OBERLIN, La. — I learned early on that there’s no such thing as an easy day on a transcontinental bicycle journey.
The weather and terrain tend to conspire against you. If the route is flat, the wind will surely be in your face. If the distance for the day is short, the route will include plenty of climbs.
But the rides on Saturday and Sunday — 65.29 miles from Kountze, in East Texas, to Merryville, in Louisiana just across the Sabine River, and 56.65 miles from Merryville to Oberlin, La. — were as close to easy rides as we’ve had on this trip.
With sunny skies, temperatures in the 60s and 70s and no wind to speak of, we rode on flat, mostly straight roads with wide, smooth shoulders.
It was a joy to be on the bike, even hauling a load of gear weighing more than 50 pounds.
On Saturday night — Halloween — we were hosted by the Merryville Historical Society. Members of the society prepared a Cajun feast of chicken and sausage gumbo, potato salad, vegetable casserole, banana pudding, sweet tea and lemonade.
As we pigged out in the town’s repository of historical artifacts, costumed children accompanied by their parents paraded into the building to receive paper bags full of treats prepared by members of the society.
Even the mayor of Merryville, Charles Hudson, stopped by to welcome us.
The earlier highlight of the day was crossing the Sabine River out of Texas and into Beauregard Parish in Louisiana.
We entered Texas on Oct. 9 from New Mexico at the town of Canutillo, on the western edge of El Paso. During the past three weeks, we traveled about 1,100 miles across the breadth of that vast state. It was time to move on to Louisiana, the fifth state in our progression across the southern tier of the United States.
As I said in a post on Friday, “Holed up in East Texas,” our journey to the east was stalled for a day in Kountze because of a storm system that had caused flash flooding along part of our route. The water had receded on Saturday, but a succession of creeks in far East Texas along Farm Road 363 just east of Bleakwood — Thickety Creek, Big Cow Creek and Quicksand Creek — were still running fast just below the level of the road.
Our Sunday night stop in Oberlin reinforced the meaning of Southern hospitality. It’s not a cliche in this part of the world. It’s hard-working, decent people going out of their way to welcome passing strangers.
We stayed Sunday night at the Oberlin Fire Station, staffed by volunteers except for a paid chief, Lawrence Kelly.
A few years ago, some transcontinental cyclists ran into bad weather as they passed through Oberlin on the southern tier route. The firefighters opened the station to them, let them sleep inside and use the kitchen, toilet and shower. It’s now become a tradition. Every spring and fall, as cross-country riders pass through, the fire station opens its doors to them — as it did for us.
Chief Kelly stopped by to greet us, and Capt. Phillip Russ ran errands for us — using the ambulance to drive the two cooks in our cooking rotation to shop for groceries and taking others to do a load of laundry.
The captain is also a very entertaining man — a lot funnier than Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy. He had us laughing so hard that we cried as he told stories about hunting wild boar, how to make boudin and head cheese, catching loggerhead turtles and about the glass eye that replaced the left eye that he lost in 1996 as he stopped to help an elderly couple with a broken drive shaft along the road. The elderly gent whacked the shaft so hard with a hammer that the hammer bounced off and took Russ’s eye.
Actually, Russ said, he has three glass eyes — the one he usually wears, one that looks like an eight ball and another with a target on it. He uses the latter two to spook unsuspecting strangers.
Russ told of a prank he and his son Brandon had played with a water pistol and his glass eye. Some friends of Brandon were at the Russ house when Brandon said: “Daddy, I’m gonna shoot you in the eye.”
“No, son, please don’t shoot me in the eye,” Russ said in feigned horror. Brandon fired a stream of water and Russ covered his left eye in mock pain, worked out the glass eye and let it roll across the floor.
Brandon’s friends scampered for the door and ran home to tell their parents that Russ’s eyeball had fallen out. Soon the phone was ringing off the hook as the parents called to express their concern.
This guy ought to have a gig on the Comedy Channel.