I found Steven crouched next to an upside-down plastic bucket, a length of stick, sharpened on one end, in his hand, peering over the edge of a grimy, yellow-stained, smooth porcelain-like material.
"What's going on, Son?" I inquired.
"Shhh! Dad! You'll scare away the fish!"
"Son, there aren't any fish in that water."
"Oh yes there is!" he replied. "Just look - but be easy. I don't want you scaring that Muskie away!"
"Muskie?" I asked. "Now I know you're playing a game, Son. There are no muskies around here."
"You just look," he said, moving aside slowly so I could look into the water.
The pool of water was really small, a little more than a foot across and very shallow on one side, going quite deep, even out of sight, on the other. The basin that contained it was a dirty white, almost a grimy grey, but rather smooth and hard-looking. The water itself was clear, but all manner of acquatic plant growth clung to the sides below water level. Prominent was a greenish hair-like algae that floated and undulated in the water. Then, I saw it!
There was indeed a fish in there! Not a muskie, to be sure, and not very large, but a fish nonetheless. Partially concealed behind and beneath the waving algae, it was hard to identify it, but my guess was some kind of goldfish.
"Okay, Son," I whispered. "You win this one. There's a fish in there alright, but he isn't a muskie and he isn't big enough to be legal. Let's let him go."
"Oh, alright, Dad," Steven whispered back, lowering the makeshift spear.
I reached up past his shoulder to the shiny metal lever on the outcrop beside him and pulled it down. The water in the basin began to swirl, and the little fish fought valiantly but hopelessly against the increasing current of the whirlpool, then disappeared as the water level fell out of sight in the deep part of the basin.
"Snit!" I thought to myself as I turned the plastic wastebasket Steven had hidden behind back right-side-up. Time to clean the bathrooms again...
My longest cross country flight was to Hickory, N.C. Great trip out there; only one area with many clouds, and I weaved through them just fine. When I called flight service for the weather on the return trip, all he said was, "Severe Clear. All the way." He was right, too. Not a cloud to be seen, until I was 50 miles from LR. Then it became a race. Would I get to the field before the T-storms got there? I flew the last 10 miles in light rain, but I beat the storm and the IFR to the field, by about 15 minutes. Any later, and I'd have been parked at Carlisle, calling someone to drive 30 miles and bring me home.
It's even more fun on a bike. There you are, mounted on your trusty iron horse, thrilling to the way it lunges up hill and down grade, tilting the whole world on edge in every corner, smelling the fresh flowers and damp earth, feeling the warm sun beating down on you, letting the hot air blast over your body and carry the heat away.
Then it begins to get darker, and the clouds roll in from the west. You point it toward home and a dry place, but you know you've had it. You ride harder than ever, but soon the big drops are falling around you, and some hit you like a thrown rock. It's obvious that if you park it under some refuge you'll have to spend the next three days there, because this isn't just a T-storm, but a front moving in. So, you grit your teeth and ride on. Soon, you are soaked through, the warmth of the sun has been replaced by the chill of wet clothes being blasted by that same stream of cooling air, only now it's cold to start with and it only makes you colder.
A tiny river runs down your spine, chilling you through and through. A puddle forms on the seat between your legs, making you feel like you're sitting in a tub of cold water. The only dry place on your body is your head from the neck up, but it's small consolation as you watch your visor fog up on the inside where you can't wipe it off without stopping and raising it, and then you know it'll be streaked and hard to see out of. You ride just as fast, but now you're aware of the tires slipping ever so slightly in the corners, especially if you happen to cross a paint stripe.
You slow down just a little as you catch a car, partly because of the reduced visibility in the spray it's kicking up (in a car, you can't see through spray, but on a bike you become part of the spray; it's a whole different sensation. You feel it, you taste it, you are it!) and partly because you know you can't stop as fast in this stuff. Sliding under braking is somewhat frightening in a car, but on a bike it's worse. The rear wheel wants to move out and down with you, and you live in fear of the front locking and washing out from under you. Still, you have to stay close to the car so you can pass at the first opportunity because the other two options, slowing down and hanging back and taking that much longer to get home, or riding along in this miserable spray for another ten minutes, are just unacceptable. So, you hang tight, and at the anticipated opening you twist the right grip, pull the lever on the left, row the shifter with your left foot while your right foot and fingers poise over the brake levers. And, you feel the rear tire slip under acceleration, but you're out and beside and OUT OF THE SPRAY and around and on down the road you go with renewed enthusiasim.
At least until your crotch gets even deeper in the puddle and the air cools another degree and the rain gets even harder and the fog starts to form. I think the most miserable I've ever been was the time I had to ride the whole of Arkansas from Little Rock to near the Missouri line in a fog so thick it was hard to tell if I was perpendicular to the ground or not, with rain keeping me company to boot. Several times I almost got vertigo, as I peered through the fog to see where I was going and saw the pavement looming up at me out of the corner of my eye. I'd get leaned over when I didn't want to, and was weaving all over the road. Instrument conditions on a bike! At least I had a rainsuit of sorts that time, but it was one made for fishing wear and the obligatory leak in the crotch wasn't long in manifesting itself.
