By Edward Robinson
Low clouds and cool morning temperatures graced the first day of spring in Mineral Wells, Texas, promising a fine beginning for the newly-minted Possum Pedal Permanent. I gave silent thanks to the route organizer, Lone Star Randonneurs RBA Dan Driscoll, for scheduling a 9:00 a.m. start for the March 20, 2004 event. The relaxed timing meant that I was able to arrive at sign-in feeling rested and organized even though I'd spent the previous day driving more than 500 miles from my home in south Texas. It helped, too, that I had stayed overnight at the Executive Inn, which serves as the 200K Permanent's start and finish on the western outskirts of Mineral Wells. (Talk about convenient!)
My goal was to finish the Permanent before dark so as to avoid a cold front predicted to bring thunderstorms to the area sometime in the evening. In addition to chances for heavy rain, the frontal passage would bring quartering headwinds for the ride's final miles. A mild southerly breeze already was stirring in advance of the front, practically guaranteeing a long stretch of headwinds about halfway through the route. Thus a fresh serving of headwinds for the final stretch did not sound like fun.
The Permanent course opened as scheduled, riders heading west into the countryside at an easy pace. Less than a mile out, the route turned to the north on its approach to a series of hills known to local cyclists as the Three Amigos. The hills lie within the Permanent's first ten miles, resulting in a well-timed warm-up for the legs.
On this day the group remained relatively intact over the first rise, but the pace soon picked up substantially. The second and third of the Amigos saw riders increasingly strung out as everyone eked the most from the morning's tailwind. The end result was a quick dash to the first control in Graham. Rolling into the stop, I resolved to take things a bit easier on the next leg to avoid running out of steam before the day was out.
RUSA volunteer Kathy Smith efficiently processed everyone through the control, and then it was off on a southerly course toward Caddo. Eight or nine of us joined up as we pushed into the wind, forming a group that would remain together for the rest of the Permanent.
We made our way through a rolling north Texas landscape, the morning's cloud cover gradually breaking apart to expose circles of blue sky. The excellent roads south of Graham had scant traffic and were dotted here and there with short climbs and descents, a couple being steep enough to grab my flatlander's attention. And while broad plains dominated on all sides, occasional stands of mesquite trees merged into bright green halls where they grew close to the road. The waxy leaves of prickly pear cactus were evident, as well, as they glinted, facet-like, in the emerging sunshine. All in all, a beautiful spring morning.
I thought I might see the western edge of Possum Kingdom Lake as we passed nearby on the way to Caddo. The Possum Pedal takes its name from the lake, which the route encircles and twice approaches from both the north and west, near Graham. If the water was visible, though, I must have missed it.
Shortly after one o'clock we coasted out of a mesquite thicket and into control number two at the Caddo Mercantile. The combination convenience store and gas station sits by itself on a narrow triangle of land where the Permanent route joins with a state highway. The Mercantile boasts an attached cafe with a reputation for excellent hamburgers and homemade pinto beans. We sampled none of the food, however, instead saddling back up after a moderate break, sights set on the next control in Strawn. I made a mental note that we were at the Permanent's halfway point, meaning that we soon would be turning away from the breeze that had been in our faces since departing Graham twenty-five miles earlier.
I quickly found that the part about the breeze turned out to be wishful thinking. We turned due east some ten miles south of Caddo, but by then the winds had become variable, no doubt influenced by the ever-approaching frontal boundary. The group continued to move along briskly even so, enjoying the paucity of traffic and the benefits of having strong riders out front with an apparently limitless store of energy. The good conversation bubbling back and forth among the group certainly didn't hurt, either.
A quick bounce over some railroad tracks brought us to control number three, where we again made an unhurried stop to check in with Kathy, munch some food, and enjoy some shade before tackling the last leg back to Mineral Wells. By now it was mid-afternoon with ample sunshine. The temperature was on the warm side in the low 80s, but not unpleasant. Nor was there any sign that the cold front was going to arrive early, eliminating the weather as a source of immediate concern. Refueled, if not entirely rejuvenated, we pushed on for the Permanent's final control.
