Thursday, February 25, 2010

The trek home from Big Bend Country

It's been a great little getaway to Big Bend Country and I'm ready to head for home. Tuesday evening I met up with the two couples I'd met on Sunday and, after having drinks in the White Buffalo bar, we had a wonderful dinner together at Cafe Cenizo, the restaurant the Gage Hotel. The Food & Beverage Director apparently took a shine to our merry little group as he checked in with us often, sharing some of his background and experience and making sure we had absolutely everything we needed or wanted to make our dining experience enjoyable. One of the women in our group is a real social butterfly (thank goodness, or I might not have been enjoying their company this evening) and she made it her business to find out about every other dining group in the restaurant that evening.

We parted company with hugs after exchanging telephone numbers and the promise to get together the next morning for breakfast at Marathon Coffee, a little breakfast and lunch cafe in town. Then another round of hugs and promises to call and I headed over to the motorcycle and began gearing up to depart. It was going to be a very cold ride for part of the day, at least until Del Rio according to the forecasts.

It was clear, bright and sunny - quite the contrast from Tuesday with its snow showers all day - and I headed east on U.S. 90 toward home. The miles seemed to fly by. I stopped for gas in Sanderson to top off, and then again in Del Rio. The next stop was in Seguin for gas and a quick Jack in the Box lunch. Now on the east side of San Antonio, I knew I was almost home. I was able to turn off my electric jacket liner when I got to Del Rio, but the lowering sun was making things chilly again, and I plugged back in for the last remaining miles home.

My last gas stop was Brookshire, where I exited I-10 onto 359. I was hoping my timing would let me avoid rush hour traffic in Houston, but my XM traffic was reporting delays on the Sam Houston Tollway between Westpark and U.S. 59, always a bad bottleneck. It was especially bad as I passed through there, with all lanes coming to a stop, even though it was the two right-hand lanes that would be exiting onto 59. Lots of jockeying for lane position was going on, which always makes me nervous. Once past this interchange, traffic moved smoothly all the way to my exit onto Highway 288.

At the intersection with McHard Road, I had the red light and I noticed then that my GPS had stopped had turned itself off. Hmmm...the only reason it would do this is if it was no longer getting power and the "continue on battery" request had timed out. I had turned my electric jacket liner off anyway, something I always do on this particular bike when in slow-moving traffic. I immediately suspected the battery on the bike. Funny...I had already planned to bring the bike in for a major service after returning from this trip. I knew the battery was 3 years old and probably near the end of its life. I also wanted to get a new chain and sprockets and possibly a new front tire. But now I had good reason to believe that the battery was going to die on me.

I made it all the way to my driveway, pulled up to the garage door, and put the bike into neutral so that I could activate the garage door opener. When I tried to put the bike into gear to pull on into the garage, the bike stalled and that was it. Pressing the starter button only produced a sickly slow crank and then nothing but clicks. Pretty much the end for that battery. I unloaded everything off the bike and then tried to push it up over the step-up into the garage but was unable to generate enough momentum to do it; I tried several times until I had no strength left.

The first person I thought of who might be able to help was friend Mike. All of my immediate neighbors are much older and have no experience handling a motorcycle. After calling Mike, I remembered that there is one fellow my age who lives just a few houses down on another street and used to ride motorcycles, now has a Honda Ruckus. I called and he was more than happy to help. He was in my driveway within minutes and easily had the bike in the garage. I thanked him profusely and went into the house to begin the process of unpacking. Now I had time to reflect on just how fortunate I was that the battery chose to give up its last bit of power in my driveway and not out in Big Bend Country. Like a faithful steed, my little red FZ6 got me home.

Postscript: A call to the Yamaha dealer this morning and I had a new battery purchased and charging. Mike and I got together for lunch and then drove over to the dealer's to pick up the battery. I had already done the dissassembly necessary to access the battery under the gas tank, so all Mike and I needed to do was remove the old and install the new.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snow Day in Marathon

I knew this. I anticipated and planned for it night before last, when I reviewed and rearranged my ride yesterday to get as much in as possible in advance of possible icy weather today. So no big deal when I woke up this morning and looked out the window to see light snow sitting on any flat surface.

I met yet more wonderfully friendly folks at breakfast this morning: A father and college-age son visiting from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and the couple I'd met the night before from the Chicago area. The father/son were headed down to Big Bend to spend the next few nights in Chisos Basin. The Chicago couple were taking a day drive down there today. I wished them enjoyable visits to the park and then headed outdoors with camera in hand.

