Triplogue - Texas, Part One (the scary state?)

El Paso to Van Horn, 27 March 1997, 122 miles

I reset my expectations for Texas even lower than I had when we began planning the journey a few days before while riding into El Paso. We rode through miles of congested suburbs while being passed by inconsiderate Texans who honked as they passed too closely. I was readied for the worst experience. Slowly my opinion began to swing as we checked into our hotel and sampled their cuisine.

While El Paso is not Paris, it is charming, uncrowded and the people were genuinely friendly. I was almost sad to leave. We had an especially fun night at the Briar Patch, the local queer watering hole where we met an incredible cast of characters. One was Hector, the day barman taking a "busman’s holiday" hanging out at the bar after his shift. Conversing with him we began to understand the effect our trip has on people. Hector immediately told us he was jealous and envious, which made Andrew very uncomfortable. Andy tried to get Hector to admit that he could do something like this himself if he really wanted to. Hector would not concede. He’d been saddled with three kids when his sister died a few years earlier. The next day I had a different experience when I was speaking to the woman who manages my health insurance benefits. Only this time when I said "you shouldn’t be jealous," she snapped back "you’re right, I should do it myself!" The trip helps people like her to understand that there are possibilities beyond the traditional.

Back to Texas. As we left the hotel later than normal I anticipated a really short day. My left Achilles tendon was bothering me and I had little or no energy. I should have felt great; we’d had an early evening having watched a movie in the room "Ghost and the Darkness". It was terrible, an embarrassment to Andrew’s hero, Val Kilmer.

There was a stiff wind at our side as we pumped out of town. Further hindering our egress was Andy’s third flat. Somehow we managed to get out of town and the wind from the side evolved to a partial tail wind blowing us down the road. We were moving along very quickly even though we were loaded with about 55# of stuff each. We rolled into Fort Hancock after some 50 miles and I was ready for lunch. First we tried a very lame grocery store; as we entered a rodent masquerading as a Chihuahua greeted us standing on its hind legs doing a little dance. There was nothing edible there for lunch so we headed for the center of town in search for chow.

After a pizza we hit the road and let the wind do its thing. It powered us over miles and miles until we hit our hill of the day. It wasn’t so bad, only about 1200 feet over eight miles. About a third of the way up we stopped at a truck stop that advertised a live tiger. And when we arrived we saw the youngster in his cage in a gasoliney Quonset hut with adhesive tape on his hind legs. It was the saddest moment of the journey for me to see such a regal beast relegated to such quarters and conditions. He had been injured as a baby when someone dropped him. I couldn’t help thinking of him as a sad little ghost in the darkness.

We felt glorious when we reached the to; we had a downgrade and a tailwind. The two elements combined made for a very rapid descent. When we reached the town we had anticipated stopping in after some ninety miles, we were both still buzzed on adrenaline. It was getting late, but it was only thirty-three more miles to the next town. With the wind we were sure to make it by sundown; if not we had our lights. When the sun set we still had ten miles to go. We made short work of the last ten miles and found ourselves self-satisfied with the fact that our first loaded day was high mileage with a big ascent.


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Not so grrrrreat! Baby tiger in a Quonset hut.

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Oreo granola bars, the perfect complement to a double iced mocha in Ft. Davis -- thanks Andy!

Van Horn to Alpine, 28 March, 107 miles

Today we saw lots of deer and antelope, but none of them were acting very playful; and while we rode through vast amounts of range, there were precious few homes. Still, I’m finding myself increasingly fond of Texas in spite of my former prejudices.

The first forty miles along the surprisingly quiet US 90 were mostly flat and boring. Aside from a ghost town for sale called Lobo, we saw virtually no signs of civilization before rolling into a borderline ghost town called Valentine, where we stopped for lunch at the Chat ‘n’ Nibble café. The menu was exactly what I had anticipated and dreaded: strictly burgers and chicken fried steak on toast (which Fred somehow managed to ingest). And when we inquired about our beverage choices, the moody and generously proportioned owner went to the kitchen to find out, returning to inform us curtly, "We have water, coffay and tay." But the place held a few surprises. Parked outside was a donkey, which belonged to a freakish looking woman sitting at the counter. She was working a grunge Jackie O. goes to Santa Fe sort of look, wearing big dark glasses and a surprising variety of cowboy ‘n’ injun regalia. The donkey was similarly attired, covered in numerous multicolored blankets with all sorts of apparati tied onto his saddle. Both donkey and owner were painfully thin (though not for lack of food, it seems, since the donkey took one bite of an apple I offered him and promptly spit it out). We never learned the names of either the woman or her animal, due to her decidedly aloof bearing. She was much more into nibbling than chatting (indeed, she chewed mysteriously over her empty plate the entire time we were there), but the other patrons told us that she lived nearby and often rode her donkey as far away as Arizona –a fact which blew me away and earned her my utmost respect. Sitting at the table next to us were three friendly cowboy types who told us about our choices of routes ahead. We could either continue on the road we were on, which was flat, or take the more scenic route into the mountains through a place called Fort Davis.

