Wrangling the Cattle Grates

The motions were familiar. Clad in spandex and strapping on my helmet, I clipped in and pedaled down the driveway. Heading out of town to explore the countryside. That’s where the familiarity ended.

We had planted ourselves in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, where spring was a real season. The sun radiated warmth and wildflowers bloomed in abundance, unlike the cold snow melt weather back home. Here the countryside held the promise of carefree cycling.

I had already done my homework. A visit to Bicycle Works, the local bike shop, yielded the friendly advice I expected. The woman behind the counter stopped working on the bicycle she had up on a stand to fill me in on the local routes. Tracing the colored lines on the maps that they produce, she narrated each option. It didn’t take me long to note that the routes varied in length from 30 to 100 miles. This is serious cycling territory.

The town environs of Fredericksburg rapidly dissolved into wide open spaces. I followed mile after mile of quiet farm roads, flanked by ranches large and small. Sprawling affluent homes shared borders with tin roofed shacks. Chickens roamed the yards, fluffy lambs with jet black faces stared at me and goats remained intent on grazing. Big cows dominated the scene, including the iconic longhorn cattle.

Texas longhorn

Each time I turned down a new lane, that little nagging thought wiggled into my brain.  I sure hope it’s not a dirt road…  But I needn’t have worried – every road in the county is paved!  But they do come with a hazard.  While the roads were in remarkably good condition, they were frequently sliced by tubular metal grates that rumbled and shook my entire being as I passed over them. Timid at first, I crossed the cattle grates slowly, hesitantly. But with practice came confidence, if not full speed. They also came with a warning: “Loose Livestock” Sure enough, I passed directly between Bessie #73 and her cousin #99 grazing on opposite edges of the road.

Cattle grate

It wouldn’t be the hill country without a heavy dose of climbing. Roads ranged from long straight stretches to twisty windy curves, and all kept me pumping up and gliding down the hills. Frequent stream beds introduced spillways for flood season. For now they were all dry, but each involved a steep dip followed by a climb. It’s not a coincidence that I saved these routes for solo rides.

Crabapple Road bike ride

In contrast, Rich had a knack for mapping out routes with a purpose. Our first took us out to a local winery, where we were careful to limit our sampling to ensure a safe return ride.

Cycling to a winery

Luckenbach was our next destination, visiting on a quiet morning to take in the musical venue.

Luckenbach TX

Ranging further afield, he devised a bike ride east of town. It took us through the tiny enclave of Albert, where the Dance Hall appeared to be very active, flanked by a BBQ Pit, an Icehouse and an historic school. It made us wish we could return on a lively evening to see it all in swing. On the final stretch, we cycled Ranch Road #1 right through the LBJ State Park and across the river from the LBJ Ranch.

In nearly two weeks, my bicycle and I covered a lot of ground.  By then ranch country became a lot more familiar.  Even the cattle grates.

Letting Go

Life is a balance.  A delicate one at that.  After decades of aiming high, how does one gracefully readjust one’s sights?

Just last June I was flying high.  I had qualified for the Boston Marathon, along with my son Erik, his wife Katie and her cousin Brendan.  Conditions at Grandma’s Marathon were nearly perfect, propelling each of us down the shore of Lake Superior to cross the finish line with good margins to secure us a spot in that most prestigious of marathons.  Swept away by the tide of our victory, our quartet vowed to run Boston.

Boston Bound foursome

Plans were made.  We found housing and received our confirmation emails for the race.  All looked good for a spring run.  Until it didn’t.  Pain, injury, arthritis and bad running habits all linked arms to throw a wrench into my training.  Weeks of rest and cross-training turned into months with no improvement.  Winter stepped in and obliterated the Lakewalk with snow while temperatures plummeted deep into the negative range.  I knew from experience that training for Boston in the midst of winter was a challenge, but this was ridiculous.

The ambiguity hung over my head for months.  One week I’d feel hopeful and set my sights on “just finishing” in Boston.  The next I was pragmatic and knew that the time to adequately prepare was waning.  On one hand I’d done it all before.  Twice in fact.  First on my own, to celebrate turning 50.  The second time I crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with my daughter, Karen.  On the other hand, this was a chance to run it with my son and his wife and share in their joy.  To prove I could still do it.

