“So, Gandalf, you try to lead them over Caradhras. And if that fails, where then will you go? If the mountain defeats you, will you risk a more dangerous road?”
We are proud (and tired) to announce that we made it over Emory Pass! At 8,228 feet, it is the highest point on the Southern Tier. The pass was one of the ride-enders we’ve been worried about – our map advises you not to ride it in winter. Apparently this year has been hot and dry, so the pass was clear, but we still saw snow, frozen waterfalls, and a lot of warning signs like “ICY” and “UNPLOWED”.
We assuaged our anxieties by deciding to conquer the mountain with garbage calories. We brought a package of marranitos, some hostess cupcakes, chili mango candy, and two boxes of off-brand pop tarts. I’m sure, metabolically, that the third pop-tart isn’t doing much, but the sugar provided the psychological boost we needed to keep grinding.
Riding over the pass was just like riding over a very big, very long hill, which happens to have vertiginous views and its own micro climate. I was happy to discover that my legs and bike handling skills were enough. I even enjoyed the winding descent, which was fun, not the terrifying ride I had built it up to be. The hardest part of the day was actually the extra 1,000′ foot climb out of the Mimbres river valley at the foot of the mountain, in late afternoon on tired legs.
We still have many miles, and other mountains, between us and San Diego, but I’m just starting to feel like we might actually make it.
We’ve reached El Paso, our last stop in Texas. We’re right on the border, at the intersection between Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico. We liked El Paso so much we decided to spend three days here, shopping, cooking and relaxing after our trip through the Chihuahuan desert.
After leaving Marfa, we rode on old highways and frontage roads, sandwiched between the Southern Pacific rail lines and I-10. As traffic (and business) moved to the interstate, the towns along these routes have faded. I found the empty downtowns melancholy, but quietly pretty, with their sun-bleached vintage signs and overgrown cacti. It’s an odd contrast from the over-eager prosperity of Marfa.
On the approach to El Paso we found improbable farmland in the middle of the desert. There were pecan plantations, cotton fields, and bright green, irrigated pastures. On Thursday, we entered the suburb of Fabens, and saw our first stoplight in weeks. Instantly there were cars, people, and commercial activity. After all our time in the desert, where every gas station and store was a highly anticipated event, I think my brain forgot how to handle all the stimulation of civilization. I found the sights, sounds and traffic of El Paso overwhelming at first, and I felt oddly emotional when I saw the abundance of Albertson’s, our local giant grocery store.
It’s impossible to be here without thinking of “The Wall” and the other political inanity of the last year. El Paso itself is a city divided, with the Rio Grande splitting it into into El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. After spending almost two weeks biking along the US/Mexico border, I can’t help but note the tight link between our two countries. Far-west Texas is evidence of that, with a culture that’s neither exactly American nor Mexican, but a bilingual blend of the two. All we’ve learned about Texas history makes it clear that the border has always been complex, shifting, and porous. And seeing the mind-boggling emptiness of the desert itself drives home the absurdity of building any kind of wall there at all. I’m sure it’s a trope – young woman travels, discovers borders are arbitrary! – but how much more enlightened would we be if we were able to speak about Mexico with the same words we use for our neighbors to the north?
Tomorrow we’ll leave Texas for New Mexico. We’ve spent 5 weeks in Texas, longer than in any other state. I’m a bit sad to be leaving. I’ve grown fond of riding here – the wide shoulders and quiet roads; chili and tamarind flavored everything; avocados that are cheaper than apples. However, I’m proud of us for completing such a huge and challenging part of our trip. Our next trial will be the high passes of New Mexico!
We thought we had reached west Texas when we reached Del Rio, but we were wrong. The scrub we were seeing has gradually given way to cactus and other scenery that was truly southwestern.
The first town out of Del Rio was Comstock, population 475. We went into the general store to purchase some canned veggies and soda. A number of border patrol officers with a giant fan boat were the other shoppers. There were no towns for the next 88 miles. We covered the distance over two nights. The first night we camped at Seminole Canyon State Park, and the second night we camped under the stars on a raised bluff next to route 90 (just short of Sanderson).
This was one of the big crossings that were noted on our map, and we prepared ahead of time by carrying an extra gallon and a half of water on our bikes (in addition to the gallon that we usually carry in our water bottles).
Bicycling through these remote, depopulated areas is not nearly as boring as I had anticipated. The land is hauntingly beautiful, in a way that is difficult to capture with a camera. The vistas here have opened up so much, that in places we can see the blue color of the atmosphere all around us, shrouding the distant peaks.
