Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Hill Country

May 18, 1997

After a garage sale to dispose of my stuff, friends and family stopped by for well-wishes and good-byes. Some of my friends were excited about the trip, but a few seemed to think it was the last they'd see of me. Most were visibly anxious, and my family was perplexed but supportive. I felt pretty good, and the weather was optimal. I rolled out smoothly and picked my way cautiously through streets I knew well for one last time.

The rig rode as expected, heavy but well-balanced. It turned well with the loaded panniers. I had spent days perfecting the load distribution and testing stability during tight cornering, but I had not done any substantial training with it.

I took the hills in West Austin with spirit, and when I made city limits, I powered up for the long haul and picked up cruising speed. In no time I was flying. This is going to be easier than I thought. I did not notice I had a tailwind, nor that the stretch was particularly flat.

After a quick stop to eat at a deli, a local couple engaged me in conversation while I suited back up for the road. They rolled off one question after another. I'd only been at it for an hour or two, and already I was experiencing the first pattern all bicycling tourists experience in the US: The Battery of Questions.

"Where are you headed?"

"Headed for New York City, but I'm going to swing by the Black Hills first."

"Wow, that's crazy, man! Where do you plan on staying?"

"Camping, mainly. Parks, public lands, under a bridge if I have to. Wherever I can find a spot at night. Motels only now and then."

They were stoked, and told me about some public lands near an abandoned rehabilitation center.

Sweet! My first lead. An abandoned rehab clinic. What could go wrong?

I made the distance and waited for traffic to clear, then ducked into spot where the clinic had once been (some broken pavement, mainly). To the side of the forlorn concrete, the area was wooded and not at all sinister. It was starting to get dark, so I walked the bike through the woods and found a little clear spot. I popped camp quickly, well into my comfort zone as far as those skills went. I was admittedly a little apprehensive, more worried about a zealous neighbor with a shotgun than institutionally tormented ghosts. No one saw me, right?

The first page of my journal starts simply enough. Flora, fauna, sensations, distance made. It reads a little sappy, a little bubbly. Of note, my right knee is sore.

May 19, 1997

I tossed and turned a bit, and it rained a little during the night. Nonetheless I felt refreshed when I got up in the morning. Soon after packing camp and rolling out, the road picked up some character and I kept pushing hard. The middling settlements along the way were mostly closed and I had the road to myself for a while.

I stopped off to mail a couple of postcards—not the touristy sort, just notes written on blank pre-stamped cards you can get from postal vending machines. As the tour progressed, I would be buying these in bulk.

Around the middle of the day, traffic picked up and a driver pulled over into the shoulder to talk. He barely contained his excitement and asked if I needed any bottled water. He then introduced himself as a designer of obstacle courses for fitness training, and as a past bicycle tourist himself. He almost immediately began spinning some tales.

There, standing on the side of a busy road while trucks roared by, he regaled me for half an hour about his tour through the Appalachians, and later, South America. I was floored, like a nine year old discovering ninjas for the first time.

"You'd think the Appalachians would be easier than the Rocky Mountains, right? Well the highways in the Appalachians are built on old carriage roads, and they go straight up the mountain, no switchbacks or anything. It's hard, man! The Rockies were a breeze. Modern engineering. But let me tell you about the roads in South America…" On and on like this. I ate it up.

I suspect that his friends and family rolled their eyes every time he lit up about it, just as mine would learn to do.

After parting ways, pain sounded off in my knee again. The road curled through a transition into Texas hill country and I made Lampasas in the afternoon. By the time I rolled up to a cheap motel, both my knees were throbbing. I sensed things might not go as planned.

I treated myself to a chicken fried steak at a small country diner, and convinced myself the pain would go away after a long night's sleep in a nice bed.

I hopped channels for long hours while my knees issued periodic throbs. I'd read about this happening to another cyclist on tour. He struggled with it across the continent.

On my gas station map, the road was a solitary black line crawling away to the northwest, surrounded by artfully drawn hills. Indeed, I'd noticed that the road seems to have been engineered along high ridges overlooking the country with a commanding view. I didn't want a commanding view anymore. I just wanted a straight flat road. Was it too late to rethink my route?

May 20, 1997

The next morning, I was back on the road. It didn't take long for knee pain to resurface. Even as I tried taking it easy, stopping for breaks now and then, the terrain was increasingly rolling and hilly. When was the last time I'd seen a flat stretch? Either I was crunching up a hill (often against an unseasonably chilly headwind out of the north), or I was all too briefly coasting downhill.

