Texas Road Trip: Start at the Top

I headed to the northernmost point of my eclipse path survey, to Poppy’s Pointe, an RV park with cabins on Buchanan Lake.  It reminded me, not pleasantly, of a place we had stayed along the Ontario shore of Lake Superior

As I drove in and located the office, I was met by a man in a golf cart.  I asked if he was the owner—no he was the maintenance guy, but he could take me to her, get in.  I got into the cart and he drove about 100 feet to her trailer.  She seemed a little annoyed but took me to her office in her golf cart, about 150 feet back from where we had just come.

I eventually told her about the eclipse in 2024.  She said she was contracting the whole place to someone, they just had to agree on a price.  She also told me that she had been getting calls for four years.  The property is 750 feet from the eclipse centerline.  This was the moment when I realized that despite being here two years ahead, I was already too late!

Poppy’s Pointe is a private RV park.  There are some other parks on Buchanan Lake which for some reason were not on my list to stop and visit.  I wish I had, because Black Rock Park also has camping (tents and RVs) and cabins.  It is part of the LCRA Parks system (Lower Colorado River Authority).  From their website, it looks like the reservation system goes one year out. 

There are numerous other resorts around Buchanan Lake.  Check Google Maps to find them; It may be possible to book them for the eclipse.

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Texas Road Trip: Getting There

There is a direct route from Minneapolis to the eclipse path in Texas—just take I35 to Austin and turn right.  It is not a terribly interesting route, and you’ll be sharing it with the trucking industry, but it is fast—at least where there isn’t construction. 

The cool rainy weather of early May in Minneapolis gradually became warmer as I drove south.  By Iowa, my jacket was no longer needed, and wouldn’t be again.  By the time I got to Texas, the temperature would be 100 degrees, and reached or exceeded that temperature every day I was there.

I was trying to cover the miles quickly, so I did not take on the overhead of overnight camping, instead staying at traveler’s hotels, where I still struggled to get a good sleep—perhaps the combination of too much coffee and caffeinated non-alcoholic drinks.  But I did get “free” breakfast and recharged my cooler with hotel ice and continued on, not quite reaching my destination goal each day.  I stayed at Emporia instead of Wichita, Waco instead of Austin.

As I drove along the interstate, I noticed that the roadside rest areas, which are reliably spaced every 50 miles or so in Minnesota, became infrequent, and then completely absent after Iowa.  Missouri and Kansas had none, and Kansas Interstate 35 was a tollway!  It had “service islands” for gas and snacks, but I didn’t find them very appealing and did not stop at any.  I saw one rest area in Texas, but by the time I saw the sign, it was too late to exit.

Near the Oklahoma border with Texas, I stopped for a ham sandwich at a local stop.  Outside was a sign listing mileage to cities in TX and OK.  No entry was there for Austin.  I asked the two women running the shop “Why no Austin?”  In her distinctive (and pleasant) Oklahoma accent, one replied, “Maybe no one wants to go there.”

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Eclipse 2024 Reconnaissance

A road trip to Texas, May 2022

In May, I made a solo road trip to Texas in order to do “reconnaissance” and to plan for the upcoming total eclipse of the sun on April 8, 2024.  I had made similar explorations of the western states prior to the 2017 Great American Eclipse which turned out to be very helpful in preparing for it.

You may ask “why Texas?”  It is not my usual road trip destination, but celestial mechanics is oblivious to human-drawn political maps.  It is also oblivious to weather, so to optimize the likelihood of clear skies on eclipse day, we need to be as far south and west along the eclipse path as possible.  Here is a chart of the cloud cover for the time in April along the eclipse path.

The various colors indicate the average cloud coverage at 2 p.m. Eastern time between April 3 and 13 based on ERA-Interim data from 1979 to 2016 collected by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF).  (Dr. Brian Brettschneider)

I’m not sure if this chart represents how much of the sky is covered, or how often the sky is covered, but it is apparent that Mexico is the best place to observe the eclipse.  Not eager to drive through Mexico, I am limiting the search to the US, which takes us to… Texas.

It turns out that the eclipse path runs through a pleasant part of south central Texas known as “Hill Country,” that contrasts with its flatter or harsher or more urban or more desolate areas.   For Texans, it is the equivalent of what Minnesotans call “Up North”, a place to escape the city, or to relax on vacation.  To me, it is not quite as nice as the North Woods, but I may be biased.

As I said, Texas is not my usual road trip destination.  I have not been to the state for decades, and, having observed Texas politics from afar, I am a bit intimidated.  But eclipse-viewing is something that can be enjoyed regardless of political view, so I packed up some observing gear and headed south. 

