Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Pedaling the Panhandle
I was planning on leaving Dalhart at first light, around 6:00 AM, like you do on a tour when it's hot out. But the night before, I met Ty, one of the church's deacons, a massive, initially imposing fellow who turned out to be full of warmth. He cooks breakfast for the youth group every Sunday morning and invited me to join them. French toast, breakfast sausage, and the chance to talk to a bunch of young people about going for it and helping others. Couldn't turn that down.
I had a WarmShowers host in Amarillo, a young couple that wouldn't be home until after 4:00 PM, so it was just as well that I got a late start.
It's weird how sometimes you feel like you're making great time, and other times you feel like you're barely moving, often at different points in the same day. I've been trying to look for patterns in that, whether different terrain does that to you, or conditions, or different times of day, and I have found no consistent results. Today, I felt like the first half flew by and the second took forever, even though they took about the same amount of time.
The panhandle is known for being flat and boring, but some parts aren't as flat as you'd think, and I find that it has its own rugged, down-to-earth beauty, like a girl that doesn't need makeup to look swell. I know it's probably not everyone's favorite landscape, but the yellow-ish grass, the short trees, the dry scrubby vegetation, the wide open spaces, the gently rolling plains, the livestock, the prickly pear, the telephone poles, the barbed wire, it all says "TEXAS," and I love it to death.
One person warned me not to take a particular back road into Amarillo, as he thought it could be dangerous. In the interest of saving 25 km, I took it anyway. And got treated to some nice views along the way.
Only a block away from my hosts' apartment, I pulled over to double-check on directions. As I unclipped, a sudden gust of wind hit me from the side and Valeria and I went over. Seven weeks into the ride and I have my first scrape. And it came from something as stupid as getting off the bike, when I was standing still.
Keith and Helen are both transplants from the Midwest living in the Texas panhandle. They were in the process of moving, only two days away, and a lot of their stuff had been boxed up already. I was staying with the one and only WarmShowers hosts in Amarillo, and got there just in time before there were none!
A wholly satisfying chicken nacho dinner, followed by an even better homemade brownie and ice cream dessert...whoo boy! And just talking about bike touring with a young couple was refreshing. Their background was more in mountain biking, and Keith had even done a short tour on a full-suspension frame. Not sure how the racks would work, but I guess he figured something out!
Keith and Helen went to bed even earlier than I did, as I stayed up planning the last week into Austin. It looked like I'd have a few long days right off the bat, but they'd get shorter as I got closer. Probably better than the other way around. At the last minute, I decided I'd go to Caprock Canyon State Park the next day, even though it hadn't been part of the plan and was slightly out of the way. Keith and Helen sent me off with a good breakfast and the leftover brownie as I headed out for 160 km to Caprock Canyon.
Made decent time all day and arrived at the park before 4:00 PM. Still enough time to get a quick hike in before sunset! I took the cheapest, most primitive site I could, all the way at the back of the park, in part because I'm cheap and in part because I knew that meant I'd have few neighbors. And the only other people back there wouldn't be huge, obnoxiously loud parties, just other outdoor quiet souls like myself.
As I rode the last 9 km through the park to my campsite, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the panhandle! Any Texan knows that the panhandle is flat and empty and monochrome and boring. Not this part.
Just before I got to my site, I found a young woman walking along the road. I'd barely even seen any cars to this point, so that seemed strange. I pulled over to say hello. Apparently she'd been in the park for two weeks now and was just leaving today. A lot to do in this park, I guess! She told me to switch my assigned campsite to one facing the other way in the same camping area, which turned out to be a dead-on recommendation.
"So what are you doing, biking around the world or something?"
"That is exactly what I'm doing."
"Oh my gosh, I just fell in love with you."
She also managed to guess that I'm from the Austin area (she is too). Awfully perceptive, this one is.
I pitched my tent, unloaded Valeria, and rode her back 2 km to the trailhead. Man, does she ever feel nimble without all that stuff on! I wasn't even clipped in! What's funny is hills still seemed hard by comparison, it was more like everything felt easier. And it felt like the back end was going to fly out sideways from under me.
Earlier, at the information center, the ranger didn't seem to catch on to the idea that I was on a bike. Even using the word "bicycle" to avoid confusion with a motorcycle, I had to remind her a few times. And after that, as she took my information, she politely asked, "License plate number?"
I asked her what one hike she'd do if she only had time for one, and without hesitation, she pointed to one in the back of the park, near my campsite. There were two ways to do a loop, but she recommended an out-and-back.
"This hike is very strenuous," she explained, "the full loop takes 7-8 hours. Also, you need to bring at least a gallon of water with you."
