I retired my roadie after 16 years – and bought a new gravel bike

I retired my roadie after 16 years – and bought a new gravel bike

I rode this Trek 5200 for 16 years. I finally put it out to pasture this week. Chris LeBlanc photo

I retired a trusty steed this week.
I’ve been pedaling a blue Trek 5200 since 2004. Back then, it was a top-of-the-line bike, roughly the same frame on which Lance Armstrong had won his 1999 Tour de France.
I was 40 years old when I bought it, paying a whopping $2,300. That seemed like a lot, but that old Trek became my primary mode of transportation for years. I’ve more than wrung my money out of it.
I logged 16 years of happy trails on that bike.
At first, I used it only for long-distance riding. I’d take it to the Hill Country, where I knocked out 60 or 70 miles at a time. It carried me from Houston to Austin for the MS150, then from Seattle to Portland. It was my go-to steed for the Willow City Loop in the Texas Hill Country each spring. A few years ago, I rode all the way across Iowa, pausing at corn on the cob stands, slip’n slides and pork chop trucks during RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Ride Across Iowa.
It became my primary commuter bike seven or eight years ago, whisking me from my home in Allandale to swim practice and the Austin American-Statesman four or five days a week. I rode it to interviews and restaurants, and everywhere in between.

Behold my new Specialized Diverge, a banana cream pie-colored gravel bike. Chris LeBlanc photo


This week, I finally gave up on that old bike. It had been nursed along enough years. The components were worn out. My spine felt every jolt; I needed something smoother.
Yesterday I came home with a new ride, one built to handle gravel roads. My new Specialized Diverge gives me shivers of happiness.
She’s the color of banana cream pie, and glides like a Rolls Royce.
And if she lasts as long as my last bike, I’ll be riding her until I’m 72.

She rides like a Rolls Royce. (At least I think she does. I’ve never ridden in a Rolls Royce.) Chris LeBlanc photo

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Butler Trail updates: New bathrooms, a new deck, floating islands and cheese for a cause

Butler Trail updates: New bathrooms, a new deck, floating islands and cheese for a cause

A new deck and rain gardens has opened near the Four Seasons Hotel. Photo courtesy The Trail Foundation

And now, some updates about the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, which for the moment remains open …
• First, you’ve got one more spot to pee, people. The new Festival Beach restroom has opened, replacing a crappy (sorry) facility at Edward Rendon Sr. Metro Park.
• You’ve also got a new place to take a different kind of break. A new deck has opened on the north side of the river, next to the Four Seasons Hotel. The unofficially-named Brazos Bluffs area features bench seating, rain gardens and behind-the-scenes infrastructure to prevent erosion. The project cost $438,000, according to Heidi Cohn, executive director of The Trail Foundation.
• Antonelli’s Cheese Shop will host a virtual cheese tasting on July 17, with a portion of proceeds benefitting the Trail Foundation. The “Cheese 1010: The Seven Styles of Cheese” class will costs is $40. Participants will pick up their cheese plates curbside the day of the event. (Wine pairings are also available.) The hour-long class will be followed by a 15-minute question and answer session, all done via video conferencing.
• Notice those floating islands of vegetation at the east end of Lady Bird Lake? Those aren’t lily pads, they’re wetland structures that provide habitat for plants and animals, and help with carbon sequestration, water quality and temperature regulation. The foundation installed the structures in February.

A new restroom has opened on the Butler Trail at Fiesta Gardens. Photo courtesy The Trail Foundation

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What to do while stuck at home? Taste test whiskey, of course

What to do while stuck at home? Taste test whiskey, of course

I sampled these four Utah whiskeys during a virtual tasting recently. Pam LeBlanc photo


Since the pandemic, I’ve been holed up in my house, writing most days and sneaking out to swim in the lake, and, well, sampling a lot of booze.
I’m not just tossing the strong drink back to numb the pain of the pandemic, though. I’m trying to educating myself about what I’m sipping.
A few weeks ago, I focused on whiskey. Jim Santangelo, a sommelier and instructor at the Wine Academy of Utah, also knows a lot about liquor, so I signed up for his online “Whiskey and History” session. The kind folks from Utah shipped me four bottles to try, and Santangelo led a Zoom session during which we tasted them and discussed the history of alcohol in Utah. (To sign up for your own tasting, go to www.wineacademyofutah.com.)
Like some of the other folks in our class, I had assumed that Salt Lake City, with its strong Mormon roots, didn’t have a long romance with alcohol. As it turns out, it does.
At first, the city was mainly a pass-through town on the way to Cheyenne and Reno. It grew quickly in the 1850s and ‘60s, though, as the railroad and mining industries in the area boomed. All those workers needed a little booze to keep them going, and many Mormons consumed alcohol “for medicinal purposes.” Dozens of distilleries, wineries and breweries – 80 percent of them owned by Mormons, according to Santangelo – popped up in the area. Even Brigham Young began making and bottling his own version of liquor, called Valley Tan Whiskey.
But in the early 1900s, Utah saw a wave of temperance. Prohibition started in 1919 and lasted until 1933. After that, Utah never really jumped back into the booze business. Mine work slowed, the golden spike connected railroads from the east and west, and the mass of workers needing a drink faded.
“Utah and Salt Lake City kind of lost their taste for alcohol,” Santangelo said. “It wasn’t until 2007 that they got their first distillery, and that was High West.”
I love High West, for the record. I’ve visited the distillery, in Park City, twice – once on snow skis and once on a bicycle.
Today, 18 distilleries operate around the state. “What I love is they’re using regionally local grains and ground water from the Wasatch snowmelt,” Santangelo says.
We tasted four of them.

