Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Chip Seal, Headwind, and Heat
Kinda says it all. Most everything I've been seeing lately.
The roads are badly paved and the shoulders are worse. Asphalt is only used within city limits; everything else is chip seal. And not the "good" kind, the kind where the chips are grape-sized pebbles and a lot of them are missing. I feel like I should have a mountain bike for this, and I'm on pavement.
I've been going into the wind every day since I got into Texas. It used to be more from the southwest, so it was almost a cross wind that was only a little in front of me. But now, straight into the teeth of it every day. I try to get going early, both to avoid the heat and to get some distance in before the wind picks up in the afternoon. Those last few hours in the heat, with an increasingly strong wind against you, pushing you back and keeping you out in the heat late into the afternoon, it gets frustrating after a week at a time.
Consistent wind, when you think about it, is weird. Why is there so much air up ahead? Don't they ever run out? Why do they always need more air back there, don't they ever get enough? After a while, don't they ever balance out? In New Mexico, it was always from the west, in Colorado, it was often from the northwest, in the panhandle, it was always from the southwest, and now in central Texas, it's from the south. It's like there's something southeast of Colorado, east of New Mexico and the panhandle, and north of most of Texas, some unstoppable force that's constantly sucking...
Oh, wait. I understand now. As a Texan, I should've already known.
But the most debilitating factor is the he-
Nope, not heat, it's the chip seal! If I leave at first light, I can get half the day done before I have to deal with heat or wind. Chip seal I have to fight all day! And it's easily the most frustrating. Every uphill comes with a downhill. Headwind happens about as often as tailwind, and if you were going the other way, wind can be great! But bad pavement slows you down no matter what, uphill or downhill, headwind or tailwind, hot or cold. You can't keep any momentum going, can't even get any momentum going. And the pain in your hands and your rump is worse than anything your legs are going through.
The worst part about chip seal is it's a man-made obstacle. Wind, hills, heat, we can't control that. But pavement we can control, we put it there!
I almost laughed when one day, someone said, "Good thing you're in Texas, we got better roads than other states." Haha, no. I love many things about Texas, but the roads in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and even most of Canada are all laughing at how bad ours are. I'll stop complaining when I'm in developing countries, but Texas can do better. Let’s get our act together and stop embarrassing ourselves. And properly surface the shoulder, too.
I checked the weather forecast in Spur and saw that the wind would only get stronger later in the week. I'd been debating whether I should go to Sweetwater or Merkel. The route to Sweetwater would be a shorter ride today, but a longer distance in the long run, making the days more uneven. But since today would have less headwind, I decided to take advantage of that while I could and do the extra distance to Merkel.
Before I left Spur that morning, I made breakfast tacos in the church's kitchen. Awww yeah.
Halfway to Merkel, I was making great time and considered pushing on to Abilene, even farther on the day. What the heck, let's go for it! Riding on a bigger highway, and therefore presumably better pavement, was a big factor in that decision (turned out to be an incorrect assumption).
One thing that Texas has unlike any other state is an unusually powerful focus on the town's high school football team. Every time I arrive in a town, small or smaller, I'm welcomed and informed of the amount and year of the football state championships won by the high school. If they don't have any, I learn about the state championships won in any other sport. If they don't have any of those, you might learn it's home of an author or someone who became famous outside of high school athletics, and if they don't have that, the town is home of old-fashioned hospitality or small-town warmth or something.
Without fail, though, the whole town is decorated in the school colors, with local businesses named things like "Panther Storage" or "Bulldog Tacos," the latter of which could be confusing if you're new to the culture. The Dairy Queen will have Yellow Jackets or Mustangs or Tigers painted on the windows. And the city hall or county courthouse will proudly hang banners cheering on the Hawks, more prominent than the American or even the Texas flag outside. Some things are important.
My favorite so far was Hamlin, only because of their mascot: the Pied Pipers. I was amused at the banners urging the Pied Pipers to fight and win, and at the plethora of green silhouettes of a man skipping and playing a fife. But hey, if they win games, who cares?
Not coincidentally, I've been reading "Friday Night Lights." The true story, a little different from the movie, is fascinating. Political in some parts, but still a good read, and eye-opening even to someone who grew up with the culture. What impresses me the most is it isn't the story of the most compelling season the author could find on record, it's the story of the season while the author happened to be living in Odessa. It was basically some random season. Which means this kind of story happens all the time.
After 170+ km, I wound up in Abilene, and someone directed me to Abilene Christian University, where they said someone could help me out. The thing is, it was almost 5:00 PM during the summer semester. Most people had left the offices, or were about to. A helpful graduate advisor named Amelia called her pastor, and in no time, I was headed to his place.
