Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chaparral Rail Trail. It ain't for sissies.

I've been working on a meditative phrase.  It goes like this:  "Seek out your fear.  Look your fear in the eye. Tell it to go f--- itself".  That meditation was being put to the test and it drifted at the edge of my rational thinking as the bike shifted and the front wheel turned and sunk in to a two foot wide gap between the ties of the abandoned railroad bridge.  I held gingerly on to the seat post and could feel the weight of the bike, the saddle bag, and the loaded trailer hanging in the balance along with all my gear and myself.

This isn't the worst gap on the trail.  My bike is too heavy to lift, so it has to ride on the long bridge beam as I somehow find a place for my feet and push the bike across to the next railroad tie.

The rail road bridge didn't have a deck and walking across those open timbers would have jangled my nerves under normal circumstances.  But here I was, wearing hard soled bike shoes with a metal cleat and almost zero traction, holding up a loaded touring bike and trailer, bu-bumpa-bumping along each rail road tie until there was a gap so large that the trailer tire got stuck in it.  There was another large gap ahead of me, so if the trailer jerked out and I stumbled forward I would then most assuredly crack my jaw as I fell through the bridge through 20 feet of open air and then land in a foot and a half of stagnant water that reeked of cow shit.  It is not my day to die. I heaved on the handlebars and pulled on the seatpost and the rearmost wheel of my rig gradually lifted out and up on to the next timber as I caught the brake and prevented everything from meeting an unsanitary fate.  I looked back and realized that the trailer had dragged a decaying loose timber up with it.  I had been standing on that timber only a few moments ago.  I jiggled the bike back and forth and the timber dropped with a thud.  The bike stabilized and thankfully didn't go over the edge, and even more thankfully neither did I.  Out of nowhere, the word "butterfly" flitted through my mind.  I looked down in to the gully through the gaping maw of the bridge and serenity washed warmly over me.  Tell fear to go f--- itself.

You really don't want to fall in that.  For many reasons.

This trail is not for the faint of heart.  This trail is not for wussies, sissies, slackers or other non-hackers. There are many obstacles and many opportunities to bail out and go crying home to mama. You have to be committed to pushing through the whole way.

Given how much fun I had on the Caprock Canyon trail a few months ago, I thought that an overnight trip on the Chaparral Rail Trail would be a spectacular idea.  And I was right!

Learning from prior experience that an ill maintained trail can chew through inner tubes faster than I can replace them, I went ahead and strapped a full size floor pump on top of Neandertrailer.  This trail only claimed two flats while out riding (plus one more that spontaneously deflated after I got back home), but what it lacked for in thorns it more than made up for in other obstacles.

Yes that is a floor pump bungeed to the top of the trailer.  Best idea ever.
The Western trailhead in Farmersville starts off entirely benign, a nicely paved jogging trail leading from Main street out to the edge of town.  But about 4km out, the pavement ends and turns in to double track.  The surface changes often from hard pack gravel, to soft deep gravel, to dirt, to mud, to grass, brief stretches of asphalt in some of the towns, to outright swamp.  A regular mountain bike can handle all of it just fine, but a heavy trailer makes things interesting as it wants to sink in to the soft gravel and slide down the slick sides of the trail in to the mud and it wants you to come along with it.

Where the sidewalk ends.

I got through all those terrain changes without an issue.  They were challenging and even fun - that's what off road riding is all about, right?  Even the entirely overgrown sections with underbrush covering the trail and  mature trees encroaching from the sides, mercilessly whipping and lashing at my arms and trying to poke out eyeballs with unseen twigs, even those sections hold a perverse sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

There's a trail in here somewhere.

But then I came to a screeching halt because someone had bulldozed a giant steep mound of dirt across the trail on either side of a road crossing.  These would probably make a sweet jump for those so inclined, but for me would result in a world of hurt.  There were several such barriers like this, some of them steep enough that the trailer would bottom out and get stuck at the top.