That it was February, and that they were engaged in road construction seemingly the whole way, just added to the interest. That I was on a 350 Yamaha two stroke, noted for a propensity to foul plugs when the revs weren't kept up, and on a day like that under those conditions, there wasn't a whole lot of revving going on, didn't make my trip any more carefree. Somehow, though, the little black and orange bike went the whole distance without fluffing a plug, and when I ran it out of gas (including reserve), I was within coasting distance of the station at Pindall. (I've coasted into that station out of gas no less than three times, once in a car and twice on bikes. A well-placed station, in my estimation.)
Ah, yes. But when you get home, park the filthy bike with the road dirt baked on, peel the grimy and saturated clothing off your blue and shriveled body, and stand in a hot shower until it isn't anymore, then go crawl into a warm bed with the electric blanket on high, you can look back on it with a certain satisfaction and say, "THAT, was a GOOD ride!"
I guess you had to be there...
The three deer, in single file about ten yards apart, were on a dead run off to my left about 30 yards from the fence. The road was basically straight and level here - I was doing about 70. It was one of those situations where you feel the decision-making interval pass in distinct sequential segments: Deer. Running hard. Will beat me to the road. Brake!
I had started the ride a little late; shame how real life has to intrude on one's pleasures, isn't it? Left the house at 2:30 p.m. Temperature was 74 at the time. I was wearing the obligatory short-sleeved t-shirt, but since it was late and a cold front was hovering on the horizon, I had netted my leather jacket to the back of the seat. The trip meter showed 120 on the fuel, but I passed my usual stations and rode up 1604 to Babcock, no destination in mind, just kind of wandering. Got behind a cop on Babcock; had to obey the 35 mph limit by going 40 like he was. Babcock out there is rural/residential, just a little twisting two-lane road. Fun to cruise through at 45 or 50 without straining anything, but executing continuous left-right-left-right leans. I peeled off onto Ceilio Vista, an even twistier road. In one blind right-hander I met a white Explorer pulling an empty flat-bed trailer, well over into my lane and hauling. Glad I was set up to late apex and had plenty of room to get out of his way!
When Ceilio Vista put me down on the access road beside I-10, I turned left and was very quickly on Boerne Stage Road, another rural/residential one. Still no destination in mind when I got to the four-way stop; I went straight, on Toutant Beauregard - love that name. Rode it all the way to Boerne. By then I had meandered enough that I had racked up over 40 miles and needed gas, so I fueled at the Texaco. Then I headed north on 1376 toward Sisterdale. I was about three miles from there when I saw the deer.
I've worked hard on my emergency braking technique and have been striving to make it an automatic reaction to hit the horn button at the same time. The practice paid off this time - I had both wheels at impending lockup almost instantly, and the horn was blar..., uh, bleating. By then, of course, two of the deer were over the fence and the lead doe was in the road right in front of me. Neither the sight of me nor the sound of my horn seemed to have any effect on her - I guess she figured she had the right-of-way and was going to take it. Not as close as some encounters, but close enough for me to see her nostrils flare and her hooves slip on the asphalt. Could'a reached out and hit her with a pool que...
The second deer was spooked and cut sharply left, paralleling the road just in front of me; the third one spooked before the fence and was running alongside it in the same direction. By now I had my speed down into the 30 mph range; the deer were gaining ground on me, and quickly cut right and crossed the road, the third one clearing the fence in one bound and the road, almost completely, in another. I think he could win a gold in the deer olympics this year.
I started accelerating back up to speed, glad the brush was light along in there and the sun was at my back, enabling me to see them in time. It seems to be the rule rather than the exception for the deer around here to set their sights on crossing the road and just go for it. Time and again, whether in a car or on the bike, I've had these encounters. They seldom back off - once they decide to cross the road, you can count on them going ahead. They don't follow an absolutely straight path, though, so you don't know exactly where they're going to hit the road. Therefore, it isn't safe to assume you have the speed to get past that point before they get there - they may angle forward enough to move that intersection point to coincide with your arrival. The only safe reaction is to brake, hard and long, until you are going quite slowly. Then they can cross safely in front of you, or you can verify that they've really chickened out and will stay off the road until you've passed on by.
As my pulse began to subside toward normal and I was thinking those thoughts, I realized where I was headed: I had no destination in mind but was being driven by the sun, like chaff blown by the wind. Since the first street intersection at the beginning of the ride, I had turned to keep the sun at my back. That's why I was out here northeast of Boerne instead of out to the west as I normally am. Not that this is a bad ride; I was rapidly approaching the turn onto RR 473, an outstanding piece of road. But, allowing oneself to be blown along by the sun eventually results in having to pay the price. Either you turn around and ride back into it, or you ride until sundown and have to make the return trip in the dark. Neither is very appealing in south Texas. The sun this time of year is a blazing eye-scorcher if you are pointed anywhere near 225 on the compass, severely restricting visibility and eliminating it entirely at the crests of hills.
