Monday, March 22, 2021

Day 0: Getting to the Lone Star Trail

February 22: Originally, I did not plan to blog about today. I don't really enjoy writing these blog posts and why write about a day before I even started the trail?!

But the day turned into a much bigger adventure than I ever imagined and it seemed like a crime to skip it.

I spent the night at the Sea-Tac airport just south of Seattle for an early-morning flight to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. It was my first flight in about 10 months--that in itself made the trip interesting! But it went well and was uneventful.

I spent the night at the Sea-Tac airport.

I had a window seat and as the plane was descending, I could see a few frozen lakes with patches of snow. This isn't particularly common in Texas as far as I knew, but I wasn't surprised to see it since just a couple of days earlier the state had suffered catastrophic weather in the form of single-digit temperatures for a few days causing pipes around the state to freeze and an electrical grid that all but collapsed.

I came prepared, though. I had heard that there had been a run on "survival gear" like food and toilet paper and knew those items might be difficult to acquire, so I mostly brought my own. I wasn't worried about non-potable water from the taps--I carried my own water-treatment device for the trail. I could just use it with tap water if necessary.

One of the frozen lakes with snow drifts I saw while coming in during landing.

Somewhat surprisingly, the last time I went to Texas, the area's tap water was considered unsafe to drink as well. I joked with Amanda that I'm a curse on Texas. Whenever I visit, the tap water isn't safe to drink! (The last time, it was due to flooding in the Austin area.) It does make me wonder about how robust their water treatment plants are when they fail with every one of my visits, though....

In any case, the severe cold weather had passed by just a few days earlier. Temperatures now were expected to be in the 60s or even the 70s later in the week, and the lows were expected to be in the 40s or 50s. Not bad hiking weather. Not bad at all...

At the airport, taxing around the runway, I saw large piles of dirty, fast-melting snow that snowplows had created during the storm. That was the only visible evidence left of the storm that I noticed.

The plane parked at its gate and I headed to baggage claim where I picked up my bag. Then I sat down and waited for Amanda to arrive. She would be driving me to the trail but was coming in from working a trip and her plane had landed shortly after mine did, but she needed to walk halfway across the airport to the baggage claim where I waited.

Eventually she arrived, then we took a shuttle bus to the car rental agencies, but the vehicle she rented was off the property and required and another shuttle to reach. She called the rental car folks, which told her to wait for the shuttle right where we were at.

And we waited. And waited. And waited. Amanda tried calling the agency again and reported that it sounded like they picked up the phone then immediately hung it up, but she kept trying. Eventually she managed to get through and they clarified that we should be looking for a white Ford mini-van.

And we waited some more. And waited. And waited. Amanda tried calling them again, and again had trouble connecting but eventually got through. "Exactly how long do we need to wait?" she asked--already we were an hour into our wait.

And, allegedly, the van was already there! We looked around the parking area, and we could see a white vehicle through the trees in the parking lot, so I walked over to find out if it was a Ford and our ride, but it was a Chevy and definitely not our ride.

"They're smoking crack," I told her. "There's no white Ford of any type out here."

Every time a white mini-van approached, we perked up--hoping our wait was finally over--but were disappointed time after time.

Eventually a vehicle matching the description started to approach. It was white. It was a mini-van. And it was a Ford. I walked up to the driver and tapped on the window to ask if that was our ride. The van was unmarked so although it fit the description, we still couldn't be sure it was the correct one.

But it was! Finally! Our long wait was over! Or so we thought....

The van shuttled us to their off-airport rental center where Amanda went in to do the paperwork and get ourselves a vehicle.

And I decided to stay outside with the fresh air. And I waited, and I waited. Finally Amanda arrived and said that they had to bring the vehicle around, but we continued to wait.

She said that they appeared to be understaffed and the person at the front desk would pick up the phone and immediately hang it up again whenever it rang. (She totally nailed it!) Another customer had come in, angry that they needed to call an Uber to drive them to rental center because they couldn't get a hold of them and the shuttle never appeared where it was supposed to.

It sounded like a real s**tshow going on inside. While standing outside, I saw a worker rolling a flat tire across the parking lot. And we waited and waited.

It was infuriating and inexcusable. Amanda has probably rented hundreds of rental cars over the years and said she'd never seen such bad service.

But finally, more than two hours after we started trying to pick up the rental car, we succeeded. It wasn't even a car, strictly speaking. Amanda thought that maybe we'd sleep in the vehicle and decided to get a mini-van that we could sleep in, so we ended up with a large, unmarked, white-paneled mini-van of our very own. I joked that it looked like something a serial killer would drive around.