After yesterday’s megaride, Fred was very understandably tempted to go the easier way, but I enticed him by saying we could probably find an espresso in Fort Davis. He gasped in disbelief at this absurd statement, and bet me a coffee that there would be no such thing within two hundred miles of the place. He even sweetened the deal by saying he would eat three of the nasty Oreo granola bars he purchased that morning in less than three minutes if I could find him an iced mocha. Since there was no way to know who was right without going there, I had him pretty much trapped into climbing.

Even with a tailwind, it wasn’t easy. But the scenery more than compensated for our efforts. The deserted road twisted through rolling pasture land, where the cattle, deer and antelope all looked at us bewilderedly. I also spotted a squished bobcat being eaten by a buzzard. And at the top we passed by a line of twelve huge windmills we had spotted hours earlier. From there we whooshed down the final twenty miles into Fort Davis (yes, named after Jefferson Davis), a cutsie, touristy type town crawling with well-heeled city types in their sports utility vehicles. It took me all of thirty seconds to find Fred an iced mocha. He held up his side of the bargain, but gave me grief for gloating over my victory, which I found ironic in view of his having ridiculed me constantly during the previous three hours into being so foolish as to think that one could obtain espresso in rural Texas. I wish I had insisted on five Oreo granola bars.

From Fort Davis we dropped through the redrocked splendor of the Musquiz canyon, full of thrusting spires, cube-shaped boulders and fragrant yucca blossoms. The canyon spit us out onto the grassy plain which contains Alpine, our evening’s destination.

Even from a distance, the small town of Alpine looked strikingly –even eerily—prosperous. We soon found that the gigantic structure on a hill on the outskirts of town housed the Texas State Hospital for Mental Illness and Retardation. We’ve landed a tastefully refurbished room in an elegant old hotel whose only drawback is its location across from the train yard, and have just returned from what is very likely the best meal we’ve had on this trip. Even after two consecutive hundred-mile-plus days (we’re considering renaming ourselves "bikestuds"), we couldn’t quite finish the cowboy-sized portions at the truly fabulous Reata Restaurant. The place specializes in "Texas and Cowboy cuisine", which is something I would have scoffed at before tonight; and I’m glad to have had my preconceptions shattered.

Alpine to Sanderson, 29 March, 87 miles

Our cake walk through Texas came to a dramatic conclusion (and marked the end of the short reign of the ‘bikestuds’). Mother Nature showed us what it was like to ride in non-miraculous conditions. A high gray ceiling of clouds and consistent non-favorable winds, all combined with several good climbs, put an end to effortless 100 mile days. Andy and I looked at one another and sang our bad day anthem "I-H-N-E" countless times before lunch. (IHNE = I have no energy)

We dragged our fatigued butts into another cute little Texas tourist town, Marathon, just after noon and looked for the best lunching ground we could find. The Gage Hotel fit the bill and we brought our bikes into the patio so we could see them. We weren’t the most fashionably dressed patrons but everyone was interested in us, our bikes and our journey. Especially a bearded dude who offered us a place to stay in Houston. The local specialty was "chicken fried chicken" which sounded a little redundant but tasted just fine. The waitress refilled my coffee with tea, inventing a new drink which I wouldn’t recommend.

The afternoon was most frustrating. It involved a massive descent into a headwind. Through 54 of the most desolate miles I’ve ever ridden. No gas station, no store, no operating businesses whatsoever, a total depravation of civilization. It made rolling into nearly deserted Sanderson like arriving in Manhattan. Once a railroad town, Sanderson without the trains is a shadow of its former self at first glance. Against the recommendation of the prim and proper tourist information lady, we chose to rest at the Motel Sanderson, formerly Frank’s Motel. Why the new owners chose a new name we will never know; after all, think of the brand equity, not to mention the 40’ long neon sign now rendered worthless.

The proprietor was an amazing geezer. His first question to us was "one or two beds?" When we asked for two his unflinching response was: "Personaly, I’d rather sleep with a wet dog than another man." Within a few moments of our meeting we knew the story of his two dogs recent deaths as well as the unfortunate recent demise of his wife.

Once showered we put our minds to setting Sanderson, population 900, on fire. Walking down the street we were flagged down by the marginalized population of the town. They were having margies on the porch of their store at sunset watching the traffic trickle through town. They invited us to sit and have a cold one. Jack, Cliff, Lloyd, and Lloyd’s daughter Kristin dished the town gossip and quizzed us about the trip. We thought them all to be members of our club, with the possible exception of Lloyd and Daughter. There were a few subtle "tells" like Jack’s t-shirt depicting a geologic formation that looked distinctly like male genitalia and the tasteful decor of the store. We did our best to lay our hand on the table by talking about opera.

