Beyond Bluebonnets

We could have called this the Texas Wildflower Tour. But we had no way of knowing that every mile we covered would be brilliantly painted by roadside wildflowers.

We were already familiar with the Texas Bluebonnets. They lured us into the Hill Country, causing us to reverse our route just to see them again. The blue spikes topped with a tinge of white are irresistible, just like their larger cousin the lupine which grace the scenic highway on the North Shore. But bluebonnets were only the beginning.

Molly cycling by bluebpnnets

At first it was the Indian Paintbrush, another bloom familiar to us Minnesotans. The reddish orange spikey flowers were joined by other reds, yellows, oranges, whites and purples. We tried to photograph them as we found each new variety. It was a fun yet never ending task. Just as one set of flowers disappeared, new ones came to take their place.

Texas wildflowers 1

We found the flowering cacti to be especially appealing. For all the times we’ve seen cactus, we have never seen them in bloom. The prickly pear burst out in yellow and orange flowers.

Flowering yellow cactusFlowering orange cactus

As we moved into the northeastern part of the state, we detected a definite change. First, flowers that were petering out in the Hill Country were just coming into bloom. It was a spring resurgence. Even bluebonnets made a return appearance.

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Then the further into the Piney Woods we got, the thicker the vegetation. No longer did we see delicate little blossoms. New bushy varieties took hold, as did tall flowers like black eyed Susans. Competing for sunshine in the heavy undergrowth, when they thrived they dominated the roadside.

Roadside wildflower mix

The sheer delight of mixed BLOSSOMS lining the roadway called to us. We couldn’t resist wading into the explosion of color.

Rich in the wildflowersMolly in the wildflowers

We were drawn by the bluebonnets. Little did we know there was a whole world of Texas wildflowers, beyond the bluebonnets.

Woods and Weather

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Progress to date: 17 days, 721 miles

The memories from our last Texas Tour lingered. As we completed our wide arc around San Antonio and angled northeastward, I looked forward to revisiting the forested part of the state. Aptly called Piney Woods, East Texas receives a lot more rainfall than the more desert-like land we had been traveling. And it hosts plenty of pine and deciduous trees.

For a warm-up, we spent a night at Lake Somerville State Park camping in our humble tent. The campground was deserted, with only one other couple and the campground hosts holding down campsites. The park is designed for heavy equestrian use, with huge cages to hold horses right at the campsites. I’ve never seen that in Minnesota!

Lake Somerville campsite

The washrooms were a bit of a hike, and just in case he spotted a bird, Rich carried his camera on his trips through the woods. Indeed, he returned from one such journey with great elation. It wasn’t a bird. It was an armadillo! A live one! And by virtue of his foresight, he managed to get a picture of it. We’ve seen many a dead, squished armadillo on the roads while cycling, and were convinced there were no live ones to be seen. We now know differently. I’m still envious.

Armadillo

We truly reached Piney Woods when we stayed in Huntsville, on the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest. We could already detect the increase in rainfall, with far more underbrush and roadside wildflowers that had to compete with the additional vegetation. With an AirBnB right near the Sam Houston Park in town, we spent a warm evening walking through the well documented exhibits and buildings that were part of his heritage. Once again, we felt enriched by being right in town surrounded by local history.

Sam Houston Park

Not only did the heavier precipitation levels produce beautiful forests, but it also presented us with our first real threat of rain. While we have cycled in soggy conditions numerous times, if we can avoid it we will. In this case, the prudent thing seemed to be to book two nights in Crockett, and make plans for the in-between day based on the weather.

It turned out to be a winning strategy. Although I mourned losing out on spending a couple of days cycling all the way across the Davy Crockett National Forest and back, we dialed back our route to reduce it to a short day trip. The morning held heavy clouds, but remained dry. The clouds even broke enough to give us brief moments of sunshine. We could feel the heat and humidity building as we passed through the lush green and towering pines, and savored riding bikes liberated from all our gear.

Rich in Davy Crockett forest

Molly in Davy Crockett forest

Finishing up about lunchtime, we could see the line of angry dark clouds approaching. Instituting our contingency plans, we bought a bottle of wine and stopped by Pizza Hut to make sure they delivered. It wasn’t long after returning that the rain started. Thunderstorms rattled the air throughout the afternoon and by evening it was pouring. Snug in our B&B and smug about our dry dinner plans, we set up in the front parlor to enjoy our repast.

Dinner in B&B

The rain ended by morning. We’d beaten the weather. And it was time to begin moving out of the woods. I wasn’t so ready for that.  But no doubt Texas has plenty more to show me in our final remaining week of cycling.