By this point, I was starving for lunch, so we pulled over at a Jack in the Box for a quick lunch.

I did need to make a couple of quick stops while we were in civilization. For instance, I could not find any trekking poles when I left the apartment (they were probably in the back seat of Amanda's car at the airport which I couldn't get into) so I wanted to pick up a cheap trekking pole. I also needed fuel for my alcohol stove. And... as it turned out, I completely forgot to bring my Sawyer filter from home to treat water on the trail. I did bring another device that used UV light to treat water, but I liked the Sawyer filter better. I hated the idea of buying another one since I already had one at home (and Amanda even had one as well from her hike in Olympic NP last year)--but flying back to Seattle to pick it up wasn't practical!

So we made a few stops along the way. First stop: Walmart.

Many of the food shelves were remarkably empty--the run on toilet paper and food supplies before the storm was definitely true! And they had not refilled their inventory as of yet. I went to look for trekking poles in the camping section and I found... well, I found 1.5 poles. They were sold in sets of two, but I only wanted one. I was willing to buy a set of two, however, and use the second one as a spare. But the only set available was missing the bottom half of one of the poles. I looked around the area thinking maybe the bottom half of the second pole was nearby and laying somewhere among the shelves, but I couldn't find it. If I had to guess, I suspect that someone who did have a set of two broke one but didn't want to buy a whole new set and just stole the broken part from this pole. It's the only logical explanation I could think of.

But it was actually still sufficient for my purposes since I only wanted one pole, but I definitely did not want to pay full price for two poles when there was only one full pole in the kit. So I took the 1.5 poles and walked around looking for an employee to ask if maybe I could purchase it for half-off. I figured it was either sell it to me for half-price or they wouldn't never sell it at all. This way, it's a good deal for both of us!

So I did find an employee who had the authority to allow me to buy it for $10 rather than the $20 it normally cost. All I had to do was tell the checker that "Sharon said it was okay." Awesome! =)

My 1.5 pole purchase! Score! =)

Amanda was off elsewhere looking around in Walmart while I was dealing with this, and being such an enormous store, I figured the quickest way to find her was to call her on the phone. We met up again near the Hamburger Helpers and compared notes. We picked up a few food items while we were here, but the trekking pole was the main reason for the visit.

Mission accomplished! Then we headed to an REI so I could look for a new Sawyer filter which I picked up without any trouble. I also noticed that they had denatured alcohol, but it was much more than I really needed for a one-week backpacking trip so I skipped buying that hoping to pick up a bottle of HEET for much cheaper at a gas station convenience store instead.

I also saw this at Walmart. I didn't buy it, though. Freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches looks disgusting! I didn't even know that was an option, but I wish it wasn't!

I'd later come to regret that decision as we stopped at a few gas stations along the way throughout the day but was unable to find any HEET. I was growing increasingly desperate for fuel for my stove! I wondered if the winter storm the week before played a part in the shortage since it's apparently used as an antifreeze. (Who knew that it had another use?!)

Amanda was thrilled to notice that there was a massive Half Priced Books next to the REI and had headed there while I did my thing at REI.

Then we continued our drive south toward the town of Huntsville. 

We stopped at Buc-ees along the way--perhaps the best gas station convenience store in the country! It was interesting to note that many of their shelves were also empty from all the panic buying earlier. 

Hello, Buc-ee! I think he's happy to see us. =)

The sun set but we continued driving. We stopped at another gas station to check for HEET, but it also included a Checkers so we had to stop for their fries. It's not often we can eat genuine, authentic Checkers fries. But alas, there was no HEET to be found.

We continued driving when Amanda pointed through the windshield and said, "Does that look like a fire to you?"

And yes, it did. "It's probably someone just burning their trash or something," I replied. Except as we got closer, the glow of the fire got increasingly larger--far larger than someone burning a pile of trash.

When we rounded the corner, it looked like a dystopian future with the whole hillside off the side of the road on fire. Woah! There weren't any fire trucks or anything around either. We figured it must have just started recently and the fire trucks hadn't arrived yet. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere at this point and for all we knew, it would take fire trucks more than a few minutes to arrive. Perhaps in the middle of the day it wouldn't have looked so impressive, but in the darkness of night, the flames just seemed to dance around the hillside. The fire was on the other side of the road, and we saw one vehicle that had pulled over next to the fire. It seemed unlikely that he alone would be able to put out the fire, but maybe he was calling it in or monitoring it until help arrived. Or maybe it was just a broken down vehicle that pulled over to the side of the road and accidentally started the fire when something from the vehicle ignited grass on the ground? Or maybe a smoker from a passing vehicle had thrown out a cigarette butt that started the fire? Who knows?

