Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: To the Border!

Last time I paddled a kayak 100 miles down the Gulf shore and washed up on a lonely beach after dark. This time I pick up from the same beach and bicycle with two friends: Blake, my roommate in Texas, and Pixi, an old friend from Minnesota. Our goal is to reach the US/Mexico border crossing in Laredo, Texas.

This particular adventure has already been covered in great detail by Pixi herself, so I’ll stick to charting our route and a few observations on each day.

Two things bear mentioning however:

  1. Having two good friends with me made this was one of the happiest sections of the entire adventure. Adventure always has its difficult moments but with good companions everything is happier. Riding with Pixi and Blake made me believe that my Adventure can be everything I hoped it would be—if I go with friends and kindred spirits.
  2. I was very sick throughout this trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a stomach parasite (thanks to produce at a Texas grocery store). I had gastrointestinal troubles every day, got fatigued easily, and may have been running a mild fever. When I mentioned this later, both Blake and Pixi said they had no idea I was under the weather.
Our "before" picture. Photo by Amber.

Our “before” picture. Photo by Amber.

Thursday, July 18, 2014 (Day 742 of the Great Adventure)—The Fast and the Falfurrias

The three of us needed a ride to our starting point. Amber, the wife of Blake’s brother, generously stepped in. Soon we were in her truck with our bikes and gear in the back, heading down the highway toward the tiny town of Riviera, Texas. From there we easily found the beach where I’d washed up in the kayak months earlier. Picking up from this last stopping point, we mounted our cycles and headed out, Amber and her toddler son Kayson waving behind us. (Kayson may have been screaming rather than waving.) If you’re reading this, thank you Amber!

The first section was a peaceful country stretch. I made up some Texas history and we had no problems. It was cloudy and soon we got rained on. I was worried this would dampen my companions’ spirits but they seemed fine.

We took a break at a gas station. When the rain passed we pushed on toward Falfurrias, Texas, now on a more heavily trafficked highway. Everyone seemed fine. It got quite warm toward the afternoon (July in Texas is, according to every Texan who weighed in, just about the worst month we could have chosen for this expedition). When we reached Falfurrias we stopped at a former gas station and called a local RV park. They said we could camp there. A couple more miles and $15 later we had our tent and bivy set up.

Blake got a flat tire on the final mile and we did “how to fix a flat” session at the park. Mexican for dinner. Stomach grumbling, I declined the margaritas. 34.9 miles.

Map.

July 19—Falfurrias to Hebbronville

We got a fairly early start, hoping to beat the heat. Today there were no rain clouds to help keep us cool.

It was interesting to see everyone’s unique style. Blake, an athletic swimming coach with a brand new cycle and minimal gear, rode ahead at high speed and then came back to take photos of us. He was fueled by punk rock playing in one ear (earbud) and frequent texts from his girlfriend. Pixi, true to her Minnesotan origin, was quiet and stoic. I kept a close eye on her because her bicycle effectively had just one gear (actually three, but we couldn’t get it to shift correctly to the others). It didn’t seem to affect her pace at all.

As the heat intensified our pace lagged. I was struggling and I could tell Pixi was too. We took turns dumping water on the back of each other’s t-shirts (“it’s like a shot of espresso,” Pixi said). Temperatures climbed over 100 degrees. This was expected but still brutal. By the final run into Hebbronville I borrowed water from Blake. We finally reached a hamburger stand where we sat in air conditioning, ate, charged our wireless devices, and looked for lodging.

The only major RV park in town turned down us tent-campers. Checking out what looked like another, smaller RV park we ended up knocking on a random residence thinking it was the office. The man there not only introduced us to his mother, who let us camp at one of her RV spots for free, but also invited us to a barbeque that night.

I took a long afternoon nap, completely beat due to the parasite. 36.5 miles

Map.

Sunday, July 20 (Day 744 of the Great Adventure)—This Way to Mexico!

Taking a lesson from the previous day, we got up so early it was still dark when we left. The first 40 minutes of our ride out of town, after a coffee-and-ice-water stop at a gas station, were in total darkness, occasional trucks passing us and giving a friendly berth to our flashing rear lights.

The sun came up all too soon and temperatures began to climb. This was our longest mileage day and also involved real hills. Blake maintained his previous free-spirited pace, like a puppy running at a park. Pixi’s body had already acclimated to the hard pedaling. She became the leader of the pack, zooming forward with relentless determination.

My own pace suffered. I have a strong constitution and I can endure almost anything. There was no question I would make it to Laredo, but how long it would take me and in what condition I’d arrive were open questions. It wasn’t just the heat and the parasite, but also the gear: I had more and bigger saddlebags than the others, and carried most of our shared gear. Slogging up those hills was a challenge and I fell behind.

I think Blake later felt guilty for letting me get behind. At one point I shouted at a dog to scare it off, and Blake fell back thinking I’d shouted at him (!). Luckily it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits.

The final stretch of big hills and heavier traffic took place in the oven-like hours of late morning/early afternoon. We hopped on a freeway for about a half mile to get into town, then stopped at a Whataburger for a long lunch/hydration session/cooloff. Blake got his 48th flat tire of the trip or so, and all my assurances that a patched tube was as good as a new one were proven wrong.

After changing the flat we biked into the downtown area to reach the border station. There are two bridges and two international crossings, only one of them valid for cyclists, so we had to cruise around a bit figuring out where to go. Finally reached a sign that read “TO MEXICO ● ELEVATORS ● ESCALATORS.” We had arrived.

The sign in question. Photo by Blake.

The sign in question. Photo by Blake.

The point of this leg was not to cross the border, just to reach the border so I could pick up from there on the great Mexico leg. We had achieved our goal. Sweating in the afternoon heat, we posed in front of the sign and I high-fived a nearby pillar. I would tag it again months later when starting the next leg, proving I hadn’t skipped a single inch.

(André’s note: also on this day, I surpassed my 3,000th mile of the trip!)

Afterward we went to a nearby park surrounded by colonial buildings. Pixi and I napped in the shade while Blake went present shopping. Later, Blake’s mom and step-dad (hi guys!) generously picked us up for the ride back to Corpus Christi. We stopped for tacos for dinner, which I could barely eat. I was proud of having finished 130 miles in 100 degree heat even when I was ill. But more than that, it felt good to have shared this accomplishment with friends. 57.5 miles

Map. (Note: The portion of this map in Laredo contains approximations due to one way streets. Also, our actual end point is several hundred feet to the east of what is marked—in the “Paseo del Antiguo.”)

Our "after" pic. Great job guys! Photo by André.

Our “after” pic. Great job guys! Photo by André.

Total traveled this leg: 128.9 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3007.8 miles

That officially catches us up on old road logs. See them all here, and get ready for new stories from my current adventure, the ride across Mexico. I’m current in the highland desert town of Cedral, in the state of San Luis Potosí. I’m just a stone’s throw from the ghosts towns of Real de Catorce and have much to report. More soon!

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Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: New Orleans to Texas

In the last road log I paddled across the Mississippi to avoid taking a ferry. This time I pick up on the opposite bank and aim 700 miles away at Corpus Christi, Texas.

Image via Polkadots Cupcake Factory

Friday, October 4, 2013 (Day 455 of the Great Adventure)—Leaving New Orleans

Finally, after multiple false starts, I biked to the ferry, crossed the River and left. I made final offerings to say goodbye to the Mississippi, who had been my companion for 1900 miles and more than a year.

I headed toward Houma on a mix of levee trail, River Road, major highways, and the Old Spanish Trail which had some good scenery at times. I did my best to dodge rainstorms spun off of distant Tropical Storm Karen, and got a little wet but not soaked.

My destination that night was the hone of Alvin, a 50-something cyclist and a teacher. Easily the most knowedgeable cyclist I have ever met. I learned a lot from him in our short time together and enjoyed a great meal together. 58 miles.

