It turns out that a big swath of West Texas that I just crossed was the scene for Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.” I suppose you could amend that to “No Country for Old Bicyclists.”
West Texas scars you if you cross it on a bicycle. If you cross it during the summer it is searing beyond belief, but even during the mild weather of winter it is an endless and unforgiving slog. To put it in context, most people who do the crossing leave this part of Texas out entirely and speed across following the Interstate.
I had not taken into account the toll that it was going to take leaving El Paso and meandering along the border a few hundred miles east to Del Rio. The open skies and endless vistas eventually grind you down, for all their beauty. It seems like no matter how much you’ve pedaled, you’re not really going anywhere, and each landmark in the form of a windblown, broken-down town is simply an entrée into another 40 or 50 miles of nothingness. In fact, yesterday’s 60 miles of headwind was the longest stretch of headwind I’ve ever ridden. And it could’ve been much worse; a lot of the trajectory was downslope. Apparently it is quite common to have a headwind going the other direction as well … for a couple of hundred miles.
As nice as it would be to say that this type of riding “builds character” or that it somehow “makes you tougher,” the fact is that it flat fucking wears you down. That is where I was last night, wore out and encamped behind the Baptist Church in Comstock, dreading the final 32 miles to Del Rio. I say dreading because a cold front was coming through and although I was assured that that meant a tailwind, I had zero confidence in either the cold front coming through or the tailwind.
Texas is that way. It teaches you to trust no one, to trust nothing, to expect the worst, to be prepared for everything except the one calamity that actually occurs. Before bed I jammed down half a dozen eggs and half a pound of bacon along with some cookies and milk for dessert, but even so I felt like I was in a calorie deficit.
The deficits in West Texas are everywhere. Deficits of water. Deficits of people. Deficits of geographical relief, trees, rivers, and lakes. Deficits of food. Deficits of creature comforts in every way. The only thing that is not in deficit is the wind. You just have to hope it’s at your back, which it rarely is.
One of the things I have discovered on this trip is the complete uselessness of the bungee cord. These things were invented for a simple reason: people do not know how to tie knots or how to use rope. The bungee cord is a perfect compromise between incompetence and having absolutely nothing at all at hand. The bungee cord is always too short, or too long, or it doesn’t hook up just the way or to just the place you need it to. After the empty beer receptacle, the rubber bungee cord and the stretchy bungee cord are the two most common pieces of trash along the highway.
How is it that rope and twine functioned so well for thousands of years? Answer: because people knew how to tie knots and how to bind things with cord. In a fit of anger at a bungee cord that was too short, I threw away all my bungee cords and picked up a roll of twine at a hardware store. With a little bit of Internet and a little bit of practice, I was able to tie a few basic knots and quickly found that a $2 roll of twine was worth $50 of bungee cords and a lot lighter and easier to store.
Imagine how proud I was to ride around with everything bound up in twine, secured with a couple of simple knots! And imagine how silly I felt when the jiggling and twisting and bouncing loosened the twine, unbound the knot, and caused my sleeping bag and tent poles to go flying off onto the highway.
Turns out that it takes more than ten minutes and Google to use rope well, much less cheap twine. But now that I was devoid of bungee cords, I got to spend the next several hundred miles pulling over repeatedly to tighten crappily tied knots, splice twine that had broken off, and best of all to live in constant fear that the whole mess would fall into my rear spokes.
I got up this morning completely empty despite a hearty breakfast and hot coffee. West Texas drains you ultimately in ways that food cannot refill. Del Rio marks the end of the western stretch of Texas and is the gateway into the hill country, itself only a couple of hundred miles from Mecca, that is, Austin. The wind blew and howled all night, shaking my tent but not doing anything to the well-staked fly. I had a bad feeling about the wind and what it was going to mean when the cold front blew through.
I hustled out of the churchyard and was immediately greeted with a huge tailwind. Nothing is free in Texas though, and this tailwind came with the thickest fog. Within a couple of miles the outer layer of my wool clothing was soaked, but I was warm inside. I only had to stop three or four times to reattach my tent stakes and sleeping bag with the twine. Somehow the tailwind never became a crosswind or a headwind and I made what was probably the fastest time of the entire trip; 32 miles in just around two hours.
In Del Rio, all dried out and sitting in front of clear skies and an even bigger tailwind, I had to decide whether or not to pull the plug, resupply myself, and call it a day or push on to Brackettville, 37 miles hence.
The luxury of the tailwind called like a siren. But there are no free miles in Texas, and this was no exception. Who was to say that the wind wasn’t going to change at the drop of a hat, as it always does in Texas? Who was to say that the route wasn’t going to meander into the wind, or angle into it, for 10 or 20 miles? My tank was still empty. My ass was still sore. My legs were still dead. And 37 miles was still 37 miles. Plus, the Motel 6 had a special at $40. I wavered for a split second, but the deal was sealed when I noted that next to the Motel 6 was an IHOP.
Pancakes, eggs, sausage, limitless coffee, and two hours sitting in a booth? Or some donuts at a convenience store and a few more hours of pedaling, praying that the wind wouldn’t change?
I think you know how this story ends.