TRAVELS WITH TOBY WEEK FOUR: Waltzing (slowly) across Texas

Thursday, March 24, Day 14
Deming, New Mexico to Las Cruces, New Mexico

On our last full day in New Mexico, we are still trying to get accustomed to the vast temperature swings of the arid but flat high country we are navigating. In addition, we are beginning to see just how sparse the population is in this part of the country.

Toby Thorpe

But today, we will encounter the first of two large cities before entering the long, lonesome stretches of West Texas countryside as we cycle from Deming into Las Cruces for the evening.

The cycle trip from Deming can best be described as loud. Because of the lack of hard surface secondary roads across which to route cyclists, our route alternates between interstate frontage road and interstate shoulder. While the shoulder of an interstate is generally paved and very wide, the constant roar of 18-wheelers whizzing by is nerve wracking. About half of our 61-mile trip is on the interstate shoulder, and that’s more than I like.

Our overnight stay in Las Cruces ends on Friday morning with more frigid temperatures. It’s difficult to figure out how to dress when it’s high 30s to start the pedal and low 80s at the end. Best bet is to layer up at the start, and peel like an onion as the day goes on. Keith’s regular stops along the route with the RV allow us an opportunity to do just this while refilling our water bottles, too.

Friday, March 25, Day 15
Las Cruces, New Mexico to Clint, Texas

Pulling out of Las Cruces on Friday morning, Earl, Mike and I headed to the southeast in the general direction of El Paso, expecting more desert, more sand and more lonesome countryside. Today, we were surprised in every aspect.

Las Cruces is home to New Mexico State University, and our path out of town takes us along much land that is used in their agriculture program. At this time of the year, the crops have not yet emerged, but fields are being readied for planting on both sides of the road, and irrigation canals have been gated so as to nearly flood some fields (which I would presume have already been planted).

After leaving New Mexico State’s fields, we are again surprised as we cycle through miles and miles of pecan orchards. I never had considered that pecans would grow well in the dry air and fluctuating temperatures of the Southwest, but it is obvious that a great deal of these nuts are produced in these parts.

An interesting sign seen on the fences surrounding many orchards encourages citizens to “Report Pecan Theft – Call 911.” I wonder if that includes squirrels.

We have always heard that “everything is bigger in Texas.” But evidently Texas DOT’s signage budget is not. As we pedaled toward the state line, we planned to stop and get a photo at the state line sign, but we pedaled and pedaled with no sign of one. Based on the mileage on our Garmins, we figured we should be in Lone Star country, but had no confirmation of such until we reached the El Paso city limits. Guess we’ll have to get a pic next time we do this.

My only prior knowledge of El Paso was having watched the Sun Bowl game a couple times on TV, and hearing Marty Robbins sing his classic song of the same title. What we found was a sprawling city set between two mountain ridges, and bordered on the south by the Rio Grande, a Spanish term which apparently translates as “Big Ditch Full of Sand.”

Seriously, we crossed it twice in New Mexico, and saw it in El Paso, and there is no water in it…at least not right now.

Pedaling out of El Paso, we followed Texas Farm Route 76, which took us through even more pecan orchards and a few onion fields. But as we rolled into the town of Clint, it was becoming evident we had reached the “wide open spaces” I had heard about in West Texas.

Over the next few days, I would learn more than I would ever want to know about ultra-rural existence.

Saturday, March 26, Day 16
Clint to Sierra Blanca, Texas

The cold mornings continued as we headed down Texas Highway 20 out of Clint toward our destination of Sierra Blanca. Passing through a number of tiny settlements, we were once again traveling in sight of the US-Mexico border. The roadways we traveled were primarily deserted, with farm trucks and Border Patrol vehicles accounting for about 90 percent of the traffic.

Speaking of Border Patrol, if you are traveling in Texas, you need to be ready when you see these guys. They don’t travel anywhere slowly. In fact, I’m not sure their vehicles run under 80 mph.

For the sports minded, I learned some things in a border town called Fort Hancock about a staple of Texas high school sports … six-man football.

Many of the communities in West Texas are so remote that they operate independent school systems. Fort Hancock, a K-12 school of only about 150 students, is one of numerous similar towns whose student bodies could not support large team sports like football. The solution? Small-sided games on a smaller field with special rules. Fort Hancock is a five-time state six-man football champion, and the games are the only show in town on Friday nights, with scores sometimes reaching triple figures.

While the teams may be smaller in Texas, the scores are indeed bigger.
Sierra Blanca, our destination point, was similar to Fort Hancock in size, but we found an outstanding restaurant (actually the ONLY restaurant) for supper. Fajitas, enchiladas, tacos and nachos made for a great end to the day … maybe not the most healthy, but still great.

A Sunday commute would take us 32 miles up I-10 (yep, on the shoulder the whole way) to the town of Van Horn, where we would turn southeast on US 90 through 38 miles of straight, flat and lonely pedaling to the town of Valentine, where we would set up camp.

