So it has taken me a while to find the time to sit down write about the return journey from my Christmas bike tour. I do apologize. Getting prepared for NAHBS, finishing up various projects, and now the impending move to Denver has put this little story on the back burner. But rest assured, time has not diluted the memories of this trip in the slightest. The casual pace of a bike tour lends itself well to totally taking in the sites, sounds, and scenery of a given place and journey. Otherwise very mundane, every fork in the road literally becomes a milestone, each little town a destination. The sky, clouds, trees, fields, horses and cows set the scene. The weather brings the drama, the hills offer the challenge, the people you meet along the way are your compatriots and that post ride meal serves as the most delicious reward. None of these things ever escape your memory. I could bend your ear for hours with countless stories of two-wheeled adventures.
The ride down to Austin was all about discovery and excitement, and as you might have read in Part I, I certainly got that and then some. The return leg was intended to be a little different. I had previously established the goal of riding from Austin to Fort Worth, or vice versa, in under 24 hours. At roughly 200 miles, I knew this was possible. I thought I could even make it back in time for last call at the pub. I would return home a hero, the girls would be impressed, leave their sedentary boyfriends and shower me in kisses. I had originally planned to do this in the warmer months, but with this tour taking place over Christmas, I figured I should make my attempt sooner than later. Sometimes you can’t wait for Spring, you just gotta go for it.
I had spent Christmas with my friends Kelly and Andrew. The night before my departure I began mapping out the return journey. I wanted to take the most direct route back so essentially drew a route that paralleled I-35 but on country roads. To further assist a quick ride back, I shed most of the items I had taken with me on the way down, only taking what I needed for a day’s ride, and getting Kelly to mail back my other things.
After a couple days of Christmas and Austin indulgences I was properly fattened up and prepared for this endeavour. The warm weather I was provided with for the way down had been replaced by near freezing temperatures and it was icy cold when I set off at around 7 a.m. I retraced my way out of Austin. I rode down Shoal Creek, the scene of the “incident”, then got lost in the same exact place as I did on the way down. Once back on track, and now on my new route, I was unexpectedly stopped at an intersection with FM1431. It was like seeing your ex-girlfriend at the bar, bad memories quickly flood your mind, you try your best to not make eye contact, at the same time reassuring your self that you have moved on and in a much better place without her. Luckily the light changed quickly and I was on my way. I was on Parmer Lane, though a busy road it was equipped with a bike lane, and much more accommodating than that feisty 1431.
Things got even better when I eventually turned off of Parmer Lane and rode on a series of narrow country roads. By mid morning I was approaching Florence, TX, and this is where the true nature of the journey began to unfold. With the sign for my turn onto another quiet road hidden behind a tree, I rode straight passed it. I rode a few miles down the wrong road till I realized I must have clearly missed my turn. I double backed and eventually got going in the right direction. No big deal, shit happens, and the serenity of the solitary road and overcast sky quickly put me at ease and back to enjoying my ride.
There were only a couple of turns before I would reach Belton. I memorized the next few steps on my hand written cue sheet and then flipped it over. I came to a fork in the road and took my turn. I rode along for a few more miles till I came to a bigger intersection. The road sign said turn right for Florence and left for Jarrell. This did not make sense. I just came from Florence, had no intentions of going back to it, nor did I plan on going to Jarrell. I scratched my head for a while as this had also thrown off my sense of direction. Without a smart phone, and maps now nearly extinct, I called my Dad and asked him to look it up where I was on the computer and help me get back on the right track. I had apparently turned my cue sheet prematurely and then turned onto the wrong, but closely numbered Farm Road. I had gone 7 miles in the wrong direction. It could have been worse, and the only solution was to turn around, so I finished throwing my tantrum and got on with.
I was far behind schedule and absolutely starving when I eventually made it to Belton. It was supposed to be my lunch stop, and it was now past 4 pm. My only previous experience with Belton was that it was one of those faceless looking small towns that straddle I-35 with every existing fast food chain. The back roads brought me into the old town center, and with it plenty of charm that would otherwise be missed if one only stuck to the highway. I found a nice looking Mexican restaurant and was soon chowing down and thawing out my now frozen feet.
