Are We Crazy?

We admit it. We have to be a bit on the crazy side to go bike touring. Why else would we subject ourselves to the whims of Mother Nature, the hours on a hard saddle, the pick of sleazy motels, and the potluck of unknown restaurants? It takes a true sense of adventure and at times a sense of humor to survive. And yet, we love it.

Wine with dinner in Ozark

Sometimes the challenges are unforeseen. Take the Chardonnay drought. For weeks in Texas, we struggled to get the hang of the whole BYOB thing. Countless times we'd arrive at a restaurant only to find that they didn't serve wine, but we were welcome to bring our own. Off we'd dash to the nearest gas station (yes, you read that right) or other dubious establishment and return with our bottle. Now in Arkansas, it's the dry counties. Forget bringing your own, you can't even buy it. After too many wineless nights, Rich informed me that Ozark, our next destination was not in a dry county. “How do you know?” I inquired. “I searched for liquor stores,” he responded with a grin.

If wine is Rich's hang-up, food is mine. I refuse to touch anything from a place with Golden Arches overhead, or other fast food joint. It's tough to keep up my standards when we are reduced to what's within cycling or walking distance. But so far I've managed, even if it means resorting to my stash of bagels and peanutbutter as an alternative. Despite our sharp scrutiny of the available restaurants, we've had our share of mediocre meals. It's especially crushing after a long day of cycling that leaves us famished, when going out to eat is the social highlight of our day. But we survive.

Rich at The Coffee Break

I'm also always on the lookout for a good coffeehouse. Fortunately, Rich has learned the value of such establishments for their guaranteed wifi. Now we're both happy. I get my coffee fix and he his internet quota. Today we found a wonderful place called The Coffee Break in Ozark. It's part of the Franklin County Learning Center, employing disabled adults and serving up delicious fresh sandwiches, coffee and baked goods. We already have plans to return for breakfast in the morning.

At times, I struggle to get Rich to stop to see some of the sights along the way. He's especially opposed to any length of detour. But at any hint of a “purple cow,” he's the one yelling Stop! For the uninitiated, a purple cow is any quirky, unusual object on the side of the road. It's origin harks back to our very first cycling tour when he really did see a purple cow. I just didn't realize it's significance at the time. Now I know better. Purple cows have been pretty rare on this trip so far, but here are a couple:

Rich and purple cows

Rich finds the Barbie Car Graveyard and a Peeping Jalopy

Weather is definitely a factor, every single day. We've become devotees of the weather map showing us what is in store for us, and change our plans on the fly to accommodate it. And yet, it is still unpredictable. Yesterday the possibility of rain was high all day. But we had a lovely sunny afternoon. We love surprises like that. Today we woke up to heavy showers that delayed our start by four hours. But by waiting we stayed dry, even if it meant shortening our distance for the day.

And despite all that we cycle on. The discomforts, the longing for a good meal, the raindrops and the squabbles all make for good stories in the end. Perhaps we're a bit crazy. But it's all worth it.

The beauty of cycle touring



Approaching the Big Climb

Each of the last few days we've thought, “This is it. We're going to start some serious climbing today.” But we haven't. Instead we have navigated the run up to the Ozark Mountains with some decent hills, snaked through passes that saved us altitude and enjoyed the plateaus in between. The bigger challenge has been the weather, delivering some huge winds that battered us physically and mentally, and rain that delayed us for a morning. But that's all par for the course on a trip that is at the whim of the elements.

The one constant on our way north through Arkansas has been the scenery, which can be described with one word – gorgeous. The greenery is incredibly lush with the wet spring, and new varieties of wildflowers paint the countryside. We've been traveling on Scenic Byways which have been reasonably quiet, enhancing the pastoral views of farms, animals and wooded countryside. Towns are few, which makes for long interrupted stretches of gliding through nature's beauty.

What more can I say? I think pictures tell it best.

Rich pedaling through the countryside

A quiet rest area makes a nice stop...for resting!

