Weeks 59+ - Texas, Gulf Coast, Florida, and Home

Honestly, at this point in the trip I was kind of wanting to be done, and I guess I'm feeling the same way about this blog, hence the long delay. I stopped taking notes after Truth or Consequences, and nothing really epic happened. I guess I was learning how to take care of Sugar, and nothing went wrong except for some difficulty starting in the mornings and leaking a quart of oil every thousand miles, which made a real mess on the underside but happily also kept the chain lubricated. Another factor was that the days were getting shorter and shorter, so there wasn't as much time to stop and smell the roses or chat with locals. My days were mostly spent packing and unpacking, eating, riding, and maintenance, and when darkness fell it got cold enough that all I wanted to do was crawl into my sleeping bag. That said, I'll do my best to catch up, and apologies if the writing isn't up to my usual standards.

I decided to divert my route to get around the White Sands Missile Range (there are roads going through but they're rough and sometimes closed), which took me through Hatch, New Mexico, famous for its chilies. I rode through huge fields of red peppers hanging from withered brown vines, and ate lunch at a little diner in town. Every business seemed to have a sign advertising their roasting services; apparently it's popular to buy a batch of peppers and have them custom-roasted. Passing through the missile range, I saw the long dunes of bright white sand, and on the other side climbed steeply up into the mountains, where roadside apple trees hung heavy with ripe fruit. On the way down the other side, I stopped to buy some apples at a roadside stand with a petting zoo, and then continued onto the rolling plains, following the course of a small stream that watered picturesque farms. Then it was back to the flat desert, and I camped for the night at a little gravel pull-off, buffeted by a cold, dry wind. The next day I crossed into Texas and camped by a golf course just outside of Big Spring. Sugar had been very hard to start after I finished lunch, so I used the last of the daylight to clean and adjust the carburetor and replace an old gasket on the intake manifold.

I'd expected West Texas to be a bit of a struggle to cross, and it was. It seemed like no matter which way I turned, the windmills were always pointing the same direction as me. But instead of harnessing the wind like them, I was fighting it, sometimes shifting down into third or even second gear to maintain speed on what seemed like gentle hills. On the third day of riding I made it to a park on the shore of a lake outside Brady, camped under spreading trees, and watched a technicolor sunset over the water. Nearby was a huge floating dock with a Quonset hut built on it, with warm light spilling out from inside. Beyond that was a tall cross, and I seemed to see benches inside... was it a floating church? When a young couple drove up and went inside, I decided to go find out. Inside was a large hole in the decking, surrounded by a railing. The couple were dangling fishing poles over the milky green water, trying to catch bait for an upcoming catfish competition. Apparently the people of Brady were passionate enough about fishing to make a public fishing hole for all times and weathers, open day and night. I guess in a way it was a kind of church.

The next day's ride took me gradually into the hill country, and the vegetation turned greener and greener. The scenery got prettier, with rolling oak savannas, old farmhouses, and fine looking horses and cows grazing. In the early afternoon I climbed over some very steep hills, saw the skyline of Austin in the distance, negotiated some city traffic, and rolled up to my aunt and uncle's place in the northern suburbs. Their house seemed just the same as it had been when I was there last in early March of 2020, but Austin's growth had kicked off a construction boom and many neighborhood lots had been cleared to build new houses on. I pitched my tarp in the back yard and settled down for a week or so of resting up. I visited with some friends and coworkers in the area and sampled the awesome international food scene. Then I flew back to Durham for six busy days of swapping out camping gear, getting a legal license plate for Sugar, and visiting (sorry if I didn't visit you, there just wasn't much time!). Then it was back to Austin for four more days before hitting the road again. I had the ambitious plan to ride to northern Florida to spend a week with some friends there, then ride to Columbia SC for Thanksgiving with my family, which would be nine days of riding in all.