In the next series of blog posts, I’ll describe what I encountered along the way. If you enjoy my travelogues, or if you just want to glean information that might be relevant to your 2024 eclipse plans, I invite you to subscribe (meaning that you will get an email notification when I publish a blog entry). Don’t worry, I’m not prolific at this, and you can unsubscribe at will.


Superior Circle Tour: Epilogue

[This is the final facebook post that chronicled our adventure in June 2019.]

As satisfying as it was to return to Duluth and complete the Superior Circle Tour, we recognized that we were not quite done. Just like those climbers that make it to the summit of Mount Everest, it doesn’t count until you make it back down. Our original plan was to put the bike on our trailer and triumphantly haul it home, but since the trailer never made it to Duluth (see “Getting to the Start”), we had one more motorcycling travel day.

It turned out to be a beautiful one, perhaps one of those top-five weather days of the year. And wanting to avoid the uninspiring regimen of traffic on I-35, we discovered state highway 23, a route that transitioned from north woods scenery to rural farm landscapes that we shared with only an occasional local driver.

After riding over 1500 miles during the previous week, we were now conditioned and ready to embark on the trip that we had just completed. We could now ride for extended durations, our physical and mental stamina up to the task; my clutch and throttle hands were now strong enough to actually manage the clutch and throttle, and we had our communication and navigation systems and routines figured out. And I hadn’t lost my key.

The north shore of Superior, in both Minnesota and Ontario, had been spectacular scenery punctuated with dramatic waterfalls. On the entire route we had encountered many friendly people who gawked at us, helped us, and inspired us.

When motorcyclists encounter and drive past each other there is a salute, a hand gesture of two fingers pointing down, acknowledging the shared experience of two wheels on the road. We encountered other bikers making the circle route, most notably a group of six Harley riders traveling the opposite direction, at the “Best Northern” motel and restaurant in Wawa Ontario (by far our best meal on the tour). They had spent the day riding in the rain from Chicago and were hoping for better weather since they had allocated only four days (and were envious of our 9-day schedule). We traded road stories and wished good travels as we left.

The weather that we experienced was near-perfect. Apart from the first day of rain at Duluth and beyond, we had clear skies. Cool is better than hot for me, but Poldi did not have adequate protection for her hands. Traveling at 55+ mph, the morning temperatures of 45-degrees became quite chilly. Next time we will invest in electric gloves for her.

What other things would we have done differently? Not much really. It would have been nice to take a day off from riding and spend it exploring (even God took the seventh day off), but we had a schedule to keep. After experiencing its therapeutic effects, if there were accommodations along the way that had a hot tub, I might have lobbied to stay there (not really– I prefer more modest settings).

It was an entirely satisfying life experience, one I had never expected, and I am thrilled to have shared it with my life partner Poldi, who took on my adventure and made it hers as well.

I was also able to share a few of the stories with a (captive) facebook audience. I have been encouraged by your “likes”; it seems that some of you actually read the lengthy prose that accompanies the photos. Your responses provided the encouragement for me to keep writing. I have often felt that the spark that ignites my best efforts comes from the people around me: thank you all.

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Superior Circle Tour: Oh. Deer!

Thompson Hill Visitor Center above Duluth

We had been alerted to the hazards of wildlife. In Canada, the road signs showed images of a moose charging out to challenge motorists. And everyone had a story to tell us, but all we had seen were a few deer peering at us from the edge of the woods. It was not until we reached the Northern Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland WI that we become properly concerned.

Poldi made sure that we got there in time to have our final Circle Tour credential stamped and authorized. The agent then took the opportunity to warn us about deer. That very morning, she had seen several deer on her way to work, and then witnessed a motorcyclist having a fatal encounter with one. After stopping, a wolf appeared, circled her car, and then vanished. This was all very unusual, and so she was concerned for us because we would be taking that same section of road.

With trepidation we drove the last 20 miles, without incident, to our destination that night, Bayfield WI.

We enjoyed our stay in Bayfield. We even took the morning off, spending it on a boat exploring the Apostle Islands instead of on a motorcycle avoiding deer. Our last day was deliberately light, a short 85 miles to Duluth to complete the tour. Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the most challenging.

The route along the shore from Bayfield is through the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, a region that displays the natural beauty of this area. It was along this passage that we encountered deer crossing the road in front of us, even at mid-day. From her perch on the pillion, Poldi would scan ahead to check for deer at the forest edge, considering their dash across the road.

On several occasions they darted onto the pavement; each time I would either see it or hear Poldi’s alert in the helmet speaker, and aggressively apply the brakes. The recommendations for such conditions were NOT to attempt swerving, but to make a “panic stop” in order to reduce velocity. A swerve was unlikely to avoid the obstacle, and more likely to take you into oncoming traffic. Even if the braking did not avoid the collision, it would reduce the velocity (and the velocity-squared energy of impact), thereby making survival much more likely.

