False Start

It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, it was.

We were off on an adventure. With a family wedding in Colorado at the end of September, we decided to use the preceding two weeks to drive out west and explore. Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons were on our list, but beyond that we had no real plan.

The unique element was traveling by campervan. We found a small start-up company in the Twin Cities that rents mini-van sized vehicles that seat two in the front and sleep two in the back. It would keep us out of the elements and provide a soft mattress for these aging bodies. It has a slide-out with one burner for cooking, spots for a water jug and a cooler, plus storage. Perfectly bare bones. It would give us the freedom to wander at will.

Rich and Molly w Campervan

It seemed the perfect solution. We talked it up to all our friends. They too were intrigued. I rather liked the thought of sleeping in a tin can in bear country. An added layer of protection. Rich fancied the idea of sidling up to the fancy RVs in a Walmart parking lot one night, just for kicks.

All went smoothly as we transferred bags and gear from our car to the campervan. We found space for everything – just barely – and hung our bikes on the rack in back. Giddily climbing into the front seat we set off.

Rich loading campervan Molly showing campervan storage

We were only three miles away, on the highway entrance ramp when it happened. The warning light went on and the engine heat soared into the red zone. Unwilling to drive it in that condition, we contacted the owner who arranged for his auto shop to take it right away. The 90-degree heat not only exacerbated the problem but singed our sagging spirits. Hot air blew through the open windows, cars sped by and the sun beat down relentlessly as we waited for the engine to cool. Only when it was well out of the danger zone would we putter down the road. Until it overheated again. This scenario repeated itself over and over again in the next two hours, just to get 12 miles.

The auto shop discovered an improperly connected coolant hose, and no coolant remaining in the system. No wonder it overheated. The van owner was there with fervent apologies and offers to help us pass the time during the repairs. Even in our misery, we felt for him.  It wasn’t his fault, he’d had the van serviced and inspected before he rented it to us.

But by then it was too late. Rich was spooked. A desperate conversation took place next to the van, in the stifling heat, sweating. Could we trust the van, after this issue? What if other trouble lurked? We were heading out to remote areas, thousands of miles from home. I struggled with letting go of our plans. Dropping the new experience just like that. But I have learned a thing or two in 35 years of marriage. I could tell that Rich would never relax in that van. It was time for Plan B.

Scratch the van. Retain the adventure. We would drive back to Duluth, pack up our tent, sleeping bags and camp stove and get a fresh start. Tomorrow.

It’s still a good idea.

Farewell my lighthouse

The last sunrise. A final morning walk on the beach. A concluding entry in my journal. It is the last of five days that I will repeat this early routine. I will miss this place.

As if to mark the occasion, sunrise is the most colorful of the week. I scamper to my favorite views to try and capture the image. Clouds light up from below as the sun advances up from the horizon.Crisp Point sunrise

My walk takes the pace of a stroll across nature’s canvas. Tottering over mounds of Lake Superior rocks, I leave no trace. When the charcoal, gray, pink and white mosaic gives way to sandy beach I smile. Here I can walk more steadily, stop concentrating on where I place my feet and look around. I could pick up my pace, but there is too much to see.

Molly walking beach at CPL

My footsteps from yesterday are still visible in places – a surprise on this windblown expanse. The afternoon’s visitors have also left their mark – bare feet, dog paws, a rock message composed on the sand. I wonder about the huge paw prints that walk alone, appear very recent. They could belong to a bear.

It’s nature’s traces that are the real attraction. My favorite are the fine lines that curve and intersect on the firm sand. They mark the perimeter of the waves’ advances. they tell the story of the water’s movement. A few days ago big waves drove high up the beach. Today they merely lap the edge. Black sand stretches add to the design, mingling colors.

Bird and critter tracks wind hither and yon though the sand. Drunken wanderings leave a fanciful path. Tiny feet press distinct prints. Animal friends join and leave. Explosions occasionally occur in the intersections of a crowd.

The wind too participates in this artwork. Symmetrical ripples linger across the sand. A lazy stream creates similar patterns under water, on its journey to the lake. It is all there for the visual taking.

The lake is quiet as my coffee and I settle down on my “writer’s log” on the beach. A light wind blows. Weak sunlight flows over my shoulders, tempered by broken clouds and remnants of wildfire smoke. The beach exudes calm.

My writing log

I don’t mind that it is not a sparkling blue day. This feels more relaxed. The air is that temperature that I don’t feel – it’s just there, comfortable. The day does not demand attention. It just is.

Soon the first visitors will arrive and I will resume my station in the Visitor Center for Crisp Point Lighthouse. During lulls in the day we will pack up our gear. Roll up the sleeping bags. Take down the tent. We will prepare to say our goodbyes to Crisp Point. For one more year.

Lighthouse Life

Living in the moment. It’s what I crave most as we approach our stint as lighthouse keepers at Crisp Point Lighthouse. For five days, my daily life will revolved around my duties tending the lighthouse and its visitors. The rest of the world will live at a distance.

The process begins as we drive down the rough 18 miles of dirt road. I leave civilization behind. The woods close in around the car. My cell signal dies out. I shut down my electronic devices for good. I abandon my to do lists, my deadlines, my schedules. Anything I don’t have in the car, I don’t need. Tent, sleeping bag, a duffle of clothes, cook stove, food supplies and water comprise my worldly goods.

This is not new territory. Rich and I are in our fifth year as keepers, so we know the drill. Our duties revolve around hosting the visitors who come, eager to see the lighthouse. We have already established camp in our keeper’s site before the first arrive.

Our tent under Crisp Point Lighthouse

This is the first time we have been keepers in the peak of the summer season. Warm weather is a welcome change from our chilly October visits, and visitor numbers swell accordingly. We see close to 100 people a day, keeping us busy greeting, informing, helping and chatting with these visitors. I love seeing the eager faces, thrilled to know they can climb the tower, go out on the catwalk. From my post in the Visitor Center I meet people who have been coming here for years, decades some of them. They know more about the early days than I do, recount first hand stories of the decay followed by brilliant restoration. Despite being busy, it is restorative work. I have no need to plan my day. It develops with each person who arrives to see the lighthouse. It feels good. Serving others.

There are always cleaning and maintenance jobs to be done and we fill in with those around our visitor duties. Rick Brockway, president of the Crisp Point Light Historical Society, comes daily and pitches in non-stop on chores.  His tireless efforts make this lighthouse site worth the long arduous drive.  Rich helps out with replacing a segment of the boardwalk.  I sort, fold and put away the new shipment of t-shirts that Rick brought.  Our efforts pale in comparison to Rick’s dedication.

Rick and Rich building boardwalkMolly putting away CPL tshirts

It’s the edges of the day that I relish. Fringes of time to drink in the surroundings, revel in owning that remote space for a brief stint. Nestled against the shore of Lake Superior, camping on the soft sand, hearing the repetitive lap or roar of the waves against the shore. Sunrise and sunset, that red orb rising and falling into the lake. The wood crackling as the campfire battles against the wind that whips away its flames as well as its heat.

Molly and CPL sunset

Post sunrise the sun paints the lighthouse with its magical morning glow. inching up the tower. The structure is illuminated rather than being the illuminator.Crisp Point at sunrise

Five days, living under the shadow of this lighthouse.  It’s quite the life.

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.