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.

Bluebonnet Bounty

When you’ve seen the best, how can it possibly get any better?  That’s what we thought when we heard that this year the Texas Bluebonnets were a bumper crop – the best in 10 years.  We found it hard to believe that they could beat the ubiquitous blue carpet we saw back in 2015.

If the roadsides were any indication, our skepticism was well founded. We didn’t see the same dense pack of spiky blue blooms lining the roadways.  Patches here and there, yes, and occasional islands of color.  But still not up to par.

So we set out to cycle the Willow City Loop.  This 13-mile winding country road is the epitome for bluebonnet viewing.  Cars inch along as passengers ogle the flowers.  Everyone ignores the “No Stopping” sign, pulling off when they can to take pictures.  Grownups hunker down into the flowers, posting for the camera.  Propriety is tossed aside in the presence of the state flower of Texas.

With the benefit of a car this time, we parked at one end of the loop and doubled our pleasure with an out-and-back ride.  Starting shortly after sunrise in the crisp cool air, the low angle of the sun’s rays cast a golden glow.  We were alone on the road at that hour, well ahead of the traffic yet to come.

Relishing the silence, we also reveled in the pace and flexibility of our bikes.  We lingered and took it all in as we passed in slow motion.  Stopping was as easy as parking our bikes, allowing plenty of angles for photographer Rich, and even a few cheesy poses of our own.

As the miles went on, so did the bluebonnets.  Deep into the fields.  Crowding the roadsides.  Encircling the prickly pear cacti.  Swarming under fences.  Whole hillsides of them.  The scene began to match the one we held in such esteem.  Yes, we ultimately agreed, this could be just as good.  Maybe even better.  Photos tell it best.

Texas bluebonnets 1 Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop 1 Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop 2 Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop 3 Molly w Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop Rich w Texas bluebonnets Willow City LoopMolly and Rich w Texas bluebonnets Willow City Loop

After 26-miles, it really didn’t matter.  We knew we’d seen a bounty of bluebonnets.  That was good enough for us.

Tetons’ Triumph

It’s not fair to play favorites. But I have to say that the Grand Tetons topped Yellowstone this time around. However, it wasn’t a level playing field.

While we were enamored with Yellowstone’s rich offerings, we were constantly on the go, traveling from place to place in order to see it all. We walked miles of boardwalks built to protect nature’s attractions and accommodate the large volume of visitors. We followed signs to scenic overlooks and followed well-worn paths. Throughout it all, we attempted to curtail our activities so as not to worsen Rich’s ill health. But we failed. His misery deepened as he spiraled down with pneumonia. Clearly our experience was tainted. I stopped myself short of buying a coffee mug, my favorite souvenir, emblazoned with a bear and the words Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t bring myself to burden Rich with bad karma each time he opened the cupboard.

In contrast, the Grand Tetons offered a respite. Through sheer luck, we secured four nights in Jackson Lake Lodge. The grand lobby with soaring windows overlooking the rocky mountain peaks and Jackson Lake offered daylong access to cushy couches and chairs for relaxing and absorbing the view. A coffee bar, restaurants and a bar/lounge were within mere steps. Knowing Rich’s condition, the staff ensured that our room was just a short distance away. It felt like a haven in the wilderness.
Tetons from Lobby window

But the real benefit was the nature of the park. The mountains, the lakes and the wildlife were the draw. The natural beauty to behold. There were no must-do sights compelling a visit. We could do as little (Rich) or as much (Molly) as we pleased. We had a central base from which we could explore, either together or separately.

