On Monday morning, May 1 at 5 a.m. I stepped through the front gate of the Gap Creek Ranch, turned left, and headed east down County Road 225. It was a moonless night, and while there were a gazillion stars in the sky, I could barely see the dirt road that lay before me. I expected to walk the 5-mile distance into Cranfills Gap, and then out onto FM 219 towards Clifton. I had just under 7 hours to hike & hitchhike the 52 miles between the ranch and the Amtrak station in McGregor, Texas, where my train would depart at 11:54 a.m.- with or without me.
In the weeks prior to my departure, I had wrestled with how I could get from the ranch to McGregor. I was willing and possibly able to walk up to 10 miles carrying the backpack, but I knew that I would somehow need to find a ride for most of the distance. I didn’t really want to have Sandy simply drive me to the train station, because that didn’t fit the romantic notions I had for how this epic adventure should begin (see Rule #4). But a couple of weeks before departure I had taken a test hike of 10 miles to determine if my marginally-fit 61-year-old carcass was up to the task. I completed that hike in a little under 6 hours. It semi-kicked my ass, and that was with no backpack. As a further complication, I had found no options for catching that ride into McGregor other than hitchhiking, there being no buses or taxis or Ubers anywhere near this part of Texas. I was becoming resigned to reality that I should just drive on over to the train station, until the night of my going away party. As the whiskey flowed and the joints burned, my old Aggie buddies (specifically Jay Holzem) told me to quit whining & just go stick my thumb out on the highway. He was right, of course, it was the only respectable way to begin.
I had walked about 2 miles, it must have been around 5:45, when a pick-up truck came along behind me. I wasn’t planning on hitchhiking until I reached the paved road, so I moved over to the left side of the road to let him pass on by. But the truck slowed to a stop, and the driver rolled down the window and asked, “Everything good?”. It must have been a puzzlement to see a backpacker hiking this remote dirt road before the 1st light of day. I said, “Yep, its a fine mornin’, how about a ride into the Gap?” I had my 1st ride of the day!
Bolivar Thomas, my neighbor from a ranch up the road from mine, drove me into Cranfills Gap. My wife knows his wife, whose name is also Sandy, but I had never met Bolivar. I was off to a good start, already saving more than 3 miles of walking, and a good hour and a half off my schedule for the day. He dropped me off at the little store in Cranfills Gap (pop. 335), where he was headed for his morning coffee. Thanks Bolivar.
I headed out onto FM 219 where I stuck out my thumb for the 1st car that passed, and damned if he didn’t pull right over. This young fellow’s name was Dustin Thomas (no relation to Bolivar), and he was driving a 92 Camaro with no muffler. Dustin liked to drive fast, it was a winding road, and still dark. But he looked sober enough and I had a train to catch, so 20 minutes later I was in Clifton- already half way to McGregor. The 3rd ride came just as quickly at the edge of Clifton from Mrs. Botis, who had just finished her night shift at the nursing home and was headed home to Waco. She dropped me off in Valley Mills at the crossroad for the highway leading to McGregor.
I walked out of Valley Mills at around 7 a.m., where my luck appeared to have run out. No cars were stopping, and several of the pick-up trucks accelerated passed me with distain, but I was only 20 miles from my train station, with 5 hours before the train was due. What, me worry? I walked a couple of miles along the road, watching 30 or more cars & trucks pass me by, before a crusty old buzzard picked me up in a car almost as old as he was. Milton Williams was headed to his transmission shop in McGregor. He managed to smoke 3 cigarettes in that 20 miles without even cracking a window, but I had me a ride. He dropped me off right in front of the McGregor train station at 7:50. I had traveled the 54 miles in less than 3 hours, and I was 4 hours early for my train! More important- I was in compliance with the rules.
I was the only person at this small town, old-time train station, and even though the train was 20 minutes late, I sure didn’t mind the long wait. I boarded the Texas Eagle bound for Chicago, feeling quite pleased with myself. The next day I would transfer over to the Lake Shore Express from Chicago to New York City.