Thursday, June 28, 2018

Caprocks Trailway: Stompin' The Pedals - Dodgin' The Cows


A quick glance at this photo and you might think this is a pretty iffy day to be riding the Caprock Trailway, but it’s just an illusion created by shooting southwestward while the sun has not yet quite risen there behind my left shoulder. (you can just see the glow of dawn reflected in The Van's side window)

Given the projected high temp for the day and increasing afternoon winds, I made sure I was up and moving early enough to drive the 15 miles between campsite and Monk’s Crossing trailhead before sunrise.

My plan was to be in the Quad-B’s saddle as soon as there was enough light to see by because I had 17 miles of uphill slog to cover before I could turn around and start back towards The Van – if everything went to plan that is.

As a refresher, Caprock Canyons Trailway is a 64 mile stretch of the former Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway that has been turned into a trail that you can hike, bike, that's me, or ride (horses).

From the east end at Estillane to the west end at South Plains the Trailway climbs about 1360 feet. Almost half of this elevation gain, 623 feet, comes in the final 17 miles from Monk’s Crossing to South Plains as the railroad followed Quitaque Creek up through the escarpment separating the Rolling Plains to the east and the High Plains to the west.

This view gives an idea of how abrupt the demarcation is between the High Plains on the left and the Rolling Plains to the east. The Rolling Plains, as you might expect, roll, with a network of hills and creeks. The High Plains, besides being - well, higher, are flat. That’s all, just flat. And the boundary between the two is the escarpment.

This aerial view shows how Quitaque Creek reaches out beyond the escarpment, pushing far into the High Plains, which explains why the railroad engineers picked this route. Railroads don’t like to go up or downhill and when they have to the physics and economics of steel wheels on steel track dictate that the gentlest rather than the shortest route be taken.  With a gain of about 45 feet per mile this track has a 0.85% grade. In the railroading world anything more than 1 to 1.5% is pretty significant but 0.85% is still noticeable, on a train or a bike.

But this altitude gain also makes this, in my opinion, the most interesting section of the Trailway as it climbs up through the canyon.

The real climb starts about two miles from the Monk’s Crossing trailhead and this creates an optical illusion no matter which direction you are looking at it from.  The trail is straight along here as it hasn’t quite reached Quitaque Creek yet where it needs to start following the twists of the canyon. This means you can see a long ways down it.  

On my return trip I took the photo above about three miles from Monk’s Crossing, which is at the horizon out there. It looks like the long downhill I’ve been on since the headwaters of Quitaque Creek is about to end abruptly at a final, disheartening uphill, but in fact that part of the track out there is actually flat, as proven by the gear I’m able to ride it in.

From Monk’s Crossing the same illusion applies, with that first 2 miles looking like a good downhill run before coming up against that uphill section.  If you aren’t aware of the illusion it can be very disturbing just how difficult it is to pedal that initial “downhill” that’s not. I know. Been there done that!

But today I survived, up or downhill, and by the time I got to the first turn in the track, at a bridge over an un-named creek between Hackberry and Turkey Creeks about three miles from Monk’s Crossing the sun was about to break through the spotty overnight clouds and burn them off.

From here the climb up the canyon starts in earnest

Turkey Creek Bridge
Still Turkey Creek Bridge

I previously described the trailway, and its points of interest, from Monk’s Crossing to the John Ferris Station in this post so won’t repeat myself here.

Who? Me?!

On that previous ride I noted that there were bovine hoof tracks in the trail at several points. This time I not only saw the tracks, but the makers of those tracks too.

The trail is a narrow band bounded on either side by ranchland delineated by your standard barbed wire fence.

Oh Shit! We got caught. Let’s get out of here!

But as happens around our place too, sometimes cows end up on the wrong side of the fence.

Yah, that’s right. I’m on the wrong side of the fence. What a ya gona do about it?

Not all of them have a guilty conscience about it.

Of course leaving gates wide open just might have something to do with wandering cows.

