09
Nov
08

Approaching the Rio Grande

    My stay in Corpus Christi turned out to be far more delightful than I could have possibly anticipated, thanks to my wonderful host, Ken.  After saving me from the gale-force winds, Ken drove us the remainder of the way in to Corpus Christi and up to his home which was shrouded in lush tropical plants billowing in the afternoon winds.  We headed inside and once I had scrubbed the three days of sweat and sunscreen from my skin, I went to join Ken in the kitchen where he had prepared satisfying lunch accompanied by a tall, icy-cold glass of raspberry green tea (which I am now addicted to and have purchased three boxes of the instant mix powder for my trip).  As we sat in the kitchen conversing, full refreshing breezes flowed in through the open back door, carrying with it the gentle sing-song of morning doves and other chattering birds outside.  Afterwards, we went out to hang the laundry which Ken had put in the wash while I was showering and then collect the kayaking gear for our paddle up the Nueces River.  Once we had chosen the appropriate gear from Ken’s ample selection and lashed the kayaks on his rear trailer, we were on our way.

    As we launched the kayaks into the polished hazy-green waters of the river, I couldn’t help but notice just how calm the river was within the shelter of the bowed tree limbs which kneeled on its banks.  Ken and I were soon off, gliding through the glassy waters, surrounded by dangling spanish moss which hung from the skeletons of gnarled trees surrounding the river.  Throughout the voyage, we were graced by the nonchalant inhabitants of the Nueces, such as exotic birds, little river snakes, and “Mexican” jumping fish (at least thats what I call them).  All in all, it was a perfect way to unwind after having battled the daunting winds of earlier in the day on my bicycle.  Afterwards we headed back to Ken’s house to get ready for dinner (and for me to work on my journal).

    That evening, Ken had fixed a dinner of baked chicken with cajun spices, fresh steamed vegetables, and the toasted cinnamon raisin bagels from HEB (a Texas grocery chain) that I had become quite fond of at lunch.  After dinner both of us began to feel the weight of a long day and retired to bed, although I ended up sitting up writing my blog and responding to e-mail for the next two hours (funny how this internet thing can warp the passage of time, eh?).  In the morning we awoke early… ok, eventually I awoke, to begin a fantastic new day!  Ken soon whipped up a delectable breakfast followed by a one of his mouth-watering shakes (he’s the master of the blender, and over the course of the weekend had made the best banana, strawberry, and chocolate shakes I’ve ever had), and then we were off to the coast.  We rode out to Mustang Island, just North of Padre Island, and cruised along the dunes out to the launching site for the day.  Once we had parked, Ken handed me my fantastic new frilly, red and black water-proof skirt (somewhat reminiscent of a salsa dress, and actually called a water-skirt – intended to keep sea spray out of your kayak), but unfortunately the photographs that we took of this classic outfit just didn’t do it justice.

    Moments later we were venturing out into the open bay, winding out from the shallow dune islands and slicing through the ocean ripples.   Off in the distance was our destination, the bird sanctuary of Shamrock Island.  After crossing the expanse to the island, a chattering roar rose above the seas, wavering in the breezes, and clouds of gulls, pelicans, and other exotic winged creatures wheeled and glided throughout the air, somewhat reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  As we floated aimlessly amidst the teeming island cluster, it was awe-inspiring to behold the sheer masses of birds around us and also to witness so many new species for the first time.  Of all, the most majestic and lovely in my memory were the rosea spoon-bill and the artistically carved pelicans.  After thoroughly exploring the area from offshore, we headed back out into the sound and towards another remote island off in the distance (one where you could legally get out of your boat and step ashore).  The winds had picked up and the seas were now choppier, but the new obstacle was a welcome challenge and made the journey feel more like the ominous beginning of an episode of Storm Stories, with the sky growing darker by the moment.  Nevertheless, we reached the island uneventfully and banked our kayaks, hopping onto the gravelly crescent beach.  We stared out blankly across the ocean waves, as one often does when surrounded by such dynamic natural beauty.  We lingered briefly on the island before heading back to our kayaks to return to our launch site.  As Ken shoved my kayak backwards away from the beach, I dipped my absentmindedly dipped my paddle into the water to my side, and as the reverse current caught it, my little boat swiftly rolled to one side and capsized.  Well of course, as any right-minded person does, I instinctively thought not of righting the vessel and preventing drowning, but of saving my precious little digital camera from becoming water logged (although it was in a water-tight container, I trusted not the contraption).  I bobbed foolishly to the side in the shallow water, trapped in the cockpit by my now not so glamorous salsa skirt, pushing off the mushy ocean floor in a feeble attempt to right the boat.  But after a few tries it became apparent that I would need to free myself from the hull and right the kayak from outside.  I grabbed the water-skirt release and popped it off, tumbling out into the water.  I quickly stood, nose and mouth filled with salty ocean brine, and pulled the boat back upright then pushed it to shore.  Shortly thereafter Ken came over and helped me to drain the kayak and we took off again back to our starting point.