Had I been looking into the sun when I encountered the deer, I would never have seen them until impact. The prospect of riding at night is just as unappealing and for the same four-legged reason - that's when the deer stop running and simply saunter out into the road. The results are the same.
I still had well over an hour of daylight left, so I kept going, taking 473 to the east, sun at my back, visibility excellent. I cruised along the undulating, serpentine road at about 70, encountering almost no traffic, taking the best lines in all the curves, diving into the dry washes, bottoming the suspension on the low-water bridges, occasionally while leaned well over, and scanning the fields and brush ahead for signs of movement. All I saw besides a few head of cattle was one armadillo, furiously digging for something about 20 feet off the road on the outside of a fast sweeper. Through Kendalia, all the way to Hwy 281, catching and passing only two pickups in the whole 30 miles.
Still propelled by the sun, I turned left onto 281 and headed north for a couple of miles, turning back east again where 473 turns off to follow the Little Blanco River. Five miles down that flat, gently turning river road, a force greater than the danger of riding into the sun took over: Boredom. I stopped and turned around.
It was as bad as I had feared. Limited visibility, sharp stabs of light as I passed through alternating shadow and sun, causing me to wince and duck my head from time-to-time. On 281 south it wasn't bad, but that arrow-straight road is boredom squared, so I was quickly back on 473, headed west. Where my speed had held steady at 70 on the way east, it now fluctuated between 50 and 60 as I fought my way back west. On the way out it had been as if I really was pushed along by that sunlight; now it felt like I was fighting my way into a stiff breeze. I occasionally found myself crouching down behind the fairing, as if it was going to block that solar wind.
Between Kendalia and Sisterdale, I gave up on 473 and took 474 south toward Boerne. I knew it would sometimes point into the sun, but it spent enough time going straight south to give me some respite. It also hugged the east flank of some hills along the way - the lure of their deep shade was strong. Within a couple of miles I had caught some traffic; between the curves and the oppressive sun, I couldn't pass; the rest of my ride to Boerne was done at 50 miles an hour. I didn't really mind; I was tired of the fight.
At Boerne I jumped onto IH-10 and blasted southeast for a few miles, then turned onto the other end of Boerne Stage Road. It faced the sun sometimes, but not nearly all the time. At the four-way I went straight onto Senic Loop, cruised it to Babcock, and turned left. Ah, blissful southeasterly direction! Deep shade! (Well, to tell the truth, it was almost sundown by then...)
As I glided to a stop in my driveway, the tripmeter showing 120 miles on the tank just as it had at the outset, the jacket was still netted to the seat and I was still quite comfortable. The thermometer on my porch read 75. It was a quarter to six.
I've had better rides. I've had much worse. All in all, it was a nice way to end January, 1996.
From my Test Rider days with Long and Associates, Inc.:
George, third rider in our group, didn't show today - guess the past two days on shieldless bikes were too much for him. So, Bill and I rolled out at 3:30 this afternoon and set off in pursuit of Robbie's group - the office had a call for one of them and they were to return post haste.
We blasted through Poteet and Jourdanton, and off into the Middle of Nowhere.
(Note: We have pinpointed the Middle of Nowhere. It is where FM 1962 meets SR 16. There is Nothing there. Few pass by. No One ever turns onto 1962.)
We ran 80+, trying to catch Robbie's group. Never saw 'em. Gassed at Tilden and kept blasting on.
As we rode along, I marveled at how nice the weather was. It had been somewhat stormy looking as I left the house, and as we left the shop I would have wagered we'd see rain within 15 miles, but instead it had opened up and was a very nice partly cloudy day with lots of blue sky and flat-bottomed white puffies all over the place. Uh, some of which were beginning to tower. Oh well.
I watched the ones out front as they'd tower up, then dissapate. Once in a while one would go way higher than the others, but they all failed to live. To the east and west it seemed more cloudy, but dead ahead, to the south, it looked pretty good.
At the top of a rise, about 1/4 mile from the Middle of Nowhere, I heard a "POP!", like a firecracker. Bill's bike (the red Road King I was on last night) slowed abruptly and he coasted along, then pulled over to the side right next to the sign that pointed left and announced FM 1962. Deader'n a hammer. No electrics.
"Well," I said, "Pull out the handy dandy cell phone and call the shop."
Bill looked kinda sheepish. "I forgot to get a phone," he mumbled.
We looked around. Nothing.
"Gee," I said, "If we had a couple of redheads, a two-bedroom air-conditioned camper, and a case of Old Milwaukee, it just couldn't get any better than this." Bill agreed.
