Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Day 26, March 31: Bracketville to Camp Wood, TX

0 of 49 miles—SAG driver

We have officially left West Texas and entered the beginning of Texas Hill Country. The vegetation changed from brown to green in what seemed like a flash and the terrain has become slightly more interesting. It was a quiet day to be a SAG driver—no flats and no one in need of special services.

There was a little excitement out on the road, which I missed as I was awaiting riders at the first SAG stop. Nancy came across a ewe in some distress, caught between two gates and separated from her tiny lamb. It took the efforts of a few riders to get the mom disentangled from barbed wire and freed from the gates to reunite with her offspring.

In this part of Texas there are bridges only over continuously flowing water, which is the exception. Therefore, there are warning signs posted in washes and other low-lying areas with flood gauge indicators.

We crossed the Nueces River at the end of the ride, a scenic place to catch our breath. Next stop, Sisters Café, for post-ride energy replacement.

Day 25, March 30: Armistad to Bracketville, TX

42 of 42 miles.

A short ride today, a recovery ride of sorts. The first 23 miles featured smooth pavement, often taken for granted before crossing into Texas, and for which I now have great appreciation. The final 20 miles was jarringly Texas normal. It was hot, very hot, 95 + hot.

The highlight of the ride was a Stealth bomber finishing its landing pattern directly over my head as I rode past Laughlin Air Force Base. Yes, you read correctly, the highlight.

As luck would have it given the heat, tonight we are staying in the Fort Clark Springs Motel and, you guessed it, there is a spring here—the Las Moras. The stream runs at a steady 68 degrees in all seasons, and the water gathers in a large, man-made pool, which many of us enjoyed. I even did a sequence from my 1960’s aquatic ballet routine, sans the Theme from Exodus in the background. Sometimes it’s necessary to improvise.

Fort Clark was one of the U.S. Army’s line of forts along the military road from San Antonio to El Paso. It was important to the defense of frontier settlements and control of the US-Mexican border. Today it is listed as a National Register Historic District. Although it is advertised as a “gated resort”, this description requires some imagination. Our quarters tonight are in restored cavalry barracks.

I tried very hard today to find photo ops. There were few, so I’m lowering my standards.

Aptly named

The barracks

Day 24, March 29: Sanderson to Amistad (Del Rio), TX

61 of 111 miles

Open range.
Border patrol.
Nothing, but nothing, for mile after mile.
Chip seal (now crudely referred to as crap shit).
Oh, and did I mention the wind?
30 mph, gusting to 40.
Unrelenting, in your face.
Noisy, the kind that makes people go insane during mistral.
Granny gear, my lowest of 30 possible combinations, on straight-aways.
Pedaling hard on steep downhills to reach 10 mph.
Uphills almost a treat on the leeward side.
Tractor-trailers and SUV’s brushing too close for comfort.
No photo ops. No time to stop.
It was brutal.

Six women finished the total mileage. They started at sunrise and pulled in to the motel at 7:45, 12+ hours later, after sunset with the sky streaked with pink. One completed a century, and then called it a day. Another, a strong rider, decided to bag the entire day when, at breakfast, the intensity of the conditions became evident. The remainder of us rode until our bodies would take us no further. This was an endurance event for which no amount of training could prepare you, as it would be next to impossible to replicate the conditions which, combined, gave this ride its difficulty. It’s over, and I cheerfully proclaim that I will never visit this part of Texas again. Well, maybe with Tony if he wants to soar in Marfa, but a vehicle with less than four wheels will be non negotiable.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Day 23, March 28: Marathon to Sanderson, TX

55 of 55 miles

Other than a frigid start (there was a hard frost last night with a sunrise temperature of 26), the ride was fairly uneventful. I set out at ten to avoid the coldest weather and, by noon, it had warmed to around 70 with consistent tailwinds, always a friend. The riding terrain was flat with open range, hills, and rocky mountains as the backdrop.

From Day 2 of the trip, our group has been playing cat-and-mouse with Scott who is doing this ride while he awaits his Peace Corps assignment. He subsequently met two fellows from Alaska, Allen and Carl, who he has biked with for the past three weeks.