While eating I began weighing my options on how to proceed. Was I still game for the sub-24 hour heroics, or was I now on a slower passed, more casual tour? Though I am sure people would be impressed if I accomplished this feat, I am never really out to prove anything to anyone else but myself and I struggled with the dilemma of not fulfilling a goal. The warmth of the indoors and onset of a food coma did not make a cold overnight bike ride seem too appealing. It began getting dark while I was making my mind up, any motivation to ride through the night slipped away with the setting sun.
I made a call to my Dad and had him look up hotels along the way, the only feasible option was a small town called McGregor, about 30 miles down the road. I certainly still had 30 miles left in me, and I was a lot more relaxed and content with the decision of extending my tour as opposed to killing myself with a foolish thing like riding my bike for 24 hours in the middle of December.
The night brought with it the kind of magic that I long for. It had been overcast all day, and now the clouds sunk lower and turned to fog. My generator light kept the immediate road in sight, but everything else disappeared. I felt like I was riding into the abyss. There would be the occasional soft glow of light, but the fog kept their source obscure.
I made it to McGregor by 8:30 pm and spotted a small Italian restaurant. Inside, the scene was a little bizarre, the whole staff were Italian, and the only other patrons was a very large Christian family, dressed as if they just came off the set of “Little House on the Prairie”. I must have looked just as strange to them with my big beard and bike clothes because they stared at me the whole time I ate. It was a little uncomfortable, I just stared into my bowl of pasta to avert their gaze. On their way out the Patriarch of the family stopped by my table and started asking me about my travels. He was nice enough and soon the rest of the family joined him and listened to me intently. They told me I was staying in a really fancy hotel, and the young boy of the family quaintly suggested that I forgo such luxury and find a nice field and some hay to spend the night in.
I eventually made it to my 5 star accommodations, had a hot shower, and then curled up in the huge hotel bed with some microwave popcorn and hot chocolate and read a few pages out of Dharma Bums. I am sure I fell asleep with a huge smile on my face, thankful for being on this trip, the things I had seen and done, and now being put up for the night in some small town that I had not known had even existed a few hours previous.
I woke early and made my way to a little cafe down the street from the hotel. While I was locking up my bike one of the waitresses came outside and said “Oh, I thought you were my friend Loopy. He rides his bike everywhere and I was gonna tell him ‘Loopy you are CRAZY tryin’ to ride your bike out here on a cold day like this!!”
It was still overcast when I set off for the day. The constant grey skies made Texas feel a bit sulky, but this moodiness is often a welcomed departure to endless blue skies. An unexpected descent brought me down into a small valley and with it another one of those strange “Where the hell am I?” moments. The valley was contained by cliffs on either side, and capped by the low clouds on either end. The ground to the side of the road was rocky, and looked as if it could not support any kind of life. No cars passed and I stood there for a few minutes studying this strange, eerie setting.
Back on the bike I climbed over the hill on the other side of the valley and was soon crossing over the dam of Lake Whitney, and now returning to familiar roads. I was approaching Rio Vista and decided to stop at Boney Joe’s for a sandwich. Old man Lloyd was in there playing his guitar. I suppose there aren’t too many other venues in Rio Vista as I had seen him play in Boney Joe’s on a previous occasion back in the summer. He was strumming out and singing “Oh Lonesome Me”, sounding just as raspy as when Hank would play it. The last song I listened to before my departure from Fort Worth was “Ramblin’ Man”, so this was equally appropriate to hear so close to the end of my journey.
Temperatures were falling during the last 30 miles of the trip. The clouds broke momentarily to at least give the sun a final show as it set, large and magnificent. I began to slow down, wanting to delay my return to Fort Worth. But it was inevitable. Beneath a full moon I rode through South Fort Worth and was soon home. You can spend 2 days by yourself on the bike and not feel the slightest bit of solitude. The road, the places you go and the people you meet keep your mind busy with discovery and provide you all the companionship you need. And to think it was just a little trip down to Austin.