Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Llano Estacado

July 2, 1997

I rode the first 30 miles cutting west into strong headwinds. The heat took its toll on both my rig and myself.

The sun seemed to bypass my jersey entirely, stinging like a clinging jellyfish on my cult tattoo. What little remained of my water was boiling hot.

Meanwhile, my tires were literally melting before my eyes, and the tread was sparse especially on the rear tire. They were definitely ground down by the sharp pea gravel road. Worse yet, the front left rack was slowly grinding its way off the rack mount from the rough vibrations. It was beyond my skill to fix mechanically, so I just used some leftover gauze from my sunburn dressing to hold the pannier in place. It was so effective I just left it that way for the rest of the trip.

And then there was the fake town. Parnell. Either by error or deliberate honeypot falsehood, the town I'd counted on existing did not. Turns out it was a "siding", which is railroad parlance for an extra line of parallel track. It is hard to imagine the disappointment. I hope the Rand McNally map guy responsible for that quadrant gets haunted by thirsty ghosts, and every time he pours a glass of water in the dark of night, all that comes out is an eery railroad sound.

A desperate gasping Dan rode into Turkey, Texas, which notably had a billboard with "Home of Bob Wills" on it. I barely knew of him at the time, but appreciation years would come later.

After a refresher I kept up the ride till Quitaque. Caprock Canyons State Park was the first big destination, and I rolled in with hours to spare. By God it was hot! So damn hot! Barely a soul in sight, and AC blasting in the park headquarters. I registered a site, but there wasn't much of a point. I had my pick of places. In the heat, none of it really mattered. It was all so beautiful, and I had it all to myself, but if I stayed there long I could die there by myself, too.

I tried to do some drawings but the sweat just penetrated through layers of paper, warping it and muddling the charcoal. What a terrible, unsustainable, stupid idea.

Crackers and beans for dinner.

July 3, 1997

The next morning before the sun was high, I rode around for scenic points and tried to do some painting. I discovered that many of my expensive Dutch oil paints had exploded from the heat. A bright rainbow of linseed oil leaked like molasses from the paint box. The linseed oil jar was leaking profusely, creating a pool of golden goo.

A family drove in and stepped out of their car, instantly complaining about the heat. Their little girl asked her dad if I could paint her, and he grudgingly agreed. Good practice, anyway, I told myself.

The abomination I created was echoed by the look of disappointment on the girl's face. The father shoved two dollars at me and they scrambled back into the car and left.

It reminds me of the scene from the 1989 Batman film when Joker is looking at the mirror after the surgery, and the doctor pleads, "You see what I have to work with here?" But of course I am being hard on myself. I hadn't painted in a while, and speed painting has never been my thing. Nonetheless, the combined experience was discouraging.

Eventually I would learn some techniques for faster artwork suitable for plein air. But I would prefer lighter materials in the long run, and to that end, watercolor crayons and pans with travel brushes were the best solution. I had some of these and went through them most of the time on my other sessions.

While I was packing up, a couple came up and straight up gave me $20. They identified themselves as Christians, as though this was a new craze sweeping the land. I was approaching credit card fallback, so I appreciated the gift and was very grateful. The prospect of someone straight up giving me money was weird, and I felt like I was cheating. Cheating to win says the little devil on my shoulder.

At around 6pm I rode out, determined not to spend any more time in the oven. Come visit during winter sometime.

As I snaked my way up the steep road leading into the caprock—the escarpment defining the llano estacado, or staked plains—I passed a road service truck. They sprayed me with water from the tank. What may have been a prank definitely made the climb a little easier. Within a mile, all of that water had dried off entirely.

Not long afterwards, I rode into the town of Silverton, a small farming county seat. I stopped at the Malt Shoppe for a modest sandwich, where a rumormill gaggle held court. A lady working nearby engaged me in conversation. As it turned out, her family had a farm nearby, and her other job was a nice little income bump. She invited me to stay at their place for the night, where I could get a shower and a night's rest.

"Just go on in, it's unlocked, you can shower and we'll come by and pick you up and show you around town." Later I met the rest of the family. Then off to a game of chess with the runt, and explicit instructions from the dad to let him win. The dad was a farmer to the core, a bit worn down by a day's hard work, yet carrying himself with measured gravity.

The house had a functional mess that seemed entirely in keeping with their nature. No one seemed remotely surprised by my presence. The lady of the house told me I was going to help spraying crops tomorrow, which five of their six kids would be joining me for.

They talked at length about farming with me. In no particular order:

  • They really wanted to farm organic (and this was mid-nineties, before the FDA moved in to the organic labeling business, mind you) but their reasons for conventional farming were complicated.
  • They knew a lot about what they grew, and they knew a million ways to cook it.
  • They hated the chaotic nature of selling their produce, which often came down to timing and luck.

One of the kids had left home recently; he had joined the marines, which his siblings called his vacation.

July 3, 1997

Sure enough at the crack of dawn, following a modest breakfast, I was saddled on an ancient metal contraption for hand-spraying crops. There were five or six seats connected by pole to the main tank on wheels, which was pulled by a tractor. Each of us had a squirt gun attached by line to the tank. We'd spray weeds with individual shots. Row by row we defended the asparagus. Sometimes there was friendly fire (hitting the asparagus directly). The kids were way better at it than me.

