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.

Beyond Bluebonnets

We could have called this the Texas Wildflower Tour. But we had no way of knowing that every mile we covered would be brilliantly painted by roadside wildflowers.

We were already familiar with the Texas Bluebonnets. They lured us into the Hill Country, causing us to reverse our route just to see them again. The blue spikes topped with a tinge of white are irresistible, just like their larger cousin the lupine which grace the scenic highway on the North Shore. But bluebonnets were only the beginning.

Molly cycling by bluebpnnets

At first it was the Indian Paintbrush, another bloom familiar to us Minnesotans. The reddish orange spikey flowers were joined by other reds, yellows, oranges, whites and purples. We tried to photograph them as we found each new variety. It was a fun yet never ending task. Just as one set of flowers disappeared, new ones came to take their place.

Texas wildflowers 1

We found the flowering cacti to be especially appealing. For all the times we’ve seen cactus, we have never seen them in bloom. The prickly pear burst out in yellow and orange flowers.

Flowering yellow cactusFlowering orange cactus

As we moved into the northeastern part of the state, we detected a definite change. First, flowers that were petering out in the Hill Country were just coming into bloom. It was a spring resurgence. Even bluebonnets made a return appearance.

Texas wildflowers 2

Then the further into the Piney Woods we got, the thicker the vegetation. No longer did we see delicate little blossoms. New bushy varieties took hold, as did tall flowers like black eyed Susans. Competing for sunshine in the heavy undergrowth, when they thrived they dominated the roadside.

Roadside wildflower mix

The sheer delight of mixed BLOSSOMS lining the roadway called to us. We couldn’t resist wading into the explosion of color.

Rich in the wildflowersMolly in the wildflowers

We were drawn by the bluebonnets. Little did we know there was a whole world of Texas wildflowers, beyond the bluebonnets.

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.



Approaching the Big Climb

Each of the last few days we've thought, “This is it. We're going to start some serious climbing today.” But we haven't. Instead we have navigated the run up to the Ozark Mountains with some decent hills, snaked through passes that saved us altitude and enjoyed the plateaus in between. The bigger challenge has been the weather, delivering some huge winds that battered us physically and mentally, and rain that delayed us for a morning. But that's all par for the course on a trip that is at the whim of the elements.

The one constant on our way north through Arkansas has been the scenery, which can be described with one word – gorgeous. The greenery is incredibly lush with the wet spring, and new varieties of wildflowers paint the countryside. We've been traveling on Scenic Byways which have been reasonably quiet, enhancing the pastoral views of farms, animals and wooded countryside. Towns are few, which makes for long interrupted stretches of gliding through nature's beauty.

What more can I say? I think pictures tell it best.

Rich pedaling through the countryside

A quiet rest area makes a nice stop...for resting!

Feeling a sense of accomplishment after crossing our first foothills

Convenience stores aren't scenic but provide welcome warm-ups

Buttercups fill the farm fields

A 1933 tourist cabin built of native sandstone and field stone

There is no doubt that our prelude to the Ozarks is about over. Tomorrow we enter Ozark National Forest and the topographical map view tells us all we need to know. That big climb is approaching.


Bluebonnet Perfection

Progress to date: 5 days, 230 miles

This was to be bluebonnet day. Starting in Llano, we were at the gateway to the Hill Country and headed for Fredericksburg at its core. We'd seen wildflowers along the roadsides already, but now we were ready for the big time.

Of course all the locals had plenty of advice. The one thing they all recommended was the Willow City Loop. It is THE place to see bluebonnets, we were told. Since it was just off our intended route, we were all for it. We were also informed that our timing was perfect – the bluebonnets were at their peak. Not only that, but it was the best display in years. I was excited. This is what we'd come for.

The morning dawned dark and gloomy, with storms in the area. Striking out at an early hour, we felt a few sprinkles and cycled through areas that clearly had some recent rain. It didn't feel like the best day to be viewing wildflowers. But we pressed onward, willing the skies to lighten.

The shoulder on the road had diminished to a narrow crumbly strip, and even on the 2-lane road the speed limit was 70 mph. So we were eager for the opportunity to divert into a smaller road. Before we did, we found a couple of buddies – two Texas Longhorns enjoying the bluebonnets as well. They didn't seem too bothered by our presence and being intent on taking their picture.

