Cycling through History

It started with the need for a rest. Although we were zeroing in on our destination for the day, battling the headwinds had taken its toll and we needed a break. I wasn’t particularly interested in the historical marker. It just looked like a good spot to pull over.

Once there, I couldn’t ignore the display. Lining the path to the monument, information signs brought me up to speed on the Texas War for Independence from Mexico. It so happened that the locals were holding a canon than the Mexicans believed belonged to them. And so came the battle cry, “Come and take it!” We were standing near the spot where the first shot was fired. And ultimately the Texans prevailed. Cool story. And still a good place to rest.

Molly and Rich at historic monument

Arriving in Gonzales, I was suddenly very glad for my history lesson. The canon, first shot and “Come and take it” were prominent everywhere – flags, business names, government building plaques and even sidewalk garbage bins proudly displayed these symbols. Best of all, we had chosen to stay in an old historic hotel right on the town square.

Come and take it

Having just come through a number of small towns with little to see, we were hungry for more interesting sights. So we made a pact. No roadside motels on the neon strip if we can find accommodations right in the center of town. Even if it meant spending more for it. It certainly paid off in Gonzales. I spent the lovely sunny afternoon wandering its historic streets.

The majestic county courthouse dominated the town square, with other impressive government and private buildings flanking each side of it. Wandering down the street away from the square I found evidence of a very prosperous town. Huge homes with turrets, Victorian houses painted in brilliant colors and stone mansions lined the street. Even more modest size homes made a statement with their classic lines. And an old Mobil station returned to its former glory.

Gonzales courthouseGonzales mansionGonzales Mobile station

Parks were in abundance, as were monuments to their war heros. The thriving town square offered many choices for eating, drinking and music. We were drawn in by the country music band members that told us “We don’t play anything from this century.”  Listening to their tune capped the evening,

Gonzales central square

We hadn’t originally planned to stay in Smithville, but found a Warm Showers host there. By the time we learned he was not available, we were sold on the place. Following our new mantra led us to The Katy House B&B, just a block off Main Street. The stately brick home built in 1909 has been revitalized as a welcoming and comfortable inn.

Katy House B&B

My radar (and advance sleuthing) told me Amy’s Ice Cream was just down the road. The legendary local spot was humming with activity, and we eagerly joined the crowd. Rich creamy cups of ice cream soothed away the heat of the day.

Molly at Amy’s Ice Cream

It was the arrival of the railroad that caused Smithville to boom and prosper, spawning more beautiful large homes. Today it exudes an aura of vitality and pride. Its Main Street is lined with colorful shops and restaurants, and ends in a park with a picturesque gazebo and railway museum. Walking the streets and taking in the local activity from a rocker on the porch of the B&B, I could sense the town embracing its history yet thriving in the present.

Smithville train muralSmithville Main StreetSmithville gazeboNot every town we cycle through has a glorious history. Not every town is prosperous. But staying in the heart of the community and taking in the local scene makes for a much richer experience.

Hasty Judgements

Texas Tour progress map

Progress to date: 8 days, 362 miles

Standing on the shoulder in the blistering 87 degree sunshine we stared across the busy road at our intended motel. We had already traversed the length of the town and were now in the seedy outskirts. All other lodging options were already well behind us. “I’m not impressed.” Rich’s statement covered both of us.

Long tan prefab buildings lay in rows on a large concrete lot. Each barracks had a wooden deck running its length, serving door after door of rooms. There was no compensating green space in sight, just commercial buildings. Bleak hardly described it.

Oil riggers motel 1

Seeking shelter under a shade tree, we pulled out our phones to reconnoiter. It was a long way back cycling into the wind before we’d reach another place. Melting in the heat after already covering 54 miles, the idea was not appealing. But was it more unappetizing than staying in this barren shelter? We reread the reviews, and it was clear that this place housed out of town workers. But they had pretty favorable things to say. We figured we had little to lose by asking to see a room.

Three young women in the office greeted us cheerfully and answered our inquiries regarding availability and cost. “We’re pretty busy right now, with all the men in the oil fields,” Rhonda told us. But they did have single and double rooms available. “And the price includes dinner and breakfast. Tonight we’re serving spaghetti and meatballs, with homemade bread, and fresh lemon bars for dessert.” Sweeter words could not have been uttered. We still went to see the room, but Rich noted that was superfluous. “You sold us on the spaghetti!” he told her.

