Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Prairies and Lakes

June 25, 1997

My journaling habits were not consistent, so I don't know exactly when I got back in the saddle. By this point, there was virtually no fanfare to the departure, and I was riding on eggshells the whole way out. I took a different route after some study, bypassing the hilly areas to come into Denton in a single day, at about 50 miles ridden. No knee pain. I held my breath. I rolled into my friend's place and we got some grub and stayed at the local college coffee place till the wee hours. I made no mention of the poultice, again, holding my breath.

Meeting people for the first time and accepting an invitation to sleep at their house is stranger now than it was then. Even so, I quickly developed a litany of subtleties for establishing what I was about, just to avoid charged environments or people who might be probing for my interest in something. This took the form of a casual mention of a girlfriend back home, feigned ignorance and disinterest in politics, and so on. Some people would nonetheless wait for me to get settled in before they launched their weirdness attack, but I'll try and present those stories in chronological order.

There were no such problems here, so I passed the night rolled up in a sleeping bag on a couch, the silver standard for nights going forward. (Gold standard will be explained later)

June 26, 1997

The next day I made Decatur, 32 miles of riding through rolling terrain transitioning from woodland to prairie, and decided to cap the day's ride to avoid putting any strain on the knees. I was a little sore but somehow it felt safe.

I make no mention of it in my journal but I distinctly remember the motel and the proprietor, who was cautious of allowing my bicycle in a hotel room.

"Oh, I can't have a bicycle leaking grease on my carpet!"

I took pains to show her that the chain lubricant was not leaking, nor had it ever leaked. I assured her I would keep the bike on my personal towels to prevent any harm to her carpet. This seemed to assure her.

When I settled in and went to the bathroom, I was horrified by what I saw. Hung from a hook on the wall was a bag of stained hand towels and an elegantly written note, "If you need to clean makeup, please use these hand towels." Only those stains were suspicious streaks. Now I don't know what it's like removing makeup, and I can only imagine the frustration of being a motel operator and dealing with people who damage the sheets and towels, but that was horror show material.

June 27, 1997

I took highway 287 north into prairie country. I stopped a few places along the way, at roadside antique shops and gas stations. The sun had come out, illuminating the yellowing fields and ranchlands with a pale golden light. I stopped early after a cautious ride, with barely a thread of knee pain, in the town of Bowie, at most a 30 mile trip. I was still taking it as lightly as I could to go easy on the knees. In time, I'd come to think of twice that mileage as an underachievement.

With much of the afternoon still ahead of me, I set out for a walk along the business road where my motel was located, parallel to 287. As with many small towns along US highways, the main road bypasses downtown areas, and the "business road" variant of the same highway name carries local traffic. These are usually gas stations, motels, fast food places, lube joints, muffler shops, and so on. After an early dinner, I walked along the business road into town.

I carried a pair of jeans and a nice shirt for evening activity. I'm not sure I'd ever given much thought to what pedestrians were up to when I was driving, but in a small town, a lone figure walking down a business road attracts attention. As I neared town I got my first of many catcalls.

Slowly but surely over the course of months, my sense of anonymity (engrained by attending a 50,000 student campus) gradually gave way to the realization that I was utterly out of place, both on the bicycle and off. I stopped being surprised and just accepted it.

That evening a parade marched down main street and there were more people in it than there were watching. All the details were in place for wholesome small town USA. A generous number of horse riders clomped their way through in a showing for the town's rodeo history.

As I walked back to the motel, the stress wrapping my venture had mostly uncoiled. I can do this.

June 28, 1997

I set out the next day feeling good, and ready for action. The day heated up quickly, back up to proper form for a Texas summer. Day four, and I think I'm good to go. Spirits cautiously flying.

Clothing space was limited, but I kept a quick getup ready to go, so I didn't have to walk into stores wearing bike shorts, or as is often said, "underwear on the outside". With a little bit of sunburn here and there, and varying shades of tan, I looked like neopolitan ice cream on wheels.

Naturally I wore sunscreen where I could, but in the nineties most of the SPF varied between 4 and 8, and was not yet perceived as a health requirement for those of us with fair skin like it is today. People who bought SPF 16 had to be a little nutty. That's, like, for babies, dude.

And so I didn't think too much about riding without a shirt one day, smearing a generous amount on my upper half before throwing on the Camelbak*.

I stopped at a few places along the way, like junk stores and gas stations. Somehow my curiosity expands every time I tour; taskmaster bicyclists would not enjoy my wayward company.

