Two State Parks — Two Different Rides

I’m a member of a Meetup group, the Austin Mountain Bikers. Earlier this week, I got a message from them that an interpretive mountain bike ride would take place at Bastrop State Park in Bastrop, Texas, about 25 miles east of Austin. We would be led by a park ranger on trails that are normally closed to the public. Sign me up.

Maggie had the same idea, so we loaded the bikes onto the SUV and set out for Bastrop. The park and the area are known for the “Lost Pines” — a substantial acreage of loblolly pines that somehow detached from the piney woods of East Texas. it’s the farthest west stand of loblollies in the United States. In 2011, the area — including most of Bastrop State Park — was devastated by a forest fire. Most of the pines are gone, but the park is starting to come back. For naturalists, it’s a gold mine of information about regeneration.

In all, about 13 riders turned out. Rangers Mick and Cullen told us that we wouldn’t be pounding along rough singletrack — instead, we’d be stopping a lot to hear about different aspects of the area. A few riders apparently hadn’t realized that when they signed up, and there was a little grumbling, but Mick pointed out that there’s a lot of mountain biking in the area, including nearby Buescher State Park.

Rangers Cullen (center left) and Mick (far right) herd the cats at the beginning of the ride.

Rangers Cullen (center left) and Mick (far right) herd the cats at the beginning of the ride. (Click all pix to embiggen.)

The ride was along a grassy truck path, the grass beaten down by park maintenance vehicles. Most of it wasn’t technically challenging, but we did have a nice longish downhill through some rocks that made riders pay attention, and a tough climb near the end of the ride.

Maggie and I both enjoyed the many stops to find out about the challenges facing the park. The area where we rode was outside the park proper — it had recently been acquired by the state, but not added to the park yet. Mick pointed out the damage being done by feral pigs, which had not been a factor in the park before the fire. He said a lot of the native predators like coyotes and bobcats fled the fire, and never returned.

Ranger Cullen displays the decomposing head of a deer found along the trail. A nice set of antlers, but this being a state park, they must be left here.

Ranger Cullen displays the decomposing head of a deer found along the trail. A nice set of antlers, but this being a state park, they must be left here.

Ranger Mick points out damage done by feral hogs.

Ranger Mick points out damage done by feral hogs.

We also stopped at an abandoned town site. Yewpon, Texas, existed from about 1902 to 1918. The only signs remaining are the town’s cistern and a mound that shows where the steps to the post office used to be.

Ranger Mick answers a question from Maggie at the remains of the town cistern in what used to be Yewpon, Texas.

Ranger Mick answers a question from Maggie at the remains of the town cistern in what used to be Yewpon, Texas.

Pines thrive in sandy soil, and we were caught unaware by the depth of sand in some of the tracks we rode. A few riders lost control and had to stop to regroup. In some of the more densely forested areas of the ride, we could see evidence that the forest is regenerating.

A new pine pokes up through the ground near some trunks of trees that had been damaged in the fire.

A new pine pokes up through the ground near some trunks of trees that had been damaged in the fire.

 

A nice-sized King Snake basks on a rock next to a creek. Snakes like this are vital to culling the mice in the park, which increased exponentially when natural predators left after the fire.

A nice-sized King Snake basks on a rock next to a creek. Snakes like this are vital to culling the mice in the park, which increased exponentially when natural predators left after the fire.

 

Even with the large stands of ruined trees, majestic pines still populate parts of the park.

Even with the large stands of ruined trees, majestic pines still populate parts of the park.

After the short ride — only about 4.1 miles (Mick said he eliminated some of the planned ride because of impassable conditions) — we decided to go on to Buescher (BISH-er) State Park, a few miles east. We drove the well-known Park Road 1C, which dips and twists for miles between the two parks, and I remembered how I had tackled the tough hills during my MS150 ride back in 2009.

We got to a trailhead, and took off into the woods. This turned out to be a great singletrack. It was a little bit sandy, often hard-packed, sometimes rocky, but not with the difficult rock gardens we deal with around home. Although the area is quite hilly, the track doesn’t put the rider in any jeopardy, and we were treated to some fun, twisty downhills, some steep uphills, and constantly changing terrain. No pictures for this section — we were too busy having fun riding to stop.

