Day 34: Hereford, TX to Amarillo, TX - American Redemption - CycleBlaze

March 28, 2013

Day 34: Hereford, TX to Amarillo, TX

The head start doesn't happen. When I poke my head out the motel room door at 7:30 it's 28 degrees and a stiff wind blows freezing from the north. The warm king-sized bed behind me wins.

When I ride out an hour and a half later, it's into a world of shit. Literally. The smell of manure and cow farts hangs in the air over Hereford, and when I turn north a few miles out of town I pass a feed yard where hundreds and hundreds of cattle combine forces to produce a methane stink so strong it almost makes me puke. I can't figure out how the families in the houses just up the road deal with the sent-from-hell stench. I've been around it for 20 minutes and I'm about to lose my mind.

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I'm off the busy highway and on to empty farm roads that all run at right angles to each other. It's steers and tractors, food trucks and water pumps, windmills and wide open spaces. Every few miles I pass an old house lived in by older farmers who drive Buick sedans painted conservative colors. I also learn how some modern-day cowboys herd their cattle. It doesn't involve a horse but an ATV, which the guy rides at top speed across the field until he ends up in the corner where the beefs are hanging out. Then he starts to yell things like hee-yaw and go on and git and rides the ATV straight at the cows in a menacing way until they start to move the direction he wants. It takes a few minutes to round up all the dumb or obstinate strays, but then the herd is off and trotting together toward whatever painful procedure the cowboy has planned for them.

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Looking out at the same basic scene for hours, I have time to form a theory about one reason why my time in Texas has had this impersonal, kind of detached feel to it. It's not that the distance between towns is so great; I've been through that in places like Wyoming and Montana before. It has a lot more to do with the fact there aren't towns at all; most every place is a city. Muleshoe has 5,200 people; Friona has 4,200; Hereford has more than 15,000. In between it's tens of thousands of acres of farms and fields and emptiness and then, boom, you're in the 14,000-person town of Canyon, riding down brick streets and past huge old homes with bright green front lawns. It's so different from rolling into a town of a thousand people where there's no traffic, where there aren't chain restaurants, where people are more willing to stop and say hello. Save for the east coast of Florida, I've never traveled in a part of America that doesn't have small towns. I miss it. I hope I'm back to it soon.

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Canyon turns out to be the most put-together place I've passed through in a few weeks. It's a college town, home to the West Texas A&M Buffaloes, and it's got all of the interesting restaurants, coffee shops, and bars that go along with that. Normally I'd stop off in a place like this for a day or two, but today I pass through more or less without stopping. I have business to take care of in Amarillo, and it's still 25 miles away.

One of today's three hills.
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Back roads with no center stripe take me past a mix of attractive homes, corrals, and wide open fields each dotted with a few horses or goats or donkeys. An impossibly long series of lefts and rights spaced at one to three mile intervals eat up the afternoon. It's the sort of indirect way you'd go if you had kidnapped someone, blindfolded them, shoved them in the trunk of your car, and didn't want them to figure out which direction you were going.

This is why we can't have nice things, guys.
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With fighter jets running touch-and-gos at the nearby airport, my last left dumps me out next to the freeway and into a sea of truck stops and gas stations and fast food joints. Then I hang a right, ride the wrong direction down a one-way street for a block or two, and find myself in front of the reason I've come to Amarillo: the Big Texan Steak Ranch. It's a gaudy yellow building with not one but six giant Texas flags flying out front and signs lit up with twinkling lights that chase each other in endless counterclockwise laps around the big letters. I grab a room at the motel next door, which looks like a psychedelic version of a block of buildings in a Wild West town, with bright pinks, blues, greens, and yellows fronted by signs with turn-of-the-century typefaces that read Longhorn, Dodge, Ranch House, and Lily's Hotel. The parking lot is full of cars from far off places like New York and Alabama and Florida. There are also half a dozen old Cadillac limos, all with bull horns mounted on the front, that offer free rides to anyone in town who wants to come out here for a steak.

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I'm here for a steak. But not just any steak. I'm here for a spectacle I've been waiting years to experience — something I've wanted to do since before I even knew bike touring existed. The Big Texan is known around the country and the world for one special thing: the free 72-ounce steak dinner. If you eat the steak, a salad, a baked potato, shrimp cocktail, and a dinner roll in under an hour, the entire meal is free. More than 50,000 people have tried, but fewer than 9,000 of them have succeeded. I've been riding for 34 days, over hills and mountains, through crazy winds, and I've pedaled 1,661 miles to get here. If ever there was a time in my life that I've ready to take on the free steak challenge, tonight's the night.

I've been trying to prepare myself. I ate a small dinner yesterday, and today powered through 64 miles on a honey bun, eight little peanut butter sandwich crackers, a candy bar, and a bottle and a half of water. In the motel bathroom I make extra space in my bladder and my innards and mentally prepare myself for what's about to go down. For hours I sit around feeling starved as I wait until 9:00 to maximize both hunger and capacity.

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When at last I head over to the Steak Ranch, I sit in a huge room of floor-to-ceiling dark wood, with animal heads and bull horns mounted above the dining area, the front third of a taxidermied bear on the wall facing me, and various spurs and guns and horseshoes hanging throughout. The waiters and waitresses all wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats, every table has a cow print tablecloth, and muffled country western music fuzzes out of 25-year-old speakers in the background. A band of three old guys on a guitar, fiddle, and bass walk among the tables playing two-minute songs and pushing for tips. At least 150 people gorge themselves on steaks and chops and fries, even at 9:00 in the evening. According to one of the staff, this is a slow night.

"I want to do the free steak thing," I tell my waitress.

