deliver a challenge for cyclists, but it's all very doable – especially when not laden with gear. Today's ride was all on small roads with no lines or markings, and no traffic. The only group of cars I saw was about a dozen little sport cars out for a collective spin. I wound through ranch grazing land with loads of trees and vistas that displayed more of the same. It was distinctly quiet and the only interruptions in my ride were the frequent cattle grates I had to cross. Interestingly, wildflowers were not much in evidence. There was a blanket of bluebonnets just where I'd been told I would find them. But otherwise, the blooms seemed to be concentrated more north and east of my route. I'll admit I enjoyed cycling at my own speed and the freedom to pile up the miles as I chose. And I was relieved to complete my 40-mile circuit with no flat tires or rain storms.

Day Trips: Red = both of us, Orange = Molly

We've done well by Fredericksburg. It's been nice to be in a larger town where we could utilize the excellent Bicycle Works shop and enjoy some nicer restaurants. Now it's time to move on from day tripping to daily trips again.

 

Bluebonnet Perfection

Progress to date: 5 days, 230 miles

This was to be bluebonnet day. Starting in Llano, we were at the gateway to the Hill Country and headed for Fredericksburg at its core. We'd seen wildflowers along the roadsides already, but now we were ready for the big time.

Of course all the locals had plenty of advice. The one thing they all recommended was the Willow City Loop. It is THE place to see bluebonnets, we were told. Since it was just off our intended route, we were all for it. We were also informed that our timing was perfect – the bluebonnets were at their peak. Not only that, but it was the best display in years. I was excited. This is what we'd come for.

The morning dawned dark and gloomy, with storms in the area. Striking out at an early hour, we felt a few sprinkles and cycled through areas that clearly had some recent rain. It didn't feel like the best day to be viewing wildflowers. But we pressed onward, willing the skies to lighten.

The shoulder on the road had diminished to a narrow crumbly strip, and even on the 2-lane road the speed limit was 70 mph. So we were eager for the opportunity to divert into a smaller road. Before we did, we found a couple of buddies – two Texas Longhorns enjoying the bluebonnets as well. They didn't seem too bothered by our presence and being intent on taking their picture.

Willow City Loop turned out to be a small quiet road, barely wide enough for two way traffic. The damp weather became an advantage, as it discouraged other sightseers from showing up and we had the road largely to ourselves. We were soon enthralled. For 13 miles the road wound through private land that was a haven for wildflowers. Not only were there bluebonnets, but a whole host of varieties of wildflowers which dominated the landscape. Sometimes they only lined the roadway. Other times they formed blankets of color that reached far back into the trees or covered whole fields with blue, white or red.

Between each landowner, there were cattle grates in the road. While the frequent interruptions were little problem for the cars, walking over them with our bikes proved to be quite a challenge!

The road curved, rose and fell and there were flowers to be seen at every twist and turn. The few cars that were there barely moved any faster than we did. Photo stops were frequent. The best part of all was being able to lolligag and gawk without any fear of traffic. And it was so quiet.

Our progress was luxuriously slow, and as time went on the weather steadily improved. As the day got brighter and dryer, the number of cars increased. It made us glad for the solitude we had on the bulk of the loop. It was definitely the best display of wildflowers we could imagine. I think pictures tell it the best.

Exiting from the loop, we were able to travel the remaining distance to Fredericksburg via other back roads. While the bluebonnets were not as much in evidence, the sun came out and for a change we had the wind at our backs. We concluded our day with dinner while listening to a local singer/guitar player on an outdoor patio in town. The perfect ending to our bluebonnet day.

 

 

Texas Roadside Sights

The closer we get to the hill country, the better the scenery. Or perhaps it's that the winds have abated somewhat and we are able to raise our heads and actually take in what's around us. I think it's some of both, really, but either way it has been a visual treat.

This is what cycle touring is all about. Traveling the countryside at 12 mph, stopping to see things along the way, taking pictures and meeting local folk. However, I'm not always the most observant cyclist. Sometimes I get too absorbed in pedaling along and forget to take in what's around me. So when I lost Rich this morning and had to double back to find him, I was given a second chance to see what I'd missed. He'd spotted a young donkey with its mother in a field. Although they were wandering away by the time I got there, I still had time to watch them. Just beyond, the adjacent farmhouse had two peacocks perched on the garage roof. I'd totally missed those the first time as well. At another stopping point, a dead tree first attracted Rich as he thought it harbored a bird. I thought the tree itself was more interesting.

Passing through tiny towns that barely make it on the map, it's a sure bet they have one or more nice churches. We have found their grounds to be pleasant resting spots. It's debatable whether there will be any businesses open. Today, we were lucky to find an all purpose general store. Purchasing a few snack items led to questions about our trip and some fun conversations.

One ubiquitous sight that consistently compells us to stop is Dairy Queen. There is nothing better than ice cream after a long hot day of cycling. And it's the one time we can indulge without a single pang of guilt. In Goldthwaite the manager was very interested in our trip and was eager to help us out. We left with a fistful of coupons for free dip cones! We cashed in the first pair the very next afternoon.

But back to the roadside. With each passing mile the wild flowers become more abundant. Not knowing if the varieties varied by locale, I finally took the time to stop and capture as many of them as I could.

Of course the most famous and plentiful flowers are the bluebonnets. The patches grow larger and thicker the further south we travel, and along with their volume comes the fragrance. On a bicycle, it's much more than just a roadside sight – it's a feast for all the senses.

 

Cycling Plan B

What's the best way to shorten a cycling route? By lengthening it via a detour, of course! Since towns are far apart in Texa with literally no services in between, our options for daily destinations are limited. And today's new target was only 20 miles away – unacceptably short in my book. So I devised a solution that made us both happy, and resulted in a great day on the road.

Instead of heading straight to Comanche, we first rode to De Leon. That delivered two immediate benefits – it got us off the busy highway we'd been traveling, and it gave us a respite from the wind as it became a cross-wind while we went west. It was very pleasant cycling through the countryside flanked by ranches, farms, cows, horses and a donkey. Rich was buoyed by the easier travel and day 2 was off to a great start.

I'd scoped out a couple of places for breakfast in De Leon, and we indulged in our favorite routine of getting some miles under our belt before relaxing over a good meal. The Two or More Coffeehouse turned out to be a delightful place that served up a bountiful breakfast for Rich and satisfied my latte cravings along with good fresh fare. All with good ol' country music in the background.

Inevitably, we then turned south to face the wind once again. But continuing on a smaller road helped us cope better. The landscape was pastoral and green – probably the only time of the year that it is so lush. And the promised Texas wildflowers were thriving. The purple, pink, yellow, white and blue hues dotted the roadside continuously, and for the first time we saw a whole field ablaze with yellow flowers. Naturally, we scouted out the famous bluebonnets, and took time out to enjoy them along the way. Oh, and we did check for rattlesnakes before settling in among the blossoms – we were well warned about that.

With a shortened itinerary, we reached Comanche by early afternoon. It was fortunate for us that the sun remained behind clouds most of the morning, as our arms and legs were already a rosy shade of pink. It also helped keep the temperature down to a tolerable level.

A quiet afternoon to relax and dinner at a local Mexican restaurant completed our day. I'll admit that I prefer the full days of cycling to these abbreviated versions. Hopefully the wind will abate somewhat, and Rich will acclimate to the heat and the routine so we can we return to our full schedule soon. But for now Plan B it is.