I was lying in a grove of willow trees that sparkled with dancing fire flies. Above me was a black velvet sky aflame with stars. A symphony of cicadas and frogs lulled my mind as they competed with the gentle hiss of waves lapping on sand. I could have been anywhere in the world. I was in southern Oklahoma.
I raised my hand towards the sky and traced my own constellations through a universe that made me wonder whether I had ever truly observed the stars before this night. I traced the incomprehensible heavens as I traced my own journey to this wonderful place.
Only few nights before I had been in the thick of Tulsa, attempting to navigate my loaded bicycle through a bustling supermarket without knocking boxes of cereal off of shelves. I had attempted to leave my bicycle outside next to a guard, but after five minutes I discovered that my heart was pounding with paranoia because I could not let my beautiful steed out of my site. I must have looked a spectacle pushing her through the store, for I was approached by a nice elderly lady who pulled on my sleeve and asked me what I'm up to. I told her that I'm bicycling to South America. Without a blink, this lady asked me if I'm going to be packing heat through Mexico. No, I replied as I attempted to keep a straight face, I most certainly will not be carrying a gun with me through Mexico.
The next morning my companions and I cruised briskly into the countryside south of Tulsa after a restful evening at the house of another Warm Showers host. We had spent the evening eating pistachios, curling our toes into thick colorful rugs, and admiring the Malaysian art that adorned his walls. Mike, our host, had treated us to stories from a bicycle tour through Romania with his Unitarian Universalist congregation. When he took us into the garage to show us his electric car, I decided that this may be the most progressive man I have met.
With our muscles hardened from the rest and our lungs full of early morning air, we easily completed fifty miles before noon. After a quick lunch of peanut butter and honey, we decided to dive into the back-country. We soon found ourselves in a region of dense forests, steep hills, and winding roads.
We escaped the heat of the day in a tiny town nestled into the side of a hill. We sat at a booth in the town's only gas station and contented ourselves to people-watching and reading as the day burned itself out. I soon came to discover that this was not simply a gas station, but more of a community center and general store. All manner of residents came and went, often simply to talk to the women working behind the counter or to relax at a table for a time. Gaggles of children finding mischief on their summer holiday would sporadically swarm the store, at which point the employees would produce a megaphone and amusedly scold the children and threaten to call their parents. It was an incredibly fun and interesting situation. A few hours later, after Kevin had batted his eyes at one of the women behind the counter, a large sausage pizza was set before us and we were told to have the best of luck on our journey.
We pedaled on into a calm twilight, making this our first 90 mile day. As the shadows lengthened we pushed our bicycles underneath a large bridge. We made camp on a sandy beach next to a river partially overhung by the surrounding forest. After a refreshing swim, Kevin and I built a bonfire while Vasili prepared a delicious feast of rice, beans, and lentils spiced with volcan firesalt and tempered with tomato sauce.
That night I sat next to the dying embers of our fire as it cast an almost imperceptible orange glow upon the silent river. Time tends to slip by on a journey such as this. The sun dances back and forth across the sky as days merge and mix fluidly. There are, however, moments that break this dreamlike slippage of time with the utmost vividness. This was such a moment. Smoke rolled slowly upwards, spinning around the dark silhouettes of tree boughs before becoming lost in an even darker sky. The sky was so black that it seemed to swallow me.
My thighs screamed in protest the next morning as I labored up hills. Kevin left me behind and I became frustrated, thinking that I must simply have pushed my body too hard the day before. By the time I rolled into Calvin, a tiny town of a few hundred people, my legs were trembling uncontrollably and I was entirely drenched in sweat.
Finding Kevin, I dismounted and inspected my bicycle. I found that a support for the rear rack had snapped so a bar was rubbing against my wheel, making pedaling nearly impossible. I attempted to fix it temporarily with duck tape, but it would not hold. After what seemed like an age of unsuccessfully fiddling with the broken rack I retired to the shade and sat with my forehead in my hands, attempting to clear my head to discover how I could mend the situation. I could think of nothing.
My eyes were closed, but I heard the rumble of a Diesel engine approaching and the soft squeal of brakes as it stopped near me.
"You boys need some help?" came a gruff voice.
I opened my eyes and found an old battered face staring at me from the window of a pickup truck.
I shook my head. "Not unless you think you can weld a bicycle frame," I replied.
The man offered a rumbling laugh. "Sheeit, throw it in the back and I'll take it down to my shop."
He grinned, showing a gap where his front teeth should have been, and cocked his thumb towards the bed of his truck.
I laid my bicycle gently next to a broken chair in the truck bed and hopped into the passenger seat, leaving Kevin and Vasili sitting in the vacant Main Street as I rumbled away with this man.