The dearth of photo opportunities today makes for short work on the blog—no long delays for uploading. There’s an upside to everything.

Scott and Allen at one of our SAG stops

Ocotillo plant

Relaxing at the Desert Air Motel in metropolitan Sanderson

Friday, March 27, 2009

Day 22, March 27: Fort Davis to Marathon, TX

60 of 60 miles

A cold snap has overtaken this area. It was 36 degrees when we left the hotel and it remained at that temperature for the better part of the day, only rising to the high 40’s by mid-afternoon. There was all manner of dress out there today—there was absolutely no visible skin for many riders. This is where NH/VT riding in the spring and fall comes in to play for preparation. I had all the proper equipment and I couldn’t have been happier. It’s easier for me to control the cold than the heat, so it was my kind of riding.

There was a very brisk four-mile downhill to Fort Davis. The fort was a Confederate supply point and frontier outpost on the military road from San Antonio to El Paso.

The morning colors were subtle with the grasses taking on a slight pink hue. I was fortunate to see a herd of pronged-horn antelope approaching the crest of a hill.

The entire riding crew virtually invaded the local coffee shop in Alpine in an attempt to defrost. Some of the local customers chose to completely ignore us by turning their backs away as we sat down. Others were quick to engage in conversation and had a flurry of questions. This elderly gentleman in the cowboy hat sauntered in, supported by his cane, and was quickly engrossed in a conversation with his cronies.

There were a few wildflowers along the side of the road.

We paralleled the train tracks for the 30 miles from Alpine to Marathon. It is a very active line.

Tonight we stay at the Gage Hotel, a Texas classic. It was built in 1926 for Vermont native Alfred Gage, a cattleman. Gage founded the largest ranching operation in the Trans-Pecos area and was a successful banker in San Antonio. The hotel is beautifully appointed and filled with every manner of Western memorabilia.

Our group is afflicted with blogging mania. This is what we do every day after our ride.

Robin Sewell has the dubious distinction of having had nine flats so flat, several of them blowouts, by far the most in the group. Robin has handled her travails with an optimism that I would have had an extremely difficult time mustering. Replacement rims were deemed to be the solution, and the Fed Ex truck pulled in at 9 pm with said rims.

Robin rode in the van today as she awaited the shipment, and put the finishing touches on this poem, which she read at dinner. She gave me permission to share it with my readers.

There once was a bike rider named Robin,
With 8 flats in 3 weeks, you'd be sobbin',
But no tears did she shed,
Let the truth be said,
She went on with her trip with no problem.
Many women among us felt pity,
Changing tires can be really gritty,
Especially when,
Gusty, strong winds blow in,
In Fort Hancock which isn't much of a city.
She learned to change tires by looking,
Take your levers and just start hooking,
Spin the lever around,
Put the old tube on the ground,
Insert the new tube and you're cooking.
Her back tires exploded, KAPOW!
Michelle to the rescue, WOW!
New rim tape and file,
New tube, tire, that's style!
Back biking the roadways for now.
My thanks to to Ann, Susan, and SAG,
In helping me out, though I lag,
Behind most of the crew,
I stop to admire the view,
Don't feel sorry for me, that's a drag.
Some setbacks, I've had quite a few,
But my new friends, you've always come through,
With a big caring hug,
On my heartstrings, you've tugged,
Kind words, sage advice, I thank you!
This group of bike women is great,
Chef Linda's meals really rate,
Michelle's always about,
To help us all out,
As we bicycle from state to state.
Over 1,000 miles we have ridden,
Butterflies,desert flowers are not hidden,
Back roads, highway shoulders,
With unique, huge boulders,
More adventures lie ahead, no kidding!
Love to all, Robin

Day 21, March 26: Fort Davis

Rest Day

The appreciation of the rest day is universal in our tight-knit community. No one sleeps in, but naps are not unheard of. We do laundry, we clean bikes, the SAG drivers clean our wagon, Linda cleans her kitchen, and everyone looks for activities of interest within close proximity.