A few minutes later I give her my credit card and put $72 on the line. While drinking Dr. Pepper from a blue plastic cup in the shape of a cowboy boot, I sign a 10-rule waiver that says:

  1. Entire meal must be completed in one hour. If any of the meal is not swallowed, YOU LOSE!
  2. Before the time starts, you will be allowed to cut into the steak, and take one bite. If the steak tastes good and is cooked to your satisfaction, we will start the time upon your acceptable approval. The time will not stop, and the contest is on, so make SURE before you say "yes."
  3. Once you have started you are not allowed to stand up, leave your table, or have anyone else TOUCH the meal.
  4. You will be disqualified if anyone assists you in cutting, preparing or eating of your meal. This is YOUR contest.
  5. You don't have to eat the fat, but we will judge this.
  6. Should you become ill, the contest is over. YOU LOSE! (Please use the container provided as necessary.)
  7. You are required to pay the full amount up front; if you win we will refund 100%.
  8. You must sit at a table that we assign.
  9. If you do not win the steak challenge, you are welcome to take the leftovers with you.
  10. No consumption or sharing of the leftovers is allowed in the restaurant once the contest is over.

Then I wait — nervous, anxious, hungry — for almost half an hour. The suspense drives me to the edge of insanity.

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Just before 10:00 it's time. I walk up to a raised platform at the center of the airplane hangar of a dining room. On it there's a long table, six seats, and six countdown clocks, all looked down on by a giant bull skull. When I sit down, all I can focus on is the steak. It's the largest chunk of meat — the largest chunk of any kind of food — I've ever seen. Not only is it bigger around than my face, it's also an inch to an inch and a half thick all over. The feeling I get when I look over the steak, the roll, the shrimp, the potato, and the salad isn't unlike the one I experienced back in New Mexico when the white Subaru narrowly missed running me down: holy shit, this is happening, right here, right now; just do what you have to do to make it through alive.

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The scope of what I've signed up for washes over me as one of the waiters stands up on the opposite corner of the platform and yells out to the restaurant: "Ladies and gentlemen! This is Jeff. He's come all the way from Seattle and he's about to take on our 72-ounce free steak challenge! When that timer starts he has exactly one hour to finish a 72-ounce steak, a salad, three shrimp, a baked potato, and a dinner roll! You're welcome to come up and take pictures, but please don't touch the table. Alright? Ladies and gentlemen, give him a hand!"

With a huge round of applause and cheers and good lucks pouring in from all corners of the restaurant, I cut into the steak, take a bite, and tell the waitress it's cooked right. She asks me if I need anything else and I say no. With that, she flips open the cover to a small control pad, pushes a button, and the red LED lights of the first countdown timer start to tick down from 60:00.

I go to work at a steady, focused, not too rushed pace. I look down at the massive slab of beef and think, "OK, tackle this thing in quarters. 13 or 14 minutes per quarter and you'll get there with enough time to power through the sides."

And for about 15 minutes it works. I cut good-sized chunks of meat, stab them with the fork, and send them down the hatch. The first quarter and half of the second go down with no trouble at all.

"Good pace, my man," says one of the waiters as he walks past.

Yeah it's a good pace — I've got this.

Almost two dozen people — men and women, young and old — walk up to the platform to wish me good luck, tell me I'm crazy, or snap a picture of the food and of me with their cell phone.

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But soon the mechanics of the situation start to raise a ruckus. I'm 5-foot-11, and thanks to riding a heavy bike every day for five weeks, about 170 pounds. Yet even though I've lost a lot of weight and tonight I'm beyond hungry, the steak still has to end up in a stomach that stopped growing 15 years ago. After about 20 minutes, the walls of that stomach start to close in. Every bite takes more effort to get down, the area above my belly button starts to feel weak, and my brain fires off a rapid series of signals that says Do not proceed, for fuck's sake!

The half hour mark hits and I know there's no way I'm walking out of here with a free steak. Not a chance in the world. I have my eyes focused forward and try to keep digging, but the bites get smaller, I need more and more soda to help them down, and an old hockey injury causes my jaw to ache from all the chewing. And soon a general sense of discomfort starts to hang over my body, radiating outward from the stomach. I have no rational reason to push on, but I'm up on a stage, people are watching, and hey, maybe I'll get a second wind or a burst of free space or something!

With about 23 minutes to go, the waitress asks me if I need anything.

"No," I tell her. "I'm done. I can't take one more bite of this thing."

And so, with 22:20 to go, the clock stops. It's an unbelievable sense of relief, because if I go any farther, if I take one more bite, I'll projectile vomit in a very public place. It's with no regret or any second thoughts that I toss the napkin on the plate, let out a massive sigh, crack a smile, and sign a credit card slip for $72 plus tip.

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With my boot-shaped cup and free souvenir loser's t-shirt in hand, I waddle back across the parking lot to my motel room with a headache. I feel tired, beyond stuffed, disappointed that I couldn't finish, but happy I didn't push any farther. The whole experience, from start to finish, is a big, bold, over the top slice of Texas kitsch — a heaping portion of roadside Americana. I wouldn't want it any other way. The giant ball of meat in my gut will stick with me for a few days, but the vividness of this afternoon and this evening will stick around in my memories for decades. Even in failure I'm the big winner.

Puke bucket not necessary.
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As the clock turns over to midnight, cable TV plays in the background while I stare up at the ceiling and realize that I have to hop on a bike and start pedaling in eight or nine hours. I don't know how the physics of that are going to work out. And then I open the styrofoam container I brought home from dinner, take out the roll, and finish it in three bites.

Today's ride: 64 miles (103 km)
Total: 1,661 miles (2,673 km)

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Jeff LeeYou didn't even touch the salad!
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2 years ago
Jeff ArnimTo Jeff LeeI think that was part of the strategy: don't fill up on bread and salad. Also, I was pretty anti-salad back then in general.
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2 years ago