On one occasion, we witnessed a deer run out to the center of the road, look at the oncoming traffic, and then turn around and run back. Meanwhile, the lead car had braked and swerved to avoid it, and the subsequent cars swerved to avoid colliding with the first. The road was littered with cars out of place. I was glad to have made my panic stop so that I could carefully and slowly pick my route around them. Everyone was shaken but ok. We proceeded.

Eventually, we arrived at Superior WI, the connection to a post-wilderness world. Duluth was a few short miles away over the bridge to Minnesota. But as soon as we crossed that state line, everything seemed to fall apart—the pavement disintegrated into potholes, and its mitigation was at the expense of construction barrels and detours and bad signage. The rain had arrived again (can we ever bike to Duluth without rain?), and the rush-hour traffic had no patience for anyone less aggressive in getting to their destination.

We found ourselves on skyline drive, seeking to “close the loop” on our Circle Tour. Our navigation system had broken down, even in the midst of civilization, and we were momentarily lost, looking for the next major crossroad. Suddenly without warning, a fawn streaked across the road, its mother a few feet behind. I braked hard once again, and am pleased to be able to tell the story.

We did make it to our starting point, the Thompson Hill Visitor Center, and we also made it to our hotel, where we treated ourselves to a session in the jet-powered hot tub jacuzzi in the pool room. We would have further celebrated the completion of our Circle Tour, had we not collapsed into bed instead.

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Superior Circle tour: Endor

Our next destination, also not initially on our route, was Porcupine Mountain State Park. This turned out to be an unexpected treasure and we are likely to return someday. A highlight was the overlook onto the Lake of the Clouds, but we found the other features of the park to be appealing as well—the shoreline of Lake Superior of course, the various waterfalls, and the hiking trails.

This 30-second clip shows how similar this place is to the forest moon of Endor.

A Speeder Ride through Endor

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Superior Circle Tour: The Copper Butt Award

Motorcycling turns out to be more physically and mentally demanding than I remembered from my twenties. I had heard about dedicated riders who would take on long routes– there was even a recognition for them: the Iron-Butt award. It involves collecting gas station receipts along a route that would prove that you had covered 500 miles within a single day.

I had no interest in competing at that level, but we created the mini-version of it by taking the optional Circle Tour excursion into Keweenaw Peninsula. Initially Poldi did not think we would have time to include this additional day of travel, and so had planned the bypass around it. Somehow, this just didn’t seem right; we had come all this way and were unlikely to be back soon, and I was intrigued at the geology that created both the “iron range” of Minnesota and the “copper range” of Michigan.

The copper mines had closed more than two decades earlier, and the area was in transition from deriving its income from mineral extraction to tourism, much as we see in northern Minnesota. We saw towns that had seen better times, but also new businesses catering to activities like bicycling and kayaking in addition to traditional fishing and camping. The landscape provides a draw for people wanting to experience this natural beauty at close range.

We arrived at the town at the very end of the peninsula, Copper Harbor, and enjoyed visiting “Swedes”, a former tavern run by two Swedish entrepreneurs in 1900, and now a rock shop/tourist souvenir store. The owner, who seemed to be related, or otherwise had inside knowledge, had plenty of stories to tell about the mining days and its eventual ending in the 1990s.

The transformation of the peninsula to a tourist-centric economy was not complete however. I wanted to visit the various museums and visitor centers in these former mining towns, but they were closed on the weekends, the official summer season had not started, and even the next day, they did not open until after noon.

Unfortunately the requirements for the Copper Butt award demanded that we keep moving, so we were unable to fully immerse ourselves in this bit of local history.

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Superior Circle Tour: Loads of Fun

Poldi is the brilliant travel agent that solved all the logistics and arranged and organized our daily itineraries and agendas. She also applied Occam’s (small travel) razor to our items so that there was zero redundancy, allowing the remaining critical items to fit in our limited storage space.

Because of the load limits, she knew that there would be intermediate stops to clean and refresh our travel attire. At some point along the way, we would be performing laundry activities. This of course, was a foreign concept to me. If the clothes were still holding up, why should the tour be held up?

But she had anticipated my ignorant reluctance as well, calculating that the generous and kind hosts of the various AirBnBs we would be staying at, would allow her to run one small load of clothes through a wash cycle.

And it would have worked too. All of the places we stayed at had such facilities and they were offered if needed. They weren’t needed. Until suddenly, they were. Saturday—Poldi assessed that the clothing had run out and action was needed. Unfortunately, the hosts for Saturday were clear in their communications that they did not offer laundry service to their guests.

Okay. This is certainly their prerogative. Maybe they just didn’t have the facilities, or floor plan to make it work.