"The name's Chuck," he growled. I shook a hand that was rough and calloused, with scarred knuckles and battered nails. Faded tattoos adorned his arms and neck. He sported a gray drooping mustache that twitched easily with laughter as we shared crass jokes about women, and a ponytail dangled loosely behind his head.
We entered his shop, which was a sweltering expanse of shelves and tools on a concrete floor under a tin roof. I pretended to know something about motorcycles as I inspected two half finished bikes he was building. We began talking about his life as he produced his welding equipment.
As Chuck got to work and sparks began to fly from my bicycle frame I finally had a chance to ponder the grotesque pink scar that mottled half of Chuck's face. Chuck was raised in Bakersfield, California and was introduced to Oklahoma as a child when his dad, on a drunken whim, told him to get into the car to see where daddy was born. Thousands of miles later little Chuck found himself in the hills of southern Oklahoma.
His father disappeared from his life when he was still very young, and Chuck found himself being raised by his older brother in a mechanic shop back in Bakersfield. He told me that he had to learn quickly to help make enough money to live. Looking at the scar as Chuck fixed my bicycle, I imagined him undertaking a welding project with little experience, and a flame licking the skin from his face. I imagined the skin being lost in an alley in California as he clawed his way through a violent childhood. I imagined the skin being left on a road in Oklahoma as he lost control of his motorcycle during a drunken cruise.
Chuck slapped me on the back and stepped away to admire his handiwork. My bicycle was as fixed as it could possibly be. He produced some tools and showed me how I could fix the problem myself if it were to break again. As we returned into the blinding sun, Chuck seemed to be struck by a thought and invited us to stop by his house. He knew how tired bikers get (though he laughed that we're not real bikers) and said his missus would cook us up some grub.
An hour later found my companions and I shoveling thick syrupy pancakes into our mouths in the living room of Chuck's low ceilinged four room shack as he encouraged us to stay the night and share his moonshine. He was proudly seated on a worn throne-like chair at the front of the room. Next to him was perched a large white parrot that possessed an impressive vocabulary of female body parts. A trailer sat in the back yard where his teenage stepson lived. "It's nothing against the boy," Chuck explained, "but he stinks, and I'm not going to have a stinker sleeping on my couch. Teenagers stink, and that's just the way it is."
We had thus far only traveled twenty miles that day, so we decided that we could not afford to spend a day and night drinking moonshine with Chuck. This may be the only decision that I regret thus far on this journey. If I had stayed, Chuck realistically may have taught me how to wrestle a tornado.
As we climbed onto our bicycles, Chuck seemed genuinely concerned about our nutrition. I told him that we're trying to budget between three to five dollars per day, but that we eat very well. Chuck guffawed at this, silently mouthing "three to five dollars." He turned and hollered at his wife, "You hear that honey? Sounds like I'm gonna have to buy you a bicycle." As we turned onto the road I caught a wisp of Chuck muttering about how the preacher's crusty old ass will love to hear about how he helped us out. Then he was gone. And that was Chuck.
The rest of the day was spent sharing the road with Amish wagons and watching dark towers of rain bend across the horizon as we danced with thunderclouds. Eventually the hills were behind us and we found ourselves surrounded by farms. We pitched our tents on a patch of grass next to a station where trucks unloaded grain, but my heart sank as we were approached by an angry looking large man in a sweat stained ball cap.
He surprised me by being very enthusiastic about our adventure, and invited us to move camp next to a little pond behind the station. We bathed and swam in the pond as the sun set, then joined the man for conversation and hotdogs in his office.
Without time constraints, and facing the stark immensity of the journey we have undertaken, we decided to spend a day soul searching at a nearby state park. In the park we discovered a large lake surrounded by thick, untamed deciduous forest that my mind quickly turned into jungle. We hiked to a hidden meadow and pitched our tents before exploring the surrounding area. It did not take us long to find that the entire lake bed was covered in a deep slimy mud, so I amused myself for longer than I care to admit wriggling my body across the bottom like an eel, feeling the cool mud suck at my tired skin.
My companions and I sat together with our feet in the water as the world was flooded with a pleasant, mellow light. The sun set, and it was not long before the frogs and cicadas sang, the fireflies danced, and the stars baffled me with their brilliance. It occurred to me that this moment was why I was on this trip; to find infinite appreciation of a place in southern Oklahoma. If I can find this form of contentment in Oklahoma, I could find it anywhere in the world.
The next day we entered Texas. A day of biking brought us to the home of our next Warm Showers host, LD, who lives fifty miles from my cousin's apartment in Dallas. We biked through a gorgeous evening in the Texas countryside.
It smelled distinctly of the Midwest, with freshly baled hay mixed with the occasional scent of pine bringing me to my childhood and walks with loved ones.
