When fall rolls around, and the edge softens from Austin’s tortuous summer heat, I naturally start thinking about getting the Indian back on the road again. That usually means contacting my biker buddy Nathan Gibson for some companionship on the trip.
Although Nathan continues to insist on riding that P.O.S. Harley of his, both me and the Indian chose to overlook that little detail since he is such good company on the road.
Due to tight schedules for both of us throughout October 2016, we had to compress what would normally have been a longer trip (time wise) into a shorter duration.
Our chosen route for this trip would take us to the western and southern edge of the state. First to Terlingua, a dusty little town situated on the edge of the Big Bend National Park (more about this below), then through Laredo (surprising to find at 300,000+ population is the 3rd largest US/Mexico border city), then further south to South Padre Island.
Some 10 years ago, Dorothee and I spent a few days in Terlingua with our Munich friends, Dietmar and Britta. I had remembered the name of the cabins we have occupied before, and made similar reservation for Nathan and myself. Was I surprised on arrival to find that we had been assigned the EXACT SAME cabin as from 10 years prior.. deja vu!
Also, on our previous trip, while having dinner at the Starlight Theater in Terlingua, we came to appreciate the artwork that had been hand drawn on one of the tables in the bar. The next morning, we returned to the Starlight and asked the owner if we could take the table outside in the sunlight and take a photo of it, and she readily agreed. From that photo, we had a life-size image printed (roughly 40″ x 40″) which to this day still hangs on one wall of our great room.
Naturally, I was curious to learn if “Our Table” was still in service at the Starlight, so when Nathan and I showed up for dinner (No.. I am NOT trying to relive my past..dining opportunities in Terlingua are extremely limited.. honest!), my first task was to wander around all the diners, searching for the “THE” table. Sure enough, there is was, still providing pleasure to diners some 10 years later!
One big advantage of having Nathan along on a trip is that he is an accomplished and prolific writer, having published several books, and can always be counted on to record the details of our journeys. Accordingly, rather than to try and best the master at his own game, I provide his words below:
NATHAN GIBSON Sunday October 16, 2016
The Big Bend Loop is a simple way of taking a good look at one fourth of Texas, which is about like riding the circumference of any of the other states. Austin is Central, so you point your motorcycle due west for about 300 miles, take a left and ride south for 200 miles. This is Day 1. Day 2 you traverse the Big Bend National Park…about the size of New Jersey….then hug the Mexican border east for a while then south for a long time….finding your way to Laredo. Day 3 you make it to the southern tip of the state on the Gulf of Mexico. Day 4 you meander back to Austin.
Phil and I left at the absolute perfect time, at least for us. Daybreak is beautiful when you are riding on a motorcycle due west. The sunset is developing in the rearview mirrors for over an hour. Twilight evolves in shades of pink and blue until the main attraction rises up in the form of a giant orange ball…actually two orange ball if you count both rear view mirrors. It is really magical.
The first hour really goes fast as you intermittently watch for deer that might kill you and you watch the sunrise.
At about 140 miles we made our first stop soon after we connected to I-10 W. As is the custom, Dorothee had loaded us up with homemade muffins which we devoured with a McDonalds coffee at the first fill up. After that it was a shit load of I-10. Normally we abide by the adage that “Friends don’t let Friends drive on the interstate” but with the Big Bend Loop, there is no getting around it; we sucked it up and accepted one day of mindless 85 mph straight eventless riding. I made the mistake one time of taking a train from Perth Australia to Sydney without a sleeper car other than than the bar car. This 50 hour, 2000 mile experience put west Texas in perspective. The nothingness of west Texas is pretty lush in comparison, but I digress.
The second stop at about 300 miles down the road would not have been remembered except for the millions of butterflies. We found ourselves in the migration pattern of yellow and orange monarch butterflies. They are beautiful to watch until they cover your windshield and helmet shield with little orange and yellow splashes. I think it was also this stop that I noticed an exhaust leak that was warming up the calf of my right leg.