The resident outdoor cat was curled up in the tiniest of balls outside the front door of the hotel, and the canine mascot Maverick stayed as close as possible to the lobby fireplace.

Reports coming from road travelers at lunchtime were that the roads west of Marathon toward Alpine were icy (it's higher elevatiion there) and that the road into Chisos Basin was closed.

I lingered over a burger and hot chocolate at one of the little cafes here in town and chatted with a couple who were on the road heading toward El Paso. They were also from Canada, near Toronto and had stopped in Marathon just for lunch. The reports of road conditions didn't seem to concern them much, feeling that they were experienced drivers in wintry conditions. I hope they understand that the roads in the Northeast are 1000% times better immediately after a storm because of proper preparations and equipment. I hope they make it okay.

This evening for dinner I'll join the two couples I'd met Sunday evening, as they return back to the Gage Hotel after a night in the Chisos Basin.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Second Day in Big Bend Area

Mother Nature is about to throw a curve ball at us, which pretty much means my riding plans need some major rearranging. Originally, I planned to spend all day Monday in Big Bend National Park, to include riding Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive then down into Chisos Basin before heading east to Rio Grande Village in hopes of catching the RRR folks around lunch time. After lunch I had hoped to ride over to Boquillas Canyon before heading back north to Marathon. Then on Tuesday I planned to ride up to Ft. Davis, get the national park stamp, and then ride the Davis Mountain loop, head down to Marfa for lunch and continue down to Presidio. But this is not to be. Tuesday's forecast is for rain and probable snow at the higher elevations, which means Davis Mountains.

So last night I did some work massaging my route to catch the high points from both planned riding days on Monday and then leave Tuesday's plans open based on the weather. This meant getting up early Monday morning and heading north to Ft. Davis before turning around and heading south into Big Bend.

I was out the door at 8:00 AM this morning and, after getting the bike uncovered and myself and my Gerbing plugged in, I was on the road by 8:15 AM, heading west to Alpine and then north on 118 toward Ft. Davis. The sky was perfectly clear and, despite the thermometer reading, it didn't feel as cold as it actually was. I was well north of Alpine, riding on that really gorgeous stretch of 118 into Ft. Davis, by 9:00 AM.

Ft. Davis National Park is an excellent representation of U.S. Army life on the frontier. Multiple examples of well-excavated foundations and existing structures are spread around a large drill field at the base of the Davis Mountain range. "Organ Pipe" rock formations set a dramatic backdrop to this fort and, at the right time of day, are quite photogenic. A few photos, a stamp in my National Park passport, and I was back on the road, retracing my route south and east through Alpine and to Marathon. Here I topped off my gas tank before heading south from Marathon into the park. It's about 70 miles to the Panther Junction visitor center in the park. Along the way I enjoyed the road and the Chisos Mountains vista in front of me.

Through the entrance station and then a quick stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center to get a stamp, and I was now within the park boundaries, which meant a 45 mph speed limit. This is hard to obey. The road begs for greater speed as it swoops around rocky outcroppings and cone-shaped formations. A haze hung over the mountains, somewhat diminishing their drama. I searched for but could not find a photogenic opportunity because of this. Anyone who has attempted to take a photo of such vast scenery knows how disappointing and far away everything appears in the resulting snapshot. They never look as good as they are remembered in real life.

At the Panther Junction intersection I turned left to head toward the southeasternmost part of the park. I had not been to this side in many years. Its appearance is considerably different than that of the southwestern section of the park, which includes the most popular Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and its various overlooks and Santa Elena Canyon. So today I would spend my day in Boquillas canyon and in Rio Grande Village. It is my hope to time it so that I see the MTF off-road riders when they arrive at Rio Grande Village for their lunch break.

The road through this section of park is through a low flat plain dotted with prickly pear and Ocotillo. In another month or so, with enough moisture, the usually drab and gray Ocotillo will be in full bloom, waving their 8' long floral arms in the wind. I saw no evidence of buds on the prickly pear, which is surprising. Normally by this time of year the deep red buds are evident, and a few may even be impatient enough to unfurl their bright yellow blooms.

As the road nears Boquillas canyon it becomes more twisty and the terrain more hilly. At one point it ducks into a stone-fronted tunnel carved into a hill. The massive limestone cliffs of Boquillas Canyon formed a wall ahead of me and to my left, looming ever larger the closer I got to the end of the road at Rio Grand Village.