1. First on our list? Hugh Moon, a clear (yes, like water) whiskey made by Dented Brick Distillery and named for the first distiller of record in Utah, the one and only Hugh Moon. Dented Brick Distillery operates at the exact site of that old distillery, and the Hugh Moon is made with the original recipe for rye whiskey made there a century ago. It’s made with 100 percent rye grain and distilled in steel containers. Since by definition whiskey must spend time in a wooden cask – and the rules don’t say for how long – it’s poured into one and rolled across the distillery floor. It’s unaged. “The taste of history,” Santangelo says, noting the slight biscuit cookie aromatic. “No darkening from the wood.” To me, it tastes a tad chemically and harsh, but I like it better when I splash a little water in it.
2. Next up? Robbers Roost, a light whiskey by Water Pocket Distillery, named after a geologic formation at Capitol Reef National Park where Butch Cassidy reportedly once hung out. The color looks more whiskey-like, a light caramel tint from spending two years in aged barrels purchased by the distillery from Seagrams. “Just a kiss of that wood” imparts a warmth to this whiskey, and I detect a hint of vanilla and even coconut. It smells luscious, like toffee – much sweeter on the palate than the clear stuff. I like it. A lot.
3. Now comes Sugar House bourbon, made with locally grown corn and aged in charred barrels made of new American oak. It’s darker than the last one, and tastes a tad like crème brulee, with a touch of cinnamon and spice. It’s even better – and quite butterscotchy – when I stir in some water. It surprises me how much just a splash changes the taste of whiskey. This one’s really good, but I still prefer the Robbers Roost.
4. We wrap up with my old friend High West, but I’ve never sampled their double rye (“twice the rye, twice the flavor”), which is aged in oak barrels and tastes like someone swirled a cinnamon stick in it. “It makes a heck of a cocktail,” Santangelo says. It makes a heck of an everything, actually. I like it poured over a giant cube of ice, at the end of a rough day.

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Big Bend National Park closed again

Big Bend National Park closed again

Visitors look out over Big Bend National Park while hiking the South Rim in fall 2018. Pam LeBlanc photo


Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River closed to the public this morning, after someone in the park’s residential community tested positive for COVID-19
Only park employees, residents and other authorized personnel will be allowed into the park. Through traffic is prohibited; Terlingua Ranch Road within the park’s boundaries is also closed.
The park is acting according to a COVID-19 operations plan developed alongside public health professionals, according to a press release.
“We are working closely with our state and local partners during this closure,” Big Bend National Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker said in the press release. “Healthy NPS employees will continue to work behind the scenes, improving the condition of the park, with strict adherence to social distancing and safety protocols to assure their safety. We look forward to reopening the park, when the timing is right, as safely as possible.”
For the latest park status go to the Big Bend COVID-19 Updates Page.

Chris LeBlanc takes in the view from Mesa de Anguilla at Big Bend National Park. Pam LeBlanc photo

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Barton Springs and Deep Eddy close today until further notice

Barton Springs and Deep Eddy close today until further notice

Barton Springs and Deep Eddy pools are closed until further notice due to the spike in COVID-19 cases. Pam LeBlanc photo


If you were planning on a dip in Barton Springs Pool this July 4 weekend, you’ll have to make alternate plans.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise, the City of Austin has closed Barton Springs Pool and Deep Eddy Pool, effective today. The pools will remain closed until further notice.
All parks and recreational facilities, including city parks, golf courses, boat ramps, museums, gardens, preserves and tennis courts, will close Friday through Sunday, July 5. Pre-paid park admission passes will be refunded.
For a full listing of park closures, visit austintexas.gov/parkclosures.

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Skinny dipping, porcupines and a crunched canoe: Four glorious days on the Devils River

Skinny dipping, porcupines and a crunched canoe: Four glorious days on the Devils River

The water on the Devils River is as clear as gin. Chris LeBlanc photo

I paid a toll to Satan last week, when I paddled the clearest, most pristine river in Texas, the Devils.
It was worth the price.
On day three of the four-day trip down the prettiest ribbon of turquoise water I’ve ever seen, my husband and I pinned our aluminum canoe against a boulder at Indian Creek Rapid. The Devil tipped our boat on its side, and we watched in horror as it filled with water. We fought for 10 minutes to free it, and when it finally busted loose with a sickening crunch, the Devil had had its way.
In the end, we gathered all our gear and chased our half-sunk boat down. She’s twisted out of alignment and doesn’t steer quite right, but we’re working to bend her back into shape. And despite the carnage, I loved the trip.