Tales of the Road

Rich coined a new term, “Road Surface Roulette.” It pretty much describes how fate rules our bike touring days. Spending around five hours a day physically pushing the pedals, and up to seven hours total travel time, the road is our constant companion. The road holds our mental state hostage and toys with our physical stamina.

A smooth road surface (oh blessed blacktop) makes for effortless cycling. Combined with a good wide shoulder it overcomes wind and fatigue. It is the secret sauce in the recipe for happy, upbeat cyclists. Freed from road worries, sightseeing takes over, miles fly by, legs pump tirelessly and all is well with the world. In this state of euphoria, it is easy to fall prey to the notion that it will go on forever. We know better, but prefer to live in the moment.

Rich by roadside

Without warning, the shoulder disappears. Pavement crumbles. And – horror of horrors – rough chip seal takes over. Texas highway departments are in love with chip seal. That rock encrusted road coating easily takes three miles per hour off our pace. Now we bounce along, wheels slowly grinding over the pebbles, bicycles rattling, teeth chattering. Our world view takes a nosedive.

We have a love-hate relationship with counties. Crossing a county line guarantees a change in road conditions. The sign signaling a new county can bring salvation or devastation. Our psyches recalibrate accordingly. At one such crossing, Rich was so happy he dismounted to kiss the ground of the new road jurisdiction!

Rich at county lineRich kissed the pavement

We have developed a special affinity for Texas Farm Roads. Whenever possible, Rich routes us along these country lanes. The small back roads feel like private bike trails, with minimal traffic and pastoral scenery. Road conditions are not always ideal, but it matters less when we have the road to ourselves. The one exception was the mile of rock strewn dirt road that we encountered. I prefer to block that episode from memory.

Rich cycled farm road

Getting off the beaten track does come with its trade offs. Less civilization translates to fewer options for food, and we learn not to be picky. It means having breakfast in some pretty interesting places. And sometimes being pleasantly surprised.

Molly at Taqueria shack

Farm road scenery is up close and personal. Cows get up and run when we cycle past. Sometimes the whole herd follows us. Lawn art amuses, oil rigs pump amid wildflowers, Rich watches for birds and we observe local life. We even find some great specimens of Texas Longhorns. Cows and cattle egretsMusician lawn ornamentOil rig with wildflowers

Texas Longhorns

Life on the road is never dull. It’s the tales that emerge from our cycling that make it worthwhile. I’ll try to remember that the next time the roulette wheel comes up chip seal.

A Trip to the Library

Taking a rest day is not in my vocabulary. But after two weeks without a break, Rich was ready for a day off the bikes. He approached the subject carefully, suggesting a two night stay in College Station. Little did he know that I had already been eyeing the George Bush Presidential Library there, eager to visit it. A deal was struck. We were both happy.

Molly and Rich at Bush’s presidential library

Our timing proved to be unique. With Barbara Bush’s death just the day before, there was heightened interest in the library. Already the media was swarming the place, and preparations were in process for her burial there later in the week. Admission fees were waived, and ample volunteer guides were on hand to steer us through the exhibits and add personal notes of interest.

Entrance to Bush library

This was my first visit to a Presidential Library, but I already know it won’t be my last. I found the whole experience fascinating. I expected the exhibit to chronicle Bush’s years as President. What I didn’t realize was that it actually encompassed his entire life. It was a complete picture of the man, his background, his wife Barbara, his family, his career and his life principles. By the time I finished, I had gained a deep respect for both George and Barbara as role models as well as our country’s leaders.

I realized how little I really knew about Bush. I discovered the breadth of experience he had amassed before becoming President, and how each position prior to that one contributed to his depth of expertise and knowledge for the job. I found repeated messages about how he treated everyone with respect and continually reached out to others personally, resulting in his powers of diplomacy. And woven through it all was his commitment to family. From his firstborn to the large family photos with at least a dozen grandchildren, his and Barbara’s involvement in their lives never wavered. Nor did their devotion to community service. Above all his bravery in World War II, his political accomplishments, and his stint as President, my biggest takeaway is the constant drive to serve others that he and Barbara embraced.

I was impressed with the selection of themes for the numerous exhibits and the tasteful way they were presented. The numerous artifacts and photos wove a compelling story for each scenario. What I enjoyed most was that in addition to the informational write-ups, there were little “Did you know?” posts that delved into the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of George Bush and his family and compatriots. They contributed humanity and feelings to the exhibits.

Piece of Berlin Wall

A piece of the Berlin Wall, which came down during Bush’s Presidency

Molly and Bush’s limo

I had two favorite rooms. One was a replica of the Oval Office as it was in George Bush’s day. The docent pointed out that the desk was two sided. Best of all, they invited visitors to sit and pose in George’s chair. How could we could resist?

