I used to live in the northern part of the Texas Panhandle, up by the Canadian River breaks in the town of Miami, population 588, largest and only town in a county of more than a thousand square miles. The country was rugged and its beauty took getting used to, and I suppose some people never got used to it, including some of those who had lived there for generations.
The people were inward looking, they stuck together, they suffered strangers when it suited them, and there was no problem they couldn’t blame on the government or cure through prayer. Yet they had a hard humanity about them too, and would help you whether you deserved it or not because you were a person and they knew that sooner or later every human gets in a bind and needs a hand.
The bike rides up there were the loneliest I have ever done. The minimal distance was 25 miles, a big square from Miami south up the big hill, out of the breaks and onto the plains, then after six ramrod straight miles a left, then after another six straight miles another left, and then you’d drop back down into the breaks and make another left onto the highway, and it was six miles back to town.
It was lonely out there and not just because in twenty-five miles you’d see one car, sometimes less. There were a handful of old barns stuck out on the plains, collapsing wooden ghosts moored to the earth, reminders of things that had begun big and gradually been worn into defeat by time and money and the wind.
And nothing was lonelier than that prairie wind. It rarely blew less than twenty miles an hour, and big winds of thirty or forty weren’t rare; those were the days that you just stayed indoors. By yourself, the occasional hawk seated high on a utility pole, the ferocious wind trying to blow you to a standstill, no cars, no people, pushing the pedals as hard as you could to make it to the turn where you’d at least have a vicious crosswind rather than a headwind … those were hard and lonely rides.
For variety it only got worse. You could cut over to Old Mobeetie and come back via Canadian, a solid seventy miles of solitude, or you could go north through the breaks and circle back through Pampa for a similar distance that was slower because of the hills. I often believed that nothing good ever came out of any of those rides. No good friendships, no good experiences, no good memories, nothing but wind and heat, or wind and biting cold, numb slogs that gave nothing, left nothing, meant nothing.
One hot summer day before I left to do the Pampa loop the first time, my neighbor rolled down the window in his air-conditioned pickup. “It’s too hot for that,” he said.
“You’re probably right.”
“And you ain’t got near enough water.”
“I have two bottles,” I replied, pointing to the bike.
“I got eyes, but you ain’t getting to Pampa on no two water bottles, and there ain’t a drop in between here and there.”
“Have a good day, Clyde,” I said.
He nodded and rolled up the window; I rode off.
Twenty-five miles in I was out of water and it was over a hundred degrees. I hit a sublime level of thirst, desert thirst. I passed a stock tank with cattle crowded around it and thought about trekking the two hundred yards into the field, but it would be filled with goatheads, the water wouldn’t be potable, and the bulls might gore me.
I pedaled on, ten miles to go before I hit the outskirts of Pampa. The wind was hot and relentless and in my face, sucking me completely and terminally dry. Not a car passed, not a truck, and nothing but fields.
After forever I saw a farm house. It was at the end of a drive that was itself about a quarter mile long. I pedaled down it, caked in dust and dirt and my tongue swollen like a giant bone-dry pickle. There was a truck at the end of the drive, so I dismounted and knocked on the door.
An old boy opened it and looked through the screen as if every afternoon a cyclist stopped by out here in a part of the world where I’d never even seen another bicycle. “Yes?” he asked.
“Could I get some water from your hose?”
“I suppose so,” he said.
I walked over to the side of the house where the green hose was perfectly coiled. I turned on the tap and out spurted a jet of boiling hot water. I let the hot water run out and waited a few seconds until it turned from hot to ice cold. Then I turned the nozzle into my mouth and drank from it, deeply.
No draught of water ever tasted that good before. Or since.
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