About 4.5 miles from the trailhead I came to Clarity Tunnel. Now that there aren’t any trains running through it (Not since 1989) bats have taken up seasonal residence. Last time I was here was November and the bats had migrated far to the south by then. I thought that in May there might be some in residence, but if there were I couldn’t hear them. (Shining lights in bat habitats is not nice!)

When crossing through you are warned to wear long sleeves, a hat and to walk you bike. You are also told to try to keep the dust to a minimum.

Yah, right!

The 8 to 12 inches of guano covering the tunnel floor is very dry and powdery.  Even the most careful of footsteps raises a medicine-ball sized cloud of dust, and somehow it doesn’t matter which way you are going through the tunnel, the breeze will be at your back, drifting that ever-growing cloud right along with you. Unfortunately the tunnel is far too long to hold your breath the whole way, especially when trying to horse the Quad-B through the deep, powdery crap as well. I had forgotten about this and it wasn’t until I was passing through on the return trip that I remembered to tie the scrap of towel I carry across my nose and mouth before entering.

Beyond the tunnel the views of the canyon start to get impressive

Unfortunately the nice, smooth pea-gravel surface of the trail that I've been riding on since Monk’s crossing ends at the tunnel, leaving you riding on this coarse, cinder-like surface instead.

It might not look too bad in the photo but the pedaling is noticeably more difficult and the ride goes from a nice, smooth roll to a constant, rattling vibration that is hell on the hands, front suspension or not. It was two days before I could feel my little fingers again.

At the 11 mile point I reached the John Ferris Station with its landmark concrete phone-booth. (There is no actual station here anymore, just a pit toilet and a dry water-buck.)

This was as far as I made it in 2016 and the temptation to turn around here again was great, but I really wanted to make it all the way to the trail terminus at South Plains this time, so I bribed myself into covering that last 6 miles with the promise of a South Plains ice-cream, or if not that at least an iced drink of some sort. Oooh, I can already feel that liquid chill of the first sip slidding down my throat!

Onward I bravely soldiered; only to be apruptly stopped again.

It turns out that wayward cows are not limited to the other side of Clarity Tunnel.

This bunch eventually meandered on up the trail and out of sight, but as I was malingering there, straddling the Quad-B in the middle of the trail stealing a little extra rest, this straggler popped out of the brush and was in no particular hurry to catch up to the others.

You can tell you are nearing the top of the escarpment when the wind-turbines, a common feature of the pretty much featureless South Plains, start coming into view.

But if I’da known then what I do now, I would have turned around right there where the tracks leave Quitaque Creek and start the straight, flat, feature-scarce run across that last 2 miles to South Plains.

I finally made it to the trail’s end, but that last 2 miles was definitely more grueling than the other 15, even though it's flat, as in flat. As you can see in this photo looking back down the trail from the South Plains trailhead, this section is not so much a trail as a mowed bit of rough ground.

In fact it’s much rougher than it looks. When the rails were torn up along the rest of the trail, at least the sections I’ve been on, the ties were also removed and stacked off to the side.

From here to Quitaque Creek the rails were removed, but for some reason the ties were left in place to start the slow process of melting back into the ground. That means under that thin covering of vegetation is a bone-rattling corduroy of ties and ballast. In some places I was able to ride off to the side where all I had to deal with was a few inches of thick, brittle vegetation, but because the rails were laid up on a raised berm that wasn't always possible.

I had it in my mind that South Plains was about the same size as Turkey, Quitaque, and Silver City, all surrounding towns and all big enough for basic services. But to add insult to the injury of riding that last 2 miles of "trail", South Plains consists of nothing but a couple old grain terminals alongside the tracks, now serviced by truck, a few houses that have seen better days,

and across the highway from the trailhead, these two mismatched, self-service fuel pumps that make up the only retail business in sight. And believe me, up here in South Plains up on the  High Plains (confused yet?) you can see a long ways!

Needless to say, no ice-cream, no iced drink, not even a tap with tepid water. . .

So I didn't linger in South Plains very long.

