Crossing the Panhandle

After a close call with angry dogs patrolling the Oklahoma-Texas line, Jane and I enter Texas. Specifically, the Texas panhandle, an empty box that sits atop of the Lone Star State like a cowboy hat. The panhandle looks small compared to the rest of the state, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot of land up here, including a county that’s larger than Rhode Island.

Just before sunset, Jane and I roll into Shamrock, which has plenty of motels. It’s getting too chilly to camp and there aren’t any campsites anyway. Jane is going to find the nicest looking door to knock on.

Out of politeness and sincerity, I offer to let her sleep in my room, which will have two beds. She declines, but I make her promise to text me that she has found a place to crash for the night.

Luxury digs in Shamrock, Texas. That corner room was mine.

Luxury digs in Shamrock, Texas. That corner room was mine.

Feeling increasingly loyal to the Mother Road, I pick Route 66 Inn. The motel clerk recommends Big Vern’s for dinner. I’m sold on the name alone. Bonus: it’s a steakhouse and within walking distance. After riding 59 miles, I’m not keen to try for an even 60.

Jane found a place to crash, somewhere, and I’m going to get my steak on. How else would you celebrate biking to Texas?

Big Vern’s looks like a old gas station. A fake covered wagon straddles the former pump stand. Pickup trucks are the vehicle of choice in the parking lot. This could be the kind of place where they beat you up if not in denim or cowboy boots.

Tall, thin and in bright athletic clothing, I’m not rockin' the panhandle look. I feel out of place instantly. My stomach tightens walking alone to an open table, but insecurity melts away with the first bite of ribeye so juicy and buttery the meat doesn’t need any sauce. This is a Top 5 Countri Bike meal for sure. And at $23.99 for 12 ounces, a pretty affordable quality steak dinner, too.

I text Jane about tomorrow. Tonight the clocks turn back, meaning we’re robbed an hour of daylight, which will end around 5:30 PM. That puts major pressure to leave earlier and ride faster. Tomorrow we’ve got seven miles on the interstate and an uphill climb, so I want to get an early start.

Jane agrees until she remembers it’s Sunday and she’s going to church at 9 o’clock. She continues to amaze me, but such a delay is a deal-breaker. Jane bikes even slower than I do, and leaving after 10 we’ll never make it to Groom in daylight.

I head out first. Route 66 is an empty frontage road paralleling Interstate 40 where cars and trucks try to fast forward as fast as possible through the panhandle. There’s nothing of interest on the horizon, but there’s plenty of concern right in front of me. Pavement cracks are getting worse and worse. I’m especially worried about my tires ever since I saw the treads separating outside Elk City. Rubber-piercing goat head thorns are also a concern.

It’s a straight shot to McLean, my only hope for hot food until Groom, and even that’s not guaranteed. On Sundays these small towns really shut down. McLean looks dead no matter what day. Passing an abandoned motel on the edge of town, I see an open door can’t help but imagine zombies or junkies coming out to chase me.

Vacancy - McLean, Texas

Vacancy - McLean, Texas

McLean does have one Route 66 attraction, the Devil’s Rope Museum. I would have stopped to learn about barbed wire, but the museum closed for the season yesterday. Today is November 1st. Clock have fallen back and businesses are going into off-season mode. This heightens my discomfort that winter is moving faster than I am to California.

I soothe anxiety with fried pickles and a milkshake at greasy spoon in McLean. In walks a couple with a very un-Texan accent. They’re from Britain and sit down at the counter one stool away from me. With an annoying cadence they try to chat with the waitress about the vastness of the landscape and how difficult it is to drive when there’s nothing to see. I have no sympathy. Really, none.

“If you think driving is so hard, try the panhandle on a bicycle,” I sneer, looking at them sideways while chewing on a straw.

Diner on Route 66 in McLean, TX

Diner on Route 66 in McLean, TX

They don’t believe me until I take them outside and show off Countri Bike locked to the railing of a vacant storefront. They aren’t getting the Citi Bike thing until I link it to London’s “Boris Bikes,” informally named after Boris Johnson, Mayor of London when the program launched.

The couple is thrilled to make my acquaintance and treat me like another odd yet wholly American roadside attraction on Route 66.

No sale - Alanreed, Texas

No sale - Alanreed, Texas

The next settlement is Alanreed. I wonder if it was named for a guy Alan Reed. I don’t know, but hardly anybody lives here anymore. I stop to lurk around an abandoned Texaco station that looks like the real deal judging from decades-thick dust coating the office interior.

The town’s one viable enterprise welcomes visitors with a sign in the window: Alanreed City Limits: 52 people, 104 dogs, 88 cats, 2 skunks and a few snakes.

That about sums up things here. The store functions as a motel, gas station, gift shop, convenience store and post office all in one.

