Houston. Hooray!

21/1/17. For months now we have been saying we are cycling from Fort Lauderdale to Houston. No longer – because we are here!  Unfortunately there was no convenient sign saying “Welcome to Houston”, at least on the road we were on so there is no photo to prove it so you will have to take our word for it.

When we woke on Saturday morning the rain had stopped but it was misty so there seemed little prospect of the tent drying quickly. A further, and more important (for Stephen at least), consideration behind our early departure was that we only had a couple of bananas and some energy bars for breakfast.

The main feature of the road was the increasing amount of Spanish signage that we saw. There had been some the previous day but that was pretty much the first sign of the Hispanic influence we have seen (there wasn’t much in the parts of Florida through which we cycled, as we didn’t go into Miami).

There was one other sign which we will not describe but which prompted some smutty schoolboy sniggering from Stephen. (It can be seen here for those of you who are of a similar ilk!)

We soon arrived in the northern suburb of Kingwood (near the airport) where we are staying for the next two nights before flying to Costa Rica for 10 days. We made for a convenient Starbucks for celebratory drinks and cake and, while catching up on wifi “stuff”, were approached by a group of Brits (plus “token” Aussie), Alison, Peter, Simon and Dave (I hope I remembered all the names correctly – it is one of the perils of getting old!) who had seen the Brooks saddles on our bikes and guessed that we must be British. We had a long and very pleasant chat with them about our travels and how they find living in Houston.

In early afternoon we made our way to our WarmShowers hosts Sheila and Robin and were made extremely welcome, as ever.

Now we have to prepare ourselves for the Costa Rica jaunt for which we feel nowhere near ready! There is a little bit of shopping to be done but the issue is more a mental one – we are going on a “normal” holiday and leaving our bikes behind. How will we cope? Will they miss us?

The Rain in Texas Falls Mainly on the Plain (and Us)

20/1/17. One day of sheltering from the rain turned into two. With time “to spare” we were in the fortunate position of not having to move if we didn’t have to and, with the rain starting to fall as we woke and the skies looking unrelentingly grey, we took the executive decision to stay put.

The morning passed pleasantly with a late brunch, games, reading and podcasts. Of course the rain stopped late morning, calling into question our wimpishness, but we felt comfortable with our decision to stay put, even though we had the accompaniment of the main road, the adjacent railway and assorted local dogs to keep our ears in working order.

Stephen again made a break for Walmart in early afternoon (prompted as much by the availability of the latest podcasts including, of course, The Archers now that he has outed himself, as the “need” for food – and beer) and this time he didn’t get a soaking, thank goodness.

Friday was supposed to be wall-to-wall sunshine according to the last weather forecast we saw a couple of days earlier. Obviously things had changed as we woke to a grey, misty morning. But at least it wasn’t raining.

We took a leisurely breakfast and sat around reading as the tent dried – slowly.

By 10 o’clock it was nearly completely dry and Christine, in particular, was itching to be under way. We made our way along a quiet road that ran parallel to the main drag of the us90 although we were both watching out for loose dogs whenever we passed houses which did not make for a relaxed ride.

Christine had suggested a stop for wifi (that available in the campsite was rubbish – “weather related” apparently) at Mcdonald’s which we would pass after about 15 km but we spied the “golden arches” somewhat earlier and dived in for the internet update and coffee/hot chocolate – all of which was very pleasant. The downside was that we had to blank the Fox News coverage of the inauguration of the bequiffed orange racist/misogynist clown that was being shown on every TV screen.

We set off again, this time along US90 (where there was a shoulder) across a floodplain – lots of squelchiness in evidence through the trees on either side of the bridge/causeway. It was pleasant and interesting if we could ignore the traffic noise racing past 6 feet to our left hand side.

At the second Mcdonald’s (no further patronage of Ronald) we turned off and headed along a dead straight more minor (and thankfully quieter) road. The marshiness had disappeared and the countryside was very pastoral with several signs proclaiming “Such And Such” Ranch with many more cows in evidence (all those Texas steaks have to come from somewhere!) However, it was not a good career move to live on that road if you are a frog – we must have seen at least 50 dead ones on the shoulder.

On entering Huffmann we turned north on a State Road through the forested area on the eastern shores. This was OK for a while until we reached a sign that said something to the effect that state maintenance ceased and county funding took over. At this point the shoulder disappeared and we joined the cars and trucks on the narrow main carriageway. Fairly quickly Christine experienced two “near misses” which really shook her up to such an extent that she dismounted and walked the next 5 km.