Non-riders tend to think that the momentum of coasting downhill will carry a bicycle most of the way back up. This is barely true for the smallest of valleys; for hill country it is fantasy. Hills eat momentum. Another hidden challenge of riding through hills is that most of the rider's time will be spent going uphill, contributing to an illusion of unrewarded effort.

The high point of the day was stopping at an old lady's house along a beautifully forlorn stretch of highway. She was selling off memorabilia from 1960s political campaigns. Anything to justify a pause for the sake of my knees! After a long and pleasant conversation, I walked away with a free soda, sandwich, an LBJ campaign button, and some aspirin.

The happy spirits were quickly dispelled as the weather continued to cool and winds blew against me in the hills. By the time I cleared the last hill, something was going wrong with my body. I got an off-season motel that mostly catered to hunters, decorated with wood paneling and taxidermied trophies.

In my journal, there's a tone of desperation that expels the cloying innocence of the first day. I admit, it's a satisfying counterpoint to the flowery bullshit I'd been spewing.

After writing my do or die manifesto, I had a little dinner and went to bed, again flipping through channels nervously.

I passed as rough a night as any I'd ever had. My body went into some kind of compound reaction. I called my sister, who was still in Austin at the time, and she graciously offered to pick me up on her way to Dallas where our parents lived. A few days later, I wrote this in my journal:

Journal entry; contains mildly gross stuff
I got sick. My knees weren't working and I was urinating all my water as soon as I drank it, I was severely constipated and I had a hemorrhoid or something. It wasn't pleasant. I had hot and cold flashes, a temp of 102, a pulse rate of 100—this, two days after my sister took me home to Dallas! My body became dehydrated and the doctor thought I had diabetes and got mad at me when I told him I didn't. I took a blood test and [proved that much].

After an initial health crisis, in which some internal warning signal kept waking me up every time I'd doze off, I unloaded my bike in Dallas. The Prodigal Son. I'd made some sacrifices, but I had little to show for it.

I had ridden 124 miles through hill country in two and a half days. Those, at least, were bought and paid for. I would re-plan my next attempt out of Dallas. A week or two of rest and conditioning, and I could be out of there in June.

No shortage of energy, though.

An intermission

I stayed off the bike for a week, then gingerly got back in the saddle. I set a hard start date and tested the limits daily. My health was back to normal but still had periodic jolts, and my knees were no longer in pain but could have used another week of light conditioning. However, the purgatorial grace period was wearing me thin.

A postcard arrived from a friend with well-chosen words of enthusiasm and encouragement. It was an elixir.

June 3, 1997

I headed out again from Dallas and wound my way gently through its northern suburbs on another surprisingly cool, cloudy day. By the time I made camp in a little park on Lake Lewisville, rain rolled in and I found myself nursing pain in a knee again.

For dinner, a pot of beans and some tortillas at a forlorn picnic table on the bleak, flat lake. In my journal, I considered that all of my plans were founded only on high hopes, and could not be sustained. I would run out of money sooner than later, and I wouldn't be able to generate enough income from painting or drawing to carry me through. I also considered that my most compelling reason to return to Austin and pick up the pieces was an emotional one. For a brief moment I stared plainly at the delusion before convincing myself that somehow it would work out in the end. Then I hopped in the sack.

June 4, 1997

Lakes and rivers are the great bottlenecks of road bicycling. Bridges are expensive to build and maintain, so they often lack a shoulder and make for dangerous conditions. Arching bridges over large waterways sometimes funnel powerful buffeting winds as well. The greatest challenge, however, is a simple matter of accessibility. Bicyclists are forbidden from riding on interstate highways in most U.S. states. The frontage roads, however, are perfectly legal to ride.

And so I found myself on such a service road, approaching Lake Lewisville, only to discover that it terminated just before the lake. I would have to ride around it, or else take chances with law enforcement on the interstate.

Tracing out routes on my vinyl map, I found a set of lines that connected me to my destination. But lines are all they are; they carried no information about the shoulder conditions, traffic, or construction. Over the course of the morning I discovered that they were old country roads carrying a substantial amount of traffic for a burgeoning suburb. Along the way I was warned that a bicyclist had been struck and killed on the same road very recently. Pretty roads, but dangerous.

