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Adventure on two wheels

Biking from Arkansas to Austin during a pandemic


“I’m sorry, you aren’t going to be able to bring your bike on the train.”

What?! Suddenly, the last six months of painstaking planning were all for nothing.

As the dread began to set in, my event-planning background kicked me into activation mode. I had already crafted a Plan B, and, for some parts of this two-week, 700-mile cycling voyage, a Plan C had also been woven into my schedule.

“I don’t understand — I called to confirm if bikes could come on the train with us if we boxed them ahead of time and paid the oversized luggage fee,” I told the clerk, trying to sound calm but tapping the counter nervously with my fingertips.

I was hoping I wouldn’t regret all the coffee I gulped down before the short downhill 3-mile bike ride from my South Austin home to the Amtrak station downtown. The actual bikepacking trip hadn’t even started and my nerves already felt frayed; it was only 9:30 a.m.

“I’m sorry,” the patient clerk told me again. “The station you plan to get off at near Hot Springs, Arkansas, is unmanned, so you can’t get off the train there with your bike. We only allow oversized luggage to be removed from the train at manned stations.”

I turned to my travel companion Valerie — an honest confidant, loyal friend, lifelong cyclist and recent 40-year-old, much like me. She had worry in her eyes and looked as defeated as I was feeling. I shook the nausea, swallowed the tightness that was stuck in my throat and realized it was time for Plan B.

“OK, so I guess we’ll start our trip at the first manned station outside of Texas, and that is...?” I inquired, feeling irritated about having to change the first four days of our trip. I had meticulously planned this trip and now I had lost control of the very start of our bike adventure.

Our clerk handed over our new tickets, loaded our bikes onto the carousel and wished us luck. With that, Valerie and I stumbled outside to a warm late-July morning and toasted to the next two weeks of living on the road through Arkansas and Texas via our loaded-down bicycles.

“Next stop, Little Rock, Arkansas!”

 Jessica Alexander

Just roll with the adventure

From now on, I’ll refer to the Amtrak ticketing fiasco as “the test.”

What I am now realizing, post-trip, is that every good adventure starts with at least one. Often, the test looks simply like your travel plans have been changed for you (as in this case); sometimes it’s the excitement of the unknown that builds as you challenge your perceptions of trust and flexibility as a new adventure begins.

Mostly, I acknowledge these tests and the emotions that they bring to me. Over the period of a cycling trip, I am able to appreciate the complexities that exist when you experience your physical energy moving through the world at a different speed than everything else around you.

Bike travel has ultimately made me acknowledge and appreciate movement in a way I never thought possible.

With any type of travel, it’s true that the first step is often the hardest, but as all travelers know, you can falter at any point in an adventure due to any myriad occurrences. For me, I think the most comforting thought when I am hundreds of miles from home is this: How I confront and handle these stress triggers is ultimately how I judge my level of travel satisfaction when I bed down at the end of the day. 

Gaga over Gear

The best part of planning a 700-mile bike trip was gearing myself up for two weeks of adventure through part of Arkansas and a good percentage of Texas. Through the advice of other bikepacking friends, websites such as bikepacking.com and local Austin bike shops The Meteor and Cycleast, I obsessed for weeks over the types of bikepacking bags I would strap to my touring bike.

I finally decided to use multiple small bags that would fit inside the frame of my knobby-tired road bike and strap down to my handlebars; Valerie opted for the more traditional pannier-and-rack setup that adds a few extra pounds of weight but also allows the rider to carry more gear.

You might think that having more space and more ways of carrying gear on a multiweek trip would be an advantage. 

You would be incorrect.

As an experienced bikepacker (although I’d never embarked on a trip longer than five days before this), I’d say a big key to success is keeping your load as light as possible. That presents your biggest bikepacking challenge: how to pack everything you need to be self-sufficient in the lightest and most nimble configuration.

Nearly every day leading up to the night before the trip, I planned and packed and repacked and then repacked again. It gets obsessive. 

OverTheBars

Little Rock to Texas

The beginning of our trip in Arkansas was not devoid of challenges, tests and moments of anxiety and panic.

A few minutes before midnight, tired, hungry and definitely ready to get some much-needed sleep, we arrived at the Little Rock station. Our host James introduced himself and helped us load our bikes into the back of his SUV.