Feeling a sense of accomplishment after crossing our first foothills

Convenience stores aren't scenic but provide welcome warm-ups

Buttercups fill the farm fields

A 1933 tourist cabin built of native sandstone and field stone

There is no doubt that our prelude to the Ozarks is about over. Tomorrow we enter Ozark National Forest and the topographical map view tells us all we need to know. That big climb is approaching.


Hello Arkansas

Progress to date: 21 days, 924 miles

We had expected to cover more than 42 miles in Oklahoma, but thanks to good advice from our Warm Showers host we altered our route to take a more bike friendly road north through Arkansas. It was excellent advice as we enjoyed good pavement, wide shoulders and moderate traffic on the revised route. Between that, the constant sunshine and beautiful scenery, we couldn't help but take an immediate liking to the state.

Rich pitching the tent

With a clear 2-day forecast, we took the opportunity to camp out for the night. With hot weather, storm predictions and lack of tenting sites throughout our Texas travels, we hadn't yet pitched our tent. Rich found an obscure little campground in Big Coon Creek Park, run by the Army Corps of Engineers on Gillham Lake. It was about seven miles off the main road, and for that distance the small local roads twisted and turned with steep hills. It was mostly downhill, as we wended our way down to the reservoir. I knew it didn't bode well for the next morning's ride, but quickly shoved the thought aside as the moment was too beautiful to spoil. The breeze from our descent under the shade of the trees sure felt good on a hot, sunny afternoon.

Flooded Gillham Lake

It was pure pleasure being able to spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening outdoors in the balmy temperatures and catch the last remaining rays of sun at our campsite. The lake was overflowing from the area's abundant spring rains, leaving picnic tables submerged and trees surrounded by water. Dinner wasn't elaborate – sub sandwiches and fruit purchased earlier at Walmart – but it sure tasted good out there.

I can't say we slept well. It was camping after all. But we were up in time for the sunrise, which was was a treat.

Sunrise over Gillham Lake

Our departure started off with steep uphills, but the cool morning air under a clear blue sky counterbalanced the effort. It was good training, however, for what is to come. Although the main road dipped and rolled all day long, the real mountains began to appear in the distance. They both beckoned and threatened us with their cycling challenges. We know that tomorrow the climbing begins in earnest. Hello, Arkansas!

Ozarks in the distance



Refreshing Warm Showers

We're not very good at taking rest days. I in particular want to be on my bike each day, moving on. On an earlier trip, we came up with the idea of “rolling rest days.” They were low mileage days – really low, like 20 or less – when we took it easy and just sauntered on to a new location.

We had our first such modified rest day last week. But it wasn't the short ride that made it relaxing, it was our destination. We were guests of Warm Showers hosts Rodney and Debbie, who have a lovely home on Lake Jackson. Not only that, they have a separate guest house that they turned over to us for the night. It happened to be a beautiful afternoon, and we enjoyed visiting with our hosts while sitting out back overlooking the lake. We had the advantage of both good company and being able to retire to our own space at the end of the evening. The golden sunshine bathed the lake in a beautiful glow which we admired as Rod fed us plentiful pancakes before departing in the morning.

Our next Warm Showers stay started normally enough. We'd just made our way into Oklahoma and had plans to stay with Stan and Misti for one night in Broken Bow. Our timing was very fortunate, in that their church was hosting The Singing Men of East Texas that evening, and we were able to attend the concert with them. Those men had powerful voices and sang with great fervor. When accompanied by their own brass ensemble, they rocked the church! It was a dynamic evening of music.

Our plans to cycle the next morning were quickly scrubbed when we awoke to thunderstorms and pouring rain. I kept thinking we'd find a window for cycling, but Stan and Misti knew better and immediately extended an invitation to stay another night. We felt so fortunate, as all day long the storms regenerated and kept up a constant downpour. So rather than slogging through it all, we had a lovely rest day in the comfort of their home, warm and dry.

