The Big Bend Experience

Sometimes the feature attraction is not the star in the theater of travel experiences. In our recent visit to Big Bend National Park I’d have to say it was the entire cast of desert offerings that made the visit memorable.

It started with our accommodations. Choosing to stay just outside the park where there were more amenities, we had reservations in the Terlingua Nights Cabins. Situated in the desert dust, the little sleeping rooms were just that. We had electricity, a mini fridge and barely enough room to walk around the double bed in our pristine minimalist room. We shared the bathhouse and an outdoor living area with a fire pit with our cabin neighbors.

Terlingua Nights Cabins

Our Cabin at Terlinqua Nights

It was 93 degrees when we arrived, with a brisk wind sweeping through the grounds. By evening, it was comfortable to sit out on our porch to read. It felt like the desert.

The revitalized ghost town of Terlingua lay a few miles down the road. Driving over to search for dinner options, we surveyed some of the competing lodgings – tents, tepees, a pastel “Easter” motel and shacks dotted the dry countryside. Hardly your typical National Park tourist environs. We stumbled on a humble eating establishment and settled into the last two seats out on the shaded patio. The slow service suited the warm air and we lingered over our Tex-Mex meals while chatting with nearby diners.

The long bench on the porch of the Trading Company was reputed to be the place to watch the sunset play out on the distant mountains. I insisted we do just that.

Sunset from the Trading Company porch

We left our little cabin well before dawn in order to watch the sunrise in the park. We didn’t count on a rough dirt road to reach our chosen scenic location, and decided to detour on the paved but still-slow road. The Mule Ears rock formation materialized in time to stop for the sun’s arrival. Finally having light to see our environs, we took in the bluebonnets blooming on the roadside – uniquely tall and stringy, compared to their short, dense Hill Country cousins.

Sunrise behind the Mule Ears Big Bend Bluebonnets

Our destination was Santa Elena Canyon. A short walk took us to the Rio Grande and a view of the entrance to the canyon. But the best part was the hike into the canyon. Crossing a narrow flow of water from a side stream, we followed a well-worn path with switchbacks up the edge of the canyon wall. The trail stretched back into the narrow canyon where we could appreciate the river’s handiwork in carving this deep crevice. Nearing the end of the trail, faint musical notes floated through the air. The pipe flute blended naturally with the environment, lending a mystical air to the experience.Rich at Santa Elena CanyonMolly in Santa Elena Canyon

Our second hike of the day was in the Chisos Mountain area in the center of the park. A three-mile walk through scrubby desert environs took us gradually down into the valley. We were at the beginning of the desert bloom, with plentiful wildflowers of all colors and cactus flowers just popping out. The easy path ended with clambering over boulders and hopping across slightly flowing mountain streams. But the end view was worth it – The Window provided an opening with a straight drop below and a narrow crevice beyond. A fierce wind whipped through that window, and I kept well away from the opening.

The Window Hike 1The Window Hike 2Molly at The Window

We experienced the extremes of the desert climate when the next day dawned cloudy, super windy and 46 degrees. In no hurry to rush out into the chill we headed back into Terlingua to Espresso Y Poco Mas. Geared for the desert heat, the eclectic café offered only outdoor seating. Settling ourselves at a well sheltered table, we were surprisingly comfortable and delighted with the breakfast tortillas. But we were thankful for our Minnesota clothes stashed in the car!

Molly at Espresso Y Poco Mas

With low expectations we returned to the park under the cold cloud cover. But on our first hike, while scouring the environs for elusive birds (Rich) and wildflowers (Molly) the sun emerged. As the sky cleared, the temperature zoomed to a comfortable warmth.

Driving to Rio Grande Village at the far end of the park provided a constant panorama of its nature. We were surrounded by rolling desert land covered in bushy vegetation, surrounded by soaring rocky peaks and mesas. It was majestic in its own way, in sharp contrast to the dense forest and white capped mountains that define National Park in my northern mind. The wilderness experience is all relative. By the time we arrived, I regretted forgetting my swim suit to soak in the hot springs. It just didn’t enter my mind that morning. Instead, we walked the local nature trail where we watched nutria at play in the pond, and climbed to a view of the Rio Grande.

Rich on Rio Grande Nature Trail

We capped our visit with dinner at the popular Starlight Theater restaurant.  We lucked out that night, getting in without the normal 1.5 hour wait to take in the western décor among patrons clad in cowboy hats and listen to the local guitar playing singer.

I’ve decided on one word to describe the overall experience – Quirky.  How often do you frequent a former ghost town? Consider a tiny sleeping cabin to be among the best of the lodgings? Hike in winter jacket, mittens and hat, and remove them all within an hour? Explore a narrow canyon and wide-open desert land? Big Bend with its Terlingua neighbor was all that and more.

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.

An Enchanted Hike

Bike touring is great, but it does leave many “nearby” attractions undiscovered.  I can’t count the number of times I have looked longingly at a sign for a promising sight while Rich chides, “Molly, that little detour is 12 miles round trip!”  We cycle on by.

After two bike tours through Fredericksburg TX, this year we chose to arrive by car with our bicycles on the back.  Settling into a tiny cottage just off the historic Main Street, we suddenly have access to all those missed opportunities.  Nothing qualifies as too far to detour.

Today’s destination was my pick.  I got my first glimpse of Enchanted Rock while on a long bike ride.  Navigating the winding, hilly backroads, I turned a corner and there it was – the big pink granite dome.  That was enough to put it on my bucket list for our stay.

View of Enchanted Rock

Waiting out the misty morning, we timed our arrival perfectly – just as the sun came out.  We also deliberately missed last week’s spring break crowds.  No bikes for us today, the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is for hiking.  Loading up with sunscreen, plenty of water and cameras we started off with the iconic Summit Trail.

Calling it a trail is a misnomer.  It’s a rock.  And you walk up it.  The big pink expanse beckoned and we meandered up the steep slope to the top.  Chatting with other trekkers made the journey far easier than we imagined it to be.  Wandering over the top of the dome, we admired the views, ogled strange rock formations and found wildflowers in the crevices.  The notion of hurry did not apply.

Molly atop Enchanted Rock

View of Moss Lake from Enchanted Rock

Rich on Enchanted RockMolly and rock formations on Enchanted RockWildflowers growing in crevasse in Enchanted Rock

Hiking back down an alternate swath of rock, we connected with the Echo Canyon Trail.  I quickly understood the Challenging classification, as I picked my way between boulders.  I was more at ease once it morphed into an easy walking trail.

Rich on Echo Canyon TrailMolly on Echo Canyon Trail

Skirting Moss Lake, we finished on the Loop Trail.  The highway width crushed rock path was impossible to miss, and the unshaded sun baked our northern bodies.  But it delivered on the wildflower scale and provided some fun rock monuments.

Wildflowers at Enchanted Rock 1 Wildflowers at Enchanted Rock 2 Enchanted Rock formations

Tomorrow we’re back on the bicycles for our favorite loop through the Texas bluebonnets.  But today I was glad Rich humored me for an enchanted day of hiking.

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.