KOUNTZE, Texas — Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To show the armadillo that it could be done.
That old joke was apparently prompted by the ubiquity of armored armadillo carcasses along Texas highways. I’ve seen dozens of the critters dead along the road, their little clawed feet up in the air, during more than two decades of driving in Texas.
But during this transcontinental bicycle ride — the last thousand miles in Texas — I’ve seen only one hapless armadillo, a couple of days ago in the East Texas Piney Woods. And we’ve seen plenty of road kill up close and personal — deer, javelina, skunks, raccoons, nutria, a rattlesnake and a wild boar. But only one armadillo. Go figure.
Maybe, after 55 million years of shuffling around on this planet looking for grub worms, the armadillo — at least in Texas — has figured out how to safely cross a road.
The range of the armadillo, which in Spanish means “little armored one,” has been steadily expanding. The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) has spread as far east as South Carolina and Florida. With a lack of natural predators, they’ve proliferated over the last century and have been found as far north as Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana.
I’ll be on the lookout for dead armadillos as we ride through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on the way to Florida. Maybe they have mastered the art of crossing a road.
Monthly Archives: October 2009
KOUNTZE, Texas — Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To show the armadillo that it could be done.
“If you’ve ever driven across Texas, you know how different one area of the state can be from another. Take El Paso. It looks as much like Dallas as I look like Jack Nicklaus.”
— Lee Trevino, professional golfer
KOUNTZE, Texas — A massive storm front extending from the Gulf of Mexico to Chicago has stalled the progress of our transcontinental bicycle journey and kept up us from getting out of Texas on Friday.
We’re holed up at a Super 8 motel in Kountze in East Texas waiting for the weather to improve. Actually, as I write this, the rain has abated and the forecast doesn’t seem to be as dire as predicted on Thursday night.
The TV meteorologists had promised rain throughout Friday, some very heavy and possibly accompanied by hail, flash flooding and high winds. So as we gathered for breakfast just after 7 a.m. at the Super 8 motel, where we had sought refuge from the rain and wind Thursday afternoon, we decided to take a rest day in Kountze, instead of in Merryville, La., where we were scheduled for a rest day on Saturday.
The ladies at the historical society in Merryville, across the Sabine River that forms the border between Texas and Louisiana, had promised us a Cajun meal on Friday night, a visit to the homecoming football game at the local high school and a campsite with a pavilion where we could take shelter from the rain.
And the ladies in Merryville promised to save the makings for the gumbo and jambalaya and lay on the feast on Saturday instead of Friday. But we’ll miss the homecoming game.
Actually, I’m quite happy to take the rest day in Kountze. All of us are fatigued by riding more than 60 miles per day day after day, sometimes in rain and high winds, and one rider is fighting a cold. So a rest day will allow us to nap, dry out wet gear, clean up and lube our bikes and launder wet, foul-smelling biking clothes.
Also, ride leader Dave has a worn-out bottom bracket on his bike that needs to be replaced. The closest bike shop is in Beaumont, about 25 miles to the southeast. So he had to rent a car in Silsbee, 10 miles from Kountze along our route for Saturday, have it delivered to our motel and take his bike into Beaumont for repair. Several of our riders went along with Dave to see the sights in Beaumont and visit the bike shop.
It almost seems that this vast state of Texas has a hold on us and won’t let go. More than 1,000 miles of our 3,160-mile transcontinental trek has been in Texas.
We entered Texas on Oct. 9 from New Mexico at the town of Canutillo, on the western edge of El Paso. That night at a hostel in El Paso, I logged that we had traveled 923.01 miles since setting out from San Diego on Sept. 20. On Thursday night in Kountze, I logged that we had traveled 1,948.01 miles so far. And we still have to ride about 60 miles on Saturday to get out of the state.
As the late Democratic Gov. Ann Richards once said: “I thought I knew Texas pretty well, but I had no notion of its size until I campaigned it.”
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness … and many of our people need it solely on these accounts.”
— Mark Twain, 1835-1910
KOUNTZE, Texas — My middle son, Matt, suggested that I do a blog post about the daily routine on this cross-country bicycle trip. I wondered whether such minutia would be of interest to readers, but my sister-in-law Rennae thought it would be a capital idea.
So here’s a snapshot of daily life on a self-contained journey on two wheels:
I usually set my cellphone alarm for 5:30 a.m., but the biological clock in my head awakens me a few minutes before the alarm goes off. I then turn off the alarm so that it doesn’t wake up the other riders in our group who might have pitched their tents near to mine, or who already haven’t been awakened by my snoring.