I arrived at around 12:45 PM and was hoping I had not missed the MTF group. I parked the bike and went into the small store at the campground to buy a sandwich, some Powerade, and a small bag of almonds. Sitting outside at one of the covered picnic tables, I listened to the conversations around me: One couple spending 6 months in the U.S. were from Switzerland, another were from Minnesota. As I sat there, a lone rider on a well-used KLR pulled up to the store, dismounted, scratched his head as he looked around, and then ambled inside. I wasn't sure if he was with the MTF group or not but it didn't appear that he was.

I enjoyed the pleasant breeze and bright sunshine as I sat outside but by 1:15 I was growing restless, but I also had the feeling that the MTF group were still coming, that I had not missed them. So I decided to ride the one mile back up the road to the Rio Grande Village visitor center to get the national park stamps and then continue another 100 yards to the turnoff for the Boquillas Canyon Road and head for the overlook. It would take less than 30 minutes to do all of this and, even if I missed the arrival of the other riders, they'd most likely still be there when I returned.

The road to the Boquillas canyon is a fine road, very twisty and hilly, posted speed limits of between 15 and 25 mph and requiring respect for those speeds. A few miles down that road is the turnoff to the right to the Boquillas Canyon overlook. I headed up that little road and at the end parked my bike and grabbed my camera to get some photos looking across the Rio Grande into Mexico and looking back at the canyon wall behind my motorcycle.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a small group of men at a little campsite across the river in Mexico. Their mode of transportation was horseback and the men seemed to be camping, sitting in campchairs in the shade of a few cottonwoods along the banks. A well-worn path could be seen exiting the river bed and climbing the embankment to where I stood. The river was running much higher than it was the last time I was here several years ago. The park ranger at the entrance station told me that the river was about 5-6 feet higher than usual and that a few access points - hot springs, Santa Elena Canyon - were closed due to flooding.

It was time to head back to Rio Grande Village, check on the arrival of the MTF off-road riders. As I approached the village store I could see no motorcycles and was disappointed. I looped through the parking lot and was preparing to exit back onto the main road when I saw 3 bikes, then 4 bikes, then more, heading my way. They'd arrived! Pulling back into the parking lot, I was soon approached by one of the riders, Dan, to say hi. The riders were all quickly off their bikes, one bike was quickly up on a pole stand and the rear wheel was off. Others headed into the store for food and a cold drink. There were a few riders I did not know and we greeted each other with introductions. Many of the others were long-time MTF folks. Every rider was covered with light tan dust head to toe, but everyone had a grin on his face. One rider went down a few miles back and Dan had ridden that person's bike down to the village. He and his wife Beth then rode two-up back up the Old Ore Road to get Dan's bike.

Things were a bit chaotic in the parking lot for a bit until I could sort out what was going on. A good samaritan in a 4-wheel vehicle offered to go back and get the injured rider and bring him out. The rider was not seriously injured, just a suspected broken collar bone. A park ranger EMT tended to the rider and an ambulance was called to transport him up to the hospital in Alpine to be examined.

I needed to get on the road soon, so said my goodbyes to those sitting near me. It would be 90 miles back to Marathon and I also needed to get gas at the gas station near Panther Junction.

As I rode north on 387 back toward Marathon, I could see the dark clouds gathering to the north behind the mountains. The sun to my back lit the faces of the mountains to a glowing pale yellow against the dramatic backdrop. It was a most pleasant view for 70 miles.

Back in Marathon, I changed into jeans and set out to take a look at my dining options for the evening. The several breakfast/lunch places were closed for the day. The Flying Burro is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, so the only choices were the Oasis Cafe (looking a little suspect) and the hotel restaurant again. This was no contest. I headed into the White Buffalo bar and sat at the bar next to a local couple and ordered a Blue Moon beer. Chatting with the couple, I learned that they moved here in 1996 from Vermont after a friend told them about how cheaply they could buy a house here. They bought a little adobe house for $5,000 with extra land, put lots of sweat-equity into it, and then sold it for $86,000 a few years later. They now live in a house they build themselves. They were an interesting, if quirky, couple. I promised the wife Diane that I'd walk up to her studio on Tuesday.

At dinner, I was seated at the same table as the night before and once again I struck up conversation with the other two couples seated at the other two tables in our little dining room. One couple was from outside of Chicago, in the Aurora area, the other was from Cleveland OH. We compared notes about the park: Neither of the couples had been into the park yet, planning to go there the next day. One couple would be spending the next few nights in the Chisos Basin Lodge in the park. Once they realized I'd been to the park before, they opened up a bit more, asking for recommendations and suggestions on where to go and what to see in the park.

