Texas Hill Country
Plano, Texas, United States
Nov 26, 2019
I hung around at the church in White Sulphur Springs and got my latest start yet. It was chilly. There was headwind. I was moving frustratingly slowly, even though the road was flat.
It started raining.
Well, those two days were good while it lasted!
For a while, not only was it not my best day, but there was some doubt as to whether or not I would make it in before dark. My taillight had inexplicably stopped working, so that would be an issue if it came to that. And I was hoping to make to to Livingston, 20 miles north of my destination, before 6:00 PM so I could catch the end of the USA vs. Portugal World Cup game.
The day turned around halfway through; somehow I was suddenly moving easy. A later look would reveal that the first part of the day was all slow, steady incline, and the second half was just the opposite. Subtle enough that I didn't even notice, aside from moving faster without knowing why.
I got into Livingston just after 6:00 PM. Now with a phone signal, I looked up the score: 2-2. Somewhat satisfied tying one of the world's best teams, I pedaled on. Only a day later would I find out how close we were to winning.
A WarmShowers host had given me a tip about a free camping area next to the Yellowstone River. This close to Yellowstone, I was surprised that anything was free, or even affordable.
The campsite was simply gorgeous, sitting next to the powerful Yellowstone River, flowing fast and with high volume, but smoothly, not raging. I camped next to a young couple from Bozeman. They gave me a tequila citrus drink and shared a bunch of snacks as we swapped a load of stories, until I wound up having to pitch my tent in the dark.
I set out for Yellowstone on a quiet morning on a quiet road, only seeing a few cars every now and then. The area was called Paradise Valley, and it wasn't hard to see why.
Suddenly, I saw a deer right next to me in the brush, and a truck coming from up ahead. For one reason or another, the deer decided to run away from me by cutting across my beam and into the road.
I saw it play out before it happened. I hit the brakes before it did. A crunching sound, not sure if it was metal or bone, as the right fender hit the deer square in the middle of its long neck. The truck swerved right, then left, as the deer was spun around entirely, then collapsed on the pavement.
My heart went out to the deer ten times over compared to the driver, but there was nothing I could do. Even if it wasn't beyond saving, I wouldn't know the first thing. I decided I might as well make sure the driver was OK, feeling like a heartless jackass asking a perfectly fine middle-aged woman if she was injured while a deer lay slumped on the pavement, trying to move and literally moaning like a human would.
She was shaken up, but took deep breaths for a couple minutes, then got back in the mostly-scratch-free truck and drove off. I couldn't friggin' believe it when the deer got back up and leapt away.
I arrived at the north gate of Yellowstone just about noon and asked where the farthest south campground was. I wanted the next day to be short so I could meet the Texas 4,000 Rockies team in Jackson the next day.
"Grant Village. 80 miles from here."
Whoa. I'd already done 40. And Yellowstone is not flat.
Getting into the park was by far the hardest hill of the day, and one of the tougher ones so far at all. About 12 km of nothing but steep climbing. It was getting warm, I mean more than not cold, actually warm, for one of the first times. And there were a gazillion cars trying to pass me on a narrow, twisty mountain road. Thankfully, they were all polite.
Only a few miles in, I saw the marker for the 45th parallel. I was now exactly as close to the equator as I was to the north pole. I started in the arctic, but nowhere near the north pole, and I'm definitely going to the equator. It put some perspective on how far I had to go.
Yellowstone is spread-out, pretty, and loud. Despite being a national park, a place you might go to get away from it all, I saw more humans today than any other day thus far. Surprisingly, there were lots of large trucks in the park! I had thought that wouldn't be allowed. They mostly looked like equipment/construction trucks for park maintenance, not plain shipping trucks, which I imagine get routed elsewhere. I see the necessity, but still, I somehow thought there would be a size limit, and that it would be much lower.
After the big giant hill, the land spread out and revealed about the biggest sky I'd ever seen. Good easy riding, and I felt on top of everything, like I could ride forever and the whole park was a stone's throw away.