Sunday, March 27, Day 17
Sierra Blanca to Valentine, Texas

As expected for a Sunday, we saw somewhat less traffic along I-10 as we pedaled the shoulder early. Eighteen-wheelers were in abundance, but the “regular” traffic of commuters and traveling families was noticeably lighter. This was a good thing, because between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn (32 miles), there is exactly ONE exit off I-10, at a place called Alamoore, which, as far as we could tell, consists of one fertilizer factory.

The Alamoore exit, where we would take our first rest and water stop, was approximately 22 miles east of Van Horn. This made our first rest stop about seven miles further out than we were accustomed to. In addition, road construction in several areas along the shoulder of I-10 between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn required us to dismount, lift our bikes across concrete barriers, and repeat the process when we reached the end of the construction zones. This made the 22-mile first leg seem twice as long. On top of that, I had left my water bottle in the RV. Needless to say, I was glad to see Keith waiting in the RV next to the fertilizer plant when we reached Alamoore.

At Van Horn, we were blessed in two matters. First, we would finally get to leave the interstate. Second, we would experience two flat tires (not normally a blessing) within sight of the RV (a blessing if flats happen).

After our usual peanut-butter (crunchy, not smooth) sandwich lunch, the three of us hit US 90 toward the town of Valentine and the Desert View RV Park (No Showers), and immediately realized the last 38 miles were going to be long ones, for we had turned into a stiff, warm headwind.

US 90 from Van Horn to Valentine, like most roads in West Texas, is flat and straight. If curves exist out here, they are most likely considered mistakes, because you won’t find many. So, as Mike, Earl and I took turns “pulling” (riding lead to break the wind for the other two, who follow closely), it became a little disheartening to see the road ahead stretching ad infinitum to the horizon while straining into the wind as if we were climbing a never-ending mountain.

But thank goodness for Keith. A 38-mile slog into a headwind is more mentally manageable when broken into smaller bites, so his dependable presence with the RV every 12 miles or so made the 38 seem more like 60 instead of the 138 a continuous pedal would have seemed.

Late in the day, we crept into the Desert View RV Park (No Showers) where we were greeted by a gentleman in a converted school bus and his grumpy but obedient service dog. The park was literally an open field beside the road with a water, sewer and electric hookup for the RV. The gentleman told us that the owners were out of town, but would be back before sunset, and we could pay them then.

Having thoroughly researched the town of Valentine, we had determined that the only restaurant was the Valentine Bar. Not knowing the bar hours, we called and were told, “We’re open when we’re open.” So, with that important information, we had Keith pick up four footlong subs before leaving Van Horn and store them in the RV fridge for supper.
Later, the RV park owners, Smokey and Manny, came by to collect the rent. They were absolutely wonderful folks, lifelong residents of Valentine and obviously loved their hometown. They were nice enough to warn us about the occasional presence of coyotes, scorpions and rattlesnakes in the area before they left.

Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have decided to sleep in the tent tonight.

After an absolutely majestic sunset, the warm afternoon mellowed into a cool evening in the tent.

Only a couple passing freight trains interrupted a deep and well-earned night’s sleep.

Monday, March 28, Day 18
Valentine to Alpine, Texas

Upon emerging from my tent a little after dawn, I found Keith outside with his camera looking to the east.

“I think we’ve got us a UFO,” he told me.

Sure enough, looking to the east down US 90 was an object in the sky, not moving, which looked to have the shape of an enormous trout.

Having never heard of “West Texas Flying Fish” and knowing that most UFO sightings in the southwest seem to be around Roswell, New Mexico, we debated what, if not of alien origin, the object could be. Unable to come to a consensus, we figured since we were headed in that direction, we would keep an eye on it and hopefully find out.

Once again, the towns we would pass were significantly spaced out. The first (Marfa) was about two-thirds of the way toward our end point (Alpine), where we would take a rest day on Tuesday, so we confirmed rest stops every 15 miles or so along the 65-mile route.

At our first rest stop, the mystery of the Unidentified Fishlike Object was solved. We were in sight of a US Border Patrol station, above which a blimp (inexplicably shaped like a fish) hovered. We found out that the blimp contained infrared imaging, radar, video and the like and was used to keep an eye in the sky on the US-Mexico border, 22 miles away.

Maybe the fish shape was a ploy to make the blimp appear more natural and keep illegal border-crossers from noticing.

Rolling into Marfa, we saw a large colorful roadside art display depicting James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in western garb. Earl, having watched hundreds of classic movies on TV during the pandemic, immediately identified the two as characters from the movie “Giant.”

Then, while we were stopped for our lunch break, a deputy sheriff engaged us in conversation, and through him we found out the movie was shot on location in and around Marfa. The hotel that housed the cast and crew is even somewhat of a landmark there.

Later, between Marfa and Alpine, we encountered a settlement just off US 90 that was signed “Paisano Baptist Encampment.” It seemed to consist of a large white building and several cabins, and the large building was signed “Alpine First Baptist Church.” Thinking I could possibly speak to someone there about my fundraiser/awareness builder for the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, I pulled my bike in and began exploring, only to find the site deserted.

