Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway in July!

After rolling the idea of a tour around in my head awhile, and bouncing ideas back in forth with Troxler, a friend who has toured part of the Appalachians on his Kona Sutra, I decided on a short trip out to Lake Mineral Wells State Park. Trox would meet up with me at some point west of Fort Worth, since I would be leaving from Saginaw, and he would be leaving from Fort Worth's Near South.

By car, the trip to the state park is generally about an hour, but by bicycle, we would need to find a backroads route, and carrying loaded panniers in the Texas heat, we were expecting the ride to take the better part of a day.

Troxler took Henderson (Jacksboro Highway) and met up with me just before crossing under the 820 overpass into Lake Worth. I made my way through the suburban streets of Saginaw and North Fort Worth, and after an hour of pedaling to the rendezvous point, our official ride would begin. We each made accommodations for carrying "extra" water: Troxler added two new bottle cages to his fork, and I packed a backpack hydration system as well as extra bottles in my front pannier. Neither of us packed much in the way of food, just beef jerky, trail mix, Cliff Bars, and the like. Our plan was to lunch in Weatherford and sup in Mineral Wells. A fire ban precluded any traditional cooking at the camp, and I had been advised not to try and pack the way I normally do, so no Coleman Stoves, no solar-powered refrigerators, no kitchen sink.

Passing through the town of Lake Worth by bicycle made me nervous, but Troxler and I made it all the way across the Lake Worth bridge and onto the relative safety of the frontage road without a single car horn or ugly-worded complaint from the drivers we may have inconvenienced.

We took a left on Confederate Parkway, by the Fort Worth Nature Center, and headed southwest towards F.M. 730. Years ago, I had noted that this stretch of road had its aesthetic qualities: rolling hills, rural ranch fences with countless horses and cattle dotting the landscape, but today, the bicycle offered a much more intimate look. During one of our frequent water breaks, I was lucky enough to spot a hummingbird on barbed wire fence just before it lifted off and started feeding on wild Texas gaura flowers nearby.

This intimacy with the land was coupled with vulnerability, a fact impressed upon me every time a gas drilling truck passed by or a rancher with those extra wide rear-view mirrors barrelled by. Confederate Parkway does have a reasonable shoulder for the first few miles, but at some point, maybe at the county line, it disappears, and we were forced back onto the left side of the white line. Some engines seemed to roar angrily as they accelerated after having to slow down for us, and some of the angriest sounding engines belonged to those whose mirrors passed within inches of my puny Styrofoam helmet.

Pausing at a dusty intersection to rehydrate, I spotted a shiny German coin in the dust, scarred by being run over countless times. I pocketed it as Troxler caught up with me, and we waited for traffic to thin out before pedalling out again. Pacing was a challenge for me...I wanted to maintain a healthy, easy cadence, but did not want to drag on the hills. Without a rear view mirror, I frequently looked over my shoulder to find Troxler trailing behind. I trusted that after having pedaled from Pittsburgh to DC, he would know better than me how to maintain a healthy pace, so I tried to follow his lead, though he rode drag. Donning an orange safety vest, he was trusting that I knew the route, and was providing a visual warning to drivers as they approached from our backs.

Confederate Parkway met F.M. 730 in a dusty, treeless hilltop, a few yards north of a convenience store where we stopped to refill our ice and water supplies. The miles that lay ahead were sunny, hot, dusty, and dry. Construction crews interfered with traffic flow at the tops of two consecutive hills, and Troxler and I took advantage of the safety cones and the extra wide shoulder. When possible, we took the lane on the downhills, accelerating up to 35 miles an hour, celebrating the cooling effects of the wind, and earning as much purchase as possible for the next ascents.

On a steep uphill climb, a few miles north of Old Dicey Road in Weatherford, I felt my rear tire go flat. Fortunately, there was a building for lease across the highway, sporting a healthy awning that shaded us as we worked excruciatingly slowly, due to the mind-numbing heat, to get the tube changed. My Schwalbe Marathon Supremes were supposed to be nearly bullet proof, but a tiny piece of rock was enough to slice a piercing hole in the tube. I blame myself for this, as I had been riding a bit lower pressure than called for.

A tenant or owner of the building must have heard us, and he poked his head around the corner to see what was up.
"Oh, hey guys, everything all right?"
"Yeah, just fixing a flat in your shade," Troxler responded.
"That sucks, man, unless it was Fat Tire Ale!" he laughed as he left us fools to our heat-induced stupor.

We used the slight inclination of his driveway to get rolling again and wrestled up the next hill, and the next, and then, finally, we coasted down a long steep descent and made a right on Old Dicey Road, running parallel to Highway 180, until reaching Weatherford's downtown area. For lunch, we headed towards the city square, and found a diner across from the castle-like courthouse.

