"Prada 'Marfa'" is a piece of installation art. It is on a deserted highway in Texas, close to Marfa, TX and the Mexico border. The structure was built at a cost of $80 000 and is designed to be allowed to degrade and crumble with the ravages of time.
It's sole purpose is to demonstrate the return from modernity to the earth from which it was created. Prada gave their blessing, and stock, for the store.
I was there because it was a bonus location worth 1405 points in the Big Tex Rally, a thirty six hour motorcycle rally entirely within the state of Texas.
From the start I was determined to make a significant assault on this rally. Despite my motorcycle inhabiting the territory known as the "Hopeless" Class, in previous rallies it has acquitted itself decently well, and surprised more than a few folk. This time the rally was a little longer, a little tougher, and I was determined to find out just what it could and couldn't do.
Incidentally, "it's the rider not the bike" is an old homily which was going to be put to the test too.
In the end it was a mixed result. For reasons that will become clear I decided not to finish, yet what I did accomplish, what I learned and what I will share that others may benefit too made this a truly worthwhile endeavour.
Let's jump the orange roadkill and go for a ride through Texas!
It was dark at the Rider Meeting, at a gas station in Denison, TX. The event was due to start at 6 am and we would have no daylight for at least another ninety minutes. Denison was one of the four stating locations for the nearly fifty entrants. I will say right here that I am not a big fan of multiple starts. The Rally Master and his staff, who do a wonderful job in all things, cannot level that playing field. They can probably get very close, but they cannot make them equal. The Cape Fear Rally has three starts, and publishes a different finisher list for each one.
That said, about half the field was starting from Denison, and clearly they each had identical opportunities.
I had arrived the evening before and met up with a few riders I had met on previous rallies, and some new guys. It is always good to meet old friends and acquaintances, and we wished each other well as is the norm. These events are more "friendly rivalry" than competition. Sure we all would like to win, but there can be few who don't simply admire the achievements of those who exceed your own efforts; especially given that your own efforts were prodigious!
The Rally Pack had been distributed three weeks earlier. About half the field were newcomers to the sport, and Wayne, the Rally Master, was keen that everyone had a chance to plan routes carefully. We were told that there would be some new information that would be given out at the start of the event, but nothing that would cause riders to alter their basic routes. This was very good to hear. The last thing new riders need is to plan for three weeks then have to scrap and re-plan on the clock.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to read the supplementary information and realise that one of the biggest bonuses available would require me to completely alter my route!
This was not going to happen. The supplementary pack gave me an additional 7500 points without changes, and I decided to live with that and look again at the overnight stop, to see if I could make hay with the other stuff. That 7500 points gave me a projected score of maybe 58 000 points for the event. What I now know is that had I been able to take advantage of that "extra" multiplier, the 58 000 could have become around 67 000 points ... a very respectable finish.
However, we are getting somewhat ahead of ourselves and I don't really do "what ifs", nor do I ever bemoan my own misfortune. Every event like this is unique. What is important to me is that I learn from each one, and incorporate those lessons into all future events. If I can share what I learn, and that helps others, then I consider that to be an added bonus.
At the start I found myself next to a guy in his first rally. He was clearly a mix of excited and nervous. He wanted to chat about what was to come and there wasn't much I could say to him, and I knew exactly how he was feeling. I suggested that he simply take it very easy for the first twenty miles or so; that is when the adrenalin will kill you. Suggested that he might remember that whatever the objective, all he was really doing was going for a ride on his rather nice Honda Gold Wing. That is it ... it's just a motorcycle ride. Enjoy. I didn't catch his name but I really hope he did well and had fun.
Six am duly rolled around and we were off. I was the second or third bike out of the parking lot. I had a long, hard day ahead and I wanted to make some good early progress.
The first target was the grave of "Machine Gun Kelley". I took a wrong turn almost right out of the gate which cost me just a few minutes and I arrived about 100 miles later at 7.50 am. I was maybe the fourth or fifth there, but it was apparently on many schedules, and was a busy graveyard at that early hour.
