Winter 1998
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TCU Magazine "Class Notes"

What a long, strange journey it's been

A bicycle journey through Texas reveals the character, and characters, of a place.

By John Pascal '88

WE SAT outside round midnight, beneath a thousand tiny torches bursting white. Roadie gulped a cold can of feel-better 'til he felt better, and it made the man sing. He plucked his guitar and when he finished his song I clapped, an audience of one. I figured he was going nowhere with that song but this place, a dark quiet valley in the high Texas hills, where tree frogs sang chorus to Roadie's lone lament.

Roadie pulled another can of Lone Star and drank it down. "This guitar don't make me feel anything," he told me on that warm summer night under stars burning bright. "It lets me let out what I do feel."

Roadie felt a lot of things, I imagined. Those remnant lines in his forehead held stories and lyrics and aw-what-the-hells. But worries? "I don't worry 'bout nothin'," he told me, "cause nothin's gonna be all right."

Broke and homeless, Roadie wrote songs for nobody but himself. He'd writ hundreds of songs, thousands maybe, and kept some in a suitcase and the others in his head. "I don't know if I have a lot to say," Roadie told me that night in June. "But I sure have a lot of words wrote down."

I HAVE a lot of words wrote down, too. For three years I've been bicycling through Texas, writing words in notebooks to put in a book. Roadie is just one of hundreds of characters I've met since I myself became a roadie. What began as the cycling equivalent of the U.S.S. Minnow's "three-hour tour" has turned into an odyssey of Homeric proportion. When I left the town of Uncertain, Texas, on Oct. 2, 1995, I planned an approximate 6-month, 6,000-mile bicycle trip through the state of Texas. Horse feathers! Three years and 40,000 miles later, I'm still out here. Still riding. Still writing. Perhaps you saw me at the Dairy Queen.

Words in notebooks, however, are inferior to that which they dare describe, and I fear the book that I'm writing will fail at the feet of its subject. How might one describe something so grand as Texas while he pedals in its midst? How might he write about her people? One might just as easily chronicle Australia on the back of a pogo stick.

But how I've tried. And yet I wallow in irony: Each experience humbles me, for I know there are too many more. And each new person merely serves to remind that I did not know him before. How many others, then, might there be? How many more strangers with stories to tell? And moments to share? Life, I have noticed, is a fascinating way to spend the day. And people are good folks to spend it with.

One night as I ate a plate of rice and beans in a Falfurrias diner, an old man sat next to me. He had more hair than teeth, and his hairs totalled three. The old man asked if I had a place to stay that night. I said no sir.

"Then you may stay with me at my apartment," the viejito said, "and I will love you like you are my son."

Days later I travelled to a remote area along Baffin Bay. There I found a home in a little trailer park by the shore. Each night at 7 I played canasta with a group of gray-haired ladies. And on one warm Saturday night I won $2.75 on O-72. Bingo!

More important, each morning I had breakfast with my 71-year-old friend Doris Smith in her small trailer. Doris always wanted me to finish my breakfast. She worried about the rest of the world, too. "God loves everybody," she told me one afternoon as we watched The 700 Club. "I'm sure in countries where they never heard of God, God has a nice way of dealing with those people."

My experiences, however, are not uniformly saccharine. In March I cycled south to South Padre Island, where for the first time in a decade I participated in the bacchanal that is Spring Break. "We'll just tell 'em you're our philosophy professor," said my pal Cale Shively, one of a group of university students who adopted me.

In the end, my one enduring image of Spring Break is that of my friend Reed, a young scholar who, inspired by the joy of the evening, sauntered about wearing nil but a foam frog on his head. "You gotta put that in the book," Reed told me. "Being naked."

The trip is not without its misery. Many nights are a lonesome hollow. Days are hot and miles are long and Ramen Soup comes in a variety of delicious flavors. I am broke most of the time, living place to place on minimum-wage jobs. I worked construction in Falfurrias, shucked oysters on South Padre, picked peaches in Stonewall, hauled hay in Comfort. But misery's redemption is an education like existential encyclopedias. While driving cattle near Mason, for example, I learned unequivocally that a horse does have a mind of its own.

Experiences like that, and the people who decorate them, are the images I place in the scrapbook of my mind.

ROADIE looked deep into the yawning black sky that night. He took a drag from his smoke. "I don't have any goals or aspirations or anything," he told me as we sat together in the still valley. "Just to be like I am. Don't hurt nobody. Help who I can. Leave small unnoticeable footprints in the world."

I told Roadie that he had failed, for his footprints will lead always through the portal of my perfect memories.

John Paschal continues to ride, collecting more tales for his Spoke Texas novel and generating funds for the Family Matters program at the Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth. Want to help John and Lena Pope? Send your donation to Tires Across Texas, Texas Commerce Bank N.A., Box 1290, Fort Worth, TX, 76107.