Stephen didn’t have the same horrible experience, for which he was very grateful, – perhaps because one of the cars that passed very near Christine realised their error and waited patiently behind Stephen, and the other turned off immediately after coming very close to Christine.

We decided that Stephen would press on for the campsite as time was passing to get things set up while Christine recovered. However, he aborted this decision when he passed a couple of largish dogs who were loose and lying close to the road. They made a half-hearted attempt to chase him and he carried on for a km or so before reflecting that it was a potential problem for Christine and so turning back to help her past the dogs.

While he was waiting it started to rain (not forecast!) and by the time Christine turned up the dogs had disappeared (presumably their guard duties job description did not include sitting out in the rain!) so his Good Samaritan act was unnecessary – but not unappreciated!

We soon reached the turn to the Lake Houston Wilderness Park (a Houston City park, not a Texas State one, so our new card was of no use – but a total cost of $13 for the night so very affordable). By now the rain was setting in with frequent flashes of lightning and the occasional clap of thunder, and darkness was falling after the late start waiting for the tent to dry and faffing about in Mcdonald’s.

There was a shelter to cook dinner and we ate it crouched in the tent while the rain fell. The lightning kept Christine awake for about 5 hours but Stephen dropped off as soon as he stopped reading. He was woken when an enormous clap of thunder went off right overhead but went back to sleep straight away while Christine waited for the storm to pass.

Soaking Steve

18/1/17. After the sojourn in Village Creek we have been making our way slowly towards Houston.

On the first day, Monday, we woke to rain and a strong southerly wind. Our plan had been to head south west for a campsite about 80km away in Ames, with a fallback option of staying in a hotel in Sour Lake which we had passed through on the way to Village Creek. (Because of the roundabout route we had had to take from Beaumont we would be retracing our steps for the first half of the journey.)

With the sky looking brighter we decided to pack the tent away wet and hope that it would dry when we erected it in Ames. Although the first section was mainly westwards, there were southerly stretches which were a clear indication that Ames was an ambitious target and when we hit the last 10 km into Sour Lake straight into the wind Christine was adamant that Plan B was the one for her. To reinforce the point, she resorted to walking the last mile into town so, even though it was only 12.30, we headed for the only motel in town! In her defence the wind was so strong that she was travelling at less than 8k per hour when pedalling hard, so 5k per hour with easy walking seemed the sensible option!

In the afternoon Stephen reconnoitered the routes to Ames as suggested by google maps because we were both somewhat sceptical that they would turn into tracks or, worse, disappear. Each of those which he explored very quickly became gravel/loose surface or was barred as “private property”. So the choice for Tuesday morning was easy – head due south, hoping the wind had died before joining the US90 and heading due west.

We managed to dry most of the tent overnight by draping it over the shower rail albeit at the cost of making quite a mess of gravel, sand and leaves in the process (which Christine did a sterling job of cleaning up before we left).

Amazingly the wind seemed to have disappeared or, even better, turned to a more northerly direction next morning. We set off making good time towards our old friend, the US90, which, when we reached it, was on one of its less busy streches thankfully. And, for most of the way, there was a decently wide hard shoulder to keep us safe from the large trucks that seemed to comprise 50% of what traffic there was.

As we approached Ames, Christine again felt we should stop and so we headed for the previous day’s Plan A stop of a campsite right by the highway on the eastern edge of town (population 1,003 aapprently so “city” or even “town” seems to be stretching a point to us!)

We had a very pleasant welcome from two ladies in the reception which doubles as a local convenience store. They didn’t even baulk at Christine’s use of the word “autumn” as they come from Minnesota where they use that word rather than “fall”.

Parts of the campsite where quite squelchy from all the recent rain but we were shown to an area a few inches higher than the surrounding ground so we we felt reasonably relaxed even though the tent pegs went into the sodden soil very easily.

The forecast on the TV which we had seen in Sour Lake had not been promising for the next couple of days – and so it proved with a thunderstorm hitting in the early morning. We both lay there in the dark listening to the rain and thunder thinking “I don’t fancy this”.

As dawn broke the rain was still falling intermittently. Stephen took the opportunity of a brief respite to dash to the convence store/reception for orange juice and was told that the forecast was for more thunderstorms throughout the day and that there were reports of floods in the Houston area.

This decided us. We would stay another night. Inevitably the rain stopped and by 11 o’clock the tent was dry! But by then we had paid for the second night so we settled down to a day of reading, playing games, listening to podcasts and wittering away on the blog.

In the afternoon Stephen made a break for the local Walmart to top up on supplies. Going was fine but while he was buying the yoghurts and beer another storm arrived so he was Soaking Steve when he got back at the tent!