I skipped a few attractions, having seen all of them before, and mostly worried about making my campsite before dark. But the real treat, surprisingly, was the people! Everyone in Yellowstone was happy to be there, and the excitement was contagious, making an unusually difficult day feel like a blast. Whether other touring cyclists or people curious about Valeria, the friendly people I met were too many to count, and sadly, I've forgotten all their names. But if any of them read this, you know who you are, and talking to you was the unexpected highlight of my day.
One thing that surprised me was the resort quality Yellowstone had. I guess I'd forgotten that part from a visit years ago, but some areas were larger and more elaborate than most of the cities I've been through. We're talking four-star dining and hotels. I get that camping isn't for everyone, and some of those people still want to see Old Faithful. But how about cabins or something, and keep the hotels and resorts outside of the park? It felt more like Disneyland than a rugged backwoods, peace-and-quiet slice of nature.
Don't get me wrong. I love Disneyland! I just feel like national parks should be different. There needs to be one last refuge for the outdoorsman. I guess there's always the Pacific Crest Trail, if it doesn’t get too popular once that movie comes out.
Lots of wildlife. Somehow, the buffalo was the only one that compelled me to stop and take a photo. I've seen a lot of bears already.
Late in the day, one last climb - to the Continental Divide, then over it again just to get back to the same side. It was already starting to dim. I was tired. I did not climb very fast.
After the first pass, at over 2,400 m, I only had about another 50 m to climb. Or so I thought. The road sent me downhill at least 200 m, only to make me do those meters all over again, and then some.
Hill, if you screw with me one more time...
I finally crested the pass, back in the Atlantic watershed (but far from my last crossing, eventually). Only 12 km to go, all downhill. When I finally saw the lake ahead, the one next to which I'd be camping, I cheered for joy. What a day!
Despite getting in late, I woke up early. I was meeting the Texas 4,000 Rockies today! I didn't know where they were staying, so I'd have to overshoot Jackson, find them on the highway, and ride in with them before they all arrived. They only had 110 km to do today, and I had 130, plus whatever distance I go past Jackson to find them. And there's the fact that Valeria is a little too weighed down to move quickly. I'd have to bust my hump today.
Leaving Yellowstone, I was treated to a downhill almost as wonderful as the hill into the park was tough. There's a few km done quickly, at least!
Jackson wasn't even on my planned route; it was almost 60 km south of where I would otherwise turn east. But I'd already done four straight days of >150 km to get there on the right date. Their route through Montana and Wyoming were different from mine, and this was as close as we would get. If I wanted to see the Rockies team, it was now or never.
The Tetons, without a doubt, are the most beautiful scenery I've been treated to thus far, and it's hard to see them getting topped anytime soon. There were scenic turnouts at least once every km, and that made so much sense, I was stopping at almost all of them!
OK, if I want to actually meet the Rockies team today, maybe I shouldn't stop at all of them...
I had enough photos of the same mountain range anyway. Well, maybe.
On the way to Jackson, there was a rockin' bike path, smoothly paved, and didn't add unnecessary distance or hills compared to the road. There we go! I saw a boatload of people riding bikes there, often families. I imagine it's popular to rent them in town and take them out here.
After a significant push in the last 50 km of the day, I made it into Jackson just after 3:00 PM. Maybe too late...if it was only 110 km for them, at least a few would've finished, and I would be lucky to find a few stragglers. I went ahead and continued south, hoping I'd find someone.
About 7 km south of town, I saw a loaded bike tourist. His bike was significantly more weighed down than Valeria, flying a South Korean flag. He was bundled up even though it wasn't cold. I waved him to stop, then trotted across the road to talk to him.
"Have you seen a big group of bikes? Maybe about 20, wearing matching shirts?"
Only two could still be them. "Were they from Texas? Did the shirts say 'Texas 4,000?'"
"LA to New York." His English was OK, but not perfect. It seemed like he could usually tell what I was saying, but had trouble getting words out himself.
Just then, a second Korean pulled up, wearing a matching shirt. Oh, he was talking about their ride.
They were, of course, going from LA to New York together. Neither one spoke great English, but they were overwhelmingly gregarious. They had me sign their gigantic canvas banner - both of them! - and we wound up exchanging contact info.
