The 806 Route: Type 2 Fun Along the Texas Panhandle
Last spring, writer Brandon Weaver and photographers Jerod Foster and Justin Rex pedaled a 375-mile route through a unique area of the Texas Panhandle—a land of contrasts, rugged terrain, and friendly folks. Find their story of navigating a dynamic new route while being closely followed by a group of 15 Adventure Media students from Texas Tech here…
Words by Brandon Weaver, photos by Jerod Foster and Justin Rex
“What are y’all doing…?” That was the question du jour last spring as I embarked on an ambitious five-day trip up and down the Texas Panhandle with friends and photographers Jerod Foster and Justin Rex. The three of us previously collaborated on “Plains Perspective,” a feature in volume four of The Bikepacking Journal about an overnighter along the Great Plains from Portales, New Mexico, to Lubbock, Texas.
“Plains Perspective” had a lonely undertone. We saw very few humans and were resigned to ourselves for the whole trip. This time, we had company. A lot of company. Fifteen Texas Tech University students from Jerod’s Adventure Media class, eight vehicles, a plethora of cameras, and a fuzzy boom mic. Every day we encountered curious and suspicious inquisitors: egg manager, farmer, ranch hand, and the residents of Vigo Park, Texas.
Note: Normally, Adventure Media classes minimize their environmental impact by consolidating students into university vans, but due to COVID restrictions and each student’s individual concerns, they were allowed to take their own vehicles. They were encouraged to group together to limit the number of vehicles along the route.
Adventure Media is a digital storytelling class at Texas Tech’s College of Media & Communication that culminates in a bikepacking expedition where students produce content in the form of short documentaries and digital images for a predetermined commercial or non-profit client and conservation group. I was an embedded writer with the 2019 class and chronicled their trip through the backcountry of Big Bend Ranch State Park in far West Texas.
The 2021 trip was planned with caution. Texas Tech had canceled spring break for all students, so Jerod and Adventure Media co-creator Justin Keene knew they needed to keep things close to home. Jerod hatched The 806 Route (named for the region’s area code), a 378-mile bikepacking loop through the Texas Panhandle. The Adventure Media students documented Jerod, Justin Rex, and myself riding and vetting the epic loop over five days in April. The class did their own bikepacking trip the previous weekend. On The 806 Route, they were filmmakers and the riders were talent. I loved every minute of it. Well, maybe not every minute.
The student production crews were broken into four teams that captured various aspects of the ride: scenics, riders, interviews, and behind-the-scenes. The teams rotated each day through the different categories, so every student touched all aspects of the production. Only one team was assigned to riders each day so there wasn’t a convoy of cars following us.
Lubbock to Plains Baptist Camp (51 miles)
Bonnie Tyler – Donkeys – Organic Eggs
The 806 Route shakedown started where the Plains Perspective ended, Lubbock Lake Landmark, an archaeological and natural history preserve. The crew and talent posed for a group photo. Per Adventure Media tradition, a spontaneous sing-along ensued. Our shadows were long, like slim giants in the morning sun. Elysa Naranjo, a 21-year-old environmental engineering major, started to sing. “Your love is like a shadow on me all the time…” I jumped in, because who doesn’t love Bonnie Tyler, and yep, I know the lyrics. More voices, mostly female, joined and we sang.
But now there’s only love in the dark
Nothing I can say
A total eclipse of the heart”
I was fired up! When we exited the metropolis of Lubbock, I found myself pushing the pace. Sure, I had Bonnie Tyler goading me on, but the true culprit rested in my mount. The 806 Route is a gravel ride. I was on a Moots hardtail with a suspension fork and 2.1-inch knobby tires. I was overbiking, but I didn’t have a choice. Two days before the trip, I discovered a major crack in my cyclocross bike’s carbon frame. I didn’t want to hold up Jerod and Justin, so I found myself pedaling too hard to overcompensate. Weird logic, I know. I dialed it back.
On these rides across the plains and cotton fields of Texas with Jerod and Justin, one must cohort with the local livestock. Outside of Idalou, Texas, we stopped at a pasture chock full of donkeys. Ears raised high, the little beasts of burden trotted to the fence. “How many do you think there are?” Justin asked. Jerod counted. “One – two – three…” He stopped at 70. A herd of donkeys is called a pace or a drove.
Our next stop was a poultry farm. At least once a day along the route, all four teams came together for a quick production meeting. This one happened along the chain link fence in front of the Idalou Egg Ranch, an organic egg producer. The agricultural industry, especially poultry operations, is not fond of cameras. We had a lot of cameras. A figure appeared inside the dark confines of a massive chicken coop behind the fence. Wearing a hair net and shoe covers, he came out and approached us with a bit of trepidation. “What are y’all doing?” he asked as he stood 10 feet behind the chain link fence.
Foster has an assertive yet easy-going cadence to his voice. It puts people at ease. “We’re a Texas Tech class shooting a documentary about a bike trip around the Panhandle,” he explained. The egg manager’s body demeanor instantly relaxed. He walked closer to the fence and asked questions about the class. “How far are y’all riding?” he inquired. They always asked how far we’re riding.