The room was clean and very tidy. With a stove, kitchen sink and full sized refrigerator it was even more than we needed. And the bed looked firm and comfortable. “We also do your laundry for you,” Rhonda added. “Just drop it off in the office and we will return it folded to your room.” We couldn’t wait to hand over our hot and sweaty cycling gear. Perhaps there was something to this oil field retreat. We might have more in common with those guys than we thought. Priorities: food, laundry, shelter and sleep.

Oil riggers motel 2

Dinner was served from 3:00-8:00pm, but we were advised to get there before the guys returned at 5:30. We expected to be surrounded by workers, but not too surprisingly they all picked up their dinner and retreated to their rooms. Instead, we met Rhonda’s three children. The youngest two were especially intrigued by our cycling, and we traded bicycling stories for dance routines, jr high football talk and two hand drawn pictures of a cat. “You are cool” graced the back, in neat first grade printing. Oh, and the food was as good as the company.

Breakfast ran from 3:00-9:00am, but it was said to be pretty dead by 7:30. No problem! Our only company for munching on cornflakes and a breakfast taco was the cook. She had been there since 2:00am. “I made over a hundred tacos this morning, and they are nearly gone,” she informed us. “Those oil rig guys left hours ago.” Sure enough the parking lot was deserted, and it was as quiet as it had been all night long. With hours like theirs, we didn’t hear any partying going on.

Had we been in a car, we would never have given the place a second look. Traveling by bicycle gives us a whole different perspective. Practicality rules. We try things we might otherwise avoid. We move outside our comfort zone.  It usually leads to some neat experiences, like this one. It was fortunate that we didn’t cave in to our initial hasty judgements.

Easing Up

Our legs reverberated all night long. Punishing hills and significant mileage this early in the trip took its toll on our bodies. Rich insisted we cut back, so we reduced our mileage to 30-40 miles for a few days. We put the extra free time to good use, mostly exploring nature.

Kerrville has some beautiful parks and a new system of paved trails connecting them along the Guadalupe River. Tranquility Island, which was formed by recent floods and the river manipulating its sandbars, was as peaceful as its name. Rich reveled in the unusual birds he was able to find and photograph. We managed to while away most of the afternoon there.

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Warm Showers hosts are in short supply along our route, so we were thrilled to spend the night with Fred and Janice outside Kerrville. It was a most pleasant evening, with no end of conversation to share over a hearty meal. We were fascinated by Fred’s ingenious application of his engineering skills to bicycle development. In the morning he cycled with us on his bike that he can power by hand on the front wheel as well as pedal the back wheel!

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Our next stop was Bandera, self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World. John Wayne might agree, as we ate in a restaurant with dozens of his pictures staring down at us. The town did have a very Western look, and plenty of bars offering honky tonk music. The City Park was the main attraction for us. We settled into a small cabin opposite the park and I spent the afternoon writing on the riverbank, surrounded by huge ducks and geese squawking and vying for handouts.

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We unknowingly joined a fundraising effort for Relay for Life that evening. The restaurant we chose had all volunteer waitresses, whose tips were donated to support the cancer fund. They were a friendly lot, working hard but enjoying the unique experience – without any prior experience. The air was warm out on the deck under sun dappled trees, with a singer to entertain us. Hearing that we were from Minnesota, he threw in a few Bob Dylan tunes for us.

photo apr 10, 7 35 09 pm

Not all short mileage days are easy. The 30 miles to go on our final “rolling rest day” turned out to be one of the most challenging yet. The combination of crumbled chip seal pavement and a headwind was bad enough. But when the shoulder narrowed down to about 15″ I lost all momentum. It was all I could do to balance on the precarious margin and stay out of the way of the rumbling trucks that blew past. Forget speed, it was all about survival. Scenery? I saw none. To add insult to injury, Rich had to spend our rest stop repairing another flat tire – his third in three days.

But I did see the colorful little hut alongside the road when we arrived in Hondo. It demanded investigating. Inside were colorful candies, jars of flavorings for Raspas (shaved ice – think snow cone), and Italian ices. The jolly owner happily explained them all to us, then dished up flavorful ices for us – lime for Rich, strawberry and mango for me. The perfect way to chill out after our hot, trying ride.

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So much for cutting back. Tomorrow it’s back to a 54 miler. Maybe that will be easier.