Boston finish 2005

Boston finish 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my journey, I sought plenty of advice.  Confiding in my daughter, I poured out my dilemma, that I was considering dropping out of the race.  “Oh Mom!” she sighed.  “That means admitting you’re getting old!”  It wasn’t what I expected at all.  But her uncensored sentiment revealed something else.  She perfectly mirrored my own mother’s unwavering belief in me.  I smiled to realize that the generations had flipped, and the void left by my mother eight years ago had just been filled.

Oddly enough, just as I felt I was turning the corner through physical therapy I also knew the answer.  This wasn’t about proving anything.  It wasn’t about getting old.  It was about the long run.  Literally.  It was about healing, gaining strength and building myself back up in order to continue to do the thing I love.  Running.  For years to come, not just one day.

It’s not easy conceding to reality.  Come Boston Marathon day I know my heart will twist as I follow Erik and Katie out there on the race course from a distance through text alerts.  I’ll wish I was there, doing it.  But if it means running with my grandchildren and staying active into my real old age, then I made the right decision.  It’s not giving up.  It’s letting go.  There’s a difference.

Be Prepared

What’s good advice for Boy Scouts also applies to bicycle touring. Our preference for rural roads and small towns means that bike shops are in short supply. We have to be self-reliant when it comes to repairs. The key word here is “we.”

I travel with my mechanic. As much as I yearn to be able to do it myself, just watching Rich strain to stretch a tire over a new tube – especially if it is an unyielding new tire – I doubt I would ever have enough strength. I have watched the process numerous times, even practiced the steps on my own under watchful eyes. But I lack the confidence to believe I could accomplish it alone on the roadside.

Four times in three consecutive days Rich had the opportunity to demonstrate his repair prowess on our Two Timing Texas Cycling Tour. Despite cycling on flat-resistant tires, road debris found its way through this armor to puncture his inner tubes. Between that and defective tubes, our inventory of spare tubes dwindled from six to two, and our single spare tire was put into service. My sole contribution to the repairs was to hold tools and hold my tongue. If you can’t be useful, advice under stress is generally not appreciated. By the third unwelcome stop, I knew enough to cease taking pictures of the repair process as well.

Rich flat tire 1Rich flat tire 2

Surprisingly, Walmart carried an off brand of our specific inner tubes. Depleting their stock boosted our comfort level for the next six days until we could properly restock both tubes and tire in a proper bike shop, 276 miles later.

Between us, we carry an array of bike tools to address other mechanical issues. Rarely have we needed them, but when my gear shift cable broke, those tools earned their extra weight. And Rich came to the rescue again.

I recently added a new apparatus of my own, which I finally mastered on this trip. Rich convinced me to upgrade to a bike with disc brakes last year. This was actually a preventive maintenance move, as my traditional brake pads had been plagued by issues in the past. In his mind, the investment was easily justified by the greater reliability of the new braking apparatus.  In other words, less wear and tear on him and fewer complaints on my part. Who was I to argue?

Loving my Specialized Vita Comp bike, I chose the exact same model for its replacement. By then, it was only available in a carbon fiber frame. It took only one ride on my new steed to discover an immediate deficiency. The purists of cycling frown on kick stands, and this bike intentionally lacks the framework for installing one. I knew this fact, but completely underestimated the impact of this loss. We stop frequently on roadsides, linger to take pictures, rest in the grass, pause to add or subtract layers of clothing. These places provide no structure on which I can rest my fully loaded bike. It sounds trivial. It is not. At least to me.

Enter the Click-Stand. After much research online and rejecting other contraptions, I settled on this simple device. Made to order from a one-man operation, it is an ingenious solution. Operating like a tent pole, it self-assembles in seconds with a cradle that easily rests underneath the frame to hold up the bike. The other essential component is an elastic band that engages one of the brakes to hold the bike still. Voila! Almost. On this tour I discovered one tweak that clinched it. Finding that the cradle tended to slip, I placed it behind my seat where it holds securely. Almost as good as a kick stand.

Click-Stand

Click stand holding bikeBrake bands

We never did need those 10 extra inner tubes. The rash of flats subsided after the first week. But we were covered. Just as the electrical tape came in handy when my fender broke. I undertook that fix in a hurry, just to silence the incessant rattle.