Map.

(You can also see the actual route I took to get to the ferry, more or less—Google doesn’t approve of wrong ways on one ways—but this segment isn’t counted in the mileage because I had already crossed the river by kayak in June.)

October 5, 2013

Today there were more serious showers bearing down on me from Karen to the east. I made a calculated decision on being able to outrun them (the east wind was also a tailwind for me) despite Alvin’s offer to stay a day or two till they passed.

My destination today was Bayou Salé, but what I’ll always remember is Bayou Teche. Friends in New Orleans had helped me plan my route and insisted I bike along this bayou, and I’m sure glad I did—some of the most beautiful cycling I’ve ever seen along with the Natchez Trace. The road runs on either side of the bayou out of Houma, very lightly traveled. I did pass a park/fishing area that was closed due to the federal government shutdown.

My route then took me through Bayou Black, over the steep Amelia bridge, and through one small town before lunch at Morgan City. In the past I’d had only good experiences stopping at Shoney’s restaurants, but in this one they treated me like I was an escaped convict. I was sweaty but friendly, yet my manners didn’t seem to get me anywhere.

After crossing a big bridge out of Morgan City I continued to eschew major highway for a winding bayou road, adding miles but enjoying the scenery. I began to feel better about leaving New Orleans and pushing on with my adventure.

The small towns and scenic byways continued right up toward sunset. Finally I turned down the last road toward Bayou Salé, well off the beaten path. With only a few more miles to go, this road held one more steep bridge and—after staying dry all day—the first rainstorm to catch up with me. I arrived at my hosts’ house tired, wet and in good spirits.

Russ and Paul, my hosts, convinced me to have some wine with dinner. We had a great conversation and I got some much-needed sleep. 67.8 miles.

Map.

Sunday, October 6, 2013—Rest Day!

Russ and Paul are a sweet gay couple in their 50s. Russ grew up in the bayou and Paul moved there from Pennsylvania to be with him. Together, they opened a stained glass studio in a small building across the road. The studio makes a variety of objects, with most of their profit coming from large scale windows for churches. (Russ told me there was no need for me to pass on their business card to churches on my route, because they already had more orders than they could fill.)

They also make small items for tourists and do a lively trade teaching stained glass classes. Russ said that the men who take their workshops usually come to learn the skills needed, then start doing their own work at home; the women are more likely to keep coming back over and over, treating the classes as a social occasion as well as a learning opportunity. As a side benefit, the women have begun bringing food and wine to each workshop/social (which they share with the guys).

Russ also told me about how the devastation of the coastal marshes has made flooding worse in his area. Buildings that have not flooded in 200 years were feet below water after the last hurricane. One of his family’s houses was still in a needs-to-be-restored state from the last flood, and the glass studio had been badly damaged but already fixed up.

Russ and Paul live in another of Russ’ old family homes and Russ takes care of his elderly father, who is mostly confined to his bed. I spent part of the day doing writing, and rode with Paul to get some groceries from a gas station/mini-market. (By “groceries” I mostly mean ice cream.)

Like so many hosts, Russ and Paul offered for me to stay longer, but I planned to head out the next morning.

October 7, 2013—Bad Gear Day

I started out excited about more bayou country, but today quickly became a lesser disaster. I’d had a strange noise on the bike the previous cycling day—never a good sign—but couldn’t trouble shoot it. Just miles after setting out, as I made my way back over the nearby bridge from the other day, the back gear set began to fail. I limped forward and stopped at the gas station/mini mart hoping to fix it.

Unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. The gear cassette was loose and, contrary to what would make sense in a world run by the Rogue Priest, cannot just be screwed back on. It takes a special tool. To make matters worse, the lockring that holds it in place appeared to be stripped. Tools or no tools, my gears—the crucial component that translates pedal strokes into forward movement—were hanging on only by force of habit.

I could have called Paul and Russ and asked them for a ride back to their house just 7 miles away. But with no bike shop anywhere nearby it wouldn’t have helped. My destination for tonight, Abbeville, was still 60 miles off—but if I could get there, a bike shop in Lafayette was only a 20 minute drive away.

After at least an hour of failed troubleshooting, I mounted the Giant and limped him back onto the road. What followed was one of the most agonizing days I’ve ever experienced: soon the gear cassette lost its grip and fell off the wheel of the bicycle. I fitted it back on, still with no lockring to hold it in place, put the chain back on, and continued. Repeat this 100 times or so—anywhere from once every few hundred feet to once every five miles—and you have a clear picture of my day.

After a few bayou towns I figured out a partial solution: as long as I kept the chain in the absolute lowest gear, the tension of the chain itself helped guide the gear set toward the wheel instead of falling off. (It still fell off, just not as often.) The downside is that I had to run in my lowest gear. At an approximate pace of 6 miles per hour, I cruised onward.

I alerted my Abbeville hosts of my bike troubles and late arrival. I was determined to get there: camping in the middle of nowhere and then getting back on the wounded bike tomorrow sounded awful. No way was I stopping till either I arrived at their house or the bike crumbled to dust under me.

Eventually I had to depart the beautiful bayou roads and take a major state highway toward my destination. This was around rush hour and very, very unpleasant. The shoulder was a cratered mess—a good recipe for knocking that gear cassette off—so I stayed in the lane as much as possible (legally correct, but not a popular choice). One trucker actually pulled over and blocked my way, apparently planning to give me a scolding. I shared some opinions of my own.

My persistence paid off. Completely beat, I coasted into Abbeville at sunset just as the moist swamp air cooled down. I made my way by dusk to the home of Leanne and JH (names changed), a former boulangerie converted into one of the coolest homes I’ve seen. Leanne made Thai food and we ate at the former butcher counter, now their bar. 64.2 miles.

Map.

October 18, 2013—Rest & Repair

Both very laid back, Leanne & JH had no problem hosting me for an extra day while I repaired the bike. JH is mechanically inclined and had some thoughts on pillaging a gear set off an old Peugeot. I, being less initiated into the inner workings of these machines, preferred to get a brand new replacement. We took a ride to Lafayette where a bicycle shop installed the new gears without difficulty. (I also managed to leave behind my chain oil there, which I mourned for some time.)

Tonight it was my turn to make dinner. I made a giant pasta served with red wine. Friends came over. I enjoyed meeting everyone but I recall my two evenings in Abbeville without much fondness: I spent most of my time worried about the bike or the road ahead, plus I was physically beat. I get a feeling that I wasn’t the most social guest to my young, fun-loving hosts, though they did enjoy the dinner. I also got my first taste of Cajun hospitality at a nearby house party.

Late at night, I found myself craving some sweets. Leanne had told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen. In the freezer I found some chocolates, and had a few. They tasted (I thought) freezer burned, but satisfied my sweet tooth and I went to sleep. I remember feeling dizzy as I passed out…

Wednesday, October 9, 2013—Ouch My Head

I awoke feeling like a bag of garbage, or like something that the entire garbage truck had run over. I was on my own for breakfast: Leanne had to run to work early and JH was already gone. Somehow, I was simultaneously nauseous and ravenous, not to mention dizzy, bleary and suffering from a jackhammer of a headache. Doing morning yoga did not help.

Also, there was no food in the house.

Wondering how just a few drinks had left me with such a hangover, I moaned as I climbed onto the bike. The Giant, at least, was refreshed and ready to go—minus a lack of oil on his chain—and off I wobbled.

I remember the first hour of this ride as some of the most painful cycling I’ve done. Days later, I would find out from Leanne that the chocolates I’d eaten contained large amounts of magic mushrooms. Recommended dosage: one chocolate. That explained both the horrible after effects and the grittiness I had taken for freezerburn, though it does not explain why people would ever eat these mushrooms voluntarily.