I try to have all that stuff ready to load into the bike panniers once I’m ready to take down the tent.
Then it’s time for the morning visit to the bathroom facilities for the morning toilette — teeth-brushing and other important bodily functions that occur in the morning.
If I’m on the cooking rotation, I’d have to arise a bit earlier to help get ready for the crew’s breakfast. Essentially, that involves filling a large aluminum pot with water and heating it over one of our two camp stoves for coffee and instant oatmeal, setting out on one section of a table — if we have one available — all of the breakfast items, such as cereal, milk, juice, yogurt, etc., and in a separate section the makings for the day’s lunch on the road: jars of peanut butter and jam, lunchmeat, cheese, bread, bagels, cookies, condiments, etc. Each of us usually makes a sandwich to eat on the road, as well as some cookies and perhaps some grapes, an orange or an apple.
If I have time before breakfast, I try to get my bike loaded up and ready to go for the day’s ride. Sometimes I take down the tent before breakfast, sometimes after.
After a last-minute check of tire pressure, I try to get on the road at around 8 a.m. The day’s ride averages about 57 miles over varying terrain and in conditions depending on the part of the country we’re traveling through — sometimes mountains, sometimes desert, sometimes in searing heat, sometimes in torrential rain. Sometimes we’ll stop at a roadside cafe for a late breakfast or lunch, and the sandwich prepared that morning goes uneaten.
Son Matt also wondered whether we ride as a group or singly. We generally set off on our own or with a group of riders who travel at our own pace. I usually ride alone because I don’t like to linger too long at roadside eateries. If you stay too long, it’s hard to get back onto the bike to continue the day’s journey.
At the end of the ride, usually in mid-afternoon or early evening depending on the distance traveled, we arrive at the day’s destination — an RV park, a state park or perhaps a cheap motel.
If we’re camping, the first task is to find a suitable tent site with perhaps some shade and good drainage in case of rain. Then it’s time to pitch the tent and unpack all of the gear that was so carefully packed into the panniers that morning — sleeping bag, pads, computer, reading materials — and put it into the tent.
I sleep very well in my coffin-size solo tent, and it’s like a cozy little home in the evening.
If the campsite has electrical outlets and a wi-fi connection, I try to update this blog before or after dinner, which is usually ready by about 7 p.m., depending on the length of the day’s ride.
Dinner is usually followed by a map meeting conducted by our guide, Dave Cox, who outlines the route for the next day, gives an estimate of the mileage to be traveled and tells us where we all have to end up the next evening.
Sometimes it’s a state park with few lights and starry skies above. Sometimes it’s a raucous RV park, such as the one in Del Rio, where a group of locals were having a party at a trailer next to our tents. I was dozing off when the beams of bright headlights pierced my the fabric of my tent and the left front wheel of a pickup stopped barely six feet from my tent flap.
I used my iPod to listen to music to drown out the bubba babble. So I missed the best quote of the night, as recorded by fellow rider Reg Prentice on his blog, bicarious.blogspot.com:
“Bill-lee, would you stawp your dawg humpin’ my dawg’s hee-ad?”
Such is life on the road, and it starts over again in the morning.
KOUNTZE, Texas — For a moment during Thursday’s ride, I felt like I was in a video game about a cross-country bicycle trip, in which the avatar is faced with multiple, simultaneous challenges to determine whether he is worthy to pass to the next level.
First, there was the truck following close behind me on a narrow road whose driver honked when he wanted to pass. Then came the uphill to a railroad crossing just as another rain squall lashed my face. Finally, a mean-looking dog bore down on me from the right.
I survived all of the challenges of Dolen, plus torrential rain during the first 15 miles of the ride and a brutal headwind during the last 13 miles along Farm Road 1293 into Kountze. So I assume I’ve passed to the next level of the game.
Actually, the Big Thicket of 120 years ago would be the perfect setting for a video game in which the avatar has to find his way out.
John Caplen of Georgia traveled through this region in 1887 and wrote:
“I have been in the heart of the Big Thicket in Polk and Hardin counties, Texas, for ten days. Nothing can be seen except the tangled underbrush and tall trees. In a ride of 150 miles through these counties, there is one continuous growth of tall pines, oaks, magnolias, and numerous other forest trees. As far as the eye can see, it is the same. The tangled undergrowth and fallen trees block and interpose an almost impassable barrier in the way of any kind of vehicle …”
The Big Thicket has much diminished since Caplen passed through here. Logging and development have left only remnants of a primeval wilderness once inhabited by bears, panthers and wolves.
