Texas has lived up to our grand expectations. I want to call the landscape “alien,” but that’s not exactly right – it’s only alien to me. It’s wide open and rolling; it seems wild, less shaped by human influence. Over the last week we rode out of the bayous, through the heavily-logged woodland, and out into ranch country.
It’s a good thing we gave ourselves a lot of time to reach Austin before Christmas, because we’ve encountered hills, headwinds, and rain. But halfway up some sweaty climb, I realized I was actually enjoying myself. It’s been fun to be challenged on the bike again. Three months ago I would’ve told you I’d be glad to never see a hill again, but after months of flat-and-straight roads, I suppose I was wrong. It got boring. Shifting and steering on hilly terrain takes up a lot more mental space, so it’s easier to get out of your own head. Plus, it’s a very good workout, so it does a better job saturating those endorphin receptors.
Measured by our peanut butter consumption, there’s been a corresponding uptick in our appetites. (Current record: 2/3 of one jar in a day.) Texas, fortunately, has delighted us with its food, especially the Mexican cuisine. I bought some $2 tacos from the back of a grocery store, and they were better than anything I could’ve ever gotten in Brooklyn. The stores, too, have totally different stock. Right over the Texas border we started seeing a huge variety of peppers, beans, and tortillas, along with interesting condiments (chili-lime salt!), instant micheladas, and a variety of imported Mexican sweets.
Culturally, Texas is more self-referential than other states. The shape of Texas seems to be a popular motif. I don’t think I could recognize any other state flag, but I’ve seen enough of the Lone Star to remember it. It made more sense to me once I actually read the historical background on the back of our map – Texas was (briefly) its own country! Perhaps Texans are just embracing that part of their identity. I feel like there’s a little more bite to the culture here, a little more independence. Maybe it’s all the gun jokes. Still, we’ve met a lot of big-hearted people over the last week: our Warmshowers hosts in Coldspring, the owners of Checkpoint Harley, and a fellow in Burton who bought us a coke and paid for our dinner that night.
Tomorrow we’ll be in Austin, which I hear is a very different sort of place. We’re looking forward to taking a week off there, and having a proper Christmas celebration together!
Most transitions while bike touring are subtle. Plants and animals come and go, architecture gradually changes, the profile of the land becomes more hilly or flat. This last week was an exception.
First, the weather. In New Orleans, our hottest day hit 80 degrees. When we left, we were waylaid by a freezing temperatures and a freak Lousiana snowstorm. Apparently it snows here maybe once or twice a decade. We’re not equipped for cold rain, let alone sleet and snow, so we waited it out in a hotel in Laplace. This experience was made significantly more cheery by sharing it with our new friend, Tomasz. Once the weather cleared, we rode together as a trio for several days through Baton Rogue and over the Mississippi.
We really enjoyed having a third rider. The three of us had a blast talking and sharing stories over the finest wine offered by our local Lousiana gas station. Tomasz rode faster and harder than us, which gave us someone to catch. He had never tried Warmshowers before, so we were able to introduce him to its joys with an exceptional stay with Mark in Baton Rogue. We didn’t realize that despite being more remote, the Southern Tier has far more cyclists than the Atlantic Coast route, so making a friend here was an unexpected delight. We were sad to part ways so that he could make his flight out of Houston.
Crossing the Mississippi this week was another abrupt change. After a short climb over the Audubon bridge, we descended into an entirely new landscape. The terrain became very wide and very flat. We saw children riding horses around the neighborhood, a cow feed store, and a dead coyote: we’re definitely not on the East Coast any more.
The next few days wound through the plains of Cajun country. There’s a deep food culture here – it feels genuine, a cuisine that’s obviously treasured by those who make it. Everyone seemed to enjoy asking us what we’ve tried and telling us what we should eat next. Over the last few days we’ve had beans with rice and sausage, gumbo, and boudin, but the most magical experience was my encounter with cracklins. I was riding out of a small grocery store, when an older man struck up the usual conversation – where we’re from, where we going. All of a sudden, he said “WAIT! Girl, I got a early Christmas present for ya!” He reached into his truck and and pulled out a little brown paper lunch sack. “CRACKLINS!” he shouted. Perfect, irresistible little fried nuggets of pork. The magic cracklins put a grin on my face for the next twenty miles.
The friendliness of people we’ve met over the last few days has been overwhelming. We haven’t actually handled our own meals in a day and a half. Our host in Deridder, Mandie, fed us dinner and breakfast. A women we met left us a bag of frozen soup on her porch so we’d have something to heat up for lunch. And our host tonight, at a church in Kirbyville, bought us dinner.
Kirbyville brings me to our final abrupt transition: we crossed the border into Texas. It’s hard to overstate how large Texas has loomed in our conception of this trip. About one third of the Southern Tier route is through Texas. Border-to-border, it takes most riders about a month to cross it. We’ve heard stories about the endless western deserts inducing madness in those who ride them. Neither of us can stop humming Thunderstruck. We’ve spent months joking about “just wait until we’re in Texas,” and now we’re finally here.