About an hour out I reached the small town of Kaplan, LA. and had the “Hungry Man Breakfast” which helped considerably. (The hunger had, by now, overcome the nausea.) I picked up an extra bungee from a hardware store to secure gear in my front basket. Last, still reeling from the last effects of mushrooms, I conducted a review with one of my clients via phone while wandering through the side streets of town. Just another day as a freelancer on the road.

My destination for the day was Lake Charles, LA, a bigger city. It was a lot of miles away on a hangover and an untested bike, but the Giant was a champ and I’m happy I was able to get the brand new gear cassette for him. The chain slipped from the gears once but overall it seemed like a successful repair.

Between Kaplan and Gueydan I sang an entire Vodou ceremony, which felt good.

Sadly, I lost one of my (worn out) bicycle gloves while resting in Gueydan, just after I started thinking of replacing them. My hands and bum became very sore, but I had no knee pain, indicating my new seat position was good.

The towns were all interesting. Abbeville was beautiful if quiet. Not much going on in Kaplan. Gueydan was pretty and looks like it has good eateries but the people were a little standoffish. Lake Arthur seems like a good sightseeing destination. I stopped there in a park beside the lake and called my mom while I hydrated. Not much in Hayes or Bell City, barely towns at all.

I stopped at a roadside eatery/convenience store in Hayes late in the afternoon. While slamming Gatorade, cashews and a Cliff Bar, a teenager named Seth struck up a conversation with me. Really social, really interested in what I was doing. His dad put up two cyclists from Australia with their family about three years ago. I explained that I work on the road and I hope it planted the seed that he can do this too. His friend was much more cynical. Seth can do better than that.

Finally I cruised into Lake Charles just after rush hour and found the home of my next host, an English professor. 80.8 miles. 

Map.

Thursday, October 10, 2013—Work Day

I got along great with my host, Dustin, not only a young professor but a fellow writer. We discussed favorite books, authors, the difficulty of writing and the great joy of revising. He had a sort of high-functioning hippy attitude that I’m sure made him popular with his students. I read some of the original Conan the Barbarian graphic novels from his book shelf the night at one point during my stay, likely the night I arrived. The conversation was great.

Dustin understood about my need for a peaceful, quiet place to write and recommended the Stellar Bean Cafe. While he went to teach classes, I bicycled into downtown Lake Charles. The cafe was everything I hoped it would be (there was even a local writers’ group meeting there, which I did not join). I completed a lot of work, much more so than at previous rest stops, and that night I bought Dustin dinner at a Mexican restaurant. He seemed surprised by the gesture but his attitude and camaraderie meant a lot and I wanted to do something nice.

This would also be my last full day in Louisiana, as tomorrow’s route would take me across the border if all went well.

October 11, 2013—Train Bridge Day

I had no host lined up so I planned to go 37 miles to Orange, Texas and look for a place for the night. I was hoping a Methodist pastor there would respond to an email and offer me a spot. Because of the short day I took my time and got a late start. I left Dustin’s around 9, went to a park and did yoga, went to two bike shops and bought a new pair of bike gloves, then cruised up to the bridge I expected to take, the I-10 bridge. So steep! And negligible shoulder. I had seen the shoulder situation on the satellite but not the steepness.

The I-210 bridge appears to have wider shoulder but it’s much, much longer, and even from a distance I could see it was tall as well. I considered using a train bridge to cross but couldn’t find a way to access the tracks. Ultimately I went around the lake entirely, through the towns of Moss and Westlake, adding 15 miles to my day. Had lunch at Jake’s Cakes and Coffee Shop north of Sulphur.

During this time I received an offer from a WarmShowers host, Jeff, to come stay two nights in Beaumont, TX. That is significantly farther than Orange, and I held out hoping the pastor would get back to me, but no luck. So I pushed on, and my day’s route grew from 40 miles to 60 miles to 80 miles.

Was on track to reach Jeff’s house just at 7:20 as promised, but the I-10 bridge into Beaumont was under construction, with absolutely no shoulder for bikes on either side! Jeff offered a ride, but I struck out and used a railroad bridge instead. Walked for about an hour on gravel and rail tracks in the dark, covered in mosquitoes, dodging living and dead snakes. Moved off the tracks at one point to let a train go by.

Halfway across the train bridge, a train appeared coming straight for me.

[André’s note: this is one of the craziest things that has happened to me and you can read the full story here.]

Once across, coming off a huge adrenaline surge, I made it to Jeff’s about 9:00 p.m. a 12-hour, 83-mile day. Ugh.

83.3 miles.

Map.

(Map includes a loop before the I-10 bridge that equates to the actual distance I took on the railroad tracks. Across the river, map does not show the distance I crossed on the bridge itself or on the city streets from the bridge back to the latitude of I-10. The estimated total for those two combined distances is 1.4 miles, which I’ve added in. After that the route on Magnolia Street is accurate. I always exclude time spent cruising around locally, which would amount to about 6 more miles in Lake Charles, and in this case I excluded the many spans of frontage road I took along I-10, which sometimes included small detours.)

October 12—Work Day

Jeff had never hosted anyone before, and was only able to put me up because (a) his wife was out of town and (b) he agreed to keep me in the guest room attached to the garage, not part of the main house.

One other cyclist was there the night I arrived, though I use the word “cyclist” loosely. This man drove a car which may or may not have had a bicycle inside of it, may or may not have been on his way to some kind of vague family emergency, and had the approximate social skills of a stoned badger. I felt incredibly grateful that this guy was not Jeff’s only introduction to the world of hosting travelers, and I endeavored to be the best guest possible and leave him with a good impression.

Thankfully, Mr. Grumpy left early on the morning of the 12th. I had arranged a rest day before continuing, and Jeff invited me to go fishing with him. I was extremely tempted—the area he was going sounded gorgeous—but I had too much client work to do. I stayed in and was a homebody, but I did get all of my work done before Jeff returned that evening. We went to the store and got some ingredients, then Jeff cooked up his catch with curry and we had a great meal and conversation.

Jeff and I hit it off. We come from different worlds but I know a good soul when I meet one, and he had it. He also seemed to take to me, and even put me in touch with relatives of his around Corpus Christi so I would know someone when I got there. Like many hosts, he invited me to stay longer but I felt the need to push on.

October 13, 2013—Loneliness

The day was dreary with occasional piss from the heavens. Riding out of Beaumont toward Baytown involved little traffic but a headwind that made the going frustratingly slow. The whole day was a long slog of a ride. Knee pain and saddle soreness became so extreme that I started making adjustments to my seat. Starting to get scared about my knees.

Really not much fun today. Not sure why I’m so worn down. Saw a guy sitting roadside (on the freeway) just out of Beaumont and offered him some water. He drank it without touching the water bottle to his mouth. I really admire that.

Rain clouds threatened all day. Didn’t get rained on till about an hour out of Baytown. Rain matches my mood. Further slowed everything down.

I had nowhere lined up to stay tonight. Thought I might get in by 3 pm and try to find a local who would help. Felt horrible sense of insecurity because of not knowing where I’d sleep—sometimes I think I’m giving myself an anxiety disorder out here. Ended up deciding I would just get a motel on arrival, and that brightened my mood up a lot—sense of security and promise of comfort.

Good decision too. Didn’t get in to Baytown till nearly six (reached my motel at 6:30) and this town really doesn’t have a cute downtown or anything particularly welcoming. Would have been hard luck trying to find a free place to stay. Lots of taquerías though.

Rested well and ate Mexican for dinner. Drank two beers. Stayed up too late. 68.1 miles.

Map.

Monday, October 14, 2013—Galveston Day

I had really looked forward today as a short, fun bike ride ending on the Gulf coast. But the wind was against me and there were many steep bridges. My knee pain became pronounced quickly, and I felt a new, much more urgent discomfort in one knee. I stopped and made adjustments again (I had also made more adjustments before leaving the motel). I think I’m closing in on the best seat height/position/angle for my body and bicycle, but the existing pain is still going to take a while to subside.