Village Creek State Park

15/1/17. This is another little gem. We have been really impressed with the state parks across the country at which we have stayed so far. They are in beautiful locations and the campsites have all been in places where trees provide shelter from the sun and wind. It has to be said that they are primarily aimed at RVs and caravans so they can be a little pricey because they offer facilities for which we have no need (for example sewage hook up). However, some of them do offer so called “primitive camping” for tents that offer no hook ups at all at individual sites for a lower price.

Most parks have wifi but the strength of the signal and speed tend to be somewhat variable. Here in Village Creek, for example, the connection drops off after a minute or so at our site although outside the amenities block (200 yards away) it is much stronger but even there downloading podcasts is painfully slow. The parks generally have marked trails and information leaflets to encourage people to walk more than 50 yards from their vehicles.

On Friday we split up to do our own “thing’ with Christine walking into town (Lumberton) to do a little bit of food shopping and get a better wifi connection at Mcdonald’s while supping a peppermint hot chocolate.

Stephen went for his obligatory bike ride, of course. He returned from it rather shaken – not by traffic but by the fact that he was chased by dogs on no less than 5 occasions in one small area on the northern edge of Lumberton! He is a doglover, unlike Christine, but these attacks left him disconcerted to say the least. He used the anti-dog spray (we each carry one since Christine’s incident back in Florida) twice and towards the end of the ride resorted to carrying his penknife, blade out (which is a less than sensible option when on a bike of course but is a measure of his concern).

Saturday saw us both walking into town with Stephen taking the opportunity for a haircut for the first time since we left his sister’s “salon” in late October. The big topic of conversation was the American football playoffs in the run up to the Superbowl with both Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans taking part although this did change when people twigged his accent and asked what he was doing in Lumberton. His explanation prompted the usual gasps of incredulity and wishes for “safe travels”.

While in Mcdonald’s, updating podcasts etc, we spoke with our oldest, Alaric, about his job hunting which has taken a definite turn for the better. Subsequently he heard he had been offered a training contract with PWC and also has been approached about a permanent position with a company where he worked on a temporary contract a couple of years ago before commodity prices plummeted. If only one of these opportunities had been available 12 months ago, but better late than never. It’s always the way of course!

We have received news that Eleri, our daughter, is making excellent progress on her walk of the length of New Zealand. She has walked ⅔ of the way (2,000 km) since the middle of October and she is having a ball! We are just so proud of her!

Conal, our other son, is doing splendidly working as a teacher in Bahrain and has extended his contract for a 3rd year. He and Tamsin are loving the expat lifestyle.

We feel so lucky to have three such well-adjusted offspring making the most of their lives.

In the afternoon we went for a walk along one of the trails and lovely it was indeed although the alternative route back tested Christine’s sense of balance when we had to use a fallen tree to cross a gloopy bit.

We had signed up for a night (=6.30 to 8.30!) walk to view nocturnal creatures. When we saw the number of children coming we knew that it was not going to be cutting edge naturalist stuff but it was entertaining nonetheless. The kids had a ball walking through the woods at night with torches and the adults had to try to ignore the chatter to listen to the guide while recovering from seared eyeballs whenever a child’s torch was inadvertently shone in their direction!

With the noise and the lights pretty much all we saw was some luminous lichen, fungi and millipedes but it was fun.

Sunday was another quiet day when we went our separate ways for the morning. Christine went to Mcdonald’s to sit quietly while she ingested her pill before heading off to church. This was a much more friendly and relaxed affair than she had experienced elsewhere. Meanwhile Stephen headed off for a short ride before returning to give the stove a good cleaning and maintenance. In the afternoon we generally loafed around apart from a shortish walk along trails in the park.

Oil Country

12/1/17. As part of the new, more relaxed regime now that we are close to Houston, Wednesday saw us riding from Port Arthur to Beaumont – a distance of only 15 miles/25 km.

And not very exciting miles they were too. The “highlight” was when we turned off the service road following the freeway to go through a complex of four “State Correctional Facilities”, complete with signs advising us not to pick up hitchhikers. We are grateful for the advice as Stephen had been contemplating offering a lift to a couple of guys in natty suits covered in arrows! The jails looked just like PoW camps and we cannot even begin to imagine how grim life in a Texas prison must be!

Also on the way we passed an Intertek office in Nederland – Stephen just cannot escape the company – and any number of other oil industry related businesses. This was Boomtown in the early 1900s when oil was discovered round here. We even passed by a couple of “nodding donkeys”, ancient and rusty but still working.

