Touring Texas - The Flight Of The Vampire

Wicked Wings Over Texas

Motorcycling is a fun bit of controlled madness. No other human activity allows us to experience life quite so viscerally. Of course if you're not quite human, the experience reaches a whole other level.

Some time ago, as I sipped my bedtime glass of absinthe, an irreligious idea crawled into my head. The nocturnal vision instructed me to create an unholy being made of iron and oil and a few leftover bits of my soul. I would huddle with the brilliant engineering minds at Victory Motorcycles to give weight and shape to the image. Then I would pilot the finished product-a long-haul steel steed dubbed the Vampire-into the depths of the American heartland. There seemed to be no better place to release this unhallowed creation than the giant state of Texas. Think big, build big, ride big.

The Victory Vampire was born out of a brainy short circuit and a collection of mad minds, so a maiden jaunt to the eerie corners of the Lone Star State seemed utterly appropriate. Since Texas could swallow up several states and still have room left for a few Caribbean islands, making miles was the mantra for this trip. The scoot was scheduled for some 1800 miles, from Houston to Sedona, Arizona, trailing the blue highways and staying off I-10's hot and nasty superslab. At least that was the plan . . .

It appears that of all 50 states the one that leads the nation in natural catastrophes is the Lone Star State, and I was riding smack into apocalypse season. Dawn came uneventfully that fateful day, or so I'm told-I slept through it. Rolling out of Houston around the crack of noon, I soon found myself on I-10 west, making a straight shot to San Antonio.

There's not much distinguishing I-10 on this featureless, steamy 200-mile stretch except maybe the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, a few clucks south of the highway some 70 miles west of Houston. San Antonio, on the other hand, is a town of 1.3 million, and it seemed the whole population was all smushed into the River Walk, that montage of boutiques, trinket shops and restaurants clustered around the San Antonio River in the downtown area. The walk is a story below street level, and it felt like most of the city's life had been sucked into this nether region, leaving almost empty streets above (except for an unusual number of homeless people).

Founded by Spanish missionaries (who else?) in 1718 and site of the famous battle against Mexico and its big meanie emperor Santa Ana in 1836, San Antonio has been a fun place ever since. There isn't much left to the Alamo-not that it was much to begin with. It was a mission, not a fort, and really (despite what Hollywood would have you believe) impossible to defend against a full-on army. But the likes of knife fighter Jim Bowie (who lay sick in bed for the entire battle), William Travis and Davy Crockett fought their way into history. They were an interesting bunch of guys. Travis abandoned his wife and family to seek fortune and power, surrendering to his own Napoleonic issues; Bowie was a real estate con artist; and Crockett was a failed statesman who rode west as a way of sticking it to The Man and his disloyal constituency. They were the hard-core bikers of their day and became martyrs for hopeless causes or, to put it another way, heroic struggles against impossible odds. Sort of like an old-school motorcycle gang.

I rolled the big chopper onto Route 90 West. Even with 12-inch-over forks and the stretched neck, the Vampire tracked beautifully. That was, after all, the mandate. Make it cool, make it handle, make it go like hell. Kent Weeks, chief demon at Lucky Devil Metal Works and impious architect of the Vampire, did a masterful job.

So there I was, chopping down 90, pointing the long forks of the Vampire to the border town of Del Rio. I had seen little of Texas before and was surprised at how pretty the countryside is in the south central part of the state. Rolling green hills, an unanticipated number of creeks and rivers, small towns and the occasional Old West-style building created an unexpected landscape. I was also surprised by how uncomfortable my seat was. The Victory catalog offered a saddle that looked similar to a stocker but was a little slicker and apparently a lot thinner. This was the seat I was perched on, and it was in serious violation of the Vampire's decree to roll cool and comfortable. It felt like I was sitting on a church pew.