Going across the causeway onto the island was amazing, however. (Galveston is located on an island.)

Once on the island I saw another person sitting on the side of the freeway. This one seemed drunk and disoriented. He asked me how to get to the beach. I couldn’t do anything for him so I wished him luck and kept going.

Galveston is a beautiful town! I stayed with Kellyn, a graduate student and her roommates. As a man I couldn’t ask for a better welcome: four college girls living in a giant house together. I had a guest bedroom with its own bathroom. I also happened to arrive the night they were carving their Hallowe’en pumpkins, and I brought a six pack of beer to contribute to the event. They had an extra pumpking for me and we all chatted as we carved. My night with Kellyn and her roommates’ will definitely be one of my favorite memories from the trip. 44.5 miles.

Map.

October 15—Work Day and a New Host

On Kellyn’s advice I chose a little cafe in downtown Galveston to work in. Galveston is a great city, with a lot of artists and a lively downtown. It’s a vacation destination, which is part of its charm, but it also lacks the sprawl of other Texas cities because the island only has so much space.

When I planned my stop in Galveston I arranged two nights with two different hosts. It was one of the first destinations on this trip that had a large Couchsurfing community, and I figured I would meet more people this way. In reality, though, I was sad to leave Kellyn & Co. My second host, Celia, was incredibly kind and had many interesting stories of her own. I’m happy I met her. But Kellyn and her friends are closer to my own age, and after having such a lonely time on the road the chance to socialize with them had been very nourishing. Celia has a son to look after and after our dinner together I was mostly left to my own devices. I think the smart choice, after having met Kellyn yesterday, would have been to change my plans and stay with her both nights while simply meeting Celia and her son for dinner. I’m sure neither host would have minded.

I iced my knees regularly during this rest stop.

October 16, 2013—Freeport Day

Instead of crossing back to the mainland I rode alone the barrier islands. Extremely pleasant ride with beach and beach houses to my left, and pasture or dune prairie to my right. A little rain at the beginning and end. My knees are feeling differently, with the right knee feeling much less strained and the left feeling more strained, which means my seat adjustments have had an overall good effect though still not perfect.

Really enjoyed the ride along the Seawall in Galveston in the beginning, even though the tourist strip is less attractive than downtown. Wish I had taken a week or a few days in this town.

Just before reaching my destination, near the tip of the barrier island, I stopped at an oceanside restaurant for a burger, a beer and some rest time. I called my friend Saumya, long overdue and good to speak with her again.

In afternoon I reached my next host, a young couple named Danielle and Chris living in a small, nice house in the edge of a bayou outside Freeport. Both work as chemical engineers at a major refinery operation. Interesting, friendly people.

[André’s note: much later, they would take me up on my offer to reach out to me if they were ever in New Orleans. I got their message very last minute and was unable to find a place for them to stay that night. Will always feel like I let them down after they helped me out so generously.]

43 miles.

Map.

(This map still shows me leaving from Kellyn’s house, not Celia’s. That’s because the two houses are nearby, and this way my route includes the distance traveled between the two. One house is literally on the route onward from the other.)

October 17, 2013—Bay City Day

Reluctantly, I turned away from the Gulf and its beach communities, which seemed open and welcoming. I went through the “city” of Freeport, which is more like thirty miles of nothing but refineries. It felt like bicycling through the Death Star. Actually kind of fun.

Very sore ride especially the second half. Had to fight wind at times too. Late-ish start from Danielle and Chris’ house (they left early for work and left me to my own devices) and had a big lunch at a Tex Mex place in Brazoria, right at the V-corner in my route. More Tex than Mex for sure. Called many motels in Bay City and cruised through town to get a feel for the place (not reflected in map/miles). Settled on Studio 6 for the night and was quite happy with it—apartment-style rooms with full kitchen at very low price.

Notably, this was the one year anniversary of arriving at New Orleans.

Had indulgent Mexican dinner at Ricardo’s. 49 miles.

Map.

Friday, October 18, 2013—Port Lavaca Day

I ate again at Ricardo’s, this time for breakfast, and really loved it. Possibly the best huevos rancheros (with chorizo!) I’ve ever had, and one of the top breakfasts in general, too. I’m starting to like these “shorter” 50-mile days, even though I’m mostly using the extra time to leave later in the morning—flies in the face of my original reason for shorter days (although still no sunset runs in quite some time) but makes everything less stressful.

I also took a long break at a gas station in Blessing, TX after almost missing the turn off (continuing past would have sent me through Palacios, adding perhaps 15 extra miles onto my route).

The last section of roads before reaching the causeway to Port Lavaca, such as Highway 1862 and then back on 35, were gorgeous and empty and perfect. Felt that spiritual sense of awe at the beauty and desolation that makes me love journeys in the first place. It’s really been too long since I felt that.

The causeway was another matter. While I made it across fine (and was actually impressed at how smoothly and politely traffic changed lanes to go around me), no sooner was I across than a sheriff vehicle threw on its lights and motioned for me to pull aside. He scolded me for using the causeway and told me “the worst accidents” happen because of cyclists. I didn’t tell him that I was the one following the law, or that if law-breakers are causing accidents, maybe they should be the ones pulled over. He told me “next time” I should “get a ride or… whatever.” I was polite.

I planned to camp tonight at a public park in Port Lavaca, right there on the shore near the causeway. It had RV camping so I figured if I paid my hammock would be more than welcome. Wrong. When someone asks if you need a “tent site” apparently you should just say yes. Something about the idea of the hammock made the woman fear for her job. She did recommend another possible campsite (which seemed dubious) and a Mexican food stand (which I never went to), and I liked her overall. But with the cold north wind, no promising camp option, and storms on the way I ended up going to a motel for the third time on this trip. (It was a regular Motel 6, directly across the street from the RV park, which was oddly more expensive than the apartment-style Studio 6 the night before.)

I feel a lot of regret that I didn’t get to camp. Not that I was super looking forward to it, in all—setting up camp solo after a long bike day can be exhausting—but I had gotten excited about it that day. Plus, with tomorrow having a scheduled CouchSurfing host, this was my last opportunity for this whole leg of the trip. Turns out I hauled the hammock, fleece sleeping bag and cold weather gear all this way for nothing. It’s a substantial amount of dead weight on a bike. Sunk costs and all. But it would’ve been nice to sleep in the breeze at least once on this segment.

After checking in and showering I spent an outrageous amount of time biking around looking for a local pizza place that turned out to be closed, then settled for Mexican again at a restaurant that was truly sub-par (but more expensive than Ricardo’s). I miss you, Ricky. 51.9 miles.

Map.

October 19, 2013—Broke Axel Day

Today seemed like an easy day. At “only” 50 miles, I felt good that I would make it to my host for the night, where I would get to sleep on his sailboat in the Fulton, TX harbor. That’s a pretty cool prospect, and one I looked forward to. Plus, tomorrow would be my arrival in Corpus Christi if all went well.

All did not go well. Less than 10 miles out of town I heard an odd noise from the back wheel, and the second time I stopped to check on it the axle fell out in two broken pieces. The bike couldn’t go any further.

I’ve already told this tense story before, so I won’t repeat it. The short version is I had to hitchhike forward 10 miles to the next town, where I failed to find a further ride onward toward Fulton. Instead, a friendly local gave me the axle from an old Peugeot road bike and helped me change it. I continued on from that point and, in a heart-pumping race against the sunset, made it to host Mel and his boat.

[André’s note: I had to come back to this stretch of road months later and bike the missing 10 miles I’d hitchhiked over, for the sake of covering every inch powered by my own body.]

Mel was a fascinating individual whose spirit I admire. He lives aboard his catamaran, which he’s slowly fixing up for long sea voyages. He’s also toured extensively in his camper van, and not long ago took a cruise ship one-way to South America and bused back to the US slowly over the the course of months.