By the time I made it back to the bliss of nerve-rattling cinders and a downhill track of Quitaque Canyon I was in no mode for games when bovine #440 appeared in front of me.

The bitch didn’t seem inclined to move, but I didn’t give a shit and called her bluff.

It wasn’t until after I left her in my dust that I had visions of the headlines “Damn fool bike-rider gets stomped by enraged cow”

My advice for others wanting to ride this trail is to not bother with that last bit into South Plains but instead turn around there at the head end of the Quiteque Creek Canyon. You will save yourself 4 rough, round-trip miles of riding with nothing much at the end of it, and a pretty much unchanging view the whole way.

It’s easy to spot this point as the track goes around a sweeping curve, changing direction from northwest to southwest, just before crossing the last bridge on the line. The fact that you can suddenly look around and see forever in all directions is a clear indicator that you are now up on the High Plains and it doesn’t get any better from here on. All the good stuff is back the other way.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tolerance Zone and a Brief Respite

The disadvantage of using these fridge-freezer thermometers as my indoor-outdoor thermometer is that the sensors top out at about 104 degrees. Above that they just register H for HOT.

During my week at Caprock Canyons in early May the temperatures stayed a consistent 10 to 15 degrees above the norm. In fact it turns out for most of Texas this was the hottest May since 1982. Luck of the draw!

This meant most afternoons reached up into the low 100’s and mornings, (with the exception of that first morning in the Walmart parking lot which got down to 63) only got down to the mid 70’s instead of the mid 60’s.

The Wife can’t imagine spending any more time than it takes to get from front door to car in high temperatures like that, but to be honest, I don’t find them to be all that bad. Granted, you won’t find me on the wrong end of a shovel on such afternoons, I save that stuff for the mornings, and when I do have to be out in the harsh Texas sun I’ll be wearing loose-fitting, light-weight, light-colored long pants, long sleeves and a full-brimmed hat (There’s a reason Bedouins don’t run around bare headed, bare-chested, and in shorts people!!) but at 100 degrees, I don’t find being tucked into the shade with a good book all that uncomfortable.

Every individual has their own comfort zone, a range of temperatures they would prefer to stay in, but I think of my tolerance zone as more important. The wider the range of temperatures I can tolerate, and by tolerate I mean continue to function without being miserable, the wider my comfort zone, a subset of my tolerance zone, will be.

Regardless of the season, when home I spend most of my day either outside, or in the unheated, un-air-conditioned barn. As I type this, the day after Memorial Day, I’m standing out in the barn where the thermometer next to me says it’s a balmy 96 degrees. And during the winter you can often find me out here working a puzzle at the workbench with cold stiffened fingers.

(OK, truth is, at 50% humidity that 96 degrees here in the barn is more sticky than balmy, unlike the 12% humidity of Caprock which meant even the highest temperatures were just high and not oppressive. If anyone tries to tell you that there's no difference between humid or dry heat it's because they haven't seriously sampled both.)

I believe that this sort of acclimation (Use it or loose it!) is what keeps my tolerance zone, and with it my comfort zone, wide enough to get through the seasonal year without being miserable. It’s what allows me, with proper dress, to be happy hiking at sub-freezing temperatures as well as temps up into the 90’s. It’s why, if I do fire up the Mr. Heater in The Van of a crisp morning, by the time it gets up to 55 in there I’ve had enough. (If I get too warm inside then it will be really cold when I go outside!) It’s why I’m, if not comfortable, at least content to while away the afternoon in The Van with the windows and doors open reading a book in 100 degree temps.

But none of this is unique. My grandparents lived with the seasons, particularly the heat, out of necessity, and they thrived. I can’t help but think that our addiction to central-heat and air-conditioning is weakening the people of the developed world somewhat.

Looking northeast up South Prong Canyon. Haynes Ridge is out there but hidden from here behind the canyon walls.