Jack and Cliff pointed us to the only dinner possibility in town. Walking down the main drag Andy tripped over a tumbleweed in front of the non-functioning cinema. We passed vacant storefront after vacant storefront on our way to the diner. The last establishment before the Kountry Kitchen was billed as "Texas’ smallest Ford dealership". The only game in town for dinner was packed --not a single free table and we were not the only party waiting. Our hostess, waitress and busgirl asked us to wait while she cleared some tables. As she finished bussing the tables a pair of drunk locals displayed their consideration and charm by taking the tables just as they cleared. Bouncer was added to our multi-talanted hostess’ resume as she made room for us and the pair of aging lesbians with their handicapped foster child.

Andy and I both opted for a beer and jalapeno cheeseburgers. In a moment of weakness I added bacon to achieve the maximum caloric value possible. This, in retrospect, was an error on my part. Fortunately we both avoided the "taco pollocko" a concoction that seemed to be an enchilada with a polish sausage rolled in it. Following our gastronomic adventure it was my turn to trip over a tumbleweed on our way to find a suitable bar. Nancy’s, billed to be the town’s hotspot was beat. Andrew liked it because they flattered him by carding him but I overruled him and we set off for the Cantina. A beer and a game of pool were the perfect tonic to forget a tough day of riding. After pocket billiards we stumbled upon a copy of the 1971 Sanderson School yearbook, "El Aguila." Just as we were deciding that young Cliffie McSomethingorother was hot in 1971, Cliff from earlier came up to us and told us that this was his yearbook and proceeded to show us his picture. Cliff and Cliffie were one and the same. We bought him a cold one while he came clean about being queer and began to tell us about every homo in Sanderson. It became clear that there were many M.O.T.’s (members of our tribe) in town and we wondered what was in the water (which everyone said was great) in Sanderson. Just as it was becoming interesting the proprietor, Alberto, another brother, came up to introduce himself. This coincided with the end of peace in my stomach. I excused myself and began to walk back to the hotel.

I only made it a few steps until I was stopped in my tracks by my gastrointestinal turmoil. The soul of my dinner left my body along with its body. I barfed in the bushes, and before I walked away a mange (a mangy dog) was having dinner. I retired to the "Bates Motel" (as Jack and Cliff referred to it) while more of Sanderson’s homo underbelly was revealed to Andy. [see below]

[It’s true; La Cantina was essentially a queer bar that night, from butch narcoleptic Susan playing darts with her gay pal Roland to a confused Mexican boy called Alex who flirted with me shamelessly. Out on the porch Cliff told me how he met Jack in Austin and how they decided to come back to Cliff’s birthplace in order to transform the town and update some of its attitudes. He also told me all sorts of local tales. The abandoned buffalo burger joint we had passed midway between Marathon and Sanderson going out of business due to litigation around a bobcat bite; the fey but closeted high school principal; the difficulties of ranching and the unfortunate necessity of panther hunting. Cliff’s boyfriend Jack showed up, followed by the incomparable, larger-than-life Chris, who plans to move to San Antonio as soon as he graduates from Sanderson High. In the meantime, he seems committed to shaking up his town and earning the title of "most likely to pursue a career in drag artistry" in this year’s edition of "El Aguila". The whole outrageous cast of characters reminded me of John Sayles’ movie "Lone Star." --ab]

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Hitchin' up our steeds in Marathon (pronounced "mer-re-thin")

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Sanderson Caterin' LTD., Cliff and Chris at your service.

Sanderson to Comstock, 30 March, 90 miles

The day’s overabundance of nothingness nearly inspired me to compose some West Texas haiku, but I managed to restrain myself. Ninety miles, and not so much as a cow to look at.

It was Easter Sunday, and for the first time on our trip, we woke up to a gray, cold day. I had learned from Chris (Sanderson’s Most Flamboyant Teen 1997) that Shamrock Gas –where he happened to work-- was the only breakfast in town, and I wanted him to be a surprise to Fred. He was uncharacteristically subdued, however, as we munched on microwaved treats and assembled the best picnic lunch that we could. We heard lots more local dish from Chris and saw some of the people we had met or seen the previous evening coming in to buy gas and/or donuts, and it struck me again how weird and wonderful it must be to grow up in such a place, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. As we rolled out into the cold, I marveled at how quickly little Sanderson and its courageous queer community had managed to ingratiate itself on me. More than any town we’ve biked through so far, it’s the place I’d most like to return to someday.