The location was easily found and a few minutes later I was on my way again. This time another 130 miles to the home of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian.
This is always the phase of a rally where I settle in and get on with the task in hand. The initial rush is passed, the sun is up and I can take stock. The bike is running well and you can make good time on these Texas highways. The speed limit is 70 mph, and much of the time that is doable. I have a route that demands that I ride 1030 miles before my overnight stop, and along the way I need to hit some time checks. I am heading for El Paso. It was a bit disconcerting to pass a sign as I left Sherman saying "El Paso 545 Miles", and I wasn't even going straight there! I never let my head go to the entirety of the route, but simply ride from one planned location to the next. Those are bite-sized chunks that never seem too far yet add up to a total plan. I was scheduled to be in Sanderson, TX at 11.30 pm, there I could rest but for now there was the small matter of bonuses to hunt in the Guadalupe Mountains, and other places.
This bonus benefitted from the supplementary information. The original requirement was a photo of the front gate, which was easy enough. For an additional 2190 points you also needed a picture of the typewriter that the novelist used. It is obviously inside the house, and equally obviously might prove tricky.
I am the first to arrive at this bonus, but I am confident that the enormous number of points would attract many riders. The house is locked up so I went around the back and found an open door and two little old ladies doing some filing, or something. Well they wanted chapter and verse, and I have only budgeted five minutes for this stop.
I indulge them as politely as I can, and get my photo. As I am leaving three more riders arrive. Nicely primed the ladies are likely to delay them for rather less time, yet I don't begrudge the extra few minutes one bit. We are ambassadors for our sport and making a favourable impression on little old ladies is simply part of the job. Plus, they are usually very nice to talk to :) I was fortunate they were there. Usually the place is locked, and you have to call a number and wait for someone to get there to let you in. Some later riders might find this to be a bit of an obstacle. It might have cost me five minutes, but I was grateful to them for choosing that Friday morning to do paperwork.
I needed gas next, and I would need gas again before the next bonus. As I plan on gas every 250 miles that is a long way between stops. You sometimes just have to hunker down and ride.
The lady tells me that a few riders have already been through. I imagine they were nearly all from the Anthony, TX start location. Few from Denison were coming here as far as I knew although I had been passed on the road by a BMW GS. That incident was instructive. I am a decent rider. I can push where I need to, and throttle back when I have to. I do not worry about taking my 900+ pound beast down unmade roads, or up mountains. I had been pushing hard yet this guy simply rolled by. I am beginning to understand that my trusty mount is playing out of it's league. Realising this, which is a feeling that has been growing, is a bit dispiriting and I ponder that for a few miles.
Meanwhile, I hit Wink on time and get a stupid photograph wearing some "Roy Orbison" sunglasses. (I have been informed that these are actually Roy Orbison's glasses. Donated to the museum by his family).
Here I make a plea to Rally Masters. Please do not insist that riders include themselves AND their Rally Flag in photographs, unless it adds something to the necessary bit of proving that you were there. In this instance it clearly did, and was fun. In others, not so much and is a requirement that adds nothing to the task, just makes the picture harder to get and to what end?
This is my story, and I'll tell it the way I want to, m'kay? That said, the next picture did actually turn out quite well even if it did take longer to frame than was necessary:
We are now another one hour and forty minutes down the road, and still on schedule. This bonus was just three miles after bagging the Passport Stamp for the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I nearly had a complete disaster at the Visitor Center there. I pulled into what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary parking space, but I had badly misjudged the camber. As I came to a stop the bike started to fall to the left. The world goes in slow motion for a split second as a whole train of thought rushes through your head. Can I hold it? No ... It's too risky, Okay, then how can I minimise this situation? Left foot firmly planted, keep hold of the bars and allow the bike to lay gently on the crash bars. Step off and scratch head. It's hard not to laugh, and even harder not to cry. I haven't dropped a bike for maybe twenty years and I picked a fine place to try it again!