We pitched our tents in our host's front yard and sipped a beer with him on his porch as the warm Texas twilight slipped into night. I picked at my guitar absentmindedly as I learned about LD. He is an aging gentleman with an ageless curiosity. He spends his time teaching himself Spanish, learning to play the banjo, and reading thick books regarding the history of civilization. He has the type of kind heart that can't leave a dog on the side of the road. He also retains some travel ambition, and I watched his eyes glow with a sort of distant hunger as I described to him the traveling websites that I use, such as WWOOF and Workaway.
After camping in LD's front yard, we were woken to coffee and sausage biscuits which we enjoyed before a heartfelt goodbye.
The ride into Dallas could have been stressful, but it is remarkable how quickly one can become used to multi-ton metal death machines zooming inches from one's body. My cousin, John, enjoyed a good laugh as he arrived to his apartment to see us sprawled in a parking space, red-eyed from the suffocating exhaust and red-skinned from the sun.
Six days were spent with our cousins in Dallas as we waited for some bicycle parts to arrive at one of the shops. We had each been experiencing bike issues and decided to use this time to ensure that we would be completely prepared to enter Mexico. We ordered thick tires that will be able to handle any Mexican road. The bicycle mechanics taught us to true tires, change spokes, and repair chains. One bicycle mechanic, a beautiful woman named Sara, wanted to see her bicycle touring through South America. She agreed to sell me her magnificent bicycle for the price of the refund I could receive for my Nashbar bike. I agreed, and after a few days of terrorizing Nashbar customer service I received my refund and a new and improved steed.
Bicycle mechanics are phenomenal. We received training, we obtained our new parts for significant discounts, and we tipped with beer.
When we weren't dealing with our bicycles we were basking in the luxurious hospitality of our cousins. I was able to finish a book by one of my favorite philosophers while laying next to their pool. We spent a day boating at a nearby lake. We screamed at the television with some pretty Latina grad students as Mexico lost in the World Cup, and we gorged ourselves on brats which our cousin, Blaine, provided for us.
In all, it was a very relaxing and productive stay, but by the end I was claustrophobic, restless, and itching to be back on my beloved road.
We bicycled 200 miles over the next 2 days in temperatures simmering at nearly 100 degrees. I have been counseled that it is wise to know your limits on a journey such as this, and I suppose that this was our attempt to find them.
It is a strange experience, biking these distances in this heat. For long hours my very thoughts would seem to be boiling and diffusing, bouncing chaotically within my skull with a will of their own. I felt like I was weightlessly gliding over the shimmering asphalt. It was as if I were pedaling on an anvil that the sun was hammering relentlessly. As soon as sweat rolled from my pores it would evaporate, leaving a crusty layer of salt that covered my skin.
My brother and I rolled into Waco the first night and were saved by our hosts, Andy and his family, who proved to be some of the most genuinely kind people I have met. They were astounded by the distance we had covered that day and treated us to as much home made pizza as we could eat. Before beginning the meal we offered a quick prayer for Vasili, who we had just heard would be pitching his tent and camping that night. Vasili possesses a sort of superpower that allows him to sleep anywhere at any time. That day he had napped on the pavement outside of a gas station and awoken hours later without enough time to make it to Andy's house.
Suddenly, at close to 9:30, the front door banged open and Vasili filled the doorway, drenched in sweat with a heaving chest and disheveled hair. It reminded me of a Kramer entrance in the Seinfeld sitcom. Kevin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing while Andy and his wife bustled Vasili inside and sat him at the table. It turns out that an old man had seen Vasili pitching his tent and offered to give him a ride. After warning Vasili that he would shoot him if he gave him any trouble, the man had Vasili lay flat in the bed of his truck while he drove him to within ten miles of our host. Vasili biked the last ten miles in the dark.
"Wow!" exclaimed Jonathan, the youngest son. "What a dingus! He's a dingus! Your friend is a dingus!" I laughed and told him that he catches on quickly.
The next night found us one hundred miles farther on the outskirts of Austin with full bellies sleeping comfortably at my cousin Lisa's house. We had each made the journey without any real difficulty, and Andy had even stopped to give Vasili an iced tea when he passed him on the road in the afternoon on his way to business in Austin.
Austin appeared over the horizon the next day. There is always something excitingly mysterious about watching city towers rise hazily in the distance after slowly crossing the vast in-between. I felt like the scarecrow emerging from the forest and gazing upon the city of Oz. The world gradually becomes busier as you approach the hive, and the buzz of bustling strife becomes louder and louder until it ceases to be noticeable.
I had been lounging outside of a shaded cafe for hours, writing and speaking on the phone with a close friend, when I caught an older gentleman eyeing me intently. I approached him and we struck up conversation.
This man had worked in the Peace Corps for two years in Colombia with some close friends when he was young. He called one of these friends on the phone, and within ten minutes I was sitting with the two of them discussing my plans. They offered valuable advice on the border crossing and gave me the email of another friend who lives in Guatemala. They said he would be happy to give me a safe place to recover when I enter the region.