We had an excellent evening swapping travel stories. Mel served a home made dinner of soup with brisket and noodles and a big side salad. It’s rare to meet a host on my travels who will serve healthy food, and while I’m always grateful for whatever people share, I was extra happy to get some greens in me. 50.6 miles.

Map 1: Completed that day before breakdown. 10.4 miles.

Map 2: Hitchhiked that day; completed by bicycle later on January 18, 2014 (Day 561). 10.8 miles.

Map 3: Completed that day after repair. 29.4 miles.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 (Day 471 of the Great Adventure)—Arrival in Corpus

This was a good day. After a light breakfast with Mel I set out on the bike, confident I could cover the 34 miles to Corpus. I stopped for an early lunch at a cafe in Rockport and took byways off the main road as far as I could. Remembering my entrance into New Orleans, I allowed myself a congratulatory beer at a gas station in Ingleside—not quite as memorable as the one on the way into the Crescent City.

The first (larger) bridge into Corpus, the causeway, was no problem. Wide lanes, wide shoulder and not steep. The second bridge however proved much trickier. I feel that Fortuna always throws one last obstacle at an adventurer close to completing a quest, and mine was the bridge featured in this video:

Finally I made it into the city proper, the freeway bridge depositing me directly in the downtown. Known for its beach, I had hoped Corpus Christi would be similar to Galveston (especially after the cute, laid back feeling of Fulton). The truth was it felt very different, more like the big, sprawling city that it is. I aimed myself at the palm trees and the waterfront and followed Shoreline Boulevard and its scenic Seawall. (This isn’t reflected exactly in the map, since I was on the pedestrian/bike walk on the Seawall, which Google doesn’t approve of.)

Finally I reached a yellow concrete building facing the ocean. It looked like it had survived from the set of a Miami Vice episode 30 years ago. Inside that building was the apartment of my final host, a man who had offered to put me up for a few days while I found an apartment—and would ultimately take me on as along term paying roommate.

For now, my host was out on a fishing trip and I was told to let myself in and make myself at home. I tried to determine if there was a beer store nearby, so I could have a gift waiting for him, but to no avail. Instead, I took a shower and prepared for a new life in Texas. 37.4 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 698.6

Total traveled since Day 1: 2780.6

There are just two more road logs to go (the kayak trip, and the final push to the Mexico border), and then we’ll be all caught up—and ready to start chronicling the current Mexico ride! Until then, check out old road logs if you’re so inclined.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Making New Adventurers

Sunday at around 3:00 p.m. our little bicycling group reached the US/Mexico border. I officially completed the US leg of my Great Adventure.

It was also the first leg I did with a group. I can safely say that this trip went as well as I could possibly have imagined it going.

I don’t want to give too much away, because both Pixie and Blake have offered to write up their own accounts of the trip which I’ll share here. But I did promise before and after pictures, so let’s start with those.

Before

Before

After!

After!

I had expected that the two pictures might show a major change. In the “after” shot I thought we’d look dirty, disheveled, totally beat. As you can see, we don’t. I also wondered if my co-adventurers would look a little unhappy by the end. This isn’t experienced cyclists with professional equipment and sponsorship; this is normal people with mismatched gear and no idea where we’d even sleep at night. And yet, everyone’s smiling.

From the beginning everyone seemed ready for a challenge. We worked as a team and we all got along. Neither the rain on Day 1 nor the 100 degree biking weather on Day 3 garnered any complaints and, more importantly, I don’t think there were supressed complaints either. Everyone was mentally prepared for what they were facing.

That’s not to say it was easy. The sun just savaged us. I ran out of water on the second day and had to borrow more from Blake. Pixie’s gears didn’t work. There were more flat tires on one bike than I expected from all three of us.

But none of that really mattered. When there was a problem we just huddled around and solved it. As Blake said, within a very short time traveling together we had started to work like a well-trained pit crew.

More than anything, I’m grateful that we got good rest each night and stayed safe each day. All the concern about heatstroke paid off, with some tough rides but no truly dangerous moments. Between the three of us we always had enough water and the right basic gear to survive in the sun.

I’m sure I can’t expect every adventuring group I travel with to operate this smoothly, but it taught me a great deal about what to plan for and how to lead. That will be important as I plan the Mexico leg. Within a few weeks I hope to announce the dates for each segment so that more co-adventurers can come along.

But what gives me the most heart isn’t what I learned. It’s seeing others get to experience an adventure of their own. By the end Pixie and Blake both came to me and told me they’re tempted to join for Mexico. (Blake’s mom has already told me he is not allowed to do the border region.) They now have memories and achievements of their own—the kinds of lessons from the road you can’t learn by reading about it, only by doing it. When we made it back they positively beamed.

For myself, there’s something like 5,000 more miles ahead. But that road doesn’t seem so long now that I know I can share it.

André's Great Adventure reaches the Mexico border!

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Adventure, Bicycling, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

But Must One Adventure Always Alone?

Photo by Farrukh

My time in Mexico is almost over, and as we reach the end I have something pretty amazing to announce. We all know that once I return to the US next month, I’m setting out on bicycle again. I’ll pick up where I washed ashore in a kayak in South Texas and bicycle toward the Mexico border. The quest to cross the Americas must go on.

However, on this particular leg of the quest I won’t be alone.

I’ll have a bicycling companion for my final US leg. I put out the call for companions in April, and about a month later I received a message that read, “Alright, Andre. I am interested in joining you. So… what now?”

The message was from Claire, an old acquaintance of mine in Minnesota. Nowadays she goes by the nickname Pixi. (What is it with adventurers and nicknames?)

Pixi’s message had me smiling from ear to ear. Pixi is not an experienced cyclist—in fact she’s never gone more than a few miles in one ride. But the idea of sharing an adventure with other explorers is my dream come true. She’s already started building her endurance and has gone from total newbie to whopping 25 mile rides. (I’m a little jealous; I did zero training before my first 32 mile day.) Most people are surprised how quickly their body will adapt to long distance cycle rides, and Pixi seems to be right on track.

Not that she doesn’t have some serious adventuring chops of her own. A short while ago Pixi completed 365 straight days living in the wild as a hunter-gatherer. It was part of a wilderness training program (to say the least) with over 30 other people—including whole families. Not everyone completes the program, but Pixi made it through the entire year.

Our trip will be July 18-20, three beautiful days of bicycling. The mileage will be relatively short (32, 35 and 55 miles respectively) which will let us set an easy pace. At night we plan to camp out near churches in two small Texas towns.

Here’s a map of our route:

Texas Adventure Route

This leg of the Adventure will be the last ride through the US for me. For Pixi I hope it will be an introduction to a truly incredible way to see our country and enjoy the outdoors. Bicycling is the perfect pace, slow enough to see everything but fast enough that you rarely get bored.

Pixi and I are also in agreement on one other key factor: we’d be happy to have other people with us. The Texas ride is ideal for total beginners, with flat land, short riding days and a pretty friendly countryside. Are you interested? If you might like to meet up and join us for these three days, please email me at andre@roguepriest.net and let me know.

Or if you have questions, ask away. What’s holding you back?

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Adventure, Sea Kayaking, Texas, The Great Adventure

I Thought the Evac Would Be Easy

Photo by André

Photo by André

The last morning of my kayak trip I woke up at 4:30. It didn’t know it was the last morning. I hate early rising, but I was in good spirits as I ate my breakfast and packed my gear, reversing the mud hustle of the night before.

There was only one place to get phone reception. I climbed the back stairs of the abandoned cottage and sat on its upper deck. There I had one bar of signal strength.

Message from Ken:

Please don’t try for Port Mansfield. Sunday will be hypothermic paddling. Hi 54 degrees, 80 percent chance of rain, and up to 25 mile an hour winds.

Port Mansfield was the next—and only—point on my route where I could touch civilization. Get more supplies, maybe even find shelter from the storm.

