The Natchez Trace, Texas Hill Country, Border Crisis Ride

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by PittsDriver, Mar 16, 2021.

  1. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    I've just returned from a ride that was interesting from a couple unrelated perspectives. My friend Phil and I cooked up a reason to go to Texas to go ride in Hill Country to see what that was all about with interests in BBQ, some Twisted Sisters, and illegal immigration. I'm a unashamed BBQ snob from the Deep South and never thought much of all the bragging over Central Texas BBQ. After all, it's only beef right? They throw a pot roast on a smoker and call it BBQ and I've always felt sorry for Texans that they don't know that the really good BBQ comes from the noble pig. I got a Master Class subscription to use during my pandemic down time and studied Texas BBQ the Aaron Franklin way and have been making some pretty decent brisket on the Big Green Egg at home. So with my mind opened to the possibility that there may be some good eats in Texas, we committed to sampling some of the best while there.

    What's that got to do with illegal immigration? Well, turns out, Texas shares a border with a third world country run by drug cartels so while tasting the best of Texas Q we thought we'd go see what this "border crisis" is all about.

    I've also been wanting to go ride the Natchez Trace Parkway for a while now and since we're coming from the east, this looked like a good time to do it.

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    That map is our actual track that was stored in my GPS. I hauled my bike to Georgia to meet up with Phil and from there we rode back up to Nashville to hook on to the Natchez Trace Parkway. For those that might be unfamiliar, the Natchez Trace is a federal parkway road that goes uninterrupted from just south of Nashville all the way to Natchez Mississippi. It was developed over a route that's been used for thousands of years by native Americans up through the westward expansion of the US and in to the Civil war era. It's not the altitude of the Blue Ridge Parkway nor the level of twisty road. It's just a scenic flowing parkway with points of interest all along it's 440 mile length and in two days I can count without removing my shoes how many other cars we saw on it.

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    This is what it might have looked like in the day:

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    About 40 or so miles from the north end we came to the final resting place of Merriweather Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. He died just a few hundred yards from his burial site here:

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    There's some controversy about whether he committed suicide or was murdered and that the question had never really be resolved about one of the greatest men in American history. There's a great book called Undaunted Courage about his commission from Thomas Jefferson and his exploration with Clark to the Pacific Ocean. After paying our respects to Lewis it was late in the first day on the road having ridden from east of Atlanta to Nashville and then down the parkway and we wanted to camp on the parkway. That's when we found out that all the campgrounds on the parkway were closed by the government due to Corona Virus - WTF?! You can't get more socially distanced than in a tent in the woods but hey, the gummint surely has our best interests at heart. A guy drove up in a pickup while we were looking at the Lewis site and we asked him about where to go. Turns out, he owns a campground about 8 miles away just off the parkway. Done.

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    It was cold but I always sleep really well when I camp in cold weather. Next stop along the parkway was pretty far down the road to what are usually described as Indian Burial mounds - except that apparently that's not the only use. This is been described as the native version of the pyramids of the Mayans, and used for similar purposes.

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    One can only stare at grassy mounds for so long so we departed in search of a ghost town on the Natchez Trace.
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  2. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    The town of Rocky Springs was once a thriving community of farmers and tradesmen with a population of over 2,500 people and covered 25 sq. miles established in the 1790s. A well maintained church and this is all that remains today:

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    They think this is the safe that was in maybe the general store in the town. It's all private property now including the church which still holds services on one Sunday every month for the local Methodists. While we're wandering around there - no one else in sight - a guy comes up to us and asks if he can answer any questions. He introduced himself as the President of the Rocky Springs Preservation Organization and the caretaker of the church and graveyard. He told us that after the Methodist church didn't want it and the Natchez Trace forestry folks turned them down, they bought the site and support it with a local group of descendants of the previous residents. The civil war and yellow fever killed the town and all that remains is a peaceful walk through the woods listening for the ghosts.

    We got to the end of the parkway in Natchez about dinner time and decided to stay there before turn west toward Texas. We crossed Louisiana the next day pointed at the Sam Houston National Forest and my daughter's house in the Woodlands near Houston.