Hiking alone is a consideration in bear country, so I limited myself to safer routes – still accompanied by bear spray. Taking the trail to Grand View Point afforded me views in two directions, out over Jackson Lake and the Tetons and overlooking Two Ocean Lake with forested crests on the other side.Tetons from Grand View PointTwo Ocean Lake from Grand View Point

Naturally, Rich ventured out in search of birds and wildlife. I accompanied him to the Willow-Moose Road, where we found a pair of moose. We watched the bull for close to an hour, as he kept tabs on his cow moose. He was an expert at camouflaging himself behind bushes or branches that obscured our view, but we persevered and enjoyed the show. Oxbow Bend was another favorite, just a couple miles down the road from the lodge. Fall colors were in full display against the backdrop of the Tetons, and it held the promise of bird and wildlife viewing.Moose in Tetons
Oxbow Bend

We found the Grand Tetons to be far more bicycle friendly than Yellowstone. The 20-mile long multi-use paved trail attracted my attention. I had my heart set on cycling it the full distance from Jenny Lake to Jackson and back again. Although it parallels the highway, I relished the safety of the path and the constant companionship of the mountains that flanked the route. I even experienced a cycling wildlife jam, when motorists stopped and flooded the path to photograph a herd of elk at close range.Bicycle trail in Tetons
Entry to Tetons

Rich tested his mettle on the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, a short one-way road with a bicycle lane. We cycled up and back, marveling at the blue-green waters of Jenny Lake. The sun dappled route on a warm afternoon was good medicine for both of us.

R biking Jenny LakeMR Jenny Lake

Some of the park roads had good wide shoulders, allowing us to cycle right from the lodge. A trip to the Colter Bay picnic area brought us right down to the lake and a rock beach. I ventured a little further to reach the National Park Service and University of Wyoming Research Station, a peaceful perch on the lake.
Jackson Lake research center

The Tetons afforded us a more relaxed pace and the ability to make plans at will.  And a chance for Rich to recuperate.  Even just hovering around the lodge environs was a treat. It’s not often we splurged like this. It was worth savoring.  And I bought my souvenir mug.  It says Grand Tetons National Park and has a moose on it.Jackson Lake and Tetons

A Fitting Memorial Day

It is far too easy to treat the day as just another holiday. Spring’s long weekend. The traditional date that signals the start of summer.  A sign that school is about to let out. I am guilty on all accounts. Not having family members who were lost in our country’s wars, I have no personal remembrances to honor.

By all appearances, this Memorial Day would follow suit. It was cabin opening weekend, and I alternated play with spring chores at our treasured retreat on the lake. For Memorial Day, Rich and I planned an early morning bike ride.

Up before dawn, we were treated to a beautiful red sunrise reflecting in the calm waters of the lake. It was still shady and cool when we started our ride, with high hopes that the early hour would yield some wildlife sightings (me) or birds (Rich). We saw neither but were privy to the woods awakening, streams calmly wandering and copious bird chatter. A rendezvous with friends at the Effie Cafe for breakfast allowed us to catch up, share some camaraderie, and to investigate their new e-bikes.

Rich with Galen and Shiela

Whittling down the miles back to our car, we spotted a congregation of cars parked up ahead on the quiet farm road. At Fredheim Lutheran Church, American Legion members from Effie along with family and community members were gathered for a Memorial Day service. In the warm summer air and sunshine, we passed by. Then thought, why not? Returning to the site, we parked our bikes and were heartily welcomed by the assembled folk.  The 1907 church – the first in the Bigfork Valley – felt like a most appropriate backdrop for this occasion.

Friedheim Lutheran Church“See the woman with the color guard?” a bystander asked. “She’s 95 and served in the Marines.” I looked on with awe. “She’s still the organist at our church.”  I was humbled.Memorial Day ceremonySeven men in uniform lined up with their rifles. Amidst instructions from their leader and some good natured banter they practiced their moves. What they lacked in precision they more than made up in earnestness.

The ceremony was short, to the point and moving. From the Pledge of Allegiance to the strains of the National Anthem, it was the intimacy of the gathering that made it poignant. The message delivered by one of the veterans was simple yet brought the message home. He challenged one and all to live our beliefs, starting that very day.

As the final shots of the 21 gun salute echoed into silence, I couldn’t help but think long and hard about the names that were read and what they had sacrificed. I felt grateful for what they had given for our freedom. And thankful that we had stumbled on this ceremony.

Memorial Day 21 gun salute

It wasn’t just another holiday after all. It was a most fitting Memorial Day.  For a change.

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