The first day was an easy run to Sam Houston National Forest, where the tall pines and saw palmettos told me I was back in the Southeast. I camped on the north side of Lake Conroe, and watched the sunset and the birds while filtering water on the shore. The second day took me just across the border onto Louisiana Highway 82, and I camped near the dunes on a wide beach, with the glittering lights and low rumble of offshore drilling platforms out in the gulf. On the third day I got on the road just after dawn and followed 82 along the coast, winding over the high ground through marshlands. Occasionally there were houses and settlements, all on stilts (including large school buildings), some ripped apart by recent hurricanes. A common yard decoration was dinghies and buoys painted bright colors and perched in the live oaks. It made a pleasant change of pace to take a ferry across the Calcasieu Ship Channel, a very short ride in which the boat spent most of the time turning 180 degrees and docking on the other side. I passed through vast sugarcane fields and saw trucks loaded with chopped-up cane and sugar refineries pouring out smoke and discharging their black residues into canals. I stopped for the night at a hotel in Amelia, and decided to stay two nights to avoid the low pressure system that was coming through the next day. It was a surprisingly nice place, with extended-stay rooms full up with people working as nurses, helicopter pilots, builders repairing storm damage, and so on. There was a very indifferent Mexican restaurant nearby, and a path down to a pond where smallish alligators splashed loudly into the water when I startled them. I spent the next day working outside, and when I had to duck into the screened picnic shelter to avoid a squall of torrential rain, I was glad not to be riding.

My fourth travel day dawned chilly but clear and sunny, and I rode through New Orleans, stopping at a little Ethiopian restaurant for lunch. After crossing the border into Mississippi, there was a lovely stretch along the coast into Gulfport, with big old houses surrounded by live oaks and Spanish moss on my left and wide beaches of pristine white sand and sparkling blue water on my right. Then I turned inland and rode into the De Soto National Forest, where I stopped by a lake at the site of a former POW camp. Next to where I pitched my tarp there were a bunch of young people in the Air Force who'd converged from bases all over the country for a training program and were kicking back together in their time off. I struck up a conversation with a group of them watching a guy repair a little go-kart. It was admirably minimalist, basically just wheels on a frame with a motor from Harbor Freight and some plywood for a seat. Apparently it could get up to nearly 40 miles per hour, and the brake cable was broken, which explained why the right front wheel had been run into a tree and nearly detached. I got a laugh by pointing out that they should be used to it since aircraft don't really have much in the way of brakes either... you just need to plan ahead. The go-kart's owner and repairman got the wheel back in place, and we talked a bit about motorcycles. A little after dark they packed up and headed out.

The next morning was even colder, in the low 30s, and I took a vigorous walk around the lake to warm up. I crossed into Alabama, and just as I was riding through stop-and-go traffic into Mobile, I felt the steering go squishy, and yet again my back tire had deflated completely, although luckily it had happened at low speed this time and I didn't crash. I pulled into the nearest side street, which was in a posh neighborhood, and parked in front of a house which was having its tile roof repaired by two Latino men. When I inspected the back wheel, I found that the valve stem had been sheared clean off. I still have no idea what did it, but luckily it happened in city traffic where I was moving slowly. The roofers lent me some discarded tiles to prop up the center stand, and all that practice in Arizona had made me very efficient at removing my luggage, changing the tube, and putting my luggage back. I continued into Mobile and randomly stopped for lunch at Bob's Downtown Restaurant, which turned out to be a popular hangout for bikers, and just as I was leaving got into conversation with a local rider. The encounter lifted my mood, and he wound up posting about my trip on Facebook, which led to a lot of encouraging messages over the next few days. I got back on the road and went through a tunnel and some very long bridges over Mobile Bay, then across the border onto the Florida panhandle. I camped for the night in the Blackwater River State Forest. In the morning there was frost on the ground, and the view of the river was extremely pretty, with mist rising off the dark tannic water, and on the other side a brilliant spit of pure white sand with a lone rust-red cypress tree. I stood on the boat ramp for a long time, watching the subtle changes of color and shadow as the sun rose.