Today was Saturday.

What Ken was saying was, at my current speed—with a headwind still fighting me every stroke of the way—I would not make Port Mansfield today, and that would leave me stranded in a horrible northern storm tomorrow.

I scratched my head. Well, so what? I mean I had no other options, right? Part of me tingled with excitement: a 25 mph north wind would drive me forward–southward–at tremendous speed, and in the narrow protection of the Intracoastal I could surf into port in anything short of a hurricane.

But it wasn’t the wind, really, that I was supposed to be scared of; it was the severe storms behind the wind. Out on the water I’d be the tallest thing for lightning to find, plus there’s that cold Ken mentioned.

In subsequent texts, Ken offered me a convoluted plan involving turning around, going back the way I came, and meeting him on some stretch of beach where he could pick me up by car.

In other words, giving up.

The kayak after the mud hustle. See how far from the water is? It's still tied up to that post.

The kayak after the mud hustle. See how far from the water is? It’s still tied up to that post.

Speed Test

I don’t have any cosmic objections to retreat; sometimes you lose some. But I didn’t think it was necessary. If I could make Port Mansfield by tonight, I’d be safe before the storm hit; if I couldn’t, there were plenty of cottages to shelter behind. I’d just stay in my tent reading Sunday, and continue on when the weather was clear.

Ken was less confident about my camp-in-a-gale strategy. He believed I either needed to be sure I would make port tonight, or else bug out while I still could. He’s the more experienced paddler here, and I decided to listen to him.

So, could I make port? Even with my early start—which was not as early as I’d like, due to the mud hustle—I’d have to average 4 mph against a headwind to make it. Yesterday I’d averaged less than 3 mph. I texted Ken one last time:

Understood. Going to start for Port Mansfield and track mileage. If cannot maintain 4 mph will turn back to meet you. Can stop at this location and text you if so.

With that I stowed my electronics, strapped coffee to the front of my kayak, and shoved off into the wind.

Photo by André

The wind-sheltered underworld where I spent the night. Not as spooky as it looks.

Priorities

One hour later I stopped paddling. I aimed the nose of my boat into some mud and came to a halt. First priority: fill up an empty yogurt container (the two-pint kind) with urine, and empty overboard.

Ahhh.

Second priority: drink the last of my coffee. But why is the coffee gone?

And, as a distant third priority, I checked my mileage. Three miles in an hour. Respectable, job well done, but you will not make port by nightfall, André.

This was where I had to make a decision. I could go on, fall 10 miles short of a safe harbor, and camp wherever I could find a windbreak through a driving northeaster.  Or I could turn around and drift at a laughably easy pace with the wind, back to some previous point and call it quits.

Adding to the mental math was an itinerary problem. I had a friendly face waiting for me in Mexico, but if I took too long to complete this journey, he’d have to leave for weeks of business travel—leaving me nowhere definite to land.

To decide, I turned to my new policy of what is least stressful?. Viewed that way the choice was clear. My ego wanted to push on, but I turned my boat back the way I’d come. I chose to bail.

The weather around the time I made the decision.

The weather around the time I made the decision.

Mystery Beach

Going back was a joke. The powerful wind was working for me now and I made it in 40 minutes. Meanwhile, the Intracoastal had come to life; it was a weekend now, and fishermen were arriving by the boatful. Motorboats sped past me or drifted while the men aboard drank and fished. At least half the “abandoned” cottages now had boats. It made me realize that had I gone on, I might have had to beg to be allowed to camp on someone’s porch.

I landed at the same spot where I’d slept last night and climbed up the back stairs to text Ken. He gave me the coordinates of the pickup point—somewhere south of Baffin Bay. I scratched my head.

Can you confirm coordinates. I paddled past that point yesterday and it looked like desolate ranch land with nothing but windmills.

Ken texted back:

Coordinates correct. Small dirt ranch road runs along there however.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t far… hardly backtracking at all. This would be easy!

I can reach coordinate around 1:30. If I get there first I will land, look for the dirt road and paddle as close as I can. If you get there first I’ll look for you.

Let’s say 2 pm so you’re not waiting.

Of course, I didn’t need nearly that long to get there. But if this was my last day, I might as well enjoy the scenery and a leisurely paddle.

And enjoy it I did. I pulled up along fishing boats and asked if they needed a tow. I chatted with kids and cheered for fishermen trying to pull up a giant catch. I saw a scrawny coyote trotting along a mud flat and chased after him, getting as close as I could by boat. Sometimes I just drifted in the current, enjoying the ride.

Finally the time came. I was back in wide open water and kept a sharp eye on my GPS. I angled toward the spot in question and surfed good tailwind waves across the bay toward it. I remembered this shore: low and barren, generally sandy but with heaps of rocks scattered anywhere. Could be a rough landing.

As the waves rocketed me toward shore, I ripped open my spray deck (the thing that holds you in the boat and keeps you watertight), aimed at a seeming bare sand spot, and leapt out of the boat to run her in. Sure enough, there were sharp rocks all around but the spot I’d picked was clear. With me carefully guiding the boat, we reached shore safely.

I’d hit the GPS coordinate almost perfect. It was 1:30, and a few hundred feet away was a two-track dirt road. The only other thing worth noting was scrub grass and fire ants.

Well, I beat Ken, I figured. I began to unload the kayak and carry every piece of gear to the road, ready for pickup. To make life easier, I marked a trail around fire ant mounds with pieces of driftwood.

But Ken usually runs early, and I started to worry. He didn’t reply to my texts. Finally I just tried calling him.

“Hey, where are you?” he asked.

“I’m at the road!”

It was pretty staticky.

“You’re at the road? They won’t let me in.”

“What!”

“The ranch road is closed. They won’t let me in.”

Oh.

Ohhhhhh.

So here I was, more than half the day gone, farther from port than ever, and a storm coming in. With no one to pick me up. Ken would later tell me that armed guards actually blocked his way at the ranch entrance.

“What are our options?” I asked.

“Well you could camp and wait it out–”

I looked around. This spot was more desolate than any so far. There wasn’t a scrap of shelter for miles.

“–or there’s a boat landing at the end of Baffin Bay. It’s over 20 miles from you.”

The end of Baffin Bay. I’d crossed the bay entrance yesterday, but the bay itself cuts deep inland. I looked at the coordinates on the GPS. Yeah, that was a long way to go.

“What time is it now, 1?” I asked.

“It’s 1:30.”

Sunset was at 7.

“I’ll meet you there at sunset.”

“I don’t know if you can make it that far by sunset.”

“If I can’t I’ll let you know. But I’ll be there.”

“Okay André. Good luck.”

Click.

Map of both proposed pullout points.

Map of both proposed pullout points.

Too Eager

Before I could launch I had to re-load every piece of equipment. I ran them back to the beach, armload after armload, and shoved them into the hatches. At 2:00 I pulled back out through the rocks and made for open water.

To make my rendezvous I’d need to average 5 mph. I knew I wouldn’t hit that average on the first leg, as the wind had swung around to the east. It was crosswise to me now. But I hoped to make up the pace once I reached the opening of the Bay itself, turning west and catching that powerful tailwind once more.

It took 90 minutes to reach the Bay opening. I tore through my water bottles at an alarming rate, straining all muscles to keep the boat going at maximum speed. If I made my destination, I had a shower, a meal, and a warm bed waiting for me; but if I failed I’d be camping without shelter on a desolate wasteland, and still two days from port when the storm passed.

At the entrance to the Bay there’s a point of land, and I cut too close to this. Churning forward through the waves I saw the faintest tint of shadow flicker under the water.

“ROCKS!”

I actually yelled that out loud, to no one but wind demons.

At the same time I executed a perfect full-stop, which is a series of backstrokes Left-Right-Leeeeffft.

The Epic floated dead in the water while I inspected our surroundings. Yes, we were in the midst of a boulder field; we were already deep inside it.