There is another motorcyclist in the parking lot. He comes over and thirty seconds later the bike is safely restored onto it's sidestand. No harm, no foul.
It is 104 miles to the next bonus. Actually it is three bonuses within a mile of each other worth a combined total of 5659 points. They are all in El Paso and they are the reason I have come this far west. At my current location I have a "get out". If I am too far behind schedule I can miss El Paso and head south, shortening the route. I would lose the El Paso points, but could make some of them up with the shorter distance and extra time.
I am at Guadalupe Peak bang on schedule though. My GPS is estimating arrival at the next National Park at 4.58 pm, two minutes before it's official closing time. I said I was attacking this rally, so I decide to go for it.
And "go for it" I did. Across the bleak uplands through the Guadalupe Mountains. The roads are fast, generally straight with very little traffic and as I ride I am able to watch my ETA become closer. I had it at about 4.50 pm ... I had built a ten minute cushion. In the end it was worth it even if I missed the 690 points in the Visitor Center, the nearly 5000 for the grave of James Wesley Hardin were sufficient.
A complication was the 1000 point Call-In Bonus. We were now on Mountain Time, and right in the window to call the barn. I couldn't do it. Even stopping every few miles to check for a phone signal there was nothing doing. No stores, and few householders would relish a mad English motorcyclist banging on their door asking to use the phone.
I eventually came across a lonely "Craft" Store that would have a phone I could use. It was 5.05 pm Central ... Too danged late!
Then I hit the outskirts of El Paso. Mile after mile of urban highway. Where the hell did all that traffic come from? Traffic lights every ten yards, and every one of them red. My ten minute cushion became seven minutes late by the time I arrived at the Chamizal Visitor Center. When this kind of thin happens seven hundred and fifty miles into your ride, it can be a severe blow to your peace of mind. As I head, less than confidently, to the center I spot a young woman from the Park staff. She tells me that the door is still open. It isn't and with little hope I banged on the locked door.
To my surprise, a guard opens the door and tells me, in no uncertain terms at all, that getting the two Passport Stamps inside is absolutely no trouble! The Gods of Motorcyclists are smiling on me today, and in a short while the smile will deepen and broaden into a positive grin!
As I leave for Concordia Cemetery, the final resting place of James Wesley Hardin, I decide to take a few moments while there to take stock. The location is only a couple of miles from Chamizal, but that couple of miles takes over half an hour. I get firmly and inextricably lodged in traffic. It appears that every truck in North America has chosen this time to head into Mexico. The lines are solid, every intersection completely snarled up, and my engine boils over ... twice.
I have lost the best part of an hour from my schedule and when I finally arrive at the cemetery, it is closed! Closed three full hours before the posted closing time of 8.00 pm, something I carefully checked before leaving home. There is a guard at the gate letting the final few stragglers out. I can see my target maybe fifty yards away and I wonder if he will let me in. All I need is a quick picture.
No, he won't, at least not without the permission of the owner who is right there. Apparently they are preparing for some James Wesley Hardin Commemoration the following day. She hears my tale, gives permission and the friendly guard took the picture. Like I said, I am destined to do well in this Rally, and I am earning it the hard way but now I am very concerned that I do not trash my motorcycle nine hundred miles from home.
I make my way slowly out of El Paso, well behind schedule and am rapidly calculating the damage, which amounts to ninety minutes (1350 points) lost from my Rest Bonus and a sick motorcycle. I make it to a gas station where I need a few minutes rest. I am up around eight hundred miles for the day and the last hundred have been very hard on both of us. At this point I don't need gas, just a few minutes off the bike before I head into the mountains again, and into the night.
