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She’ll do the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs

Now that we’re deep into the heart of Texas, our fourth state, we’re starting to build up some credibility for the whole “where did you start/where are you headed?” interrogation. It’s always awkward announcing your plans to bicycle across the country when you’re still within commuter range of the Pacific Ocean, where the ceremonial rear-wheel dipping kicks off the whole hero’s quest in the first place. “Ridin’ a bicycle across the US of A to Florida?? Whatta plan!! How far have ya gone so far?”

“Um… we started over there by that Denny’s.”

No… begrudging respect from the good ol’ boys only kicks in after the second state border–and yes, believe it or not, California has just as many good ol’ boys as Texas!

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New Mexico was our first chance to really build an audience for our road stories, and we enjoyed some of the finest hospitality and kindness that the Land of Enchantment had to offer. We also enjoyed some of the finest tailwinds that the current weather system had to offer–I hit my all-time record of 48mph on a smooth, breezy downhill, although I eventually pulled back on the brakes once crime-scene visions of various grisly crashes started to flash through my overactive imagination. At that kind of speed, all the moisture gets sucked right out of your skull–you coast to a stop with cracked lips stretched into a goofy, frozen grin, looking like your eyeballs grew magical wings of salt. It’s an exhilarating moment with decidedly un-sexy appeal. But hey, once you’ve thrown on thickly-chamoised spandex and a Camelbak, no one really expects much out of you anyway. I’ve gone days without catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror, only to eventually confront my wizened, leathery reflection in a campground bathroom, stunned that no one has yet recoiled in horror from the ever-expanding size of my hair alone. Get me on the road for two days at a stretch and my ragged body promptly goes into Mad Max mode.

southern-tierWhile we crossed New Mexico in a state of utter enchantment, a string of hard times and bad luck managed to find our little group. First, one of the riders, a disabled US soldier, tore out the ligaments and cartilage in his rebuilt knees and had to leave the tour to seek surgical help. Second, our oldest and strongest rider, a world-traveling cycle tourist from Canada (and not-so-secretly, my favorite guy in the group), found out that his partner was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. There was no question of what he would do–we relied on some of the aforementioned New Mexican hospitality to drive him straight to the El Paso airport so that he could return home to be with loved ones. After those two tearful goodbyes, we rolled out towards the highest, toughest climb on our route, the Emory Pass, only 13 riders strong. It was in the wake of all this tragedy and turmoil that I found out that the original rider to leave the tour–the raging, verbally-abusive alcoholic that you may remember from such blog entries as “The Set-up“–decided to file a lawsuit against both me and my touring company. Throw in the fact that my optometrist sold me a box of contacts in the wrong prescription (a blinding misfortune only noticed after I had discarded the current pair, 70 miles from the nearest vision center), and you have enough chapters to fill up my own personal “Hard Times: an Oral History of The Southern Tier”. We can only hope that the number 13 will provide some sort of paradoxical luck for us from here on out.

Crossing the Texas border into El Paso, we encountered some of the strongest winds we’ve experienced on this whole gust-crazy trip. I was actually attacked by an unexpectedly violent tumbleweed the size and viciousness of an angry fourth-grader, blowing past on a callous rampage and leaving a trail of tears in its tangled wake. Though the physical scars may be small, the emotional scars and wild-eyed paranoia will linger over the course of many states. Danger can come from anywhere!

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The hostel in El Paso had a lot of character, but had certainly seen better days. Right around the corner from Amigo Bail Bonds and a series of depressing gay bars, the sketchy energy of the place was immediately confirmed at check-in, when a tweaker raced into the building and up the stairs just in time to evade the series of cop cars rolling past. Actually, El Paso had a weird energy in general, possibly attributable to the gale-force winds and desolate Easter streets, or possibly related to the early downtown curfew and heavy armored guard presence. With a highly-publicized, bloody drug war going on just across the border in Juarez, it was hard to tell if all the safety warnings about El Paso could be chalked up to media hype or if it WAS really dangerous just to wander around the empty streets alone. I decided to take my chances, for the most part, and do some exploring. Having grown up in a very white area of the country where “diversity” meant throwing a few nods to Hanukkah into the holiday choral program, it was a unique experience for me to feel so conspicuous on the bus, in the shops, pretty much wherever I went. I definitely felt sheepish about the abysmal quality of my Spanish. Speaking of the US/Mexico border, this trip has really opened up my eyes about the whole border wall issue. Eye-sore that it is, this wall is dividing university campuses, Native American tribal lands, and ecological wildlife areas–not to mention communities, families, and friends. There has to be a way to stop the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act. Right now I’m frustrated by my own lack of information (I miss you, dear friend Internet!) and action, but it’s definitely an issue I’d like to look into further when I get home. Is it too much to expect Obama to tear down this stupid thing? And is there any way I can segue from all this earnestness back into bicycling?

The road out of El Paso was beautiful, traffic-less, and lined with endless pecan groves. Once we got out past Fort Hancock, we hit a few long, dry stretches of West Texas that forced us back onto the interstate, where flat tires become a daily inevitable at the sinister metaphoric hands of the wire beads from truck tires. One 75-mile day launched us into a headwind so brutal that we were on the road from 7am until sundown at nearly 10pm. We pulled into camp with just enough time to set up tents in the dark and slip into bed, anxious about the next day’s 90 miles of climbing. Ill-prepared to spend that many hours on the road, I bonked so hard around dinneritime that I ate the straight powder out of four EmergenC packets and considered tossing back my entire bottle of multivitamins. If Vitamin C could make you go faster, I would probably already be in Florida by now… or perhaps at least courting a few corporate sponsors. The following 90-mile day to Fort Davis was probably the most brutal day of climbing and winds that I’ve ever experienced. Some riders took a flatter bypass route, and some took lifts across the pass, but we all survived the experience in anticipation of better days ahead. We might as well just get used to the wind, mountains, and long stretches of desolation–we’ll be messin’ with Texas for awhile now!