So, a good, if not long, morning of mountain biking. We’ll be returning to Buescher State Park for some more time on the trails. As for Bastrop, Ranger Mick said there would be more interpretive bike rides like today’s in the future. If you’re interested, keep an eye on the park’s website.

Carnival of Animals

We decided it was time to head for Dripping Springs for Sunday’s ride. It’s been months since we were out there, and I had trouble figuring out why, since it’s my favorite place around here to ride.

None of the other B riders joined us, although in fairness, this was the day of the Livestrong ride in Austin, and I knew they were going to have a large field for that. We saw only a few other riders, all near the beginning of our ride.

Several miles into the ride, we rounded a bend and Maggie called out, “Turkeys!” There was a big one on the left side of the road, and another not too far behind. Then we saw another, and another. In all, a gaggle a rafter of eight turkeys scurried behind some nearby bushes to get out of our sight. Maggie speculated that the first one we saw was a male, and the rest were his harem. I had no idea if turkeys collected harems or not.

The turkey sighting was unexpected, and welcome. Several times, I’ve rounded that same bend to come upon a small herd of cattle right along both sides of the road. The turkeys caused a lot less consternation than the bovines would.

As we pedaled easily along the country road, we chatted about all manner of things. Maggie is usually alert to animal sightings, and she pointed out a red-capped finch on a telephone pole. But then, as she looked away, a nice whitetail buck jumped across the road ahead of us and disappeared into the underbrush. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her miss an animal sighting.

We decided to take the Mount Sharp Road route. The roads south of Dripping Springs offer a variety of route options, and Mt. Sharp is the longest of these. Maggie had only ridden in this area once before, so she was open to going a little farther. Of course, Mt. Sharp is also the hilliest route, so we were going to be in for some work.

We passed a few really nice specimens of longhorn cattle, with impressive spans of horns. Try as she might, Maggie couldn’t get any of them to look our way. They were too busy grazing to pay us any attention.

At the intersection of Mt. Sharp and Jacob’s Well Roads, we stopped for a short rest. This would be our turnaround, because Jacob’s Well gets busy as it approaches the community of Wimberly. I’ve always gotten a kick out of a telephone pole with directional markers for various houses and ranches.

signs

The only problem with stopping where we did is that once we turn around, we have several hills to climb in rapid succession. It’s tough to get any kind of momentum in this area, and I slowed us some more, when I saw some llamas behind a fence. (Click to enlarge.)

llamas

They were curious, and ambled over to the fence when I stopped to fish out my phone with its camera. Besides these two, several others grazed under some trees off in the distance. They posed for some pictures, and when I put the phone back in my pocket, they turned and walked back to the rest of the herd.

Maggie didn’t realize that I had stopped for pictures, and I had to hustle to catch up to her. I rounded a 90-degree left turn and saw her at the top of a hill. By the time I caught her, she was looking off to the left. “Look at the antelopes!” she said, and sure enough, a herd of about 20 was moving away from us. Apparently, they had been down by the fence close to the road. Maggie speculated that they belonged to an exotic game ranch. We have some around here, although there were no signs along the road that indicated this might be one of them.

On the way home, Maggie looked up turkeys on her phone. Males will gather a harem, but that’s in the spring, during breeding season. It’s likely the turkeys we saw were all of the same sex, since they segregate themselves by sex the rest of the year.

All in all, a successful ride. We rode where the deer and the antelope play (couldn’t resist), and saw llamas and longhorns to boot. Our slowish 12.2 mph average speed over the 36 miles reflected our take it easy attitude this day, but it was still enough to send me to a nap once I got home.

 

Vignettes From a Ride

Our Sunday morning club ride promised to be routine. The A’s were going some distance southeast of Austin, while Maggie and I decided to do a B ride to the south. The forecast was promising: in the 60s (18C), partly sunny, and zero chance of rain.

My glasses were covered in mist as I pedaled over to the ride start, and it was chilly enough that I wondered if I had underdressed. After faffing around and finally starting three minutes behind schedule, we made a long line along the road as we struck out from our Starbucks.

But at our first left turn, we left one behind. Jerry had taken off his windbreaker and stuffed it in his pocket, and lagged behind us at the start. We all made the left turn before the green arrow turned red — all except Jerry. “Hey, slow up!” shouted one of the A riders. “Jerry got stuck at the light!”

