The first frost of Autumn met the morning sunrise as wisps of smoke drifted from the chimney. Sipping my favorite blend of coffee and glancing at the thermometer outside, I had to dig deep for a solid reason to leave my home behind. The tiny house I built from reclaimed materials over the summer was now a cozy abode but the open horizons of the west drew me from the comforts and out into the crisp air. It is the preparation for leaving that is often the most difficult part of any journey so it felt natural to twist the throttle and leave projects for my return.
The cannonball effect was in full swing as I pointed La Tortuga westward through the coal-rich hills of north Alabama. The two lane roads twisted along overgrown railroad tracks and the remnants of coal and timber extraction. These east west highways had narrow shoulders and were frequented by thrumming log trucks. Crossing the Tombigbee River on an interstate was a challenge that soon left me cruising along flat farmland west to Starkville, MS. That evening I pulled off and camped on a freshly surveyed and cleared lakeside subdivision. Other than a bald eagle that cruised past, nobody was around to complain.
The following morning after another frosty few hours on the dark pine-lined highway, I reached the small village of French Camp along the Natchez Trace Parkway. The quaint downtown was busy for a Saturday morning with the thrift store putting out a table and a small coffee shop opening it’s doors. The Lost Gringos Coffee Shop was having a soft opening in their newly renovated location inside 100 year old bank building. The family run business has a mission to Nicaragua and every two months returns with roasted coffee from a fair trade source. The claws that once resembled my hands slowly thawed around the hot cup of coffee that shook slightly from my trembling. Sometimes it feels cooler once I stop moving than if I had just stayed on the bike. It was a great 30 minute warm up break despite there being no heat on.
With my belly full of coffee and Tortuga full of fuel, I proceeded southbound on the Natchez Trace Parkway with a big smile on my face. The sun brightened my spirits and the day warmed comfortably as the ribbon of flat smooth pavement wound on. The smooth route and few stops meant an average of 125 miles-per-gallon! In Jackson, a detour tried to put me onto an interstate which then led me down a back-alley exploration to return to the trace. An hour later, I found myself below bridge underneath the trace with no connecting road up to it. Fortunately, the Ruckus is capable of off-road travel and I bounced and crunched through the forest and up the grassy embankment to summit onto the parkway again. Following the detour, it was a quiet day’s ride until sunset forced me to start looking for a campsite. As if I had planned it, a rough dirt trail exited the grassy roadside terminating in a 15 acre lake. Below the farm field on the opposite bank, the white speck of a snowy egret dotted an overhanging sycamore. The moon was already high as the sun set with pink and purple clouds to the west.
Come morning I was surprised at how much warmer I felt until I noticed frost on my tent. I must be adjusting to the conditions. Finishing the 20 miles of Trace remaining, I fueled up in Natchez and took the early Sunday morning lull in traffic to cross the Mighty Mississippi River. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see the shoreline where I hauled my canoe out in 2015 while paddling the length of the river from Lake Itasca, NM to New Orleans, LA. Cotton plantations and tall grass-covered dikes lines my route westward through Louisiana. Passing the Frogmore Plantation, I recalled three past journeys through this same section of highway. A brown sign in the distance read “El Camino Real” and showed a line from Louisiana to New Mexico, a familiar route I’ve followed many times before. Keeping roughly to this route, I scooted on with favorable winds and warm conditions in the mid-70’s. The Kisatchie National Forest offered a comfortable bed of pine needles to pitch my tent for the night at a hunt camp off Hwy 472.
Monday morning reared it’s head at 6AM when through the darkness came the hum of diesel equipment and the hollow thud of trees falling as the nearby timber operation got to work. The National Forests truly are the “land of many uses”. As frustrated as I felt with the logging and truck traffic, nature always had a way of brightening my day. I unexpectedly emerged from the dense pine forest along a smooth pond, disturbing three wood ducks who took flight at my arrival. The reds and golds of autumn shimmered on the water’s surface against an azure sky.
Later that morning I arrived in Natchitoches along the Cane River and visited my friend Kammie. Initially I had planned to arrive two days later and with time to stay but the abundant sunshine and warmth in November led me to ask for a rain check. We had a delightful lunch and then I bid goodbye with my sights set west. I knew she’d understand the wanderlust. Following Hwy 6 west of town, I picked up the El Camino Real again and breathed in the dust and debris of logging trucks for hours. Crossing Sabine Lake with a gusty southern breeze made the narrow bridge that much more harrowing. Later that evening I made camp along the Rayburn Lake at a Corps of Engineers boat ramp. The lake was drawn down a few feet but I had a private beach and great view of the water.