An added benefit to our extended stay was the opportunity to see the new bike shop that Stan and Misti are opening. Having acquired an historic old stone building in Broken Bow built by the WPA, they have been hard at work using their own skills and sweat equity to restore it. After months of work, progress on the transformation is astonishing and we could easily envision its possibilities. Their plans are exciting and we can't wait to hear the news of opening their Gear Down bike and trailer shop. Sharing a delicious dinner prepared by Stan with good company and a cycling movie was the perfect conclusion to our unexpected day of rest.

Despite storms continuing into the night, the morning dawned sunny and clear and we were perfectly refreshed and ready to cycle. Thanks to Warm Showers.



Now that’s Service

It's really hit or miss. When bike touring, we don't plan very far ahead. A day or so for lodging and hours or minutes prior to looking for a meal. Google reviews or consulting TripAdvisor is sometimes helpful, but nothing is guaranteed to be accurate. So finding those hidden gems with folks who deliver exceptional service is often pure happenstance. And we've had a run of good luck recently.

Take The Cake Lady. Her bakery café in Mt. Vernon was the only place we found open, so our breakfast decision was made for us. The spotlessly clean and spare room bore no hint of the quality of the meal to come. Everything was simple but home made, down to the freshly chopped and cooked potatoes which Rich declared the “best ever.” I gratefully accepted the healthy alternative of fresh tomatoes, which was a nice touch. But the best was yet to come. With our large, moist biscuits hot out of the oven, she brought out a large canning jar of strawberry jam – from freshly picked berries and made just the night before. It was like spreadable sweet sunshine atop those tasty biscuits. I just had to request a second one.

Just outside of Clarksville, we came upon yet another Historical Marker. But this one was unlike all the other anonymous plaques. Flanked by both US and Texas flags, and adorned with the bountiful rose trees we have been admiring, we had to stop and check it out. This one was dedicated to Police Officer Tippet, who was gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald when he stopped him for questioning after JFK was shot. The sight was near the farm where he grew up. This man who gave his life in the line of service was well worth commemorating.

Approaching our last night in Texas, we found little to recommend the motel on the outskirts of Clarksville, and independently we each mentally justified the alternative of staying in the town's B&B. It was conveniently located in town and we looked forward to the splurge after some grim motel rooms. We were greeted with great enthusiasm by Perry, the owner of the Courthouse Inn B&B and instantly knew we'd made the right choice. It was more like being welcomed into his home than a formal guest scenario, as he heartily encouraged us to bring our bikes right on inside and saw to our every need.

When dinner time approached, Perry came through with a wonderful recommendation for the Italian Bistro down the street. There the young owners not only served up a delicious meal, but provided the best service we've ever had. In fact, they colluded with Perry to make it an extra special meal for us. It was such a mild evening that I returned to the front porch of the inn to read until bedtime, while Rich captured the inn, courthouse and me in some fantastic night time photography.

It was a luxury indeed to relax the next day while the overnight rains continued into the morning hours. Perry doled out equal amounts of entertaining conversation and story telling with his cooking, and assured us we could hang out as long as needed.

They say good service is hard to find these days. We've certainly gotten our share lately. Thanks, folks!



Why we do this

You just can't predict when those priceless moments will arrive. But when they do, it is oh so sweet. Tonight was one of those occasions.

The day was a trying one. Despite the expectations of “spring showers” we managed to stay dry on the first 15 days of this trip. And even today, we were sure we'd dodge the storms. We cycled through some beautiful farms and horse country. We enjoyed the mural in Mineaola, which reminded us of our daughter, Karen. And we lingered at the Kitchen's Restaurant, with their decadent cinnamon rolls, to let the rains pass. We kept our eyes on the weather maps. But eventually it all caught up with us. And yet, we still outwitted the downpour by sheltering under an unused carport.