In true club fashion, we continued on without missing a pedal stroke. A little over two miles later, I looked back over my shoulder, and could see Jerry gaining on the group. Once he caught up, the A’s took off, and Maggie and I eased off on our speed.

The mist was coming and going, and wasn’t much of a bother, but the sky was so overcast, I wondered if I shouldn’t take off my sunglasses — they were making things darker. No big deal, though, and we cruised through Buda and out to Cole Springs Road.

It’s Maggie’s favorite road, because it’s rural and tree lined. It’s not my favorite, because it’s quite rough. But it’s an enjoyable ride. As we rounded a bend, I saw a hound dog catch sight of us, and decide we would be fun to ride with. He was on a lawn that was elevated about four feet above our road, and kept stable by a stone retaining wall. The dog ran parallel to us, then loped along on top of the wall. I wondered what he would do when he got to the end of the property. He jumped down off the wall onto the road, and came toward us.

When he was even with me, I held up my hand and shouted, “Stay!” He pulled up immediately, and sat down in the middle of the road. A well-trained dog. We should always be so lucky in our dog encounters.

flycatcherWe spotted a couple of scissor-tailed flycatchers perched on a telephone line. Their long, split tails are pretty neat.

At the turnaround in Kyle, we caught up with three of the club riders, who had decided not to take the longer route the main club ride was on. But after chatting a few minutes, they set off on the return trip. We had some housekeeping to take care of, so we stuck around for a few more minutes.

Heading back north, we were into the wind. Not a strong wind, but enough to keep our speeds down. It was easy to fall into a medium-intensity pedaling rhythm, and even though we weren’t going to set any speed records, we had a nice, steady ride home.

Once we got to Slaughter Lane, we had to make our usual decision. Do we take the lane on a fast, four-lane divided suburban arterial, or do we ride the sidewalk? We opted for the sidewalk. Traffic was heavier than we’d seen on recent Sunday mornings, and the prospect of dodging impatient motorists didn’t appeal to us.

But about a mile up the road, a problem appeared. “Mud!” I yelled to Maggie. The previous day’s rains had washed mud across the sidewalk. My front wheel hit it, and almost stopped dead. I powered through, and hoped Maggie would make it. She did, just barely. We hit another patch of mud a little farther up, and our tires threw chunks of the moist earth on our legs, torsos and faces for the rest of the ride.

Sitting around an outdoor table at Starbucks, we waved off mosquitoes. With our recent rains, they’re out in force. “You know, when I was growing up in Pennsylvania, we had mosquitoes, but they only came out at night,” observed Judy. Texas mosquitoes are diurnal as well as nocturnal.

“Say, Joe, there’s a cool car,” I said, as I pointed at a sleek black Porsche coming through the lot. Joe is a fan of fast cars, and we watched the coupe as it passed by the exit from the drive thru, and parked along the curb. The driver got out and walked into the Starbucks.

“That’s not a parking spot,” said Laura. “He’s going to block other cars.”

He did. Cars had trouble turning from the drive thru exit past his car into the lot.

“What an entitled, arrogant, SOB,” said Maggie. “There’s a parking spot right over there. I should go into the store and ask him if I can move his car to it.”

A routine, fun, ride. I did 42 miles at a 15 mph average — good for me. Maybe next week, the forecast will be right, and we can be accurately prepared for what we run into.

Thinking Time, Not Miles

It occurred to me the other day that once again, my riding has settled comfortably in the 25-mile range. Oh sure, I’ve got some longer rides under my belt — but nowhere near the metric centuries I did semi-frequently a couple of years ago. It seems that lately, my rides have been stuck in a range of between 23-27 miles.

A few years ago, I bemoaned the fact that I rode so many 25-milers. I felt that I was shortchanging myself — not putting in enough effort to improve as a cyclist. And I did work to get those long rides to longer distances. But now, I hardly ever think about distance.

In fact, if I pay attention at all, I pay attention to the number of minutes I spend on my bike. A long ride is anything over two hours. At my 14 mph average, that’s a 28-mile ride.

Most often, I keep my riding to familiar routes around my house. I can combine any number of roads and streets and the Veloway, and wind up with a ride that includes challenging hills, fast sections, and recovery segments. Most often, I knock off after I’ve done between an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes. I feel refreshed. I’ve had some good exercise. I’ve spent time on the bike, which I really enjoy.