In retrospect the route from Strawn back to Mineral Wells proved to be the most interesting. After passing through more gently rolling hills and the towns of Mingus and Gordon, the road began a shallow descent toward little Lake Palo Pinto. Moments later a sweeping right-hand bend brought us onto a long causeway crossing the lake itself. The late afternoon sun was behind us in the southwestern sky, giving the water a steel blue cast. Drafts of cool air wafted over the causeway as we pedaled its length, hinting that the water below still held winter's chill. I had a strong urge to soak my toes at the water's edge on the far side of the lake, but the afternoon was wearing on. Perhaps another day.
The group did take a break, though, a few miles later. A couple of riders had temporarily dropped back, so we paused to regroup in the irresistible shade offered by a tiny store in Lone Camp. The idyllic storefront was outfitted with an oversized porch steeped in lazy, Saturday-afternoon quiet. A black and tan dog methodically circulated among us, wagging its tail and soliciting pats on the head, while behind us a drowsy porch cat observed the goings-on from its perch on a weathered windowsill.
Our riders cruised by in no time, so it was back on the bikes heading north toward our next encounter, the infamous Cherry Pie Hill. Naturally the expected tailwind had never developed, and we instead found ourselves working our way into another mild headwind. About this time I noticed brilliant white columns of towering cumulus building to the north, but they were far away yet, mere harbingers of the impending cold front.
Others in the group had mentioned Cherry Pie Hill to me as we approached, and I mistakenly thought that I had been up it before. I realized my error as we entered a miniature valley that was in no way familiar. Right at the 117-mile mark someone announced, "Here's where it starts." I still hadn't seen the hill itself and wasn't sure what to expect. Seconds later, however, the road took a small dip, rose again, and veered to the right. It was then I realized that the hill had been concealed by a rocky outcropping looming nearby. Around me I heard the familiar ching-ching- chink of chains being shifted into low gears as the road pitched steeply upwards.
The hill itself was approximately one kilometer in length, at least according to anonymous markings painted on the roadway, with the steepest portion immediately at the bottom. I puffed my way up, working hard, noticing how still the air had become, and how the heat of the late- afternoon sun radiated from the chiseled rock walls stacked to my right. Midway up the hill the road snaked to the left and leveled off a bit, then pretty much held the same gradient as it made its way another two hundred feet or so to the hilltop. Dan Driscoll later explained that the hill received its popular name some ten years earlier from randonneur Neil Brooks, who was riding the Permanent that day. Why Cherry Pie? That part of the story I have yet to hear.
With Cherry Pie Hill conquered, the group made a last unscheduled stop for cold drinks in Palo Pinto. From there high spirits carried us quickly over the few remaining miles to Mineral Wells. We ended the ride some nine hours after we started, dismounting with the setting sun in a fine end to the Permanent. A handful of riders finished ahead of us, and the last randonneur arrived shortly after we did.
The day culminated with a group dinner at the Barris Ristorante, an Italian eatery adjacent to the Executive Inn. As we dove on our meals, Dan speculated that the day's ride might have been the first RUSA Permanent conducted in the United States. On that thought we capped off the evening with a group photo courtesy of Nancy, the restaurant owner.
If you're at all interested in enjoying some lightly-traveled roads through the open spaces of north Texas, contact Dan and schedule a day for the Possum Pedal Permanent. The Lone Star Randonneurs' web site (http://lonestarrandon.tripod.com/) has a link to the club's discussion group. And don't forget to watch out for Cherry Pie Hill!
As a postscript, I've since received notice from Dan that RUSA's Permanent Coordinator, Robert Fry, officially confirmed the Lone Star Randonneurs' March 20, 2004 Permanent as the first of its kind in the U.S. The names of the RUSA participants are: Brenda Barnell, Neil Brooks, Ronnie Bryant, Dan Driscoll, Rani Freeman, Gary Gottlieb, Todd Kalchbrenner, Russell Kelley, Mark Metcalfe, Edward Robinson, Gary Smith, Liz Wessels, Mark Wessels, and Dale Witherell.