Alfonso (I might have this name wrong, and I feel bad about that) and his wife (the name of the rest of his family, I'm drawing a blank, and I feel bad about that too) fed me a dinner of steamed veggies and fish, which is the kind of meal I'd been craving. Fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by on a tour, and same goes for light, lean protein. I took a quick shower, and upon emerging, I was greeted with three scoops of Blue Bell, smothered in a homemade caramel-banana-pecan sauce. Oh man!
Alfonso took me over to his church to spend the night, but not before taking my clothes and throwing them in the laundry, promising to deliver them later when they were done. He and his wife had raised four boys and were nearly empty nesters. That is, until someone Alfonso worked with called him one night from Arkansas. Her boyfriend had punched her and the cops came to arrest him. They suspected she was on drugs, so they were about to take her in too. That's when she called Alfonso and asked him to come get her baby girl. They have since adopted her.
They had relatives taking care of their new daughter that night and were all set to have the house to themselves for once until Amelia called on my behalf. It clearly wasn't so much that they thought I was a nuisance, as these were about the warmest and kindest people I've met and seemed more than happy to feed me and give me a shower and fresh laundry. They only wanted one night to themselves.
"I get it," I said as Alfonso tried to apologetically explain the situation. "Whatever makes you most comfortable."
I don't mind spending a couple hours a day alone anyway. And I mean without Valeria either.
Heat has only recently started to become a major factor, just as hills have all but disappeared. Fair trade, I guess. Getting to Brownwood was easily the hottest day so far though, enough that it was maybe more than just uncomfortable.
About 20 km from Brownwood, I was running low on water. I was near a lake that was popular for boating, enough that there were a few stores nearby. I stopped outside of one, finished off my water so I could fill the bottles all the way, and went in.
"Would it be OK to fill up my bottles with tap water?" I politely asked.
"Hey, can I have some money, too?" almost shouted the woman next to me, and started laughing. I did my best to ignore her.
"Well, we have bottles of water we can sell you," replied the cashier.
"I just need tap water to fill these, not bottled water." I was still wearing my bike shorts and gloves. I was sweaty. It was clear I'd been outside and riding a bike for a while.
"We don't have water to give away, we sell water. I could go get some bottles and then fill yours up for you, but we'd have to charge you."
"You don't have a bathroom that has a sink?" She shook her head.
That's hard to believe. What do the employees do when they need the bathroom during an eight-hour shift? And they better use a sink before returning to work in a grocery store.
I walked out. The woman who made the crack about asking for money was getting into her car.
"You're only nine miles from Brownwood, anyway."
First of all, no. It's 12. And you try doing it with no water when it's 37 C (99 F) outside.
Luckily, two minutes later, there was a Dollar General. This time, I had a different idea.
"Do you have a bathroom I could use?" I asked, holding a water bottle.
"Sure! Right over there."
If I'd gotten the "You don't have the right to pee in a legally acceptable location without buying something" routine, I would've thrown a hissy fit.
One water bottle filled, I made my way to Brownwood. Only 6 km shy, I saw a motorcycle pulled over in the shoulder and a gentleman in his 60s sitting in the shade nearby. Maybe he overheated? I still had half a water bottle. I pulled over to offer him some.
"You want some water?" he asked, before I did.
"I've got enough," I said with a smile. I looked at his supply. He had two gigantic jugs, probably at least two liters each.
"You sure? It's cold!"
Cold water is a whole 'nother story. I happily filled another bottle and drank it right away.
His motorcycle had a wiring problem, something simple to fix if he had a replacement. He had started his ride in town, explaining the still-cold water, and was waiting for someone to come by with a new wire.
Shortly after I got into town, I saw a woman waving at me. More than just a casual neighborly small-town wave, a long excited wave like we were old friends that hadn't seen each other in a while. She seemed so pleased to see me that I figured I'd ask her for help finding a place.
Vonne is significantly shorter than me and runs the local bike shop in town. Apparently back in 2008, Texas 4,000 had called the Brownwood Chamber of Commerce for help finding a host and got zilch. Then they called Vonne, who called half the town, found them a place to stay, arranged a huge dinner, put signs up along the highway as they were riding in all day, had a church set up aid stations for them during the day, and even had a hay ride through town to escort them between all this. Dang! Now anything she can do for me is going to seem disappointing!
Vonne, whose husband is a retired firefighter, sent me over to the fire house and told me they could help me out. I was greeted by a humongous all-muscle guy who looked like he could play defensive end for the 49ers. He talked to the captain, they made a few calls, and I was staying in a church for the night. But not before having a shower and two cheeseburgers at the fire house. The chief even called the Lampasas fire department and told me to go there tomorrow.
If it keeps up like this, fire departments may turn out to be one of the best resources I've come across this whole time, and I only found it just before I'll no longer have access to it. Dangit! Oh well, not like things haven't been going well until now.