Love those Lupine

Bluebonnets of TexasNot being much of a gardener, I find wildflowers especially appealing.  They voluntarily spring up along the roadside, in the woods and wherever they find a hospitable habitat.  No cultivating required.  This spring we planned our whole bike tour around the bluebonnets of Texas, and reveled in the seas of blue we found populating the Hill Country.  The petite Molly in Bluebonnetsspiky plants were as irresistible as they were attractive.  We never grew tired of seeing them.

That was in early April.  At the time, northern Minnesota was steeped in mud season, not even close to spring yet.  But that was actually to our benefit, because we were able to experience spring all over again when we returned home in mid-May.

Lupine near the North ShoreWith the arrival of June came the return of one of our favorite wildflowers, the lupine.  These tall spiny flowers grace the North Shore, mainly in shades of purple with occasional pink and white blossoms sprinkled in between.  It’s no accident that they bear a strong resemblance to the bluebonnets – those Texas beauties are actually of the “genus Lupinus” so belong to the same plant family.  What I find especially humorous is that in this case the Minnesota version far bigger than that of Texas.  While bluebonnets grow to be 12-24 inches tall, our lupine reach 1-4 feet high.  Not everything is bigger and better in Texas!

Molly with lupine in our yardAlthough technically considered an invasive species, and therefore shunned by purists, we chose to introduce lupine to the natural (read “wild”)  Lupine in our yardlandscape of our yard.  Rich painstakingly harvested seeds last fall and sowed them among our grasses.  This spring they actually came up, and the initial blossoms are now gracing the view from our windows.  The hope is that they will increase and multiply, some day yielding our own personal field of purple rocket flowers.  Whether large or small, Texas or Minnesota, we love those lupine.



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.



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.



Cycling Plan B

What's the best way to shorten a cycling route? By lengthening it via a detour, of course! Since towns are far apart in Texa with literally no services in between, our options for daily destinations are limited. And today's new target was only 20 miles away – unacceptably short in my book. So I devised a solution that made us both happy, and resulted in a great day on the road.

Instead of heading straight to Comanche, we first rode to De Leon. That delivered two immediate benefits – it got us off the busy highway we'd been traveling, and it gave us a respite from the wind as it became a cross-wind while we went west. It was very pleasant cycling through the countryside flanked by ranches, farms, cows, horses and a donkey. Rich was buoyed by the easier travel and day 2 was off to a great start.

I'd scoped out a couple of places for breakfast in De Leon, and we indulged in our favorite routine of getting some miles under our belt before relaxing over a good meal. The Two or More Coffeehouse turned out to be a delightful place that served up a bountiful breakfast for Rich and satisfied my latte cravings along with good fresh fare. All with good ol' country music in the background.

Inevitably, we then turned south to face the wind once again. But continuing on a smaller road helped us cope better. The landscape was pastoral and green – probably the only time of the year that it is so lush. And the promised Texas wildflowers were thriving. The purple, pink, yellow, white and blue hues dotted the roadside continuously, and for the first time we saw a whole field ablaze with yellow flowers. Naturally, we scouted out the famous bluebonnets, and took time out to enjoy them along the way. Oh, and we did check for rattlesnakes before settling in among the blossoms – we were well warned about that.

With a shortened itinerary, we reached Comanche by early afternoon. It was fortunate for us that the sun remained behind clouds most of the morning, as our arms and legs were already a rosy shade of pink. It also helped keep the temperature down to a tolerable level.

A quiet afternoon to relax and dinner at a local Mexican restaurant completed our day. I'll admit that I prefer the full days of cycling to these abbreviated versions. Hopefully the wind will abate somewhat, and Rich will acclimate to the heat and the routine so we can we return to our full schedule soon. But for now Plan B it is.


Intro to Texas Cycling

Ready to start the tour

Finally, Day 1 of our Spring North Cycling Tour! It all started well enough. We enjoyed a bountiful B&B worthy breakfast prepared by Phillis and Bill, easily loaded up our bikes, and headed on our way with a royal send off. The weather was cloudy and mid-60s, which was actually quite good biking weather. We couldn't help but be in good spirits. There's nothing like beginning a trip.

The first snafu came just 9.5 miles into the ride when my front tire went totally flat. The culprit turned out to be a decent sized shard of glass. Although inconvenient, it was better to know we'd found the cause, and it wasn't an equipment malfunction. And I felt very fortunate to have my own personal mechanic on the trip with me.

Rich fixing my flat

Shortly afterwards we reached Granbury and turned to the southwest which was our main direction for the day. By that time the wind had come up and was now gusting fiercely, right in our faces. It was a battle just to make headway, and to add to the difficulty, the terrain rolled continually. Up and down we went, pedaling just as hard on the downhills as we did going up. The miles crawled by, but as a compensating factor the clouds cleared providing us with a nice sunny afternoon. That would have been lovely, had the temperature not risen into the 80s. For two Minnesotans who had not seen much over 50 yet this spring, it felt mighty hot out there.

A scenic rest spot

Now despite these challenges, I'm happy to report that my limited cycling and abundant running stood me in good stead and I felt up to the task. Rich, on the other hand, was struggling. The ski season, which is his passion, just didn't pan out this year and his training suffered. Today he was paying the price. We spent a lot of time sitting under shade trees, or lying in the grass so he could recover. I can't say I minded that too much – the sensation was quite pleasant. What was worse was continually losing him in my rear view mirror.

Reaching Dublin at last

We both set our sights on reaching Stephenville, and very nearly stopped there for the day. In hindsight we really should have. Pressing on to Dublin wasn't the wisest choice, but neither of us is very good at giving in. And so Rich soldiered on. Slowly completing the 55 miles for the day. It turned out to be our longest day in the saddle for any trip yet.

With strong headwinds predicted to continue for the rest of the week, we have decided to exercise the flexibility clause in our plans. The goal to reach the Hill Country by Thursday is absolutely arbitrary. So we've already revised that to Friday and altered our mileages to help ease Rich into this a little more slowly. And as a concession to the wind. After this intro, we knew this chapter needed a bit of a rewrite.