He looked up at the sky. "At least we don't have a thunderstorm bearing down on us," he said.
"Yeah, that's good," I said.
"Well," Bill said, "I guess one of us has to ride to a phone. Closest one's in Tilden."
Since he was Lead Rider, he took my bike (the Fat Boy I used to hate, but actually chose to ride today because of the other options) and headed back towards Tilden, leaving me all alone in the Middle of Nowhere with a dead Road King, a string-straight road in three directions, and a couple of signs. It was hot, too.
I alternately stood in the shade of the sign so that it shielded my head and shoulders, then would move so I was standing where it cast its shadow on the pavement. Couldn't decide whether it was better to have cool feet or a cool head. It was quiet out there. About every ten minutes or so, a car or truck would come by. Most of the nice people in them waved. They were all moving at about Mach .6, though, so we didn't really make any eye contact.
In between cars, it was awfully quiet. I kept hearing these squishy, liquid sounds, like some thick, heavy mud or something being pushed through a small opening. Finally I looked behind the bushes by the fence and discovered three large cows, lying in the shade of a big mesquite bush, chewing their cud. The sound I was hearing was when they belched up another mouthful...
I looked up one road, then up the other, then up the other. The view didn't change any. Then, suddenly, as I looked south - three large, chunky, black shapes trotted across the road, about a quarter mile away. Wild hogs! Hmmm.
I turned around to look down FM 1962, and there was a roadrunner, standing in the middle of the highway not twenty feet away, looking at me. We stood and stared at each other for at least ten minutes. He didn't even move when a car went past.
I watched the clouds. The TCs were getting bigger, and some of them to the northeast were getting pretty big. Well, One of them was already into the T-storm catagory. Hmmm. Didn't the Weather Channel radar earlier in the day show storms moving west? Hmmm.
Finally, from way up the road, I heard the blat of the Fat Boy. Bill came coasting to a stop and joined me in the small shade of the sign.
"Damn!" he exclaimed. "At 85, that thing will beat eggs!"
"Yeah, and it does the same thing to eyeballs at 75," I told him. "And I'm the one gets stuck riding it all the time." He showed no sympathy.
"James will be here in about an hour and a half," he said.
Then Bill walked to the Road King and hit the starter. It fired right up!
"Hey, let's head home!" he said. I mounted the Fat Boy.
It was too good to last. We both knew it. We got about three miles down the road, and I heard that same "POP!" and Bill pulled over again. We fiddled and twiddled with a bunch of wires, and we could get the bike to start, but not run well enough to pull itself. So, we shut it down.
Bill lit a cigarette. I looked at the growing T-storm to the east. "Your comment about not having a thunderstorm bearing down on us may have been a tad premature," I said. The sucker was HUGE and moving our way. And not slowly, either.
We stood around. No sign here. Nothing. No shade anywhere. Not even any cows.
Bill and I happened to look up the road to the north. Our mouths dropped open. "Did you see THAT?" he asked.
"Yeah, I think so. Was that really a..."
"Mountain Lion!" he finished for me. "Yes, it was. Either that or the world's biggest housecat!"
Nope. It had been a couger, dashing across the road, less than a hundred yards away! Gotta love these Texas open places!
We stood around some more. The clouds approached.
"What's that over there?" I pointed to a white shaft of something that seemed to begin at ground level and go halfway up to the clouds, probably a few miles away to the east.
"Uh..." Bill said. "Don't tell me that's..."
"A tornado forming," I finished for him. "Kewl! Wish I had a camera!"
We watched as the shaft grew wider, began to curve as it got higer in the air. Soon we could see a rotation, or swirl, as it got taller and taller. Then, suddenly, it dissolved. Just went away.
"Rats," said Bill. "I wanted to see one up close!"
Then the wind picked up, and the rain could be seen on the horizon, coming our way. Bill messed with the wires again, and the Road King fired. Sounded good. We mounted up, and took off. Made it, oh, maybe half a mile. "POP!" it backfired again as the juice went away.
This time no amount of fiddling would get it to crank, so we gave up. The air was getting chilly, the rain was marching up the road toward us from the south, we could hear it in the trees to the east, and you could see it in the distance to the north. "Rain suit time!" I announced, and we put on the plastic. Bill had only brought his top today, but at least he had that much.
Neither of us had a watch, but we calculated that it had been well over two hours since Bill had gotten back from Tilden. He was about to remount the Fat Boy to go make another call when a little black Toyota pickup came screaming down the highway. By now everything was very rainsoaked, including the road. When James saw us, he hit the brakes and the little truck commenced to skid. Thank God it skidded to its right, because we were to the left of it. James is crazy. He thinks that stuff is funny. He skidded it right of into the ditch at about 50. As he went past us in a cloud of dust, mud, and flying weeds, I saw his eyes were pretty big. "Almost overdid it that time," Bill observed.