Stop three was in Fort Stockton which is pretty much the arm pit of the world…certainly the arm pit of Texas. This is where I discovered a little puddle of oil under my Harley. It seemed to be coming out about mid cylinder of the forward cylinder. Harley guys take it for granted that you have a Harley dealership anywhere large enough to be on the map. We learned that Fort Stockton should not be on the map, for a lot of reasons. There was not a motorcycle repair shop of any description. I bought a $4 qt. of oil for $20 and limped on 80 miles south to Alpine where a mechanic said he would at least diagnose the issue.
I must add here that in the parts store where I bought the oil there was a picture of a 21 year old very attractive young lady who had been missing, last seen in Fort Stockton about a month before. After our tour of Fort Stockton which had no visible redeeming characteristics, we formed the opinion that any 21-year-old, with half a brain cell was going to become missing from Fort Stockton. Most likely she jumped in the truck of any truck driver and was off to anywhere else!
We found the afore mentioned dilapidated repair shop, Big Bend Motorcycles in Alpine, but no mechanic. He answered right away when called an hour and a half earlier Fort Stockton but did not answer or return calls thereafter. The leak did not look as bad, so we had a two beer lunch and pushed on.
Other than wondering if the motorcycle was going to blow up at any minute in the desert, the ride to Terlingua was very nice. The mountains were starting to pop up and the road was starting to take on some personality. Strangely and happily, there was no motorcycle leak in Terlingua.
We did pass a border patrol stop about 50 miles from the border. We were not stopped as we were headed toward Mexico as opposed to coming from the border. This is pretty much a non-issue unless you have contraband. Well, I did have a very small amount of “questionable substance” which would go undetected unless they have the dogs…and they usually do have the dogs. So, once in Terlingua, Phil and I are going to have to dispose of the evidence because tomorrow…we are going to be going north again and we will be stopped!
We treated ourselves to a strong bourbon/coke, put a pretty good dent in my pot supply and went out to a nice meal of chicken fried boar at the Starlight Grill and Bar…..I think.
NATHAN GIBSON Monday October 17
Once animals and fuel stops are omitted, day two was largely uneventful. We departed our little cabin at the no-tell-motel at daybreak again. Riding with limited visibility across the animal invested desert is ill advised but riding in the afternoon 100F + heat is also ill advised. If you have charted a 500 mile day, you must strike a balance. Daybreak gives you some light and a somewhat early start.
We were not 50 feet from dropping our keys in the night drop when a Kit Fox was contemplating a road crossing in front of us. He had second thoughts but we got a good look at him, bright eyes, very large ears and a pointed nose. We were not a mile down the road when a very large deer ventured out into the road into Phil’s path but she turned in time….Phil signaled to me and we both slowed it down. Deer do not usually come in one’s. About 20 miles down the road, Phil crunched a rabbit and hated doing it. The next animal was a large deer running down the side of the road about 10 feet from me along side a cut in the mountain, so she had nowhere else to go. There was no real danger as I saw her in time and she did not bolt across the road. Finally, about 300 miles down the road we saw a full grown dead cow that had just been hit by a car or truck and was laying on the side of the road.
My real concern was Javelinas. These are short pig looking animals that I had seen running in herds on my last bike trip to Big Bend. They hang out in family groups of 10-50, are about 2 feet tall and weigh about 50 lbs. Further, they are very quick on their feet and not very quick in their brains. They have long dagger looking teeth that hang outside of their snouts and basically are miniature boars.
Moving to our “death by technology” phase of out jaunt, we had three separate disagreements with gas pumps. In different locations when we pulled up to the pump we got the “see attendant” display. When it is hot as hell and you have already pulled up right against the pump so you do not have to get off the bike, the last thing you want to do is park your bike, go inside for the opportunity to stand in line with a circus of fatty bubalatties buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. Technology makes me crazy when it does not work because I never know if it is “ a user issues” again or if it is the computer gods.
I went on a ride with my son in Indonesia a few years back and we simply pulled up to a lemonade stand looking arrangement and bought gas for our rented bikes from 12-year old kids out of used vodka bottles. Now, that is how God intended it…full service.
It was not all hassle. Everyone should ride Big Bend National Park at sun rise. The explosion of light from the sun on all the different mountain ranges and canyons is truly a spiritual experience. The colors change by the second and the pristine air puts a delightful coating on your nostrils and throat. That experience was delightful.
