Cycling with others is always a highlight and today I was lucky enough to have two cyclists join me for part of the morning ride. At the Bicycle Sports shop in Beaumont, I met up with Eric Bender, the owner of the shop, and Petty Officer John Thomas of the Coast Guard. From the Port Arthur News, we had a visit from Mike Tobias, the chief photographer from the newspaper. He snapped a few shots of us for his paper.
Eric led us out of town by means of quiet side streets and farm roads. He has lived in Beaumont for many years but is originally from Houston. So he was able to give me some tips for things to do and see - and safe places to cycle - in his old hometown. He pedaled with John and me almost all the way to China! Yes, there is a small town near Beaumont called China. After Eric left, John and I talked about the Coast Guard for a while, and also about his cycling experiences. John stayed with me for the first 25 miles, and when we got to Nome (which is about the same size as China ), he turned back and headed for home.
The route for most of the day was US Highway 90. Yep, the same Highway that I used for much of the Florida Panhandle, and in parts of Alabama and Mississippi. The Southern Route 66 as I've seen it called on the internet. After Nome the shoulders widened considerably, and although there was much traffic at times, it was a pretty smooth ride on flat terrain.
I listened to several clerks in various gas stations tell me it was "only 50 miles or so" from Beaumont to Houston. Wrong! At least 90 miles and 6 hours later, I was trying to navigate my way through late Friday afternoon traffic on the eastern edge of the city. Somehow I wound up on one of the beltways that circle the city. It wasn't an interstate highway but it sure felt like it. Luckily, I have several friends in and around Houston, so I knew that if I got into trouble I could call one of them up and get them to rescue me. I was starting to run out of daylight and I had my fill of cycling for the day. So I called my friend Andrea Hodge, a West Point classmate who I hadn't seen since our 10-year reunion, and she was able to pluck me out of traffic a couple of miles away from the downtown area. It was practically dark by now, so the timing was great. Houston is BIG, and it takes a long time to cross it by bicycle. I learned another valuable lesson today: when somebody in a gas station tells you your destination is only about 50 miles away, don't take their word for it. Research your route before you get on the road!
Days 30 to 34: April 21-25, 2007
Raising Awareness in Houston, Texas
Distance 35 miles around town
Total Distance: 1,390 miles
Houston is by far the largest city I have encountered, and will encounter, on this trip. Even though I was having a ton of fun on the bike, it was important to stop here for several days to raise awareness and to meet with as many people as possible.
Houston is also home to several of my friends, some of whom I have not seen in years. So my break worked out well and I was happy to connect with old friends, and even take the time to meet some new ones. I also got the chance to use my radio voice for an interview one morning with Sports Radio 610.
Special thanks go to my friends Andrea Hodge and Lindsey Honari. In addition to making sure I didn't starve, both of these ladies are superb planners and organizers. Without their help and support, I would have been just another dork riding a blue bicycle across Texas. Andrea is a West Point classmate and is the second vice president of the West Point Society of Houston, a society with hundreds of members on its roster. Lindsey and her husband Sharam are classmates from my years at Columbia Business School, and I have been close friends with both of them since our years in New York City. Lindsey is the incoming president of the Columbia Alumni Society of Houston.
On Sunday, I took a bicycle ride with Andrea over to the Fisher House, one of the charities I am supporting. The Fisher House provides recuperation and support to injured veterans and their families. Their "comfort homes" are located throughout the nation, always near VA hospitals, and they have already helped more than 100,000 military families since the program was started. They have accomplished this primarily with private donations and with the help of volunteers.
We were impressed with the quality of the facility and the top-notch treatment being received by the residents. Fisher House is making a huge difference in the lives of veterans and their families. The Houston Fisher House will celebrate its two-year anniversary on May 23 and will no doubt continue to do a remarkable job with the noble task of helping Houston's veterans and injured warriors.
Along with some of the leaders of the West Point Society of Houston, including Bob Shimp, the president of the society, I had the pleasure to attend a breakfast with Frank Kelley, the manager of the Houston Fisher House. We were all interested in hearing about the good work being accomplished at this facility and about the plans for the future.
On one of the nights I was here, Lindsey set up an informal evening gathering at a barbecue-style restaurant and bar called Goode's Armadillo Palace. This was a fun evening for folks to hear about the ride and the underlying cause and, of course, to mingle. We had a good crowd show up and some people even brought their kids. The food was great too. It was a nice surprise to see some old friends, including Jorge Sandoval, who worked with me in the Middle East and hooked me up with some of the electronic gear I have been using; Charles Ho, a friend from grad school who contributed to the ride as soon as he heard about it; and Joe Gaudette, a West Point classmate (yes, another one!) whom I have not seen since graduation. Another blast from the past was my old high school buddy, John Mitchell Jr., who brought along his dad, John Mitchell, Sr.
With so many friends from various eras of my life in the same room, this was almost like the wedding I never had - except instead of a bride I had a giant stainless-steel armadillo. Take a look at the photos if you don't believe me. Definitely an 'attention getter'!
This week in Houston was definitely worthwhile, not just for the things I saw but for the people I spent time with. The city was much more cosmopolitan and international than I expected, and now I understand why my friends have stayed here as long as they have. I sure hope I make it back here someday.
Next stop after Houston will be Waffle House - uh, I mean Austin, a city I have never visited before. I have heard from many friends that Austin is one of the best places to visit in Texas, so I have been looking forward to it for some time. I just have to pedal about 170 miles to get there first.
