The motorcycle roads of eastern Texas
There’s no denying the diversity of Texas. Some things like agriculture and the oil industry are everywhere. But this state is huge, and very little else stays the same from mile to mile or day to day. On a ride, this means looking forward to the best of the state and being ready for its challenges. Weather, road conditions, and environment are all variable.
A single day last summer meant waking up to a cool gulf breeze and fighting heatstroke by lunch in Austin. The same day meant scraping undercarriage on Houston’s shoddy roads and scraping peg in the twisties of Hill Country. Animals are a different sort altogether. We dodged mosquitos and water fowl in the wetlands, cattle and roadkill in the desert.
So anytime I wake up to ice on my bike, especially miles from the Gulf of Mexico, I smile at the cute challenge. The ice won’t last sunrise, and I’ll do jumping jacks to stay warm. In all likelihood, there’s a polar vortex covering the rest of the country in snow. It’s just another day on the road and another challenge to enjoy… or hate… or simply accept as part of the journey.
This weekend’s ride of eastern Texas is not new. This is a ride Dave and I tried before but were shuddered by a mechanical failure 100 miles from help. The challenge from that ride was getting Dave and his bike home.
Other unpredictable circumstances nearly scratched this weekend’s retake of the ride. Muggers held Dave at knifepoint the night before our departure. They allegedly attacked a handful of other people too, demanding money and charging the stolen credit cards at fuel stations and fast-food restaurants. Dave survived the mugging, but our ride nearly did not.
Without a wallet, license, cash, or active credit card, he defaulted to canceling the trip. I gave him a few minutes of sympathy and then rather bluntly asked why we couldn’t still ride if he brought a passport and I fronted his expenses. And so all day Friday… we’re going… we’re not going… we’re maybe going… should I pack? I hope we’re going… I’ll pack just in case… alright! We’re going!
I packed so quickly in the hours before leaving, I felt like I was running from the law and making a mad dash to Mexico. It’s good to know I can be up and out with such haste, but this kind of uncertainly and spontaneity is not a passion of mine. It stresses me out!
It’s Friday night and after dark by the time our wheels roll east. Neither of us wishes to ride very far. Let’s just ride for an hour and turn on the adventure vibes. Getting out of town tonight will be a bigger emotional relief than any kind of significant progress toward the seven hundred miles we have planned.
We make camp east of Baytown next to a raceway. This has to be my worst camping decision since posting up between the Union Pacific Railroad and Highway 101 outside Santa Barbara, California. A Friday night race has drawn fast cars from all directions past our very camp. Their tires slam pavement all night long, and earplugs do nothing to drown the noise.
This is what it means to turn on the adventure. No sleep, freezing temperatures, a soaking wet tent, and hundreds of miles to ride.
We find ourselves in Port Arthur ahead of lunch. Port Arthur is the Detroit of Texas, but instead of being ravished by a weakened industry, this city suffers the ails of a thriving one that’s not known for its generosity.
Here, that’s Oil and Gas. We see every stage of oil production. From crude moving up the bayou on barge or into port by ship all the way through refining and transport by truck. Oil and Gas is everywhere. There’s a well in Texas for every 74 of its people. If Texas itself was a nation, it would be 14th among all for producing more than 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. That’s a barrel of oil for every person in the state, every ten days–worth some 91 billion dollars per year. The state gets a few percent of that in taxes. Clearly, the people of Port Arthur get much, much, less.
They drive the nicest of cars but live in homes of complete squalor. Services here are inexistent. We ride a dozen blocks without seeing an open fuel station, restaurant, or shopping center. I fear the buildings we do see will fall in on themselves at any moment. The plywood boarding the windows and doors may very well be the only thing preventing their collapse. Just as in Detroit, the streets are vacant. Traffic lights turn red for no cars. Some roads don’t even have paint. Cracks in the pavement have spawned plant life. Lawns are now jungle.
Don’t let this say anything about the people. We eventually do find an area of town that looks lived in.
The people of Port Arthur are the nicest I’ve met–full of smiles and head nods, casual hellos and genuine conversation. Even the bikers return waves. A Harley guy at a fuel station insists on talking bikes; he even whips out a flip phone to share pictures of his gold and chrome trike. Barbecues fill every block with the sweet scent of smoked meat. Young men play ball in the park. Not a front porch is without someone sitting in the sun and enjoying this beautiful Saturday. Out at the wildlife refuge, people fish and hunt in groups. Even among the disgusting reminders of Oil and Gas and the poverty of this area, the people of Port Arthur live for each other.
