We're sitting in a booth at The Hop, an old-school diner in Coldspring, Texas. When we entered an hour or so ago, a now-familiar little ritual played out between my brother and the staff. Like this:
We take a lot of backroads through forsaken towns and once-upon-a-towns on this bike trip. At least once or twice a day we enter an establishment that serves deep-fried food - the better ones not requiring us to push the buttons on the microwave ourselves. These are places where the proprietor looks up quickly at the sight of two cyclists walking through the door and, with a calculating eye, wonders if we'll buy enough food that he can put off selling his kidney for another week. It is with a certain amount of wonderment then, and, to be fair, a grudging respect for blind, dogged persistence, that when the server says "Yew want fries with that?", my brother invariably - INVARIABLY - asks "Do you make the fries yourself?" At this point I usually look away.
Now many of you urban hipsters may think this a perfectly reasonable question. In fact, leaving out the natural follow-up question: "And do you use duck oil?", might leave you shaking your head and conferring outer-circle status to the inquirer. But at these joints, where dust and cobwebs form on the frozen mystery-meat and an urge to change the fryer oil every bicentennial is discouraged as wasteful, the response to Geoff's question is always a long pause, as they process the question and what might be behind the question, and then one of many, many regional variations of "No, sir." It's amazing how many ways "No, sir." can sound like "You gotta be shitting me".
Where was I... oh yeah, we're in Coldspring, Texas. Speaking of springs, we sprung from El Paso to Austin in a rented car, eliminating 10 days of the trip; the first seven endless desert, the final three endless climbing. I'm trying to feel ashamed of myself, but it just won't take. We detoured north to Carlsbad Caverns, an absolutely extraordinary, other-worldly place, and my only regret is that I didn't do it with Seb and Emer each of the last two years; think of the Mines of Moria as depicted in the Fellowship of the Ring, remove the orcs and balrog, add electricity to provide subtle, evocative lighting, and you're more or less there.
We're now cycling through Greenworld, having left Brownworld west of Austin. As a species, we must be genetically predisposed to lushness. I was cycling past our first genuine big lake of the trip this morning, in the Sam Houston National Forest, and some primitive part of me just thrummed in a very satisfying, non-political way; no wonder the editors told Bible-writers to scrap "The Desert of Eden" first draft.
Last night we had our first truly stealth camp of the trip. 'Til now we've sought and received permission to pitch our tent behind churches or bars or wherever, but last night we were passing through a dark, scary state forest and a small part of me said "I want to expose myself to giant, feral hogs in a setting with no cellphone reception". So I did. They were unimpressed - maybe my raincoat-opening flourish needs work. In a state of anticlimax, we wandered into the woods and pitched our tent. It was okay for me.
Geoff is covering the details of our trip in his writing. I appear to be offering Sunday Supplement "Slice of Life" segments. Maybe we'll switch on the next blog, but I doubt it. Peace out.
Having experienced the cornucopic tip of Texas (El Paso), all else was likely to be a desert in the coming days. My brother, displaying remarkable good sense and route savvy, ignored any macho completion fixation to suggest we rent a car and visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, which would mean missing out on a week of nothingness in the south Texan desert, apart from the spectacle of the occasional illegal being chased across the Rio Bravo by ICE agents. Another day, another collar, in Mr. T's Amerika. Very sad.
The Caverns were worth the detour. Access to the Big Room, the Suessian wonderland 85 storeys straight down by elevator, or more interestingly 1.5 miles down a switchback path that begins (literally) at the mouth of the Bat Cave. The interior pictures I took are largely dark and uninteresting, but our wanderings in the defined and well-railinged (especially beside the "bottomless pit") were compelling, as the space had an area of 14 football fields and a ceiling height of over 200 feet in places. We couldn't think of which particular Dr. Suess book the place evoked, but both evoked wonder. The photo of Barc staring for several minutes at one column requires a caption I dare not provide.