Days 35: April 26, 2007
Houston, Texas to Fayetteville, Texas
Distance 95 miles in 7h 27m
Total Distance: 1,485 miles
Okay, so I'm finally leaving Houston today after spending nearly a week here. It has been a great visit and I am lucky to have such good friends in this city. This morning my goal was to figure out how to ride from Bellaire - an area in the southwest part of the city where I was staying - to Katy, a suburb west of the city, where I was planning to link up with members of the Acme Cycling Club. And of course, to do all this without getting trampled by Houston traffic. Jason Barnard, a member of Acme team, contacted me a few weeks ago and offered to help with route planning and also to convince some of his cycling buddies to pedal along with me.
For my ride out of the city I was joined by Bob Latham, a fifth generation Houstonian who knows these roads really well. Bob is a builder of custom homes and owns JewelBox Homes in Houston. He is also a graduate of Texas A&M, and Columbia Business School. Texas A&M grads are known as 'Aggies' and they are a very proud and large presence here in Texas. You will find them everywhere in this state, as I soon discovered!
Bob and I linked up for our morning ride, and were met by folks from KTRK-TV 13, the local ABC station. Reporter Deborah Wrigley, and Steve, the photographer, met us for an interview and to follow us as we made our way - or should I say, tried to make our way - out of the city. Also on hand to show his support was Bob Shimp, president of the West Point Society of Houston. Bob is a '68 West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and former Army aviator who settled in Houston after leaving the military. Deborah interviewed all three of us, and I think she and Steve enjoyed this experience as much as the two Bobs and I did. For several miles, the news crew shot footage of Bob Latham and I as we pedaled our way west, while Bob Shimp provided a shield for us from behind. Sure, maybe we clogged up the roads for a while, but it added an extra bit of safety as we navigated our way through Houston traffic.
After Bob Shimp and the ABC crew peeled off and headed back, Bob Latham and I continued our Houston obstacle course. We held up for a while to link up with Ray Williams, the chief photographer from Fox 26 TV. Ray called while we were on the move, and was interested in doing a quick interview. He got some good action footage of Bob and I as we darted around traffic and navigated our way towards Westheimer Road, the route we would be taking west out of the city.
It took Bob and I nearly two hours and 20 nerve-wracking miles to get out of Houston and meet up with the riders from the Acme Cycling Club on the road to Katy. They had been waiting on us for a while and bought drinks and sandwiches from Subway for Bob and I to enjoy.
On hand to greet us were Greg Coulter, an Army veteran of the Gulf War and the second Aggie I met today; Marcia Becker, owner of Acme Bicycle Company; and three motivated cyclists: Carl Dore (the third Aggie of the day!), Laura Forbes, and Kristy Trueheart. They had all participated in the MS150 cycling event from Houston to Austin the previous weekend. This is an annual event which attracts thousands of cyclists, and brings a lot of attention both to the cause and to the towns along the route. One person who couldn't get away from work unfortunately was Jason Barnard, who was key to getting his friends involved, and also helping us with media coverage. Sad to have missed him, and I hope I can join Jason for some cycling at a future time.
The group of us cycled along for about five miles, at which point it was time for Bob Latham to end his ride. Bob managed to cycle along for more than 25 miles on his mountain bike, and we were all impressed with his effort. I'm grateful that he was able to take this time to join the ride today. A fun fact about Bob: back in 1986 he and some colleagues spent a summer sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
As I cycled with the Acme Cycling Club riders, they told me a little about their cycling experiences, the MS150, and also about the area we were passing through. Bet you didn't know that lots of rice is grown in this part of Texas. We traveled for about 20 miles until reaching the town of Brookshire, at which point Marcia showed up with the Acme van to retrieve the cyclists and their gear. Laura gave me all the energy gels and snacks she had, and they sure came in handy later in the day. It was great to have such an enthusiastic group to cycle with for this long.
Once I was on my own, I got further away from the areas with vehicle traffic, and soon also experienced the first hills I had come across since eastern Louisiana. Unfortunately, since I was traveling on a series of farm roads I managed to get hit in the face several times with a small, dusty cloud that can best be described as a maggot-pollen combo. Delicious. Come to think of it, I am allergic to Texas. The people have been great, but my allergies hit me like a brick as soon as I start pedaling each day. Perhaps things will improve once I start heading west to the drier parts of the state.
I was traveling the same route used by the MS150 cyclists and had covered 95 miles from Houston when the light started to fade. But I was still about 15 miles short of La Grange, my goal for the day. I'm starting to think this MS150 is more like an MS200. Something is seriously wrong with the distances in this state, and I keep underestimating them. I am not using the Adventure Cycling maps for this part of Texas because I need to spend time in the major cities, so I have to rely on regular maps and the GPS, which are geared to motorists instead of cyclists.
By now it was dark so I called it quits in the town of Fayetteville. It would have been nice to exceed 100 miles for once, but I guess that will have to wait for another time. From what I could see in the darkness, Fayetteville had a charming town square with stores and homes on the streets around it. Unfortunately, charm usually means 'nothing open after 8pm', and the one hotel in town was all booked. As I walked over to the volunteer fire station to ask about pitching up a tent on their lawn, I came across a restaurant called Joe's Place and realized I hadn't eaten anything since the sub sandwich about seven hours earlier. The proprietor (who was conveniently named Joe) listened to my story and treated me to dinner. Meanwhile, a member of his staff dialed some of the Bed and Breakfast establishments in town. In a few minutes, they managed to find me a place to stay.
Houston seemed like a long time ago.