Molly in Oval Office

Second was the office George Bush used at Camp David. George himself narrates the description of various items in the office, including as mundane an item as his coffee cup warmer. I was amazed to learn that he spent three weekends a month there. What a blessing it was, mot only to have a place to retreat but to have space for family to join them. Equally important, George made Camp David available to other staffers during the week when it was not in use. Once again, his humanity reigned.

Camp David office

Exiting the building after spending over three hours there, it was impossible to miss the flags at half mast for Barbara. Just beyond, memorials we’re already being left for her. Not only flowers, but children’s books in honor of her untiring drive to improve literacy in our country. It was a very touching. A fitting closure for our unforgettable trip to the Library.

Memorials for Barbara Bush

Cycling through History

It started with the need for a rest. Although we were zeroing in on our destination for the day, battling the headwinds had taken its toll and we needed a break. I wasn’t particularly interested in the historical marker. It just looked like a good spot to pull over.

Once there, I couldn’t ignore the display. Lining the path to the monument, information signs brought me up to speed on the Texas War for Independence from Mexico. It so happened that the locals were holding a canon than the Mexicans believed belonged to them. And so came the battle cry, “Come and take it!” We were standing near the spot where the first shot was fired. And ultimately the Texans prevailed. Cool story. And still a good place to rest.

Molly and Rich at historic monument

Arriving in Gonzales, I was suddenly very glad for my history lesson. The canon, first shot and “Come and take it” were prominent everywhere – flags, business names, government building plaques and even sidewalk garbage bins proudly displayed these symbols. Best of all, we had chosen to stay in an old historic hotel right on the town square.

Come and take it

Having just come through a number of small towns with little to see, we were hungry for more interesting sights. So we made a pact. No roadside motels on the neon strip if we can find accommodations right in the center of town. Even if it meant spending more for it. It certainly paid off in Gonzales. I spent the lovely sunny afternoon wandering its historic streets.

The majestic county courthouse dominated the town square, with other impressive government and private buildings flanking each side of it. Wandering down the street away from the square I found evidence of a very prosperous town. Huge homes with turrets, Victorian houses painted in brilliant colors and stone mansions lined the street. Even more modest size homes made a statement with their classic lines. And an old Mobil station returned to its former glory.

Gonzales courthouseGonzales mansionGonzales Mobile station

Parks were in abundance, as were monuments to their war heros. The thriving town square offered many choices for eating, drinking and music. We were drawn in by the country music band members that told us “We don’t play anything from this century.”  Listening to their tune capped the evening,

Gonzales central square

We hadn’t originally planned to stay in Smithville, but found a Warm Showers host there. By the time we learned he was not available, we were sold on the place. Following our new mantra led us to The Katy House B&B, just a block off Main Street. The stately brick home built in 1909 has been revitalized as a welcoming and comfortable inn.

Katy House B&B

My radar (and advance sleuthing) told me Amy’s Ice Cream was just down the road. The legendary local spot was humming with activity, and we eagerly joined the crowd. Rich creamy cups of ice cream soothed away the heat of the day.

Molly at Amy’s Ice Cream

It was the arrival of the railroad that caused Smithville to boom and prosper, spawning more beautiful large homes. Today it exudes an aura of vitality and pride. Its Main Street is lined with colorful shops and restaurants, and ends in a park with a picturesque gazebo and railway museum. Walking the streets and taking in the local activity from a rocker on the porch of the B&B, I could sense the town embracing its history yet thriving in the present.

Smithville train muralSmithville Main StreetSmithville gazeboNot every town we cycle through has a glorious history. Not every town is prosperous. But staying in the heart of the community and taking in the local scene makes for a much richer experience.

Hasty Judgements

Texas Tour progress map

Progress to date: 8 days, 362 miles

Standing on the shoulder in the blistering 87 degree sunshine we stared across the busy road at our intended motel. We had already traversed the length of the town and were now in the seedy outskirts. All other lodging options were already well behind us. “I’m not impressed.” Rich’s statement covered both of us.

Long tan prefab buildings lay in rows on a large concrete lot. Each barracks had a wooden deck running its length, serving door after door of rooms. There was no compensating green space in sight, just commercial buildings. Bleak hardly described it.

Oil riggers motel 1

Seeking shelter under a shade tree, we pulled out our phones to reconnoiter. It was a long way back cycling into the wind before we’d reach another place. Melting in the heat after already covering 54 miles, the idea was not appealing. But was it more unappetizing than staying in this barren shelter? We reread the reviews, and it was clear that this place housed out of town workers. But they had pretty favorable things to say. We figured we had little to lose by asking to see a room.