Plenty of friendly folks in Texas and the South will just walk right up and talk about anything. One wonderful family chatted me up and gave me a sandwich. Another motorcyclist from Louisiana talked obsessively to me about how he misdiagnosed the alternator. I scrambled to disengage from the conversation with a measure of social grace, but it could not be done by mortal man.

I rolled into Witchita Falls. I'd ridden a little less than 60 miles, and a few more tooling around its tornado-stricken landscape. I grabbed a campsite at an RV park on the outskirts. All night long my back was stinging terribly, and I rolled about until morning.

* A friend of mine recommended the Camelbak as a fantastic water solution but it seemed more appropriate for hiking than biking. Besides, chugging water was far more satisfying than sucking it. On the plus side, it kept water cooler than everything else except for insulated bottles which hadn't achieved market recognition yet.

June 29, 1997

I emerged from my tent with pain in my back. I knew I'd put on sunscreen, but it felt like sunburn. I said goodbye to some RV campers I'd met, and headed out.

287 is a fine road for bicycling, with a nice wide shoulder and plenty of traffic. Up until this point, I'd only received periodic honks, some rapid in succession (supportive) and the occasional laying-on-of-horn (motives uncertain), but only a few shouts. All I ever heard of any shouting were brief syllables; motorists are unaware that acoustics are not on their side. The effect was often comical gibberish.

On this particular day, a trucker's passenger opened his door, coming within inches of hitting me. I didn't realize it until I looked up and saw the door being pulled shut as it swerved back into the main lane. I barely had the reaction speed to even realize what had just happened.

The truth is, if someone just so much as taps their steering wheel at the right time, a bicyclist could be a smudge on the side of the road. Of course, the same thing goes for any pedestrian. The difference is that the bicyclist is a tear in the fabric of reality for some people—a challenge to their narrow view of the world. Even if the bicyclist is out of harm's way on the shoulder, a few people will be inclined to impress their friends with a display of dominance. Virtually no one ever harasses me when they're alone.

Around noon I pulled into a burrito place. It started raining just as I finished some tacos, and within minutes was banging violently on the corrugated overhang. While it rained, a man introduced himself as a bicyclist who rode in the Wichita City area. We talked at length about local issues. He was a native Texan but had seen the world and he carried himself with a bright and kind manner. He was saddened by the cultural decline of local farming families, but as he said, he came back to Texas because "Texas is still home."

His loyalist fatalism was infectious, as I would find out again and again over the next twenty years.

He was convinced that the gearing on my bike was damaged. He offered to take me to his bike shop and have the guys take a look at it.

I hadn't noticed anything wrong with the shifting nor with the ride, but I didn't otherwise have a reason to distrust his take. He pointed to some grooved areas in the sprocket. "You can see it's getting worn down." Huh, okay.

The rain had stopped and the shop was close by so I accepted the offer and we made the five minute drive. The mechanic told him with an air of embarrassment that's how it's supposed to look. The embarrassment was shared by all. He explained away his mistake on the drive back, and I felt a little sorry for him. No skin off my back, anyhow.

The ride to Vernon, Texas was crushingly humid and hot. The local section of Highway 287 was infamous for its "Hotter Than Hell" ride, a 100 mile bike ride on the highway in the heat of summer. One of the hottest recorded temperatures in Texas was somewhere on the route, with the added punishment of being humid.

I have a special memory of my ride not documented in my journal. At a gas station I'd found a cassette tape of Booker T and the MGs on sale. Green Onions. The album became my anthem over the course of the tour, equal parts campy and genuine. Their electric organ accompanied my steady ride after the day's wrath had waned. The middle hours of evening light cast their golden glow over the prairie and petroleum pumps near the town of Electra. For a brief time, the stress and pain were diminished. I could do this thing. It might work.

At Vernon, an older couple at a Subway chatted with me at length. Charlie was a dealership man, and his wife was a teacher. They offered a place to stay on my planned route in Spearman, Texas.

Incidentally, I rode well past Spearman several days later, and ended up staying at the next town over, Perryton. I quickly learned to never pass over an invitation.

June 30, 1997

During the night I'd discovered the cause of my persistent back pain. It wasn't just a sunburn. Details included in the journal entry below. Kinda gross, be warned.