I have to admit we have been incredibly lucky on our tours, avoiding fatal breakdowns. But in large part it comes from having one handy husband. And being prepared.

The One that Got Away

The scene still lingers vividly in my mind. The aged house hasn’t been loved in a long time. Its pale green exterior has faded to a color even more vague, paint chipping off the narrow clapboard siding. Tall grasses fill the yard, and the wrap-around porches on two floors of the house are no longer quite level. Window shades and drooping curtains attempt to keep the outside at bay. But the air of neglect is not quite complete. The house still maintains a modicum of respect.

Stately trees stand guard between the house and the street. The morning sky lends a deep blue backdrop to their spring green. Sun warms the air and leaves twitter in the wind, casting dappled shadows.

Adjacent to the house are three trucks. Parked in the yard, side by side, facing the street. Each a different color. They have not moved in a long time. These are vintage models. Their long hoods extend well in front of the cab, with a graceful rounded front end. The grass hides the grills that must be there. Sunlight glints off their roofs.

It is a classic scene, but I realize it too late. We have just resumed cycling after breakfast in a Taqueria down the street, and I am too consumed with moving on to stop and take a picture. By the time I regret the omission I am well down the road.

I’d like to report that I have mended my ways. That I have become more vigilant about seizing the picturesque moments that present themselves. That I have increased my awareness of the slices of Americana I pass. That I have a photo collection representing the tidbits of life I have seen on our tour. But I haven’t. And I don’t.

I’m a writer, not a photographer. My eye is not honed to frame just the right elements for a pleasing presentation. Instead, I compose sentences in my head. I dream up titles for my blog posts. I work out just the right words to describe the scene, succinctly and economically. I consider the components of my book, actively living the life I am narrating into a memoir on wheels. My mind works as hard as my legs on tour.

Molly cycling Texas

I still haul my camera around. I make it my mission to document the personal side of our tour. While Rich focuses on his birds, I try to capture the memories. Or perhaps more accurately I am recording scenes to solidify them, images that I can revisit when massaging the words to describe the experience.

Yet still some get away. So I leave you with my written image. The one that is etched on my mind, not in my camera.

Heartwarming Finale

Two timing Texas Final map

Final tally: 25 days, 1,006 miles

It’s not the first time we have spent the last night of a tour within spitting distance of the finish line. Eking out one more day on the road, relishing the final miles of cycling and sharing a night with a Warm Showers family are all good reasons for doing so. In this case, I had no idea how special that family would be.

It felt good to know that we had no more highways between us and the end. We were back in the land of rolling hills, and for the first time we could see rounded mounds and ridges covered in clumps of trees in the distance. Cacti had crept back into the landscape and the ground was decidedly more sandy. It was yet another geography in the widely varied state of Texas. Very pleasing to the eye.

The day grew hot quickly, with bright sunshine and the south wind at our backs for a change. By the time we reached Glen Rose, ice cream was necessary. On the attractive town square we zeroed in on the Shoo-Fly Soda Shop, where they take great pride in hand crafting their ice cream concoctions. Sitting at the soda fountain, Rich enjoyed a large raspberry shake while I lingered over two flavors of ice cream in a homemade waffle cone bowl. We had struck gold.

Molly at the Soda Fountain

Our Warm Showers hosts live on a farm about four miles out of town. The backroads were as hilly as promised, and after the final incline we entered the driveway of a sprawling single-level home surrounded by farm fields, with barn buildings in the background. A wild assortment of bicycles, tricycles, scooters and other wheeled conveyances greeted us under the carport, as did an array of smiling faces. One by one, Keith and Alicia’s six children came to check us out – some enthusiastically embracing our presence and others shyly peeping from a distance.

We spent a delightful afternoon and evening visiting out on the back patio and sharing a farm fresh dinner that Alicia seemingly pulled together effortlessly. As the children gradually warmed to us, we learned their stories and looked through their photo albums with them, a pictorial history of their adoptions from China, Ethiopia and the US. We read books together and played ball. I accompanied the oldest out to the chicken coop when she locked them up for the night. The feeling of harmony was overwhelming, this blending of cultures and love so complete. Theirs was a journey of faith, and such a joyful one. It was with great reluctance that I tore myself away from the children to move on our way in the morning.

