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Around the Sun in South Texas

Notes from a year-long Texas adventure. (Jan 2016-2017)


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Rearview on Hwy 90 West Texas
100 miles of solitude #westtexas #pathlesstraveledby #thejourneyisthething


When a job offer came from one of the "top 100 best companies to work for" in San Antonio, I said, "Ah, heck, I've never been to Texas."


When things get stale, I go looking for new bike trails, new pursuits of happiness. Shed the gloom and doom people in my life. It works wonders. New tribe, new place. Somewhere I haven't been before. Start fresh. One power we still have, even if everything else isn't meant to be, is the power of place.


January

A great man, mentor and friend (he's 76, still rides dirt, and calls me 'grasshopper') quoted an old Confucius aphorism about 'one step being the first of thousands'. So I took his advice and drove 1000 miles through the Chihuahua Desert to take a job in Texas. I've learned nothing in life adequately prepares one for going to a faraway place alone except pure courage and compulsion of "it's going to happen right now, or it goes into the ‘never gonna do it’ bucket." Next time I commit similarly, however I'll buddy up, at the very least for the road trip part. The odd twist is if I had accepted another, earlier job offer in the more familiar Santa Rosa, CA, my home would have likely became a wasteland as a result of the wildfires that summer of '16.


I wanted to remember 2016 with this blog because it might have been, and turned out to be, the last 12 months my father would be with us, vicariously in my case, since I would want to keep working until I could make the trip to be there for his last months. So I wrote this for him during his final battle with cancer. And also for anyone who's new to South Texas or passionate about exploring new places by bike.


My love of bike riding began with the unsettling, transient life of a military family, and breaking out and exploring long before I was allowed to drive a car. Move around often, and life seems like it moves faster before you can soak it in, and so I grew up remembering the outsides better than the insides of each new home, that "go-go" feeling, and the immense sense of freedom to wander. Ride to the horizon and beyond, explore the woods, climb trees, study woodland creatures, pour all curiosities into my sketchbook, and find true happiness in being lost. Don't be fooled, our past is extremely powerful. Pursuits as a child are honest, truly 'mindful' through meadows on road tires; skating the creeks alongside frozen trees that went on and on forever; through curiosity of what lies at blurred horizons and beyond lines; and the freedom discovered on a bicycle. I love reading biographies of my contemporaries, because it reminds me that we are who we were, it cannot be undone. For many, it takes a lifetime to cultivate our gratitude for all those incarnations that lead us up to who we are now. Happy childhoods are so very rare. I'm eternally grateful for mine.



From the start, I deemed 2016 to be a year to 'get busy funnin' -- a few things on the fun list: walk the white sand beaches, climb a 200-year old oak tree, find the elusive Milky Way, camp by the Marfa lights; hike the footpaths of the ancients, sink into Texas food, history and culture; bike through flowery meadows and roads without a car in sight all the way to the horizon; and kiss someone in the middle of a thunderstorm. Then I went and did all of these things -- in Texas.



Not a day went by without surprises. Unbearable heat, humidity, 120 days of rain, sudden and fierce storms, flooding so intense streets turned to rivers and waves lapped against my garage; hailstorms, and a tornado, which tore a whole gas station out just a few blocks away. I packed only my bike, work clothes and some camp gear for the road trip from California to San Antonio, so for the first two months until my goods arrived it wasn't much of a home, especially without my books, so I wrapped my head around a chaotic new work environment. Change was constant, three managers and my workspace moved five times. Near work, on the north end of the city, the crime stats were high so I rented a townhouse below Alamo Heights, across from the Ft Sam Houston cemetery, and for the first time, in home #30, I slept in my bivy for a month, and shared a big empty space with cockroaches, fire ants, baby frogs, green lizards, mosquitos, Asian lady beetles, and a bat.




Spartan life is not only freeing but making the best of everything. And so I was content to be off on my bike exploring almost every weekend, being lost more often than not, but accounting for small victories along the way and making it less about the end, more about the present and the gratitude for whatever gave me motivation whenever it was waning. And of course, all the endless and new trails and possibilities.



road bike on gravel
Buckhorn Fire Road, an introduction to gravel, wrong gear.

Trees gesture in the breeze, light quivers across the door. Bike parked under the live oak, leaves still dropping in mid-January, and the neighbor calls out, "Welcome home, ya'll."

Below, some snapshots around the townhome I rented near Fort Sam. Seven months into my lease, most of the complex was burned down in an electrical fire. I stayed at a hotel for a couple weeks, came back and stayed through the year, and all of the neighboring homes have since undergone a complete rebuild. In retrospect, that transition from baseline/survival without much hint of future, to a place that gives a sense of belonging is comforting, but having done this many times, I think there's a part of me that will always leave the door open to the unknown.



In Texas it's go big, or go home. As a newcomer, I started out making a 'short list' of bold things to do in and around San Antonio, Texas, and went away with two full composition books. For now, just the highlights...