I needed some kind of pad, but choices were scarce out here in the middle of nowhere, so I turned to my infallible sense of ingenuity. I figured a bicycle gel pad should comfort my nether region, so I taped the glute-shaped seat to my saddle and rode happily off. But that proved to be just a temporary respite, so I swapped the gel seat for a pillow (alas, they only had pink in my size). A little more tape, some careful adjustment for proper anatomical position, and the pillow turned out to work out pretty darn well.

Some 35 miles east of Del Rio I rolled into Brackettville, near something called the Alamo Village. The 1880s re-creation was the site of some 1950s Westerns. Being an aficionado of things old and cornball, I got excited about stepping into the Wild West for an hour or two. But I was uncertain if the place would be open since it was late in the day and operating hours were vague. My call was answered by an elderly-sounding woman with a thick Southern drawl.

"Are you open, ma'am?"

"Well, ah course we're open, son, can't ya hear me talkin' to ya?

"Yes, but when do you close?"

"I don't understand yur question, son. You ain't from around here, are youuu?"

Using the universal translation technique, I spoke slower and louder:

"ARE . . . YOU . . . STILL . . . OPEN?"

"You have a mighty strange way of talkin', so I'll speak real slow and loud so you can understand me, understand? WE . . . ARE . . . OPEN . . . YEAR . . . ROUND. Now I'm busy and you're bothering me; what else do yer want to know?"

"Nothing, ma'am. I'll be right there."

"No, no, no, that's what I been trying to tell yer, yer darn fool, you can't. We're closed."

I made a beeline for Del Rio. The 372-year-old city, founded by (who else?) Spanish missionaries, was called San Felipe del Rio (Saint Philip of the River). The town's name was later shortened, as Anglo settlers tended to do with everything. I stayed a night, hung out at some bar that was once somebody's house, met some locals and left early the next morning, about noon. The countryside continued to turn more verdant as I skirted the Mexican border, making miles and getting hungry for a hot meal as the weather cooled. There aren't many kitchens between towns-mailbox drops, really. In fact there was nothing between towns.

Some 30 miles west of Del Rio, I rolled over the Pecos River. There was something very familiar about the Pecos-something old, something in black and white. Judge Roy Bean, the "Law West of the Pecos," lived in nearby Langtry. Saw the movie; now I was visiting the old Hanging Judge's courthouse. Turns out there never was any record of Judge Bean actually sentencing anyone to hang, though. This was, well, disappointing.

This good justice of the peace was a frontier demigod; his word was final. But he also had a cuddly, cultured side and a schoolboy crush that lasted decades. Judge Bean was smitten with the famed English actress, Lillie Langtry, for whom he named the town. Sadly, he never met the object of his obsession. Langtry did finally visit in 1904, but the judge had died just months before. Today the town of Langtry is a living effigy to those woolly days.

I pointed the bike on up 90 toward Alpine. The sky blackened, the wind howled, and lightning seared the horizon. The Devil was on my tail; time to see how fast the Vampire could fly. At last I descended on Alpine cold, wet and thirsty. Temperatures had dropped some 50 degrees. Rain, snow and, amazingly, hail fell on my head in big, hard buckets. I holed up for two nights, drank rotgut whiskey and watched more Weather Channel than any man should be able to. The psycho clouds finally exhausted their fury, the sun broke through, and I was rested, ready and pretty sober.

It didn't warm up much, so I reckoned it was time for a little trip to the thrift store. The Goodwill shop has a hold on me; I can't resist that sweet smell of used crap. Besides, I needed more layers, not just for that bum-chic style I like, but for survival. Big Bend was still some 70 chilly miles to the south. This national park is the destination when you climb on your scoot and old-school it to no particular place, just riding until you find something that'll blow your eyes out. It's miles from nowhere and worth every bug in the puss.

Big Bend offers mountain, desert and river environments to explore. The park contains some 800,000 acres to hike, jeep and bike. From time to time you will see some sissies in cars, but they are dispensed with harshly by the biker-friendly constabulary. But be warned: The park's temperatures can swing 30 degrees from the lowlands near the Rio Grande to the higher passes of the Chisos Mountains.