Less convenient is the fact that Route 66 ends, leaving me with two terrible options: trespass on a dirt road through Mr. Johnson’s Ranch or ride seven miles on the interstate shoulder. The ranch option is tempting, but a conversation I had with a host in Oklahoma echoes to mind:

“Texans are real independent. They may give you grief seeing your New York license plate, but when they hear what you’re up to I think they’ll be cool with it because you’re kinda bucking the system. Just don’t trespass there. They take their property and their guns real serious, you know what I’m saying?”

I do, but the interstate has dangers of its own. All those cars. All those trucks. Speed limit of 75 mph. My God, I’ve never biked on an interstate. The thought is terrifying. Is it even legal?

It is and others have done it before me. There are no federal laws prohibiting bicycles from interstate shoulders, although local laws can forbid it. For example, biking on interstates is allowed in New Mexico, just not around Albuquerque where frequent entrance/exit ramps make it dangerous and calmer roads better suited for biking exist.

Right now there is no other public road except I-40. I begin my entry merge onto the shoulder. Are cars freaking out to see me? Because I am, seeing them! They swoosh by and I feel the windy back draft.

I’ve gone from quiet frontage roads overlooking the interstate to now actually swimming with the big fish. Texas feels terrifying without Jane’s company. Up ahead is a lifesaver. A chance to grab the edge of the pool and hang on for a few minutes while I catch my breath.

I pedal into the parking lot of the Gray County Safety Rest Area. I’m welcomed with a wildlife warning sign, and head inside for a bathroom and vending machine break. Mini grills in the shape of Texas are outside. I wish I had some meat and charcoal.

Leaving the rest area I begin my second attempt at merging onto the interstate. The on ramp is luxuriously wide as it connects to I-40, but begins to thin until it’s gone and I’m on the interstate shoulder six feet from semis so large they block the sun.

Biking on the interstate is like jumping into a pool of cold water. You know it's going to suck, but once you’re in the water a few minutes it feels fine. With wide, clean shoulders, I-40 doesn’t bother me at all. Actually, I like it.

I reach Groom at the golden hour when the sun and sky team up for a vibrant show. This town is known for a 19-story cross. Built in 1995, the cross is inspiring in fading sunlight against celestial blue skies. This is one of my favorite pictures of the whole trip because it doesn’t look real, yet no filter was used. Groom’s cross is also a personal landmark: 2,000 miles on the road.

Groom has a surprising number of not terrible looking houses. There is one motel, and it’s not abandoned. Online reviews don’t live up to its name, Chalet Inn, but I have no choice. I’m biking over when I pass a couple outside an attractive home on a corner lot. The garage is open, showing off a tidy interior and American flag on the wall. A golden retriever looks up from the lawn but doesn’t move a paw. Flames dance around a fire pit. Could this be the quintessential American home?

I slow to a crawl to process the beauty of this scene, hoping a cosmic force will intervene so they’ll ask me, hey biker guy, wanna stop over for a burger? I’m grilling up a storm and my lovely wife Diane’s made her cinnamon dusted apple pie… best in the West! And while you’re here, why don't you crash on our couch?

They look up at me, but don’t say anything. I try to summon Jane’s courage to reach out to them, but my mouth won’t open. I roll away wondering what could have been.

Heading towards Chalet Inn I’m stopped by an oncoming driver. Carla’s in a red pickup and asks me if everything is OK. She’s got a place over on West 1st and Choctaw that she rents out as a boarding house for truckers. She offers a room for $10. I pedal as fast as I can to keep her tail lights in sight as unseen dogs erupt in barking from inside every house along the way.

The pale brick building was once the town’s medical clinic, which makes me uneasy. Growing up I watched too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack, and this setting must have a bloody past. Carla remembers getting checkups and vaccines where the kitchen is now. The surgical center is now a bathroom with the same drain in the floor.

Carla leaves and I’ll never see her again. I’m alone. Jane only made it to the rest area and is camping with snakes. I’ll never see her again either. It’s deathly quiet, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it through the night alive.

Doors in the hallway come together at odd angles, a disorienting touch like a hall of mirrors. I’m the last door on the left, which touches the edge of the last door on the right. I’m not sure if any rooms are occupied. I’m scared if they are and even more scared if they aren’t.

My room is lit with a single bulb. The bed is bare mattress. The window is boarded up. Surprisingly, the TV works and gets a few channels. It’s one of those giant boxes leftover from the late 90s. I turn it on low just for company. The picture is grainy, but I don’t care about Sunday night football anyway. I spread a tarp over the mattress and build a temporary nest with my sleeping pad and bag. I’m basically camping indoors.

The bathroom sink is full of simple toiletries from truckers en route to destinations unknown, maybe here. The shower is better than expected and syringe-wielding ghosts I fear will attack me fail to materialize. Let’s be honest, the Chalet Inn probably isn’t much better, and I'm saving money here.

Best of all, there’s free laundry with modern machines. When you’ve been on the road as long as I’ve been, modern washing machines can totally make your night. I wash a load and fall into an uneasy sleep with the Cowboys trailing the Seahawks.