After lunch, we head north. It’s the first of our motorcycle roads in East Texas. Highway 87 starts out dull but gets super nice half way through at its intersection with 190 in Newton. Small towns, some named like Bleakwood, aren’t so bleak after all. The homes are quaint and well-kept with cute water features and gazebos out back. Oil wells dot the area just as anywhere else in Texas, but there are no refineries here to add stench to their unsightly presence.
Tall pines border the winding two-lane roads. Occasionally, a lake view or a field of cows breaks through the trees. Chicken farms seem fairly popular in these parts, too. The roads themselves are perfect for the relaxed kind of ride I need today. Dave and I switch between music and talking about the sights as we inch closer to our camp for the evening.
Also on my mind today is the memory of fellow rider. Today marks the three year anniversary of Matty’s death while he rode with Ben in Honduras. If you’re a veteran of my blog, you’ll know about the wonderful time I shared riding Alaska and Canada with Ben and Matty. We rode a lot of miles together, and I can think of no better way to honor his memory than to be riding on such a beautiful day as this.
Dave and I stop in the last town of the day for groceries and then roll into Ragtown Campground at dark. We take the king’s suite–number 25 on the hill–for eight dollars. That’s three more dollars per night than a single and yet well worth the premium. The site overlooks the water and takes a nice breeze from the east. It’s at the very end of a cul-de-sac and devoid of neighbors. The washroom with warm showers is only a short walk down the road. Clearly, the US Forest Service knows how to host on the cheap.
For dinner, I cook up a hearty pot of yellow rice and bacon beans with fresh peppers and onions. We eat with the beautiful moon rising over the reservoir. The sight coaxes us out on a late-night walk to the water. For two hours we sit on the rocks and talk about life–life past and life ahead. We each have a challenging year ahead of us it seems, and this time to reflect on those challenges together is very rewarding.
The sleeplessness from the night before and the long ride from today do catch up to us. We walk back to camp and make for bed. With only the sound of the wind catching our naked ears tonight, we fall fast asleep.
No ride with Dave is a true adventure until his bike busts. I’ve learned over the years to start my bike before I strike camp. That way if it doesn’t start, I haven’t needlessly put away my amenities for the day. Dave showers, eats, packs, and then discovers… his bike won’t start.
Some fiddling with the new starter switch leads us to instead suspect the aging emergency cutoff switch. Touching it the right way will either start or stop the engine. A firm press sometimes does the trick. Beating it senseless does not. A work of magic gets the switch into the just-right position for Dave to start the bike… and keep it started. Let’s hope it stays started for all four hundred miles.
Of course I quickly forget the precariousness of our situation as soon as I see a dirt road. It’s something shiny in a dark room. I lust after its luster and head us in the direction of potential doom. Even if this is some of the finest dirt road I’ve seen since the Dalton Highway, the “sport” in Dave’s Aprilia Sport City isn’t so sporty that we should risk it on dirt and gravel unless absolutely necessary.
Aside from having the best dang donuts, coffee, and kolache in Timspon, the rest of the day flies by without a spark of adventure.
The roads treat us to some of the best riding in Texas. Four hundred miles of left, right, up and down. Some of the corners are dark and cold in the shade of tall pine forests, others open up to the sky without a tree in sight for miles. Small towns come and go. Our elevation climbs to over 700 feet at one point, and our compass needle turns circles all day. By dark, we find ourselves in Houston again with downtown as lit as it was when we left.
Dave and I finish the day with a family-style dinner at his house. Tim puts on a feast of grilled chicken and sweet potatoes and fills me with two stout beers. For hours we sit around and talk up the finer moments of the ride. The noisy redneck racers, the barbecue in Port Arthur, the beautiful camp in Sabine Forest–all wonderful memories even if they were tiresome at the time.
If you’re interested in the motorcycle roads of eastern Texas, head on over to motorcycleroads.com. Browse the database of rides, or simply view the full-screen map and find your own way. It’s a community-supported database, so upload and share your favorite rides, too.
As for me, I’ve pretty much slouched around Houston for a year now and feel like I’m ready to ride again. This weekend has reminded me of the excitement I feel on the open road, and I’m looking forward to more of it.
If you’re excited to follow my adventures, tell me so in the comments! Sometimes I wonder who reads this dribble. All I see are numbers on a graph and would love some verbal feedback from the 20 or 30 of you who keep returning. Show some love. Comment, share, and subscribe.
Thank you for reading!