Our hotel, the Indian Lodge, came as a pleasant surprise. It was built in the 1930’s as a CCC project. The original structure has been enlarged to 39 rooms of attractive adobe construction, with some of the original native wood furniture intact.

I explored the town of Fort Davis by foot which, at most, took about a half hour. There are a couple of hotels from the late 18-early 1900’s that were interesting and fairly well maintained. I had lunch at the Old Texas Inn which had big atmosphere, with the soda fountain counter unaltered from its origins.

Several of us visited the McDonald Observatory atop Mount Locke, set above Fort Davis at an elevation of 6791’. We toured the Harlan Smith telescope, named after the first University of Texas Chair of Astronomy, built from 1966-1968 with a 107” mirror, then one of the largest in the world.

Jan and I are rooming together for this two-day stop. We are the tall and the short, or the vertically challenged and vertically endowed, of the group.

When I’m around Jan, it reminds me of going to the nursing uniform shop freshmen year to get fit for, well, a uniform. I asked one of my dorm mates to accompany me. She was, and I hope still is, 4’10”, as is Jan. When we walked in the door of this tiny shop, the woman took one look and exclaimed, “Oh, my God”. I assured her that I was the only one she needed to fit as Bug, her affectionate moniker, was not a nursing major. That seemed to offer the proprietor only minimal comfort. This was in 1966 and, within a few short months, fashion dictated that many, many inches would be chopped from the hem of said uniform. She need not have gone to all the trouble.

At dinner tonight, I learned that the weather is in for a dramatic temperature change tomorrow. Cold, wind—we’ll get a current forecast in the morning. And Ann, one of my fellow SAG drivers, has an injury from yesterday’s ride. Therefore, tomorrow I will ride instead of being the SAG driver, to give her injury a chance to heal.

Day 20, March 25: Van Horn to Fort Davis, TX

66 of 90 miles

At the map meeting last night, Michelle decided to change the first 40 miles of the route from equal stretches on the frontage road and interstate to all interstate, primarily due to the terrible chip seal conditions of the frontage road. At the interstate exit, we will head south toward Fort Davis to fight strong cross and headwinds during the 37-mile uphill climb through beautiful scenery, with the final 13-miles downhill to Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

I fully expected to do the entire ride. When the interstate shoulder changed to chip seal, I made a command ride management decision to bump up in the SAG wagon the last 20 miles of interstate so I would have enough left to enjoy the scenic part of the ride. Since I have been quite vocal in my distaste for chip seal, this is what it looks like. It takes about 5 MPH off of forward progress.

The winds were immense with 40 MPH gusts and the hills were long with steep grades in parts, but I enjoyed this ride tremendously. While the elevation gain between Van Horn and the State Park was only 1000’, to 5050’, the actual gain on the day was far greater. I rode alone most of the day as riding with partners had no advantage in these gusty conditions, and we all climb at different speeds.

The yucca plants were in full bloom and plentiful.

Around every turn was another breathtaking view to absorb.

As the climb began

Where we're headed

Great place for a SAG stop

Once I passed the McDonald Observatory (the Hobby-Eberly telescope is in the background, the world’s third largest telescope with a 433” mirror), part of the University of Texas at Austin, the difficult climb was behind me.

I thoroughly enjoyed the long downhill, occasionally reaching speeds of 40 MPH, with these gorgeous vistas to enjoy. What a day!

Riders were dropping like flies all day, and the SAG driver and trip leaders had a busy day bumping riders. Eleven of twenty riders completed the full distance. I completed all 46 miles of hills and crosswinds along with 20 miles of interstate. It was a tough day, and we all did the best we could.

It was lights out for me at 10 pm. Tomorrow is a rest day—I’m snoring already.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Day 19, March 24: Fort Hancock to Van Horn, TX

74 of 74 miles

Ahh, the joys of western Texas—grassy, shrubby, rocky, dusty. This was my least favorite ride to date—22 miles on chip seal country roads, followed by 42 miles on the chip seal frontage road paralleling I-10 and 12 miles on I-10 itself. The highlight of the day was that a strong tailwind carried us along at a decent clip. We ran into a cycling couple from Portland, Oregon who are sharing SAG responsibilities, each riding for about 50 miles per day, and camping in their Mercedes van at night. I rode for a short time with the woman before our routes parted.