The southern suburbs of Beaumont, while not exactly “smart”, were definitely a step up from the parts of Port Arthur through which we had passed, albeit with fewer churches. Soon we were at our target motel, right by another freeway, where the receptionist gave us access to the wifi so we could reserve a room through booking.com at a price $10 cheaper than the one she quoted face-to-face. She claimed that she was unable to match the online price even though the hotel would pay a 20% commission as we understand it. Their loss, not ours!

Next morning, the first few miles were through a commercial district (principally oil related) but after crossing a railway bridge we suddenly found ourselves in a very pleasant residential neighborhood on quiet roads. Eventually these then led us out into the countryside where we had a very pleasant ride past several ranches and stopped for a chat with a local cyclist, Julie, outside a soccer training place.

We were headed for Village Creek State Park which is about 15 miles due north of Beaumont. However, the only direct road is a freeway and, while for most of the way there is a service road alongside, at a crucial river crossing this service road disappears (according to our online maps at least) leaving cyclists with no way across that we could see.

We followed a longer alternative route plotted on Google Maps which would take us west, then north and finally east. Unfortunately the turnoff to the north was blocked by a padlocked gateway and signed as “commercial traffic only” so we had to keep going westwards for another 5 or so miles to Sour Lake (appealing name?) before we could turn off the busy State Highway (wide shoulder thankfully) and head north.

After 67 km (nearly 3x the distance by freeway) we arrived at the State Park and we checked in for 4 nights having first invested $70 in a Texas State Park Pass which waives the entrance fees ($3 to $7 per person per day) and gives 50% discount on a second night’s camping fees. As a result we have recouped $31 of the $70 already.

The weather has decidedly taken a turn for the better. After the freezing conditions last weekend when we holed up with Chris it has been in the low to mid 20s (centigrade) for the last few days. This is not the only occasion on which we have seen large fluctuations in temperature in very short spaces of time and, judging by the TV forecasts, it happens across much of the country.

Welcome to Texas. Not.

10/1/17. Having had a less than perfect night (Stephen due to the “interactions” from next door, Christine due to cramp in her legs) we headed off westwards on a coolish morning. The forecast said it would get warmer throughout the day. Fingers crossed!

For once Stephen was the reason we just missed the ferry 3 km down the road. Christine set off while he handed the keys back and arrived just as it readied to depart. Meanwhile Stephen was struggling to untangle his helmet straps from his handlebar bag and, by the time he arrived at the ferry it had just about reached the other side (the crossing only takes a couple of minutes – it’s not a wide river). We sat down to read to pass the half hour wait.

The fare was the princely sum of 50 cents each and, once across, we had a lovely ride with the sea on one side, the marsh on the other, and the wind at our backs. It was made even better because the road was so quiet – the only traffic came from the ferry in groups of two or three vehicles every ½ hour or so.

As we approached Texas we passed the occasional small plant related to the oil and gas industry as we had elsewhere in Louisiana (you can also see platforms out in the Gulf every so often) until we came to a very large one in the course of construction right by the next river which marked the border between the two states. Climbing onto the bridge over the river we could see many more oil plants on the Texas side.

Our first steps in below (where we saw the “Yee Haw” sign below) were actually on a manmade island, Pleasure Island, which was formed from the dredgings when they were making the channel to allow large ships to pass through Sabine Lake.

The island is largely untouched compared to the scale of development on the mainland just across the channel, with a few houses on the lake side of the road and the RV park that was our destination. Arriving there mid afternoon the first person we spoke to in Texas was the least friendly and helpful we have encountered in two months in the States.

She brusquely informed us that tents were not allowed and then tried to ignore our protests that the website we had checked the previous evening stated the contrary. She insisted that the only place to camp on the island was the small park 8 miles back down the road by the bridge to Louisiana.

Eventually she called her manager to reinforce her stance. She was only marginally more friendly. At least she didn’t keep trying to blank us but she was equally intransigent despite us playing the “But it’s 8 miles into a headwind and we’re completely whacked after 50 miles riding” card. Finally she conceded that camping was allowed on the narrow strip of land between the road and the canal “but there are no amenities and you are not allowed to use ours – they are for guests only”.

Just before we reached the RV park on the opposite side of the road to where camping was allowed, we had passed a small park with a children’s play area and two portaloos. As there was a reasonable looking piece of grass in the permitted area and the toilets were only a couple of hundred yards away, with a very quiet road in between, we decided a night’s free camping was called for.

It worked very well although there were more mosquitoes than we had encountered elsewhere so we shut ourselves away in the tent as soon as we had eaten.

