On Black Friday, Jean and I biked a sluggish 42 miles to La Mesa and ate a lunch of Thanksgiving day leftovers on a library picnic table. The day before, we had been unable to find pumpkin pie, so I bought one at a grocery store for our dessert.
Thirty miles later we found ourselves camping at a picnic rest area just outside of Gail, TX. We sat on a grassy mound and watched a perfect sunset. It had been raining for most of the day and the sun appeared for the first time just long enough to set in raw and honest light.
Jeana had four more days till her flight from Abilene. Our season was closing. I couldn’t help but feel like the trip would lose some direction when she left. I had planned on doing this whole thing solo, even excited about the romantic notion of biking off alone into a continuous sunset, but that trip would have been such a half-experience without company, and Jeana had been the very best.
The next morning we woke up in the dark to a heavy wind beating our tent. Massive gusts sent shivering ripples up and down the canvas walls and the tent floor occasionally lifted, giving the cozy impression of sleeping inside a kite.
We pulled our sleeping bags over our heads and stayed in the tent till late morning. The winds continued, and we gradually faced the hard fact that that we couldn’t sleep our way out of this one. But we certainly weren’t going to bike out, either. After a comical half-hour of trying to pack up, chasing our wind-errant belongings all over the rest area, we posted up by the road with our thumbs out.
Hitch hiking with bikes always requires a truck which can lessen the likelihood of getting picked up, unless you’re hitch hiking in West Texas.
Soon enough, we got a good ol’ boy, who was doing some holiday boar hunting with his wife and son, to pull over. Between the guy’s draw and the tobacco plug in his mouth, we hardly understood a word he said, but the general tone of his mumble seemed kind and sympathetic. We loaded our bikes and gear into the truck bed, rearranging a small armory and several thirty packs of Busch Light.
Our ride had only planned on going as far as Gail, but instead drove us one town further to Snyder.
The wind whipped just as hard in Snyder. We decided our rough morning warranted a treat. Passing a pizza place with a sign out front that read “buffet your day away”, we could hardly think of a better use of our time. We gorged for a good two hours. The restaurant patrons looked like extras from “Friday Night Lights.” Everyone, even grown adults, wore lettermen jackets studded with football pins.
We tried biking a little out of town but quickly understood the road held nothing but misery if we continued.
At a gas station by a highway junction, we loitered about asking people if they were headed anywhere east of here. We considered ourselves season hitch hikers at this point, but I still had some trepidation about asking strangers for a ride. When you think about a situation, though, in terms of the spot you’re in and what needs to happen to get you out, shyness and caution diminish and creativity blooms.
We weren’t having any luck at the gas station, so I dumpster dived for some cardboard and wrote Abilene? in a black marker. With the sign, I walked to a stop light a little further down the road where I’d seen a number of cars turning onto the highway.
The wind blew so hard I didn’t even need to hold my sign. I just faced upwind and let the gusts pin the sign against my chest, hoping that would signal a desperate enough situation to passing drivers.
After a while, a guy in a black truck rolled down his window and said he could take us all the way to Abilene. He was a soft spoken man, a little strange but nice enough. He lived in Long View, drove a school bus, found Jesus eleven years ago. During the ride, we had to suffer through some evangelical fanfare, but his religion wasn’t all talk. He told us about some of the ministry he’d done in prisons, even going down to Mexico to proselytize on skid row for a few months.
–Woke up today and God was telling me I was going to pick somebody up today. Just didn’t know who.
We were sure glad he answered the call.
He dropped us off in a parking lot in Abilene. Jeana and I biked through the streets trying to find a reputable motel, feeling a little strange about finally being in Abilene, Jeana’s terminus. Way back in Flagstaff, AZ, Jeana had picked out a random place in Texas with an airport to leave the trip, and Abiline just so happened to be were her finger rested.
If Jeana and I had reached the endpoint of our partnership, we took some relief in the few days of rest we had before having to go our separate ways. We spent the remaining days before Jeana’s flight traipsing around town. There wasn’t much to see. We saw kids walking around with shirts that read, Keep Abilene Boring, a sendup of the Keep Austin Weird campaign.
One day we biked fourteen miles south to Buffalo Gap. Our boar hunter friend had recommend a famous steak house, Perini’s, that reportedly served some of the best cuts of meat in Texas.
The restaurant had a dim-lit hunting lodge interior, animals on the walls and a warm fire place. As a last hurrah, we spared no expense and ate some of the best steaks of our lives. We weren’t the most well-dressed people in the place and our presentation raised a few eyebrows. The manager even asked us some questions, but after we’d told our tale, he gave us a free round of Texas brewed Shiner Bock and let us camp the night on the restaurant’s ranch. Jeana did not express much sorrow over her last night in a tent.
We rode back to Abilene in the morning and began making plans for our respective departures. We stopped off at a bike shop where Jeana tried to sell the Flair.
The gearheads at the shop were in disbelief that Jeana had ridden something like that all the way to the shop, let alone over a thousand miles. Unfortunately, the market wasn’t hot for a twenty year old bike that looked and weighed like an elephant. We went to a pawn shop afterwards, same story.
I went to the post office to mail home some unessential items that I’d carried with me since Omak. Dog-eared books I hadn’t cracked, an extra stove, leisure wear. With Jeana leaving, my trip now became a mission; I was going home. The next night I would board a Greyhound bus to Natchez, MS and then bike like mad for a month up the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, Tennessee, then east to North Carolina and finally north to the old familiar commonwealth, my home state Virginia.
For our last night, we fried up some hamburgers and drank Flat Tire Ale in a motel room. During the meal, we reconstructed each day of the trip. Since Salt Lake, we’d been on the road six weeks, four states, and who knew how many miles. We remembered people, places, mountain passes vividly.
Jeana brought up the time I sprayed Pam cooking spray all over our tent. I had been packing away my things one morning when I heard a low hissing. I checked each of my tires for a leaking flat and then Jeana’s, but the hissing persisted. We discovered a little too late that I’d placed the tent right on top of a canister of Pam the contents of which had emptied in wet, sticky splotches all over the tent canvas. We’d spent every night since in a tent that looked like an oil stained driveway. That we’d made it this far alive was nothing short of a miracle.
I felt really heavy about Jeana leaving, but our stories made me hopeful for our eventual reunion. The store of shared experiences we’d accumulated in Omak and on the trip were more than enough to safeguard a friendship against the natural thinning of years. Whenever we met up, no matter how far down the road, we’d have these stories to tell, a wealth of memories to reenter and relive.
Jeana got a call during dinner from a guy at the bike shop. He still didn’t want the bike, but thought a homeless shelter could put it to good use. He would meet Jeana at the airport the next day to pick it up. For Jeana, the road had ended, but the Flair would ride on.