Overnight lows were in the 50’s so I awoke before sunrise and was riding at first light with a belly full of coffee and peanut butter toast. The day disappeared In a blur of pine forests and grasslands as I made miles across Texas. I noticed the slight changes in sightline to the horizon as it grew flatter and more arid. Oak and Mesquite soon replaced the towering pines while moving south of Dallas. Road weary with almost 300 miles under my wheels for the day, I pulled off behind the old 1930’s school in Ridge, TX and made macaroni & cheese + tuna fish from a box I found along the Natchez Trace. The rather lousy meal was made more memorable by the rosy hues of sunset and the moo of nearby cattle.
The following morning found me headed west again before sunrise. I misjudged my fuel and wound up out of the way in Brownwood, TX – a town bisected by a set of railroad tracks with few crossing points. After escaping the rough and bumpy streets after multiple loops of one neighborhood, I climbed out of the valley and up to a rise where mesas stretched out to the horizon. The day was spent heading ever west climbing and falling down mountain ridges into the dry river bottoms below where a town usually clung to existence. The small town of Bronte brought back memories from three years ago on a cold February morning when I sat below the shuttered theater and wrapped my hands around a mug of coffee. Today however it was 73F and the blustery southeast breeze aided my mileage. Oil derricks and large equipment began to burden the highways until nearly every road was filled with 75mph semi’s and white work trucks of the west-Texas oil fields. The smell of crude oil wafted on the breeze as I pressed my comfort with the miles. At over 300 miles for the day, I rode through dark and sharp clouded cold front that plummeted temperatures to 45 in a matter of minutes and reversed the winds to NNE. Struggling along against the sand, wind and occasional showers, La Tortuga rolled into the crossroads town of Andrews, TX. The iOverlander suggested camping spot was nothing more than a paved lot behind the Chamber of Commerce with RV plugs and water. It was 5:15pm and the sign outside said “Failure to register campers during regular business hours results in $80 penalty fee”. With 40 mph winds, hail and thunderstorms on tap for the night, I thought I’d take my chances. Securing my tent to the picnic table and scooter below a metal carport awning, I rode out the night’s rough weather and miserably loud highway noise from open exhausts on jacked up diesel trucks popular in this region of Texas.
The feels-like temperature was 24F when I packed up my damp tent and went in search of the nearest hot cup of coffee. The gusty rain splattered my visor blurring the bright traffic lights and streetlights against the glare of oncoming LED lights. I splashed through two very deep puddles formed in the highway due to inadequate drainage before I reached the warm and extravagantly lit travel plaza. The sea of white trucks from the many oil industry workers offered no parking out front so I rode up the handicap ramp and parked in the lee of an ice machine. White plastic bags and napkins flew like ethereal ghosts of consumerism on the northerly cold front gusts. Inside, I sipped my coffee and talked to a local woman about the one time her husband crashed a motorcycle with her on it. “Be safe out there”, she offered. The sign on the motel flashed “37F – 8:15 AM” when I departed Andrews on Hwy 176 for New Mexico into a stiff crosswind. The low line of clouds ahead and occasional flashes of lightning made me wish I had made some other kind of decision to leave me in the comfort of a warm bed or library. Top speeds were around 30 as I sucked it up and completed the hour and a half ride into New Mexico. Coffee, wifi, fuel were my goals and I soon found the first two at B’s Coffee and More. Wrapping my paws around a steaming cup of coffee I dripped a small puddle below me and soon sat up from the oak chair to see it whitened with a wet butt print. An elderly woman had been inside earlier speaking with “B” and as I exited the door, I watched her drive out of the parking lot and directly into the side of a passing Cadillac Escalade. The crunch of plastic and hiss of popped tires ensued as both vehicles careened across the highway. After running to both SUV’s to make sure the drivers were uninjured, I held the elderly woman’s hand and talked to her while she was in shock. I then thought better of it since my hand was slightly cooler than hers! The wind blew gusty and cool as I shivered on my scooter waiting for the police to take my report and info. So much for a quiet morning. Eunice, New Mexico is a small town in the oil-field region which also boasts a scenic lake and municipal park on the west side of town. Once the blustery winds move on this afternoon, I’ll scoot on over, stretch out my tent and relax into another night camping on the cheap. It’ll be warming again for the coming few days and I’ll soon reach my good friend Ara in Alamogordo for a much needed R&R.
I’ll try to take more pictures as well!