With beautiful weather looming on the horizon, I was racking my brains trying to figure out what to do with myself this weekend. Out of nowhere Dad says, "why don't you ride out to Hodge's Gardens?" This was met with my witty, "huh?" He then proceeds to tell me about a trip not so long ago where he and Mom spent the day wandering aimlessly around Eastern Texas only to wind up in Louisiana on the other side of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, a huge lake on the border of Texas and Louisiana. So I think to myself, "We have a long trip planned in the not to distant future, this would be a perfect opportunity to take an entire day and see how many miles we could do comfortably (or at least being able to walk afterwards)." The gears began churning and the plans had to be made!
A quick perusal of my map quickly convinced me that it was not even remotely detailed enough to show any roads worth taking the time to ride. Off I go to Barnes & Noble to purchase a DeLorme Texas Atlas and the DeLorme AAA Trip planner. The Atlas ROCKS! The trip planner software is okay but nothing really to get excited about. Now if the maps in the trip planner software were as detailed as the Atlas... drool drool... In the end, it was a combination of the Atlas and the MAPQuest.com website that made the trip happen without a glitch. I used MAPQuest to get maps of the general areas because they are quite detailed, and where they weren't detailed enough I just used to Atlas to make up the difference. I then printed the maps. I used a highlighter to mark our route. This made the map large enough that I could easily look down for just a moment, see exactly what each road was, and were we needed to be going (on straights only obviously hehe).
I flushed out a draft route and sent out a general invitation to the local listers that I know. I then spent Friday getting my wife's (Beth) 99 Triumph Legend 900 and my 98 VFR 800 ready for the trip. Both were due for their scheduled oil changes. I have been running the Honda full synthetic in my bike with great results and decided to do likewise for hers as well. Bikes cleaned, oil changed, tires full, gassed up and ready to roll, I head to bed late Friday night.
Morning rolls around too early as usual. As expected with the short notice and the fact that this was Easter weekend, most of the folks invited had to pass on this opportunity, Except one. Brandon Whittle of College Station decided that even after a long night of partying, he would get up and ride an hour to be here by 9:00am for the start of the ride. He even makes it about twenty-five minutes early! Brandon rides a black 92 VFR 750. We spend a few minutes chatting and barely getting to know each other. Then we move out to the bikes and do the obligatory check out of the other guy's ride hehe. Brandon has some very nice Held gloves, now I want some too! Since I have a very limited memory capacity, I have already forgotten what brand jacket he tells me he is wearing but it was pretty nice too. Underneath that he has on a Dianese armor vest which is pretty cool. But, we are in a hurry so we cut the chatting short, fire up the bikes and head out.
I would have been hard pressed to custom order better weather. There are scant traces of clouds in the sky. The temperature is in the mid sixties and the wind is only blowing around five to ten miles per hour. I am a bit on the cold blooded side so I figure I will put the liner in my Tourmaster Cortech jacket. About a half a mile later we stop so Brandon can gas up and I have to remove the liner. It is perfect without it. Since this is just a day trip, my wife and I decided to take our Tourmaster magnetic tank bags. We love these things! They hold tons of stuff, never even hint at sliding around, and don't screw up credit cards, cell phones or PDA's. With Brandon's bike full and ready to go, we head out of Huntsville going Northeast on FM 980. We put Brandon in the middle because my wife and I have Collett Communicators and we like to have the front and the rear know what is happening.
As it happens, my Dad has decided that he cannot bear to see us go riding on such a beautiful day and not at least ride part of the way with us. He rides a monstrous 2000 Kawasaki Nomad 1500FI, a pretty bike, but a bit like driving an M1 Abrams tank. He lives just off FM 980 so we called ahead before leaving so he could wait for us at the end of his road. About a mile before we reach his road, I start trying to talk to him on my communicator, he has one too. He hears us and I tell him we are coming up on him fast. We go whizzing by and he pulls in behind us bringing up the rear. The the four of us head out 980 through the country side.
FM 980 is a great road except that there are several prison units along it's length. Huntsville is the hub of the Texas Prison system. All of the beauracracy is here, the death sentences are executed here, and there are lots of units dotting the surrounding countryside. The reason this is not so great for 980 is that prison guards are notoriously bad and fast drivers. Apparently they can't get to work on time and are always hauling down the road trying to make up for lost time. This is complicated by the fact that 980 has some really fun curves if you are on a bike that can handle them, but if you are in a car and not focused on what you are doing, you tend to get in accidents. As we sweep through a gentle curve I glance down at the opposite lane and see a large stain in the road. About a month or so ago, a young local guy was killed right there in a head on collision between his bike and a truck. Apparently he blew the turn and went over the yellow line, end of story. Every time I drive by there and see that stain, I remember the front page picture of what was left of his bike and the huge area covered by the debris from the bike disintegrating. It really brings into focus how serious and dangerous it can be riding motorcycles if you take it lightly.