So we went off in search of a laundromat. Unfortunately, they were on the far side of town. We had to ask local passersby to help locate one, but once found, Poldi sprang to work, organizing our meager collection for the machines. Yes, I had to strip out of my well-worn layers and under-layers to add to the pot, but I got to put on my remaining clean backups.

Once I had shed my old skin, Poldi had no more use of me and sent me on a mission to find a bottle of wine to enjoy later when the chores were done and we had settled in for the evening. This was something I was qualified to do.

On my return, the laundry was not yet ready, so I was assigned another job—pick out something for dinner from the deli at the Super-One store next door. We would no longer be able to find a place to enjoy a leisurely dinner; we were running out of daylight.

Eventually all the tasks were complete and the laundry deemed “dry enough”, so we headed to our overnight accommodations. It turned out to be a basement apartment (a common offering by AirBnB hosts). After removing our shoes to bring our two small bags down the stairs, past the brand-new high-end washer and dryer, down the hall to our designated room, I found myself a bit irked.

This is not a normal emotion for me, so I tried to catch myself. This is the home of a family who has offered it to overnight travelers like us. There was no listing of laundry service in their description, and their response to our inquiry was clear: no guest laundry.

Still, it just seemed a little inconsistent with the AirBnB ethos.

Fortunately, we had “Loads of Fun” while preparing for our visit.

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Superior Circle Tour: Grand Marais to Grand Marais

Grand Marais mirrored on the south shore of Superior

Our first full day on the Circle Tour began Monday at Grand Marais MN, where Poldi’s dad was known and loved for his decades of reading to school children. This city is something of a “home town” for us.

On Saturday, we arrived at Grand Marais, MI. It struck us as a clone of GM, MN, with local businesses representing tourism, outfitters, artists, and breweries. There was even a similar breakwater, creating a calm bay where we saw seaplanes taxiing to their mooring.

Poldi, having done her deep research for this trip, had discovered that there was an Agate Museum in this town, a labor of love started by a town character Axel Niemi, and now carried on by his mentee/acolyte, “Agate Lady” Karen Brzys, who provided us detailed descriptions of the rocks in her collection and made a “cool rocks” presentation for us and the other kids in the museum at the time.

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Superior Circle Tour: What Makes a Touring Motorcycle?

My BMW R1200RT has been a capable vehicle. I am now more appreciative than ever of some of its features.

I usually ignore the cruise control in my car, and I never expected to find one on a motorcycle, but my RT has one! Like my car, I have almost never used it, but it has become very welcome on this extended ride.

My normal defensive riding style is to provide a vise-like grip on the throttle (note that I do not describe it as a death-grip :-), but after about 30 minutes, my hand becomes tense and numb. The cruise control lets me relax it, along with the other (clutch) hand. It is a welcome relief and I credit it with keeping me from becoming dangerously fatigued in my arms and hands.

I am also appreciative of the heated handlebar grips. During the lengthy ride in the rain on Sunday, my gloves became saturated and my hands started to chill, but the grips kept them warm enough that the fact that they were wet did not matter anymore.

Heated grips are great for the driver, as is the heated saddle. After showing Poldi how she could control the switch for heat to the pillion (with two levels: warm, and really warm), her comfort level improved proportionately.

The fairing keeps the wind blast and sting of the rain off of my hands, and the road splash from my shins, although my boots still get soaked.

The weight of the bike is a blessing and a curse. At 500 pounds, it keeps us from being blown over by wind gusts and truck blasts, but it becomes a challenge at low speeds, especially with a near-equal amount of passenger and cargo ballast.

Keeping the balance at a stoplight is easy, and riding at any speed above 10mph is completely stable, but making a slow turn maneuver in a parking lot, or to turn around, is murder. Consequently, I frequently must ask Poldi to dismount while I get the bike oriented correctly when we arrive or depart, or re-navigate, or recover from a wrong turn.

This might not seem like such an inconvenience but take a look at the configuration of storage panniers on the bike—especially the top trunk. She needs to step up on the foot peg, and then swing her leg nearly over her head to clear it, then settle into her saddle, all the while keeping her center of gravity close to the center of the bike so that the stabilizer (me), is not overwhelmed by the misbalance, and allow the bike to slip the strength of my planted foot outriggers and grasp of the handlebars.

Imagine mounting a horse, and then imagine doing it a dozen times. This is what I am asking of Poldi, and she does it skillfully, up to the point where we are BOTH too exhausted to swing that leg up and over one more time. This is the point where we probably look silly attempting the maneuver, but it is also a sign of increasing danger. Fatigue leads to mistakes.

But Poldi is one tough cookie and always manages to muster the strength to keep us both upright, stable, intact, and ready to navigate the next miles.

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