Timidly I poked the sea bottom with my paddle. Like a hand in the dark, I felt out the rocks around me. The wind and current kept the kayak moving sideways even as I poled it forward toward open water. With the vigorous wave action, one collision could crack open the hull, stranding me.

We moved almost like a crab… a little sideways, a little forward, stopping every few yards to feel out the surroundings. I wasted ten minutes there, but eventually emerged from the minefield unscathed.

And finally I could turn with the wind. From here it was one long, straight run with a tailwind toward Ken… and I needed to average 6 mph to get there in time.

Racing a Storm

I shoved down my only food of the day and tilted into each stroke. I paid close attention to proper form. During training, one of our friends saw how much I obsessed over speed and told Ken that kind of stuff didn’t matter to them.

“Well,” Ken had said. “In kayaking, your speed stats are a good indicator of how good your form is.”

Now every stroke had to be perfect: lean forward, push with one foot, tilt the paddle, thrust like a spear, turn with the body. I repeated this until my torso burned, and then I repeated it some more.

Every hour I would guzzle water and check my speed. It was… questionable. The average was still just a touch too low. I managed to dig in and paddle even harder.

And the wind picked up. The reason it had switched from Southeast to East was, of course, because it was bringing in tonight and tomorrow’s storms. And one of them was early.

I don’t know what time it was when I noticed the sky change. Risking a look over my shoulder, I saw massive dark clouds. The wind grew stronger and colder and the waves were bigger and more powerful. They had miles of fetch behind them, running the bay and batting my kayak like a toy.

Racing with waves is a funny thing in a kayak. It’s a speed boost, to be sure, but each wave throws around the stern of your vessel side-to-side. They don’t really approve of you coming with them; it’d be funnier to the waves if they could turn you sideways, then just roll you over like a window shade.

It was more unnerving because of the weight I carried. Fully loaded, the kayak resisted most of the fish-tailing… only to squirrel around at rocket speeds for the rare wave that managed to grab me. And as the waves got steeper and faster, the heavy boat just sort of sank into the trough between each set, swamping me with water.

This is why I trained, I thought, and paddled on.

Finally things got bad. Another furtive glance showed a wall of rain bearing down on me. A squall, and I was in the middle.

I thought about going to shore. The closest shore, to my left, was more of the same rocky ranch I’d landed at before. No rescue there. The farther shore, barely visible on my right, might have some access road or at least shelter—but could I even make it across in time?

Sometimes you just have to impose human will onto a situation, simply refuse to let Nature dictate the next move. I wasn’t going to shore.

I pointed the kayak at the next marker in the endless chain that led, in theory, to some safe harbor near Ken, and decided to surf the squall-waves and see what happened.

What happened is I was slammed by wave after wave, got blown off bearing… and gathered remarkable speed. When waves picked me up and surfed me, I’d propel forward so fast that I was no longer the pilot, I was simply along for a ride.

As it happened, the worst of the squall passed south of me and I didn’t get rained on for long. I continued my trek toward safety.

Drawing by André

Drawing by André

Twilight

With the squall past, beautiful Áine showed her face. She smiled.

“I always seem to find you like this, Rogue Priest.”

“It’s a bad habit.”

“I can’t give you any more time.”

I looked around. I was still nearly an hour from my destination. I was out of sunlight.

“I know,” I told her.

“What will you do?”

I laughed. “What I always do, my lady.” I stared out at the distant shore, barely a smudge on the edge of vision. “I’ll survive.”

Her clouds closed back over her face and, so veiled, she made her way to bed.

Off on my right was one final point of land. Empty of life and devoid of shelter, it looked about as welcoming as Mars. But I could land there, right now, and still have time to set up camp before total darkness.

Or… I could keep going.

The final crossing, from this point to that distant smudge, was only a few miles. But it was a few I’d have to cover, ultimately, in the dark—without even knowing exactly where my destination was.

Are we here to adventure, or aren’t we?

While the ghost of the sun dropped below the horizon, I left the bewitching safety of that final point and began my crossing.

Me looking awful confident about the weather.

Me looking awful confident about the weather.

So Close

At first I strained in the vain hope of still making land before total dark, but as the sky fell greyer and greyer I knew the truth, and felt at peace.

The wind was still behind me, but softer now, and the waves slowly built down from buffaloes to lambs. On the distant shore lights began to appear: some white, some green, some tiny and twinkling. I chose a set of green lights, hoping it was a harbor, and paddled on. I felt a strange confidence in my lack of good sense, the confidence of the serial adventurer.

Crossing that last stretch I pictured Ken waiting on the shore for me, and hoped he could see my red boat front-lit by the dying daylight. Once, I thought I saw a blinking of a flashlight on shore, as if someone was signaling me, but when I yelled out—fruitlessly, I’m sure—it disappeared and didn’t return.

A strange magic comes over the water at nightfall. The wind went still, and every lap of the waves sounded plaintive and empty against my hull. It all gets so quiet, then; you see only dark reflected by dark, and some dots of light that could be one mile away or a hundred; you are completely alone in a force of nature vast and powerful, one which would gladly eat you and no one would ever know—but you can’t see it, so you aren’t afraid.

I made up a shanty and sang as I went. Perhaps this is human habit in such lonely surrounds. It also warned others I was there before they hit my unlit boat.

Oh the wind is calm,

And the night is clear

All hands on deck!

The shore is near—

And if we make this port,

There’ll be beer for all,

But if we hit that rock,

Then down we’ll fall.

Far from the best song ever composed at sea, but this dubious hymn led me through the black on my way toward the speckled lights of shore.

Getting close, I did not in fact hit that rock. The green-lit dock was a dud, and I made my way to another where dozens of men night-fished. They had no idea I was there till I called out, just yards away. They couldn’t agree on where to find a boat ramp or sandy beach. I disappeared back into the dark as quickly as I’d come.

I went pier to pier along vacation homes, none of them with a suitable kayak landing. (The piers themselves were too tall for me to use.) Finally, I found one lone night fisherman sitting on some rocks and just packing up for the night. I asked him to shine his flashlight on the shore for me. (Mostly he just shined it in my eyes, which by the way, does not help.) I saw a line of rocks with maybe a line of sand in front of them.

“You’re just going to have to choose a spot and land,” I told myself.

So I did.

In black shallow water I leapt out of the boat and walked her in, guiding her around rocks to the sandy beach, laughing with the wind as I made it.

By the time I called him Ken was halfway home. When he pulled up I called out, “How’s it going?”

How’s it going?”

He flipped me off with both hands.

It was good to see him.

We put the gear in his car, loaded the kayak, and headed toward his house. I was up very late. I had to change, shower, unload all the gear, clean things, and sort everything for the trip to Mexico—plus investigate bus tickets, since I wasn’t exactly leaving from where I’d expected to leave.

“You know, you’ve got an incredible amount of endurance,” Ken told me.

“Yeah, it’s my only good quality.”

Me that night at Ken's.

Me that night at Ken’s.

I honored the words of my shanty, pouring out beer for those spirits who’d been aboard, and having a sip myself. I never did end up making dinner—other than one of Ken’s world famous protein shakes, there just wasn’t time.

After midnight I feel asleep clean, dry, sore and warm. The rain fell outside. And somewhere, far away, the waves kept moving.

 

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Find out more here.

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Adventure, Sea Kayaking, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Adventure, the Texas Sea and Ghosts

Andre setting off for his kayak adventure.

Me setting off. Photo by Winnie Shrum.

When I started my kayak trip I was nervous. I wasn’t scared for my safety; I had trained enough that I knew reasonably well I would get through the trip, with body and boat intact. But I expected it to be uncomfortable. I had gotten so used to discomfort on the last leg of my bicycle journey that I was sure my 100-mile paddle would be an act of endurance. And endurance, honestly, gets old.

