To Big Bend (Days 6, 7, 8, 9)

5.22.2013


After the existential hiccup of New Orleans, it felt good to be back on the road, riding along Louisiana's southern brim toward the Texas border. The marshes of Louisiana are like nothing I'd seen before, a place where the land just disintegrates into the sleeping sea, an endless void on the horizon.

A strong sustained gust coming off the Gulf forced me to remain leaning left, for hours on end, lest I be blown into the road's shoulder. I recognized, however, that were this wind to give out, my bike would do the same, toppling under the force of my lean before I had the ability to react.

Fortunately, that wind dragged on across the entirety of the state, allowing me to arrive in west Louisiana, unscathed, by nightfall. Surrounded by marshland and mosquitoes, I found myself unable to locate a suitable place to camp, and so despite my preference to stay off the road after dusk, I soldiered on, hoping to ride the interstate to Houston before calling it a night.

Initially, I made some good progress toward this goal, turning northward from the bayous to the bend and rocketing down the highway alongside a procession of truckers extending for miles. I felt energized, enthused, excited to be so close to Texas so early into my trip. I flew by small towns and rest stops and gas stations without a care, propelled forward by the vision of Houston's city lights shimmering in the distance.

Then, sooner than I expected, I came over a hill and saw it, a sign welcoming me to the great state of Texas and kindly requesting that I drive safely, the Texas way. Accompanying that welcome, ten feet into the state, was a splat of rain and a powerful burst of wind that nearly knocked me onto the asphalt, enough of a shock to prompt a short break at an upcoming Waffle House.

As I scarfed down a massive plate of hashbrowns and reassessed my distance to Houston, the thought of another two hours on the road grew increasingly unfavorable, my enthusiasm from just minutes earlier quickly evaporating. Instead, I figured, I could simply find a secluded patch of grass in this very town. Leaving Waffle House, I came across just such a place: a tiny public park bordered by homes, churches, and roads thirty feet in any direction. Though it lacked the privacy I'd hoped for, I understood that, well, drifters can't be choosers, and I quickly pitched and climbed into my tent for a night's rest.

Roughly an hour later, I was awakened by tremendous gusts of wind howling about my tent with worrying ferocity. Too loud to allow for sleep, I sat up and began to read, waiting for the winds to pass. They did not. Rather, they intensified, bringing with them the beginnings of an angry thunderstorm. Pebbles of hail rained down on my tent, lightning flashed in the distance, and thunder cracked and bellowed from above, and with each passing minute, the lightning flashed brighter, the thunder grew louder, the severity of my predicament worsened.

At this point, I was stuck, stranded in my tent, the situation outside too dramatic for a safe sprint to the nearest motel. And so I sat. Listening. Waiting.

A short while later, I shifted in my tent, pushing myself over with one hand and being surprised to find at least two inches of water beneath it. Into the water my hand sunk, like a waterbed, and around the counter of my fingers water seeped in through the membrane, the pressure I was putting on the tent floor too much for its thin fabric. Around me, under me, under my pack, I noticed more water, lots more, forcing its way into my dry asylum. I had to evacuate the tent.

Hastily, I gathered anything laying about, slung my pack over my shoulder, and unzipped the tent door. What I saw outside was unbelievable: the entire park had become a lake, a reservoir, and there I was, right in the middle of it, feeling as though I had just stepped into a Jules Verne novel or an apocalyptic thriller. The sky was a strobe light, the winds no calmer than they were an hour earlier, lightning streaks cracking dangerously overhead.

I had to move, fast. I hopped out of the tent, first resolving to leave it there until morning, then discovering that all its stakes had floated away and that, were I to leave it in its state, it would blow away in minutes without my weight holding it down. So I picked it up, the whole thing, and just began to run with it, out from the lake, toward higher ground, but the winds picked up and I found myself being pulled in another direction, the tent transforming into a sail, and so I was forced to stop, to stop and to take apart this tent, shin-deep in water, rain and wind and lightning doing whatever they could to distract me. With speedy movements, I got to work disassembling, first yanking off the rain fly and then pulling out the pole, detaching it from the tent and holding it up to disconnect it at each joint.

