Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Crimson Darkness

Macon, Georgia to Las Cruces, NM (12,170 - 14,000 miles)

The doe has wild eyes. Her muscles twitch, launching tidal waves under her fur. I apply the brakes and the bike stops. Should I go on? I'm in Texas hill country, and fences bracket both sides of the road as far as I can see. The surrounding ranches advertise whitetail and exotic animal hunts, and the eight-foot fences, lined with barbed wire up high, are designed to keep animals from escaping and dying at the guns of non-paying hunters.

I've cycled into similar situations twice in the last few days—and each time the deer has ducked back onto one of the ranches via a hole in the wire. I don't know why this doe hasn't followed suit, but I can't wait all day. I've got the high plains coming up next week, and I want to cycle across them before the temps drop. Winter's coming. I feel it in my bones.

I release the brakes and roll forward.

“Coming through,” I say. “I mean you no harm.”

The deer charges into the fence on the left side of the road. The fence recoils and she tumbles to her knees. What? It's not like she miscalculated running through a hole. She tried to run through an intact fence. The deer wobbles to her feet, spins, launches into the air. She smacks the fence sideways, lands on her side, and once again struggles to come erect.

I stop and plant my feet on the asphalt. Should I back up to give her space to sort things out? Will she come to her senses, remember where she escaped, return to her home? We look at each other for the next few minutes. Then she launches herself forward and in two steps is at full speed. This will not turn out well. She's on a tangent from one side of the road to the other, a clatter of hooves that will take her through me. The doe is gorgeous, muscles bulging and stretching under her brown coat, a genetic machine built for running. I suspect the impact will feel like an NFL safety blindsiding a reporter on the sidelines, but there's nothing I can do about it. She's too fast and I'm too slow. I grit my teeth and lower my shoulder . . . watch her gallop past my front wheel.

Missed by inches.


The doe smacks the fence, tumbles onto her side. She leaps up and stands in the grass. Her legs quiver and blood drips into her eyes. She's looking at the world through a crimson darkness; no wonder she's so confused. I remain motionless, afraid to move, afraid to pedal, afraid to do anything that will set her off again.

The deer trots along the road, in the opposite direction of my westward journey, and the tenseness in the air begins to evaporate. I watch her for a few minutes, hope she finds her home range. Blind or not, she without a doubt knows every inch of it.

Shriveled tarantula. 

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Winter arrives early in the Texas high plains and night temps drop into the low 20s, occasionally dipping into the teens. predicts another cold night and I'm anxious to find a campsite.
Snowy and cold.
Camping in the open invites unwanted visitors, so I search for trees, a wash with a culvert, maybe an abandoned house, anything that will help me secret away for the night. The desert landscape is treeless, so camping in a grove is out of the question. So is finding an abandoned house. I'm on lonely Highway 90—between Marfa and Valentine—cycling through a land so barren no one has built here. I pedal onward, into the graying light, feel the precipitous drop in temperature as the sun dies behind the mountains. To my right a railroad parallels the highway, some fifty yards off the shoulder, and I study a trestle that bridges a narrow wash. Might be high enough to pitch under. Behind me, headlights penetrate the gloom and I pretend I've stopped for a drink. I unscrew the cap to a water bottle. . . .

The semi zooms past and I put the bottle away, push my bike off the road onto the sand. More headlights appear, white eyes rushing up the road, and I half roll, half carry my bike toward the tracks. When did my gear get so heavy? I mutter under my breath, all the while watching the oncoming vehicle. I can't tell if it's a car or truck—it's still several miles to the south—but it's closing fast and I only have a few seconds before the driver sees me. I crest the berm and a pedal jams against the track. I heave with everything I have left, lift the bike up and over both rails, roll down the other side and duck behind the berm. I peek over the tracks and watch the car. The driver stares up the highway, oblivious to my existence, and I do a victory dance that ends with an ankle brushing a cactus. Ouch. Needles penetrate my skin and I shake my head at my stupidity. Texas is full of things that bite, sting, or stick you, and I know better than to moonwalk in twilight.

I pitch under the trestle and spend the next half hour tweezering out the spines. Ouch, ouch, and triple ouch. Sheeze, it's cold. I shrug into a double layer of long johns, wool socks, a fleece, tug my balaclava over my head. Then I pump up my MSR International and cook a double Ramen. Chicken flavor. I eat, rinse my pot, squirm into my sleeping bag. It's fluffy and warm and my eyelids grow heavy. Coyotes howl and whine in the night and the occasional vehicle drives the road. I drift to slumberland. . . .


I struggle to unzip my sleeping bag. The roar outside is deafening and reminds me of the time a tornado whirled past while I lived in an RV in Alabama. My heart lurches at the memory and my breathing picks up. There was nowhere to hide from that tornado. It sounded like a locomotive was about to drive through my bedroom, and the few minutes it was within earshot were some of the scariest of my life.

This roar sounds exactly like that roar, only louder and closer. Oh, that's right. I pitched under a railroad trestle. . . . The train rolls overhead at a high speed and the earth quakes beneath my tent. Each boxcar produces a micro-burst of air, whooshing downward, and my tent poles bow under the pressure. Bearings shriek and metal wheels grind the tracks. I smell burnt grease and voice my displeasure, a sound that doesn't penetrate the noise. I raise my voice.

“Enough already!”

Why did I think I could get some sleep under railroad tracks? I worm an arm out of my sleeping bag, prop up the tent ceiling.

“Will this ever end?”

Apparently not because the boxcars keep coming and coming.. . . And then, the sound dies and silence returns to the desert.

I flick on my headlamp and shine light over the poles. Good, nothing's broken. I shiver at the cold night air, shrug back into my sleeping bag. Should I relocate farther from the tracks? How many trains will roll past tonight? Can I possibly sleep through the noise?

I breathe in through my mouth and out through my nose. Tell myself to relax, that a little noise never hurt anyone.

I'm asleep when the next train blasts through, wake in the same state of terror.

I fall asleep and wake to another train, then another and another, each as loud as the one before. Only the Amtrak offers relief, and that's because it's much shorter than the freight trains. I sleep and wake so often I lose count. At dawn the temps are in the high teens, much too cold to cycle. I eat oatmeal and tune in the only radio station to send a signal this far into the boonies—listen to songs about trucks and drinking problems. I search for another station. If I hear one more twangy. . . .

At 11:00, I drag my gear out from under the trestle into the warming sunlight—

A train rumbles up the tracks.

I do not want a fine for camping on railroad land, toss my panniers back under the trestle, drag the bike after them. Boxcars groan overhead and I stick in my earbuds, turn the volume up. A country artist sings a song about picking ticks off his lover's body. Oh how I long for nonsensical pop lyrics, rappers mispronouncing words in gut-busting efforts to rhyme, the brass sounds of a Mexican band blowing out the tunes.

The cacophony overhead ends—finally—and I drag my gear and bike back into the sunlight. It's much warmer out of the shadows, and it doesn't take long to pack up, then haul-heave-curse my loaded bike to the highway. I slip on my riding gloves. Short cold days don't offer much time to cycle and I've got to get rolling. I yawn my sleepiness, glare at the trestle, raise a middle finger.

I should have known better.