The park is named after the big bend the Rio Grande takes as it makes a hard turn from southeast to northeast. In Mexico the river is called Rio Bravo del Norte-which strikes me as a bit odd because I thought "Rio Grande" was already Spanish. Whatever you call this muddy bit of parasite-infested water, I couldn't get visions of John Wayne and Henry Fonda out of my freakin' head as I surveyed the view. Even worse, I kept using terms like "pardner," "Whiskey, barkeep!" and "How much, Miss Kitty?"

There are remnants here of long-gone days of life along the border. Old stone walls and worn wagon trails remain, as do artifacts dating back 9000 years left by unknown peoples, most probably ancient rock-wheel biker tribes. The park's variable elevation (1800 feet along the Rio Bravo/Grande to 7800 feet in the Chisos) creates separate climate zones for the various flora and fauna that like it. Including, at about 6300 feet, what I am pretty sure-fairly certain, really-was the rare Great Brown Bigfoot. Seldom seen or smelled this far south, the hairy critter was a darn fearful sight that would make Grandma jump right out of her burlap britches. Or it might have been a cow.

Either way, it was time for the Vampire and me to begin the final leg home. The weather warmed and the wind returned to batter us for the next 200 miles. It felt like some ungodly force was attempting to keep us in Texas. I didn't mind that, really. Texas was more diverse and scenic than I had imagined, but there was another attraction, a stronger one. Bikers know stereotypes are deceptive. Texans are macho y macho guys with big hats and hubcaps for belt buckles, puffing their chests out, smoking unfiltered Marlboros, spitting tobacco, driving pickups rattling with beer cans and generally strutting around itching to refight the Alamo. They're tough, their dogs are tough, and their women can make them both cry mercy. But the Texans I met were friendly, helpful and gracious. Except when you try to navigate your motorcycle in busy traffic; then they'll politely switch on their blinker and bury you into a guardrail.

Those angry crosswinds continued to rudely blow me around I-10, playing with me like a crazed kid racing in a Hot Wheels derby. The road sign ahead, "Dust Storms Next 50 Miles," read like my epitaph. I entered an endless dry sea of flattened earth and thickened air swirling with sand and dirt. No wonder the dinosaurs went extinct; they couldn't stand the weather. I finally limped into Las Cruces, New Mexico, exhausted and a little surprised to be alive. I was ready to find a fine cave to homestead, grow a beard and get weird. The next morning finally broke with rational skies and medicated winds. I saw my chance and rode that break all the way back to my red-rock sanctuary of Sedona.

Before You Tour TexasRolling through Texas can be a varied and splendid experience, as long as you avoid the interstates. Out of San Antonio, I swung down U.S. 90 to Del Rio before Highway 118 to Big Bend, back up 118 to 90, continued on 90 to the dreaded I-10, and detoured to I-20 some 40 miles out of El Paso due to winds and kamikaze truckers.

Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio are easily accessible via air and road. By bike, I-10 is the major east-west artery through the bulk of Texas; I-40 crosses north Texas.

Contacts:
Texas Tourism

800.888.8839
traveltex.com

Big Bend National Park
432.477.2251
Weather hotline 432.477.1183
nps.gov/bibe

Big Bend is open all year. The Panther Junction Visitor Center is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. except on Christmas. Visitation peaks in March and April, although rangers say the park doesn't really get crowded except during spring break and the week between Christmas and New Year. It's mostly empty in August and September. A seven-day pass for a motorcycle runs $10.

"Even with 12-inch-over forks and the stretched neck, the Vampire tracked beautifully. Make it cool, make it handle, make it go like hell."
"But the Texans I met were friendly, helpful and gracious. Except when you try to navigate your motorcycle in busy traffic; then they'll politely switch on their blinker and bury you into a guardrail."