The Panhandle is a land of contrasts, a patchwork terra firma quilt of pastures, plowed soil, and jagged, abrupt canyons. Blanco Canyon appeared with no warning or hint that such a chasm existed on these high plains. We descended into a green utopia: water, trees, and the welcoming folks at the Plains Baptists Camp. This is the first of three canyons we’ll sleep in on The 806 Route.
The PBC welcomes tent-camping cyclists, so if you’re riding The 806 Route, check out their website for info.
Plains Baptist Camp to Caprock Canyons (57 miles)
Wind – Guano – Bison
The satellite imagery of day two’s first 10 miles looks like a geometry problem. It’s a straight line north dissecting uniform crop circles and squares. Our vector stopped briefly on a dirt road adjacent to a field of stripped cotton. There were two vehicles, three bikes, eight people, and – again – a lot of cameras. A farmer drove by in a flatbed Ford F-250 pickup truck. He stopped, rolled his window down, and with a deadpan look asked the question. “What are y’all doing…?” He was bewildered. “We’re a Texas Tech class working on a film,” one of the students said. He surveyed the scene and replied, “Cool.”
Our destination for the day was due north. A strong cold front was headed south. It would make our day miserable. On the Texas Panhandle, you pedal toward the horizon, chasing a hill that you never crest. Add in a constant 30 mph wind, with reported gusts of 50 to 60 mph, and you feel like Sisyphus perpetually pushing that boulder for eternity. The wind thundered like a jet engine in our ears and eroded our wants and desires. No songs were sung and no conversations were had. It took us nearly six hours to ride 57 miles.
We had respite from the wind’s onslaught when we hit the Caprock Canyons State Park Trailway, a 64-mile converted railway that saw train service from 1928 to 1989. The constant thrust of air still impeded progress, but the topography inspired locomotion. Maybe it’s the carbon stored in the sheer red rock walls carved through the canyons, but I felt real energy riding the old railway. This is where the students did their bikepacking trip the previous weekend. After 13 miles, we reached Clarity Tunnel, an abandoned railroad tunnel and home to some 500,000 Mexican free-tailed bats from late April to October. We walked our bikes through the dark chasm and waded through dried guano. Dust built with each step, shrouding us in a fog of excrement. At the tunnel’s terminus, I took a deep breath of fresh air and remounted my bike. That’s when I felt it. The first electrified tinges of pain in my right knee.
Caprock Canyons State Park’s herd of bison are the remnants of the Southern Plains variety with unique genetics not shared by any other bison in North America. We crossed the state park cattle/bison guard and rode past the massive fauna. The shaggy beasts grazed on short strands of emerald green winter grasses mixed among the clumps of dormant yellow grass. Microscopic particles of dirt lingered in the air, filtering the sunset into an ethereal golden hue. The wind stopped, and for the first time all day, the pedaling was effortless. Justin rode next to me. “I’m so happy right now,” I said. By the end of tomorrow, that sense of euphoria would be depleted, along with my desire to ride a bike.
Find information and reservation details for Caprock Canyons State Park here.
CCSP to Rustic Hideaway by Divine Order (106 miles)
JA Ranch – Koogle’s Jump-Off – Ouch My Knee
Today, there was no water and no services for the whole 106 miles. It’s big ranch country through the rugged canyon lands of Texas. The promise of this epic day is what sold me on the ride. We each had three liters of water on our bikes. We would want five.
The JA Ranch was founded in 1876 and once encompassed over 1,300,000 acres. Today, it’s a paltry 190,000 acres. We entered ranch country at around mile 25 on Country Road 25 and followed a ribbon of gravel through rough brush country as it meandered in and out of small canyons and rocky arroyos. It’s a sliver of public space through a giant swath of private land. This is open range. Livestock graze without the confines of a fence. A herd of cows and steers loitered next to the road. We pedaled past them and incited a gentle stampede. Unsure if we were friend or foe, they ran wildly like a school of fish darting in and out of our trajectory.
Our exit from the JA Ranch was punctuated by a climb up the Caprock Escarpment, a high rock bluff that stretches for 200 miles through the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle. The climb up the Caprock exceeds the definition of punchy. It’s a caliche-coated Evel Knievel ramp that abruptly juts toward the heavens. We climbed 300 feet in just over a mile. The student production teams converged along the hill for the epic climb. They were on their bellies in the ditch, crouched low in the middle of the road, and perched high on rock outcroppings. A bruised and battered ranch truck happened upon the scene. The cowboy inside rolled his window down. “What are y’all doing?” he asked one of the young filmmakers. “We’re a Texas Tech class shooting a documentary,” she explained. “This is the most people I’ve ever seen on Koogle’s Jump-Off,” he said and drove away.
In the 1880s, a JA ranch hand named Bill Koogle lost control of his wagon and mule team as he descended the Caprock. Maybe his brake failed. Maybe he dozed off. Either way, Koogle was out of control and jumped from the wagon just before it careened over the ledge. I’d like to believe the mules survived the fall and fled to Idalou to start a donkey farm. But in reality, mules are sterile, so that’s highly unlikely.