Then, if I want to push myself, I get out the mountain bike. A two-hour ride on that thing, and I’m ready to pass out. And I’ve probably covered only 14 miles or so in that amount of time. But the next day, I can tell I had some strenuous exercise — much more than a road bike gives me in the same amount of time.

So, I’m not complaining about the 25-mile ride anymore. Some might say I’ve gotten comfortable, but I say I know what works for me. I’ll continue to ride as often as possible, but I’ll keep an eye on the clock — not the odometer.

Some Changes Close By

Rain visited overnight, and continued to threaten this morning, so instead of a planned trip out to Dripping Springs, we decided to just do a neighborhood ride with the club.

Besides Maggie and Brian, two regular B riders, I was joined by Kenny and Steve, two of our better A riders. Kenny is recovering from rotator cuff surgery, and said he wanted to ride easy to recover from a 54-mile ride the previous day. (“I can’t stand up on my bike yet,” he complained. “Can you imagine riding 54 miles without standing up?”) Steve had also ridden long on Saturday, and he was content with a lazy ride. (Steve, a several-times state champion in both road and time trial in his age group, is known for taking frequent recovery-pace rides. Don’t be fooled. He can drop you just like that. He just doesn’t want to. Mostly.)

I gave Steve a rough idea of the route I had in mind, just in case he and Kenny did put some distance between us. The pace proved even easier than I had expected, as we spent a lot of our time in the saddle just chatting about various and sundry. At one point, Steve suggested we turn onto State Highway 45, an extension of our old favorite, Mopac. I used to ride this road a lot, but I’ve been avoiding it lately. A resurfacing several years ago made it rough in spots, and the traffic has picked up in both speed and numbers.

But when we made the turn onto 45, I was greeted with a newly-resurfaced highway. This time, it was smooth asphalt, not rough chip seal. And best news of all, the shoulder had been widened and extended to cover some spots where it used to disappear just before major intersections. We had a quick, smooth run to the turnaround.

Maggie wanted to take a”bio break” at the convenience store at the turnaround. The convenience store was built a year or so ago, but I had never used it. I didn’t need to now, either, but as we stood around waiting for Maggie, the urge hit me. Inside, the convenience store was bright and roomy, well stocked, and with spotless bathrooms. Whoa! That’s something I hadn’t expected.

Back on the return trip down highway 45, we decided to turn into one of several housing developments that have sprung up in this desirable part of Austin. I had been there before, but again, it was two or three years ago. The main road into the development used to limit your forward progress.

What the road into the Meridien neighborhood used to look like. This day, we kept going on nice blacktop. (From Google Street View. Click to enlarge.)

What the road into the Meridien neighborhood used to look like. This day, we kept going on nice blacktop. (From Google Street View. Click to enlarge.)

But today, we were able to keep riding, past the point where houses had been put in, onto another new asphalted road that made a big loop through forest. It will be built up soon, but for now, it was like our private race track. It didn’t occur to me to take any pictures on the ride, because our route seemed so commonplace. I wish now I had.

Through one of the built-up parts of Meridien. The other two developments we visited along Rt. 45 look much the same.

Through one of the built-up parts of Meridien. The other two developments we visited along Rt. 45 look much the same.

Two more developments attracted our attention as we continued east on 45, and we checked both of them out. Steve, in an effort to tack miles onto this easy ride, took almost every side street. We admired the new houses going in, while at the same time complaining that this is an environmentally sensitive area, because this is where our groundwater is recharged during rainfall. We’re worried that too much building will adversely affect our water supply.

Back on the highway, 45 turned north and became Mopac. This route leads to the Veloway, and we had talked about taking a lap or two there, but Maggie said she was close to 30 miles and was feeling tired after a hilly ride the previous day (Am I the only one whose Saturday ride wasn’t a tough one?). She said she’d had enough, and wanted to head back to Starbucks. Steve said he was fine with that. Kenny decided to head home.

Ever notice how refreshed you feel after a nice recovery ride? Our chitchat session around an outdoor table at Starbucks was lively and fun. And I realized that I could now return Mopac/45 to my route repertoire. It pays to do the occasional routine ride close to home — provided you’re ready to turn onto some previously untraveled roads.