It’s almost like you can see the planet itself – as an object in the cosmos that we happen to be living on. The road vanishes into the distance, or slowly winds its way into and out of dry river valleys and canyons. There is enough visibility to anticipate what the road will be doing but enough variability in the terrain to make for interesting riding. Cars are infrequent and the road we’re biking on – Route 90, has enough of a shoulder so that we can ride side by side. The air smells dry and clean, but our lips become quickly chapped and we drink a lot of water even though it’s the winter.
With regards to the weather, we haven’t had to worry about precipitation, but we do have cold nights and wind to be concerned with. Most mornings start at around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air warms up quickly – reaching 60 or 70 degrees in the afternoon. We stop frequently to remove various clothing layers.
The sound of the wind is omnipresent. It can be an ally, if at our backs, strong enough to push us up hills, or it can be a severe nuisance, forcing us to dismount and walk our bikes, made uncontrollable in 45 mph gusts, as it was on the final walk to Sanderson.
The flora and fauna have changed dramatically as well. We passed through Sanderson, ‘Cactus Capital of Texas’, and saw dry river valleys filled with prickly pears. The flower stalks of agaves dot the tops of cliffs, sometimes jutting out from mere cracks in the sandy limestone. Yucca plants slowly fold themselves down off of the ground year after year, adding a splendidly Dr Seussian note to the landscape. We’ve seen roadrunners, mule deer and even a collared peccary.
People come to this part of Texas for various reasons. Mining drew people here, then the construction and maintenance of the Southern Pacific railroad. The area is still privately owned ranchland, with wells supporting small populations of cows, sheep and goats, although they seem out of place amoungst the cacti. To the south of us is Big Bend National park. The park is so popular that many towns along route 90 derive a large portion of their income from catering to tourists. We spoke at length with a gas rig worker from Houston who was taking 10 days to backpack in the wilderness. Unfortunately Big Bend is too remote for us consider a detour on our bicycles.
We’ve managed to climb to a fair height already in our crossing of the North American continent. Our highest point, Paisano Pass, reached 5,074 feet. The high elevation and the clear desert air lend themselves to spectacular stargazing. The milky way isn’t as visible as it would be in summer, but we can see every minor supporting star in the constellation of Orion.
We’re also beginning to see a lot more artists that have chosen to come to this area. We stayed on a ranch in Marathon where the buildings itself were works of art, constructed out of paper. Ingrid, an intense fast-talking woman with a Russian accent, lets bike tourists who pass through stay there one night for free. I asked her who built all the buildings, and her response was “People”.
The next town we reached, Alpine, is a small college town with a very active artists’ community as well. We wandered into the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary photography and poetry at the Museum of the Big Bend (while mule deer wandered through the surrounding university grounds). The artists are certainly adding a new economic vitality to these areas, but like the area outside of Austin, it comes with some negative side effects. It seems to me like part of the point of Prada Marfa, an art installation in Valentine, TX, is that it would almost make sense for Prada to open a store in Marfa. The relationship between art, culture, and money is complex, but it’s especially strange to see that dynamic played out in such a remote place as west Texas.
As we travel further and further into this strange and wonderful landscape, it seems that we have truly arrived in the southwest. I can almost imagine the mountains falling away and descending out of the high desert to the Pacific. We won’t reach San Diego for another month at least, but now it almost seems like we could at any moment.
We’ve reached Del Rio! It’s a true border town, within spitting distance of Mexico. I knew we were close when we started seeing border patrol vans everywhere, plus one helicopter.
We were anticipating that the food here would be exceptional, and I’m happy to report that it is. The usual Tex-Mex looks the same, but tastes fresher, more vegetal and less greasy. There’s also much more Mexican food that’s not part of that canon – we tried a few new things from a food truck, using the strategy of “I’ll have what she’s having,” and it was all delicious.
The terrain we rode to get here was hugely varied for only about a hundred miles. In two days we went from hills, to ridges, into a river valley and out into the desert. We’ve been crossing rivers and creeks since we left Austin, but suddenly the bridges started spanning empty beds of gravel. Wild trees of any size have all but disappeared, replaced by lichen-covered scrub that reminds me a bit of Cape Cod. Even the cows have given way to sheep and goats.
Yesterday we rode 75 miles to get here, with only one real rest stop – which is a good taste of what we can expect for the rest of the West Texan desert. We took today off to fully resupply ourselves, so we’re ready to handle several days without groceries, and to carry more water when necessary. I’m not sure what to expect for the next few days – especially in terms of headwinds and cellphone access – but at least we’re well prepared for it.