With no bread for breakfast, we headed off to Port Arthur on the other side of the canal to get something to eat. First off we had to cross the Martin Luther King Bridge which is a high one to allow ships to pass underneath. The access ramp took us 2.7 km to reach a point about 200m horizontally from where we had camped – but 50m up in the air!

As we came off the bridge we had a spectacular view of America’s largest oil refinery! The panorama picture (here) doesn’t really do it justice unfortunately.

We then cycled for a total of 16 km through poor neighbourhoods – clearly Port Arthur is not an affluent place but, judging by the number of churches, a deeply religious one – before reaching a Mcdonald’s where we used the wifi to locate a hotel at a reasonable cost and indulged in some junk food.

The hotel was a further 7 or 8 km away but unfortunately a lot of that was back in the direction from which we had come. This meant that we were heading into the strong southerly wind rather than benefiting from a “push”.

Once in the hotel (by late morning) we had an easy day reading and planning as we have a few “spare” days before we fly to Costa Rica. The airport in Houston is 2 or 3 days ride from here but our flight is in 12 days time. There are several state parks in the vicinity so we will take a leisurely time staying in some of them.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

8/1/17. Gee, has it been cold down here! The pipes froze on both Friday and Saturday nights as temperatures went down to -6°C. Chris’s house was not built with these sort of temperatures in mind – he had to cover the air conditioning unit with a plastic bin liner to stop the wind whistling through it into his bedroom!

You may have realised that we extended our stay with him to a third night because of the weather. Although Friday’s rain gave way to a beautifully sunny Saturday, temperatures were no higher at about 2 or 3° and there was still a biting north wind.

The sun was still shining on Sunday and, with the promise of warmer temperatures as the wind moved round to the east, or even south east, we decided it was time to wave goodbye to Chris and Heather although we did wait until after 10 o’clock before leaving to let things heat up a bit. We did wrap warmly, grateful that we had brought winter clothing – 5 layers on the top, leggings, 2 pairs of socks, beanie hats, full fingered gloves, etc!

In the sun it felt really quite pleasant as we cycled westwards but whenever we stopped we noticed a chill in the wind which wasn’t apparent when it was pushing us along. It was a beautiful ride through the marshy countryside with loads of birdlife although we were a little surprised at how big the town of Pecan Island was. Chris had told us that most of the houses were rented out on short term lets to hunters (one we passed had a dozen ducks hanging outside). In reality there probably weren’t that many but they were well spaced along both sides of the only road so it seemed to us to take some time to get through the town.

As a result of the tailwind we made good time and we saw little traffic which was mainly pickup trucks driven by men in camouflage jackets and caps, although there was the occasional large lorry carrying big pieces of equipment for the oil industry. Stopping for lunch, Stephen knelt down on the ground and immediately jumped up as his lower leg was covered in small burrs with very sharp spikes. It took the best part of 10 minutes to remove them all from his leggings as they were tenacious little blighters.

By mid afternoon we had reached the turning to the only campsite between Chris’s house and the town of Cameron. Even though it would mean a day of nearly 100 km, with a late start of course, we decided to press on all the way to Cameron as it was an informal site on the beach with little in the way of facilities and a couple of miles off route.

The sun was getting low in the sky when we arrived in Cameron. Christine had read that there was an RV park that took tents but we couldn’t see it as we rode through town. Turning back we stopped at the only store to ask and were told that it was 3 miles down a side road. It was nearly dark and the temperature had started dropping again, although not as low as the previous two nights. The forecast said it was going to be +3° – chilly but just about tolerable if we got in the tent early.

There was a hotel in town which sounded awful according to the reviews on Google but it had a sign indicating that RVs could use a large open area next to it. We asked about camping and the man indicated that it would be ok.

Stephen quickly erected the tent although he did kneel on another 2 of the nasty burrs in the process. However, when Christine went inside her hand was pricked through the groundsheet by another of the damn things. Fearing that our air mattresses would not survive if they happened to be in the wrong place we decided that we had to risk the hotel.

Thankfully it is not as terrible as the Google reviews suggested and much warmer than the tent would have been, although it is very expensive for what it was (Christine managed to negotiate the price down to $89). We took the view that this was cheaper than having to replace 2 air mattresses at £120 each (they are worth every penny – comfortable, warm, easy to inflate and light to carry).

Christine was pretty tired by the end and fell asleep straight after dinner – thankfully before the argument in the next room started up. Stephen has been quite entertained by proceedings while writing this post but is now hoping that it dies down quickly to allow him to get to sleep!