Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Love Thy Neighborhood
Moving means many things - a new home, often a new job, new friends and neighbors. But as much as anything else, it means new opportunities to go out and explore.
I recently moved back to my favorite part of Texas - the beautiful Hill Country. Few outsiders realize the full extent of landscapes found in Texas: swampy wetlands along the border of Louisiana, tall pine forests in East Texas, tropical beaches on the southern coast, broad plains in the Panhandle (also home to the second-largest canyon in the United States, somehow), dry, desert-like conditions in parts of West Texas, and the soaring mountains around Big Bend and El Paso, topping out at 2,700 meters.
But my favorite, by far, is the Hill Country of Central Texas. While they're not as extreme as the Sierras - these are hills, not mountains - I find them more inviting. And the vegetation! I know of nowhere else that you can find cactus, pine, oak, cypress, and any and all flowering plants, all within five meters of each other. The plethora of rivers and creeks only adds to the beauty, snaking their way between the undulating hills. And in wildflower season, my goodness, the colors!
I was recently offered a teaching position in a small town in the heart of the Hill Country. I've grown to like small towns, and I love the Hill Country. Knowing it was a good school, I decided to take it. But I'd be lying if I said the location wasn't a part of it.
The last time I was a teacher, I liked the work I did, but I didn't like the environment. At my next full-time position, this time in the tech industry, I liked the environment, but I didn't like the work I did. Ideally, I was looking for a job that combined the two.
And I believe I've found it. The work environment is astounding - the administration gives a little bit of support, and a little bit of freedom, like a good pair of underwear (and just as important!). The atmosphere is one of high achievement, but low pressure. And the students, my goodness! They've turned out better than I'd imagined, in essentially every possible way. I've been impressed, both by their intellect and their character.
Part of your work environment is also the town you live in. I wouldn't be happy if I had the exact same job in a place like San Francisco (too expensive and crowded), Denver (too cold), or New York City (too cold, expensive, and crowded - how did anyone find 8.4 million people willing to live there?). But instead, I have a small, artsy town deep in the heart of Texas, one with a progressive attitude and a down-to-Earth soul. It's like a hippie and a redneck at the same time.
Only three days after moving in, I took in a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the amphitheatre. This town has less than 5,000 people, and it has a friggin' amphitheatre. Incredible that live Shakespeare is $10 and a five-minute bike ride away. What a first impression of the town!
One of the best things about bike touring is the ability to explore new terrain, see things you've never seen before, and conquer a small slice of the Earth's surface with nothing but your strength and possibly a piece of aluminum and rubber. That can be hard to do in day-to-day life, but with a new location, the opportunity presents itself. Naturally, I've made it a point to go on long bike rides every weekend, with the intent of finding new pockets of Texas's natural beauty.
I don't even have to go far - I live within walking distance of a beautiful creek, popular on weekends as a swimming hole. Normally, people are charged to park by the creek, but for me, that's not a problem!
One of the first places I went was River Road, north of New Braunfels. While I was in grad school at Texas State, not far away, River Road was a favorite stomping ground. After first riding there, it was immediately crowned the best right-out-my-front-door ride I'd ever done, and for several years, it remained that way.
Now, it has challengers!
One thing I've noticed around here is the abundance of low river crossings. It's understandable - half the roads don't even have yellow stripes painted down the middle. Should we expect the county to build an entire bridge just to cross a few inches of water?
Still, it's an annoyance at least, and dangerous at worst. I've already had a few wipeouts while trying to coast through them. It's not so much the water, it's the moss growing on the concrete, making it unreasonably slippery. I've taken up the practice of dismounting and walking through.
I didn't intend for word to get out so quickly, but it wasn't long before the students found out what I do in the summer. One of them recommended a route known as "Jesus Road," named for its spiritual-experience-inducing views. My verdict: some good, some bad, and one hell of a hill.
One thing I've noticed is the area around Canyon Lake getting more popular. There were always campsites and tubing along the river, but they usually weren't packed, and the roads managed to stay quiet. Now every weekend looks like a holiday weekend. It'll probably die down as the air gets cooler.
A few weekends ago, my parents came to visit, so my dad and I went for a couple rides together. Naturally, I had to dial it back - my dad's days of 100 km rides are behind him. And since there's no avoiding hills out here, it probably wasn't wise to push the distance.
What was funny was he did better on the longer route, which also technically had more climbing. The difference was the climbing came a little at a time, consistently throughout the route. That's something he can handle. But a huge hill, all at once, takes it out of him, and sometimes he doesn't fully recover for the rest of the ride.
Our second day, we met a middle-aged woman from Austin, stopped at an intersection and munching on some grapes, still straddling her bike. It first seemed as if she didn't want to talk to us, but as soon as we'd said a few words, she began gushing,
"I love it out here! This is the best place to go riding! Have you been up around Driftwood? Have you been through Dripping Springs? Have you ridden on Creek Road there? It's beauuutiful!!!"
After telling her that I'd only moved here recently, she gave me a handful of places worth riding, epecially Creek Road near Dripping Springs. She was from Austin, but comes down here on weekends just for the scenery. She also told me that there's a cycling group in Austin that does the same, and I should join them. We'll see. One of the best things about riding is the independence, the fact that you can go right out your front door whenever you want, you don't have to meet with anyone, you're not on a schedule, you answer to no one.
A few weeks later, I took her suggestion and tried Creek Road. She was right.
It's been over a month and I'm still exploring! Not a single ride has been disappointing. A man could get used to this.
The world is, at times, a stressful place. I find it so very loud. And with our (often necessary) packed daily schedules, it can be rare to look around and appreciate the beautiful, complex, elegant, and mysterious world we live in. And even rarer to understand the same adjectives, on a grander scale, as they apply to the universe we inhabit. But maybe start small, and learn to love the corner of Earth you call home. Right in your own backyard, there could be more to see than you ever realized.
At the end of each ride, this is the view that tells me I'm home:
Life is good.