I don't know if Brandon has ever been down 980 before, but if not, I am sure he is pleasantly surprised by the aroma emanating from the Prison feeder slab hog farm. It really drives home the fact that we are cruising in the countryside hehe. We follow 980 for another twenty miles or so and it dumps us out onto US Route 190 heading West on the shores of Lake Livingston. As we head across the bridge to the other side of the lake I glance out over the water. The breeze is rippling the surface and causing the early morning sun to sparkle brilliantly off the water, quite hypnotic. The bridge is pretty long and exposed to a nasty crosswind most of the time. But it is nothing that we cannot handle with ease. Soon after crossing the bridge we turn North on FM 3152 just past Onalaska and head into the woods again. It is nice to get away from the lake with all of its weekend traffic.
FM 3152 turns out to be a nice surprise. None of us have ever been on this road before and don't know what to expect. As we go deeper into the woods, there is little to no traffic and we quickly hit brand spanking new black top asphalt! Needless to say, I am straining to keep my bike under 80mph so I won't leave everyone else behind. Brandon and Beth are hanging with me but Dad is a putter and a sightseer. There is nothing out here but trees on both sides of the road and some really fun sweepers! But alas, this road does not go on forever and we come out onto FM 350 South.
A few miles down the road we turn East onto FM 942. At this point Dad decides that he needs to continue down FM 350 to US 190 and head back to Huntsville so Mom does not kill him for being gone too long. We wave goodbye and head out into the woods again. 942 is another great road. It is not black top, but it is a coarse gray rock, even coating and no loose spots. Most of the time I stay at 75-80mph on this road. The sun is getting higher and it is getting into the mid seventies now. The trees hang over the road creating tunnels for us to blast through. The sun shines through the branches like shafts hitting the road in front of us. Rather than the smell of hogs, we now endure the sweet aroma of wild flowers lining the road with the subdued odors of the woods, the rotting timber on the ground, the damp soil and the pines. I'm having fun.
FM 942 bends to the North and we come upon a town so small you'll miss it if you blink. There we head East on FM 1745, more of the same. 1745 eventually drops you into another dot of a town, Chester. After about an hour and a half, I decide it is time to stretch, and pull into the local Exxon. We dismount and immediately start chatting about the road and how fun it was. Brandon admits that the previous night's activities seem to have him a little out of his rhythm hehe. Nothing to worry about though. The lady working behind the counter is amazed that my wife is riding her own bike. We get this everywhere we go. I might as well be invisible when I ride with her because no one notices me hehe. We grab a few munchies and water, saddle up and head out. Due to my inability to read, we head the wrong way for about a mile before I realize what's happening. We turn around, catch 1745 East again and continue riding.
The stretch of FM 1745 between Chester and Colmesneil is great. The road surface is nice, one lane each way like all the other roads, and full of back to back left/right turns that have you flipping from side to side. There are lots of turns cresting hills and pulling up hills. The road is so nice though that unless you are going all out, you really never need to drop out of fifth gear because you can keep your speed around 75-80mph for most of the time. Time really has no meaning when you are zipping along so smoothly. It is great practice for being smooth and steady. My 98 VFR 800 tracks along like a slot car, never wavering or wiggling. What a confidence inspiring bike!
When we reach Colmesneil, once again there is some confusion about the road signs and we pull over to confer. Once we figure out what we are doing we head out into the woods again on FM 256. The road surface is not bad, but there are lots of side roads and the shoulder is loose rocks. So, at every side road, there is typically some loose rocks in the main road. As we start to come up to speed, we fall in behind a truck pulling a boat and loaded with a riding lawnmower in the bed. It is then that I notice that this road just does not seem to have any passing zones! Eventually, I find a short zone and blow around the truck. Then I sit in front of him and wait for the next zone so that Brandon can pass. He does, then we wait. Finally, another zone appears and I call back the all clear to Beth and she comes hauling around. Now that she has a bike with some ummph, she likes passing!
