Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend in the Panhandle

I left the house about 6:30 am Saturday morning. My first stop was in Brady at about 9. From there I started adding to the TX counties I've ridden through, starting with Callahan and Shackelford. My second stop was in Albany, which was surprisingly nice considering it's a ways from the interstate or much of anything else. I went through Throckmorton County, then made a minor detour to go through Young County for the ABCs of touring, then through Archer, Baylor, Knox, Dickens, Motley, and Briscoe counties. I arrived in the town of Quitaque (apparently pronounced kitty-quay, I found out later), took a picture for the ABCs, and went on to Caprock Canyons State Park. It was about 3:30 when I checked in at the nice new visitors center, well ahead of my GPS's original estimate of 6:42.
I took a quick ride through the park before going to my camp site. I didn't have a specific site reserved, just the area, and since I was the last one to arrive I got the last spot, right next to the privy. It wasn't too bad, it didn't smell (outside, anyway). There was a sheltered picnic table, a fire ring and a grill. The site was somewhat lacking of privacy, facing two other campsites. It was really hot, so before doing anything else I changed into a short sleeve shirt and shorts. I set up my tent, leaving off the rain fly, and set most of my gear inside of it. I got back on the bike to get some water, which proved more difficult than I had thought. I first stopped at the bathroom (the real one, by the drive-up campsites with electricity); then the Discovery Center, which must have been the original entrance station, now a kids' learning area; then back to the visitors' center, where I asked but still didn't find a spigot to fill up my water jug. They did, eventually, come up with there being a spigot by the interpretive center. Before heading back towards camp, I decided to make a quick run to town for some bug spray. I don't normally like bug spray because of the smell, but I dislike biting flies even more. I stopped in the parking lot of the interpretive center, which is also a nice new building, with steel bison silhouettes, filled up my jug and the bladder in my backpack. I pulled over at a scenic overlook on the way back and discovered that I had not adequately secured the water jug to my luggage rack, and it had fallen off and been dragged behind the bike, ripping off the spigot and tearing numerous holes, rendering the thing worthless. There wasn't a trash can there, or many other in the park for that matter, so I drained what water was left and stowed it in my saddle bag to throw out later. When I was preparing dinner back at camp I realized I hadn't brought my water bottle that would allow me to measure how much boiling water to add to the freeze-dried packet. I guesstimated, and it turned out pretty well, slightly watery at the bottom.
I rode back to the interpretive center to meet up for a ranger-guided hike of the Eagle Point Trail to the natural bridge at 7. It was a very large group, about 25, which the ranger said was several times what she normally gets. We stopped a few times along the roughly 1 3/4 mile trail to learn about the geology and flora and fauna of the park. The natural bridge itself would be pretty easy to miss, except for a bench on top, it doesn't look like much when you're hiking on the trail. It was like a small cave open on both ends. I would have gone in with everyone else, but the large boulders and giant steps worried me with my ankle not feeling very happy as it was. Hiking back was cooler with the sun going down, but it was still strenuous enough that I was sweating profusely. At the head of the trail by the interpretive center I ran into a swarm of mosquitoes. It was worst trying to refill my camelbak at the spigot, I was being bitten all over my back through my shirt the worst, probably because that was sweatiest from wearing the backpack. I was swatting as much as I could but it was hopeless. I rushed filling up with water and ran and jumped on the bike as quickly as I could. I stopped at the bathroom to take a shower and survey the damage. There were dozens and dozens of bites, concentrated on my shoulders and back. That may have been related to my putting bug spray on my arms and legs earlier.