Once out of the mountain ranges and after the sun was high in the sky, there was a boat load of long flat highway running through wasteland more akin to the face of the moon than livable terrain. On the upside, the speed limit was normally 75 mph, giving us 85 mph, and there were no towns to go through. Needless to say, if we got an opportunity to argue with a gas pump, we took it.
Our destination for the night was Hotel La Pasada on the banks of the Rio Grande. It is one block from a border crossing. You can be in Mexico by foot in 15 minutes. I like the hotel but the real reason for choosing it is the security of the motorcycles. The Pasada has underground parking and and 24/7 security. You come through the garage door and show your hotel key to a guy with a gun or you do not enter the parking garage. Unattended motorcycles have a way of growing legs when parked in border towns.
La Posada Hotel
I had planned to walk across the bridge to Mexico when we arrived (before dark only) into Nueva Laredo which is known to be more controlled by the Zetas than the police. In fact, the police have given up or have been bought, leaving the Mexican army in open warfare with the Zetas and other drug cartels. I had suggested to Phil that he should bring his passport, we could walk across and might even get to see a shooting. I should have left the part about about the shooting off as Phil definitely did not bring his passport. In the not too distant past nine tortured and murdered corpses had been found hanging from the very bridge we would be walking over. Phil may have made the right decision on this one.
We did go walking around right up until 7 p.m. in the deserted downtown area of Larado looking for a restaurant. There were none open. Everything was closed. Larado, a city of 250,000 and Nueva Laredo on the Mexican side, population 400,000, are now ghost towns after 4 p.m. due to the drug wars. One report said they were ghost towns and the ghosts are very dangerous.
We retired back to the security of our hotel and had a very nice meal in their relatively expensive and relatively safe restaurant. After which and with little choice, we called it a night.
NATHAN GIBSON Tuesday October 18
Headed back home is always bitter-sweet. I miss Susie and Jasper and comforts of home but it sure is nice to wander. “How very simple life would be, if only there two of me. A restless one to drift and roam, a quite one to stay at home. A searching one to seek his fill of varied skies and new found frill, while sane and homey things are done by the domestic other one.”
If you have not read Two of Me by Don Blanding, google it and have a read. It is one of my favorites.
Quite by accident as opposed to strategy, day 3 was a short ride. In hindsight it was pure genius as South Padre Island is beautiful and The Pearl, our beach hotel, is by far the most luxurious place we have stayed. Turns out Phil has friends in both high places and low places. His high place friend is a VP Sales for Omni who got us in here for $69 a room. Phil brought his low place friend with him. Yea!
Our experience in Laredo was only a pleasant one because we did have a pretty decent hotel with very good security. Initially, I booked it because of the security for the motorcycles but the more we got to know about Laredo, the more we appreciated the security of the La Posada for ourselves as well. We fueled up first thing this morning, still in the city. Phil commented, “ I am glad to be leaving Laredo”. I looked at what I could see from the dilapidated gas station and replied, “we are not out of here yet”. Well the damn pump would not take our cards and the attendant who had the personality of a prison warden required us to leave our cards with him while we fueled up. Phil observed that we would likely see charges on the card from Nuevo Laredo from Rosie’s Whorehouse. I hope not but he may be right.
By this time we had traveled well over 1000 miles and only seen two highway patrol cars, both near Fort Stockton on I-10. Coincidentally and in the past, I had gotten exactly two tickets on I-10….both near Fort Stockton. Well, after about 100 miles on today’s trip, we started seeing a highway patrol car behind every bush and tree. I stopped counting at 20 and business was good for them. The speed limit was changing from 55 then to 60 then to 65, then to 75 and back down for no obvious traffic or highway condition reason.
This was very strange but I think I got an interesting clue to this mystery as we approached McAllen. There was a large red brick building marked “Texas Highway Patrol Training Academy”. So the last 50 miles of our trip today was a speed trap designed to train our uniformed public servants….at our expense. Phil always rides in front and did a good job of watching the continuously changing speed limits and kept us at speed limit plus 5 and out of trouble.
We landed in South Padre Island to the sound of crashing waves on the beach, had a drink overlooking the ocean.
We followed that up with wonderful meal of fresh red snapper and shrimp. Life is good.