I did manage to find one photo op in Esperanza.

Day 18, March 23: El Paso to Fort Hancock, TX

48 of 48 miles

The group affectionately called today a “rolling rest day”. Where 48 miles once seemed to be a full biking workout, now it is a slacker day. A few miles out of El Paso we joined the Mission Trail, which skirted several starkly beautiful Catholic churches from the 1800’s. The original Presidio Chapel in San Elizario was built in 1789 as a Spanish fort for defense against Apache and Comanche raids. The present church was completed in 1887 and is still an active parish.

As we paralleled the Rio Grande, we rode through the towns of Fabens, Socorro, and Tornillo. There were many small ranches along the way with pecan groves and cotton and alfalfa fields.

Our recommended lunch stop was at La Calesa in Tornillo, a tiny Mexican restaurant located in an unlikely place we never would have found on our own. A grandmother and her 10-year old granddaughter, home from school to help with the influx of our group, made us feel at home.

The riding conditions were quite good with a decent tailwind and flat terrain. Jan, our SAG driver, found the perfect place for a stop under a stand of mature cottonwood trees.

As we approached Fort Hancock, the landscape became drier with dust swirling along the roadside. Fort Hancock, built in 1881 and originally called Camp Rice, was a sub-post of Fort Davis. The Rio Grande has frequently flooded the town. Our experience at our 30’s era motel was that of a dustbowl. The winds picked up significantly in the late afternoon, gusting to 40 mph, so we took shelter behind one of the buildings to consume our outdoor dinner.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Day 17, March 22: Las Cruces, NM to El Paso, TX

0 of 67 miles; SAG driver

Billy the Kid continues to figure prominently in the lore of southern New Mexico. This sign was posted on a building in La Mesilla, a well-preserved town just south of Las Cruces.

It was a gorgeous, crisp morning heading out of Las Cruces toward El Paso, with the sun rising behind the Organ Mountains and mist hanging over the cotton fields and pastures. The first half of the ride was through exceptionally beautiful terrain, while the second half was through the blight of suburban shopping malls on the outskirts of El Paso.

We had our third state crossing, so the margaritas will be flowing tonight.

It was a good day to be a SAG driver. Only one flat at the first SAG stop—how convenient? Otherwise, an uneventful day for the support vehicle and driver.

I joined Lois and Marci for lunch at a Mexican restaurant next to our hotel. Being a Sunday afternoon, extended families covering many generations filled the tables and booths. We were the only three Anglo faces in the house—always a good sign.

Day 16, March 21: Kingson to Las Cruces, NM

89 of 89 miles

I awoke this morning in exactly the same position in which I fell asleep 10 hours ago. Catherine and the staff put on a huge breakfast spread to fuel us for the long ride into Las Cruces.

With my machine readied, I set off for the nine-mile descent to Hillsboro. A great way to start the morning, with gorgeous vistas at every turn.

A steep, three-mile climb out of Hillsboro opened up the mountains to our south.

A descent into the valley brought us along the Rio Grande, which we crossed three times during the day.

The rich, irrigated, flood plain soil supports abundant pecan orchards and cotton fields all along the Rio Grande to the Texas border. The symmetry of the orchards is very precise. Early stage orchards were but sticks set into the ground while the older pecan trees had been so savagely cut back, apparently from the chain saw theory of pruning, it is hard to believe they will still produce. Every orchard seemed to have the same approach, so I guess they know what they’re doing.

The lunch stop was at a very good Mexican restaurant in Hatch. The claim to fame for Hatch, population 1028, is its chili peppers. It is the only industry in town.

Willows near the Rio Grande

We left Hatch with only 38 miles to ride but, as is typical for the past several days, the winds picked up significantly in the afternoon along with the heat. We had strong headwinds for the remainder of the ride. An alternating pace line with Janet and Marni saved the day. During this stretch, we got our first glimpse of the Organ Mountains, which form a gorgeous backdrop to the city of Las Cruces.