From there my route turned inland into the endless pines and saw palmettos. By the late afternoon I reached a potential campsite at a boat ramp on Lake Talquin, west of Tallahassee. Well, it was marked on my map as a campsite, and someone had made a fire there, but it didn't look quite official. I really didn't feel like getting back on the road though, so I decided to chance it, and after setting up camp I spent a while picking up trash from the area to sort of pay my way. After dark I was going back to the parking lot to make sure Sugar was properly locked up, when a woman and a small dog rolled up in a golf cart. It seemed like she might be some kind of caretaker. "You aren't camping back there in the woods are you?" she said. "I am," I said, "did I do wrong?" She told me I wasn't supposed to, but after I told her about all the trash I'd hauled out, and that I'd be away in the morning, she said I didn't need to clear out and just asked for my name. She asked if I needed any food or anything and I told her no. Then she seemed worried I might freeze to death in the night, and said I should build a fire, but I assured her that it was only "Florida cold" and that I was from farther north and had good equipment. I returned to camp and got into my sleeping bag, and was just settling down when I saw headlights approaching along the trail and the golf cart pulled up next to my tarp. For a moment I worried she'd thought better of it and was there to clear me out. "I couldn't take no for an answer," she said, "It's just how my daddy raised me." She'd brought me a container of soup with saltine crackers and two cookies, and a liquor bottle filled with hot water. I thanked her and put the food aside for the morning, and she told me to come by her house if I needed anything. When she'd gone I turned the bottle upside down and found it leaked a little, but I appreciated the gesture. I fell asleep to the sound of the lake lapping against pilings and the distant murmurs of night fishermen out on the water.

The next day was more straight roads through the pines, but it helped to know that it was the last day of this eastward push, and that I'd be joining friends back on familiar ground. The destination was Cobb Hunt Camp in Osceola National Forest, and I was meeting up there with PP and JT, who I'd met back in week 28 and kept in touch with ever since. I stopped in Lake City for supplies, and then finally returned to a place I recognized, the tiny hamlet of Olustee. I turned across the tracks, got on the potholed dirt road through the forest, and arrived at Cobb. PP raised his arms in greeting and I raised mine in a mixed sense of triumph and relief. I'd finally completed my circle around the country. It was time to rest, and I quickly settled down into camp life. Every night we sat around the fire and my friends made dinner, JT cooking on the stove and PP roasting vegetables in the coals. We all had some new stories from the summer, which JT had spent travelling up to the Pacific Northwest and back, and PP had spent in Tennessee doing some hillbilly fleamarketing, selling "high quality second-run merchandise at low, low prices," as he put it. Walking around camp, most of the people I'd met in February were there, some of them having never left. The shade tree mechanic was working on cars, the woman in the huge tent she called the "Taj Mahal" had upgraded from inflatable furniture to wooden furniture and bought herself a scooter. The couple with the old Chevys was parked in the same spot by the road. On my last day there, I overhauled Sugar as best I could, with PP looking on to give me some advice and remind me to take it slow and not be anxious. He suggested I might check the height of the carburetor float and it turned out it was way off. After that TLC, the engine started way easier, and in the morning I said goodbye, with plans to meet up again down in south Florida after the holidays.

I had a very cold but uneventful two-day ride up to Columbia SC where I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family, then I rode to Myrtle Beach to spend a few weeks with my friends there. I went to the beach and dipped my toes in the Atlantic to make the coast-to-coast crossing official. Then I rode back to my family's land in North Carolina in time to celebrate my 40th birthday and Christmas, and the trip was complete. After nearly 10,000 miles, my obsession with motorcycling was exhausted for the moment and I was happy to park Sugar in RM's garage where it all started and prepare for something different.

Things I Learned

  • The USA is a really big country!

Wonderful Things

  • Reaching home after a long journey.

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