Three young women in the office greeted us cheerfully and answered our inquiries regarding availability and cost. “We’re pretty busy right now, with all the men in the oil fields,” Rhonda told us. But they did have single and double rooms available. “And the price includes dinner and breakfast. Tonight we’re serving spaghetti and meatballs, with homemade bread, and fresh lemon bars for dessert.” Sweeter words could not have been uttered. We still went to see the room, but Rich noted that was superfluous. “You sold us on the spaghetti!” he told her.

The room was clean and very tidy. With a stove, kitchen sink and full sized refrigerator it was even more than we needed. And the bed looked firm and comfortable. “We also do your laundry for you,” Rhonda added. “Just drop it off in the office and we will return it folded to your room.” We couldn’t wait to hand over our hot and sweaty cycling gear. Perhaps there was something to this oil field retreat. We might have more in common with those guys than we thought. Priorities: food, laundry, shelter and sleep.

Oil riggers motel 2

Dinner was served from 3:00-8:00pm, but we were advised to get there before the guys returned at 5:30. We expected to be surrounded by workers, but not too surprisingly they all picked up their dinner and retreated to their rooms. Instead, we met Rhonda’s three children. The youngest two were especially intrigued by our cycling, and we traded bicycling stories for dance routines, jr high football talk and two hand drawn pictures of a cat. “You are cool” graced the back, in neat first grade printing. Oh, and the food was as good as the company.

Breakfast ran from 3:00-9:00am, but it was said to be pretty dead by 7:30. No problem! Our only company for munching on cornflakes and a breakfast taco was the cook. She had been there since 2:00am. “I made over a hundred tacos this morning, and they are nearly gone,” she informed us. “Those oil rig guys left hours ago.” Sure enough the parking lot was deserted, and it was as quiet as it had been all night long. With hours like theirs, we didn’t hear any partying going on.

Had we been in a car, we would never have given the place a second look. Traveling by bicycle gives us a whole different perspective. Practicality rules. We try things we might otherwise avoid. We move outside our comfort zone.  It usually leads to some neat experiences, like this one. It was fortunate that we didn’t cave in to our initial hasty judgements.

Easing Up

Our legs reverberated all night long. Punishing hills and significant mileage this early in the trip took its toll on our bodies. Rich insisted we cut back, so we reduced our mileage to 30-40 miles for a few days. We put the extra free time to good use, mostly exploring nature.

Kerrville has some beautiful parks and a new system of paved trails connecting them along the Guadalupe River. Tranquility Island, which was formed by recent floods and the river manipulating its sandbars, was as peaceful as its name. Rich reveled in the unusual birds he was able to find and photograph. We managed to while away most of the afternoon there.

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Warm Showers hosts are in short supply along our route, so we were thrilled to spend the night with Fred and Janice outside Kerrville. It was a most pleasant evening, with no end of conversation to share over a hearty meal. We were fascinated by Fred’s ingenious application of his engineering skills to bicycle development. In the morning he cycled with us on his bike that he can power by hand on the front wheel as well as pedal the back wheel!

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Our next stop was Bandera, self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World. John Wayne might agree, as we ate in a restaurant with dozens of his pictures staring down at us. The town did have a very Western look, and plenty of bars offering honky tonk music. The City Park was the main attraction for us. We settled into a small cabin opposite the park and I spent the afternoon writing on the riverbank, surrounded by huge ducks and geese squawking and vying for handouts.

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We unknowingly joined a fundraising effort for Relay for Life that evening. The restaurant we chose had all volunteer waitresses, whose tips were donated to support the cancer fund. They were a friendly lot, working hard but enjoying the unique experience – without any prior experience. The air was warm out on the deck under sun dappled trees, with a singer to entertain us. Hearing that we were from Minnesota, he threw in a few Bob Dylan tunes for us.

photo apr 10, 7 35 09 pm

Not all short mileage days are easy. The 30 miles to go on our final “rolling rest day” turned out to be one of the most challenging yet. The combination of crumbled chip seal pavement and a headwind was bad enough. But when the shoulder narrowed down to about 15″ I lost all momentum. It was all I could do to balance on the precarious margin and stay out of the way of the rumbling trucks that blew past. Forget speed, it was all about survival. Scenery? I saw none. To add insult to injury, Rich had to spend our rest stop repairing another flat tire – his third in three days.

But I did see the colorful little hut alongside the road when we arrived in Hondo. It demanded investigating. Inside were colorful candies, jars of flavorings for Raspas (shaved ice – think snow cone), and Italian ices. The jolly owner happily explained them all to us, then dished up flavorful ices for us – lime for Rich, strawberry and mango for me. The perfect way to chill out after our hot, trying ride.

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So much for cutting back. Tomorrow it’s back to a 54 miler. Maybe that will be easier.