Web Posted: 10/19/2008 10:09 CDT
A different way to Dallas: A bicycle journey through the Texas Hill Country
By Peter Olsen - Special to the Express-News
I told my friend I was going to ride my bike from New Braunfels to Dallas.
"That's nearly 250 miles," he said. "You can't be serious. I-35 is a nightmare. Do you have a death wish?"
"No," I replied. "I'm riding up Route 281 through the Hill Country."
"There's another way to get to Dallas? I never thought about that," was his reply.
Route 281 from San Antonio to Dallas parallels I-35 much of the way with a few big differences: There's less traffic and it traverses the heart of the scenic Hill Country.
Early on a Sunday morning, I started from New Braunfels and made my way across Route 46 to Route 281 near Bulverde. I confess I had some anxieties. What if Route 281 had no shoulders? What if it was bumpy, full of potholes and scattered with broken glass? My fears were allayed when I discovered a smooth road, wide shoulders free of debris, hills long but gradual and the wind at my back.
It was spring, and I had great expectations. A drought the previous year had kept the famous Hill Country wildflowers dormant. This year I expected them to go crazy. I wasn't disappointed. The colors were magnificent.
On a bicycle, the Texas Hill Country feels, smells and sounds different than from the inside of a speeding car. The long, gradual hills demand the lowest gear. You linger longer. Your gaze is more concentrated. You remember more. I stared until I felt each flower etched in my mind. From a car window, all I ever saw was a cacophony of colors.
Route 281 has an abundance of pickup trucks, but drivers were courteous. If the road narrowed, they waited for an open spot to pass. Not once did a truck driver fail to give the traditional two-finger wave.
Just south of Lampasas, I came across a large cattle lot. The odor permeated my senses for at least a mile before I arrived. That's 12 minutes in bicycle time. In a car with the windows up and the air conditioning on, one misses this delight.
I pride myself on my "moo." I can imitate the bray of a calf calling his mother quite well. Along Route 281 there was ample opportunity to practice my craft. It never failed. Herds of bovine ambled toward the roadside, curious about my concert. We made eye contact for a few moments, then they moseyed off.
I've become a connoisseur of green pastures. They symbolize life regenerated. Some fields reminded me of Currier and Ives paintings. Fences and telephone poles covered with climbing vines. Enormous live oaks hunkered over full cow tanks. Weathered farmhouses and barns from bygone eras. Waterfalls cascading over dammed creeks. If I lingered a moment, I was sure to see a turtle or an egret waiting for a small fish to spear.
Despite the tiredness in my legs, I had an urge to jump the fence and twirl Julie Andrews-style among the living green hills. From a car window at 60 mph, these hills are just a blur.
I left Marble Falls early the second day hoping to beat the rain. About four miles from Lampasas, the heavens unleashed their torrents. My vision was reduced to a few yards. Wet tire rims rendered the brakes useless. I stopped to get my bearings and my $150 new shoes filled with mud and wouldn't slide into my snap-on pedals. I still had three miles to go.
I got to Lampasas about noon. I stopped at McDonald's for a cup of hot coffee. I was soaking wet and they had the air conditioning on high. I felt locked in a refrigerator. Suddenly high school students in groups of eight or 10 converged here for lunch. The floor was a lake. The kids were sliding and falling, but never stopped talking. The noise was overwhelming. I decided riding in the rain wasn't that bad.
The next day emerged sunny and promised to be warmer. Some unexpected surprises were in store. It was nearly 70 miles to Hico, and I had planned to stop on the way for refreshments. My map indicated a number of small towns along the route — Adamsville, Evant, Hamilton and Odin. Today was Tuesday and Adamsville was closed on Tuesdays. I moved on to Evant. The general store was open but carried no orange juice, my staple energy drink. Sixteen more miles to Hamilton.
A picture-perfect town square with a stately courthouse in the middle, Hamilton has everything a country lover seeks: bowstring bridges, tree-shaded streets, quaint churches and a famous mural of the Texas Rangers. I stopped at the Safeway and bought my orange juice. I asked the clerk, "Do you sell beer here?"
"No sir," she replied. "Not in this store and not in this county. We're dry."
I had thoughts of a dreary evening sucking on a Coke in Hico, another 22 miles.
Downtown Hico is rejuvenating itself as a tourist attraction with boutiques and antique shops galore.
I found a restaurant called Jersey Lilly's with a Southwest motif and servers dressed in Mexican-style attire. On the table was a flyer announcing Happy Hour. I was confused. I asked my waitress and she told me they can serve beer and wine to club members only.
"How do I join the club?" was my next question.
"Just say you want to and sign here. No charge," she answered.
"Well then," I replied. "Consider me a member. Can you bring me a beer?" So much for dry counties.
Shortly after pulling out of Hico, I had to leave Route 281 for my final miles to Dallas. After three days, I couldn't help but feel that I was leaving an old friend.
(Peter Olsen is a retired minister, writer and avid bike rider who lives in New Braunfels.)