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    I spent the night and the next morning playing with the grandkids:

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    And then lit out for Austin and farther west into Hill Country. I knew it would be way too late in the day to get anything from Franklin's BBQ but I had to stop by just in case:

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    They told us that the line for lunch was over 100 yards long before 8am that day. As much as I've enjoyed watching Franklin's Master Class that just seems crazy anyway to me to line up for 4 hours or more for a brisket plate take out. My son that also lives in Houston mentioned that a place called Salt Lick in Driftwood TX was every bit as good and didn't have the all day waits so we headed there. We came to a stop sign near where the Sale Lick was on the GPS and it looked like a full parking lot at the state fair - hundreds of cars. We pulled in at 4p and found that it was a 2.5 hour wait - perfect for dinner time. We put our name in, went to a nearby hotel to get cleaned up, and when we returned we were seated immediately with no wait:

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    Now, I make a pretty damn good brisket on the Big Green Egg - my own full packer brisket made at home:

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    But dayum this was freakin' amazing.

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    As tender and juicy as anything I've ever made but they got the bark on it just perfect. I got a combination of burnt ends, lean, and fatty meat from the point and it was all, well, perfect. Humbled my ass and I hereby take back all the foolish things I've said about Central Texas brisket - at least at the Salt Lick. And the smoked sausage was pretty good too.

    The next day, the fifth of the ride we were heading out into the Three Twisted Sisters in the heart of Hill Country.
    #2
  3. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    Where we stayed after eating at the Salt Lick was a town called Dripping Springs - pretty funny considering where we were headed the next day was a place called Leakey. Seems like Central Texas needs a urologist. Anywho, the first stop was to check out was Bandera, the self proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World. They've got something like 5 or 6 world champion cowboys from Bandera which they feel gives them the honor. We were just stopping for gas and to settle on a plan so we pulled over in front of this mural to strategize.

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    We're sitting there minding our own business when this guy in a red pickup truck pulls in right next to us in this big empty parking area. I'm thinking "dude, why'd you have to park so close?" when he gets out of his truck and says "Y'all are welcome to stay right there as long as you want. I own this building and parking and I'm also the mayor of Bandera." What is it about this trip that we keep meeting the unlikeliest people - the campground owner, the church and ghost town caretaker, and now the mayor of Cowboy town. Nice guy though who told us when we come back there tonight where to eat and where to stay. He steered us wrong on both accounts...

    The heart of Texas Hill Country is the Twisted Sisters - Ranch roads 335, 336, and 337. At the crossroads of all that is a Harley crowd burger joint called the Bent Rim:

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    With posters all around the place like this one:

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    I was curious about the "eye for an eye, piece for a piece" thing so when I got home I found the entire terrible movie on YouTube. It's only saving grace was the sprinkling of nekkid titties throughout the movie.

    The Bent Rim is a gift shop full of t-shirts with trashy looking women on the front and back (the twisted sisters) but also has a Harley parts counter. That dropped me in hysterical laughter right there that Harley riders visiting here needed parts often enough to make it so.

    We spent the rest of the day looping around through the sisters. I'm going to say there were some scenic sections of roads with maybe a few corners and some slight elevation change - what passes in Texas for motorcycle fun. Nothing remotely like can be found within Appalachia down through the Smoky Mountains but hey, fun roads AND good BBQ is good enough.

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    All these roads out here are chip and seal pavement - the kind that shreds tires:

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    We ended the day back in Bandera; had bad food at a place called the Forge; and a bad breakfast next morning (with runny grits) at the OST. Huh, Cowboy Capital though....
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  4. Firenailer

    Firenailer Still Ridin'

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    Cool report, I’m in!
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  5. someday adv

    someday adv Adventurer

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    My wife and I enjoyed riding the Natchez Trace a few years back. Not as spectacular as the BRP or the Cherohala Skyway, but a nice ride regardless. I'm currently on day 2 of my attempt at Nutrisystem and your BBQ pictures made me want to cry. :doh Hope you had a great trip
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  6. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    With all the news about the "crisis at the border" we had thought that we might run down there and see for ourselves. It was only 200 miles from Bandera to Laredo, which was reported to be a hot spot for river crossings and if you listen to the news, we expected it to be a sea of humanity similar to the exit from a college football game coming at us standing on the banks of the Rio Grande. And, it turns out that the back road way to get there took us directly through Carrizo Springs, the location of the HHS youth detention facility.