The pile of Bois D'arc balls at the bottom make it even easier to twist an ankle.
I'm not sure if those barriers were put in to keep motorized vehicles out, or to hide the trail, or if some rancher was trying to discourage use of the trail, or some other unfathomable reason.  The trail has a contentious history and any of those seem likely.  The land was obtained long ago as an easement for the railway (owned by multiple rail roads over the years) before being abandoned by the trains and subsequently taken over by the Chaparral Trail authorities.  The land owners wanted to reclaim that land and would put their own fences across it and even brought suit against the trail authority.  I found all this out from a combination of internet archives while researching the trip and a conversation with Mr. Bob Bledsoe, member of the board of directors of the trail, who I serendipitously met further down the trail.

But here I am, trailer stuck atop a mound of dirt.  I pulled steadily on the bike as Neandertrailer tore in to the grass and dragged the earth along with it, as if wanting more weight and company along for the rest of the journey.  It dislodged and came down the embankment too fast and nearly ran me over before falling to the side.  Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.  I righted the rig and kept on pedaling.

Were that they were all like this
The first bridge I came to was no trouble at all, nicely decked with two by six boards laid at angles.  The only reason I stopped to take a picture was because I had expected it to be worse judging from the few pictures I had found of the trail prior to the trip.  "No trouble at all," thought I, and rode on until I was stopped in my tracks by the next bridge.

Here's a collection of some of my favorites.  The ones with the nasty large gaps were by far the most fun, but there were definitely some other contenders.

This one was fairly easy as the bike could bump along the ties without getting stuck.

The overgrowth, branches, and thorn vines make it more interesting.
Especially when the trailer gets stuck on one.
This one was 100 meters long!

At either end of the tracks there was often a steep drop off of a couple feet down to the trail level.  Those were tricky to get the trailer down.

You can see straight through to your soggy, smelly end where bleeding from a broken leg competes with drowning to kill you!  None of the bridges have rails just to increase the chance of mortal injury.

There were a few precarious moments on the bridges but I made it past all of them.  Not like there was a choice.  Once I got the bike and trailer up on the bridge there was just about zero chance of getting that rig turned around without something going over the edge.

And then there was the mud.  There were at least two massive mud holes that spanned the entire width of the trail and in to the brush at the edges.  I don't know when it last rained, or how long those impromptu swamps had been around, but as I approached small frogs jumped from the bank and plooped in to the muddy water.

You can either force your way through the brush and small trees or go knee deep in muck.  I chose the brush this time.

On a day trip, this mud pit would be a riot to ride through, spraying muck and water all about the place and showing a grime flecked grin at the end of the trail.  On an overnight trip, being soaked in mud with no way to clean up and low overnight temperatures would not be a good situation.  I pushed the bike through the brush and at one point the bike caught on a branch and pushed back on me, and I teetered precariously off balance.

I really don't want to fall in.  For a variety of reasons.

I stayed upright and shoved the bike the rest of the way back to mostly dry land.  The next mud pit was just as nasty, but the brush was less dense and the going a little easier.

Up for a swim?
My original plan had been to ride the trail on in to Ladonia, scope out the town, then back track a few kilometers and camp in a small section of national forest that was near the trail.  All the slow downs and obstacles had put me far behind schedule, though, so I decided to head straight for camp.  I was stopped at the crossing of a gravel road, trying to determine exactly which of several possible unmarked county roads this was, eyeballing the sun and watching it sink lower in the sky and contemplating just how much fun it wouldn't be to find and set up a campsite in the dark, when a sedan slowly rumbled up the gravel road and stopped a few feet away from me.

An older gentleman stepped from the car and announced "Am I ever pleased to see you!  I bet you wouldn't think that, but I am!" He introduced himself as Bob Bledsoe, a member of the Board of Directors for the trail and explained that he was glad to see someone using the trail for biking.  We chatted for a bit about the trail, its current condition and its future plans.  Bob wants to improve the length of the trail as well as add in points of interest and camp grounds to make it a better experience for cyclists and hikers and a destination for Boy Scout and Girl Scout trips.  It's good to know that Bob and others are working to make the trail a better place, and I hope they get all the support and funding that they need to make it happen.

