Despite its legends, colorful history and, most importantly, its scenic byways, this area remains largely unknown to riders outside of the Lone Star State. But the green hills of East Texas have piqued my touring interest for years. And now, with a stretch of four days carved out, my chance to venture into this distinctly different region of Texas has finally arrived.
Lao Tzu, the Chinese Taoist philosopher, once said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Our journey begins with me pressing the starter button on the 2008 Victory Vision Touring behemoth, igniting the thunderous staccato beat of its 106-cubic-inch V-twin motor. My friend Jeff Armitage, astride his ever-reliable 1990 Honda Transalp, is rarin' to take on East Texas too. With gas tanks full, our bikes rumble east from Dallas on a clear, crisp spring morning. The stop-and-go, strip-mall sprawl of the city suburbs is holding us back though, like a heavy grip on the reins of horses ready to romp. Near Emory, however, the metropolis, with all its lights and city slickers, eventually fades away in our rear view mirrors.
Saturday (220 miles): Pass the Salt & Oil, Please!
Salt has been mined in Grand Saline since before the Civil War and, unlike the country's oil reserves, there's reportedly enough salt here to last America for several thousand more years. The Salt Palace Visitors Center celebrates the history of Morton Salt and its home in Grand Saline. As palaces go this one is rather small in scale, but I doubt you'll find any other constructed with blocks of salt.
The museum's curator has been running the place for over 20 years and tells us that Grand Saline also was the birthplace of pioneering aviator Wiley Hardeman Post. Despite the loss of an eye in an oilfield accident, young Wiley worked as a barnstormer, commercial pilot and a flight instructor. He set many flight records, won the national air races in 1930, and died much too soon - in the 1935 plane crash which also killed his close friend, the legendary humorist Will Rogers.
Deeper into East Texas the two-lane tarmac snakes through the rolling terrain of pine and hardwood forests. Along the road the trees form green canyons and intermittently their walls of foliage are broken by expansive vistas of pastures dotted with grazing cattle and horses. Thousands of bluebonnets and many other wildflowers are in full bloom beside the road. We lean into sweeping curves and rapidly traverse a seemingly endless progression of elevation changes. Our motorcycling reverie is broken only when we slow for the occasional country town; and one of those towns, Kilgore, merits a stop to look around.
After drilling two dry holes in 1929, Columbus "Dad" Joiner, a 70-year-old Texas oil wildcatter, still dreamed of bringing in a big "gusher" of a well. His third hole rewarded his dogged perseverance when the Daisy Bradford No. 3 spewed oil skyward on October 3, 1930. Dad Joiner had unwittingly tapped into the massive Woodbine Formation, which developed into one of the largest oilfields ever discovered inside America's contiguous borders.
Black gold brought prosperity to East Texas and fueled its economic growth for decades. Although most of the field has been pumped dry since, the East Texas Oil Museum in Kilgore transports visitors back to the 1930s with displays showing how oil transformed the economy, people, towns and culture of East Texas.
Almost coasting into Jacksonville on fumes near sundown, Jeff and I have been in the saddle for 10 hours. We're tired but also euphoric after an exhilarating day of cruising back roads and soaking up some East Texas history.