At about this time, I became acutely aware of precisely what I was doing: standing in a body of water, holding a six-foot metal pole to the sky with streaks of lightning dancing above me. Not exactly eager to try my hand at surviving a lightning strike, I determined my work thus far was good enough, grabbed the various parts of tent and cradled them against my chest, then made a run toward the narrow pavilion of a nearby church. Safely out of the flood, I stood, watching and waiting for the storm to pass from that moderately safer vantage point.

The hours ticked by, from midnight to one to two, and still the rain did not let up. My knees shook from cold and exhaustion, my body a prune from hours of standing in wet clothes. Finally, I stepped out into the storm, too tired and too wet to care about a little more moisture, and marched toward my bike. Still trembling, I mounted, started the engine, and rode off, slowly, back onto the highway, crawling along the shoulder against an impossible sheet of rain, spotting neon in the distance and drifting toward it like a moth, pulling into a motel parking-lot-turned-wave-pool, knocking impatiently at the check-in window and being told the rooms were $10 more than advertised "on account of the weather," not caring enough to argue, and then, at long last, collapsing onto a musty comforter in room 126, too relieved to mind the large roach poking his head out from the bathroom to see who had the nerve to disturb his sanctuary at this late hour.

At last, I slept.

I awoke late the next day, changed into whatever article of clothing was driest, and took off once again for Houston, which I'd really just be passing through en route to Austin, but was once again driven to a halt by more stormy weather. Once again, I was soaked, once again, I took shelter in a Waffle House, and once again, I watched patiently as the sky waged war on the earth around me. Hours later, the skies began to clear, and the cautious warnings of my fellow refugees, all driven to that Waffle House as the only shelter for miles, I resumed my drive.

The weather cleared as I drove, and by the outskirts of Houston, the Texas sun had toasted me dry. Eager to get to Austin before dark, which was quickly approaching, I decided to stay on the highway and drive straight through Houston, which is probably just as well, because any city with an eighteen-lane highway running through it is likely not a city I would enjoy.

I made it to Austin about two hours later, though not without one final showdown against that dreaded storm system, which caught me at the city limits and nearly blasted me into oncoming traffic. Cold, wet, I slowed to a stop outside the home of Kevin, a friend of a friend who had so generously agreed to show me around and give me a place to stay during my time in town. Earlier that day, Kevin and I had planned to meet Beth, a mutual friend from DC who had moved to Austin only months earlier, and so once I had dried from saturated to merely damp, we took off for a pub where Beth was gathering with a few friends.

After a great night of conversation and craft beer, Kevin and I returned to his place for some much-needed rest; the next day, we brunched over breakfast tacos and rendezvoused with Beth at Barton Springs, a massive swimming hole and park area in which, it seems, the whole of Austin was in attendance. From there, Kevin and I tagged along with Beth to a friend's crawfish boil, a backyard gathering with as many good-hearted Texans as there were boiled crawfish. Afterward, I rode about Austin managing a few errands, and then to round out such a wonderful day, we all met up one more time for drinks on Rainey Street, a formerly residential block turned into a truly stellar collection of large, open-air bars and lounges.

That night, I said goodbye to Beth, and the next morning to my kind, magnificent host Kevin. Then I set off through Texas.

John Steinbeck, in reflecting on his own travels through the Lone Star state, writes "Once you are in Texas it seems to take forever to get out, and some people never make it." I found my own experiences with this great state to be rather different. Yes, Texas is large, and yes, its scenery largely unchanging, but I found peace in the tedium of the drive, comfort in the infinite horizon of the landscape, its gentle rolling hills of sand and shrub soothing against tired eyes.

Rather than drive the interstate through Texas, and here I'll agree with Steinbeck and quote him in full ...