Although much of my route to the lake was despairingly flat, the land west of it was deep and rolling. I found myself taking steep climbs, no matter how delicately I wanted to ride. The knee condition worsened.

Eventually I made the town of Denton. Near the county courthouse I encountered a constable who was fascinated with the prospect of bicycle touring. The conversation was a welcome relief from the cloud of worry that had formed over my health.

I rode to a cheap motel on the west side of town. I paid a whopping $32 for a crummy room and complained bitterly in my journal. It cast a pall over the rest of the day, or perhaps it merely provided some cover for an ill mood. This down-to-earth griping starkly contrasted my lofty, optimistic musings while on the saddle. Another emergent pattern unlocked.

In the late afternoon, I casually rode about town with an unkitted bike. It was a totally different animal, sprightly and responsive. I dismounted and wandered aimlessly through grungy dollar stores, yet another recurring pattern throughout my trips: when the bags come off the bike, my will is let out to pasture and I windowshop inexpensive consumer goods. There are worse habits.

June 5, 1997

During the night I had another spell of the health issues from the first trip. My knees were getting worse. I felt exhausted not from the ride, but from what I assumed was some kind of diabetic reaction caused by a massive shift in energy intake and regulation.

I called my parents in the morning and they happily agreed to make the drive to Denton to pick me up (probably breathing a sigh of relief), but I'd have to wait until the evening. My second time around on the Prodigal Son routine.

I resolved to stick to the plan. Short term humiliation, long term success. Give it one more shot. Rest, then train, but this time, don't go until you're ready.

While I waited, I chatted with the curious in downtown Denton. One of them, a former UT student who knew many of my art professors, offered his place to stay at on my next ride out. We talked shop in depth, and I felt regret that I hadn't had many talks like this with my classmates or professors. He also wanted me to meet his neighbor, a professional therapist who could help with my knee problems.

"She's really great! She helped me out when I was going through a tough time with my back injury."

So we went to her place. She answered the door and seemed a little annoyed. My friend gave her the run-down on my knee problem, but she cut him short. "I'm with a client," she said, looking back.

She was not dressed like a professional massage therapist. She wore some sort of gossamer flowing gown.

She bought some time from her client and came back to talk for a minute. After listening to a brief explanation of the bike trip, she delivered a condensed healing treatise centered around getting in touch with my pain. There was some Chi involved, and crystals, but mainly I needed to communicate with the pain.

"Because crystal is bone structure is muscle is…" and she went on in this manner for a way before dropping the most memorable line. "This is your Journey Into Maleness."

My friend butted in, "Can you tell him about the poultice?"

"Yes, of course. You know what works really well for extracting impurities from your knee is a poultice of three beaten egg whites, eucalyptus leaves—"

"Or oil!"

"…or oil, and chopped cabbage—cabbage has excellent healing properties—then apply a bandage, and wear this for two to three days."

And with that, she shooed us away and I thanked them for their most excellent advice and said my goodbyes.

Needless to say, I was not in the mood to extract impurities, although my encounter with medical professionals had not been enlightening. Honestly, I don't doubt there may be some benefit to such a stinky poultice, but it could also be an excellent prank that happened to work thanks to a placebo effect.

And so the Journey Into Maleness would have to wait until my knees were ready.

June 15, 1997

Journal entry (more gross health stuff)
A week and a half later…I have trained, conditioned, painted, but still my body is not ready. The knees don't hurt and I think they will not be a problem now that the seat has been adjusted, but some other things have gotten worse:
  • Frequent urination (8 times/day)
  • Constipation
  • Sleeping sickness (when laying down, I get nauseous and cannot sleep, taste bile)
But I went to a clinic doctor and he wasn't any help. I took a urine test and there was nothing wrong.

I eventually was able to condition my knees; it just took a steady, measured amount of riding with a gradual increase in weight. In other words, common sense.

The remaining obstacle, the weird health issues, would eventually work itself out. One doctor thought it might be a prostate infection, but also suggested it could have just been the massive amount of physical exertion I'd put myself through without adequate training. As it turned out, there was no infection.

In fact, bicycling happens to be one of the best exercises for knee therapy. Just don't do it with seventy pounds of gear, inflexible clipless pedals and a high seat height for several hours a day at full tilt with no conditioning.

Money was getting tighter, and my parents were well past the hint stage on what I needed to do to get my life in order, so the pressure was on.

Next: One last try