I learned the value of washing produce that day. You don't know what has been sprayed on the food you buy.

When all was done, the mom gave me $20 with a big grin, and the kids were furious. "Twenty bucks? You just gave him twenty bucks! Where's my twenty dollars mom?"

I left with a wholesome glow at midday, riding east with good spirits. I made Happy, Texas* in the evening. The wind was not helpful, and I was weathered at the end. I saw one garage and tons of grain storage. Kept on rolling till I made Canyon, a little college town near Palo Duro.

There were no cheap motels. The proprietor of the Buffalo Inn said the lowest room was $48, and I would find no cheaper in town. I was happy to prove him wrong. I knocked on a door on the town's outskirts, and talked to a pleasant gentleman who allowed me to pitch a tent in his backyard.

* This was a couple of years before the Illsley film was made. I haven't seen it, but if it contains any sort of color besides gravel grey and corrugated steel grey, it probably wasn't filmed on location.

July 4, 1997

I woke during the night to violent winds pulling the tent out of its stakes, whipping cordage and fabric all around me. Rain came down hard and sudden, and soon the tent was entirely unmoored. I was getting pelted by rain inside a Chinese finger trap on a small lake.

Untangling myself, I dragged the mess to the porch and got clear and more or less dry. Then I crawled back into the bag and fell instantly asleep.

The ride to Palo Duro Canyon was easy enough, and no sign of the storm anywhere to be seen. I rolled in to the park and paid the entry fee but didn't have enough cash on hand for a campsite. So I rolled into the camp area and asked an RV couple if I could camp on their site, and they happily agreed. I felt a stirring of discontent from my pride and ethics.

I remember being quite pleased with the tent site, though. The stakes sunk in with satisfying stability, unlike most places where the ground was rockier and you'd inevitably hit a large rock blocking the stake.

Reading my journal in 2020, I encounter some thoughts that don't jive with my memory. I seem to have been caught up in believing that I was somehow aggrieved. I watched tourists pay $50 for a ceramic cowboy in the visitor center while I assembled peanut butter sandwiches, and it launched a paragraph of discontent. I knew it was irrational to feel this way, given that everything that had happened so far was of my own making. And it's not like they were wealthy industrialists in velvet carriages. They were just salt of the earth types buying touristy shit.

To be quite honest, there are a number of similar expressions in my journal. I can abide the countless asides about girls I knew—no surprises there, just roll my eyes and flip the page. But the whole feeling sorry for myself bit is hard to stomach.

That night, another storm struck suddenly, again trashing my tent while stripped down to my underwear wrapped in a mummy bag. This contributed to my novel phobia of getting stuck in my tent rigging while naked. I don't think that got listed in the American Psychiatric Association's book of disorders.

Unravelling myself and putting on clothes at the same time, I emerged from the tent in driving sheets of rain. There were no shelters nearby, so I scurried to a nearby RV and knocked on the door. A woman opened the door.

I explained my situation and she let me inside. She had a distant, distracted manner as she grabbed a towel for me from her closet. There was no one else in the RV.

As it turns out, her husband had just taken her son to the hospital after he broke his arm. I felt terrible for intruding on her, but she seemed to appreciate the company and her focus slowly coalesced. We chatted about her family over some coffee.

The rain settled down a bit and I left, thanking her for the trouble.

July 5, 1997

Some boy scouts and their scout master invited me over for breakfast. I had what remains to this day the tastiest black bean taco I've ever had. For years I have tried to recreate it without success. Every time I go to a taco place and I see a black bean taco, I dismiss it out of hand. Pshaw. Like you guys know what a black bean taco should taste like. Please. In truth, it is a curse. The item has been stricken from my menu for all time.

I was floored when one of the scouts came up to me and gave me $20. Thanks, Kent, wherever you are. Every time I hear about all the hard stuff the Boy Scouts have gone through, I think about that group in Palo Duro who were some truly excellent human beings.

So my bike was a mess, and I spent the better part of the morning drying out gear. It's worth saying over and over again: there is no such thing as waterproof, not where there are stitches, or seams, or buttons, or folds, or anything that is not reinforced concrete and even then I'm still suspect.

The post-rainstorm "yard sale" would become another recurring motif on this trip, as I dried out my gear on the floor of Palo Duro.

I tooled around for a bit, hiking the nearby peak and sketching a bit, until the day's heat came on strong and the sun started to beat down again.

On the way down to my campsite, I took a sharp turn on the road where the road was still wet in shadow. I had my second yard sale of the day as my rear wheel slid under me and the bike careened into the fields. Gear was everywhere. I picked myself up, hoping that no one had seen it. If they did, they hid their faces with propriety.

I rolled out of the park and cut north for Amarillo.

After making Amarillo, I coasted through a vacant downtown, looking for any parks I could make use of for camping. A man outside gardening popped up and made conversation. I told him of my quest, and he offered a spot in the yard of a neighbor who was out of town. Then he pondered for a second and said, "Wait a minute. Let me go talk to my wife and see if we can get you set up better."