"These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."

... Yes, rather than drive the interstate through Texas, I opted for a southern route, winding through hill country from Austin to the town of Del Rio, which kisses the Rio Grande, and then up above it, just miles from Mexico to the state's western parts, its big bend. During the drive, I was halted by not one or two, but a full six border inspection checkpoints, which at first bemused me because, well, I hadn't crossed over any borders. My first instinct was to say, slyly, "Gentlemen, you do realize that the border is actually way over there, yes?", cocking my head  to the side and smiling while I said it, but I thought better of it, and instead pulled to a stop, flicked up my visor, and casually greeted the armed officer to my left.

"United States citizen?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied, ready to dismount and pull out my passport.

"Go on ahead," he said, apparently happy to take my word for it. And just like that, with one simple syllable, I had proven my legal status in this country and was free to roam about its parts, no questions asked. I shrugged and drove off.

Between the third and fourth checkpoints, I passed a border patrol truck heading south, the bed of its truck boxed in with a series of vented windows. Incidentally, I had seen the same truck model, with the same vented windows, just several miles earlier, stamped with the words "Texas Game Warden" on its sides. It only took a few moments for me to realize that Texas was using the very same make of vehicles to trap and transport humans as it was animals, and this, I'm afraid, is the one sore remark I have to make of my drive through Texas.

Otherwise, however, I found the state's eighty-mile stretches of lifeless nothingness mystifying, as though this land had never before been explored. When these expanses were punctuated, it was by towns so small they could hardly be called towns, simply gas stations and convenience stores emerging from the intersection of any two roads that met, of which there were few. At one such junction, a gas station so old it measured the price of gas on dials, I stopped to track my whereabouts on my map, and staring intently at its etchings, I noticed something at the corner of my eye, something moving, something right behind the pump. Scaly legs, a deep green, nearly seven feet long, from what I captured in that first instant.

Startled, I stumbled back, nearly tripping over my bike. It wasn't until I took a few steps back that I realized that this creature wasn't a crocodile, as I had thought, or a dinosaur, as I had, to be honest, originally thought, but instead a peacock, green covering feathers of cerulean and lavender and crimson, prancing about without a care to my presence.

"Oh, don't worry," the friendly station owner called from a nearby window, "that's just Big Boy, he don't bite."

Yes, I liked Texas quite a bit.

When I did eventually make it to Texas's big bend, a dip toward Mexico at its westernmost point, I veered south for a pleasant drive to the bend's Big Bend National Park. Here, Texas's modest hills began to transform, grow, mutate, losing their rounded slopes and become sharper, harder, more imposing. Canyon country.

It was breathtaking. From the dry earth, towers of sandstone shot into the sky, rippled red walls snaking into the distance. The setting sun to my left cast a sensual glow on the canyons' rims, on the buttes and bluffs rising to my right. They all looked like they were on fire, or as though they were glowing from a natural luminescence in the stone. Never in my life had I seen such beauty, such natural splendor. With each bend in the road, the scenery performed more dramatically, demanded more attention, and I could not help but stare, transfixed, at the structures before me. I smiled, tears welling up in my eyes, so happy to be there, so happy to have the privilege to be among such greatness. This, I knew, is what I had really been driving toward all week, but even more, at the time, I felt as though it was what I'd been driving toward my whole life. I felt home.

This euphoric joyride continued for some time, another twenty, thirty miles, each unbelievably capable, once I thought the landscape could be no more powerful, of topping the last. Finally I arrived at the end of the road, a sprawling campsite just a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande. I pitched my tent among the RVs and trailers and other campers and, after a long day's trek, settled in for sleep with visions of fiery canyons dancing around in my head.

1 comments:

  1. I love how Waffle Houses are becoming your place! As someone who was only introduced to Waffle House last year, I can definitely respect the draw. You're certainly getting to know this country (and its weather) in an awe-inspiring and immersive manner. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

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