I stuck around to see if Texas 4,000 would show up, but now after 4:00 PM, they were almost certainly all in Jackson by now, where I'd never find them. I should've seen at least one of them by now. On Texas 4,000, I usually finished a 110 km day around 1:00, and that was only because the ride director forced people to sit around at aid stations all day. And I was far from the most talented rider on the team.
I was about to turn around and try my luck finding a cheap RV park in Jackson, if there were any with vacancy, when I saw the Texas 4,000 van go by. Success! I flagged them down and they rolled down the passenger window. They make twice as many people take a day off now? Or was one of them sagging?
"Do you need help?"
Not even kidding, no one on the team had arrived yet. The van went on to the host house and I waited another half-hour before the strongest riders showed up at 5:00 PM, a group of five! I had been expecting one or two at a time, three maximum.
The host wasn't far away, well south of Jackson, so it was lucky I went ahead and overshot it by over 10 km. It was less than an hour after we arrived that the entire team showed up, all 28 of them, one humongous group at a time. That must be what slows them down so much...doing anything in a big group makes everything slower, and riding at someone else's pace forces you to only go as hard as whoever's weakest at all times.
Even during Texas 4,000, I loved the independence of riding solo, and spent at least 80% of my time alone. I guess that's why I got into self-supported touring afterwards. It's slower and more difficult, but the independence makes up for it.
The team had a male-female ratio that was strongly in the ladies' favor, a far cry from the 2006 Sierras, when the men outnumbered the women 17-3! The riders all seemed personable and welcoming, and most of them had a lot of questions about Valeria.
I was hanging out inside with the team when one member approached me,
"What were your plans for tonight?"
"I wanted to hang out with you! That's why I came here."
"Yeah, about that...our host says he's not comfortable with a stranger staying here, and we can't disobey a host, so..."
"You explained that I'm a Texas 4,000 rider too, right? An alumnus? One of you?"
"Well, he said he opened his house to the team, and you're not on the team."
"Can you ask again and explain the situation? I just rode four consecutive days of over 150 km, mostly over mountain passes, then did 60 km out of my way today, which I'll have to backtrack over again, just to hang out with you."
The entire house went silent. "I'll try calling if I can get a hold of him."
Multiple riders expressed sympathy and most told me they wanted to hang out, swap stories, talk about Texas 4,000 then and now, ask what was coming up on the Rockies route. The directors wouldn't budge though. I couldn't stay with them. I couldn't come to their dinner at the church, not eat, and merely talk to people. I might not be able to hang out with them afterwards either.
Most of this was at the request of the host, but I get the impression I was referred to as an outsider, rather than a member of the Texas 4,000 family. And I don't know if it is one anymore. What I signed up for was a challenge and a tight-knit group of scrappy college kids. Texas 4,000 is now a business and a bureaucracy. One filled with good people, but that's the nature of the organization these days.
They gave a few examples of new rules: no one aside from riders may ever ride in the van, you have to sign a liability waiver to ride with the team. I asked how many times in the 11-year history of the organization someone has tried to sue Texas 4,000 based on a bad experience sitting in a van or sharing a road. Zero, of course. So they're inventing new rules and bylaws not to solve problems, but only to complicate things.
My year, a teammate's friend that no one knew, not an alumnus, rode and stayed with us for a couple days in California. The times, they have a-changed. And sadly, I hate to admit it, but it was my year that the businessmen took control of Texas 4,000 and sent it down this path. I wish I could've done something then, but I know I couldn't have. I remember trying.
They sent me off with a couple apologetic PBJs and we exchanged numbers so maybe we could have a drink together later that night. I wound up in the town square, where I sat on a park bench, ate one of the PBJs, and tried to figure out what to do. Maybe one of the hundreds of people around would be a local, see Valeria, ask about the ride, and offer to take me in. It's happened before, but not in a tourist town like this. I'd probably be told to get a hotel room like everyone else, and in this town, that meant $200.
I stopped mid-chew. The Koreans! I have their number! Maybe they knew a camping spot!
I called them, and in broken English that was harder to understand over the phone without gestures to help out, they explained that they had found a local that was letting them camp in the backyard. They asked the guy on my behalf and he said one more was no problem!