The full loop was only 12 km! I could run it in less than an hour! I get the idea they're required to say 7-8 hours and a gallon of water, because if you're 250 pounds and out-of-shape, that's accurate. But I feel like maybe they should be allowed to make a judgement call in that regard. When a park ranger, or anyone else, thinks I can't manage to move 2 km/hour, I feel personally insulted.
I set off at a light jog, holding a 1-liter bottle of water. Take that, conventional wisdom! The trail was not well-marked, not even with cairns, and more than once I wound up following a creek bed, thinking it was the trail.
What a landscape, though! Of all the trail runs I did last year in California, many of them were stunning, but I never saw anything quite like this. I would love to do a race here.
Near the end of my run/hike, I found myself at an overlook. No matter which way you turned, the overwhelming beauty of Texas stretched out before you.
I sat there for half an hour. I wound up belting out a couple Robert Earl Keen songs into the wilderness. On the last verse of "Feelin' Good Again," I almost got choked up.
This was exactly where I was supposed to be right now. I almost hadn't come here.
I jogged and biked back to my tent for an evening of peaceful sleep in the canyon, under the stars. For the first time, I left off the rainfly. Didn't need the warmth, protection, or the privacy. The open air felt good and it was a delight to sit inside the tent and still be able to look at my surroundings. I would've cowboy camped, but there were a lot of bugs. Not many biters, but annoying nonetheless.
Heat had come up before, but only recently has it become a major factor. Even leaving at first light and trying not to ride through the afternoon, it's been taking its toll. There were days in Alaska and Canada where I would barely go through one water bottle over the course of 175 km, and now I go through about eight bottles of water just to get through 125 km. I still haven't used my 3-liter bladder, instead opting to stop in gas stations and refill during the day.
I love old county courthouses. I love that even in small towns, there was something that people considered important, enough to put a huge amount of effort into a symbol of the community. And I love the courthouse squares, the places you can imagine the people coming from all over the county to bring goods to market or get the things they need. In these places, the once-a-week trip into town might be about the only social interaction these people got. Visiting the town square was a big deal! Stores selling suits and dresses, bakeries with cakes, it must have been like Disneyland back then. For many of them, the town square might be the biggest trip they make all year. For a few, it might be the biggest trip they make their entire life.
Sadly, most of these small towns have seen their town squares fall into abandonment and disrepair. In some cases, it's because a larger retailer pushed the local businesses out, and in others, it's because the town is shrinking as people flee to the cities. I bike past these rows of buildings, ones that were once built at great effort and cost, and see more than half of them empty and sometimes boarded up. I try to imagine them brand-new. At one point, the place was brightly colored, the paint unchipped, and the sidewalks were bustling on weekends with people coming and going, buying the things they need, selling the things they have, talking to their neighbors for the first time all week and getting the news about the goings-on in the county. Now there's nothing there, and it's often the part of town you don't bother visiting. Instead, you go to the new store that moved in closer to the highway junction on the edge of town. And if you see someone walking past these shops, you wonder what they're doing there.
Headwind has been consistent, but not devastating. And it now has the added benefit of cooling me down. Almost makes it worth it. I'll still take tailwind though. Gets you out of the heat faster.
I passed a town called Matador, where the high school mascot is the Matadors. So...they're the Matador Matadors? I also passed a town called Turkey. They're the Patriots. Or by their full name, the Turkey Patriots.
In Matador, I asked someone if they knew of a place to stay in Spur, my destination for that evening. They recommended the Freedom Church, and proceeded to give me directions:
"You go on down to where there used to be a Dairy Queen, and then there used to be an elementary school on the right."
OK, that's two "used to be"s in the first sentence. We're off to a good start.
Sensing this was getting complicated, she said, "Aw, just go to the Allsup's and ask where Kevin is. They'll know."
I have never heard more perfect small-town Texas directions in my life.
Four hours and six water bottles later, I was at the Allsup's, and sure enough, they knew Kevin. He didn't answer his phone, but half an hour later, another gentleman from the same church came by. He led me over, showed me in, and told me to eat anything in the fridge.
I opened it, thinking I'd find a couple juice boxes and maybe half a sandwich, if I was lucky. My goodness...
I managed to hold back and only make a frito pie, downing it with a Dr. Pepper. If I'd had a Blizzard for dessert, I may have died of Texas overexposure without rebuilding my tolerance.
As it turns out, this town didn't have a Dairy Queen! They used to, but it burned down two months ago, explaining the "Where the Dairy Queen used to be" directions. Still, this is a small town in Texas, and I'm sure there's a state law that says they have to have a new one by now.