Amazon to the Rescue

Rich’s question delivered a sinking feeling. “Where is your sleeping bag?” The answer was even worse. “I have no idea.” Twenty-three miles ago it was strapped on top of my panniers with two bungee cords. Still attached, they hung lose without their payload. I thought I still had it when I parked my bike outside the cafe where we stopped for breakfast. But I couldn’t even be certain of that. It was only day one of our Two Timing Texas Tour. I was not off to a great start.

Self-incriminating anger infiltrated my body and threatened to erupt. I began my verbal tirade. I would impose my own penal sentence – retracing our route to retrieve said bag. I lost it, I should have to cycle the extra miles to find it. I was well on the path to my rampage. However, Rich had seen it all before. He knew my ability to work myself up and was ready for the counter-attack. Normally, talking sense does little to diffuse the situation. But for once he made me see the folly of my logic. I could search all day and never find it. We would simply buy a new sleeping bag. Even I had to admit he had a point.

Case closed, and we continued. But my lingering mortification powered my pace, propelled me up the hills, and blinded me from appreciating the scenery. I don’t let go all that easily.

The solution assumed that the upcoming tourist towns would have a sporting goods store. Rich was already fast asleep by the time my research proved the fault in that premise. So I turned to the only remaining answer. Amazon.

Through the wonders of online shopping, I found my original order for our sleeping bags and learned they were still available. Then the real magic happened. We discovered the existence of Amazon Lockers. Amazon Prime could deliver my new bag two days hence (on a Sunday, no less) to a locker outside a convenience store right on our route. Click. Ordered.

Monday morning we found the yellow lockers. Punching in the code sent by email, a door immediately popped open revealing my precious package inside. Presto, I had my new sleeping bag!

Molly Amazon locker 1Molly Amazon locker 2

This time I secured the bungees through the bag’s straps and added a carabiner clip for good measure. I was good to go, and prepared for camping out. Almost. I hadn’t thought to order a new waterproof bag. If heavy rain shows up in the advance forecast, there just may be another Amazon locker in our future.

Molly new sleeping bag

Taking in the Local Color

If it hadn’t been for the pizza, I would have missed the concert. It was a chilly night in Llano, when we wandered down to the tiny pizza joint just down the road. The sign boasted mesquite fired pizza, and sure enough there was the wood fire oven out back, with a small window for placing orders. Most of the seating was outdoors, but on that night we made our way inside where it was warm. Rough wooden tables filled the small room. Paper plates and paper towels for napkins were in an alcove. We had barely retrieved our wine bottle from its paper bag when two steaming pizza boxes arrived.

Rich at Pizza placephoto apr 07, 7 07 31 pm

It was the kind of place where conversation easily overlapped between the close tables, and we learned that this was the weekend for Fiddle Fest. A concert was scheduled for that evening. My antennae went up. While I may not be a devotee of fiddle music, I can’t resist an opportunity to take in unique local offerings. Rich was unenthused, so I made my own way over to the town square. There I found an old time movie theater complete with the glass box office window, and a real stage inside.

Fiddle Fest in Llano

For my $10 I got two and a half hours of high energy music. The bulk of the evening featured a young fiddler who jammed with an older musician who used to play with his father. They each had their own guitarist – which seemed to be a common pairing. I’ve never seen fingers move so fast or notes fly so quickly. The two fiddlers reveled in trading the lead back and forth with just the mere suggestion of a nod, each seeking to outdo the other. It was foot stomping, leg jiggling kind of music – impossible to sit still while listening. Where else but in a Texas could I do that?

The following day delivered another dose of local color – literally. Bluebonnets and other wildflowers graced the roadside for most of our cycling. The pinnacle of bluebonnet viewing is on the Willow City Loop, 13 miles of narrow twisty rolling road that winds through private farmland. Cycling is one of the best ways to enjoy the views and the wildflowers. Just as we arrived at the start of the loop, the morning’s dark clouds broke, the sun came out and we had clear sunny skies for our sightseeing.

We could tell when we got to the best patch of bluebonnets by all the cars parked on the side of the road. Soon we too ventured into the blooms for the classic photo shots.

img_8370BluebonnetsMolly and Rich in bluebonnets

There were plenty of other cyclists out on day rides, and it was little surprise that they chose this loop for their route.

Cyclists on Willow City Loop

For our finale in Fredericksburg that evening, we chose to eat outside on the patio at the Silver Creek Beer Garden. The sun was warm on our backs as it dropped, and the cold bottles of cider really hit the spot after a long day of cycling. Two country singers belted out tunes as we consumed hearty meals and relaxed our tired bodies. We were in no hurry to move on. We had yet more local color to take in.

