Exploring the Lone Star State
Big hats. Big boots. Big oil. Big guns. Perhaps more than any other state, Texas has its clichéd accretions. I had been here before, but not to explore. This time, as I traversed the second largest of the U.S. states over the course of several days, I would see that open range and nodding oil pumps were only a fraction of the story.
The first sign (other than the sign) that I was crossing into the northeast corner of Texas was the abundance of large, fenced properties with arched iron gates proudly displaying names like Mystery Ranch, Diamond 5 Ranch and Flying L. The early-May temperature was already 35 C and the humidity was stifling. Hope lay in my direction of travel: over the coming days, I would be riding generally west, and that would mean drier, more tolerable air. Here, however, the moisture meant the fields were deep and green, and tall dogwoods, live oak and tulip trees adorned the roadsides.
Riding south through Paris and Terrell, I skirted the heavy traffic of Dallas and arrived at the home of my sister and her family in Red Oak, conveniently in time for dinner(!). After an evening of laughter, stories and laundry (my sister may have begun suspecting my motives), together we played tourist to many local sights, including the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza at the corner of North Houston and Elm Streets in Dallas. In 1961, this building was the Texas School Book Depository, where, from a sixth-floor window, Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy as his open-aired motorcade passed by on the street below. Displays present an overview of JFK’s presidency, with details focusing on the assassination, as well as subsequent inquiries and conspiracy theories.
Outside the museum, we were drawn in by one of several hustlers trying to make a buck by offering their own tours and conspiracy theories. “Arthur” was a fast-talking charmer who tried to demonstrate that Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson himself was behind the assassination. He was entertaining, if not convincing, and I didn’t mind giving him the “suggested donation.”
Visiting the Old Town
After a day to rest and do maintenance on my 2006 Suzuki V-Strom 650, I hugged everyone goodbye and headed out on Highway 67 through Cleburne. At Glen Rose, I turned south on Hwy 281 through Lampasas, and across the Colorado River at Marble Falls to Johnson City. This route led me through the heart of Texas Hill Country, a rolling green swath that extends south from Dallas to Austin, San Antonio and Fredericksburg, the last being a quaint German town that is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Fredericksburg attracts visitors for its beauty, cultural charm and – a surprise to me – its wineries. The Pioneer Museum features German homesteads and artifacts, while the town square, or Marktplatz, is home to the Vereins Kirche, the first public building in the town, which served as a town hall, school, fort, and church for all denominations. The entire “old town,” with so many bright limestone buildings, gives the feel of old Texas and German heritage all at once. Seemingly out of place, but impressive in its own right, there is also the huge National Museum of the Pacific War, which is very popular and exceptionally well done.
Fredericksburg would be my destination for the night. But first, I stopped at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park along 290. Vice-President Johnson was called to the presidency upon the assassination of JFK, and he took the weight of that responsibility seriously. Over the next five years, he enacted over 200 bills, including – as might be expected of a former school teacher – many related to education and environmental conservation. The park itself maintains Johnson’s boyhood home, as well as his grandparents’ and the large house in which he and his wife, “Lady Bird,” raised their family.
The Texas Whitehouse
Johnson conducted so much presidential business from this home that it became known as the Texas Whitehouse. To facilitate his travel back and forth to Washington, D.C., an airstrip was constructed in the middle of his ranch. The park service continues to operate the ranch as it was, raising descendants of his prize-winning Hereford cattle, which graze freely about the property.
My home for the night was at the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park Campground on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. Adjacent to baseball fields and hiking trails, the park accommodates RVs as well as tents. For $10, I had a grassy site with water, and nearby washrooms and showers. Wi-Fi was free, so I took the opportunity to connect with loved ones back home. Then, I cooked dinner on my dual-fuel stove, and chatted with fellow campers before nestling into my bivy under a deep, starry sky.
I avoided major highways wherever possible in order to see more of the countryside. Road conditions were always good to very good, with some nice sweepers. Much of the time, posted speed limits were 70 to 75 mph (112 to 120 km/h) even on two lanes, which made the distances seem shorter and the riding more thrilling. Throughout this rolling landscape, the live oak trees were covered with “ball moss,” which appeared to overwhelm and kill them. It even seemed to grow on overhead power lines.
More Than a Pile of Rocks
I was halted in Ingram by the sight of Stonehenge II, which was built on a whim by two friends in 1989. The structure is slightly smaller than the original in Wiltshire, England, but an impressive – and surprising – replica nonetheless.
