This is a 2006 revision of the story that first appeared in Cycling News in early 1996 as "A Christmas Story."
Every experienced cyclist knows that. A bike ride can also change your attitude toward life. Every perceptive bicyclist knows that, too.
Just riding a bike is healthy exercise and if you do it regularly, it can prolong your life. But riding a bicycle can also give you time to think, time to see and hear the world around you, and time to have experiences you just couldn’t have any other way. This is the story of such an experience.
It was the night before the night before Christmas 1995, and the sun had set on the first day of our bicycle adventure.
Nancy and I had found ourselves without plans for the holidays — no children or grandchildren available to celebrate the season — so to keep our spirits up, we decided on a bicycle tour to the Texas coast for Christmas. Maybe we would even see the whooping cranes.
We packed everything we needed into the four bags for each bicycle. Our plan was to stay in motels and eat at restaurants, but just in case, we brought along our tent, our sleeping bags and some emergency rations.
It was my turn to do the trip planning, which was probably the reason Nancy insisted on the tent and sleeping bags. I sketched out our route but never got around to adding up the mileage or researching the accommodations along the way. After all, it was supposed to be an adventure.
My penciled-in route was to take us from our home on the south edge of Austin to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the coast. I guessed that it was maybe 225 miles, one way. I assumed we could get there in two days of riding. It was, after all, pretty flat most of the way. I figured we would spend Christmas Eve in Rockport or Port Aransas and take another look at the map to plan our route home.
It all seemed pretty simple and straightforward at the dining room table with a fire in the cook stove and a hot cup of coffee.
So here we were, pedaling along in the dark, our flashing taillights informing the occasional overtaking motorist that we were there, on the shoulder of Texas 80. Our sturdy little headlights pierced the darkness ahead, looking for the town of Nixon, still 30 minutes away. As the temperature dropped past 35 and my breath became increasingly visible ahead of me, I began to wonder just what kind of adventure was unfolding before us.
We had gotten off to a less than auspicious start earlier that day. One thing or another had slowed us down, and it was nearly noon when we rolled out of our driveway, noon and a chilly 45 degrees. Christmas sendoffs the night before, last-minute packing and my mere sketch of a plan had put us in this situation.
Back in Kyle, I’d been forced to put on full-fingered gloves and leg warmers. It really was cold, but that hadn’t stopped us from playing with a “herd” of emu on the way to Martindale. They ran after us along the fence as if they wanted to come too.
By the time we reached the Blue Ribbon Bakery in Prairie Lea, the kolaches had definitely cooled. At that point we needed to make a decision.
Luling looked too close for an overnight stop, but Nixon might be too far. It would be a close race with sunset, but a customer at the bakery assured us there was a motel in Nixon, so we went for it.
And then we were there, coming into Nixon — the bright lights of a highway intersection with convenience stores and a Dairy Queen. The temperature was still dropping. Where was the motel? Would there be any vacancies with it being Christmas and lots of families traveling? I hadn’t even thought of that possibility.
We pushed on, and there was the motel sign and the building, but not only was there no room at the inn, there was no inn. The rooms had long since become the domain of travelers less fortunate than ourselves. What to do? At the suggestion of the defunct motel’s owner, we went to inquire at the Catholic Church a few blocks away. Maybe we could spread our sleeping bags in the church or pitch our tent on the grounds.
A Christmas program was about to begin, and as we stood astride our bikes in the cold darkness of the parking lot, wondering what to do, a couple and three small children came up to us, shook our hands and wished us a merry Christmas. We quickly learned they were Lee and Lily Gaytan and their grandchildren. We returned their Christmas greeting and when they asked where we were going, we told them of our adventurous plans and also of our present dilemma.
Nancy went into the church and returned with instructions to come back at 7:30; something would be found. We retreated to the warmth of the Dairy Queen, an institution in any Texas town. At 7:30 we pedaled back to the church, leaning our bikes against the darkened wall. As we stood there in the now below freezing air, I tried not to think about pitching our tent in the dark and lonely-looking baseball field we had passed on our way to the church.
In Nixon, as in most any Texas town, the Catholic Church is the center of the Hispanic community. The priest stood in the chilly night air shaking the hands of departing parishioners. Couples and families waved cheerful goodbyes as they hurried to their cars and young men holding their best cowboy hats lingered awhile, dividing their attention between the toes of their polished boots and the equally lingering group of young women who talked softly, giggled frequently, and stole quick glances back in their direction.
“Have you found anything?” Lee asked as he came over to where we stood. I told him we hadn’t had a chance to speak to the priest or anyone else yet.
“You are welcome to stay with us,” he said. “We have a room. It is not much, but you are welcome to stay. There is just our three grandchildren and our son, who will be coming in later tonight.”
We objected. We didn’t want to impose. Maybe we could pitch our tent in their yard.
“There is no imposition. It is our daughter’s room, but she lives in Dallas and will not be home for Christmas.”
He insisted. We could follow them home. “But our bicycles are slow,” I said. “How far is it?” It was only a mile and he would drive slowly. The warmth and hospitality of the Gaytans was already at work. It was no longer a cold night. We turned on our lights, mounted our bikes and followed this family home.
The house was warm. It was warm with heat and it was warm with family. Immediately, the two young boys did what young boys always do in front of company: They showed off. Their older sister, Victoria, who was 10, divided her time between scolding her brothers and smiling prettily.
At first, all three pretended that the television show was their only concern, but each sneaked frequent looks at the pile of presents under the tree, just to make sure they were still there. Occasionally a representative was sent to petition for the early opening of a present. The answer was each time the same: “Ask your father when he gets here.”
Before we could object, Lily was feeding us her homemade tamales and tortillas with beans and rice and chili. Sure, we had eaten something at the Dairy Queen, but we were bicyclists and model guests, so we ate again.
The kids got their wish of one present to open when their father arrived (but only after he had eaten). Before long we had three kids on our laps calling me Santa Claus and asking Nancy about her girls. We ended up in a soft warm bed with a sense of being home for Christmas. And we’d ridden 79 miles on the first day of our adventure. Sleep came easy.
Lily had asked when we’d like to get up, and since sunrise wasn’t until 7:30 I said that whenever she got up would be fine. She woke us at 6:30 with bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, coffee, toast, and tortillas. She was truly amazing. Young Victoria sat at the table and talked with us about school while we ate.
Lee got up and dressed just in time to take our pictures as we were leaving. We stood in the yard and said our goodbyes. Somehow we knew that the trip could not get better than this. It would be fun, of course, but never better than this. We pedaled off, waving.
How was the rest of the trip? Well, it was fun. Maybe someday I’ll even write about it, but somehow as we left the Gaytans we knew we were leaving an experience we would never forget. We had found the true spirit of Christmas, and it was living in Nixon, Texas.
* * *
I know it isn’t Christmas yet, but I am reprinting this story now (October, 2006) because we have been invited to Lee and Lily’s 50th wedding anniversary next week down in Nixon, and we wouldn’t miss it for the world.