After returning from Massachusetts, it felt strange to be on the road again. Our bikes (or possibly ourselves?) felt like they had gained twenty pounds over our break. However, after a few days getting back into it, we were richly rewarded by some of the most interesting travel of this trip.
We left Pensacola and continued west along the gulf coast. Our first stop was Big Lagoon state park in Escambia County, FL. The park itself was impressive. Sandy paths, gazebos, a watchtower and miles of boardwalk over swamps and lakes. We saw large black snakes slowly working their way over the soupy surface of the swamp. Florida has the best state park system of any of the states we’ve been through so far, and we stayed an extra night because I was still recovering from a head cold.
Next, we continued along the barrier island chain into Alabama. We crossed Mobile Bay via ferry to Dauphine Island. During our crossing, the water of the bay was the same blue-grey color and shade as the sky, punctuated by hulking oil derricks, complete with natural gas flames. Everything was so calm and peaceful, it was as if we were floating through fog.
Most of the buildings on Dauphine Island are on stilts, and we spent that evening camping underneath a vacation rental owned by someone on Warmshowers. The following day, we biked to the mainland and through two fishing towns, Alabama Port and Bayou le Batre. We stopped for “The Best Poboys in the Bayou” at a restaurant only a mile from the shrimp docks. The shrimp was delicious, with that haunting sweetness of fresh crustaceans.
Originally we were planning on biking inland, following the Adventure Cycling route to New Roads LA, then skipping New Orleans. This was mostly because we were tired of having to deal with the traffic associated with the more-developed coastline, and we did not want to take the 150 mile spur two ways from New Roads to New Orleans and then back north again.
However, while lingering with the restaurant owners (waiting for a Christmas parade) we met Tomasz, a bicycle tourist from Poland. Tomasz had met some cyclists that had come from the west, and had successfully travelled along the coast. With that extra piece of information, we decided to make a go of it along route 90 on the coast to New Orleans.
That evening we attended another Christmas parade where I was showered with miniature moon pies thrown from the back of a float. I felt a warm holiday glow seeing the entire small city out in lawn chairs, watching the high school band march pass. We spent that night camping behind the laundry building at a trailer park (yes, with permission!), before we began our detour back to the coast and into Mississippi. We decided to ride much further than usual over the next two days, to reach New Orleans at the same time as Tomasz.
Our first major city on the new route was Biloxi, which was a cluster of casinos, also on stilts. 90 went from rural to overbuilt, so we left the road to ride along the beach boardwalk. There we saw a couple who was dressed to the nines with eyes sharpened like daggers. My only thought was that they must have been casino people, professional gamblers or general hustlers going for a walk, about to start their day. Otherwise, the boardwalk was beautiful, but oppressively long and monotonous. We were happy to make it to our hotel in Pass Christian just after dark. Our hotel upgraded us to a three room suite, with two bathtubs, a four poster bed and private balcony. What a strange contrast from the previous evening’s accommodations!
The following day, we passed over a number of bayous and entered Louisiana. The foliage changed fairly rapidly. The palmettos disappeared and were replaced by more midwestern foliage, that you might expect to find in somewhere like southern Ontario, such as oak trees and deciduous shrubbery. However I encountered some novel wildlife: in a protected preserve we saw what must have been a gila monster (or other beaded lizard the size of a large iguana) sunning itself on the side of the road. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I did not stop to take a picture.
We arrived in New Orleans after our second day of harder riding. I’m glad we detoured to New Orleans. The architecture was beautiful. The people, too, were more cosmopolitan, relaxed, and beautiful as well. Outside of a community bookstore/flower shop we met a few young people stringing together carnations for a hotel. We stayed with some friendly art therapists who had biked across the country.
We did the tourist stuff, too. We walked through the French Quarter, down Frenchmen street and Bourbon street. We went to a bookstore where Faulkner wrote his first novel. We had chicory coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde. It was a touristy, yet strangely authentic, experience. We ate a muffuletta at the Central Grocery Co. It was delicious and brought me back to the muffuletta style sandwiches they would periodically serve at my high school.
We stayed with our hosts for three nights. One interstitial day was for touristing, and they allowed us to stay an extra day to avoid cycling in 40 degree rain. The transition from complete idleness to bicycling has not been smooth. There have been many times over the past two weeks where we have gone from complete relaxation to relaxed cycling to challenging cycling and back again.
Most of the reasons for this are outside of our direct control, such as illness, the weather, and the availability and distance between services such as lodging or points of touristic interest. Currently we’re in a slight holding pattern due to some unseasonably cold and wet weather. It was even snowing this morning, although none of it was sticking to the ground.
Even if we aren’t cycling as intensely as we were a month ago, we’ve been keeping ourselves busy with things like writing blog posts!