Journal entry: sunburn stuff
Yesterday I discovered that what I thought was just a regular sunburn on my back was in fact a second-degree burn, complete with nasty grouped blisters, one of them almost as large as a penny in diameter and frighteningly thick. [One of the blisters] wouldn't stop leaking puss, not after several awkward bandage attempts. In the morning I discovered…the open wound showed down several layers of skin…It still hurts quite a bit, and I expect the pain to continue for a while. Lesson learned.

The most fascinating aspect of it, however, was its shape. The Camelbak had rubbed off the sunscreen in a nearly perfect twin crescent formation covering half my back; removing the Camelbak mid-day was my mistake. For years afterwards, my back showed this as a crisp, dense collection of freckles surrounded by paler skin, like some kind of religious tattoo. The Cult of the Worldwide Wheel. Dan Hoyt, Acolyte.

Interestingly, I hear about this experience from a lot of bicyclists. Not with a Camelbak, but just riding shirtless in Texas (or anywhere these days) is a mistake that most make only once.

During the day, a flat consumed two hours of my time. It was my first on this bike, and definitely not my last. I discovered that I needed to do quite a bit of bag removal to remove the wheel. For reasons that I do not remember—I think I had somewhat low pressure in the other tire already—I ended up checking both tubes. After patching and inserting the tubes back into the tire, I forgot to reattach the brakes. I rode off and discovered to my horror that I was flying at high speed down the main street in traffic with no brakes!

I rolled through two intersections with both bike shoes on the pavement attempting to slow myself down with little effect, as the metal cleats had little purchase but still made a tremendous racket. I came to a stop barely believing I hadn't had a collision. I looked around me, and the sleepy town was just going about its business, barely aware of me, for once.

A storm out of the west came by with frightening speed and left me stranded at a roadside rest stop, of which thankfully there are plenty in that part of Texas. Rest stops, I mean. But storms too.

I spent an hour talking with Bob, a guy at the rest stop, while the rain came down. We talked at length about local drug production (marijuana, farmers, hard times). He also talked about an artist he knew, a smoking quadriplegic with a mouth brush technique. Does well for himself, and paintings go for around $200. Well, that sounds like my future if my clock gets dinged.

Bob's kid had a go-cart at the rest stop, flying around the picnic tables at dangerous speeds. He shut it off as soon as police rolled by. We saw four city cops and three state troopers come through; apparently US 287 was a major drug corridor. Is there a highway in Texas that is not a drug corridor?

I dedicated two journal pages to intense reviews of Ken's Restaurant and Kay's Drive-In. It's not clear why I continually trashed Dairy Queen, even though her inexpensive soft serve kept me alive when the midday sun purged all color from the world. Just hate for the pusher-man? In fact, my little addiction got so bad I hit two Blizzards in a row. As satisfying as they were, if I so much as paused while shoveling soft serve into my face, I felt an immense sadness.

I made Childress, Texas, but I didn't record where or how I passed the night.

July 1, 1997

The further west I rode, the grittier the highway shoulder became. I was approaching a turn-off just past the town of Estelline onto state highway 86. Estelline had a reputation then as a speed trap town, and does so even now, although legislation was passed some years ago that prevented towns from generating more than a certain percentage of revenue from citations. As such, I saw cops with radar, ready for action. They ignored me, but I was about to test them by camping at a roadside rest stop.

Also of note in the area were (and perhaps still are) plentiful signs indicating the absence of alcohol in surrounding counties. "Last chance for alcohol for 100 miles".

Taking care of business (not a journal entry, but kinda gross)
At this no facility rest stop, I had to duck away into the brush to take care of business. In many such rest stops there are actually little stairs built into the fencing so you can climb over and do it in the bushes. I wonder if they still exist? Other options included empty beverage bottles and behind unsuspecting trees. Take a close look at any roadside ditch and you'll see that the former is a standard practice. Be warned: once you see it, it's hard to unsee…You'll be suspiciously eyeing every discarded Gatorade bottle for the remainder of your days.

During the course of the night, plenty of truckers and travelers come and go. And cops, lots of cops. So I was actually surprised that no one said a thing when I rolled out my sleeping bag next to my bike and just dozed off on the picnic table. Technically you're allowed to rest for four or eight hours (I think it varies by location) but you can't erect a structure. I generally felt safe enough at roadside parks; the steady rumble of the idling truck and RV engines and air compressors was nourishing, even.

US 287 had been a good road to this point, and I was a little sad to let it go. I had no knowledge of this region beyond what I'd seen from this road, so Texas 86 was a mystery waiting to be explored.

Next: Llano Estacado