The remnants are now organized into the Big Thicket National Preserve, created by Congress in 1974: nine separate land units and six water corridors spread over 50 square miles in seven counties.
Because of the immense diversity of its flora and fauna, the Big Thicket — a 97,000-acre swath of East Texas’s Piney Woods — was designated by UNESCO in 1981 as a Biosphere Reserve.
Because I have relatives in nearby Beaumont, in the southeastern corner of Texas, I’m somewhat familiar with the area and have ridden my bike several times from Beaumont to Sour Lake, a round trip of about 35 miles. The terrain between Beaumont and Sour Lake, where Texaco was founded in 1903, is very flat, with elevation changes in inches rather than feet.
That’s the sort of terrain we can expect on Friday as we ride about 65 miles from Kountze toward a crossing out of Texas at the Sabine River to Merryville, La.
COLDSPRING, Texas — A friend, neighbor and bike-riding buddy in Fort Worth, Erik Hansen, drove down to Austin last weekend to ride one day with our transcontinental bicycle caravan.
We had spent three nights in Austin — a little more than halfway in our 3,160-mile journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. So when we resumed the trip Sunday morning, Erik and I set off with the group from the Rodeway Inn near the University of Texas campus to ride about 50 miles to that day’s destination, Bastrop State Park.
Here’s Erik’s take on the day’s ride and our trip:
I had a great time and it was really an eye-opener for me to experience an “easy” day for you!
When the storms hit Fort Worth around 10 p.m. Sunday night, I shuddered thinking about you in your one-man tent in Bastrop.
I am now convinced that your cross-country ride is not as much a physical accomplishment as a psychological one.
As I was going through my morning routine, I thought of the luxuries that I had at my disposal, including running warm water, dry towels, plenty of lighting for my shave, refrigerated food/drink, etc., etc., etc. Then I drove through the rain showers to Dallas in my heated and dry car. I think physically I could do what you’re doing but not mentally! My hat is off to you and your tenacious compadres!
Fortunately, you’re now on the downhill slope and in less than four weeks, you’ll be back in Fort Worth.
Please say hi to the rest of your group. It was a pleasure to meet all of them and I wish you all tailwind and no rain.
Another perspective came from a truck driver who was delivering soft drinks and beer to a general store in Independence, Texas, on Tuesday as a group of us stopped for a break. He asked me where we were riding to and where we started. When I told him we had started in San Diego and were headed to Florida, he shook his head and said:
“Man, I have a friend who rode his bike from Dallas to Little Rock, Ark. That’s a long haul in a truck. I told him he was out of his mind. But, man, you’re way far gone.”
Wednesday’s ride from Navasota to Coldspring was fairly typical in terms of distance — 68.62 miles over rolling terrain as we headed toward a crossing of the Sabine River into Louisiana on Friday.
Cloudy skies threatened rain throughout the day, but the rain held off until late afternoon. By that time, I had reached our destination at the Double Lake Recreation Area just south of Coldspring and had time to dry out my tent, which had been packed wet on Wednesday morning because of heavy overnight dew.
We had expected to camp at Double Lake, but instead are sleeping inside a lodge with a stone fireplace, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some have set up their tents inside the large wooden building, but I’ll roll out my pads and sleep on the floor. The main thing is that, at least for tonight, we’re all warm and dry. But heavy rain is expected on Thursday during the 75-mile ride to Silsbee.
“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.”
— Ma Rainey, called the “mother of the blues,” 1886-1939
NAVASOTA, Texas — Several Texas towns could make a credible claim for recognition as the state’s “blues capital.” Perhaps Wortham, in Freestone County, near where Blind Lemon Jefferson was born around 1893. Or maybe Centerville, in Leon County, the birthplace of Samuel “Lightnin'” Hopkins in 1912. Or Linden, in Cass County, where Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker came into the world in 1910.
We arrived in Navasota, in southeast Texas, on Tuesday after a ride of just over 66 miles from La Grange, where we cut short Monday’s ride because the rain that began during the night showed no sign of stopping. That meant we had to ride a bit further on Tuesday, but nobody’s singing the blues here Tuesday night.
Tuesday’s ride was under sunny skies in cool temperatures through rolling dairy farms stocked with contented cows that apparently produce the milk for “the little creamery in Brenham” that makes Bluebell Ice Cream.