The car ride to Austin in our rented Passat is remarkable for three things:
1. The speed at which we could travel legally: a "limit" of 80mph on two-lane rural highways and the interstate were more guidelines to most drivers, and Barc (our driver) had his own Das Auto moments at speeds occasionally north of this. Hills and wind mean nothing to cars.
2. We saved 500 miles or so of pedalling in the desert, and thereby about 10 days or so, rendering this trip the "Southern Tier Lite" route...only 2,700 miles.
3. Texas is still very wide.
Austin, the state capital, is home to Lance Armstrong's bike shop, which despite his fall from grace still displays the various bikes he rode during his several Tour de France "wins." I am sympathetic to his drug-aided rides, as I admit to using both ibuprofen and naproxen on this trip. No blood transfusions yet. Austin has a whiff of Portlandia about it, and the Whole Foods market attracted a wide range of hipsters, some even cooler than we are, to buy organic meals and dine on their terrace. My super foods salad medley topped with salmon has added a year to my life. Post-dinner was a mystery author book reading at nearby BookPeople, a thriving independent bookstore somehow able to attract first-rate authors to read and sign. Had we been one week earlier, Ian Rankin was their guest! This night two Texas-based writers were on tap: Kathleen Kent and Joe Lansdale, the latter a fairly big name. Both were entertaining, but there was no mention of Rebus, the Oxford Bar, or McCaffery...just a lesbian police detective in Dallas and a black&white detective tag team (the black enforcer is gay, of course) on the trail of crooked cops. We had clearly stumbled into the blue, NPR-addled, fake news part of red Texas! Our brief Austin visit concluded with a visit to the legendary blues bars on 6th Street, one of my pre-identified trip goals. Like many idealized music scenes, the reality on this Thursday night was less than expected; mostly empty clubs with aggressive doormen pitching their product ("No women, but lots of cold beer," offered one), stoned panhandlers, and a police presence. We did sit in for a set at on place featuring a power trio fronted by the next Stevie Ray (he was good, but the two others didn't keep up). We also heard a female blues harpist (yes, a real harp) in an Irish pub. She was good, but I wouldn't come to Austin just for the music, based on the slice we sampled.
Back on the bikes Friday morning and to camping on the back roads and small towns of East Texas. Winchester's one bar/general store/restaurant offered Burger Nite T-F-S, so this Friday we enjoyed a pretty good burger, which I washed down with Shiner Bock, a beer brewed just down the road. Travis, our bartender, was like many in this area of rural Texas a person of German descent, settled by presumably legal immigrants in the 19th Century. While Baptist churches of all stripes are commonplace on our route--only every two miles or so--we camped behind a well-kept Methodist church across the road...I guess sort-of Christian sects are allowed in Texas too. While little Jonathan and I both like trains, our chosen campsite (we learned belatedly) was only a couple of hundred yards from a level crossing, so throughout the "nite" we inevitably woke to the repeated airhorn blasts that in other circumstances would be charming.
Saturday was a really nice day and beautiful ride through the increasingly gentrified hills to Independence, TX. The Ewing homestead would look downscale compared to a few of the spreads we saw, most with iron gates with the property name a scrolled arch: Century Oak Farm, The Willows on Oak Hill, Trophy Wife Manor, etc. Our tent was pitched on the site of an old cotton gin, and a stroll to the general store, where Mike records the names of all touring cyclists who stop in. Nice. Sunday featured a side-windy day to the Sam Houston forest, where we pitched our tent a few miles east of the smouldering forest fire we cycled through. My worry was not the fire getting us, but the wild boars apparently plentiful in the area. "Poppies," said Glinda. "Poppies..."
Awaking alive and unmauled this Monday morning, we rolled into Coldspring for a lunch where we sampled the best-ever onion rings and caught up on our e-mails, blogging, and re-hydration at "The Hop," a 50's retro burger joint incongruously playing Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes. Tonight we're stopping at a Warmshowers host a few miles down the road that I'm hopeful actually offers a shower. I would not dare to speak for Barc, but I know that I'm overdue for a good scrub. Some details are best left unwritten. Adios.