James went through the motions of trying to get the Road King started, to no avail. So, with the help of a portable ramp, the three of us muscled it into the back of the Toyota. Poor truck. The rear tires were almost flattened, and the front tires looked as if they were about to get air. I bet the Road King weighs half as much as the truck does!
So, I rode in the rain to Tilden where I stopped for gas and James stopped for air in the rear tires. As we were waiting on him, a Jeep Cherokee pulled up to the pump beside us and a very attractive lady got out. I'd estimate her age to be about 35. Blonde hair (artificial, I'm sure) and startlingly blue eyes. Tall, and quite trim. Wearing a blue denim one-piece dress which emphasized her slim waist and barely went down to mid-thigh on some long and very shapely and tanned legs. She smiled at the nice bikers as she got out and headed inside to prepay for gas. I felt my heart go "pitter-patter".
Wouldn't you know I'd be standing there in my Michelin Man sliver and red rainsuit, red full-face helmet, and wet black gloves. Probably looked like a space alien, or maybe the Orkin man on a termite crusade.
James called me to help him tighten up the tie-downs on the Road King, so she came out and got her Jeep all gassed up before I could move back in her direction. She was about to get into it as I quickly looked at her left hand to see if she was married or not. That proved inconclusive, as she had no left hand. Well, not all of one, anyway. The palm and part of a thumb, maybe, but no fingers at all. So, it remains a mystery.
Anyway, she drove away, and so did we. Back to the shop, back through the rain.
190 miles, and I'm amazed we actually made that many. Of course, the Road King got less than half that ...
Monday, December 30, 1996. The day before New Year's eve. A small group of single parents from the listserv and IRC were in town. I had nothing scheduled after 12:00 noon. Sean had called the night before and suggested we go to Kerrville and visit the Mooney plant. Make a pilgrimage and pay homage to a shrine as it were. Sounded good to me, so we planned to meet at Susie's at 2:45. Being a prosperous business owner, Sean received the obligatory urgent phone call just as we were about to leave Susie's, so it was more like 3:15 by the time we actually left.
He followed me the three or four blocks to my house (so I could leave the truck there instead of in the street at Susie's) and then I climbed into the little purple Mercury Tracer he had rented. Crammed myself is a better description - no climbing actually involved as the sucker is so low to the ground, but like most four-door cars, especially small ones, the doors aren't very large - but I AM. It isn't easy maneuvering stomach, knees, and size 13s in a way that everything will go inside such an opening and still remain attached. Once inside, I reached down between my legs... to ease the seat back, you silly rabbits! Only thing was, it was already back as far as it would go! They don't get four-passenger seating in those little things by giving everyone a full range of movement. Sean controlled his mirth admirably during all my contortions and exertions, and when I had finally settled into a fixed position and my breathing had returned to a steady gasp, he looked at me and said, "I guess they don't make these in a 52 regular..." I'd have backhanded him, but there wasn't room to swing.
I'll spare everyone a repeat description of the above exercise from here on, but keep it in cache memory and recall it every time I mention we did something that required me to get out of the car, because I had to go through it all again in every instance. Both getting out and getting in. I'll be sore for a week!
I pointed the way to Kerrville, and one mile later we pulled into a Diamond Shamrock and got out of the car. Had to have some Lone Star, doan'cha know.
(Editor's note: Lone Star is the National Beer of Texas)
Back on the road, onto the four-lane portion of 1604, and Sean was playing with the cruise control and A/C settings and juggling an open 16 oz. can and trying to get the little purple Tracer to run at speed. We quickly decided they had mis-named the pedal on the right-hand side... instead of it being the accelerator, we figured it was really the volume control. 'Cause when he mashed on it, the engine would get a lot louder but not much else happened.
Onto IH-10 west and we settled into a steady cruise at 80 mph. I had finally gotten some breathing room by reclining my seatback a bit, and Sean had discovered there were two "cup holders" in the console, just in front of the gearshift lever. They weren't deep enough to really "hold" anything, but they had enough recess to keep vibration from causing the beer to fall off the shelf. (This lack of depth would come into play later on - pay attention; there will be a quiz.)
So, we buzzed out past Leon Springs and were settled into a steady cruise in the direction of Kerrville, both of us approximately 1/3 of the way through our first Lone Star, when I was absolutely shocked! I abruptly put my beer down and said, "Damn! This is gonna be some ride! I'm already hallucinatin'!"
Now, I know there are many of you who have criticised my drinking, and have railed against my tendency to go driving under the influence, and some of you have even warned me that it would come to this some day, seeing pink elephants and the like. But, I never thought it'd be so soon! And, after only a few sips of beer? Incredible!
Sean was busy fighting traffic and said, "What's the matter?" I pointed to the right side of the road, knowing it was all in my head, but Sean exclaimed, "Wow! A PINK ELEPHANT!"
Well, I didn't know whether to feel relieved or even more concerned - after all, he was DRIVING!