Deciding to update my spouse as to our safe arrival, I found that she had already messaged me, inquiring about our single set of keys for our single family car, a Dodge Caravan. I stepped out of the air-conditioned diner to dig into my back panniers, and lo and behold, her keys were at the bottom of my bag!

This would mean, an upset redhead would be stranded at home with two kids, while I was out in the wild west.

Troxler asked, "Do you want to head back?"
"Naw," I replied, quietly, "They've got water, and plenty of food at home, let's finish this thing."

Before I could update my Facebook about the dangers of packing my wife's keys into my panniers, she had already beaten me to it with a post that seemed to garner a lot of sympathy from her plethora of |Facebook friends.

We settled our tab, headed across town, and made our way to Peaster Highway and found the trail head to the Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway, a former railroad. It was such a relief to know that for the next 20 miles, we would not have to look over our shoulders or cringe at the sound of someone's Jake Brakes roaring up behind us. Instead, we found the chalky trail to be mostly shaded in the first mile or so by oaks, and pecans, and other native trees. Wildflowers and wild plum shrubs crowded the shoulders of the trail, and animal sign was abundant. The effects of drought could be seen in the curled leaves of many of the understory plants, and in the constant companionship of thousands of grasshoppers who flew and rattled their legs and wings in flight as we disturbed them.

Caution is needed for anyone using road tires on this trail: there were many places where the gravel and sand were loose enough to cause our bikes to bog down and lose their grip. A few crevices could be found, big enough to cause a problem for thin tires. Texas plants such as cacti and mesquite also posed threats to bike and rider. Many of the planks on the old wooden bridges we encountered were being replaced, one by one, by state park staff, but there were hefty splinters in many of the old weathered boards that remained.

At the Garner trail head, Troxler took advantage of a local general store to get fresh cold water. The trail west of this trail head was particularly tricky and loose, but with a modicum of caution, we managed not to completely lose control.

By the time we found the trail that splinters off to Lake Mineral Wells State Park, it was 5 in the afternoon, and we had been cycling since 8 that morning. Fatigue had not totally wiped us out, though. We needed considerable energy to climb the 5% grade that leads up the amphitheater where the park's paved roads could be found. We checked in at the park headquarters, but it was nearing closing time, so the receptionist suggested we find the campsite we wished to use and just wait until morning to pay and register.

I packed lighter than usual, and only had a sleeping pad and a sheet, eschewing a tent for the sake of pure minimalism. Troxler set up his Big Agnes single sleeper tent he had on loan from one of our bike shop buddies, and we decided to skip showers and swimming and all of those niceties to be able to make it to the town of Mineral Wells in time for dinner.

Back we went down the steep, loose, sandy trail with its precarious switchbacks to the main trail way, heading west to the town made famous for its Crazy Water and the Baker Hotel. Crossing Rock Creek, the source of water for the park's lake, I noted that far below our bridge, it seemed cool and shady as the clear greenish water trickled over large boulders to fill a small pool where the shadows of bass could be seen waiting for their next meals. I would have loved to ditch the ride and spend an hour down in that creek with my ultralight spinning rod and wacky worm, but Mineral Wells and dinner awaited our arrival.

As the trail neared town, industrial sites and marl pits could be seen and heard from the trail. The town's active fast food restaurants and outlet stores also came into view, and we pressed on to the trail head, just a few blocks south of the Baker Hotel, that towering monument to the trend that swept our country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the taking in of mineral waters for their healing effects.

Starving, Troxler and I found that many businesses surrounding the hotel seemed to have failed or be in the process of dying. The few eateries I could identify through the help of my smart phone were not open on a Thursday night at 7pm, for some reason, so we were left with the choice of finding a sandwich at an ice cream shop we stumbled upon, or cycling back to the junk food outlets at the outskirts of downtown.

We chose the ice cream parlor, and found the food to be light and tasty. Our salads were fresh, and the atmosphere was quiet and cute and quaint. Coca Cola signs and antique drug store soda counter memorabilia abounded. One wall was lined with wooden booths that included a hat rack at each setting, just like a drug store from the 1950's or 40's. As we began to eat, the proprietor, a friendly middle-aged woman, left the counter to begin a Bible study where other folks around her age sat at two joined tables to listen to her discuss the promises God made in the book of Genesis.

"Now the Lord didn't say he would never destroy the world again, but he said he would never use a flood to do it!"

I listened, and the days of my young life in the church came back to me, as I recalled so many of the conversations I had heard about the Bible's application to modern life. For many, it would seem an odd juxtaposition...the commercialism of Coca Cola with the conservative Christianity espoused by the ice cream lady, but I decided to order a Dr. Pepper and a chocolate ice cream and keep my mouth shut.