We got to our campsite early enough to allow the afternoon sun to dry out our tents, sleeping pads and other gear that had to be packed wet on Monday morning during a steady rain. So Tuesday night we’ll be sleeping in dry tents with no prospect of rain until Thursday.
The only bit of blues singing on Tuesday night was prompted by the sogginess of our campground, an RV park owned by the city of Navasota adjacent to a small airport, and the spartan nature of the toilet and shower facilities. The single men’s shower produced only a trickle of water, but it was warm.
In any case, people riding high-end touring bikes probably don’t qualify to sing the blues, according to a clever, anonymous spoof on the blues that has been rattling around on the Internet in various permutations for several years.
More suitable means of transport for blues singers are southbound trains, Greyhound buses, Chevys and broken-down trucks. You don’t see many blues singers riding Trek Madones or driving BMWs or Suburbans.
It’s OK to have the blues in places like Navasota, New Orleans or LA, says the spoof. But locales like Palm Beach, Disney World or Vermont don’t qualify.
“Walkin’ (but not bike riding) plays a major part in the blues lifestyle,” says one version, “A Primer for Beginners” on how to sing the blues. “So does ‘fixin’ to die’ and ‘findin’ a good woman.'”
Some good blues names for men are Joe, Willie and Hank, and for women: Sadie, Bessie or Baby.
Mance Lipscomb’s nickname comes from “Emancipation,” indicating the hard times his forebears had under slavery.
Hardship and toil are prerequisites to singing the blues, as suggested by Ma Rainey’s quote cited above. People who pick cotton on a tenant farm, survive on the mean streets of Chicago or do jail time for shooting a man in Memphis would qualify. But “persons with names like Sierra or Sequoia,” said the primer, “will not be permitted to sing the blues, no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.”
Rumour spreadin a-round in that Texas town
bout that shack outside La Grange
And you know what I’m talkin’ about.
Just let me know if you wanna go
To that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls.
– ZZ Top, “La Grange,” 1973
LA GRANGE, Texas — It’s perhaps unfortunate that a town’s best known claim to fame is that it was the site of a notorious house of ill repute. The local chamber of commerce might dispute that assessment, but that’s the case with La Grange, known from TV, stage and film as the longtime home of the Chicken Ranch, “the best little whorehouse in Texas.”
La Grange, a town of nearly 5,000 souls on the Colorado River southeast of Austin, was our nighttime refuge from the rain on Monday as our transcontinental bicycle caravan traveled toward the East Texas Piney Woods and a crossing of the Sabine River into Louisiana.
The town’s history as a place to have a good time predates the Civil War. In 1844, a widow known as Mrs. Swine opened a brothel in a hotel near a saloon featuring three young women from New Orleans. But it closed during the war after Mrs. Swine and one of her prostitutes were accused of being traitorous Yankees and forced to leave town.
In 1905, Jessie Williams, known as “Miss Jessie,” continued the tradition started by Mrs. Swine when she opened a small brothel at La Grange along the Colorado River. But fearing a crusade against the red-light district by local church people, Miss Jessie bought 10 acres of land outside the city limits, close to the main road to Houston and Galveston.
Her new establishment looked like a typical Texas farmhouse with white siding and a few side buildings that housed chickens. For decades, the “Chicken Ranch” flourished as an illegal but tolerated brothel. It was frequented by local law officers, politicians, soldiers and airmen from Texas military bases and students from Texas A&M University at College Station.
Miss Jessie died in 1961, and one of her employees, Edna Milton, bought the property and named it “Edna’s Fashionable Ranch Boarding House.” Milton, like Miss Jessie, enforced strict rules for her prostitutes and customers. At its peak in the 1960s, the ranch reportedly earned more than $500,000 per year and Edna Milton became one of La Grange’s biggest philanthropists.
But then in 1973 along came one of Texas’ more colorful characters: Marvin Zindler, a flamboyant Houston television reporter who formerly had been a disc jockey and head of the Consumer Fraud Division with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston before he joined ABC station KTRK/Channel 13 at age 51. In his first year on the air, he took on the Chicken Ranch and succeeded in getting it closed.
The ensuing brouhaha spawned a story in Playboy magazine, a 1978 Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, based on a story by Texas playwright Larry L. King, a 1982 movie of the same name starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds and a song by ZZ Top called “La Grange.”
Zindler, known for his on-air antics, platinum wig and blue glasses, delivered his last report — about roaches, rodents and slime in the ice machines of Houston restaurants — from his hospital bed on July 20, 2007. He died of pancreatic cancer nine days later at age 85.