February 11, 2017
We’re moving right along here through South Texas, hardly at breakneck speed but the miles are slowly beginning to accumulate.
The highlight of my stay in Raymondville, Texas, was the appearance of my RAGBRAI friend Doc Van Winkle of Burlington, Iowa. Yes, there are quite a few Burlingtons (my home in Ontario is the largest of them); the claim to fame of the Iowa city is that it lives on in the name of the BNSF Railway.
I had spoken with Doc in December about my trip, and he mentioned he might be in Texas in February, as his brother’s family was planning to rent a condo on South Padre Island. But the exact dates of his visit were open to change. Nonetheless, I received a text from Doc when I was in Brownsville saying he was on his way. He drove his car and a trailer to southeast Oklahoma, from where he left on his replica 1960s Triumph motorcycle. Mid-afternoon on Wednesday I got a call that he was in Corpus Christi and headed south. We arranged to meet at my motel.
Doc makes several motorcycle trips each year and is something of an expert at taking his time and smelling the roses. He has several general rules that I have at least partially adopted for this trip. The first, to use his word, is to “engage” the local population. And one of the others is to as much as possible avoid national chain and franchise food and eat at locally owned establishments. In keeping with that dictum, we walked a block from the motel and found Grandma’s Restaurant, which being in South Texas offered mostly Tex-Mex border fare. It really should have been named Abuelita’s. However, we never found anyone of the appropriate age behind the counter, either at dinner or the next morning’s breakfast.
Doc is pretty much off the clock, so not surprisingly I got a somewhat late (8:30) start for what may be the longest ride of the trip. It certainly will be the most desolate and least populated. North of the lower Rio Grande Valley lies 60 miles of the Wild Horse Desert. It’s not the Sonora Desert of Arizona and Mexico, nor California’s Mojave, but it is rather dry and empty. It’s a wet season/dry season climate, with the wet season not coincidentally also being the hurricane season.
It’s also the region of the celebrated giant South Texas ranches, which loom large in this area, both in terms of history and the present day. The story is fascinating, and it rates a much longer and more detailed treatment than there is room for here. Of course that’s why I’m writing a book in addition to this blog. I will drop one little tidbit that I rode through part of the Armstrong Ranch, owned by a family famous in Texas Republican Party politics, and the location of then Vice-President Dick Cheney’s unfortunate hunting accident in 2006.
In Kingsville I visited the museum operated by the world-famous King Ranch, still the largest of them all, quite a bit bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Founder Capt. Richard King was a legendary character, whose descendants still wield a lot of lot of influence. I came away realizing that the history of Texas, past and present, is really about business. The ranch today is the most visible symbol of a multibillion-dollar international agribusiness conglomerate. Even at the museum they were anxious to sell tickets for a considerable additional charge for bus tours out to the ranch itself about eight miles from town. The elaborate hacienda and gardens are a registered historical landmark.
To dispel the suspense, yes, I survived the crossing of the Wild Horse Desert, almost 60 miles with only vending machines at about mile 48. The weather turned a little cooler (high 73 degrees) for a day, but unfortunately the wind switched to the northeast at 10-15 miles per hour. As a result, it took me just slightly less than 10 hours; I arrived at my motel only about 15 minutes before dark.
I now have the luxury of a day off tomorrow (Sunday) with only local sightseeing in Corpus Christi, before I set off again on Monday, basically following the Texas Gulf Coast north to Houston. I have to be there by Friday evening to meet my wife, who is flying in for a getaway long weekend.
Here are Doc and I at Grandma’s Restaurant in Raymondville:
The sign is slightly exaggerated; it’s only 58 miles to the next place to fill your tank:
Here’s a close-up of somewhat common South Texas vegetation:
And here’s the bigger picture. In the words of the immortal Bob Wills, “I saw miles and miles of Texas”: