Cycling Across America — Part 63

Texas: Amarillo to Tulia

Excerpts from the journal of my 1996 cycle across the US. Read the entire story from the beginning starting with the introduction in Boston.

“Monday, 14th October, 1996.

It’s like that feeling you get after being at the beach all day. Or wave watching at Doolin. Only it’s a very long way from the sea here. That wind. My eyes are wrecked.

3,812 miles.

Didn’t manage that huge effort today. Or at least not the distance. I rode for as long as would normally do for a 90 mile trip but the wind kept me down to 62.

So if I’m to make Lubbock tomorrow then that must be my 90-mile day. There is a chance. Forecast is for a west to south-west wind. With the early start I never manage, and the wind more from the west than the south, I will do it. As saddle sore as I am it will hurt and I’ll need those thunderstorms also forecast, not to occur. That’s tomorrow’s problem.

This is the land that some people call flat, boring, desolate, nothing. Well it’s flat alright. Mostly. But it’s not boring.

It’s almost hypnotic, and it’s always beautiful. As for desolate, no it’s alive. It grows, it moves, it’s lived on. And the people here don’t call the High Plains of the Texas panhandle desolate. No, they warn me of New Mexico. Apparently there’s nothing there.

Here there’s always something. A house on a small ridge that is the horizon to the east two miles away. Dark roof and windows. Nothing beside it, not a shed nor a bush. The sun lights up its white walls against the huge background of the cloudless blue sky. Edward Hopper could’ve painted it.

Above me a flock of almost 100 birds circled and squawked for maybe 10 minutes. Then they came to a decision, formed a single file and flew east.

A lone bluebird landed on the road in front of me. I don’t think I’d seen one since Missouri. Any splash of colour is so striking. The twisted features of each cedar post holding the barbed wire, the swaying sea of tall grass, a single tree with a single crow, a train of 80 cars long hooting at me whilst its driver waves enthusiastically, a flock of Canada Geese leaving a flooded field that the dropping sun is shimmering all over through the grass, there’s always something here. How can anybody say there’s nothing? How can anyone say that I should get a train across the ‘boring’ bit?

Got out of Amarillo easy enough and in truth I was glad to leave it. Population almost 170,000 was probably too many for me at this stage.

Took State Highway 1541 south and was glad to see that Texas very much believes in shoulders. The only roads without them are the Farm Roads which don’t have any traffic anyway.

Crossed a canyon in-between the town of Canyon and the Palo Druro Canyon — supposedly the second biggest in the States. The river at the bottom of the canyon was either the Palo Druro Creek, or the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.

As I dropped in I was thinking of Georgia O’Keefe. I had been doing so for a couple of days. New Mexico was on my mind and I’d seen a couple of animal skulls. But now here in this canyon were the colours and textures, the formations and the light.

Climbing out of the canyon was probably my biggest climb since Mississippi or maybe Arkansas. I went past a ranch that does genuine cowboy suppers and a couple of miles up the road there was a sign for Georgia O’ Keefe’s house. She’d lived in Texas, in the town of Canyon for two years, 1916–18, and I hadn’t known.

Turned due west towards the town of Canyon when I reached State Highway 217. The days would have a lot less cycling if roads went diagonally. Or even just bent a bit. The landscape is all flat again once you’re up out of the canyon. The trees, the ridges, the rocks, the angles, the clutter of features all gone again once back up on the plains.

On my way into the town of Canyon I passed a marker for one of the earliest barbed wire fences. 1876 was the date, which is actually two years after the 6666 Ranch was fenced. It told of its introduction including the resistance of cowboys who were needed less once fences were erected. It was introduced because of the lack of trees in the panhandle.

Outside the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum there was another marker. This one was about a Plains man called Goodnight. He’d rode bareback as a youngster following his parents’ wagon when they went west. He was from Illinois. As a young teenager he fought the Comanche and Kiowa. He trained with other Indians, and he drove thousands of cattle along famous trails including through the Palo Druro Canyon. Later in his life he got involved in preserving the buffalo and establishing law and order. He died in 1929.

The museum was big but I decided I’d rather spend my time out there now on the plains as they are living, than inside looking at reconstructed windmills, oil wells, log cabins, mud huts, barbed wire fencing etc. So around the corner I went into a Wendy’s for a burger.

I was lucky because 50 teenagers came in immediately afterwards. This is a national holiday. It’s Columbus Day. There’s been very little talk about it. No discussion, no revisionism, no fuss.

From Canyon I went on US route 87 south to the next town, 18 miles away. The views were as they had been, infinite and intoxicating. I swallowed them. And the town name? Happy. It’s all grain elevators and grain bins and water towers, and those corrugated roofed hangar style buildings, but I was in Happy, Texas. And they knew how to sell it. ‘Welcome to Happy. The Town Without a Frown’.

Happy, Texas. ‘The Town Without a Frown’. 1996

Railway tracks had accompanied my road for a fair few miles and now they escorted me right into Happy. Maybe it was down to the late afternoon sun, or the brilliance of the white elevators, or just the shapes of the water towers, but it’s fair to say that the whole time I was in Happy, with its one-block downtown, I wore a smile.

Actually the road into Happy had in fact been mostly diagonal but it ended there. Or rather it joined forces with the interstate, something I couldn’t do on a bicycle so for me to continue my way south I once again had to cycle due west. Four miles later was my turn due south, a straight Ranch Road for 14 miles to State Highway 86 where I turned due east.

Take away the winds and I’d have kept on going south another 30 miles so I finished the day in Plainview. But take away the winds and you don’t have the panhandle. So I went 8 miles east and finished the day in Tulia, which is a far nicer name for a town. That said I didn’t go into the town as the motel is on the outside overlooking the interstate.

It’s expensive for me, being a Best Western, but I decided to treat myself. When the receptionist told me how much a room was I said:
 -Does it have to be?
 And she said no, and reduced the price by $5.

Definitely pampered here. Run by people from India again. They’re very talkative which is good and I’ve got my hand on a county map which has me tempted for a 5 mile shortcut across an unpaved road.

Eating mashed potatoes and green beans with my dinner was a great change from burgers and fries. Though nowhere as nice, the spuds reminded me of the garlic mashed potatoes back in Omaha, Nebraska.

I seem to be forever reminded of something. Yesterday morning before leaving the motel I heard singing on the telly. It was one of those Kenny Rogers Gambler westerns. Colm Meaney was sitting around a camp fire at night and wishing he was in Carrickfergus.

Today leaving Amarillo I passed McCormick Road, and in Canyon I passed a cemetery where I could see Scots-Irish names on the gravestones. And then again in the evening I watch Mel Gibson direct the FCA.

Turning on the TV really makes the world small, reminding me of shared memories of Hong Kong, Birmingham, and Dublin. Most of the time though I don’t need prompting. I spend so many hours alone on the bike I overdose on daydreaming.

At the moment I’ve returned home to Dublin, sorted out an income, got my own place, am all but married, and not far off set up really. In my garden I have a caboose. I use it as a bar and my friends drink there with me. My girlfriend indulges some painting fantasies and the weather is never an issue.

Tomorrow night the second Presidential Debate. Will Dole go after the character of Clinton as predicted? With the day I have planned, will I care?”

Read the next segment: Part 64