The rugged and scenic terrain of the JA Ranch road had kept my mind occupied. My knee hurt, but it was more of the garden variety nagging hours-on-a-bike pain.
After the climb up Koogle’s Jump-Off, we rode another 10 miles and stopped on the shoulder of the road for a quick production meeting with all the teams. Justin and I found a small block of shade next to a pickup. Jerod lined the students out for tomorrow. Justin and I sat and sipped our water rations. “I did something I wish I hadn’t done,” Justin said. “What’s that?” I hesitantly inquired. “I just looked at how much further we have to ride,” he confessed. I thought it over. “How far?” I finally asked. Rex shook his head and said, “Forty-two miles.” All I could muster was, “Ooof!”
When I remounted my bike and made a couple of turns on the cranks, my garden variety knee pain escalated into hot-poker-in-the-joint-searing, this-is-gonna-suck pain. “Crap!” What followed were the longest 42 miles of my life. I tried to soft-pedal, but just lifting my leg hurt like hell. Jerod and Justin stopped to take pictures of the sunset against the rolling green fields. A little farmhouse sat in the distance. It looked like something out of a painting. “I’m just going to walk for a bit while you guys take pictures,” I announced. Good riding partners know to let you be. I walked down the lonely dirt road, my Moots handlebar in my hand. I was dejected. My spirits had bottomed out. I wanted to quit, but that wasn’t an option. I just kept moving.
We finally made it to our campsite at The Rustic Hideaway by Divine Order at 10:30 pm. It was a level spot next to a large metal building in a neighborhood full of houses next to metal buildings. I was too tired to contemplate the name. We had been out for over 14 hours and rode 106 miles with an average pace of 11.2 mph. The day was done. I was done.
See Rustic Hideaway by Divine Order Hipcamp info and reservations here.
Lake Tanglewood to Lake Mackenzie (69 miles)
Donut Holes – Vigo – Honeybun
I woke up and pedaled around the Rustic Hideaway. Jerod watched. “You good?” He asked. It hurt, but I could ride. “I’m good,” I reported. On bikepacking trips, I try to forage from convenience stores responsibly. I traditionally eschew the beloved packaged honeybun at all costs and never eat anything under a heat lamp. Today, I lost that battle. We rode to Lake Tanglewood, a small community just south of Amarillo, and emptied the Pak-A-Sak. I bought donut holes, Gatorade, Coke, peanut M&Ms, Fritos, and a breakfast burrito under a heat lamp made in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was pretty freakin’ amazing!
Vigo Park, Texas, has a population of 10. One of those residents looked out her window and saw 15 young college students meandering about a lot filled with junked cars and rusting farm equipment. She immediately called the owner. “There’s somebody on your property stealing,” she told him. Dan Gardner was on his way to the Vigo Park Community center to get a Coke. “There’s nothing in Vigo worth stealing,” he told the concerned caller.
The students were sprawled about the overgrown lot taking artistic pictures of rusty metal. “What are y’all doing?” Gardner asked. Jerod and Justin Keene, who was traveling with the students, filled him in about the class, The 806 Route, and the documentary. Jovial and curious, this primed Gardner’s sense of adventure. He asked a million questions and told us all about life on the high plains. “Sorry we caused you to get out of what you were doing,” Jerod said. Gardner laughed. “I was wantin’ a Coke.” He invited all of us to join him. “Just leave 50 cents for the Coke.” Gardner paused. “They got honey buns, too!” Right then and there, all I wanted was an icing-coated hydrogenated swirl of carbohydrates. I paid my fee (I think it was a dollar) and ate a packaged honey bun for the first time ever. I have to say, it was pretty good!
Our last night was at Lake Mackenzie. It’s a spectacular basin of blue water at the bottom of a green canyon. Sanctuary!
Lake Mackenzie camping info here. No online reservations. Call 806-633-4335.
Lake Mackenzie to Lubbock (96 miles)
We’d been out for five days and four nights. That’s a darn long class project. Jobs, classes, and the real world beckoned. To expedite the day, we made a bee-line to Interstate 27 and rode the access road back to the outskirts of Lubbock. The 806 Route utilizes mostly gravel back roads for the return to Lubbock. We had a long day ahead and couldn’t dilly-dally. Luckily, hero wind was in the forecast. A strong cold front would give us a push all the way home. We hammered! Here are the stats from the day: average speed 14.8 mph – ride time 6 hours and 38 minutes. And yeah, my knee still hurt like hell!
Epilogue: Adventure Media and The 806 Route
Adventure Media enables me to drift in and out of the lives of so many exceptional college students. In the end, their drive and curiosity fuel me to do more and be more. Thank you!
The 806 Route is an epic adventure I’d recommend to any bikepacker looking for a foreign and exotic landscape in a domestic setting. It would be a fantastic fall ride. You’ll meet friendly folks, walk with bats, and inhabit canyons that tell the story of the travelers from before time. Just remember to bring a friend so a West Texan can roll up and ask, “What are y’all doing…?”
You can find The 806 Route (as ridden) below. This would be great for a fall tour.
Stay tuned to see the Adventure Media students’ three-part video productions from this trip.
Make sure to dig into these related articles for more info...
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