Silver Creek Beer Garden

Is this still Texas?

Two jackets, a quarter zip thermal shirt, long sleeve t-shirt, short sleeve Cuddle Dud, arm warmers, biking shorts, tights, wool socks, gloves, toe warmers and a hat. It was just barely enough to stay warm cycling all day. We didn’t pack our heavy Minnesota gear for cycling in Texas, so instead I wore everything I had in my panniers. Yesterday it was 87 degrees. Today never got above 40.

We were warned. Whenever we told folks we were melting in the heat because we were from Minnesota, they responded, “Just wait until tomorrow. You’ll feel right at home.”

Not only was it 36 and windy as we cycled away from our motel, but a fine mist soon coated our glasses and dampened our outermost layers. It might have dampened our spirits as well except for one huge bonus. The 21 mph wind was directly behind us. After battling a headwind for two days, this was a wind we could welcome. Even if it delivered frigid air.

Rich at motel

The best way to stay warm was to keep cycling. So I was surprised when Rich randomly stopped halfway down a hill. I was even more surprised to see him wandering into the roadside grasses until I realized he was taking photos. In that weather, I knew it could not be a bird. Instead he was documenting the increasing population of bluebonnets and other wild flowers. There were frequent bunches lining the road and we could tell that some fields were filled with bluebonnets, but in the misty distance they appeared as a dim blue fuzz.

Texas wildflowers

I finally got my latte when we stopped at Oliver and Company coffeehouse in San Sabo for breakfast. In fact, I had two. I’ve never done that before. But they were small, and I still wasn’t warm after one.

Molly at coffeehouse

Molly feeling cold
Whether it was the double lattes, warm food, extra calories or just spending some time indoors, it felt marginally warmer when we returned to our bikes. Or perhaps it was the absence of mist in the air. But it made the difference between being chilled and feeling comfortable. And it certainly improved our ability to see and appreciate the lush green rolling countryside studded with leafy trees and the occasional longhorn cattle.

Today’s ride was completed in record time. We fairly flew down the road. Uphills were effortless with the wind’s turbo boost. On the flats we easily clocked 20 mph. Our average speed jumped from 9.5 yesterday to 13 mph for today – a gain of over 35%!

Texas is full of surprises. We shall see what the Lone Star State delivers tomorrow.

An Endurance Test

Take two northern Minnesotans who have barely hung up their skies and plop them on their bikes in Texas. Throw in a stiff quartering headwind, blistering sunshine and temperatures that reach 87 degrees. Mix together for 51 miles and you get two bushed cyclists by the end of the day.

We’ve been here before. Three years ago we faced the same challenge, and we hoped not to repeat our previous mistakes of taking on too much too soon in the heat. However, Texas presents few options. There are only so many towns, and even fewer with motels and restaurants. And lots of land with nothing but farms and animals in between. So our route is pre-ordained, and identical to our last tour.

There were only two possible stopping points today, breaking our ride into three 17 mile segments. Our first was Comanche, where we headed the advice we found in the window of MattDaddy’s cafe on the town square: EAT HERE. They were welcome words indeed, followed by “Open.” The western style menu came with a twist, offering fresh blueberries. I downed two plate sized blueberry studded pancakes to fuel the next leg of our journey.

Molly at MattDaddy’s cafe

Our next destination was Priddy, a town that estimates its population at 265. Its meager offerings were an oasis to a couple of weary cyclists. By that time it was already over 80 in the shade. The highlights included cold drinks at the general store and a rest in the playground behind the attractive Lutheran church. It was with difficulty that we gathered the energy to attack our final segment.

Priddy TX signRich at Priddy playground

You might think that I’d have more to report on the scenery. On the exuberance of the wildflowers. On the lush countryside. The honest answer is that I had my head down most of the way as I pedaled into the wind. Independently we counted down the miles until we reached our humble motel in Goldthwaite. I did notice the ubiquitous modern windmills, and wondered if there were there when we passed by three years ago. I was also keenly aware of the sparse appearance of wildflowers. Pink and yellow flowers graced the roadside here and there, and occasionally a burst of bluebonnets dotted the grass. But nothing like the fields of color we witnessed last time. I’m holding my breath, hoping more appear as we move south.