Broadway Street, 3rd Street and Downtown

February

Downtown San Antonio. Make a reservation to go up top the Tower of the Americas at https://www.toweroftheamericas.com/ for a panoramic view of the city. Harry's Puffy Tacos, or most any taco stop. All great! The south end hosts a farmers market every Saturday on Grayson Street (park under the overpass or ride your bike there) and an opportunity to support local businesses for produce, meat, eggs, baked goods, cheeses, olive oils, nuts, wines, homemade soaps, and much more.


Fairview Coffee Bar and Grub on N. St Mary's was a favorite stopover adjacent Brackenridge Park - or sometimes just to drop in to wait out the sudden rainstorms. The Japanese Tea Gardens are worth a look too, plus a ride on the mini-gauge train. The old Waterworks mill and other historic sites are still there too.


There's a bit of history everywhere that reflects the American spirit, especially passion for the road, hard work and sacrifice, and this is what I love most about San Antonio. The old quarry is still there, home to stone cutters since the mid-1800s and in 1880 and up until Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company (later called Alamo Cement Company) began to use the quarry and in 1908 it was turned into a park. The Sunken Garden Theatre (3875 N. St Mary's St) also hosts numerous fun events, including The Dark Side of the Brew and Skew Music Festival.



Wilderness Loop

Around 1899, the San Antonio Water Works Company, through its president, George W. Brackenridge, donated 199 acres to the City of San Antonio for a public park. The park officially opened to the public in 1901 and is home to the International Tree Climbing Championships and where you can strap yourself in and get a few lessons. I was there one afternoon thinking I knew what I was doing, merely tapping into my wilder youth in the Pennsylvania woodlands. The reality: there I was...'gimme a minute'....'gimme a minute.' Websites are often vague, so I recommend using the All Trails app to get a preview of all the trails. Wilderness Loop in Brackenridge Park is one hidden gem I found on May Day when I woke up around 6:30 to find the rain had stopped. I skedaddled, first heading north of Terrell Hills. Hot, humid and drizzly, on and off during the whole ride through Brackenridge Park, but under the tree-line there's a cool spray from recent rain. I found two pretty routes from Witte Museum, one to loop back and one to explore a bit more. It went something like this: Ride the back roads through Alamo Heights, to Shearer Hills, to Castle Hills (avoid Jackson Keller, round about instead on Blanco) and if you opt out of going all the way through downtown, cut back south through this park. It's a golden trail, wetted down, stones glistening in the sunlight breaking through long tangled rows of red oaks - called 'Wilderness Loop'. The access is hidden, just to the left past the bridge over the duck pond. Usually deserted. Seems not much has changed back there since horse and wagon. San Antonio River still occasionally overruns the bridge so it's the luck of the draw. The Red Oak Trail is an alternate route.


Wilderness and Red Oak Trails, Tuleta Road


March

March came with several perfect days to hike or ride, plus avoid the trails where everyone else goes. When the parks reach capacity, they close off the access, so even if you plan to hike, bring the bike as backup. Early in the year I recon'ed several areas. One weekend I drove down Highway 87 just to explore some ride potential from views at the off ramps. I met a friendly group in San Antonio Bike Shop who meets up in hill country - so scenic, peaceful and pleasant, they often join groups that come all the way out from Dallas/Houston to ride here.



Round Mountain Road, TX
TX 962 / Round Mountain Road. Kingland to Marble Falls, TX

Highway 87 West

The Alamo, River Walk and Commerce Street

The River Walk, the Alamo, Alamo Heights and the Pearl District. The San Antonio River Walk is the heart of the city. The #1 attraction in Texas. Great dining, shopping, and cultural experiences, but don't stop there.


Eisenhower Park Trail

Around the third week in San Antonio, a colleague at work recommended Eisenhower State Park for a first hike and I went back a few times through early spring to catch the big fields of blossoms. It features a good-sized network of easy trails, meadows, lots of joggers and families. Gnarly trees and blooming cacti line the paths.



The Mission Trail. Most Saturdays started with a hilly warm up just below Alamo Heights, then it's a 7-min spin to The Alamo, so it quickly became my regular ride with various off-shoots. There's a great group tour offered, and check out the very cool diorama adjacent The Alamo Museum Shop.


How to get to the Mission Trail (it's not intuitive) Start from the Alamo and navigate to King William St. The trailhead in just paste the bridge. Stop off at all five of the old missions. The trailhead may be better defined now, but when I was there, it was tricky finding it at first because there's a major road, Cesar Chávez Blvd. which isn't bike-accessible and cuts through where it probably didn't exist before (guessing it was once an open field along the river), now lined with big hotels. I jumped on St. Mary's Street and took it all the way down to King William - there's a bridge at the end of the road over the river where the Mission Trail is visible from above. Turn left on the other side of the bridge and access the trail from just beyond The Blue Star parking lot. The trail passes all the missions and they're all worth a look.



Gruene, Texas, the rolling Farm Route 32 to FM 2673 Texas Hill Country. Gruene Hall est.1878 ~ "Where Music Lives" Neat little ol' western town with the "oldest dance hall." Still operates 24/7 - they're always hosting great music.