COVID-19 safety was something that the two of us had agreed to keep in the forefront of our daily travel routines. This meant masks anytime interacting with the public, anytime entering indoor spaces and, mostly, anytime we felt the need to be extra-cautious while cycling. This also meant tons of Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer to carry on our already overpacked bikes. When we had the chance, we removed our masks and welcomed the warm Arkansas air on our faces.

We all got along so well that James rode along with us to Benton the next day, just on a lark. He camped with us and, after a breakfast of instant coffee and gas station cinnamon rolls, said goodbye. As he headed back north toward air conditioning and creature comforts back in Little Rock, we veered our loaded-down bikes to the south, full of hope and the driving desire to test ourselves yet again with another long summer day of adventures via our two-wheeled steeds.

Valerie’s bike tire nearly exploded outside of Hope, Arkansas, but a kind local Samaritan saved her from a 20-mile walk into town on what felt like the hottest day that summer. Not much was open in many of the small towns we passed through; it felt eerie sometimes. 

Flagpole

 Jessica Alexander

The Northeast Texas Trail took the cyclists through Ladonia and other towns.

Texas Trail Riding

As we rolled into Texas, already four days into our adventure, we realized the journey was actually just getting started.

My initial reason for routing us through Texarkana was the NETT, or the Northeast Texas Trail (netexastrail.org). Not yet complete, it will one day be the longest hike/bike and equestrian trail in Texas and the fourth longest in the United States at 130 miles.

The NETT is a product of the partnership between local and statewide trail advocates and county, state and federal government agencies. A multimodal bike/pedestrian/horse trail allows a safe space away from traffic and the opportunity to enjoy non-pavement road surfaces.

New Boston was our starting point. We had an amazing picnic lunch under the town gazebo before we rode the 54 miles into Avery, where we stayed at the volunteer fire department’s Hike and Bike Hostel (free for hikers and cyclists).

We rode into Paris the next day, where we slept under the miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, then on to Wolfe City to experience more of the rugged, unfinished trail sections of the NETT. We stopped for supplies at the dollar store (my favorite stop while bikepacking) and rested for a while at the Chevron gas station in town, which happened to have a spacious outdoor seating area and provided some shade from the relentless 100-degree day.

Parking our bikes by the picnic tables, we were immediately greeted by the small gathering of locals hanging out. The group of mostly older farmers were full of questions: What are we doing, where are we going and do we really use all of that gear on our bikes?

That evening of shared conversations over Dr Pepper slushies and roller hot dogs was memorable for me. I’ll always remember how kind and hospitable everyone was and how happy they were that the NETT could connect visitors with various small towns in North Texas. I fell asleep with a smile that night knowing that there are kind people everywhere in Texas — often when and where you least expect it.

For Valerie’s penultimate (next-to-last) day of the bike trip, I suggested we do something special. She told me she had never completed a metric century (100 kilometers or 62 miles) ride before. That was all I needed to hear!

 Jessica Alexander

Last Sunset at the Lake

“Let’s take the scenic route!”

The scenic route for our reroute consisted mostly of gravel roads. In my gravel-riding experience, the quality of these roads can vary from some tiny pebbles over an elderly paved road to 4x4-only situations where a bike with suspension is needed for safe and comfortable riding.

The roads we ended up on were hot and hilly, with absolutely no shade. I could see Valerie was getting tired, but I knew how much it meant to her to finish her 100k riding goal for the day. I boosted her energy level with a quick stop at Sonic for a cold drink and tater tots before we made the last beautiful 7-mile trek to our stay for the night, Lake Whitney State Park.

I was beyond thrilled to finally use my State Parks Pass for the first time since the pandemic started. I had never been to this state park, but I now have a plan to visit all of them before 2030. Once we arrived, I could see both exhaustion and elation on Valerie’s face. We made it!

The sunset offered one more opportunity to make this evening memorable. We skipped down a little path that led to the lake and, without a thought, I took off my shoes and socks and jumped right into the cool water. Valerie laughed and said she didn’t feel like swimming, but I convinced her the water temperature was perfect. She jumped in and we watched our last sunset together, enjoying the silence of nature and the absolute stunning beauty of Lake Whitney.

My heart was so full that night. I was excited — but also gutted — that my trip back to Austin was almost over.

Since my return, I’ve realized that the best part of this trip wasn’t a particular moment or experience, but the overall companionship as we enjoyed the journey together. Via bike, we got to slowly see a part of Texas that will forever be ingrained into our memories. Now we can begin to plan the next adventure.

Jessica Alexander is a photojournalist, writer, bike racer and bike rambler based in Austin.

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