This elephant was a bright, eye-popping pink and stood close to 30 feet tall. I've lived in houses that were smaller. It almost obscured the fireworks stand next to it.
To make matters worse, there was a 30 foot tall red gorilla about 100 yards farther along... but we tried to ignore it.
The next exit was a mile down the road; Sean took it without prompting. Crossed over the big road and slid to a stop in the parking lot of a convenience store. We dashed in and were faced with the first major decision of the day - should we purchase the cardboard camera that is intended strictly for daylight use, or spring for one with a flash for another five bucks? A quick glance outside told us it was still full light out there, so Sean unhesitatingly took the daylight one. (This, too, would prove critical later on. Stay alert - I can't be giving out hints all the time!)
Back in the car, back across the Interstate, onto the access road, and back the direction from whence we came. Ignoring the gorilla once more, we slid to a stop on the shoulder by the fireworks stand and jumped out. Sean shot a couple of pics of the pink elephant, then tossed me the camera and I got one of him standing in front of it. He reciprocated.
Now, you are probably asking yourself, "Why did they go to all this trouble?" Well, I'll tell you. #1: It ain't every day you see a pink elephant. #2: It's even more rare to have corroboration of said sighting. And, #3: If I saw it, and he saw it, we thought just maybe it would register on film. No guarantee, and we still await developing, but one can hope...
(Disclaimer: Considerably subsequent to the pink elephant sighting and filming, certain events transpired which may severely impact our ability to produce proof in the form of usable photographs. Stay alert and see if you can spot this...)
Back into the purple Tracer, facing back west toward Kerrville, past the red gorilla (which we still refused to acknowledge), and Sean remarked, "We're a long way from the next onramp. The grass looks pretty good here and there are lots of tire tracks. Think we could go ahead and get onto the highway here?"
"I'm game,"I said, and he quickly turned the Tracer across the oncoming lane, off onto the grass, through the ditch at a smart clip, and up onto the shoulder of IH-10, front wheels spinning at about 50 mph and spitting clumps of grass. Yee haw! I KNEW this was gonna be a good ride!
(For those of you who are plotting this on your map at home, we were now about 40 minutes into the drive and a good eight miles up the road...)
The run up to Kerrville was relatively uneventful. Steady cruise at about 80, once the Tracer strained up to that speed. We chatted amiably, admired the rugged Hill Country, and almost finished our first Lone Stars. As we exited I-10 at Kerrville I pointed out the wild animal safari beside the exit ramp and the wildebeasts and buffalo grazing next to the road, but Sean was unimpressed. After all, he had already seen a giant pink elephant and a red gorilla...
We arrived in the parking lot of the Mooney Aircraft Corporatio at approximately 4:45 p.m. (No, that isn't a typo - that's what the sign said! Someone had thieved their "n", I reckon...) Strangely enough the place didn't seem to have much activity going on. The guard at the gate said it was too late for a tour. Sheesh! It wasn't even five o'clock yet! Kinda hours do those people keep? He did invite us back the next day; said there was a tour at 10:00 a.m. every morning. Tsk.
So, Sean and I looked around the grounds for a minute, took each other's picture next to the sign with the missing "n", chanted a couple of Roy LoPresti intonations, and then departed. As we pulled out of Al Mooney Drive onto the main road, Sean announced an important biological consideration: "Charlie, I have to tell you that I have a very small bladder, requiring frequent stops. Starting NOW!"
And so, the first of many visits to relief stations along the way, some indoors, some just devoid of heavy traffic...
For some reason, Sean decreed that I should do the driving at this point. I don't know why; after all, I had seen the elephant too! But he insisted, and I had to learn new angles for insertion of my body into the little purple car, this time with the added complication of a steering wheel obstructing the way. Whew!
I took State Road 16 out of Kerrville, heading south toward Medina and Bandera. Much more senic than 173 - lots of hills and curves. I guess Sean enjoyed it; at least he didn't get sick and puke.
Through Bandera (Cowboy Capital of the World, the sign proclaims) and on out 173 toward Hondo; it was getting close to dusk. A few miles along I pulled off onto Old Bandera Road, as fine a piece of unpavement as can be found in these parts. 'Bout a mile down it, Sean again uttered the "small bladder" litany, and we pulled over. I joined in the ritual; unbeknownst to me Sean was wielding the cardboard camera behind me. Maybe that film IS ruined...
To retaliate, I beat him back to the car and somehow managed to squeeze in and get it underway before Sean could reach a door. Fearful that he might be left out there in the wilderness, he threw himself onto the hood of the car, just like people do on TV. I accelerated and braked, but couldn't dislodge him. Amazingly, even at 40 mph on dirt, he managed to get one hand free to shoot a picture of me through the windshield - he had forgotten there was no flash to blind me with, I suppose. Concerned that actual physical harm might ensue, either to the car or to Sean, I gave up and stopped and let him get back in. He seemed quite grateful; I'm not sure whether it was for the safety and comfort of indoor seating or because we had my "Drinkin' Music" tape playing and George Thorogood was about to do, "I Drink Alone"...
