Fire and Rain in Texas!
Eight hours into our trip we were there, huddled under the picnic table's awning, watching flames gobble up the raindrops as they fell to Earth. Our fire cast its glow upon our two campsites which, by this time, had turned from a nice place to rest for the weekend into a quagmire whose mud pit was ready to suck the shoes off any unsuspecting camper. Fortunately for us, we were all barefoot.
The third edition of Switching Gears' Tour to the Lake had begun earlier in the day. Mother Nature had decided to greet us with what was to be a wet weekend, but we were going to do our best to make the most out of it. Hell, we might even have a good time. I was sure of that, but the others, well, they weren't looking too convinced.
Altogether there were eight of us. Eight hardy campers who were tough enough — or perhaps crazy enough — to ride from Deep Ellum (Dallas), Texas, to Cedar Hill State Park. That's about 35 miles, which normally is enjoyable; on this day, however, it wasn't looking so good.
As we sat around our communal table at Buzzbrews Kitchen, enjoying our cups of hot coffee and crepes filed with avocado, cheese, and hollandaise sauce, there was a looming dread. We were about to get wet. Very wet. And stay that way for the next 48 hours.
My friend Colin kept saying something about how the rain would bring solidarity; how it would have us all together in one place rather than spread out across the camp. It would make the trip more memorable and more fun. Perhaps. That was yet to be seen.
After a group picture, we finally saddled our loaded bikes and set off down Main Street through the concrete jungle of downtown Dallas. Riding in the rain in a group makes you realize how amazing fenders are — not for yourself, for you are already completely soaked, but for the others around you. My fenderless bike's 42mm cross tires were producing quite the rooster tail, and it took me a while to figure out why no one wanted to ride behind me.
While all eight of us were riding to a campsite 35 miles from our starting point, not all of us were on efficient road, cross, or even mountain bikes. Sharon happened to be on her three-speed, coaster-braked bike, which was easily the weight of any two of the other bicycles combined. Honestly, she became my hero on that ride. She somehow managed to keep up with us all, and had a smile on her face the whole way.
And that’s what I love about this particular trip (and sub-24-hour overnight bike trips in general) — the fact that anyone can come along. That anybody can join us and see for themselves how amazing it is not only to camp but to go out under their own steam with all their belongings for a weekend.
It’s like backpacking, but for a more urban-centered crowd and setting.
Riding out from Dallas along old Highway 180, we got knocked around by the crosswind and its rain. We then dropped down the Big Hill to Loop 12, where we turned, our noses now directly into the wind.
But even that was okay, because it was there, on Mountain Creek Parkway, that we truly felt as if we were out of the city. No more businesses, more green. With a road that is rolling and curving that took us almost all the way to the gates of the park and our camp spot for the night.
As we came through the gates of the state park, the rangers looked at us with expressions that seemed to be a mix of respect and astonishment. I can only imagine what they were thinking. "These city kids must be crazy! ... but they sure do look like they're having a good time."
Finally, we took the park road toward camp: Up, down, around, then up and down again. Surfing the blacktop, I gained more and more speed as I thought of finally being able to take those horribly wet shoes off my pruning feet. I was cold, I was hungry, and I was ready for a beer. That's when I started screaming about fire. I was wet and had been so since we left breakfast. I knew this was pretty much how I’d be all weekend — so I want to see the fire and feel its warmth.
Really, there is something about fire. Neanderthals no doubt knew this, early settlers knew this, I know this. But when the rain is coming down in sheets, and all around you is wood that is soaking wet, how are you supposed to make it happen? Fortunately, chemistry had that answer. Bill Christie — who will only be called by his full name — had in his possession these little alcohol tablets. Combine them with a starter log bought at the Marina, shake well, add wood, and bam! "I BRING YOU FIRE!!!" (Thank you, Bill Christie!)
Did I mention the mud? Yes, for those who aren't aware — or who don't regularly mountain bike at Cedar Hill — Joe Pool Lake has some of the stickiest mud around. We found a campsite that had a good amount of grass, saving our tents gear from the muck all about us. However, that was but an island in the sea of ooze. It didn't take long before we gave up altogether on remaining clean, as we rolled up our pants legs and took off our shoes.
When night fell, our fire grew. I stood there, entranced by the flames. Bill Christie looked at me and said something to the effect of, "Look at how the fire is burning even though it's raining." That, I noted, would be the point of this post. It's the fact that, yes, it was raining, and yes, we were a LITTLE cold ... but, damn it, yes, we were having a good time!
The next morning I awoke to a world that didn't have water falling from the sky. Colin and I were smug; snug as two bugs in two rugs, for we had both brought hammocks that we'd hung beneath the awning above the picnic table, beside our fire. The others? Well, they were over there, in their tents. Some of which had leaked.
Waking up, all I wanted was a warm shower and hot coffee. Fontenot was the man with the plan for the coffee, and he had his Jetboil going. After only a few minutes he had French pressed us all a hot, steaming cup.
After that, I was feeling a little more human, so I hopped on my bike for a ride around the park, making my way to a little bluff above the lake. It was misting — just a very light rain — and I saw a family paddling in the water, each in their own kayak.
Eventually, I made my way back, where the others were already breaking camp. Since I’m a hammock camper it was easy as pie to gear up; before I knew it, I was ready to hit the road. Unfortunately, rolling up and packing tents took more time, but eventually we were all ready and rolling out of the park’s front gates. Back to the city!
Sure, it rains every year for the Tour to the Lake; but, like Colin said, it brings us all together. It makes us huddle together, sharing our common discomfort, but also sharing in the fun. And it was fun. In fact, one of the best times I've ever had camping (and I do like to go camping). We left Dallas with only eight people dumb enough to brave the weather, and came back eight people who were smart enough to go out for a weekend that we'll probably remember for the rest of our lives.
It was raining and the fire was burning, bright, just like our spirit of fun overshadowed a potential fiasco. So when the Tour to the Lake comes around next year, you know what I hope for? More rain.
Tip for this adventure: Dallas to Cedar Hill is a great route for experienced riders and newbies alike; it can be shortened from 35 to 23 miles by utilizing the DART's Red Line. When choosing a campsite, remember that the mountain bike trail is on the south side of the park, but on the north(east) side is a trail that will take you to the Joe Poole Lake Dam, which has a marina with a full bar!
Favorite local bike shop: If you are in the Deep Ellum/Dallas area, check out Switching Gears. It is run by a guy who just might be more obsessed with the sub-24-hour overnight than I am!