Sunday, March 9, 2003                       Big Thicket Challenge

After two days of driving, today it was finally time to get out and ride. Since I came into Texas from the east, I chose the Big Thicket Challenge from Best Bike Rides Texas.   The route was an easy-to-follow loop through three tiny towns on Farm-to-Market (FM) roads. At 46.5 miles, it was a bit long for me this early in the year, but the description promised it would be flat, so I figured, why not? Besides, I came down here to ride! There was a shorter option, but at only 19.5 miles, that didn't seem worth the trouble of unloading the bike.

The Big Thicket National Preserve is a densely vegetated mixture of forest and swamp in southeastern Texas. Legend has it that potential Confederate soldiers hid in the Big Thicket to avoid conscription in the Texas Infantry. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has named   Big Thicket National Preserve as one of its Ten Most Endangered National Parks due to threats from logging, real estate development, water projects and oil drilling. Protecting this preserve is especially important because, as the NPCA notes, " Big Thicket is among the first national park units established primarily to protect its biological and scientific value, as opposed to its scenic or recreation resources."

This photo gives an idea of how dense the brush is in the Big Thicket.

After parking at the courthouse in Kountze, I took out my bike and put it together. It took a bit longer today because I refreshed the grease on the S+S couplings and attached a map holder to the handlebars. All in all, though, it is pretty easy to reassemble an S+S coupled bike. I simply mated the couplings, screwed them together and reconnected the brake and derailleur cables (which have screw-in connectors). It was a warm day, nearly 80 degrees and sunny but not particularly humid. Of course, coming from a Midwest winter, I should have expected that the heat  would affect me more than usual.

The ride started out well. The first road was busy SR 326, but like most busy state routes in Texas, this one had wide shoulders. The FM roads lacked shoulders, but traffic was much lighter. However, traffic in Texas was also fast. Texas was the only state where the speed limits were so liberal that sometimes I found myself driving under the limit. Although the FM roads were two-lanes without shoulders, the speed limit was usually 65-70 mph.

Here is a  view from the road of the Big Thicket.

The road to Saratoga was an easy ride even though there was a light headwind. After so much sitting in the car, I was itching to spin the pedals. I saw a number of ATV riders crossing the road from time to time. The locals in pick-up trucks didn't give me much room as they passed, and a few shouted out their windows at me (Texan cyclists call  these guys " Bubbas" ).  At Saratoga I was about one-third finished. I was already wondering whether this ride was a bit too long for me. There was a shortcut available that would eliminate six miles, but it was on a dusty road and I didn't want to muck up my chain.

I took this picture from a bridge between Saratoga and Thicket.

At this point, I felt a bit disillusioned by the book's description " fairly flat throughout." Obviously, it was flat by Texas standards, but not by Chicago standards. The grades weren't steep, but they were long, which became discouraging. The tiny town of Thicket had a bunch of houses, a couple of churches and a post office. The convenience store was closed and had been for some time. Thicket was at the far corner of the loop, so now I was headed " home." It was 13 miles to another little town, Honey Island, and 20 miles back to Kountze.

I started to ride a little faster on this stretch. The wind was lighter and I was motivated to finish. When I got to Honey Island, the convenience store was open but I foolishly decided that I had enough water on board to get me through the last six miles. The heat was taking more out of me than I thought, though. I had just enough water to finish, but I had no water in the car to replenish my drained body.

" No Trespassing" signs were common between towns in the Big Thicket. Homes were often tiny trailers far back from the road,  deep in the brush. Just like in the days of the Civil War, this was the kind of place where people moved to be left alone.

It was only six miles, but things went downhill quickly, figuratively speaking. Of course, literally, the road was going up, albeit only slightly. I was still cranking along, but I was tiring rapidly. When I stopped to toss a huge chunk of tire tread off the road, I said aloud to no one, " I could just lay down right here on the highway.... But that wouldn't be good."

I continued, uncertain of whether the distance, dehydration or something else was causing my misery. Looking ahead, I saw a troubling sight. It was only a little hill, the equivalent of a highway overpass. However, it reminded me of the highway ramp near the end of the Chicago Marathon--its effect was sure to be much worse than it looked. As I approached, I scoped it out. It got a little steeper about 500 feet from the top, then kicked up more for the last 100 feet or so. I stupidly decided that I should jump out of the saddle and hammer that last part. I did. And it nearly killed me. As I reached the top, I stopped and pulled off the road. I slumped over my handlebars panting like a dog on an August afternoon.

And speaking of dogs, it just figured that the only dog to chase me appeared just another half a mile down the road, not far from the Kountze city limits. At first I thought he was all bark, but then he pursued. Okay, time for a " bad dog sprint!" I only topped out around 23 mph, but I sustained it long enough to elude my attacker. It wasn't much further to the courthouse, so I managed to finish on canine-induced adrenaline.

Unfortunately, that was the last bit of energy that I had. It had been a while since I felt nauseous after a ride, but today was rough. I sat next to the car completely spent, wondering how I would manage to disassemble my bike and load it in the car. Every time I stood, I felt sick. To make a long story short, twenty minutes later I was driving away. I bought a liter of cold water. When I fiished the bottle, I started to feel human again.

Totals for the day: 47.0 miles in 3:15 for a 14.4 mph average.

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