They even knew a friend who had bicycled Mexico. Pat, the new arrival, winked at me and told me that this is an eccentric fellow as he dialed his number. Pat's friend answered the phone from Anchorage, Alaska, where he is touring down the West Coast. He was excited to speak with me and counseled me on the best ways to find shelter in villages and how to sneak onto toll roads to avoid flat tires. It was truly an excellent way of spending the afternoon, and I hope I am able to surround myself with such interesting people if I reach a ripe age.
I met up with my companions, and together we biked to within a block of the University of Texas, where we found our Couchsurfing host, Blake. We were just in time for dinner at his thirty person commune, so we feasted with this welcoming community of college students before relaxing on their porch and conversing for the evening.
I found that Blake is a truly exceptional character. Soon he will be starting to work on a PhD in physics at UCLA, but he decided to stay busy in the meantime by buying a cheap sailboat, learning to sail, and taking his girlfriend down the coast of Mexico and Central America. In Panama, Blake is going to dock his boat and hitch hike north to California. He was scheduled to embark in two weeks time, and invited us to join his crew. I was initially very amused by his offer until I realized that this was a real possibility. What a life I have made for myself in which I could on a whim join a voyage down the Caribbean Coast. Maybe on my next journey...
As we retired for the evening, faces flushed from a combination of good beer, great company, and too much laughter, we began to say our goodbyes with the intention of leaving the next morning. They looked at us incredulously. Surely we would stay another night for their 4th of July party! We were easily convinced.
The next day was spent perusing UT's opulent campus, exploring a Church of Scientology, and barbecuing with our friends in their back yard. After feasting and drinking, we climbed to the top of a nearby parking garage and blew up fireworks. I couldn't imagine that the Texas police would care; they say that in Texas you are more likely to get arrested for not blowing things up on 'Murica Day.
We participated in a pool party of the sort that I did not know existed outside of Hollywood movies. Austin certainly knows how to have a good time. Towards the end of the night we said our goodbyes to Blake, the best Couchsurfing host in Texas. He was paddling away from us naked in the pool, waving and promising that we'll try to meet up when he's hitch hiking north through Central America in September.
We rose late the next day and treated our aching heads to a short forty mile ride to San Marcos, where the land quickly became scrubby and arid. Vasili breathed the air with closed eyes and reflected that it reminded him of his hometown in Greece. As the sun reached its utmost intensity we crossed a river into San Marcos and saw that the banks swarmed with people. It seemed that half the city was sunbathing or floating in the cool clear water. We set up our gypsy camp on some grass next to the river and spent the rest of the day swimming, reading, and chatting with locals.
In the evening we found our Warmshowers host, a young man named Matt, and set up our tents in his yard. Matt is currently a baker, but he is greatly interested in community farming and will soon be setting up a WWOOFing operation to begin producing food on his small plot of land.
The next morning, our plans for early departure were delayed by Matt's neighbor, a Palestinian philosopher named Nebil who sits in the shade amongst plants reading books all day. He was greatly interested in our adventure. We conversed for quite some time as we enjoyed a breakfast of spicy egg tacos prepared by his daughter.
"So tell me," Nabil eventually asked,"what exactly are your motives on this journey."
"That," I replied after some thought, "is a very existential question." Nebil stared before laughing in agreement. I decided to share with him that I am at a stage in my life where I feel that I could do just about anything that I set my mind to. I don't want to dive into one particular way of life simply because this is the only way that I have been exposed to, but would rather first experience a myriad of lifestyles so that I can decide for myself the best manner of spending my existence.
Nebil looked at me, nodding slowly. "I think what you will find," he replied after some consideration, "is that in all places, people eat, people shit, and people work."
He continued, "I think that what you will find, as well, is that the more of the world that you encounter, the more hopeless appears the task of fixing it. What you must do," Nebil wagged a finger at me, "is find peace within yourself, and the rest will follow."
I am now basking in the bottomless depths of my Aunt Jan's hospitality in San Antonio as I watch two spotted fawns nestle in my aunt's front lawn. It has been nearly a month since I left home. I have bicycled nearly one thousand miles, learning about people and places which I would otherwise never have encountered. I have certainly gained a deep appreciation of the people of the southern Midwest, and a more complex understanding of the culture I am leaving behind. I have learned bicycle maintenance, my own physical limits, how to find shelter in a pinch, and how to live on rice, beans, and relationships. I feel that I am fully prepared for my entry into Mexico.
In a few days I will be biking through the badlands of southern Texas towards Mcallen, where we will cross the border and head towards Monterrey. My next blog entry should be posted in roughly a week, in which I will provide an account of the border crossing. I hope that you have enjoyed accompanying me on my adventure. It only gets better from here.