A Morning Quickie

No — not that kind of quickie. I’m talking about getting your day started with a short ride.

It was my wife’s idea. She had  a big day coming up at work, and wanted to ride to clear her head. I didn’t have to start at work until 10 a.m., so I was happy to volunteer to ride with her. All we had to do was make sure we were ready on time.

Not too tough to do in our house these days. We have two dogs, and our beagle is always ready for her breakfast at 5:30 a.m. Trouble is, the beagle eats only one meal a day, and it’s not breakfast. But I rolled out of bed to feed our other dog, a chihuahua mix. That got us going, and after eating our own breakfasts, we jumped into some cycling clothes and got the bikes.

Our route was going to be a simple one — my wife’s favorite out-and-back that I’ve written about on this blog before. I figured I’d be able to get a little more out of the nine mile trip by taking my mountain bike. The greater rolling resistance on that bike keeps my speed down, so we could ride together for most of the ride, instead of me being way ahead of her.

The morning was already hot — almost 80 degrees (26C) — and not even a hint of a breeze. By the time we reached the turnaround point, we were soaked through.

“It’s a perfect morning for a ride!” said my wife. “I’m really glad we came out.”

I was, too. We headed back home, dealing with lines of cars parked in the bike lane. Local side streets are getting a coat of sealant, and residents were told to get their cars out of the area — so they all moved to the bike lanes on the through street. Luckily for us, rush hour traffic was light, and we made it up the one big hill on the route and cruised home. We had just enough time to get our days started — she in the home office, me over on campus. We were invigorated. Amazing what just 43 minutes on the bike can do.

A Dandy Rest Stop

Our Sunday club ride was going to head to Kyle, but when I arrived at the start, I found out there would be a small change.

“I have to pick up something from my office,” said Maggie, who works at the hospital in Kyle. “You don’t mind a little detour, do you?”

“Not at all,” I said, figuring that any variation from our usual routes would be a nice change.

Four of us B riders headed out toward Kyle (“The Second Largest City in Hays County,” according to its website) on a route that took us through Buda and out on a nice no-traffic rural road for a few miles. Then we hit the long, straight slog up Ranch Road 1626, with its endless two percent grade. Seems endless, anyway. It’s really about two miles, maybe a little more.

But this time we didn’t turn right at the stoplight and head for the gas station/convenience store where our ride normally turns around. Maggie led us off on 1626, which widens to four lanes with a nice shoulder at this point. The road makes a long slow curve toward I-35, passing through the “Town Center,” which is an ambitious name for a shopping mall that features a Target for an anchor store on one side of the road, and a large supermarket as the anchor on the other.

We crossed the Interstate, and headed for the hospital, dead ahead. Maggie took over the ride leader duties and we wheeled up to an unmarked side door of the main hospital building.

“Bring your bikes inside,” she said.

Our own private rest stop.

Our own private rest stop.

We carried them up a small hill to the door, which she unlocked, and we stashed the bikes at the base of a stairwell. Maggie unlocked another door, and we found ourselves in a dimly-lit hallway past the hospital’s executive offices.

“Here’s our rest stop,” Maggie said, as she motioned us toward a small kitchenette. “There’s ice in the fridge, water in the water cooler, and bathroom through there.”

After pedaling 23 miles on a very humid Texas summer day, the air conditioned coolness of the kitchenette was welcome. We stood around soaking it in while Maggie retrieved whatever it was that she needed from her office. I filled both water bottles with ice, and topped them up. It was also a treat to use the spotlessly clean bathroom facilities. Much better than the loo in most convenience stores.

In a few minutes, it was time to go, but none of us really wanted to leave, except perhaps for Maggie. Once we hit the road again, we opted not to retrace our route out here. Instead, we hopped on another country road that runs behind the hospital and leads north. In no time, we were passing through semi-rural communities of manufactured houses, on a road that was partially shaded. I had been here several years ago — once — and none of the others had ever ridden it. We all agreed that it was nice to see places we hadn’t seen before.

A gate to a small ranch on our return leg.

A gate to a small ranch on our return leg.

Back at Starbucks after the ride, we congratulated Maggie on the nice variation of the route. We also got her to agree to go to the hospital again some time — just so we could make use of our own secret — and private — rest stop.