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Cycling a Pineywoods Purgatory

Pedaling through the land of cotton and sawmills.

By Thad Sitton

To my mind, the best things about mass rides are the mass starts. On this cool morning in early October, I’ve waited impatiently on my bicycle in a Lufkin street, surrounded by about 800 other riders, while ride sponsors offer the usual half-heard words of encouragement. Now, the mass of humanity slowly begins to roll. Gradually, we pick up speed, shake the dust of Lufkin from our wheels, and roll out Highway 103 towards the rising sun.

This is the 12th running of the annual Garland L. Parise Pineywoods Purgatory, a mass benefit ride supporting the worthy projects of the Lufkin Noon Lions’ Club. I’m happy to contribute to the Lions’ good works, but at this point I’m entirely caught up in the excitement of the mass start.

Voila!

Clad in bright jerseys, gears whirring, a hoard of cyclists spins out of Lufkin in a sort of human-powered-vehicle cavalry charge.

The natives of the town marvel at the spectacle as we pass, and law officers with flashing lights rush ahead to block automobile traffic. Road cyclists live (and occasionally die) surrounded by gas-powered juggernauts, and the riders who claim they have no fear of traffic kid themselves. But here the tables are entirely turned. This is wonderful, a fantasy right out of Miriam Webster’s novel, The Age of the Bicycle (Zinka Press), which envisioned a world free of motorcars. On this day in October, 800 cyclists act out in reality our dream of road domination.

Twenty miles out, we approach the first crossing of an arm of Lake Sam Rayburn, and the ride solidarity begins to shatter. Riders string out. Now, for the first time, I notice escorting members of the Gold Wing Motorcycle Club occasionally rumbling by, guardian angels of the ride. Serious bicycle racers always show up for such benefit rides, but they are now far ahead of the rest of us, some running at near-Tour-de-France speeds in a pick-me-up fight for the finish line uncompensated by anything more than a free fajita lunch.

Conversely, somewhere behind us are the “survivalist” riders, who retrieved their neglected bicycles from the back of their garages the day before, washed the dust off with garden hoses, and decided to try to ride many miles. “Sag wagons,” poised to rescue, will lurk discreetly behind some of the more struggling survivalists by midday. These brave souls are the reason for the rule, “All riders must be off the course by 5 p.m.”

The rest of us, serious long-range cyclists of no particular talent (and often a bit long in the tooth) now assess our circumstances. How much of our finite resources for this ride (our “legs,” cyclists say) did we use up in the mad rush of the mass start? I conclude, as do many others, that I once again have gone out too hard and too fast and will pay for this imprudence later on. I drop my speed well below the 20s and begin to conserve energy. Some 60 miles, nearly a metric century of my 80-mile ride, still lies ahead. At age 62, 8 years into my hobbyist riding career, I’ve yet to need the sag wagon. But will this be the day?

Now, I have time to actually look at the landscape I move across. Since I am a native of Lufkin and a historian of East Texas, the landscape is familiar: mixed loblolly pine and hardwood forest as far as the eye can see, broken by arms of Lake Sam Rayburn. Much of the area we ride through is owned by a few big timber companies that manage the land for perpetual timber production, and everywhere you look are pine stands in various stages of regrowth. Once, virgin pine forest covered this ground, forest harvested by 100 sawmills and their company towns. For the most part, the timber towns have disappeared without a trace beneath the resurgent generations of pine trees that are now cared for by a new kind of forest industry.

Although the historical lumber industry plays little part in the Texas mystique (which runs heavily to images of cowboys and wide open spaces), Texas once ranked third in lumber production in the United States. Around 1910, in the area we ride through today, people rose to the sound of dawn wake-up whistles of a dozen sawmills and prepared to start their 11-hour workday.

The work was difficult and dangerous. My grandfather, Ed Cochran, started working in a sawmill in this area as a teenager. Until the end of his long life, Ed upon occasion would pull up his shirt to show a thin scar on his stomach. He had been working in the vicinity of a circular saw when the whirling blade hit an unseen bit of iron embedded in a log and the unseen object disintegrated into a spray of steel shrapnel. Ed found himself “gutted,” as he liked to describe it, with a loop of small intestine protruding from an abdominal wound. The sawmill doctor carefully examined the intestine, pushed it back inside, and sewed my grandfather up. “Unperforated!” the doctor had exclaimed, “Eddie boy, this is your lucky day!”