Trying to beat the rain

At the end of the day, all we wanted was to escape our cheap motel in Winnsboro and find a good meal. The nearest restaurant was Richie's Grill and Cafe. As we wandered in to check the menu, we noticed the sandwich board outside promoting a live jam session that evening. Since the offerings looked reasonable, we gave it a try. Seated near the music, we couldn't help but hear the tunes and inquired about it. They are locals, we were told, who gather every Tuesday evening to play their accoustic guitars and take turns leading the songs. From what we could hear, it was mighty good. So once we finished our meal we wandered into the next room to have a listen.

We were warmly welcomed by the groupies already gathered, and were soon seated and mesmerized by the ten or more guitar players plus additional singers and musicians who made up the group. We couldn't help but be a bit obvious in our synthetic wear among the denim and cowboy hat population there, and we easily struck up conversations with those around us. Soon musicians came over to welcome us as well. They even managed to get us into the act!

The group rotated the lead among themselves as well as mentoring less experienced players, which was nice to see. And every so often they played something familiar enough that even we could sing along. It was wonderful to hear that their numbers swelled to 18 guitars on the first Fridays when they played at the local nursing home.

Sitting there listening, appreciating and just enjoying I couldn't help but think what a fun and unique experience it was. Sure, It could have happened if we were traveling by car. But chances are wwe wouldn't have been open to it the same way. This is why we bike tour. You can't beat offbeat, unplanned evenings like this.



Marathon Miles

Today's marathon was not ours but our son, Erik's. While we cycled through Texas, he ran the Boston Marathon! Having done it twice myself, I knew what a big dealt was for him and was so excited to follow his progress virtually through the race text updates.

Go Erik!

Carefully watching the time, when his 10am Boston starting time arrived, I shouted out “Go Erik!” for anyone in the Texas countryside who might be interested. And I couldn't resist sending a selfie to his fiancé to let her know I was out there cheering for him.

I'm afraid I don't recall a lot of the scenery we passed through this morning. My thoughts and my heart were in Boston with Erik. I was too busy calculating times, distances and remembered visual references on the course to notice what we were passing. While we had beautiful clear skies and bright sunshine yet a cool wind, I knew from checking the weather reports that he was dealing with a stiff headwind, rain and temperatures in the 40s. I didn't envy him that bit.

Watching for texts

I chose a new alert sound for my texts to one I might hear better, and positioned my iPhone in the top of my handlebar bag in the hopes of seeing the texts as soon as they came in. Rich wasn't thrilled when I insisted on stopping each time a new report came through.

To add to the excitement, the whole family was group texting their support and reactions to his speedy pace. And of course I had to enter the fray on those exchanges as well. Never did a runner have so much activity on social media!

Rich getting 26 texts

Rich played it cool, getting his updates from me. But he got a taste of what was going on when he tried to consult his smartphone maps to figure out our next turn. He found 26 texts awaiting his attention!

The anxiety was intense as Erik neared the end of the race. I could hardly wait for that “Finish” text! When it came through, I was thrilled to see his sub-3 hour time – 2:56:28! The texts flew even faster then, as we all shared in his victorious finish.

I had to laugh noticing that we completed 29 miles in 2:46 this morning while Erik ran 26.2 in 2:56. He ran just about as fast as we were able to cycle! In our defense, we had some city traffic to navigate and frequent stops for text messages, but that hardly negates his accomplishment.

The best part was getting the blow-by-blow account of the race from Erik later in the day. I loved his comment about how NOW he gets it, and just how tough Boston is as a marathon. That I could relate to. But I'll never experience his pre-race drama. Starting in corral 2, he just happened to be in the right position to high-5 all the elite runners when they came out to take their place right in front of him at the starting line. Wow! Now that's a runner's high. Well done, Erik!

Erik at the Boston Marathon


Taking the time

It's too easy to miss our own surroundings. At the end of a day of cycling, the natural inclination is to hunker down in our motel room, download our photos, check email and do a bit of blogging. All we know of the small town where we are staying is the nature of the local environs of the motel. And that's not always very appealing. Often it is located in the “neon strip” portion of town, which seemingly leaves little to explore.