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    These tents are about the size of a couple of football fields and are divided up inside into studio apartments like you'd find at oil field work camp and such.

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    This is the sign on the highway pointing out at the facility:

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    We talked to a CBP officer that said they get in big trouble if the meals and snacks aren't offered right on schedule and everything runs like clockwork here. These facilities are all air conditioned and nobody is drinking out of toilets. Think about it, you're an unaccompanied minor that's just walked from Guatemala - I'm guessing this seems pretty nice.

    After doing a bit of googling, I determined that the hot spot for crossings in Laredo was about a mile stretch of river that went from behind a grocery store down to a college campus and there was a sports park on the river by a dense neighborhood were most of it was happening so we headed there.

    These guys are parked about every half mile along that stretch of river and this guy was very friendly:

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    We spent about 45 minutes listening to his stories about how they handle the situation there. As you might expect, there are cameras everywhere and huge flood lights on generators all up and down the river in these places. We've cleared all the land on our side of he river in preparation for the border wall that likely won't get built now that Joe is sleeping at the wheel.

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    The officer said that they try to get them to turn around and swim back to their side of the border. Failing that they meet them on the bank with a taser in hand and tell them that if they cooperate they will give them jugs of water and power bars; and if they don't, it'll be the longest 5 seconds of their life. He told us that almost everyone cooperates but occasionally someone will be carrying a backpack of drugs and guns that don't want them seized and will put up a fight. He pointed to a cartel safe house on the far bank up the hill where they stage the people that will be attempting a crossing and that the cartels control everything on the other side of the river. Sometimes they'll stage it where a large number try all at once so the CBP can't catch them all. They run across the soccer fields and disappear up into the neighborhood. We hung around for about an hour and a half and didn't see a single soul try to cross the river so he said we should come back at night to see some action. We got checked in to a hotel in Laredo and came back after dark:

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    Our friend was out standing on his SUV with NVGs scanning up and down the bank and told us that about 10 minutes after we left earlier a bunch of adults swam across into the loving arms of US CBP. We cruised around up and down the neighborhoods next to the river and once again, didn't see a single soul try to make it across. Our guy said it gets busy right before sun up so we called it a night and came back at about 6a. Well, we must be a better border deterrent than helicopters, drones, and armed CPB officers because over two days of watching the situation, there was no situation. I walked up and down the bank of the river where this kind of stuff is littered everywhere:

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    After they swim across they leave backpacks and clothes all along the bank before they flee up into the neighborhood. Our guy mentioned that sometimes they'll find a duffle loaded with drugs and guns and there would likely be someone up in the neighborhood watching for a chance to collect it.

    The river is only about 50 yards wide here:

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    I rode up and down a bit in the cleared area for the border wall:

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    So not at all what we expected to see but a meaningful experience to see the non-event this "hot spot" was. I came away with affirmation of what I had figured was the case - this is all blown way out of proportion by the media, the right and the left. If there's a crisis, it's in the drugs from China are flowing freely across the border and it wouldn't be in places like we visited.
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  7. JoToPe

    JoToPe JoToPe

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    Well, you stayed and ate at places near where I live just beyond Dripping Springs - Henly, Texas. If I’d known BBQ was your mission, I would’ve put you on a route to hit every good BBQ joint from south of San Antonio to north of Fort Worth. I’m in for the rest.
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  8. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    From Laredo we were generally headed for home and let me just say that I wouldn't wish the ride from Laredo to Houston on anyone. It was long, straight, and crazy gusty winds that kept trying to twist my head off but we made it through Houston to an overnight in Beaumont Texas. Did you know that there's a Catholic Church in Beaumont that has Pope John Paul II's hat? It is also home to the worlds largest working fire hydrant. We skipped seeing both of those and made a beeline for the coast road back into Louisiana through Acadiana Cajun country. Another interesting factoid, Acadians settled in Nova Scotia and eastern Canada but some made their way down here. We'd visited Maine last year on a ride so we were connecting the dots between Acadian cultures.