It is not long before FM 256 drops us out onto US 190 just West of Jasper. We head West on 190 for a short way and come to the Martin Dies Jr. State park and here is where Brandon takes his leave. He has a book to read for one of his classes and decides to sit in the park and read. We pull over and say goodbye, then head our separate ways. Beth and I continue on to Jasper. It is approaching noon and we are getting the munchies for some serious food rather than just some snacks. We decide to do a bit of exploring in Jasper to find something worth eating.
Just North of 190 on US 96, we find PC's PITT bar-b-que. As soon as we pull into the parking lot next to the outdoor smoker pit, I go from slightly hungry to starved. The smell of the pit is incredible. We order our sandwiches and eat outside on the picnic tables so we can soak up more of the good weather. About that time, another rider pulls in on a late model Yamaha FZ. I am not sure of the exact year or model, but this poor bike is ragged. It has a mere 17500 miles on the odometer and looks like it has never been cleaned or maintained in it's miserable life. That breaks my heart to see a bike treated like that, but oh well... We finish stuffing ourselves and suit up. All that food and sun, a few minutes of sitting and relaxing, and we are both feeling quite sleepy.
We head back down 96 to 190 and continue East. Seeing a gas station we decide to pull in and fill up. I am happy to report that I am consistently hitting 42-44mpg and that Beth is getting 45-48mpg. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a smallish boy, maybe six years old, watching us intently. This is quite common when we ride. I wave at him and his eyes nearly pop out of his head and he gets noticeably excited. He begins waving back and poking his sister to show her the weird aliens with bulging silver heads on cool machines! I love getting kids excited about bikes.
As we leave Jasper, we catch Texas HWY 63 East to Burkeville. This is a relatively boring road from the purely riding perspective, but it is smooth and the scenery is nice. It makes for a nice change of pace and gives me time to take in the surrounding countryside without having to focus so intently on my riding. It is a single lane each way for most of the time. Passing really isn't a problem because we only encounter one truck along our way. When we hit Burkeville we head North on FM 692 towards the Toledo Bend Reservoir Dam. It is now approaching 1:30pm and is nearing eighty degrees. As long as we are moving, it is great. Once we stop, it gets hot with the gear on.
FM 692 is another fun road. The surface condition is great, the scenery is great and there is no shortage of long graceful sweepers. Shortly, we arrive at the dam. For the most part, it is a huge earthen dam. At a few sections there are concrete portions with flood gates. This is where I finally remembered that I had my camera and ought to take at least a few pictures from the trip. So I snapped a shot of the bikes looking out over the South end of the reservoir.
Once you cross the border into Louisiana, 692 becomes La. HWY 191 and runs North along the lake. The first fifteen miles of this road are similar to FM 3152 back by Lake Livingston in Texas. It is beautiful smooth new black topped asphalt twisting through the woods. This road is designated as a Scenic Route by Louisiana. And it is scenic. But... After that first fifteen miles or so, there is grass growing in the cracks in the pavement! However, the road is still pretty smooth and a blast to ride. Eventually, La. HWY 476 and 191 become the same road for a few miles. Then we peel of on 476 at Negreet and head North to La. HWY 6. HWY 6 is more of the main road and has more traffic and development along it length, not much fun. We take HWY 6 to the sprawling metropolis of Many, La. Dad neglected to give me very specific directions to Hodges Gardens, so we stopped and asked. I have long since crushed that part of my male pride into oblivion. I find it quicker to just ask and move on.
It seems that we have come a wee bit to far North. We are informed that if we take US Route 171 South out of Many for a few miles we will start seeing signs for the Gardens. We do and we do. If you look at a map of Western Louisiana, you will notice that we went up one of the angled sides of a triangle and down the other when we could have cut across the flat side on the bottom had we known where we were going. Oh well, all part of the adventure. As we are heading South on 171, we come across a sight I have never beheld. I now know where fire trucks go when they die. This place is some truck salvage business on 171 just South of Florien, La. These are just a few of the trucks they have. They even have the big cool looking airport fire trucks hehe. I want to stop and walk around but time is becoming an issue.
Finally we begin getting close. All along the shoulders of the highway are thistles blooming in a deep maroon color. They are so thick they look like carpet. I think the highway department may have seeded, much like they do all over Texas with various wildflowers. It makes for beautiful springtimes. We finally see the entrance and pull into the park. It is now pushing 3:15pm.