I hate this bit. I started the day in the dark and am now faced with another two hundred miles or so, in the dark. The lights on the bike are decent. They are not quite what I ultimately want, but they are good enough to run a fairly fast pace on these roads, mountains or not. By chance I look at my auxiliary gas tank and I notice something wrong. The gas cap is missing, as is the bulk of the five gallons of gasoline I thought it contained. I realised just how lucky I was. I was heading into wild territory thinking I had five more gallons of gas aboard than I actually had. That was a certain disaster averted but now I could only run my main tank. This immediately compromised my second day plans because I had to again run fast through country where gas was going to be hard to find. The loss of that cap and the nagging worry about the engine was bringing me to the point of simply riding for a finish, with no guarantees that I would even get one.
I make it to the eponymous "Prada" maintaining my predicted pace. I am an hour and a half late but have not lost any more time. Here is a bonus where the requirement was for a "non-pretentious picture of you in front of the Prada store". This was one where I happily agree that getting the rider in the photo adds value.
I loved this bonus. Being in this place, at this hour was a surreal experience. In my six or seven rallies to date this has become my favourite bonus location and if you are ever in the area please stop by. I promise that you will not regret it.
It is vital that you never let your plan take over from your common-sense, and decision making. Your rally plan is a target to aim for, and must never be allowed to rule your judgement. If any newer riders are reading this, I cannot stress the point enough and right now I was at decision time. The next bonus, and the final one of the day was at the McDonald Observatory. Unfortunately, they tend to put these things at the top of mountains. While I felt reasonable confident that the road up would be manageable, I was rather less confident of my ability to go up safely. I was tired and I knew it. Riding to my planned rest stop maybe another 130 miles was one thing. Detouring up a mountain at midnight was quite another and I make the only safe decision I can. I cut the bonus and the 3000 points that go with it.
Even then I hit a wall. No, not literally, the figurative "wall" that is a combination of poor sleep the night before, nine hundred miles riding, the darkness and the stress of El Paso and the lost gas cap. I called Jodie when I filled up with gas and we talked briefly about the 97 miles left to the rest stop. I was confident that I would be okay and indeed I was, but not without a lesson that I will share with you all.
When I am tired and riding, I do not generally suffer from my eyes closing. What does happen is that I lose focus, literally lose focus, my eyes go blurry and I have to force my concentration back to the task. That is a clear and unambiguous sign that I need to get off the road, and get off the bike and I NEVER ignore it. Neither should you. There comes a point, and we each are different, where we recognise those signs. It is not clever or brave, or admirable to ignore the signs. It is stupid, dangerous and has no place in LD Riding.
I felt that happen about thirty miles into the last leg. I needed a safe place to stop and there wasn't one. That road is wild and desolate. There are no houses, no towns, no gas stations just a ribbon of tarmac with nowhere to stop. If I stopped in the road I would be in danger from the next tired idiot driving up behind me. Somehow I had to stay alert until I could safely stop. I yelled at myself, I ate candy, turned up the music and had as much air flowing as I could manage. I was prepared to continue only as long as it was safer to ride than stop.
Eventually I hit a small town called Marathon, TX. This was about twenty miles passed my "signs to stop", and about forty miles from my planned stop. I pulled over in a parking area, got off the bike and lay down on the sidewalk. This might sound a bit extreme but it didn't seem at all odd at the time. I was in a safe place and could use a short "power nap". I got one and in about twenty minutes was feeling pretty darned good. There was nowhere to take my official rest break so I hopped back on the bike and completed forty uneventful miles to Sanderson, TX.
All along I had planned my rest stop carefully and deliberately. In the last rally I entered I stayed at the Iron Butt Motel (sleeping outdoors for those who don't know). This time I planned the same. Truck stops are a decent choice. They are open 24/7, have computer generated timed receipts, and they have coffee, food even showers available. All you need is somewhere to sleep and a quiet corner of the parking area will do nicely. In some places you can even blag your way into the truckers lounge and sleep in a chair.