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    The beach in Biloxi is actually quite nice where it's not blocked by casinos:

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    From Biloxi we were looking at about 6 hours of droning on the interstate to get back to the Atlanta area so I tweaked my GPS to avoid interstates and pointed it at Phil's house - 450 miles, about 9 hours. Giddy up. This turned out to be a real highlight of the entire trip. The roads leaving Mississippi and going through Alabama are some of the best motorcycle cross country riding I've done anywhere. Endless flowing sweepers and roller coaster hills interrupted only occasionally by a small town for gas and food.

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    We went right through Selma Alabama about lunch time and trip advisor said the best restaurant in Selma was Lannie's BBQ. Interesting place Lannie's. No indoor dining and let's just say that we might not have been their usual clientele. The scene from Animal House where the guys walk in to the bar to see Otis and the band comes to mind. The people there were friendly and prompt and the pulled pork sandwich was excellent with a generous amount of cracklins on it and the fried okra was as good as I've ever had.

    Even though I grew up in Alabama I had never been to Selma so I wanted to see the iconic bridge where Bloody Sunday happened in 1965. Not one of 'Bama's proudest moments and there's a memorial there to the march and its' organizers.

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    The bridge is still prominently named for the Alabama head of the KKK at the time of the March:

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    The location where some peaceful marchers were beaten unconscious by state troupers:

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    We spent the rest of the day winding through the Alabama countryside on great roads and rolled in to Conyers about 7 pm. I really didn't know what to expect from taking the "avoid interstates" route and thought it might take more than a day but we made great time and went from Biloxi to the Atlanta area without a mile of expressway under us.

    And there endth the Texas BBQ safari Hill Country Twisted Sisters Border Crisis Deep South backroads adventure of 2021.
    #8
  9. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    Other thoughts about the trip:

    If you bring up googly maps, turn off interstates, and put Biloxi at one end and Conyers GA at the other it will put you on a very worthy 450 mile motorcycle ride that isn't on any Butler maps - but should be. There's some really fun riding with very little traffic and we made great time taking that route.

    I wish we'd had the time in our schedule to spend another couple of days in Hill Country. There are so many places for reported great BBQ there and so many more fun roads to ride. My backyard is Appalachian hills from West Virginia, Virginia, and down through Western NC and eastern Tennessee so meh, it's a fun place to ride but if not for the BBQ I'm not sure I'd go here again. We went at what I think is close to the perfect time. Temps in the 60s during the day and 50s at night and almost no other traffic on the roads at all. Two weeks hence I'm told is Thunder in the Hills and I'm pretty happy we missed that.

    Also, we picked a great route back from Houston going east. We went out to Beaumont on I-10 but dropped off of it there to hug the coast through swamp lands in Louisiana up until near Lafayette/Youngsville before jumping on US90 to go over through NOLA to Biloxi. I'd definitely do that route from Beaumont to Lafayette again - very scenic and no traffic at all.

    We also stopped at a few other BBQ joints along the way sampling their brisket and smoked sausage. Nothing close to the Salt Lick and really not as good as I make at home on my smoker using the Franklin method. And, if you ever find yourself in Biloxi looking for an excellent Italian dinner, you should definitely look up Jazzeppi's. Great Italian fare with a cajun/crawfish influence - very rich though and go easy on the amazing appetizers there too.
    #9
  10. firebolter

    firebolter Been here awhile

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    Sweet ride Wes! Hopefully you'll get to ride my ADV ride coming up in May. I'll email you the GPS files and plots for you to look at.
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  11. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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    This was the third ride of over a week and 3,000+ miles I've done since the pandemic started. Back in the middle of last summer we did a little hand wringing about the risk of getting out on the road and at that time many states were closed to travelers that weren't essential workers or without quarantine / testing. Over the summer we rode to Ft. Kent Maine (where the rate of infection was very low). Then, in the fall we rode to Key West and back where throngs of people were gathering without masking. Both of those rides were to ride the full length of US 1 on the east coast. It was interesting to see how people were dealing with the pandemic and wondering how some of the deniers would relate to us being super careful mask wearing and socially distancing. You hear a lot of crap on the news about anti-maskers and pandemic deniers but our experience was 100% friendly people doing their best in a bad situation and now after three adventures and over 10,000 miles of riding we did not encounter a single bad experience.