I have to say, the entrance to the park is a small narrow paved road, that follows the natural terrain, as in no grading of the existing terrain at all. This road is FUN! It winds up and down back and forth through landscape that is manicured forest. The undergrowth is cleared away and has been replaced by a lush carpeting of beautiful shimmering green ferns. Beth and I both think to ourselves and then to each other, "Man! this would make a kick butt driveway!" After several miles we crest a hill and pop into a clearing with a small shack where we pay admission to enter the park. For a brief moment we debate whether we want to spend the unexpected $6.50 per person. I snap a shot from the scenic overlook and we decide, "what the heck, we came this far, why not?" It was worth it!
If you are a fan of beautiful landscaping, waterfalls, blooming flowers and lakes, this place has it. Rather than go on and on about it, I will just let you check out the pictures for yourself.
We spent about an hour or so wandering around before deciding it was high time we start the trek home. About 4:15pm we mount up and head out. We head back North on Route 171 and pick up La. HWY 474 West to La. HWY 191. It amazes me that they can call 474 a highway! It would be a GREAT road if the pavement was worth a crap. As it is, this road would be a great testing ground for suspensions. Some of the potholes take up the entire lane and are large enough to trash a car, I shudder at the thought of what one might do to one of our bikes, so I slow it down and take it easy. Otherwise, this road cuts through some heavy forest and is awesome. It drops us out onto 191 about a hundred yards South of where we had turned off on La. HWY 476 earlier. The triangle is complete. We head North on 191 to pick up La. HWY 6 for the run back to the border.
HWY 191 starts out to be a nice ride. It has lots of smooth sweepers and a wide shoulder. We come around a corner to see that the pavement is ending and we are left with a road made of graded packed dirt coated in oil! I cut the pace WAY back and we thread through the oil following in the tracks of vehicles that have gone before. Fortunately the oil is mostly dried. I hesitate to think how long this crap will take to get off the bottom of our bikes... uggh. Shortly we hit HWY 6 and head West to Texas. HWY 6 is boring and straight. The bridge across the reservoir is fun though, the wind is cranking and the water is choppy. Our once clear skies are looking as if they might get nasty but the cloud cover is still high so rain is not imminent. When we cross back into Texas, La. HWY 6 becomes Texas HWY 21 and the condition of the road improves dramatically. One only need to drive elsewhere to make you appreciate the roads in Texas, most are in very good condition.
A few miles into Texas we hang South on FM 3121 to pick up FM 83 into Hemphill. Both roads are in good condition with a nice shoulder. We encounter a few trucks pulling boats and get around them with little trouble. Upon reaching Hemphill we decide to stop and fill up with gas. It is around 5:30pm and we are starting to get hungry again. As we pull into the station, we notice that the car wash bay next to the station is occupied with a very large BBQ smoker pit trailer that is belching like an angry dragon. I must say that the smell of smoking BBQ is one of my favorites! We fill up and decide to press on rather than eating now. We head out of town on what we think to be FM 83 West.
About ten minutes down the road we realize that something does not seem right about where we are and what signs we are seeing. We pull into the parking lot of a small Missionary Baptist church to once again ask for directions. I open the door to the church and am met by some seriously loud Gospel jams. Kind of made me wish we had some time to hang out and listen but I don't want to make the rest of the ride in the dark. A kind gentleman informs us that we are actually on Tx HWY 87 South and that we should have turned right instead of left back in Hemphill, an easy mistake as 83 goes North in town before turning South out of town, doh! We turn back and head for Hemphill but I notice a sign just a mile or so up the road that points down another road, FM 2426 to Pineland, a town along FM 83, so we decide to take it. This road is straight but nice. Minutes later we are in Pineland and back on FM 83 heading towards Tx. HWY 147 which we will take South. The rest of the ride on 83 is uneventful and we average 75mph.
HWY 147 is smooth, straight, and wide and we take advantage of it by cruising around 80mph to make up some time. A few miles down the road we pull into a very tiny town called, Zavala. We stop to stretch again as our butts are starting to ache in a bad way. At this point it is near 6:00pm and we are starting to feel the effects of a day on the bikes. Needless to say, we got some strange looks from the locals when they spotted us doing stretches in the parking lot of a gas station. Butts somewhat relaxed and loosened up, we remount our trusty steeds and head North on US Route 69 to look for our cut off onto FM 1818
Just a few miles up the road we find our turn off and head back out into the boonies. FM 1818 is part of the Texas Forest Trail. I am beginning to wonder why this is the case as I have seen very little forest since we left US 69. I start day dreaming for a few seconds about some of the roads we had been on earlier in the day and when I snap back I am deep in the woods. Once again I am overwhelmed by the smells. Fresh Honey Suckle vines hang from the trees lining the road and give off a very strong sweet aroma. I think to myself how great it is to get out and ride the bike to experience the outdoors in a way that you simply cannot do in a car, except maybe for a convertible, maybe... And then I think how much it must suck to be stuck in some stuffy office where the only smell beyond the stale cubicles and polyester are the ones of burnt popcorn and overused cologne. Sad.