Anyhow, our view of the actual blaze was brief--just seconds before the road curved and the fire was out of view. "Well that was interesting," I told Amanda. I was a little disappointed that it went by so quickly that I didn't even get a chance to snap a photo.

And then we continued onward. We were far behind schedule due to our two-hour wait for the rental car, and I called the hotel to make sure their lobby would still be open when we arrived. I could barely hear the man on the phone, though. It seemed like he was whispering, but eventually he said that it was fine, he'd still be there at our expected arrival time.

We continued onward toward Huntsville.

For me, Huntsville was nothing more than the nearest large town near the trail, but it turns out that it's the prison capital of Texas. As far as we could tell, it's the single biggest industry for the town, and the massive prison was lit up like daylight as we drove by. "Probably best not to pick up hitchhikers around here," Amanda joked.

We arrived at the hotel and noticed the sign outside promoting hourly rates. "You reserved a place where they rent rooms by the hour?!" Amanda said.

"I didn't know that!" I told her. "It was from a reputable national brand! How was I to know they rented rooms by the hour?" (Okay, it was a cheap national brand--the Roadway Inn--but still... none of the other Roadway Inns I've been in ever rented by the hour as far as I knew!)

And it was practically across the street from the prison. "Where the hell did you bring me?" Amanda asked.

I headed into the lobby to check us in. The clerk who I thought was whispering into the phone, as it turned out, had some sort of device around his neck to talk and sounded more like Stephen Hawkin. And the volume was very, very low--so I still had trouble understanding him. Every time he spoke, he touched something by his neck and his mechanical voice came out. I'm not sure what was wrong with him, but I really wished that device was louder. 

Then he told me that there was no hot water because their pipes had frozen. No hot water? Ugh. Well, so much for one last shower before hitting the trail! Seems like something that they could have mentioned before I got to the hotel, though. "Oh, by the way... you can't take any showers while you're here." Maybe even offer a discounted price for the inconvenience.

As it was, a shower wasn't strictly necessary. I did have one just the day before in Seattle, after all, and I don't need to smell good when I start the trail. In fact, I'll be smelling very badly by the time I get off the trail! I had considered getting off the trail as it approached Huntsville for a night off--I wasn't in any rush--but if there wasn't even hot water to take a shower, why bother? At least they did have water, however--which apparently many places in Texas did not.

Amanda joked that we could microwave water and use that which, I suppose, might have worked in a pinch. But I wasn't that desperate.

"But there darned well better be hot water when I get off the trail!" I told her. "I'm going to need a shower in a bad way!"

We got the key and entered the room which looked a bit run down and tired, but certainly not the worst room we've ever seen. Amanda noticed that one particular electrical outlet looked like a safety violation. The cover was missing and things were sticking out of it.

Sleep lightly.... in case we need to evacuate in the middle of the night....












GG said...

Yippee Skippy!
I've missed your trail missives.

Mary said...

I’m almost done with the trail and have been checking to see if you did a blog. Hooray! You did!

This trail seems so depressing! I know you needed a trail without snow and cold weather but why this trail!?

Your hotel guy sounds like he had his larynx (voice box) removed due to cancer.

Michael said...

Wait, Ryan admitted he doesn't like writing these blogs? We love reading them. I hope that helps to encourage him.

Ryan said...

It's true, I don't like writing--including this blog. But I still plan to continue to write them if for no other reason that I enjoy re-reading them or referencing them myself years later! =)

And the trail isn't all bad, Mary. It does have some beautiful trees! And there was still a chance of seeing interesting creatures like alligators and armadillos. As it turned out, that didn't happen.... but it could have! (And maybe the extreme weather the week before killed off some of the wildlife I otherwise could have enjoyed. Single-digit temperatures aren't the types of things that alligators thrive in!)

I didn't know what was wrong with the hotel guy and it seemed rude to ask so I didn't, but that's a reasonable theory. I just wished the volume was turned up because I had a lot of trouble just hearing it!

Unknown said...

You know .... I worked on that Rental Car place when I was at AVIS. I cannot believe that they took two hours to bring the car to you!!! May I ask what company you rented from??


Michael said...

> But I still plan to continue to write them if for no other reason that I enjoy re-reading them or referencing them myself years later! =)

We really enjoy reading these as well. Maybe that's just a small teensy benefit.

I hope you also get some small benefit from advertising, but more from traffic to AtlasQuest knowing that our faithful leader is showing us how it's done. :-p