Jimmy Harvey, left, and Chris LeBlanc, right, survey the damage after we crunched our canoe in Indian Creek Rapids. Pam LeBlanc photo


Chris LeBlanc paddles around a boulder. Pam LeBlanc photo


Something about paddling a West Texas river sets me free. I paddled the Devils three years ago, and the Pecos River two years ago. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the Devils can’t be beat for spring-fed swimming holes and incredible pure Texas scenery.
We drove out on a Saturday, and stayed at a rental house operated by guide Gerald Bailey. We left his place at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, so we could to the put-in at Baker’s Crossing by 8:30.
We planned a leisurely trip. The Devils is all about lollygagging, not racking up miles as quickly as you can.

To run the river, you’ve got two options: Get a Devils River Access Permit from Texas Parks and Wildlife, which allows you to pitch a tent at any of the designated paddle camps between Baker’s Crossing and the Dan Hughes (lower) unit of the Devils River State Natural Area; or camp on islands as you go. Whatever you do, don’t trespass on private land along the way.
If you go all the way to Dan Hughes, it’s a 30-mile trip. (You can also paddle all the way to Rough Canyon Marina at Lake Amistad, but you’ll have to paddle through notoriously choppy lake water and reed mazes to get to the point at Mile 47 if you do.) We took out at Bailey’s place at Mile 22.
We loaded our canoes with coolers filled with steaks, sausage and thick pork chops, home-grown tomatoes, eggs, bagels and coffee. Our third amigo, Jimmy Harvey, took over as expedition chef, and we toasted the stars every night with beer, wine and whiskey.
A few words of caution. This river isn’t for novices. The rapids – especially Three Tier Rapids and Indian Creek Rapids – can mangle boats or snap legs, and if disaster hits, you’re a long way from rescue. We carried a Garmin InReach tracker so we could call for help in event of emergency.
Prepare to get in and out of your boat a lot, especially if the flow at Baker’s Crossing is below 100 cfs. (It was about 82 cfs when we went in late June.) We hit lots of bony sections where we ran aground and had to drag short distances. A composite canoe works better than aluminum, which tends to stick to the rough limestone rock like Velcro.

Jimmy Harvey and Chris LeBlanc portage a canoe around Dolan Falls. Pam LeBlanc photo

Pam LeBlanc relaxes in a hammock while camping on an island in the Devils River. Chris LeBlanc photo


The rapids build as the miles tick past. The first day, we glided over a few easy riffles. The second, we encountered bigger rapids around Sycamore Chutes. We got out to scout, and Jimmy pointed out a channel so skinny I wondered if our boat would fit. It did and we slid through, reeds slapping us in the face and Chris pushing off rocks with his paddle. We shot over a last big drop by Game Warden Rock, then forged into a headwind as the river flattened out again.
The scenery along the river reminds me of an old Western movie – cactus- and brush-covered hillsides, dotted with big, cracked boulders. A herd of feral hogs galloping across the river. Circling vultures. A pair of porcupines snoozing in a couple of trees. And, best of all, an endless procession of swimming holes – deep, clear pools of water that make me swoon. That kind of water’s best felt against your skin, so I peeled off my clothes and skinny dipped.
Jimmy cast his fly rod as we went, reeling in fish after fish and tossing it back. (Bass are catch and release only here, to protect the wild population.)
The biggest obstacle along the way comes at Dolan Falls, at Mile 16. You have to empty all the gear out of your boat and portage around the plunging water before loading up and pushing off again. We managed just fine, but choose your footing carefully.
We passed a few stray paddle kayakers on the river, but no other campers on multi-day trips. High season is usually April and May; June can be (and was) hot and dry. Check flow before you go, pack personal flotation devices and make sure you’re skilled enough to handle the river.

A porcupine naps in a tree along the Devils River. Pam LeBlanc photo

If you make the trip, you’ll understand what makes it so special, and why an organization called the Devils River Conservancy (www.devilsriverconservancy.org) works so hard to keep it clean. The non-profit organization was formed in 2011 to protect it from threats that include invasive species, recreational over-use, land fragmentation, over-pumping of groundwater and more.
Read about my 2018 trip down the Pecos River at http://specials.mystatesman.com/pecos-river/.
And read about my previous trip down the Devils River here https://tpwmagazine.com/archive/2017/nov/ed_3_devilsriver/index.phtml.

The Devils River serves up classic West Texas beauty. Pam LeBlanc photo

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