As we pulled into Alpine, we found a vibrant and friendly small town with an active downtown, attractive homes and streets, and (best of all) an RV park WITH SHOWERS … a perfect place to take our first rest day after seven days of pedaling.

Later, over supper, I found that the Paisano Baptist Encampment is a ministry of Alpine First Baptist Church, and operates as a summer camp/retreat for the area, and our rest day could be an opportunity for an interview with someone at the church about the Annie offering and what it means to them.

Tuesday, March 29, Day 19
Rest Day in Alpine, Texas

The usual rest day activities (laundry, bike maintenance) were coupled with a couple of RV matters.

First, we could not seem to make the fresh water hose stay connected to our RV without blowing off once water pressure was applied. After attempts to use plumbing tape and other primitive methods, the purchase of an adapter from the Alpine True Value Hardware store seemed to correct the problem.

Next, on Tuesday morning, in an attempt to set up the portable dinette table (which converts to a bed) in the RV, the leg receptacle in the floor punched out, making it impossible to set up the dinette, but giving us a wonderful view of the ground under the RV.

It’s gonna take some strong duct tape to patch that.

The rest of the day will consist of route planning and the pursuit of food in mass quantities, and tomorrow we head for Sanderson, 84 miles down the road.

I’m hoping the wind stays behind us.

Wednesday, March 30, Day 20
Alpine to Sanderson, Texas

Well, the wind did stay behind us. Unfortunately, when we awoke this morning it was a 30 mph sustained “breeze” with occasional gusts to 55, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a “high wind warning,” advising all “high profile vehicles” to stay off the road.

As far as we were concerned, our bicycles were “high profile” enough that we didn’t need to fight that wind, so we decided to hold off until later in the morning to see if the wind would die down.

By 11 a.m., the wind had indeed eased up enough to lead the NWS to cancel the warning, so we jumped on the bikes ready to head for the town of Sanderson, 80 miles away.

We knew because of the late start that we would likely be arriving in Sanderson later than normal.

Had we had reservations at the Canyon RV Park, that would not have been a problem. But, the Canyon RV Park informed us, “we don’t do reservations … it’s on a first-come basis.”

But we decided to risk not getting a spot, thinking that on a Wednesday night, there would not be a great demand for RV spaces there.

But less than five miles into our ride, an all-too-familiar nemesis popped up … flat tires.
Barely out of the Alpine city limits, Mike popped a rear tube. With Earl and me helping, we got the tube replaced and pumped up in short order, and hopped on the two-wheelers to head out, only to discover that Earl’s tire had gone flat while repairing Mike’s.

More teamwork got Earl up and running, and we headed down the road after about a 30-minute delay, and met up with a very nice young man by the name of Jack. We learned that he was British by birth, and was taking some time to cycle solo across the USA. While that seemed daunting enough, Jack was carrying all his equipment with him, on his bike, and cycling just as fast as us.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a big wimp compared to these self-contained coast-to-coast cyclists.

About 10 more miles down the road, Earl’s freshly repaired tube fizzled out.

Another stop and another examination of the tube, rim and tire revealed no cuts or punctures, so we assumed “bad tube,” installed another, and headed east again.

This tube lasted five miles.

Out of tubes, we pumped up the leaky one with a CO2 cartridge, which got us back to Keith at the predetermined rest stop point, where Earl jumped into the RV and Mike and I continued cycling.

By 4:30 p.m., Mike and I had 50 miles in, but we were concerned that if we didn’t get to Sanderson by supper time, the RV park might be full. So, with much exasperation, we decided to call it a day and ride the trusty RV into Sanderson.

Fortunately, the RV park still had room, so we got checked in about 6 p.m. and headed for the only diner in Sanderson, The Ranch House Cafe.

When four guys in shorts and T-shirts walk into a diner in an isolated West Texas town, it draws a lot of looks from the locals, most of whom are in plaid shirts, blue jeans and in the case of the men (and some women), Stetson hats. But by this time, we are used to the looks, and the inevitable questions, most to the tune of, “Y’all ain’t from around here, are you?”

Speaking of supper, I have to give a shout out to my old officiating buddy, Larry Noland, who advised me that when we are in some of the local establishments, I should order the brisket. That’s what I did, and his advice was excellent. The day ended with one of the best meals I’ve had since starting the trip. Thanks, Larry!

We are going to be in Texas a while, but in a couple days we will start to venture more to the northeast, in the general direction of San Antonio. While the desert is beautiful, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing some trees again!

CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS ON LAST WEEK’S INSTALLMENT OF THE SERIES.

Toby Thorpe is a retired parks and recreation director and a freelance writer for The Stanly News & Press. He will file reports from the road for The SNAP. To donate to his fundraising effort (the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering – North American Missions Board), visit https://www.namb.net/give or www.northalbemarle.com/ways-to-give. Follow along as well using #pedaling4annie.