He emerged from his house and asked me if I was interested in getting some work in tomorrow. I said sure. I needed the money.

Unfortunately, his wife was not keen on a stranger staying in their house, so I camped (quite preferably, in fact) on the neighbor's lawn that night.

I'll add here that my journal from this day is so chuck full of platitudes and lofty thoughts that I want to reach back in time and slap some sense into me. Normally, my mood is pretty even-keeled, but touring really cranks up the volume.

July 6, 1997

I helped out my one-day employer hauling river rocks around to wealthy homes. The labor was not especially hard, but the removal of self-direction was disorienting.

Over bean sprout sandwiches(!), my employer and I talked about a great many things under the sun in Amarillo, but I had to steer him from interpretive topics like zen gardening to more interesting things.

Yeah, I said bean sprout sandwiches. Beggars can't be choosers, but no, never again. Why don't you just eat lawn trimmings, it will be cheaper.

I was paid for my labor and he set me up in the old Airstream he was remodeling. Unfortunately, it was kept at a friend's business, a multi-bay garage, which he had the key to. But of course he couldn't give me the key. So he'd have to lock me in during the night.

The whole thing was starting to feel suspect, but I trusted to my own wits if things got hairy. But it was a totally sweet Airstream. He said he'd call his friend and let him know I was in there, and that when the morning came he'd let me out.

If you're getting human trafficking vibes all I can say is, so was I, but some other parts of my brain were in charge. The part that said, "Throw it at me, I can take it" was shaking hands with the part that said "Trust in the goodness of men." So he said goodbye, locked the gate, and I settled in.

July 7, 1997

So morning came and the garage door was still locked. I ambled around the garage, had some horrid fiber bars for breakfast, drank some water. Waited. Light flooded the garage from windows overhead, and still the garage was locked from outside.

I waited. And waited. What the hell, dude. What is this.

Eventually the owner arrived and unlocked the place. I gave him a bit of a scare. My employer had not told him I'd be there. I am lucky I was not shot on sight.

On my way out of Amarillo, I rode past an old black lady who wanted to give me five dollars and a prayer. She was absolutely enchanted by my mission. "The Lord will RIDE in front of you!" she said, and laughed. So I got that going for me.

I stopped by a curious gas station on the outskirts. Once inside, I recognized Korean lettering on sun-bleached posters. I ambled about looking for something interesting. There, in one of the fridges, I found it.

It was a jar of ginseng tea, with the large root fully intact in a glass jar. I purchased it and almost immediately downed it outside.

For the next two hours, I rode with a higher level of energy than I had ever ridden before. Chalk it up to improved fitness, or high spirits, or a mighty tailwind, or intense ginseng spiritual thrust, or perhaps all of them, but I positively flew north.

Abruptly, the energy flattened and I found myself struggling to climb the rugged terrain going north. I had to stop and rest a few times climbing out of deep, dry valleys. Sheep on the marginal lands gazed at me thoughtfully.

I have an entry in my journal of which I recall very little, and I leave it here for others to decipher:

Journal entry: Random notes
  • Went to museum
  • Two guys at junk store in Fitch
  • Other two guys at junk store outside of here
  • Guy on homemade reverse recumbent bike "Them guys south of the border—I didn't lie!
  • D___ from Lake Buchanan worked for oil co, seeing family via trailer because he can't enter house
  • D____ the librarian, quite the talker, "Glamour and blue eyes ain't important!"
  • Bought catfish at Fritch

As I'm writing this suddenly I remember the librarian bit. This outgoing lady met me at the park I was camped at in Stinnett, and invited me to see her library. I went into the building the following day, and her two middle school assistants raised their noses with a squirming gesture, and one of them said something beneath her breath. I'd been riding all day and no doubt stank to high heaven. She scolded them and said with that corrective embarrassed voice, "Be polite! He is our guest!"

"It's okay," I laughed. "I've been on the road for a while now." But I did feel terrible about it. Free camping isn't really free; the people I meet must pay the price. I would avail myself of truck stop showering facilities more often, which can usually be had for a few bucks.

July 8, 1997

The day was uneventful, a distance day in which a tailwind carried me far. I rolled into Perryton where I joined up with US 83, my route all the way to Nebraska.

Near the main intersection lay a town park with free RV hookups and camping. I loved places like this. No fuss, good company. No shower or bathroom, but did I mention it was free?

A man approached me as I was setting up camp. I can't remember if it was the mayor of the town, or some city official, but he was absolutely fascinated by my travel. He may also have been motivated to ensure I wasn't an undesirable, but his manners were perfectly genteel and his delivery felt like proper Texas hospitality.

He contacted the newspaper and they came out to interview me. The reporter was apologetic, and mentioned he was the son of the man I'd just met. I have no idea if they ran the story, but I can't imagine it was terribly interesting, since my journey had only just started.

This seemingly low key networking would recur across my stops in the US. Townies know when strangers are afoot, and they spread the information with an efficiency that would impress the stasi. It's easy to overlook the responsiveness of that membrane when you are presented with dull gas stations and main street facades.

Next: Sunflowers and Sandhills