I wish there had been more time to talk with Mr. Bledsoe as he was a congenial fellow and I got the impression that he could tell a few tales.  But with the minutes ticking away, he confirmed which road we were standing on and then I was off and rolling again.  I found my way easily to the campsite, and while I would have preferred to sleep further out in the woods, I stayed within the perimeter of the hunter camping area of the national forest since an overeager sportsman might mistake a set of handlebars for a set of antlers.

Sunset in Caddo National Grasslands

I fell asleep to the howl of coyotes in the not too far off distance.  Their yips and howls are dissonant and discordant and will raise the hair on your neck, but they sang out like a lullaby to me as I drifted off.

I woke up to clear skies and the rising sun shining on my bike.  I broke camp quickly and was soon rolling down the road.  I had no desire to backtrack down that trail, and prefer a loop to an out and back anyway, so I had plotted out a route the night before.  I have never before been so glad to see chip seal.

Sunrise from inside the tent.  It's cold out there. 

Riding on the road was still slow going with knobby tires and a trailer, but at least it was predictable and the rolling hills were manageable.

Texas country road

This sign is here to confuse you.  Glad I had a map.

I got back to the trailhead without any issues.  The drivers out this way are friendly and most gave me a full lane and many of them waved.  I'm not sure they knew what to make of me, but they were hospitable none the less.

Some of the roads paralleled the trail and I caught glimpses of it through the trees from time to time.  The two paths were so close in proximity, yet worlds away in nature.  I'd like to see the trail improved at least to the point of being able to ride it without dismounting, but I hope it always retains some of its ruggedness.

The trail crosses the gravel road.  Can you spot it?  I wouldn't have if I hadn't known to look for it.


  1. I'm trying to plan a biking trip from Farmersville to Ladonia along the old railway as you did.

    Can you tell me if camping is allowed within the hunting area near the Palestine Church on Co Rd 3910? Is the campsite obvious?


    1. That's the campsite I used. I couldn't find anything saying otherwise so I camped there. You might want to call a ranger to confirm that it's open.

  2. Did you encounter any less than friendly land owners on this stretch? I hear that there may be some further on towards Paris. I'd like to do this trip someday soon.

  3. I saw very few people on the trail - a few walkers near Farmersville, one guy on an ATV near one of the mud pits (motorized vehicles are actually prohibited on the trail), and a couple guys who had used the trail as an access point to the federally owned hunting area. No issues with land owners. I got a few looks when I stopped in to a gas station along the trail (I think in Celeste), but no problems at all.

    Coincidentally, I met a couple who had ridden the trail maybe a week or two ago and they said the trail is actively being improved. I didn't get the exact details but it might be a little easier to ride now.

  4. Great report. Thanks very much for posting! You made it a long way, and the pics are great. I have only run across one guy who made it past Ladonia. Some tough sledding out there for sure.

    What is that fence at the grasslands camping area supposed to keep out? :) Seems like deer could go over it, and pigs would go under it? Anyway, you are the only report I found that gave decent guidance on where the camping area was, so thank you for that.

    I can definitely imagine riding almost to Ladonia one day, and then pushing on to Paris the next day if I felt, umm, excited.

    Thanks again for posting this.

    1. The fence is probably more to keep cattle out as well as just to mark the boundary of the hunting area. My limited understanding of trespassing laws is that you have to have the border clearly marked or fenced in order to prosecute trespassers.

    2. Well, and it has to be your land, too. My understanding is that you have to try to keep it from happening (hence a sign and fence) AND you have to prove damages. I'm not concerned about a trespassing charge. I just don't want to get shot.

      Having a fence for cattle and delineation makes sense.

  5. Jon, looking at getting a group to make an end to end ride.,3880.0.html

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