Sleeping with Some Friends

Yee-haw, it’s my last full day in Texas, but I ain’t done with these headwinds just yet. I follow frontage roads 13 miles towards Vega. I was supposed to ride this segment yesterday, but strong winds forced me to seek shelter in tiny Wildorado, which had the cheapest motel and best fried catfish to date.

Route 66 in Texas is reduced to a frontage road within spitting distance of modern Interstate 40. It carries almost no vehicles except an occasional pickup truck, usually with a horse trailer in tow. When company comes, it gives me reason to react aside from crossing my fingers that I don’t get hit.

As in other parts of the country where routes are rural, traffic is scarce, and courtesy is still a core value, drivers on these lonely roads acknowledge one another with a hand-on-the-steering-wheel wave.

It’s a little pleasantry that means the world to me now. My safety is more in their hands than mine.

I’m exposed and vulnerable. Not being encased in a steel chassis makes me ripe for interaction. Tack on a New York license plate and there’s no doubt I could use some encouragement — or harassment. Some folks in these parts don’t care much for a northern city boy or anybody on a bicycle taking up room on their roads.

To wave or not to wave, that is the question. Waiting to see if the on-coming driver motions first leaves me no time to reciprocate. The driver passes and thinks, yup, that New Yorker is a rude a-hole just like they are on TV.

Yet, if I wave and the driver doesn’t, it stings. I feel even more alone.

When we both wave the synergy gives me an energy boost; someone approves that I’m out here. I had great success with this in southern Indiana and felt comfortable on the roads there.

A pickup bounces over the horizon. I prepare to react. A simple raise of my hand off the handlebar — not too high or early as if to signal for help, and not too low or late so it’s not seen. With his elbow hanging out the window, I’m feeling good about forming a fleeting connection.

Instead the truck slows to a stop. What does he want? My body stiffens in anticipation of verbal or physical abuse. Oklahoma 2.0 here we go.

“Well now, are you really all the way out here from New-York?” he asks.

“Yes, sir. I am,” I say, lowering the American flag bandana wrapped around my face to talk.

“Are you crazy? What are you doing?”

I relax a little. My only concern now is how to frame this in terms he’ll understand. That windowless office in Times Square. Bike commuting from Brooklyn. 7,000 bicycles sponsored by Citi Bank. Places and concepts foreign to here.

“Freedom, man. Heading to California… the American dream! This wind sucks, but sure feels good to be out here,” I say, keeping a patriotic and positive spin on things.

He adjusts his cowboy hat, trying to figure out what the hell to make of me.

“I think you’ve got your helmet on too tight.” He eases off the brake and departs with some final words: “Keep dreaming.”

Was that a blessing or a curse? I watch him drive into my past. Keeping his elbow on the windowsill, his forearm swings into the breeze. He raises his hand.

I reach Vega in time for lunch. Judging from the packed parking lot, Hickory Inn is the place to eat. I’m locking up my bike when out come Nigel and Kathryn. I ask them how the food was. Their accent tells me they’re not from around here either. These Australian diplomats have finished three years working in DC, and are on an eight-month farewell tour by driving 26,000 miles around the USA.

That sounds crazier than my 3,000-mile pedal quest.

My second thought is, oh God, I hope they don’t have DC tags. This could be Don’t Tread on Me territory where the only thing worse than a New York license plate is one from the nation’s capital where politicians run amuck trying to take away our money, guns, and liberties.

Fortunately, their Mazda is registered in Maryland, which sorta passes for the South. Just ask the Confederate flag hillbillies in the western reaches of the state where I rode along the C&O Canal Towpath heading to Pittsburgh.  

Nigel and Kathryn kept a travel blog. Their fantastic photos of eye-opening topography and wildlife give me inspiration to explore more of my own country, although next time I’ll choose four wheels instead of two. Here is their account of coming across me.

We chat for 20 minutes in the parking lot, discussing how life is different in states away from the Northeast, but not in a bad way. It’s tempting for those in big cities to feel they are the be-all and end-all of American society, but in reality people out here live a different American dream grounded in a calmer, more wholesome way of life.

The restaurant door swings open and out walks an older gentleman in a cowboy hat and boots, spurs clinking with each step. How Texan. Then I notice a holstered gun and a star-shaped lapel badge. A TEXAS SHERIFF!

Clumps of white hair poke out from his cowboy hat. Weathered boots and a round belly are also on point. The golden badge looks like a Halloween accessory, but it’s the real deal even if he resembles a cartoon character. I desperately want to take a picture but can't bring myself to gawk that hard. He climbs into an unmarked police SUV and pulls out of the parking lot, off to round up the outlaws of Oldham County.