Warm Showers family

Our final day of cycling was entirely rural, including skirting the edge of Dinosaur Valley State Park. The quiet roads invited lingering, stopping for photos and breathing in the final moments of this fine tour. The short sixteen miles slipped by quickly.

Rich cycling to Granbury

Carefully monitoring my GPS for mileage, I had to pause to memorialize my 1,000th mile (even though Rich passed his the day before…). It was now okay to finish the tour.

Molly 1000 miles

Before I knew it, the end was in sight. One more hill (or two) and we’d be done. As always, it spawned a mix a bittersweet feelings. Great satisfaction in our accomplishment. Reluctance to stop cycling. Gratitude for safe travels. Joy for the people we met along the way who touched our lives.  The warmth and generosity of our host family still rested in my heart.

Molly nearing the end of the tour

I couldn’t ask for a better finale to the Two Timing Texas Tour.
Rich Molly finish Texas Tour

Mending Fences

Clearly we were on opposite sides of the insurmountable divide. Rich held firmly to his stance, and I to mine. There was no meeting of the minds.

It was all a matter of numbers. 1,000 was the critical figure. We were in easy agreement many miles back, that we wanted to reach 1,000 miles before ending this cycling tour. Now that we were zeroing in on the finish line, we had reached an impasse.

It all depended on how you counted. Rich included our shakedown ride the day prior to departing on our tour, as well as a few miles biking to and from the Presidential Museum. Being a purist, I included only those miles we traveled moving forward “on tour.” Those peripheral distances were not legitimate. The difference came down to 20 miles.

Based on Rich’s planned route to our end point, he would easily reach 1,000 but I would come up short. “Just so you know, I’m not stopping until I reach 1,000,” I informed him. “Can’t you just do some extra miles on your own?” he griped. He was getting tired and could smell the end. “No deal.” I made a few suggestions for altering our route to lengthen it slightly, but they fell on deaf ears. The ugly clash hung over us.

With three days to go, lodging proved difficult in arranging our next destination. With great trepidation, I offered an alternative. To my great surprise, Rich was receptive. It involved quieter roads, offered a artsy community, and solved our math issues. Sold. Crisis averted. Maybe.

It happened on the long downhill into town. Switching gears to get more power, nothing happened. Trying again, attempting other gears, still nothing. I was suddenly grateful for the descent, as I coasted well over a mile to catch up to Rich. Standing to climb the final hill and limping into town, I feared the worst. We had nothing but small towns between us and our finish, with nary a bike shop in the offing. “I’ll see if I can fix it,” Rich offered. Then uttered the words I did not want to hear. “If I can’t, we’ll just have to ask your brother to come pick us up.”

We had found winning accommodations in Clinton. The tidy downtown provided a boutique hotel called the Screen Door Inn (and yes, our room had a screen door). The restored building was spare and spacious, with a hint of its original bones revealed in the walls. Rich set up shop in the back of the lobby and set to work. It became obvious that the gear cable had broken, and although he had never done it before, he was able to stretch the remainder to reconnect it. A quick test proved the gears were working again – the tour was still on! Rather than giving it a street test, I preferred to rely on faith. I just did not want to know if the triumph was to be short lived.

RIch fixing my bike

While strolling through town in the afternoon, we followed a BBQ flag to find a music venue with food trucks and event set-up going on. Learning that there was a concert that evening, we knew we’d found our evening meal and entertainment.

Returning at the appointed time, we purchased lawn seat tickets. The ladies from the Chamber of Commerce were nice enough to lend us chairs and we set up right at the front of the grass. A man behind us in line at the BBQ truck told us he was a friend of the lead singer of the band, and that he was a real entertainer. He was so right.

BBQ truck

Michael Hix concert 1

This was no small town troupe. Michael Hix and his band are from the Fort Worth area and play to audiences throughout Texas. They were excellent musicians, and Michael knew how to work the crowd. He was constantly walking into the audience, throwing out funny one-liners and engaging everyone in the act. They did a history of Rock ‘n Roll in the first half, music that we knew well. Much of the choice of music was spontaneous, taking cues from the crowd appeal. So it wasn’t surprising that after the break they moved into country music, which brought the crowd to their feet – dancing. Michael’s outrageous impersonations of Tina Turner and Mick Jagger had us roaring with laughter. He didn’t hold anything back.

