Miles and Miles of Texas
By Bill Stork, DVM
Only a few minutes ago, the forest floors and roadsides of Wisconsin exploded with the colors and perfume of spring wildflowers. Yet, in just a few weeks, most of us will gather to feast and give thanks.
I am fortunate in many ways, not the least of which is to have a family solid and supportive as bedrock and a stable of amazing friends. Some are so profound as to tint and focus the lens through which I view the world; none more so than John Humphries.
John is a gluten-free, organic, leave no trace, tree-hugging man of the mountains. He owns a company called Lizard Head Cycling Guides. His energy and passion could make a 40-mile ride from Rockford to Beloit epic, but he tours groups through some of the most barren and beautiful roads on planet Earth, resting at oases plush, unexpected and out of place, capable of melting 100 miles of road weariness and saddle soreness in 15 minutes.
Each year I wait for John to tell me at which airport to meet him; the details will fall into place. For 15 seasons we have ridden through mountain passes, valleys and the deserts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I have toted bags, loaded bikes, built fires and bided time.
On August 15, 2013, he called.
“Bill, I am taking a trip through the hill country of Texas. It’s a small group, I’m short- handed, and I need another guide."
I tried to remain cool, all the while feeling like Seneca Wallace on Monday Night Football when Aaron Rodgers went down.
I was qualified and confident. Driving a truck and backing a trailer are second nature. I can cook Dutch oven ribs in a monsoon or fix a flat, and, most importantly, I work cheap.
As we have come to expect from Lizard Head Cycling guides, aka John Humphries, the trip was spectacular. The hill country is a unique, stark and spectacular piece of the great Republic of Texas. Topographically rugged, and famous for its limestone shelf, water is sparse and the entire 25-county region has less top soil than a community garden on the east side of Madison.
May through September the climate is roughly equivalent to the inside of a zip-lock bag at night. The region was occupied in the mid-1800s by bands of ferociously independent English, Irish, Germans and Czechs looking to escape the oppression of their home land, but not until they wrestled it away from the Apaches and Comanches.
Day 1, I drove the Mother Ship. She’s a one-ton Ford passenger van, pulling a 22ft enclosed trailer heavily loaded with all the comforts of home. The whole rig is emblazoned with a half dozen 4-foot images of the sun rising over the iconic Lizard Head Pass near Telluride, Colorado, framed by a bike wheel.
With hazards flashing and "CAUTION: BIKE TOUR AHEAD" across the end gates, we wound through the ranch roads. Blend into our surroundings, we did not. My job was to ensure the riders were hydrated, fed and safe, and to keep the boss updated on the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Oakland Raiders score.
Day 2 was my first day on the bike. We roamed ranches, over cattle guards, through riverbeds and past wineries and orchards, pausing to watch a half-dozen antelope run past a charging herd of whitetail deer, resembling a crotch-rocket passing a motor scooter. Later, I called my dad to tell him I had truly found the land, “where the deer and the antelope play.” Eighty miles south of Austin, and a million miles from civilization, there was little wonder how this land came to be the identity of characters from Lyndon B. Johnson to Willie Nelson.
Noon on Monday brought us to the intersection of Waring-Welfare Road and Farm to Market 1621. Waring, Texas inhabits four blocks; population 59. Downtown consists of a post office, ZIP Code 78074, and the General Store, famous for its Wednesday night steak fry.
Across from the General Store was a welding and machine shop, with a two-table diner on the front corner.
The screen door banged shut as I paused to adjust from the midday glare to the dingy confines. Well before I could see, there came a hearty, “Howdy,” as if they had been expecting a 6’4” praying mantis in Velcro tap shoes, Lycra shorts, and a faded Chili Pepper do-rag at any moment. In time, my pupils dilated and I could see the greeting came from the mechanic, having coffee with a cowboy.
My native tongue can only be described as “central Illinois mushmouth.” 21 years in Wisconsin has tempered that with an occasional hard Germanic consonant, and a few rounded Os. 48 hours in Texas will leave anyone with a soft drawl. “Goood Mornin’,” I replied.
“What can we do for y’all?” the mechanic asked, though there was only one of me.
There was a little cooler with a glass door and rotating shelves sitting in the corner. “Well if I could talk you out of that last piece of chocolate pie, that would be great. You might just be the guys who could answer a couple of questions I had.”
Here in Wisconsin, I would not hesitate for a minute to use “y’all," “reckon,” and “fellas.” At J and S Machine Shop and Diner, talking to a cowboy and a mechanic, it seemed contrived.
I was fascinated by the man-made “tanks” used to contain the flash floods and water the cattle. I was interested in the goat and fine-wool market suited to the sparse landscape of central Texas. The one thing I had not been able to figure out were some of the fences: at times 8-10 feet tall, woven wire with steel posts and cross members, they were Folsum State Penitentiary issue, minus the razor wire.
I had to ask, “Do y’all have goats down here with 12-foot vertical leaps?”
Chuckling politely, he replied, “Naw, but the hand-raised trophy bucks and bull elk do. Rich folks from Austin and Dallas pay $30,000 to come out and hunt for the weekend."
Before leaving, I asked the cowboy about his operation. He ran a Brahman cross cow calf operation and raised crops. I asked how many head of cattle.
“’Nuff to eat ma feed,” with a grin barely perceptible under the brim of his white Resistol.
Knowing the answer, but unable to resist, I asked how much crop land.
“’Nuff to feed the cattle.”