Vega, the county seat, is apparently is the seventh sunniest area in America. It says so on the back of the menu along with other factoids from the county chamber of commerce, which has a email address. The information confirms what I’ve felt since Amarillo — that Oldham County is a sunny, windy, and w-i-d-e open space.

This county is larger than Rhode Island. Vega is known as the solar capital of Texas. Wildorado is home to a wind ranch larger than Manhattan’s landmass.

I order a Route 66 jalapeño burger topped with bacon and cheddar cheese. It takes my mind off biking borders as wide as Rhode Island but without the benefit of ocean views.

After lunch, westerly winds pick up. That's good news for the 56,000 homes relying on turbine-generated megawatts and bad news for singular me on a bicycle. The 13 miles to Adrian, the last town I’ll visit in Oldham County and Texas, feel like a 40-mile day.

Adrian has more wind turbines than houses. I see only three businesses here: a cafe, gift shop, and RV park. It’s almost 5 p.m. and I’m hoping to order something before the cafe closes, but it’s already closed — for the season. There’s no food anywhere else. The RV park is deserted and the only guests at the Fabulous 40 Motel are weeds rooted in the parking lot cracks.

The gift shop is open for five more minutes. I mosey around faux retro memorabilia of all things Route 66. The owner Fran is finishing up with customers from Chicago who are driving to California. They are the only Americans I’ll meet traveling this legendary road. Despite its diminutive size, Adrian is worth a stop. Its claim to Route 66 fame is the midway point between Chicago and Los Angeles. Only 1,139 more miles to go, y’all!

Fran inspired the character Flo on Cars, the Pixar animated movie about Route 66. Flo’s V8 Cafe is partially based on the Midpoint Cafe, which Fran owned at the time but has since sold. The new owner does not keep it open year-round as he promised, much to Fran’s disappointment.

“I never would have sold it,” she laments. Fran is known for her hospitality and famous pies, which I could have tried were the cafe not closed.

The next lodging is in New Mexico more than 60 miles away. Fran picks up the phone and calls Bud who manages the RV park that allows tent campers. It’s getting down to near freezing overnight, so Bud agrees to let me camp inside the laundry room for $10.

The laundry is the only permanent structure on the grounds. Even Bud’s house is a trailer. The room includes a full bathroom with hot water and heat. Never have I been so happy to sleep on the floor next to large appliances. A roll of quarters and I could make this a very productive evening.

Turns out I’ll have more company than just washing machines. My friends Max and Tyler text me they’re on their way. These New Yorkers I met in Oklahoma City have managed to ride all the way from Amarillo today. They arrive in Adrian at sunset when pastel colors bleed across the endless Texas sky.

After I biked with them from OKC through El Reno, Max and Tyler sprinted ahead to Amarillo and then drove to Denver just in time for a Mile High Halloween with friends living there. They brought back a shareable green souvenir, which we pass around outside in the crisp 41-degree air. Infinite stars twinkle overhead.

Max and Tyler fire up their portable stove to cook rice and beans. The result looks disgusting, but the thought of hot food makes me hungry nonetheless. I settle for two overripe bananas and spoonfuls of peanut butter.

We unroll our sleeping bags. I position mine under the vents of the propane gas wall heater. Three New Yorkers sequestered in a rural Texas laundry room could be a comical skit about nature-challenged city slickers, but give us a break, OK? It’s dropping to 34 degrees overnight. We are thankful for Bud and bud for keeping us warm.

We chat about our game plan to New Mexico in the morning, although there’s not much to strategize. Only one road goes to Tucumcari and it’s the interstate. We agree to get an early start. The winds have been crippling and 60 miles will be a challenge, especially for me on a Citi Bike.

A map on the wall puts our trip into perspective. All three of us love maps, so we gather round to study. The panhandle is just the end slice of a giant state. I can’t believe I’ve come this far. Max, meanwhile, can’t wait to get out of Texas, which he says is his least favorite state.

“It’s flat, characterless, and you see nothing for miles,” he gripes.

“And the wind,” I add. “Don’t forget the wind.”

Tyler challenges Max: “Even worse than eastern Kentucky?”

Hills, rain, and rabid dogs gave them a tough time there.

“Yeah, even worse than Kentucky,” says Max.

I avoided Kentucky, so am inclined to agree with Max. Texas to me was too much wind and too little human interaction. Meeting Nigel, Kathryn, and Fran today plus having a sleepover tonight makes the ride to Adrian my best day in Texas.  

It will also be the best day for a while as wind and loneliness will only worsen once I hit New Mexico.