    Once we had returned to the car and hitched up the boats to the rear trailer, we began the forty-five minute drive back to Corpus Christi.  As we fjorded the bay along the expansive causeway, the raindrops finally began pelting from the massive black storm clouds along the distant shore we could see the palms whipping to their sides in the blustery winds.  We drove along the waterfront of Corpus on the return and finally arrived back at the house where dinner was soon underway and a shower and clean clothes removed the grimy ocean feel from my skin.  Ken and I perused my vast collection of photos from throughout my travels after the meal was over and spent the rest of the evening enjoying casual conversation.  Then, on a late night whim, we decided that no such evening would be complete without dessert (although for me, even breakfast merits dessert) and headed to the HEB for some cherry chocolate truffle ice cream.  Once we had returned and the chilled, cherry-swirled goodness devoured, it was time to hit the sack.

    When I awoke the next morning it was time to get into gear and embark on my least favorite task – repacking my panniers.  So I went about my business, folding and cramming, and eventually everything was in and the drawstrings were pulled taught.  I sat down to one final breakfast with ken and he even insisted on fixing a pre-departure shake for me before I hit the road (to which I quickly suggested chocolate – I know, I can’t help it if I’m predictable).  The birds were singing in the lush foliage outside and vibrant sunlight cascaded into the kitchen as we were preparing to depart, and with weather so impeccable for a ride, I couldn’t help but think of what a wonderful past few days I had enjoyed the in Corpus with Ken.  But alas, the trip must go on, and moments later we were saying our farewells and again my pack-mule was loaded and ready to go, headed along the final stretch that separated me from Mexico.

    I easily picked my way through Corpus Christi and was soon zooming along through the outskirts, which yielded more and more into farmland.  Off to every direction the horizon simply disappeared into complete flatness with no clues as to what lay beyond.  Roads stretched infinitely in straight lines and cars came and went, appearing in the far distance as minute specks and eventually zooming by me only to disappear again to the opposite horizon.  Fortunately, the gods were smiling on me on that sunny Saturday afternoon and I flew down the farm roads effortlessly as a tail-wind guided my feet.  Life was good and I found myself singing aloud to my new playlist, which surely to the passing motorists must have compounded their conviction in my lunacy (beyond the fact that I was a cyclist pedaling along through the middle of nowhere).  I ventured onward through the scrub country, making such good time that I covered over ninety miles by the close of the day.  But as I passed Falfurrias, I had noted on my map that there was only one place that I could possibly stop to set up camp, and that was the rest stop just beyond.  At this point the wind had begun to turn on me, and when I spotted the oasis-like outcropping of trees up ahead which signaled my stopping point, I was glad to have finally arrived.

    I pulled into the wooded island between the split roadway and rolled my bike along the paved paths, noting the well maintained facilities and rather attractive aesthetics of the site.  I glanced around and within a few moments had chosen an ideal spot in which to pitch my tent, nestled between a three trees, and began to unpack my equipment.  I had just finished erecting my little synthetic home when an amiable, elderly, Mexican gentleman ambled toward me and struck up a conversation.  He was one of the maintenance staff at this particular rest stop and was trying to tell me something about my new campsite.  He spoke English relatively well, but I couldn’t seem to understand the key word which he was trying to communicate to me.  He held his wrist upright, with his hand closed in a fist to the sky and shook it vigorously, making a sound like a rattle…  Well, now I understood what he was saying, but I most certainly wished that I hadn’t – rattlesnakes.  We chatted a bit longer, and as we talked, I reached back under my tent’s rainfly and began putting my shoes back on, deciding that perhaps this was not the right place for sandals after all.  Eventually I said thank you for the information and goodbye, and after a few quick chores, carefully made my way back to my accommodation (walking very slowly and staring closely at everything that lay before me on the ground before taking steps – apparently they often only rattle just before they strike).  Once I was safe and sound, back inside my tent with all zippers pulled shut, I inflated my mattress, pulled out my sleeping bag, and tried to snuggle my sticky, dried sweat and sun-screened skin into the bag (by far one of my least favorite aspects of a trip like this).