The evening after my Haynes Ridge hike the daytime heating, which builds tall columns of air that cool as they rise, interacted with the dry-line, a weather maker we have here that sort of acts like a front but is the boundary between arid air in the west and more humid air in the east creating a mixing action which causes yet another disturbance in the atmosphere. Today all of this happened right over top of Caprock Canyons.

It created quite a show up there in the sky just before sunset

and even pushed some of the altitude-cooled air right down to the canyon floor,

briefly giving us the added bonus of a touch of rain, not much but enough for a taste,

before things settled down again as day turned to twilight.

I can’t begin to describe how delightful those chilled, 85 degree blasts of air driven to the ground by the disturbance were. How refreshing it was to stand with face to them, arms outstretched and let them wash over me.

A precious gift from Mother Earth.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Extremely Steep and Rugged

As much as I like to inflate my own ego, truth is that title refers to the trail and not my craggy and rugged looks. . .

I was greeted this morning by a rare-ish vertical rainbow.

Several days ago, based on wind forecasts, I thought today was going to be about riding the Quad-B on the Quitaque Canyon section of the Caprock Trailway, but last night’s NOAA forecast, the only thing I could get down here in the South Prong Canyon, said otherwise.

Around here, (North Texas) especially this time of year, it’s not so much rain or shine that dictates outdoor activities as it is the wind, and the forecast for today had changed, calling for 20 to 30 MPH winds out of the south and southwest, which would put them right in my teeth on the outbound leg of my planned bike-ride. Having done that once before, I wasn’t too keen for a repeat performance.

For now it looks like Wednesday will be blessed with bike-ride-conducive 6 to 10 MPH winds, but this is Monday, so what do I do with it?

No problem, one of the Upper Canyon Trail trailheads is only a few hundred feet from site 49 where I’m parked, but first I drive up to the other trailhead of this non-loop trail and stash the Quad-B in the weeds so I don’t have to hike that last mile, even if it is a short mile, back to The Van on foot. (though there was a significant amount of hoofin' the Quad–B up the couple of hills in between anyway because by then my legs didn’t have a whole lot of pedaling oomph left in them. . .)

Part of the reason for the lack of leg-oomph at the end of the hike is that there are three sections of trail in the park marked as extremely steep and rugged, and I will manage to hit all three on this one hike. (What is Wrong with me?!)

It might appear that I numbered these three sections of trail randomly rather than progressively, but I actually numbered them in ascending order of how difficult I perceived each section to be. If I were the one marking up this map I would call section 1 'steep and a bit rugged', section 2 'extremely steep and rugged', and section 3 'oh-you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me'.

But the first part of the hike is up the South Prong Canyon which only climbs a couple hundred feet over the next two miles as it tracks along, across, and up the South Prong Little Red River, which is mostly dry-wash but still travels through some interesting, and clearly water-warn, terrain.

OK, which is the actual trail?

There are a few spots where you just might wander off the trail and start hiking the wash instead, but no big deal since the canyon walls will keep you confined to the general area anyway.

It was early enough when I set out that this guy didn’t want to relinquish his last few minutes of morning-feed to some two-legged interloper.

I was happy enough to wait, but apparently he is a shy feeder because he soon slipped off into the scrub.

As I got further up the canyon there were a few places where the wash wasn’t quite so dry because the underlying rock forced the water to the surface, but only temporarily.

About a mile and a half up the canyon there’s a short spur trail that leads up to a bench that sits safely above any flash floods. This is where the South Prong Primitive Camping Area sits.

I suppose as primitive camping areas go it’s OK,


but it’s really nothing more than a large patch of bare ground with a pit-toilet off to one side. At least at Pedernales Falls, South Llano, and Colorado Bend, the primitive sites are somewhat more vegetated and separated a bit from each other.

But no big deal since I’m not planning on staying here anyway. (The vast majority of Primitive Site campers only stay one night. I don’t know, after going to the trouble of packing all my gear in I think I’d want at least two nights to make it worthwhile.)