The ride back to the campsite was pleasant as the sun's angle slanted and the shadows lengthened. By now, what little sunscreen I had employed had done little to prevent a rather raccoon-like appearance to develop around the pattern of my sunglasses. Maybe it was this appearance that encouraged those banded-tailed bandits to badger me all night. I slept little, what with throwing rocks at the six or seven camp robbing rascals as they made their way to our panniers and tried to steal our trash that hung from our lantern hook. At one point, I tried to get a drink from the camp water spigot, but my headlamp revealed that scorpions abounded in the gravel where the water splashed to the ground. With that intelligence found, I moved my sleeping mat to the top of the aluminum picnic table at our campsite and tried to sleep despite the creaking it made whenever I rolled and despite the sound of approaching coons and armadillos who probably meant no harm as they rustled in and around our campsite.

Troxler claims he didn't sleep well either, but jokingly said, "I think there may have been a single tiny moth inside my tent, that bugger! Made it hard to concentrate on sleeping, don't you know?" He had probably lost more sleep to my cursing the coons than anything else.

If you're ever in Weatherford, and you like fresh bread, try the old fashioned sandwich place just north of the square. I'll not name the old fashioned sandwich shop, for fear of sounding commercial, but I found the food to be healthy and fresh and the atmosphere fun and inviting. The shade from the outside awning was especially appreciated as I found that my front tire had gone flat while we dined, due to a mesquite thorn.

Rather than experimenting with alternative routes home, we backtracked our route to Fort Worth and stopped in at Trinity Bicycles to share stories and a cool drink. My wife, still key-less, convinced her sister to come down and pick me and my gear up...though I should have finished the ride home on my own power, I felt no shame in accepting a lift after the triple digit temperatures and the lack of sleep!

Monday, July 18, 2011

To Tour or Not to Tour, before the end of the SUmmer...

If only there was a River Road leading out of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, a great bike route that followed a meandering crystal clear cool river full of cascades!

Since I brought Lenora, my very own Long Haul Trucker, home from the bike shop, summer has intensified, and we've had little to no rain anywhere in the state. I purchased some schoolbus-yellow Ortlieb panniers for my planned tour down through the hill country, and have tried to increase my daily distances to build up for the 70-80 miles a day I had planned to do, but I may just need to wait until November before I head out on the open road. Heat exhaustion is not pretty, no matter how interesting the surrounding terrain.

In the mean time, I've been motivated to paint again. A few weeks ago, some friends of Trinity Bikes in Fort Worth went out on a hot ride around Benbrook Lake. One of the riders snapped a picture of the gang resting and clowning around at the intersection of two dirt roads. The picture was so well composed, it reminded me of a Frederic Remington cowboy painting. I decided that the next oil painting I'd attempt would be inspired by that photograph, and so I've begun.

Despite the stagnant heat of my garage "studio," I'm enjoying the smell of turpentine and the challenge of creating a fresh image out of the gummy, sticky tubes of paint that have rested idle for the past 15 years or more in a dry-rotted tackle box in my dusty garage.

 I have an ulterior motive for finishing this work: I have an interview to teach art next week, and they've asked for a portfolio. After years of teaching English, and only sketching in a journal during slack time, I found that I had no finished works of art to show. So, whether I get the job or not, I will feel some satisfaction that I finished a painting, even if I did not tour in the everlasting heat.
Lenora's First Ride: We stopped by the First Friday on the Green, in Fort Worth's Near South before heading north to Saginaw.

Original Photo by Durango Ruiz, a fellow Night Rider and friend of Trinity Bikes.

When I first saw the shot, I imagined that Bryan McKendry, crouching, was adjusting a brake caliper. He later informed me that he was posing for an unseen camera, mocking the way some urban youths brag about the greatness of their wheels. Either way, I'm sure there's a number of stories to be found in this image.

Garage Studio: Goforth Ride Day 2

Adding texture and shaping the riders, day 3

Monday, June 6, 2011

So summer begins...

I used to think that there was nothing better for the human spirit than to feel the fatigue at the end of a long day of hard labor, to feel the deep sleep that follows such fatigue, and to wake rested, but now I know to replace the word labor with "cycling," because I'm not enough of a Puritan or masochist to enjoy work all that much.

After about a year and a half of pondering what bike I'd like to add to my stable, watching countless youtube videos of guys touring the world or playing on singletrack, reading blogs about other folks and their favorite rides, I finally decided on the Surly Long Haul Trucker.