We make short work of FM 1818 as the day is wearing on and we are getting anxious to get home. The road is narrow but in very good condition. The cloud cover has once again thinned out and hangs very high in the sky looking like absent minded brush strokes from the Creator. The sun is getting lower on the horizon and the shadows are stretching across the landscape. With the buzz of the bikes and the whooshing of the air, it is a very serene and peaceful experience.
We eventually come into the town of Diboll and decide to hunt for grub. It is now around 6:45pm and I am starting to think we are going to be getting back later than I had hoped. We pull into the local Sonic Drive-In and scarf down some great burgers. Once again, the locals are checking out us and our bikes. I think I may have just offended one of them because I get a strange look when I ask the name of the town. Stuffed and tired, we mount up again and head South on US Route 59, a wide boring highway. Fortunately, I have another side road in mind and we quickly find our turn off for FM 350 West.
FM 350 is not much to speak of really. The condition of the road is mediocre and the scenery not really much better because of extensive timber harvesting. The forests that we do encounter are mostly replanted ones where all of the trees are the same height and evenly spaced. Needless to say, that is a bit odd looking. Unfortunately, Sonics are not known for having restrooms so I did not get the chance to relieve myself, something I am starting to regret as the road is getting a tad bit bumpy. We cut South on FM 2262 and head for Groveton. This road is worse than 350. With every slap of the seat on my rear I am wondering how long my bladder can hold out! I'm thinking I can make it to the Dairy Queen in Groveton...
The Dairy Queen in Groveton is CLOSED down! But now we are only about an hour from home and the remaining roads are smooth so I'm thinking I can hold out. We head right through town and pick up Tx. HWY 94 South going towards Trinity. Just out of town we crest a hill and I catch a magnificent view of the sun setting behind some trees and causing the clouds to blaze with a fiery glow. I turn around and head back to the hilltop and struggle to get my camera out before the sun drops below the treetops completely. I don't make it, doh! We ride on. 94 is a fairly new road and is still in great shape, wide lanes, a wide paved shoulder and smooth as glass. We quickly reach Trinity and pass through town picking up FM 230 West out of town into the woods.
FM 230 is a little jewel of a road. There is usually little traffic and the road surface is above average. But best of all, every few miles there are the yellow warning signs with the squiggly arrow indicating twisty roads ahead and recommending slow speeds. I just grin and twist! Visibility is good but the bugs are really starting to come out in force now that the sun has gone down below the horizon. Once it has been dark for a while, the bugs will let up, but in the mean time... SPLAT!
After burning up about twelve miles of FM 230 we turn off onto FM 3478 and head South. This is another great road that cuts through some really nice scenery. The Texas Prison System owns much of the land on both sides of the road. Since there are units in the area, they keep the underbrush cut back from the road for about twenty-five yards on either side but leave the trees. This makes it feel like I am blitzing along through a park and makes it easier to scan for deer, they like coming out this time of evening. They clear the ground like this to make it hard for escaped prisoners to cross the road and get back under cover of the woods without being spotted by guards posted along the road at intervals when an escape occurs. A few minutes later we come up on FM 980, and we have come full circle. We head back into town on 980 and stop to fill up near the edge of town before heading the last few miles to the house. We unexpectedly encounter my folks at the station and give them a ride report off the top of the head. Dad is wishing he could have gone all the way with us.
We get home and pull in the driveway and park the bikes. 9:15pm. We knocked off 432 miles in almost exactly twelve hours including all of our stops. This is encouraging as this was a test ride for our upcoming trip to Asheville, North Carolina in late August. We will be riding with a larger group and hope to keep a 400 mile/day pace. We cover the bikes and head inside, drop everything and relax. The more I sit, the stiffer I get, and the beer is not helping hehe. All in all, it was a great day and I plan on doing it again as soon as I can. And I can still walk. The stock seat leaves a bit to be desired but is not too bad. I tried the Corbin but the distance from the seat to the pegs was to short compared to the stock seat so I returned it. Perhaps a Sargent...? Of course, I still have to get my TwoBros pipe, my luggage... and...