Now that I’ve checked out the primitive camping area, you know, in case some day I feel an overwhelming urge to revisit my younger backpacking days, it’s back to the canyon floor and up the trail, which has gotten downright bucolic now that there are no wheeled vehicles driving on it in order to get in and maintain the primitive camping area, which is supposed to be a pack-it-out place but you know people. . . at least half of us seem to be genetically incapable of carrying our own trash.

The thing about bucolic places around here is that the Bison think so too, and for such large creatures they sure can be ghost-like in the brush, popping into sight at just the right moment to make one pee his pants.

Just over two miles up the canyon from the trailhead it, and the South Prong Little Red River, slips through the western park boundary onto private property.

At this point the trail makes a hard right, even though there’s nothing but looming canyon walls to both the right and left.

The good news is that Bison will probably not be climbing this trail, which consists of a network of loose and flaky rock all hell-bent on getting down to the canyon floor the fastest way possible without caring what, or who, it takes with it.

Yep, that’s the trail! And to make it even more interesting the ledge is only wide enough for one foot and you have to be less than 5' tall to fit  upright under the overhang

The bad news is that if the Bison didn’t empty you of pee down in the canyon, this trail just might do it for you now.

Basically if you don’t have at least 6 articulated limbs, all equipped with a combination of claws and suction-devices, this trail will soon have you whimpering and making all sorts of impossible promises to any deity you can think of, and if you have any leftover time in between all that you will use it to seriously question the thought process that got you up here in the first place. (At least if you are anything like me. . .)

About two-thirds of the way up I paused to look longingly back down the canyon towards where The Van was sitting, all safe and comfy, and discovered that the climb is so steep I could still see where the canyon-floor trail turned into the cliff-trail.

And way down there below my feet I could see a couple standing at that transitional point. They were looking up, probably at me, and having a discussion. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I suspect I was not coming out looking too good in that conversation in which terms like crazy and damn fool probably played a big part.  Eventually the couple turned around and started back down the canyon the other way. 

Who’s the smart one now?!  (hint – I’m pretty sure it’s not me. . .)

By the way, these were the only people I saw all day.

The Van is there at the bottom-most point of my track, Fern Cave is at the end of the spur in the top-left

After leaving the canyon floor I climbed a little over 500 feet in the next half-mile. This section is more of a scramble than a trail and it was often difficult to discern the tumbled rocks of the trail from the tumbled rocks of – well, crumbling cliff-side.

Apparently I’m not the only one having difficulty picking out one perilous route from another because there were plenty of trail-markers along this section, though I often had to look way up over my head to see the next one, which made me feel like my pack was dragging me backwards off the cliff, which would trigger yet another rest-break as I recovered, during which I would forget where the next trail marker is so would have to look again. . .

But eventually I did make it to the top, to the high-point of the hike. This put me at the west end of the Haynes Ridge Trail which I tried to hike in November of 2016 but the wind blew me off and I stuck to the canyon floor instead, making an out and back hike through North Prong Canyon.

With only about half as much wind today as the first time I thought about hiking the Haynes Ridge Trail I decided to abandon the Upper Canyon Trail, which drops down the other side of the ridge into the North Prong Canyon, just barely showing at the top of the map, and hike Haynes Ridge instead.

But first, since I was so close and it’s not like it’s easy to get here so I shouldn’t waste the opportunity, I temporarily dropped down the side (the steep part labeled ‘1’) to visit Fern Cave,

which isn’t a cave at all, but rather a perpetually wet grotto

tucked up under the edge of the escarpment where ferns have taken advantage of the moisture and protection. (Only morning sun in here)

Track profile. Always best seen after the fact and not before. . .

Of course now that I’ve hiked down to Fern Cave I have to hike back up again, but frankly, despite being marked as extreemly steep and rugged, I didn’t think this part of the trail was too bad. Or did it just seem that way because I had so recently climbed section 3, which I have personally named Haynes' Booger?

Once back up on top again I started hiking east down Haynes Ridge, trying to enjoy myself but haunted by the knowledge that the only way off this thing was one of those ‘extremely steep and rugged’ trail sections.

