Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mertzon, Texas

Friends: I'm 400 miles into western Texas and the countryside remains arid and cattle-free, but it is now populated by giant preying-mantis structures bobbing up and down like perpetual motion machines pumping oil. Some of the largest oil fields in Texas were discovered in this region in the 1920s. The oil is down to its last gasps, like most of the towns on route 67, which slashes diagonally across the state and will take me all the way to Dallas.

I'm under 400 miles to go and the towns, or what remains of them, are now coming every 20 miles or so, dramatically altering the complexion of my riding after nearly 1,000 miles of towns every 50 to 100 miles. Not only do I have to carry considerably less provisions, but I don't have to force my pace to make it to a town when I know its stores or library will be open. I can also count on shade and protection from the wind much more frequently when I wish to stop to eat or rest.

The more frequent dots of civilization came when I needed them most, as yesterday I encountered the strongest and most prolonged headwinds of this trip, a nor'easter that kept my speed under ten mph all day until just before sunset when they slackened enough to allow me to jump to twelve mph for an hour-and-a-half into the dark. It was a cold, wintry gale that plummeted the temperatures to below freezing last night. I awoke with frost on my tent and ice in my water bottles. At least they didn't freeze solid as happened to me in Patagonia when I was pushing to make it to the Straits of Magellan in June as winter set in.

It was out with the tights and wool cap this morning for the first time on this trip. My hands were numb before I even started riding, scalded from disassembling my frigid tent poles. Even with gloves on, I could only momentarily touch them without my hands smarting from their intense cold. For the first hour on the bike this morning I had to alternately ride with one hand on the handlebars and the other behind my back, out of the wind, crunched into a fist, trying to regain some feeling. It was two hours before the ice in my water bottles thawed. I couldn't wait for it to warm up before riding, as I've got a train to catch Monday and every hour on the bike matters.

The temperature plunged during the night when the winds switched from the south to the north. I'd had a sensational south-westerly wind all day out of Marfa pushing me along at over 20 mph for several hours, making for another easy 100 mile day. The winds had my rain fly flapping against the sides of my tent as they made their switch. I kept waking thinking I heard animals moseying around my campsite, another of those where I had to unload all the gear on my bike and hoist it over a fence and a cattle guard and ride a few tenths of a mile down a dirt road that had only the faintest of tire tracks.

Even as I took down my tent yesterday I was battling the winds. After one-and-a-half hours and 15 miles I came to the town of Gavin, whose only remnant was a shack of a saloon right out of Tarantino's "Kill Bill." A screen door flapped in the wind. A dilapidated, dust-encrusted pick-up, that may or may not have been abandoned, sat out front. I didn't care if it was open or not. I was just glad for a wall, if nothing else, to rest against out of the wind. When I mounted the porch I noticed the door was ajar. I opened it to discover a wiry old coot with dancing eyes and a friendly smile standing behind the bar as if he were expecting me. "Damn windy out there, ain't it?," he greeted me.

"Sure is," I replied, then warily asked, "Do you serve breakfast," thinking I could be in for either the best or worst stack of hotcakes in my life.

"Nope, all I serve are drinks. I'm only here as I'm waiting for the Budweiser delivery. He comes every Tuesday between nine and ten in the morning."

I settled for a soft drink and plopped down at the bar.

"Are you from Alaska," he asked.

"No, why do you ask?"

"A couple of years ago two guys came through here from Alaska walking to the tip of South America."

"I spent a couple of summers in Alaska," I told him, "so I may be considered part Alaskan." Then I excused myself to go out to get some nuts to munch on as I drank.

"I've got a burrito here you can have if you want. It's still warm."

As I unwrapped it, I noticed it was missing a couple of bites, but that didn't matter.

Bill said that he opens at four Tuesday through Sunday just when the roust-abouts are getting off work from the oil fields and stays open until the last customer leaves. He explained that this had once been cattle country until 14 years ago when a drought began that hasn't let up. A few of the ranchers have sheep and goats on their property, but they keep them close to their farmhouses, "to protect them from coyotes and Mexicans." He lived 11 miles away in the next town.

Among the many deer skulls and baseball hats and dollar bills and photos of the local high school football teams from over the years adorning the walls was a sign dedicated to "Bill and His Sweetie."

"Who's the Sweetie," I asked.

"My donkey," he said. "I dress her up and enter her into donkey beauty pageants, and have won a few."

Bill offered to give me a ride into his town, but I wasn't even tempted, though I would have enjoyed prolonging our conversation. He had moved out here over 30 years ago from Boston and hadn't returned since 1979. When I asked him what I owed him for the drink and burrito he said, "It's on the house."

Later that day a guy at a resale/junk shop that he ran out of his house wouldn't accept money either for a Modern Library book on Aristotle. It hasn't been all Texas hospitality, however, as the sheriff in this town followed me into the library and wanted some ID. He examined my driver's license closely and took a few notes. He wanted to know what I was doing here and where I had spend the last night. I didn't admit that I camped out on the golf course outside Big Lake, which has long ago dried up, but told him I'd camped at a rest area near there. He wanted to know if I'd had any trouble with the police in my travels. He may come back at any moment after running a check on me and grab me by the neck, so I better get going.

Later, George

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