From Kerrville west, the Hill Country gets serious. Almost immediately, the roads become twisty and steep. At Medina, I began to ride the Three Twisted Sisters (and no, you’re not the first to consider the innuendo). The route follows Ranch Road 337 to Leakey (pronounced Lākey, so as to readily identify foreigners, I’m convinced), then 336 north to Hwy 41 and, after a short jaunt west, turns south on Ranch Road 335. Largely a coarse tar and chip surface, the roads were in good condition as they wound their way over and through steep hills with switchbacks, twisties and sweepers.
Ubiquitous signs warned “Steep grades and sharp curves,” “Water may flood the road” and “Beware cattle guards” – which are grates in the road that allow vehicles to pass without stopping, but prevent cattle from crossing as they range freely on the ranches that cover the area.
The soil is so poor and the terrain so steep that flash floods, while infrequent, are a danger. I was impressed to see roadside water gauges that measured flood depth to over 1.5 metres, giving motorists a sense of whether to proceed through a water-covered dip. As I carved the hills, I breathed deeply to catch the scent of mesquite and creosote bushes, and drank in the beauty of prickly pear cacti in full yellow bloom. Deep red flowers known as Indian blanket lined the roadsides, and I paused to get a photo of the last of the Texas blue bonnets, most of which had succumbed to the season’s heat.
Just west of Leakey is the Frio Canyon Motorcycle Stop and the Bent Rim Grill. The Sisters draw riders from a wide radius, and I met several just in the 30 minutes I spent at the Grill, all friendly and with helpful advice on things to see and do in West Texas. It’s also popular enough that Texas Motorsports Photography sets up on a tight corner on 337, taking photos of the numerous bikes that roll by. As with the famed Tail of the Dragon, riders can order their photos from the company’s website. That said, I rode the Sisters on a Saturday and didn’t find the traffic a hindrance, as is often the case on the Dragon.
Riding west to this point, I had watched as the live oak slowly gave way to lower scrub brush. From Camp Wood, the official end of the Three Sisters, the soil en route to Del Rio became progressively poorer, and even grass had trouble growing on much of the ranch land. In all of Texas, I had only encountered significant traffic in the Dallas area, and as the population became more sparse to the west, traffic became almost non-existent. Daytime temperatures were now in the 37–40 C range, but, as I had hoped, it was a “dry heat.” Sweat was whisked away quickly, helping to keep me cooler. But it also increased the possibility of unwitting dehydration. I sipped frequently from my camelback.
In Del Rio, I was surprised to see palm trees lining many of the streets, and I assumed they must be imported. In fact, I learned the Rio Grande palm, also known as the Texas palm, is native to the area. A stocky tree that can grow to a height of 15 metres, it has a continuous range extending from the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas through eastern Mexico to Guatemala. I stopped in the downtown for a late lunch and then rode to the border, guarded by a tall, metal fence, just to peer at Mexico on the other side.
Finally, I rode north out of town to Amistad National Recreation Area. A 10 km-long dam on the Rio Grande River creates the large Amistad Reservoir, which allows for boating, waterskiing, fishing and camping. For $4, I had a primitive campsite with a shelter and picnic table – and the entire grounds to myself. As I settled in for the night, a chorus of birds sang in the trees, and a scissor-tailed flycatcher darted and swerved around me, catching its evening meal. It seemed strange that it found enough to live on, as not a single insect bothered me – another advantage of the dry climate.
As much as I love to spot wildlife, I hoped that on this night I would not encounter any of the area’s bobcats, mountain lions, or javelina (a particularly nasty cousin of the wild boar). A light breeze blew most of the night, making the high temperatures a little more bearable. I lay on top of my bivy until about 2 a.m., when it was finally cool enough to cover up. As I looked up at another diamond-filled sky, I considered my journey through the Lone Star State. Had I seen cowboy hats and boots? Sure ’nuff. Oil wells and guns? Yessir.
But I had seen so much more.
I tried to recall Mark Twain’s quip that “travel is fatal to prejudice and narrow-mindedness” (I didn’t have Google to help me out, but I had the gist) and I was grateful to have encountered so much variety. Green and dusty. Flat and rolling. Harsh and serene. Walt Whitman once observed, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” As I drifted back to sleep, I thought to myself, Perhaps it is in this same sense that the grandest of all the clichés – “Everything is big in Texas” – is most true.