In Crockett, our budget conscious efforts landed us in a sketchy neighborhood. The motel room was fine, but the short walk into town left a lot to be desired. Yet as we cycled out of town the next morning, we discovered a whole different side to Crockett, filled with tasteful homes, beautiful flowers and much more prosperity than we'd imagined from the crumbling town square. It made me realize I need to make more of an effort.

With a short ride to our Warm Showers home today, we had the luxury of a free morning. So I hopped on my bike, sans gear, to do a little exploring around the small town of Rusk. The initial draw was the Rusk Historic Footbridge, believed to be the longest footbridge in the nation at 546 feet. It was originally built in 1861 to enable folks who lived east of town to reach Rusk during the rainy season, and was most recently restored in 1969. I found it located in a pretty little park just off the town square, and traversed the entire length over and back.

The town square was much like many we have seen throughout rural Texas. The County Courthouse sits in the middle, surrounded by storefronts. Unfortunately, many of those establishments are long gone, leaving empty windows and blanks around the square. Rusk seems to have fared better than most, leaving an appealing town centrer. A colorful mural graced the side of a building on one corner of the square. Further exploration revealed some huge homes and nice neighborhoods.

Rusk town square

I have a new mission on this tour. From here on, I need to take the time to see what's beyond our room for the night.


Molly’s Detour

Progress to date: 13 days, 625 miles

With no firm deadline for completing this Spring North Cycling Tour, and only vague plans for our route, we agreed we could take detours when the spirit so moved us. So I decided to invoke my right to declare a diversion. With skepticism in his eyes, Rich tolerated my description of where I wanted to go and ultimately agreed, with reservations. Having read up on the tourism literature, I wanted to take our path further east through the Piney Woods area of Texas. The idea of tall trees and forests appealed to me, so I settled for a foray into the Davy Crockett National Forest to get a taste for the area.

We found that the hills returned as we headed east from Marquez. And although we left the bluebonnets behind, there were new varieties of wildflowers that continued to populate the roadsides. Trees increased and ranches turned into farms. We no longer saw any cactus and the dry creek beds were replaced with flowing water and wet ponds in the fields.

Additional Texas wildflowers
Molly at Lakeside Cafe

Today was the main focus of my plan. We were to spend the bulk of our time cycling through the Forest, which meant a less than direct route. That's where the rub came in, but I stuck to my guns. The idea was to take a road straight west into the park. There, I'd found a little café where we could have breakfast then take a small local road north through the forest. The only glitch was that I couldn't verify the café's hours, or that even still existed. So it was with great relief that I spied the neon “Open” sign in the window, and we settled in for a hearty meal.

The forest road turned out to be just as I'd hoped. It was narrow and quiet, with load restrictions on a bridge that kept trucks from invading our space. It was rolling without having difficult climbs and at times the trees formed a canopy over our heads. We even passed some of the tallest pines in East Texas. The peace of cycling in the woods, hearing the birds and other outdoor sounds was restorative. It was 13 miles of bliss.

Cycling through Davy Crockett National Forest
The northern end of the forest included the Mission Tejas State Park. Built in 1934 by the CCC, it commemorated the first Spanish mission the territory of Texas. We enjoyed visiting the reconstructed mission church as well as the restored log home of early pioneer Joseph Rice. Built between 1828 and 1838, it is one of the oldest structures in East Texas.
Rice house and Mission church

Despite 25 more miles in the heat of the Texas afternoon sun to reach our motel, it was well worth the extra time to meander through the forest. It was a haven from the hectic roads and traffic we'd endured, and presented plenty of opportunities for photos. Indeed, it was a worthy detour, if I do say so myself.



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. Having towns along the way is a bonus. They make nice diversions and stopping points, not to mention options for snacks and potty breaks.

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.