It was a long, painful ride on the highway 90 roller-coaster. Every turn greeted us with new vistas encompassing endless rolling plains of scrub desert. Our first stop was at a gas station/general store in a place called Dryden, which was apparently a town once upon a time. A Mexican cowboy ran the place, and after telling us about the bicyclists he’d seen recently, he re-immersed himself in his reading of "Lonesome Dove." The only other clients were two homo German motorcyclists who kept complaining how cold it was and that they might as well have remained in Stuttgart.

Fred suffered his first flat of the trip just after we made the evil climb out of Lozier Canyon; we took it as a sign to stop for our ersatz picnic of tortillas and cheese purchased in Van Horn and gas station tuna supplied by Chris. Then Chris and Cliff themselves showed up in a shiny red pickup not too many miles later, bearing more food and some much-needed words of comfort and praise. Against my Yankee upbringing, I have been converted to a lifetime defender of the great state of Texas. I can’t recall ever meeting so many friendly and genuine people.

Nothing lay between where we said farewell to Cliff and Chris and our day’s destination besides Langtry, named after nineteenth century singer-courtesan Lilly Langtry, and now a ghost town and minor tourist attraction. We didn’t tarry here, though, since we still had nearly thirty miles to pedal and the light was already fading. It was pitch black by the time we finally rolled into Comstock, where the motel and every other business in town appeared closed. But just as we resigned to having to pitch a tent, the Mexican guy who owned the motel showed up in his pickup. He helped us find dinner by calling his friend Emilio down the hill, who not only fixed Fred two dinners to go, but drove him and his bike back up to the motel, where I lay in a near-comatose state. In a departure from previous nights, I had no problem at all falling asleep just after Fred.

Comstock to Del Rio, 31 March, 31 miles

The sky looked menacing and gray from the moment we woke after 10 hours of sleep in our second bad bed in as many days. Mounted our bikes, braved the drizzle and headed to Emilio’s for a much anticipated hearty breakfast. Emilio and spouse were nowhere to be seen, so we went back towards the motel and had our morning meal there. As we ate we watched the rain fall. Our fellow patrons all knew one another and the conversation was spirited and jocular. We could tell this only from their tone because the words were completely unintelligible to our untrained ears. Everyone sounded roughly like the redneck character from "King of the Hill" named Boomhauser(sp?), whose elocution is equivalent to an auctioneer overdosing on Valium. Surprisingly everyone did speak English and when they addressed us they made special efforts to be understood.

While procrastinating over coffee, we watched our fellow patrons’ dogs howl as the rain fell on them in the back of their owners' pickup trucks, neither of us very interested in riding in the rain no matter how short the distance. I looked at this as an opportunity to check out the effectiveness of our rain gear. Andrew, however, was less enthusiastic. He discovered his booties (rain shoes for bicyclists) did not fit over his cycling shoes. Finally we hit the road and pedaled for Del Rio. Save the rain the trip was uneventful if seemingly without end. When the end of the ride was reached I stood dripping pathetically in the lobby of the Ramada asking for a cyclist discount. No mercy granted; we only received the AAA discount (a bit ironic when you think about it), but the clerk agreed to comp us breakfast if we could come up with some complaint about the accommodation by morning.

The afternoon in Del Rio introduced both of us to new aspects of American culture. On our way into town we both noticed a mall with a theater playing "Selena: the movie" and a Wall Mart. Wall Mart was an experience for which neither of us was ready. We stopped into the café for a coffee and watched the American version of the French sidewalk experience unfold for us. After achieving a sufficient caffeine buzz we set out on our shopping adventure. We were both ready to cry, the abundance was shocking. There was an entire aisle of dandruff shampoo (perhaps this is a big problem in Del Rio). We were ready to give up and go somewhere else less confusing for the items we needed when we found someone to ask about their location. This Wall Mart samaritan did everything but lead us by the hand to find our products. Even then it was confusing to pick from the gazillian types of ziplock bags. In the end we made it out of the store with enough time to make the movie and barely enough cash to pay for it.

Selena was a disappointment, not campy enough to be funny and not well written enough to be believable. The one thing that was "on" was its target audience. They were there in force singing along with the songs, ooh-ing and ahhh-ing at the right time and even believing the insipid dialog.

After a challenging and great day we are sitting digesting our Thai dinner, writing our web entries and watching CNN. Just now in the Health and Science report this fun fact was revealed: "gerbils recover from heart attacks more quickly if they consume moderate amounts of alcohol during their convalescence". I am ready to hit the hay and begin my own convalescence. It would be better if we could have found the beer at Wall Mart which we are a few too many feet from. There is the complaint for tomorrow that will deliver the free breakfast.

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We were a continual source of bovine interest on the long road to Del Rio

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