But a day later than planned, over-bundled against the cold wind, from a pebbly little shallow, I resumed my Great Adventure where I last left it off, and I paddled away. Ken, my mentor, and our friend and fellow adventurer Winnie watched from the shore as I went around an island and out of their sight. From there I reached the Intracoastal Waterway, a shipping lane that follows the coast toward Mexico with a string of barrier islands to protect it from the open sea. This would be my trail.

Once in the deep water of the Intracoastal I heaved a bottle full of offerings over the side, singing songs to the spirits of the sea and of mariners. I waited for discomfort to set in, with a north wind helping to propel me along, but I never did get cold. In fact, It was a very pleasant day.

The houses of civilization disappeared, and marsh became my constant scenery. The shipping lane itself is deep and clear, but the land to either side is mostly shallows with mud flats and salt marshes beyond. At seventeen miles I saw the clear yellow humps of “The Dunes” on my left, a clear landmark and one of the only sandy landings along the way. It would have suited for a camping place,  but I pushed on.

Although I spent most of my kayak trip without any human contact—only a wave to the rare fishing boat speeding by—the Intracoastal is not a trackless frontier.  Little floating cottages bob on their moorings at regular intervals. Others perch on islands. Sometimes these are scattered out over miles, and other times they cluster together in such numbers that it looks like a little town on the water. But all these houses are empty; no one lives there, and those who own them come only a few weekends a year to fish. The result was a more potent beauty than any empty wilderness. Abandonment conjures ghosts.

It was on one of these floating ghost houses that I chose to make my first camp. As the sun fell low in the sky I pulled up to a yellow cottage and clambered out onto her front porch. It was my first time leaving the kayak all day, and my thighs were numb. They woke up readily enough and I lashed the kayak to a post before opening the hatches and slowly, but methodically, pulling out all of my supplies for the night.

Out came water jugs, foodstuffs, a stove, camping gear and warm clothing in drysacks. I stripped naked and changed clothing on the porch, in full view of a handful of other bobbing raft-houses and an island full of vacation cottages. There was no one to see me, not a light in any window on the whole bay.

The joy of these floating refuges is that they are moored to a single heavy pylon, and allowed to pivot on that point with the wind. The front porch, therefore, is always downwind. This was a godsend to your saddle sore rogue priest, who had lost the benefit of his tailwind and had felt the chill of a strong cross-wind from the east for the last three hours. On the porch of this little landing place I had a perfect wind shelter, and organized my gear before at last I hoisted the kayak herself up onto the deck.

I tied her in place, even though she was above the water level, having heard too many horror stories of waking up to a rogue wave stealing away one’s boat.

My cottage perched at the edge of Baffin Bay, facing west thanks to the east wind, and the sunset over the bay was spectacular. But I barely observed it: I rushed to erect a tent and square away all my things before the darkness came.

It was in those last minutes, when the sun’s golden face slipped out of sight and her pink blush was fading from a dark sky, that I felt despair in my heart. It was my only moment of low morale on the trip. Suddenly the air was cold, with or without wind shelter; suddenly the bay, which had seemed like such a calm and pleasant place to paddle in the afternoon, looked endless and untrustworthy. I became keenly aware not only of how isolated I was, but that if something was wrong—if my gear wasn’t enough to keep me warm through morning—there was no way to leave at night.

The temperatures were predicted in the low 40s, even the high 30s (European readers: that’s really effing cold.) I thought of chilly nights in my hammock when it was ten degrees warmer than that, and I cringed. I wished I had someone to talk to, to cheer me up. But that was not to be.

It’s funny how the human heart changes with comfort. Resigned to an unpleasant night, I started up my cook stove. The first bite of hot food lifted my spirits. Once I’d eaten a full meal I had almost recovered from my sudden despair. And then I looked up.

The moon grazed across the sky, both her horns up, setting slowly from the peak of the heavens to the edge of Baffin Bay. I always salute the moon when I see her, but I have rarely seen her in such queenly glory as this. The Texas sky, far from towns and light, and the silent rippling bay made the perfect dark mirror in which to scry her.

Still chilly, still sore, I was suddenly aware of the great beauty in every direction from me, and the incredible rareness of the scene. How many human beings will ever have a chance to do as I did, to paddle out onto the bay as silent as a gull, to camp alone on the deck of a forgotten house, and to watch the heavens put on their display with not a single soul to share it with?

When I crawled into the tent that night, I discovered it was warm and luxurious. I didn’t even use all the blankets. Waves lapped beneath me and, sometimes, a bird would cry out. Wrapped in a borrowed sleeping bag I fell into peaceful dreams. In the morning I would move slowly: there was no better berth in the world.

Andre on the first night of the kayak adventure

Me on the first night. Photo by André.

There’s more to tell about the kayak trip, and I’ll tell it soon. What do you want to know?

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, Mexico, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

Riding the wind from Texas to Mexico

Traveling by Kayak

Kayaking with a friend. Photo by Ken Johnson.

One thing I’ve learned on my Adventure is the need to accept changes, to follow the wind. This entire excursion in Corpus Christi has been a lesson in patience, starting with unhappy times that forced me to question my journey. It followed an uncomfortably familiar arc: arrive at a new place with no friends but lots of high hopes, find all my plans difficult to implement, and grind to a frustrating halt—only to make friends and build a happy new life.

This is hard because, as my friend the Wandering Dragon points out, I like to be in control of my life. In fact, I like to be in control of things generally… which leads to a lot of tussling with the people I like the most. An iron stubbornness is a good quality when you’re forcing a plan to work against all odds, but it doesn’t make life easy. Over and over, I tend to choose the hardest way to do things.

Want to travel the world? Let’s do it all on body power. 

Want to leave New Orleans? Fall in love there first. 

You get the idea. I always have a vision for how I want things to go, and often I lay down a route to that vision that includes, well, challenges. Then I get frustrated when the plan derails. (Though I’m also relentless and patient in nudging it along till it finally works).

Recently I decided to try something different. My guiding principle for the last month has been, what’s least stressful? 

So when my one-week return to New Orleans turned into two weeks, I just shrugged and enjoyed it. Sure, I needed to get back here to plan a kayak trip that was quickly falling apart. And I needed to vacate my rented room by the 1st, so the trip had to be planned by then… and I needed to reach Mexico by March 5th so another plan would work… but I just took it as it came. If I had to, I would cancel the kayak trip and do this leg by bike, which would be faster and take less preparation.

It wasn’t what I envisioned, but things had changed. Instead of agonizing over my damaged plans, I decided to enjoy the extra time with my friends and sweetheart. And I did.

I went with the wind.

And it turns out I had no reason to fret over the proposed kayaking trip. Sure, my paddling partner for the next 160 miles pulled out—but that means he’s offered me the use of his (far newer, higher performance) expedition kayak, the Epic 18. I get a free upgrade.

Meanwhile, since I’m going it alone I can choose my own route, and I get to take the sheltered, lonely, meditative Laguna Madre instead of battling down storms on the open Gulf. As Ken pointed out, between the boat and the route I’ve removed the two biggest risks from the whole plan.

Before I even got back to Corpus, my roommate texted me to say that I can stay a week into March rent-free. And my host in Mexico? Their schedule changed from “get here before March 5” to “get here March 8 or later.”

Thank you, wind.

So here’s the plan for the foreseeable future: Monday morning I depart Corpus by kayak with a tail wind. I make my way along the Texas coast for four or five days, camping out at night. When I reach Port Isabel and the border, Ken meets me in a car. He takes the kayak and I get a bus ticket, heading onto Mexico.

This bus trip won’t erase any miles from my body-powered expedition—eventually I’ll be right back at the border, ready to walk or cycle—but it will serve as an advance scouting run, followed by a sabbatical to write, focus on my career, and master my Spanish. Those are the things that will help make the next leg less stressful.

At least, that’s my plan for now. But, you know… plans change.

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