After asking Texas 4,000 if I could sleep on the floor of the house, the floor of the church, camp at the house, camp at the church, it turned out to be total strangers that helped me out, and another total stranger that took us in. The Koreans and Ben, a strapping tall blond fellow, pulled off what couldn't be done by my former organization and a host that had been in touch with them for six months.
After I pitched my tent, Ben shared a glass of wine with us, then stayed behind as the three of us headed out for a beer together. I managed to get a text from a Texas 4,000 member, who directed us to the bar they were at together. Once we arrived, they promptly paid their checks and left.
Dejected, I had a fried egg bacon cheeseburger and two beers, a lot when you're on a bike tour and you have the tolerance of a three-year-old.
Texas 4,000 had a day off the next day, and I had originally intended to take one off with them, my first in 36 days of riding. I could tell I was more trouble than I was worth, though, so the next morning, I got the hell outta Dodge. I'd already wasted a whole day of riding to unsuccessfully meet them. No point in making it two.
But if there was anywhere I didn't mind riding unnecessarily - twice - it was the Tetons. Hokey smoke!
I was grumbling to myself a lot that morning, though.
I'm glad this ride will supplant Texas 4,000 as my longest bike tour. Texas 4,000 has long since been in the double-digits when ranking my greatest athletic accomplishments, but it's still the one that most easily turns heads. "I won my age division in the Austin Distance Challenge" doesn't have the same ring as "I rode a bike from Austin to Anchorage." So that's what I lead off with, and it's still on my résumé.
Soon, maybe I can loosen my ties with an organization that no longer fits me. Every time I've tried to contribute as an alumnus, whether helping plan the route, do workshops, or interview candidates, I've been met with indifference, even animosity. And a few of the current team members essentially criticized me for trying to hang out with them.
I hate to trash Texas 4,000 this way. At the time, it meant a lot to me, and it's how I got into long-distance biking. I might not have even started running marathons if it weren't part of my training for Texas 4,000. It can be argued that all of my greatest passions and athletic accomplishments - trail running, backpacking, marathons, bike touring - are owed in part to being a part of Texas 4,000. It was a huge stepping stone for me.
But the whole point of this journal is to paint an honest portrait of the ride, and that's what happened.
As I headed back north through the Tetons, I passed a runner on the bike path. It took long enough to catch up that at first, I thought she was on a bike! Clearly, she could really scoot.
She caught up to me a few minutes later when I stopped to throw away some trash. She introduced herself as Delilah. She was from Houston and an avid trail runner who now works at the park.
"Never going back!" she exclaimed.
Apparently she recently had a routine of running 20 km daily. That's more than I averaged when I was winning those trail marathons! Holy crap! I think she could give me a run for my money!
I might add, she's even more pint-sized than I am. Gotta love those short, tough athletes!
I was feeling sick when I got near the Moran Junction, where I would've already turned east if not for the Jackson detour. I wonder if sleep deprivation is catching up with me; I don't think I've gotten eight hours once in several weeks. I laid on a big rock and took a nap in the shade for an hour, hoping I'd feel better later. It maybe worked a little.
For the third time in a week, I'd be reaching an elevation higher than any previous on this tour. Almost 3,000 meters! The climb was mercifully slow and rolling, but grueling nonetheless. Having an upset stomach did not help. The tailwind, thankfully, did. Near the pass, it was hard to believe that this late in June, not too terribly far north, there were still big patches of snow laying around at ground level. High altitude will do that, I guess.
If the end of the day hadn't been almost all downhill and with the wind, I might have stopped short somewhere today. I was surprised to see any campgrounds or gas stations on this road at all. There certainly wasn't much traffic.
After arriving in DuBois, the first thing I did was visit the World's Largest Jackelope Museum.
While inside, I asked about a church.
“Oh, you want to talk to Ms. Mary Sue.” The helpful man behind the counter got on the phone and called a church for me. “I’m sending a young gentleman your way.”
I was directed to one where there were two friendly old ladies, one of them from New Braunfels TX, and five other self-supported cyclists!
The last few times I've asked, I've gotten responses more like "Of course you can stay in the church." Very different from Canada, though Canadians were exceedingly welcoming otherwise. Cultural difference, or just luck? Dunno.