This one was different. It was closed! So, no hot chocolate for me, but the gas pumps gave me a receipt timed at 1.10 am (the correct time). Within fifteen minutes I was in my sleeping bag. As I lay there, cozy and warm I saw more stars in the night sky than ever before in my life. There is no light pollution here, and the view was glorious. I had the warmth from the tarmac coming up through my sleeping mat, and the heat from my cooling engine. Alarm set for six fifteen, I was asleep immediately and slept the sleep of the just!
I am firmly of the view that sleeping like that, listening to your bike clink and tinkle as it cools, and gazing up at the stars is one of life's great treats. You miss all that if motels are the only choice you ever make, but even I agree that they do have their place.
When the alarm woke me I lay there for another forty five minutes. I had done some thinking and already decided that today was going to be spent simply riding home. I was in decent enough shape rallywise. I had worked out that if I simply rode for a finish I already had sufficient points to qualify. If I was granted all the "givens", and my license was still safely in a sealed envelope, then I had already accumulated around 33 000 points ... more than enough. Anything I gathered in the second day would simply raise me in the final standings. I had planned to hit the compulsory bonus at 8.00 am, and that was still on. If I could make the second day work I was back at the barn for around 58 000 points which should be a decent place.
The fly in this ointment was the supplementary bonus thrown in at the start. Not only was it a bonus that I could not reach without re-routing my entire day, there were no guarantees that I could hit a target three times with a .45 Magnum. This bonus required you to be close to home no later than 2.00 pm, and from Sanderson that was not going to happen. As I have already said, I was attacking this rally and that means getting to Dallas no earlier than thirty minutes before penalties. To plan anything else is wasting time that you could have been on the road.
It is a minor understatement that I felt that this bonus was breaching the spirit of the rally in more ways than one. First, it did demand significant re-routing. Second, it introduce a points multiplier based upon a skill that has nothing whatsoever to do with motorcycling. I want to ride my bike, and plan my rides. I want to enjoy camaraderie and good fun .... If I wanted to shoot a gun I would buy one, or join a gun club!
Don't get me wrong. I am as keen as the next person for Rally Masters to get folk off their bikes doing interesting things. Is it too much to ask that those activities be designed to explore and develop the skill set we need to ride and rally, rather than introduce elements completely unrelated. I would be perfectly fine with this being "just another bonus" that one could choose to go for or route around, but it was a whole points multiplier .... Just didn't feel right to me is all. I'm sure it was indeed fun for those who completed it.
All of the above is pure conjecture, and it's easy to ride a rally from my armchair :)
I had the points to finish, but I had already decided that I was going home. My main concern that "home" was six hundred and ninety miles away. I would have liked to have gone via Dallas, put in my score and enjoyed the great company, but that added another three hundred miles, and time pressure to a motorcycle that I was not confident was up to the task. Especially as it would have probably meant routing through San Antonio, Austin and Dallas itself, with a motor that had already threatened to toast itself in city traffic.
I called Wayne, made my apologies turned on my GPS, hit "Where To" and "Home" in that order and was on my way.
The ride home was at a slower pace and uneventful. Seven hundred miles at a decent clip with only Wichita Falls to slow me down. I was home by 8.30 pm. Tired and a bit achy, but very pleased with my efforts despite the DNF.
As a final note ...
I would hate for folk to read a few minor criticisms, or personal preferences, and take them out of context. Rally Masters will never know what riders think unless we tell them purely in the spirit of contributing to the development of events.
The Big Tex Rally was professionally staged, wonderfully managed and a great credit to Wayne Boyter and his Staff. All the riders, including me, owe those guys a great debt of gratitude.
For my own part, I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this awesome event and would not hesitate to enter again. My own trials and tribulations along the way are teaching points, no more and no less. I include them here that I may learn from them, and that others may benefit should they choose to.
I rode a total of 1922 miles on my 27 year old motorcycle, at an average moving speed of 64.7 miles per hour. I completed the mileage required for a Texas "In-State" SS1000 and the mileage required for a Bun Burner 1500. The last 28 miles of that were in Oklahoma.
It was a good weekend :)