    When the sun awoke me the next morning and I pulled out my earplugs, I found that I was indeed still alive and had not been victimized by any fork-tongued predators in the night.  I began the long drudgery of dismantling and repacking my equipment, prepared an extremely healthy breakfast of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (on heavily compressed slices of bread, which had then become triangles), and struggled vainly to repair yet another issue with my panniers before hitting the road.  Nevertheless, by ten thirty I was back in the saddle and looking forward to seeing the fabled gates to Mejico in McAllen.  Unfortunately, today’s ride was not to be like that of the day before.  The day started out coolly and relatively calm, but within the hour the clouds began to thin and recede, yielding the blazing sun and the winds whooshed past me, and much to my chagrin, in the opposite direction in which I was riding.  I staunchly pushed my weight and strength into my pedaling, yet the low gear in which I was forced to pedal was leading me to rest more so on my rear and hands, and soon thereafter soreness began to settle in.  And my muscles cried out in agony, burning from the exertion and heat, while my knees gingerly begged me to cease the relentless rotations.  Again, the pavement ahead seemed to push into a disappearing horizon, but this time it had evolved into a somewhat more dismal metaphor and I found myself constantly glancing at my odometer and repeatedly being disappointed by as the miles crawled by.

    At long last I began to see the signs for Edinburg and McAllen and inside my hope renewed, knowing that it would not be long before I could shed the shackles of my toe-clips and drink an icy cold glass of water in the shade of Francisco’s home, away from the brutal mid-afternoon sun.  Yet, though my heart said go, when I closed my eyes I felt as though I was pedaling underwater, each cycle an arduous task, as the wind pulled backwards on every surface of my body and wide-loaded panniers.  As I neared, I glanced at my written directions and knew that I was nearing my first turn off of the main road, and, at long last I spotted it up ahead! Ingle, a right turn.  There I was, riding along and feeling as though I must almost be there, but wait – up ahead in the distance was a car driving toward me… but why was it followed by a long, billowing cloud of dust?  Oh no, what had I done.  Mapquest hadn’t said anything about this being a dirt track, just what I needed right now.  But when you’re this tired, you don’t turn around, so there I went hurtling off of the pavement and bouncing along down the dirt road with my heavy beast crawling along beneath me.  Finally, after almost a mile, we reached another turn, and, thankfully pavement, a bicycle’s best friend.  Onward!

    Two more turns and then it was time to flip over my instruction sheet and look at the last three lines of directions I had written out – surely I was in the home stretch.  Oh no.  The third to last turn was onto McColl, and the distance was twelve miles until the next turn!  How could this be?  How could I have made this oversight?  But there was nothing else to do but call Francisco back, regret to inform him that I would be late (of course) and forge ahead… very slowly (and still against the wind!).  After what seemed like endless deja vu moments of passing the same strip malls, the same Walgreens, the same Sprint stores and cookie cutter homes for miles and miles, finally I was nearing the home-stretch.  According to my odometer, only one more mile until my right turn.  Then up ahead I saw a very unfamiliar sight in the Southern half of the United States, someone else riding a bicycle.  As I approached they were riding towards me but then slowly wheeled out across the street towards me.  A voice called out my name and immediately I registered that this must be the welcoming committee!  I was overjoyed, this was a sign of hope and that the finish-line was near.  It was Kurt, Francisco’s roommate, and he had graciously decided to come out and greet me to guide me the rest of the way in.  I welcomed the conversation as we towed in the last stretch of the ride, and it helped to distract me from my aching body.  Then after the last two turns and a few hundred feet up the street, we were there. Home sweet home in McAllen!  I dragged my wretched steed into the garage and pulled off my panniers, intent on the thought of a cold shower and the clean, delicate feel of cotton caressing my clean, degreased skin.  When we stepped in the door to the house Francisco was there to meet me, along with Blackie and Hobo (the cats) and Bella and Tula (the dogs).  I dropped my bags in a corner, quickly accepted a tall glass of frosty iced tea, and plopped myself onto the bar stool.  My new hosts and I quickly warmed up to each other, all enjoying one another’s gregarious and unpretentious dispositions.  Soon thereafter I was on my way to a rejuvenating shower and a glorious new outfit, followed by freshly prepared sandwiches of avocado, sliced cheese, and tomato served over plump rolls alongside hummus with pita and sliced cucumbers for dipping.  I had finally reached the border to Mexico, and, ahh yes, life was good again.

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