A pelting shower, clean clothes and a filling Mexican meal have done wonders to revive our sagging bodies. The fine boxed Chardonnay we found in the convenience store across the way has restored our spirits. We’ve passed today’s endurance test. Let tomorrow bring what it may.

Rich and box Chardonnay

Texas Touring Tweaks

Map of revised TX tour startRight out of the chute, we changed plans. Enjoying a pre-tour stay on their country farm with my brother Bill and his wife Phillis, we learned that the bluebonnets and other wildflowers were beginning to bloom and it was shaping up to be another bountiful year. That’s all it took for us to reverse direction and head to the Hill Country. Even though we traveled that ground on our last Texas tour, the memories drew us back. So instead of heading East, we are going south to the Fredericksburg area. Since we’ve already broken the mold, we may just change up our itinerary all together. Time will tell, as we make our destination decisions day by day.

At the Farm

Bill saw us off to a fine start, and we wound through quiet farmland dominated by cattle, horses and even a one-off llama. As we rolled up and down with the continuous undulations of the country road, I couldn’t help but revel in the green grass, sprinkling of color from the wildflowers, and eventually the warmth of the sun. Rich couldn’t resist dumpster diving when he found a pony friend awaiting the garbage pickup. He declared it the first Purple Cow of the tour.

Molly and Rich start Texas TourTouring Pony

We targeted Stephenville for our breakfast stop. Finding no eateries while circling the town square, Rich stopped to ask a woman for advice. She recommended Jack and Dorothy’s Cafe, saying it was chosen as one of the 40 best cafes in Texas. Founded in 1948 and now run by the daughter, it is a classic. The cacophony of clanking plates and waitresses shouting out orders greeted us at the door. Black and white tile, green spinning stools at the counter, coffee pots over-heating on their burners and well worn booths were testimony to its authenticity. As was its menu steeped in the era of heaping portions of eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast. No latte for me today. But Rich’s stock touring breakfast, a ham and cheese omelette, got a thumbs up.

Rich at classic cafe

Our cool morning start changed rapidly as the sun came out and the wind picked up. Not only buffeted by the winds, we found the worst cycling road surface yet. Until now, chip seal was our nemesis. But grooved chip seal earned even lower marks. It looked like a road prepared for a resurfacing that never materialized. Fortunately we only had three miles to cover on that washboard, but it was enough to dislodge my sleeping bag from its bungees and send it off into the roadside abyss. By the time we noticed it’s absence, we were miles down the next road. Someone else will be it’s proud new owner, as Rich convinced me it was futile to try and find it. So no camping for us until we can buy a replacement.

As the day wore on, I gradually felt myself getting back into the touring groove. My legs remembered how to power up the hills. The burden of my panniers disappeared once I was rolling. My butt rebelled after 38 miles in the saddle. The passing countryside entertained me. And I zeroed in on the Dairy Queen as soon as we arrived in our destination town.

Not everything went according to plan, but it’s a start. And no doubt we will tweak this tour many more times before we are through. After all, we have four weeks to keep changing our minds.

Oh Baby, Another Cycling Tour

Two Timing Texas Tour JerseyWe’ve on the cusp of another cycling tour, but first we have more important things to attend to.  Right now we’re on baby watch.  Our daughter, Karen, is due to have a baby boy on April 1, which given her past track record could mean any time now.  Gathering up our cycling gear, packing our panniers, and pouring over maps have taken a back seat.  Instead, I’ve been baking cookies, preparing freezer meals and wrapping kiddy presents in readiness for my upcoming Grammy duties.

Once the newly-expanded family gets back on its feet in its new 6-member configuration, Rich and I will head to Texas for a month of warm spring cycling.  In a nod to our previous swing through that state three years ago, we’re calling this one the Two Timing Texas Cycling Tour.  Just like last time, we will set off from my brother Bill’s house in Granbury.  And like before, we expect to enjoy plenty of warm weather while Duluth suffers through mud season.

Two Timing Texas map

Although we’ll revisit a couple of favorite spots like the Davey Crockett National Forest and the Hill Country (hoping to catch the bluebonnets in bloom again), for the most part we will explore new territory.  The route looks firm on paper but in fact is quite malleable.  In general, we expect to cover about 1,000 miles in the month of April.

It feels like a long time since we last bike toured, when in fact it was only last July.  I’m primed and ready to start pushing the pedals again.  Almost.  First I need a fix of that new baby smell.