Day 13 – Pensacola, FL to Jasper, TX : 500 miles
Once again I set the alarm for 4 am but woke to the thrum of rain blown hard against the balcony outside my room. I checked the radar on my newly-subscribed weather app and sure enough there had been storms in the night but they were supposed to have passed. In half an hour I was packed and ready and the rain had caught up with the radar and stopped.
Long roads on stilts cross over large expanses of water in this part of the world, and from Gulf Breeze back to Pensacola was the first of these. Still dark, the moonlight glistened off the sea, and I was again surprised at how close the lapping waves came to the sides of the road, less than ten feet in places. Leaving Florida and crossing Mobile Bay in Alabama, white seabirds dove and paddled on both sides of the road. Was it a road? Was it a bridge?
From Mobile, AL I had a choice of route and had deliberately left it to this moment to see how I felt. I could speed along I-10 close to the gulf coast and maybe see something of the area around New Orleans, or I could meander inland and likely avoid dense traffic and suffocating fumes and big cities. I chose to meander and to see how far I could get. I knew where the state parks with campgrounds were in Louisiana, and also in East Texas if I could get that far.
On the far, west side of Mississippi, the last town east of the Mississippi River was posted “Natchez : A certified retirement city”. What did that mean? The website of the Mississippi development authority “MississippiWorks” advertises 13 certified retirement cities “offering a variety of lifestyles” but with a brochure focused mainly on low tax rates. All of a sudden, I was caught in a swirl of white. I couldn’t figure it out, it looked like snow. If it was blossom, white petals on the road would have a different shape. I looked ahead and saw a storm barreling down the road towards us. It was a hail storm. I took shelter, it didn’t last long, then I crossed back over the mighty Mississippi, this time into Louisiana.
I know the phrase “Southern Baptist” and now I was seeing it. I passed Baptist churches every few miles in southern Mississippi, southern Louisiana and into South Texas. For the most part, their buildings were simple and unassuming and seemed to say “Nothing to stare at here”. Next most numerous were Pentecostal churches in a more aggressive architectural style which said to me “We know”. I suppose each religious denomination that is large enough must have their own architectural style guide. Later on, I passed a few Cowboy Churches, ranch style.
In high humidity now, I rode past “sentinels of the swamp: cypress and tupelo trees” with their curious flared trunks in and above water.
Rising tall from dark, murky waters, the bald cypress tree is a stately symbol of the swamp. Associated with the bayou, Spanish moss, pelicans, egrets and alligators, the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is the state tree of Louisiana.nationalforests.org
I can comfortably ride an 11-hour day every so often. It was a brilliant idea to bring padded cycling shorts to wear under protective pants, and I love the relaxed and natural riding position on this bike. I pushed on into Texas, the fifth state today after Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and camped on the edge of a lake at Martin Dies Jr. State Park where a welcome breeze blew all the sweaty night. It was hot and humid and for this night and the next, I slept on top of the sleeping bag instead of inside it.
Day 14 – Jasper, TX to Lllano, TX : 400 miles
With such a good distance covered yesterday, I figured I could get west of Austin, TX today and nearer to my next destination, which was Big Bend national park, on the Rio Grande. South East Texas was wet and swampy. Shacks and trailer homes were overgrown with wet, deep-green creeping vines and clinging plants that seemed to want to obliterate the buildings.
Only in Texas, I imagine, can an ordinary road – meaning one lane in each direction and no divider between them – have a speed limit of 75 mph. So again, the going was good, as long as cities stayed out of the picture. Traveling the backroads I now understand is far preferable to crossing cities. Twenty miles before Austin and twenty miles after was hellish and aggressive traffic, a different country entirely.
This was wine country, and apparently, pretend Europe, because towers, spires and Mediterranean-style buildings dotted the countryside. Norman spires from France were interspersed with Tuscan villas from Italy, and even one crenelated castle from goodness knows where, though it looked like it was made from breeze blocks.
I reached the South Llano River State Park in time to chat with the park managers who were amazed that I had ridden from Florida in just two days. They advised I take the “Southern route” towards Big Bend tomorrow, via Del Rio, far more scenic, they said, than the Interstate (!).
The river was the best way to get out of the heat and I wished I could have stayed in it until sundown. That night, not only did I sleep on top of the sleeping bag, but I didn’t even put the flysheet on the tent. That way, I hoped, any breeze would waft through the tent and over me. I must have trapped a mosquito inside, because I was bitten all over during the night.