The menu at this restaurant is simply outstanding and I was hard-pressed to choose, but decided on the "Crispy Skin Chicken." Good choice! It was a small de-boned cornish-hen (with the drumstick bone remaining) that was pounded or flattened, then coated on one side and pan-cooked in a reduction sauce until the coating became very crispy. It was set on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes served with a side of pesto rice.

Tomorrow I'll stay in Marathon for the day, wait out the snow and cold. There's plenty to keep me occupied here. Link to all photos is here:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

First Day to Big Bend - it's all about the cuisine

Yes, I'm in Marathon TX at the Gage Hotel and am back in my room after an absolutely fabulous meal at Cerizo's, the hotel restaurant. I admit it. My decision to stay at the Gage Hotel was driven by the opportunity to have at least one fine meal at this dining room. But let me back up a few hours and give a synopsis of my ride to get here today.

I left the house this morning, wrapped in thick fog as I got up onto Beltway 8 and headed west. Beltway 8 to Westpark Toll Road to Fulshear, and then north to I-10 with a quick stop to top off the gas tank. The fog lifted and bits of blue sky were visible by the time I got to Luling and it was full-out sunny when I got to San Antonio. Another quick stop for gas at Seguin, and I was soon passing through San Antonio and heading west on U.S. 90. Lots of wind, very little traffic, and I pressed on toward Del Rio.

Since I was riding alone, I could count on the long range on my FZ6 and not stop for gas until I arrived in Del Rio, although I was pushing a strong headwind and my gas gauge began its unnerving count-up at about 180 miles. This is Yamaha's way of letting the rider sweat bullets, watching the last little bar on the gas gauge blink and the odometer switch to a taunting "you dummy, look at how many miles you've ridden on reserve" sort of display.

At Del Rio, I stopped for gas and put 4 gallons into a 5.1 gallon tank (take that, you Yamaha liars) and then proceeded to the right turn that would keep me on the U.S. 90 continuance toward Marathon. I stopped for lunch at a Jack in the Box in Del Rio and had my usual favorite: chicken fajita pita. Just west of Del Rio I stopped at the Amistad National Recreation Area Visitor Center to get a National Park stamp in my passport book. More on that later.

The winds became absolutely brutal once I was west of Del Rio, but the skies were blue and temperatures were moderate and I was able to shed my jacket liner in the Jack in the Box parking lot. As I approached the Pecos River, I debated whether to take the turnoff to the overlook. But I've been there and done that a couple of times and in the interest of arriving in Marathon early enough to relax a bit, I pressed on. The same goes for the stop in Langtry - a standard for me - to stop by the Judge Roy Bean visitor center and then have an ice cream at the little shop across the street. I had a more compelling destination in mind.

The stretch of highway between San Antonio and the Pecos River is just short of absolutely awful. It's flat, barren, with very few towns and precious little interesting scenery in between to break the monotony. About the only things of note were all the Border Patrol vehicles parked along the side of the road in random locations.

I gassed up again in Sanderson and from there it was just 53 miles to Marathon TX. At least the landscape gets a little more interesting west of Sanderson, as low mountain ranges begin to appear along the horizon and, to the south, the location of the Rio Grande is marked by the canyon walls that follow the river's course as it heads east toward its ultimate release into the Gulf of Mexico.

The last few miles passed quickly as I anticipated my arrival at Marathon and the Gage Hotel. I was really looking forward to my three days' retreat at this historic hotel. The rooms in the original hotel are great...and I was given the very same room I had last time I stayed here 8 years ago. Hardwood floors, wooden shuttered windows, High poster bed with down comforter and pillows, animal skin rugs and a really cool stone basin that "floats" above a dark slate corner cabinet in the room. In the private bath, a large walk-in tiled shower and pair of terry robes completes the luxury.

But the best part of staying here was waiting for me next door. When I arrived and checked in, I made a reservation for 6:30 for dinner at the restaurant. I'd been "saving myself" for this experience ever since I booked my hotel room. When I went into serious training for the Houston Marathon last summer, I was determined to shed the pounds I'd gained when I'd been waylaid by the stress fracture in my foot. Two years' worth of extra pounds. Running alone wasn't going to do it; it took serious caloric deprivation to lose 30 lbs in 4 months. And it took an extremely low fat, low carbohydrate diet to do it. But the rewards were so worth it...back down to 108 lb, back into size 4 clothes, and so much easier to run the long distances. Even through all of the many holidays - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines Day - I was in deprivation mode. I had something to look forward to, a real treat. I went whole hog at Cervizo's tonight. First of all, the bar is fabulous. It's intimate, nicely lit and with a fabulous fire going in the fireplace. Two couples about my age were chatting softly in one corner, a younger couple were sitting at the bar having an intimate conversation, and I ordered a glass of sparkling wine and pulled up a chair next to the fireplace. Soon, I found myself engaged in conversation with the two couples sitting next to me. One couple was from Alvin (the next town to Pearland where I live) the other from Houston.