East Texans’ history of cotton agriculture also lies under the resurgent forest — thousands of little cotton farms that lasted until the 1930s and 1940s. While local people recognize and celebrate the continuity of their history in the forest industry, the cotton era has been almost forgotten. In Central Texas, where I live now, I cycle the back roads and see remnants of the lost world of cotton almost everywhere: old farmsteads and sharecropper shacks, derelict hill fields gullied by erosion, farm machinery rusting away in pastures, and abandoned syrup mills, gins and rural schools. These things once were part of the East Texas landscape we ride across this hazy day in early October, but the loblolly has returned to cover all.

A few years ago, a high school friend who runs a small branch bank nearby, planted cotton along the walk in front of his bank. The cotton was scarcely up when the first old man noticed what was there. He told others, and day after day more retired farmers gathered to stand around, inspect the cotton and reminisce about work stock, tractors, picking cotton and hauling it to the gin. This crop had been their world, but nobody grows cotton in East Texas today. The farmers’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren hardly know what the plant is.

Cotton farming and sawmilling of the cut-and-get-out era persisted almost as parallel economic universes in East Texas until the 1930s. As old timers recalled, Lufkin merchants catered to the cotton farmers, keeping their stores open late Saturday to serve their needs. Two huge 100,000-board-feet-a-day sawmills adjoined the town, each with hundreds of workers, but Lufkin’s sawmill suburbs brought in little business. The companies paid in company script, which had full buying power only at their commissary stores. Wits sometimes called it “robbissary money.”

I cross the Attoyac River arm of Sam Rayburn, turn south and east, then traverse the 2-mile, “long bridge” across the main body of the lake. A lot of East Texas history — Caddo villages, cotton farms, sawmill towns, and graveyards — lie under this big lake, including part of the Ora community of Angelina County, where my grandfather Ed Cochran was born and raised.

Down in the bottoms along the Angelina River, people at Ora raised some cotton and worked from time to time in the woods crews of lumber companies, but most were practitioners of the old Southern backwoods stock tradition of running semi-feral hogs and cattle on the free range. Flat English work saddles, stock dogs, “blowing horns” and long whips typified the Southern stockman, an authentic cultural ancestor that present-day East Texans have forgotten even more completely than they have the cotton farmer.

Some of these southern stockmen and backwoodsmen were Anglo and some were African-American. Some miles to the south of my grandfather’s community of Ora was the mixed-race Boykin’s Settlement, founded by Anglo pioneer Sterling Boykin and his successive Anglo-Indian and African-American wives and offspring. The western route of the Pineywoods Purgatory passes through two similar black landowner communities — “freedom colonies,” freedmen sometimes called them — Sweet Union in Cherokee County and Church Hill in Nacogdoches County.

Although seventh-grade Texas history textbooks still erroneously tell us the “open range” ended in the 1880s, it lasted until around 1950 in this area and in counties farther south. Few people built perimeter fences around their land or posted their property. Trespass was an unknown concept; anybody could go anywhere. Marked or branded, every man’s hogs and cattle ranged the forest with everybody else’s. While the “woods cattle” are gone, the wild “rooter hogs” are still out there, although now with no man’s mark in their ears. On this day, three big black ones cross the road in front of our bicycles, running like deer.

After all these years, I’m still not used to the sight of this huge lake set down in the East Texas woods. On this windless, Indian Summer morning, shining waters stretch away into blue haze in one direction until they merge with the sky. Riding across this long bridge on a bicycle is like putting out to sea.

Finally, I’m only 10 miles away from Lufkin and the wonderful free fajita lunch served by the Noon Lions. No sag wagon will get me on this day. Usually, at about 10 miles out, you pick up your speed and begin cashing in those last, closely-guarded reservoirs of “leg.” Having dogged it for 50 miles, I begin once again to simulate a faster cyclist, passing a good many riders on the way in. Childish competitiveness, perhaps, but mass rides like the Pineywoods Purgatory somehow manage to evoke a lot of wonderful childish emotions otherwise impossible to experience once more.

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