Willow City Loop turned out to be a small quiet road, barely wide enough for two way traffic. The damp weather became an advantage, as it discouraged other sightseers from showing up and we had the road largely to ourselves. We were soon enthralled. For 13 miles the road wound through private land that was a haven for wildflowers. Not only were there bluebonnets, but a whole host of varieties of wildflowers which dominated the landscape. Sometimes they only lined the roadway. Other times they formed blankets of color that reached far back into the trees or covered whole fields with blue, white or red.

Between each landowner, there were cattle grates in the road. While the frequent interruptions were little problem for the cars, walking over them with our bikes proved to be quite a challenge!

The road curved, rose and fell and there were flowers to be seen at every twist and turn. The few cars that were there barely moved any faster than we did. Photo stops were frequent. The best part of all was being able to lolligag and gawk without any fear of traffic. And it was so quiet.

Our progress was luxuriously slow, and as time went on the weather steadily improved. As the day got brighter and dryer, the number of cars increased. It made us glad for the solitude we had on the bulk of the loop. It was definitely the best display of wildflowers we could imagine. I think pictures tell it the best.

Exiting from the loop, we were able to travel the remaining distance to Fredericksburg via other back roads. While the bluebonnets were not as much in evidence, the sun came out and for a change we had the wind at our backs. We concluded our day with dinner while listening to a local singer/guitar player on an outdoor patio in town. The perfect ending to our bluebonnet day.



Texas Roadside Sights

The closer we get to the hill country, the better the scenery. Or perhaps it's that the winds have abated somewhat and we are able to raise our heads and actually take in what's around us. I think it's some of both, really, but either way it has been a visual treat.

This is what cycle touring is all about. Traveling the countryside at 12 mph, stopping to see things along the way, taking pictures and meeting local folk. However, I'm not always the most observant cyclist. Sometimes I get too absorbed in pedaling along and forget to take in what's around me. So when I lost Rich this morning and had to double back to find him, I was given a second chance to see what I'd missed. He'd spotted a young donkey with its mother in a field. Although they were wandering away by the time I got there, I still had time to watch them. Just beyond, the adjacent farmhouse had two peacocks perched on the garage roof. I'd totally missed those the first time as well. At another stopping point, a dead tree first attracted Rich as he thought it harbored a bird. I thought the tree itself was more interesting.

Passing through tiny towns that barely make it on the map, it's a sure bet they have one or more nice churches. We have found their grounds to be pleasant resting spots. It's debatable whether there will be any businesses open. Today, we were lucky to find an all purpose general store. Purchasing a few snack items led to questions about our trip and some fun conversations.

One ubiquitous sight that consistently compells us to stop is Dairy Queen. There is nothing better than ice cream after a long hot day of cycling. And it's the one time we can indulge without a single pang of guilt. In Goldthwaite the manager was very interested in our trip and was eager to help us out. We left with a fistful of coupons for free dip cones! We cashed in the first pair the very next afternoon.

But back to the roadside. With each passing mile the wild flowers become more abundant. Not knowing if the varieties varied by locale, I finally took the time to stop and capture as many of them as I could.

Of course the most famous and plentiful flowers are the bluebonnets. The patches grow larger and thicker the further south we travel, and along with their volume comes the fragrance. On a bicycle, it's much more than just a roadside sight – it's a feast for all the senses.


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.


The Showy Lady’s-slipper

My bike route was not an inspiring one. It was a straight out and back ride on a quiet road that offered little variation in scenery. But on this particular day I found some stunning views. If you like wildflowers, that is.

With the late spring, the blooms I was enjoying were far past their normal seasons. Fields of daisies and patches of red hawkweed dominated the roadside. Sprinkled along the way were lupine, wild roses, buttercups and clumps of purple iris. And then there were all the flowers I couldn't name – numerous varieties in yellow, white and purple. But the absolute best were the Lady's-slippers.

Lady Slippers

For a span of several miles, the grassy ditches on both sides of the road were richly adorned with clusters of the beautiful flower. I was thrilled to see the first few blossoms, followed by amazement at how ubiquitous they were. Despite being Minnesota's state flower, I usually consider them to be a rare find. This was a showy display.

What added to their appeal was the brilliance of their color. These were not demure pink flowers. They had richly colored bulbs bordering on deep purple. They stood out in sharp contrast against the fresh spring greenery.

These Lady's-slippers lived up to their name – they were showy indeed. And turned an ordinary bike ride into one of delight.