In almost every state, people tell us a variation on the joke: “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes.” Texas has been the state that embodies that the most. We were waylaid by sub-freezing temperatures in Johnson City, Texas, for two days. We did an experiment to see if we could bike, putting on all of our clothes and walking outside. It became clear that riding was going to be miserable, so we decided to stay until conditions improved. That’s one lesson we’ve learned. You can hypothesize about the average temperature as much as you like, but it doesn’t matter much when the actual weather is setting records.
Staying in Johnson City (population: 1,656) had its perks. The highlight for me was visiting Ronnie’s Pit BBQ. It was the kind of place I fantasize about on this trip. The meat is smoked and served by Ronnie, member of a multigenerational legacy of pit masters. His grandfather, we were told, made barbecue for LBJ on his ranch. We saw Ronnie outside on Monday, in the freezing weather, feeding the smokers. On Tuesday, we were first in line for plates of brisket. Brisket had been on my must-eat list in Texas, so I was happy I got to try it from a master of the art. The smokey crust was perfect, and the interior was tender and wonderfully beef-y.
The cold front passed after two days, bringing us back to highs in the 50s. We’re far enough west that the blizzards of the east coast don’t affect us, which means we’ve been able to ride again. We’ve been biking on scenic byways and bumpy ranch roads, riding over cattle grates and spooking cows. I realized today that I’ve never ridden somewhere so depopulated. The countryside is divided into ranches, but you can go miles between the gates naming each one. If you stop, all you hear is the wind. We’ve gone half an hour without seeing a single car. Given that, I was surprised to learn that Hill Country is also a big draw for tourists. Every forty miles or so there’s a town, and in each, the restaurants and stores aren’t the all-purpose, rural sort I expected. Instead, we’ve found wineries; expensive leather goods; fine art and fancy bakeries.
Our next major destination will be Del Rio, the end of map page four! We’ve conquered two 500′ climbs on the way, with one more to go.
We wish you a Merry Solstice, Happy Holidays, and an excellent New Year! We’ve been enjoying our own, bike-tour-themed holiday season. It’s had the same arc as the usual holidays: the pre-Christmas shopping rush; the post-Christmas fugue spent eating leftover chocolate; and ringing in the New Year with a bottle of wine. It’s been familiar, but made different by the fact that we’re traveling right now.
Ever since we left Pensacola, we’ve been seeing festive signs of Christmas. We’d seen Christmas parades in Alabama and Baton Rouge, and an elaborate light show in DeRidder, Lousisana, synchronized to pop music over a short range FM station. I found myself reflecting more on holidays past – traditions and experiences that didn’t quite seem to translate to the present. People are absent or gone, and the context is different, but the emotional memory remains, and pushes itself to the surface.
Amy and I decided that a few things were important to us for our own Christmas celebration – feeling festive, cooking and baking, and communicating with our families. We also wanted to explore some new traditions of our own, given that this was our first Christmas together as a married couple, and really our first Christmas just with each other and not with our nuclear families.
We approached Austin from the surrounding ranch country on December 21st. Cities often seem almost like an appartion in the surrounding terrain. Texas’s natural beauty – unpolluted streams and grasslands filled with long horned cattle – extended right up until the Colorado River, where the city proper starts. Often times there are natural corridors that retain the characteristics of the surrounding countryside and approach quite close to the city center. Being cyclists following a route designed to avoid suburban sprawl, we naturally follow these routes, so there is usually that surprising moment when we suddenly realize that we are in a city. Austin was the perfect example of this.
After crossing the bridge from Montopolis over into what we termed ‘Southwanus’ (a portmanteau of ‘Southern’ and ‘Gowanus’), we regrouped at a coffee shop before checking into our hostel, Drifter Jack’s. We spent our first two nights there, near the University of Texas campus. It was kind of fun to stay at a hostel again. The last time either of us had been in a dorm was during our individual travels through Europe. The hostel staff, who were our age, were very friendly and allowed us to store our bikes in their shed for a few days.
The geography of Austin reminded me of Toronto: with the (Texan) Colorado river taking the place of Lake Ontario, and the city extending northwards with a large university dominating the center of town. In this analogy, Southwanus would be part of the brewpub and condo-rich Torontonian waterfront, with the hostel being located somewhere near Spadina and University. Toronto, of course, is a lot larger and denser than Austin.
On Saturday, the morning of the 23rd, we ate wonderful breakfast tacos and moved to an apartment that we had rented downtown, next to Whole Foods. We wanted to spend Christmas somewhere we could cook and have private space with wifi for Skype calls. We spent most of the weekend doing our Christmas errands – picking up and mailing packages, purchasing gifts, and shopping for groceries for Christmas dinner. We picked out gift wrap supplies at the ‘Center for Creative Reuse’, which sorts and resells donated goods to people who might use them for crafts. That evening, we went on a long walk to see the Austin Trail of Lights and drink spiked cider.