The last thing I expected as I trudged along was fencing.

Fencing is expensive stuff, so it means livestock, probably goats given the type of fencing, and the only way to get livestock up here is on a far gentler trail than I just climbed. Maybe there’s a better way down from here!! If nothing else it was a good excuse to take another break while I sat down with both paper and downloaded PDF maps of the area to figure out where that holy-grail of a gentler trail might be.

Turns out there is an easier way, or at least used to be an easier way, to get onto Haynes Ridge, via a track coming off the high ground of the South Plains to the west and onto the very western end of Haynes ridge, but that didn’t do me a damn bit of good because that’s private property over there.

These reminded me of old-fashioned street-lamps

So now my choice was either climb back down the cliff I just came up, or go to the east end of Haynes Ridge where it abruptly ends, and climb down the cliff there. Frankly they both scared the crap out of me a little, but I knew what was behind me so chose that which I didn’t know up there ahead of me.

In reality hiking Haynes Ridge was not too bad, as long as I didn’t dwell on the fact that I had to get back down from here at some point. The trail, about as gentle as it was down in the bottom of the canyon only now I'm going downhill so even better, is not overly used but not hard to follow either.

Good thing too

because I’m not sure how much longer these old wooden trail markers are going to hold up to the harsh environment up here.

At the east end of Haynes ridge there’s an official Scenic Overlook consisting of a single rustic log bench tucked under the branches of a scrawny Mesquite where it takes advantage of a scrap of shade but not the views. For the views you have to go stand on the edge.

Now normally scenic overlooks are the site of ohh’s and ahh’s, maybe the occasional ‘oh wow!’ along with the frequent shutter-click of cameras, but as I looked out across the lower canyon area with its distance tracery of the two prongs of the Little Red River, all I could think was

 ‘oh shit! I’ve got to get down there from here!’

Hard to tell in the harsh mid-day lighting, but there’s a 4’ drop from my toes to the next part of the trail here, which was about as bad as this trail ever got. Piece of cake! (OK, so it was a hard-ass fruit cake, but still cake.)

Looking back at my track profile, it looks like the descent down this end of the ridge, though slightly shorter with only a 450 foot drop but doing it in 4 tenths of a mile, is actually steeper than where I climbed up at the other end, and I can believe it since this end of the ridge just seems to stop rather than taper off, but though there are some rough spots,

My personal name for this piece of trail at the east end of Haynes Ridge is Haynes' Ass

the trail down, probably because it’s much newer than the trail up at the other end, therefore built to different standards (Yes, there are rules on how to build a trail and they have become more nanny-fied over the years) with proper switchbacks and rock-work in the bad spots, wasn’t near as terrifying as the trail up.

Even so, this was the end of my photo-taking on this hike. All I was interested in now was getting my ass down to ground-level, fishing the Quad-B out of the weeds and rolling on back to sanctuary of The Van.

I knew when I planned this trip for early May that I was pushing the weather envelope in terms of temperatures, (This part of Texas, though further north and a couple thousand feet higher, tends to run warmer than home-base in Central Texas) but it turns out that the temps ran 10 to 15 degrees above normal all week, pushing afternoons up into the high 90’s-low 100’s. By the time I got back to The Van I only had a couple swallows left of the three liters of water I carry (though I hadn’t touched the liter of emergency water I also carry) and I sure was glad that I remembered to salt my store-bought, low-sodium trail mix before setting out this morning!

Unlike humid Central Texas, sweating in this dry air up here goes pretty much unnoticed, but it still drains away the electrolytes pretty fast.

Anyway, my two cents for anyone wanting to do the Haynes Ridge from end to end is to climb up the Booger and down the Ass because there were places on the Booger where I had to let the hiking-sticks dangle while I used both hands and feet to negotiation the terrain, and it's easier to do that going up than down. Also, once you top out on the Booger it's all downhill from there. If you start out at the Ass end, even after topping out it's still a climb all the way along the ridge just to get to the Booger so your legs will hardly be fresh for the difficult descent.