My wife, expecting a good income tax refund, allowed me to order one from my friends at Trinity Bicycles in Fort Worth. Friday, June 3rd, I finished up at school and had my wife drop me off at the bike shop. When I arrived, carrying my dusty old Avenir panniers, I didn't see the bike right away. Bryan, casually behind the counter, nodded and said, "It's being ridden."

"Ah, I see. To..."
"To make sure everything is set up and working all right."
"Yeah? Cool..."

As I was chewing the fat, Gibby, one of the bike shop guys, rolled up to the front door. I held the door open as he brought it through and, after a few adjustments, and the installation of a honey brown Brooks saddle, I was ready to go.

I had never really used drop bars much. There was a time in the late 80's when I may have tooled around on a cheap Schwinn 10 speed, but those memories are dim. I have been riding a Trek FX fitness bike that is basically an aluminum framed hybrid with 700C wheels and a mountain bike riding position. I like being upright as I have visions of using my bike as a tourist would, seeing the sights, taking in the country. It's not about eating up the road for me so much as taking it all in, being connected with the world in which I cycle. This was a factor in picking the LHT. I'm not into cool, but it's hard to deny that Surly bikes are kinda cool. I had read countless adventure stories about riding the LHT down mountain roads, and how they remained sturdy even under full loads, but they were still cool bikes. Bryan, as well as a few of the bloggers I had read, suggested that I might like the riding position of the LHT, affording my the ability to ride high like I was accustomed to or to use the lower positions available with the drop bars.

At first, as I tested the bike, riding it around the shop, I was unsteady and uncomfortable with the bar-end shifters and the sheer heft of the bike. I left the shop, heading north on Main, and pulled up on a curb at Lancaster to affix the lights I had packed in my panniers. I resumed my ride, and Friday night traffic was tricky, so I put some pressure on those pedals and headed to the Jennings tunnel, turning fast and enjoying the smooth acceleration down the hill into the dark, fragrant tunnel. The bike was becoming more comfortable, except for the brand new Brooks saddle, which felt hard as a rock. I pedaled down Hemphill street towards Magnolia and started hearing the music of First Friday on the Green. I knew some of my Night Rider buddies would be there, so I pulled up to the park and surveyed the crowd.

I felt like a kid showing off his new Christmas present. As I started finding friends in the crowd, I let them each take it for a spin. Keith, a long-haired IT guy with a penchant for foul commentary, came back from a ride around the block and shared some suggestions for tuning the bike to his preferences. Another good friend, Mark, compared his Kona Sutra to my LHT and let me know how jealous he was of my racks. We bounced around ideas for a tour of the hill country, and we decided to take a few out and back rides before the tour, to get accustomed to the heat and the bike. I left the concert, heading north on Lipscomb, and enjoyed the firmness of the ride, even as I hit pot holes and cobblestones on my way through downtown Fort Worth. The racks, Surly "nice" chromoly steel and black, hardly made a sound even on the roughest patches of road. I passed the courthouse and headed down the main street bridge, pedaling until gravity took over. By the time I reached the bottom of the bridge, I felt like I was going 40 miles an hour. 

Friday night on Fort Worth's Main Street, especially in the Northside, may not be the best time for a lone cyclist. Hordes of partyers line up, cruising and listening to loud stereos; the cacophony of tejano, electronica, dance, hip-hop, country, classic rock...all forming a thick soup of noise pollution that seems almost visible in its vivacity...I passed cars on the right as the cue at each intersection seemed to lengthen. Avoiding glass and pot holes, the Surly seemed much more nimble than many of the bloggers had suggested.

The ride north of Cowtown was quiet as I passed through Diamond Hills. Every neighborhood block, I zipped past young Latino guys crowded around parked cars. Listening to their tunes, they seemed not to notice my blinking lights as I flew by as quickly as I might. All the way up Decatur Road I rolled, until I was forced to get on Blue Mound Road. Its shoulders inconsistent, Blue Mound Road is always a little nerve-wracking for me, but traffic was light and I made good time getting home.

I announced my presence to my wife, got a beer, took a sip, and then got back on the bike and cruised around the neighborhood for another half an hour before I finally put it away for the night. I was amazed that I made the 17 mile trip from downtown to my home in less than 40 minutes. I was also amazed that I didn't really feel fatigued. 

The fatigue would come, though. By the time Sunday Night Riders was over, I had ridden the bike for more than ten hours. I rode to my school's graduation ceremony at the Fort Worth Convention Center. Afterwards, I rode around the Trinity Trails in the heat of a real summer-like day. I had ridden around Saginaw on Saturday, as well. Despite the stiffness in my arms and legs, the first thing I thought of when my first day of sleeping in was rudely interrupted by a fan falling off the night stand, was "I need to go ride my bike!"