You'll notice straightaway that most of the bike trails are short and sweet and mostly fragmented. Salado Greenway extension was in the works while I was there, and I liked this one best. When the trail is completed, I'm told, it will eventually expand into a beltway around the city. Almost every time I rode that trail it was 98 in the shade, and I was dreamin' of lemonade! Keep moving, so the bugs can't catch up.


Pictures: Salado Creek Greenway, bog bridge, flowers along the Ladybird Johnson Trail. Note there are several Salado Greenway routes in All Trails.


Go ride 'em all!



The trailhead placard read: "As long as stars graze in the vault of heaven, so shall your honor, your name, your praises endure." -Virgil

A star and tiles of red white and blue mark the beginning of the Salado Creek Greenway, which honors Army Staff Sergeant Christoper Morningstar, a son of San Antonio and soldier loved and respected by the troops he led. On February 5, 2006, in Al Husayniyah, Iraq, SSG Morningstar gave his life for his country and the ideals he cherished. His sacrifice will never be forgotten.


April

Enchanted Rock (ERSNA) - I won't post any spoilers but the view alone is worth the steep hike. A bit of a single-lane 1.5 hour drive up past the Interstate 10 to get there but well worth it. Take along a road or gravel bike, ride around the backside of Enchanted Rock, (watch for loose livestock) then hike up to the top of the big rock, and if you have time, hike the trail that loops around the base. Super popular and the the parking fills up fast so get there early. Stop off in Fredericksburg for the fresh peach preserves. Boerne, TX is also along the return to San Antonio and home to The Cave With No Name. Also fun for bike touring (https://www.ci.boerne.tx.us/1280/Tours).




Above, the road with no name (later discovered the name is Welgehausen Road, on rancher property, where advanced permission is needed to ride back there. Pictured below left is the same road, Enchanted Rock SNA in the distance. The roads are built to withstand severe weathering, and are mainly composed of compressed crushed stone and loose gravel.


May


Brackenridge Park at Tuleta Road, with its old stone bridges and meandering trails into the woods dates to horse n buggy. Be off-road ready for some gorgeous treeline.


At Canyon Lake (technically the outlet for the Guadalupe River) I saw very little waterfront as it's surrounded by boat ramps, thick brush and private residences. A great alternate route is the Purgatory Road loop (see map above center) in adjacent New Braunfels, TX , which takes you out to Devil's Backbone. I personally enjoyed Purgatory Road more than the Backbone, with its picnic area stops, the shrine which explains how the road was named, and the sweet, picnic-friendly overlook. You be the judge! While wandering about the lake, grab some hot wings at the Baja Icehouse and Grill overlooking the Canyon Lake Marina.

Pictured: L to R:

In May I checked out the Annual Arbor Day Bike Fest downtown, and headed out to New Braunfels one of several state parks around that area. May is the ideal month in Texas, sunniest, breeziest time of the year. Annual Spring Bicycle Festival with a ride around downtown San Antonio. M: Flora along the Mission Trail. The blossoms begin earliest in March, and in May meadows are in full bloom and around the bridge over the San Antonio River, downtown.

Around the Somerville Lake I stumbled on some gorgeous views and lush greenery around the watershed. Popped over to Texas A&M, tour its beautiful architecture on the bike paths around campus. The university motto is hailed along the bike trail: "Where Dreams Become Reality."


June


Just about anywhere in Texas Hill Country is great bike country. I found most of the trails I rode on the Texas State Parks site -- https://tpwd.texas.gov/. Check out the hike and bike trails in and around Government Canyon State Natural Area and Llano, TX, a town still reflective of cattle country history. https://www.alltrails.com/us/texas/llano. Texas Hill Country trails will run you off of GPS in a good way. Texas bluebonnets and many pretty wildflowers bloom along the road in February-March. Check out Hill Country Bike Works in Fredericksburg for any bike fixes, extra gear, directions, and if possible, borrow a paper map. Note GCSNA is under surveillance, watch your speed leaving the park.



July

On the first trip out to Fredericksburg, TX stop in Hill Country Bike Works, National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg Fudge, the fresh peach stands and Das Peach Haus General Store on the edge of town, and check out Texas Jack Wild West Outfitters for boots, hats and other western wear; plus the annual Fredericksburg 4th of July parade. The town fills with people, a craft fair, and fantastic Texas foods. Few people around on the back roads and all the wine tasting venues were closed for the 4th of July holiday weekend.



Austin, Texas in mid-July is no picnic ride, but I saddled up anyway and rode with the Rapha Womens 100 out of Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop in Austin. Austin's 6th St (https://6street.com/) is the hub for music, brewery tours and night life, any night of the week. Note: traffic is super heavy in and out of the city, was discouraging every time, so I only made the trip once. Note: the route was semi-remote, July heat reaches 102 degrees, with humidity around 80% by 7:30am, so I strongly recommend this ride for the winter months. Here's the route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14971307?lang=en

"The artist must create a spark before he can make a fire and before art is born, the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation." - François Auguste René Rodin

San Antonio Museum, the Museum Shop and the surrounding arts district - spectacular luck stumbling on the Rodin exhibit while I was in town. One day a week the museum offers free admission, Tuesday I think. Small but astonishing, and that area is being revitalized.


August