Michael Hix concrete 2Michael Hix concert 3

We thought our experience couldn’t get any better until breakfast the next morning. Instead of offering breakfast at the hotel, they gave us vouchers to the Corner Drug Cafe next door. It seemed a wise business model. The cafe was a real throwback to the soda fountain of old, and for a change offered a menu with more than fried eggs and hash. I voted my avocado toast, apple cinnamon protein muffin and latte my best breakfast of the trip! Even though Rich had to deviate from his usual ham and cheese omelette, he was downright pleased with his scrambled eggs and biscuit. And that muffin.

Rich at corner drug cafeCorner Drug Cafe

Setting off in the sunshine down a quiet road that avoided the highway and trucks, all felt right with the world. We had mended our fences and had another unique experience in the process. My bicycle was as good as new. That 1,000 miles was still within reach.

Pampered Cycle Touring

I never even checked the menu online. And my quick glance through the windows which revealed white linen tablecloths didn’t register meaningfully. The name “Bistro” along with rave reviews about the creative dining sold me. In the last three weeks I’ve been in so many eateries specializing in “comfort food” that I jumped at the chance to have a meal prepared by a true chef. I set my heart on eating there.

My plans were almost scuttled when the predicted rain materialized about dinner time. I feared that Rich would balk at both having to cycle the two miles to dinner and risk getting wet. But a break in the weather allowed us to set off. The first few raindrops fell just as we approached the restaurant.

Stepping inside the Across the Street Bistro by Andreas in Corsicana, our cultural faux pas was instantly obvious. The sophisticated narrow dining room with Art Deco table settings, and the upscale attire of the diners was our first clue. The hesitation on the part of the hostess when we revealed that we did not have a reservation was our second. Her sidelong glance took in at once Rich’s track shorts and cycling jersey, my thermal top and capris tights, our clumsy cycling shoes and the helmets we gripped on one hand with our handlebar bags in the other. Sweat lingered in our jackets. The fleeting look of candid astonishment was quickly replaced with a professional warm welcome.

As it happened there was one table left, a high top table nearest the door and lacking a tablecloth. It suited us just fine. The hasty explanations we offered for our odd attire were graciously acknowledged, but clearly superfluous by that point. We were now their diners, and would be treated with the same high level of service granted any other customer.

Panic registered only momentarily as I watched Rich’s reaction to the menu. His eyes swept over the expensive full bottles of wine and nouveau cuisine, glowing large. But he recovered as quickly as the hostess. As I found numerous savory dishes to delight my palate, Rich honed in on the New York strip steak special that our server described in exquisite detail. I finally settled on the lobster risotto and inventive Bistro salad. And they even had a house Chardonnay by the glass. As Rich warmed to the idea I began to breathe again.

“I could have worn my polo shirt and wind pants,” Rich offered with his first sip of wine. We giggled, knowing it was not a huge improvement. “It’s okay, your bare legs are under the table now,” I concluded.

Molly and Rich at the Bistro

It was a dining experience worth savoring, and we did our best to slow down and linger. The service was highly refined, and the unhurried delivery of each course encouraged this leisurely pace. For added entertainment, we enjoyed people watching. The trendy young women gathered for a birthday party. The wait staff impeccably dressed in black aprons and starched white shirts, numbering no less than four to serve the party of five opposite us. The restaurant owner paid us a visit, and Executive Chef Andreas himself came around to greet all the tables, including ours.

Throughout our dinner, I could see the rain pouring down outside the windows. But as with the remainder of the meal the timing was perfect. There was a let-up in the showers just as we exited the restaurant. Giddy following our divine evening meal, we hightailed it back to our budget motel. The puddles and dripping trees posed more of a hazard than rainfall.

Rich outside the BistroMolly in raingear after the Bistro

Tomorrow will probably bring another cafe boasting catfish and chicken fried steak or Mexican delicacies. But for one night I dined in style. Even when cycle touring, I appreciate being pampered.