On Christmas Eve, after shopping, we decided to continue one of our own holiday traditions. For the past few years we had gone on a Christmas bike ride. This involved riding our bicycles from our apartment in Brooklyn over the Brooklyn bridge and up Broadway to Harold square, Times Square, then over to Fifth Avenue. Usually we would take a few stops to go see the big tree at Rockerfeller center, drink hot chocolate, and buy a few stocking stuffers at Jack’s, a famous dollar store across from Macy’s. We’d usually time the ride to coincide with ‘Santacon’, a New Jersey tradition in which college-age revelers dress up as Santa, elves and sexy reindeer, drink copious quantities of alcohol and be generally belligerent, so we would sometimes have a bit of fun at their expense.
Even though we aren’t living in New York any more, we wanted to have our ride, so we affixed some CVS battery-powered Christmas tree lights to our bikes and rode around Austin. We had a few slices of gingerbread cake to hand out to those who we saw. For the most part we didn’t see many people on the streets, but we did manage to get rid of the cake, 50% to the staffers at a nearby ER, 40% to the community fridge at Drifter Jack’s, and 10% to a homeless person.
The exuberance of our ride was somewhat curtailed when my bike chain snapped completely. This wasn’t entirely a surprise to me, as I had been having a lot of problems shifting recently, and had to remove a link from my chain while in western Louisiana. I bent the broken link back with a pair of pliers and we were able to limp the 4 miles back home, including a stop for Christmas Eve dinner at In ‘N Out Burger.
On Christmas day itself we exchanged presents, cooked, and phoned our families. A sampling of gifts:
1oz Moka pot espresso maker
Additional chocolate, a panettone, sausage, and dehydrated bananas
Winter bike gloves
Hand and foot warmers
A bike computer
New sleeping mats (to replace our old, mouldy ones)
We cooked a nice beef pot roast and spent most of the day relaxing and digesting all of the chocolate gifts we received.
On Boxing Day we took a bus out to Katy, Texas to visit my old friend Nick from high school, and his parents Bob and Suzie. We were originally going to only spend the evening, but we ended up staying for a few days, playing board games, conversing, and watching television. I had my first introduction to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”, which both Suzie and my parents claimed was a “staple of their childhood” growing up in the late 1960s. Cue rapid zoom-in/zoom-out sequence of dancing Goldie Hahn with flower power body paint. I still had the finale song stuck in my head for a few days afterwards. We also watched more than a few episodes of “Person of Interest”, and went out to see the new Star Wars movie. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that their cat Mishka, who they hand-fed from a tiny kitten adopted on the streets of Cairo, is still alive and doing quite well. She’s sort of a strange feline link to the past.
After leaving Katy, we went back to Austin for a final day of errands. According to our map, Austin was the last large city we would encounter before beginning our trip through the dry expanse of west Texas, so we wanted to make sure that our bikes were fully stocked and repaired. We made a trip to the H.E.B to do a full food repurchase and replaced both chains and cassettes on the bikes.
Apparently the bike chain and sprocket are considered wearable parts, and we’ve been putting a lot of wear on our bicycles. Dutch-style bikes have sealed chain-cases, but ours certainly don’t and spend a lot of time outdoors (like us!). Amy’s chain was visibly damaged, and while mine had been replaced in Pensacola, it had already reworn itself due to the sorry state of my rear cassette. I’m still not exactly sure why it broke, but the new chain has been holding up quite well. For simplicity, I made the transition to friction shifting so I could change to a 9-speed from a 10 speed. I’ve gotten used to it already — I don’t understand why more people don’t use friction shifting.
The mechanic who repaired our bicycles had a thing or two to say about Austin in its current state. His sentiment was that “the economy should crash so all the people that are just here because there’s money will leave”. I can certainly understand that. It seems that in many of the cities we’ve seen in the US, money can be almost an occupying force, that changes the place and the lives of those who live there.
The next day we spent biking out of the gravity well of Austin, both figuratively and literally. We boosted ourself up to Bee Cave through amazing Mediterranean hills, and then on to Johnson City.
We spent New Years drinking some local wine and watching the ball drop in Times Square, as well as the “Lone Star New Year’s Eve” fireworks in Houston. An unseasonably cold two days have trapped us here in Johnson City, but we’re looking forward to continuing west across the hills as soon as the weather clears.
To all our blog readers, I hope you have a Happy New Year and that your 2018 is a fantastic one!