Back at camp I put on the rain fly because I saw lightning in the distance, but left the vestibule flaps open. I read for a little while before going to sleep. Since it was still pretty warm I didn't get in my sleeping bag, but I did get in my lightweight bag liner. The flapping of the tent in the wind (and the less than comfortable ground) woke me up a number of times. About 2am I started getting pretty chilly, but didn't get out my real sleeping bag until about 5 and slept pretty well for another hour or so. After breakfast I rode a short distance to a parking area for one of the trail heads. It was a little before 8am and there were only two cars in the parking lot, which implied there weren't many people camping in the primitive area, somewhat surprising considering how full the rest of the park was. I originally planned to hike up the Haynes Ridge Trail to the top of the canyon, check out the view and then come back down the same way. The crude park map seemed to show the trail as having switchbacks, but it was pretty much just straight up. I realized a little too late, partway up, that it would be too steep for me to want to hike back down. I was counting on the other route, the Upper Canyon Trail, not being as steep, and continued up to the top. Once I got on top of the canyon the trail flattened out, but it was very narrow and the yucca and scrub brush on either side scratched my legs. I stopped at a bench at the intersection of the Haynes and Upper Canyon trails. As I approached, I heard some rustling but didn't see what it was at first. It turned out to be two deer, one of which ran off, but the other one didn't seem to be too worried by me and continued to snack on the leaves of a bush while I had a snack of my own. From there, the trail headed back down the canyon. It wasn't quite as steep as the way I came up, but it was still pretty steep. I took my time and was very careful with every step. Most of the way down the steep section was the Fern Cave. I was intrigued when the ranger mentioned it the night before, but it wasn't impressive. It wasn't much of a cave- more like an indentation in the rock with a spring. It's called fern cave because there are ferns on the "roof" due to the year-round water flow. Because of the water there was a swarm of mosquitoes. I took some pictures and climbed around a little bit, but after a few minutes I was getting bitten so much I grabbed my backpack and ran back to the main trail, as much as I could. There was only a little bit more of the steep downhill before the trail widened and flattened out, where it looked like it a piece of equipment had been through not too long ago. The trail back to the parking area from there wasn't strenuous, but it was about 4 miles, and the sun came out from behind the clouds about 11am, making it even hotter. I ran into more mosquitoes when the trail ran along a not-quite dry stream bed. About halfway my feet and my ankle were begging for respite, so I sat down and read for about 15 minutes. It was hard getting back up and I was pretty well shot at that point so the rest of the hike went pretty slowly. After I got to a the intersection with the Lower Canyon Trail, 1.5 miles to the parking lot, I started seeing people for the first time all day. I stopped for one last break on a bench at the head of the Haynes trail next to an older couple. Once I got back to my bike I rode back to camp and had lunch. After changing into jeans I set out on a ride to pick up a few more counties.
I got to the town where I was planning on getting gas to find that the gas stations were long closed, so I jumped on I-27 (another tick for my master list) to Tulia. I went through Swisher, Castro and Parmer counties before going about 100 yards into New Mexico, turning around and heading back through Bailey, Lamb, Hale, and Floyd counties. I went through mostly agricultural land- fields of crops, probably grains and cotton, based on the gins and elevators I passed; cattle feed lots; and dairy farms. The feed lots and dairies smelled similarly bad, but not nearly as bad as a hog farm. I stopped and ate dinner in the decent-sized (relative to anything else I saw that day) town of Plainview. I had been hoping beforehand to find a mid-scale chain restaurant. When I got to the interstate all I saw were regular fast food places. I was resigned to eat at Wendy's, but was glad to find a Chili's next door. When I walked in I had to check my watch because I thought there was no way it would be that empty at 6pm on a weekend, but sure enough it was. I sat at the bar and nobody even seemed to notice. There was a guy behind the bar who was too busy chatting with old friends to help me. A woman came out and got me a beer, but then turned and chatted with some guy and didn't even look in my direction for 10 minutes. I finally got her attention to get a menu, and after that the service was alright. When I left at about 7 the weather looked a bit threatening. The wind was a little bit stronger than the steady northerly wind I'd been in all day, and there were some dark clouds. I put on my clear glasses, but no other change in gear. I got back to camp about 8, changed and went to take a shower. It was still too hot in my tent, so I tried reading at the picnic table, but there were too many mosquitoes. I remembered I'd brought my tent fan and set it up back in the tent. It was a big help, and I read until I started to fall asleep about 11. At some point I woke up and turned the fan off since it was cooler. Later still it was cool enough I got into the sleeping bag.
I woke up at about 5:30 and briefly attempted to go back to sleep before realizing I was awake for good and started packing. I got off around 7:30. I added a few more counties, Crosby, Garza, Scurry, Mitchell, Nolan, and Runnels. I thought it was pretty cool riding through a wind generator farm outside of Sweetwater. I had attempted to recharge my iPod in the bathroom, but the plugs didn't seem to work. I was kind of surprised the battery lasted as long as it did, until 10:30, considering how low the indicator looked. Before what seemed like too long of a time I got to US 87 and ran into genuine traffic. Not stop-and-go level of traffic, but enough that it slowed me down. Plus it was hot by that point and I was more than ready to get home. Fortunately it looked as though more traffic was going the other direction from Brady home, so it wasn't so bad. Just outside of Llano I stopped at the entrance to a former quarry, now a high-dollar custom home, with an amazing stone wall made out of giant leftover pieces from the quarry. It turns out it's for sale, but I'm pretty sure just the wall would be way out of my price range, let alone the house and 200 acres. It was about 3:30 when I got home hot and tired. I vegetated in front of the computer and almost fell asleep, but unfortunately didn't. I eventually went outside in my bare feet in the scorching heat to get my mail and newspapers. I laid on the couch with the paper for the rest of the evening but didn't fall asleep until I went to bed about 10:30.

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