    I'm 62 years old with diabetes which I guess they'd say puts me at some risk from COVID but apparently not at enough risk to get vaccinated in Maryland before the healthy twenty-something folks that bag groceries. I made the personal decision to manage the risk as best as I could, going through bottles of hand sanitizer and being very diligent about mask wearing around others. After every ride, I've gotten the full PCR test and have been negative through all these experiences.

    I would never, ever criticize anyone that does everything they can to protect themselves whether we're talking about ATGATT or living in a bunker until the pandemic is over so please don't misunderstand my reason for posting these remarks. I'm posting this in the spirit of passing along my experiences of managing the risks just like any responsible motorcyclist would do about any ride. I'm not encouraging anyone to get out and do a big ride if they're concerned about getting sick but merely just passing along that my experience with these multi-week long rides across the USA that I did them safely without exposing anyone at home or elsewhere to the Chinese cooties.
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  12. Comrade Arturo

    Comrade Arturo Veterinario

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    Enjoyed your trip. Thanks for posting :thumb
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  13. BradB.

    BradB. Been here awhile

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    Excellent write up!
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  14. yakmike

    yakmike Adventurer Supporter

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    Thanks for sharing this great rr with us!
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  15. KC10Chief

    KC10Chief Been here awhile Supporter

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    Great RR! I enjoyed the read. Some familiar places in there too. We are full time RVers but I take my motorcycle with us everywhere and head out to explore. We were in southern Arizona and then Southern New Mexico back in December. I decided to do what you did and rode down to the border in several spots just to see for myself. The border patrol folks were all very professional and friendly. They have a wall in most of the areas I visited. The old wall with the big giant beams that you can see through with bit steel plates on top. The border patrol guys I spoke with said that the reality is that less than ten miles of wall was actually built in the past four years. Most of that money went to just maintaining the existing wall. From everything I've read since, that seems to check out. They said it's all just a big sham and that people still get over, under or through the wall. There's some pretty daunting terrain out in that part of the continent so it's not exactly a hot spot for crossings either. We were down at Big Bend in Texas a couple years ago. There's no wall there. It would be a real shame to put a wall up there too. The Rio Grande is more like a creek in places. I could walk right across and not get my knees wet. The rangers in the park said that immigration wasn't much of a problem there but that if I were to break down on the border road and leave my Jeep out there, it might get parted out overnight and hauled across the river. HA! I am just relaying what I was told by the people that were there. Anyways, my overall impression of my border experiences is the same as yours. It's a real non-event. Both sides of the media blow it way out of proportion. Your detention facility info is good to read as well.

    We were in Biloxi as well back in January. Our son and his wife are stationed there at Keesler and they live about a half mile north of where your beach photo was taken. I really like the beaches there. I especially like the town of Gulfport just to the east. We were also just down in Texas last week. The hill country is nice and we have been there quite a few times. But there are definitely better places to ride. Texas is getting pretty crowded. We stuck to the interstate on our transit through and it is soul crushing traffic and construction for hundreds of miles on I-35. If we go back, I think I'll avoid all Texas interstates from I-35 and east. The back roads aren't too bad usually.
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  16. bajaburro

    bajaburro Ancient Adventurer Supporter

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    Nice that you rode to the border crisis because you will not see or hear about it in the news.
    #16
  17. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Fuse lit.... Supporter

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  18. selkins

    selkins Gotta light?

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    Great report! And good on you for having the curiosity and commitment to visit a place and see for yourself, rather than just swallow what's on the interwebs. I would be interested to hear similar stories from folks around the border who aren't with Border Patrol, but I imagine it's a bit more difficult to get that perspective.

    As a Texas BBQ aficionado, I can appreciate both a healthy regional bias and the fact that each regional take on BBQ has something going for it.

    Some time back I did the Trans-Labrador loop and ran across some New Brunswick Acadians. It was really striking to hear what I had always considered a uniquely Louisianan cadence come from the mouth of a Canadian.

    And finally, I'm thinking about a similar route in a couple of weeks, one-way heading west to east, as I transit my bike back from Austin and up to Minnesota for the riding season. Thanks for the insights!
    #18
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  19. Aces&8s

    Aces&8s Been here awhile

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    Another great report. Thanks for sharing.
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  20. Switchglide12

    Switchglide12 Long timer

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    Great RR thanks for sharing your experience.
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