The next twenty miles were vintage south Texas back country, some fenced, some open range, lots of scrubby live oaks and beaucoups cacti. The rough, rocky road wound around the low hills and down into the dry creeks, some of which had low bridges across them, some of which you simply drive through the creek bed. It's obvious that water comes through there now and then, but in the three years I've been around here it's never stayed long enough for me to actually see it in one of those places.
Back at pavement again, on 2676 near Quihi, we consulted the clock, the setting sun, and Sean's druthers. The group back in town was getting ready to go to the Comedy Club about then; I could'a had him back in time, but the drive had been pretty funny so far, so he opted to continue on. He said he wanted to find a really dark place so he could see some stars clearly. Hey, I knew just the place!
We ran up to Hondo on US 90, hit a Diamond Shamrock for Sean's bladder and another six pack - we got Shiner Bock this time. Sean also was falling prey to the munchies and got a large bag of corn chips and a jar of salsa con queso.
I happened to spot a small assortment of cigars at the checkout counter, and on a whim invested fifty cents in a couple of nice looking stogies.
On out Hwy 90 to D'Hanis, then northward on Ranch Road 1796... and into the darkness. Deer grazing and chewing cud beside the road, Garth Brooks in the tape player, accompanied by the munching and crunching of tortilla chips and the odd loud belch. It's a Man thing...
After several miles we turned onto Seco Valley Road - more fine unpavement. Passed the entrance to Valdina Ranch, crossed the old iron-framed and wooden-floored bridge over Seco Creek, and prodded the now panting Tracer up the hill. At the highest point, I stopped. I told Sean, "You wanted dark - get ready." We stepped out of the car into almost perfect blackness.
Standing there on that hill, you can see 20 or more miles in three directions; the view to the east is obscured by the hilltop, which the road doesn't quite surmount. To the south several towers are visible, small points of blinking red far off in the darkness. Probably 15 or more miles away, down near Sabinal, or maybe Uvalde. To the west... nothing but stars and horizon. To the north, the same. A distant horizon and dark sky. No lights. Not even a glow in the distance. No sound, either, except that provided by nature.
It was a bit hazy, but the stars were still quite bright. Sean made himself comfortable by stretching full length on the hood and windshield of the Tracer, oblivious to the sounds of crumpling sheet metal. Hey, it was a rental, right? (Editor's note: Let this be a warning to those of you who are tempted by the sales offered by Hertz, Avis, et al; those "low mileage" rental cars may not have led the quiet life they would have you believe...) He had barely gotten settled before the first shooting star shot across the Milky Way.
For the next hour we stayed right there - well, Sean insisted it was more like 30 minutes, so we compromised on 45. It was at this point that I remembered to dedicate the beer I was drinking to a lady who IMed me on AOL the other day, and to one who DCCed me on IRC; both insisted I have one for her on my next ride, so I did. (Y'all know who you are!) We talked about many important topics, ranging from the sorry state of Arkansas football to why the properties of light change with the method of measuring it to the Quark Theory of thermodynamics... and other mysteries of the universe. Sean spent the whole time (except for bladder breaks) reclining atop the Tracer. I mostly paced. Up and down the road, around and around the car, my neck craned upward to peer into space. Probably made him nervous...
Finally, we heard some coyotes. Way in the distance, but we heard 'em, nonetheless.
Oh, yeah, did I fail to mention that it was about 65 degrees all this time? Warm, walkin' around in a short-sleeved t-shirt...
Then we set off again, and a few miles of dust and rock later we arrived at a junction. Decision time; will it be north or east? "More interesting terrain to the north," I said, and Sean replied, "Proceed!"
Seco Creek crosses and recrosses this stretch of road several times. You wind along over and around the low hills bracketed on all sides by much taller hills (but we couldn't appreciate that on this dark night), and occasionally dive into the creekbed. Only thing is, lately, this far out, it has WATER in it! We had splashed through a couple of these water crossings - no bridges out here, not even concrete bottoms in most places - and when we came to the next one I suggested to Sean that I get out and take a picture of him driving the car through the water. Sure, the camera didn't have a flash and was intended strictly for daylight use, but with the headlights and all...
Sean was all for it, except he said he'd do the picture-taking. So he got out (trusting soul - we were 70 miles from San Antonio and who knows how far from even the nearest ranch) and only once did he ask, "Are you SURE you're gonna come back and get me?" I crossed the creek, turned around, and headed back toward it. I was pointed downhill with the lights on low beam so as to not wipe out the film completely; I could barely see Sean beside the road on the other side, right on the edge of the light. As I came to the water I carried a little bit of speed - I figured we needed a decent splash to really make the picture look good. Ahem. Bit too much speed, as it turned out. Coupled with Sean having set up MUCH closer to the creek than I had thought. Just as I hit the water I realized what was going to happen, but it was too late! Poor Sean! The Tracer spewed a bow wave worthy of a good-sized yacht, and Sean was crouched right where it curled over him. He says he thinks he pushed the button before the water got him, but we don't know for sure. What we do know is that both he and the cardboard camera got SOAKED! Nasty smelling water, too. After all, this IS cow country... Bleah.
