Texas Hill Country
All the people who told us that Texas is long, straight, and boring probably either think the world is flat, or they've never seen Hill Country.
If waltzing a tall, steep-forked KTM Adventure enduro through huge canyon sweepers and over some of the best up and down action this side of the Pecos is long, straight, and boring, then I'll happily agree with them.
Christian is on an MZ Baghira and we're riding east from western Texas on I-10. We struggle against the wind and dust of the Chihuahuan desert for miles and miles like Coronado losing faith in finding Eldorado. I'm leaning hard just to keep the bike straight through the constant gusting. On either side of us, as far we can see, vast rows of enormous propellers catch the wind and harness its power for an energy plant far away. In this context, Don Quixote's paranoia is beginning to make more sense.
But the best diamonds are always found in the rough. Turning south on Highway 277 and then southwest on Highway 55, we're off the superslab, the desert is behind us, and we're riding through sparsely populated plots of land where iron gates signify ranch entrances. I'm wondering what people do to pass the time around here, and Christian suggests that honeymoon activities might be popular. That would explain the large families, I guess. At a gas refill, Christian verifies our directions with a local cowboy.
"If we keep riding past these farming lands, will we get into the Hill Country soon?" he asks.
"Ranching," comes the reply.
"Ranching," repeats the cowboy. "They're ranchers, not farmers."
In Texas, it's darn near blasphemy to confuse this particular vocabulary. There is a pride in this way of life that's older than the Republic of Texas itself. I remember my father, who spent his formative years in this part of Texas, telling me my great uncle used to feel sorry for people who didn't get to live 'life on the range.' And he told me my great aunt used to come outside each morning to shoot rattlesnakes off the porch - for fun. When I relate this story to Christian, his eyes widen, he looks frantically around the ground at his feet, and hops on his MZ faster than Speedy Gonzales chasing cheese.
We turn off Highway 55 onto State Road 337 in Camp Wood. This is the western beginning of 'The Threes,' the nickname for a system of three roads through Hill Country beginning with the number three - SRs 335, 337, and 39. Texas Rider magazine rates 'The Threes' as the best motorcycle roads in this part of Texas. Local heroes from San Antonio, Austin, and points between gather in hordes every Saturday and Sunday morning for their weekly pilgrimage to this riding Mecca. But we still haven't seen any mountains or hills on the flat landscape, so what gives?
As SR 337 winds down into a canyon, we start to understand. The Hill Country is a sort of inverted mountain range. Tiny streams through the canyon floors sliced enormous gaps in the desert over millions of years to erode the rocky ground into enormous systems of hills and canyons - Hill Country. Flood gauges beside one-lane bridges indicate how quickly these little streams can swell into raging waters with no warning.
Now we're riding hard. In front of me on the MZ, Christian is pushing the Baghira through uphill turns and we're climbing the other side of the canyon. The KTM Adventure is a superb bike on these roads, and the thin, tall bike with its steep-angled forks responds gracefully with just the smallest pressure into the handlebar. Like horses free on the range, the bikes seem to be having fun now.
Guardrails pin the roads against the hillsides. Steep drop offs extend well below us on one side, and rocky earth rises steeply against the shoulder on the other. When the geography affords a straight line, the hills assure that it's not flat. I love this up and down action. In front of me, Christian ascends a short, steep rise and when he reaches the apex, he drops so quickly that I worry there's a cliff on the other side. Accelerating over the top, my stomach jumps a foot or two as the Adventure's wheels hug down to the road on the almost immediate descent. We're glad for the softer shocks to handle these ups and downs. For sportbikes, the stiff suspensions couldn't handle the dips as well, which could be dangerous for speed demons.