At 6:30, I wished them a pleasant evening and went into the dining room where I was seated and my order taken: Pan-seared scallops with roasted red pepper sorbet to start, followed by lamb chops cooked rare on a bed of risotto with caramelized baby onions and cherry tomatoes. And another glass of champagne. I ate way too much food, including the wonderful freshly baked yeast bread with pecans and cranberries. Never have I eaten anything as light and heavenly as this. Because it was leavened, it was so light. I passed my compliments to the chef and a couple seated behind me stopped at my table as they readied their departure to say the same about the bread. For dessert the waiter convinced me that the banana and Baileys pots de creme was to die for. A couple was seated next to me and they had engaged the waiter in conversation about a new camera she had. Later, when the waiter served their bottle of wine, I offered to take their photo toasting each other.

As I departed the restaurant, the two couples I'd spoken with earlier in the bar were just getting ready to order and they waved me over to join them. I chatted with them a bit, answering their questions about what I chose for dinner. I have an invitation to join them for dinner Tuesday evening and I look forward to it.

So here I am, groaningly full but satiated by an outstanding dinner, well prepared. Tomorrow I will get up and, if the spirit moves me, get a short run in, then change into my riding gear and head into Big Bend National Park, camera in hand.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Packing for Big Bend

The weather promises to be fantastic - perfect - for the Big Bend area over the next few days and with the long-range weather forecasts in mind, I've been mentally packing, getting ready for my departure early Sunday morning for Marathon TX.

I spent today going over the bike, checking tire pressures, examining the chain - the FZ6 gets to go play with me this time - and moving the Garmin cradle from the BMW to the FZ. I inventoried the contents of the tank bag, got the Gerbing heat-troller set up on the FZ and installed the topcase. The riding gear is laid out, ready to go, in its usual place: a chair in the corner of the living room.

Normally I get to the Big Bend area for some riding about once a year or so. Last time I was in this area was end of December 2008, passing through Fort Davis enroute to a RTE in Tucson AZ. While I didn't get as far south as Big Bend, I did ride a bit through the Davis Mountains after spending the night in Fort Davis. So I'm looking forward to spending a full day in Big Bend National Park on Monday, and then riding the Davis Mountains, poking around Fort Davis and Marfa on Tuesday. I will bring my new DSLR in hopes of capturing some quality photos in both Big Bend and the Davis Mountains. I'm debating whether to bring the full tripod as well, or just the little gorilla pod.

While I was last in Big Bend 2 years ago, it's been much longer than that since I've been down to Santa Elena Canyon or into Chisos Basin. Santa Elena canyon was inaccessible for quite awhile after Rio Grande flooding destroyed the roads down into the canyon. It is so photogenic, actually so is the entire length of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive with its turnouts and overlooks. Monday should be perfect weatherwise to photograph the park.

Late February, early March is the best time to go to Big Bend country. It's a little cool first thing in the mornings, but warms up to a very pleasant and comfortable 65-70 degrees during the day. Much later than March and it starts getting too hot by early afternoon.

A highlight of this upcoming trip will be the 3 nights I'll be spending at the Gage Hotel in Marathon. Originally I thought I'd stay down in Study Butte with the MTF group, but thought about it a little bit, remembering how underwhelmed I was with that motel the last time I stayed there a few years ago, so considered my options. I contacted the reservations agency for the Chisos Basin Lodge but learned that I would be unable to get a room for all three nights. I also considered staying in Alpine, but then remembered my excellent experience staying at the Gage several years ago. The rooms are quite luxurious while retaining the atmosphere of this historic hotel, and the on-site restaurant is excellent! And rooms in the historic section of the hotel are not much more expensive than the rooms at a non-descript chain hotel in Alpine or, for that matter, the no-frills motel in Study Butte.

Besides the excellent restaurant at the hotel there are also a couple of fun and quirky restaurants and cafes in town for variety. Definitely looking forward to it.

Tomorrow morning I'll get a long 8 or 9 mile run in, get back to the house, do a little laundry, then pack for the trip. Sunday morning, I hope to be out the driveway and on the road by 7:00 AM or so...