To his credit, Sean took it all in good humor. Perhaps because he's a good sport, or maybe because it's hard to know where to land a fatal blow on one so large and well-padded as I, or maybe because there wasn't a stick of wood in sight sturdy enough for use as a cudgel, but he didn't even threaten me. Mostly he just stood there with his arms spread like a bird drying its wings, and dripped. Then he remembered the camera, and shook it and wiped it as dry as he could. Me? I damn near laughed myself to death!
Back in the car again, and we negotiated the final few miles of dirt and water, the latter deeper with each crossing. I think we floated a bit in the last one. Then we arrived at RR 470, and I pointed the Tracer east, toward Tarpley, Bandera, and home.
By this time we had the Ozark Mountain Daredevils in the tape deck and I was adding insult to Sean's injury by singing along with 'em. Something about a nice night, remote countryside, good company, and several beers... I just lose control.
Along in there somewhere Sean put his Shiner Bock into the cupholder and was leaned over doing something with his wet shoes when we arrived at a very tight right-hander. I was in the process of explaining that it was a fine example of Hill Country driving entertainment when that beer of his did a little dipsy doodle and fell over in my direction... Between the 45 degree angle at which it rested and the g-forces of my 70 mph negotiation of a 35 mph curve, said beer commenced to expell its contents - right onto my leg! Nuttin' I could do. You don't lift off at speed in a curve in a front-drive car, and I had just enough to do already that I couldn't let go and bend over and grab the thing, so I had to sit there and take it. I hollered to Sean, "Your byear is spillin' on muh laig!" but he was occupied with trying to stay on his side of the car because of said g-forces, and he couldn't do anything to help either. Time we were through the corner it had blurped out a good half a bottle. Terrible waste of beer! I said something about the floor mat, but Sean just reminded me, "Hey, it's a rental!"
And so we arrived in Bandera about twenty minutes later, both of us wet in one place or another with one thing or another, and needing to find Sean another bladder relief stop. By this time mine was having similar problems, so it was a mutual need. We hit my favorite service station/general store at the junction of 16 & 173 and not only used the facilities but filled up with gas and restocked the pantry. (Sean was a bit nervous about being out in the wilds with me and a little less than a quarter-tank of gas, in spite of my assurances that it was plenny to get us back home.) He got a coke, got me some more Lone Star, and braved rural texas cookin' and got himself a fried chimichanga. (How was that thing, anyway, Sean?) I finally gave in to hunger and bought their last half pound of fried gizzards. Ummmm, good! I love it when I stop in there right after 10:00 p.m. and they sell everything for half price 'cause it's gettin' a mite old. One of life's little treats!
By then it was getting late, so we jogged out 173 a mile or so and took Bottle Springs English Crossing Road. I treated Sean to a short visit to the Flying L Ranch estates, a little community of nice homes spread around a grass airstrip. Too dark to see much, but he was quite intrigued by all the deer dodging around in the headlights. Nice herd of about a dozen o' the rascals.
A couple more miles down BSECR it turns to unpavement again, so we ambled on down it to the Medina River, where we got out to pee and stood on the low-water bridge for a while and listened to the rushing water. I noticed Sean didn't volunteer to take any more pictures...
Quickly to FM 1283, thence to Park Road 37. More Daredevils tunes, cruise control on 45 mph as I demonstrated how to handle my favorite curve, The Question Mark - this time after making certain that all containers were securely closed and put away! Safely to SR 16, quickly to Hwy 211, and we had to stop to pee again. Also, we remembered the cigars we had bought way back in Hondo, so we took a few minutes to smoke those things. I forget the brand, but they were a great little 25 cent smoke... when that was over, I was about done for.
And thence to home. We came in here and got on IRC for a few minutes, browsed my .gif and .jpg files (still notably lacking a shot of Lindy's feet), then went back up to Susie's where we found the gang assembled on her front lawn and grousing about the lousey comedians they had to sit through down at the Comedy Club. Sean and I smiled smugly, knowing we'd had the more fun for the evening. I was accused of being unstable on my feet, and Eric said I looked like a palm tree swaying in the wind. I took that as a compliment - a palm tree is the skinniest thing I've been compared to in years!
Thus endeth another outback adventure, or Midnight Ride, as many have come to call them. This tour was made possible only by Sean's generousity and the rented Tracer, since I am currently worse than broke. He even bought my beer! Don't know how he's gonna handle it on his expense account, but that's his problem... I shall forever remember this one as The Pink Elephant Tour, and I can only hope that at least SOME of those pictures come out!