Robert E. Howard
I'm not entirely sure how it came up -- probably just 'cause he knew I was a writer of "that weird stuff" -- but one of my ZZR buddies from Austin happened to mention that he had been to see Robert E. Howard's home in Cross Plains, TX. Just 10 or 12 years ago, the town had acquired the house (it had been a rental property since sometime in the thirties or forties) and set it up as a museum to honor the great writer. Along with guys like Fritz Leiber and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Howard had been a huge influence on me as a boy. I wouldn't be the man (let alone writer) that I am today if my influential years hadn't been ... well, let's try to use some word other than "warped," shall we? ... by the wonderful fantasy literature produced in Howard's mere 30 years (1906-1936). So when Mike F. mentioned this to me, my immediate response was "How would you like to meet me there and show me around?" Mike took me up on the offer and we agreed to meet on a Friday morning at 11:00 a.m. When my buddy Greg found out I was coming to Texas, he dredged up some of his maniacal biker buds for a little fun on the following Saturday. Gregger and Elaine invited me to spend the weekend with them, so it looked like I had a great excuse for letting my grass grow and getting away from writing assignments and honey-dos. Woohoo!
If you've been reading these two-wheeled adventures of mine, you know the first order of business with the ZZR is always tires. It was time for a new rear tire ... again. I pulled my wheel and had a brand spanking new Bridgestone BT020 mounted and balanced Wednesday night so that I'd be good to go. The new rubber didn't even touch the road until that Friday morning when I loaded the bike, rolled her off the center stand, and hit the road at 5 a.m. Is it just me or is there something sexy about a brand new tire?
In the predawn gloom of overcast skies, I-44 carried me south through Chickasha, Lawton, and then Wichita Falls, TX. There were no stars and certainly none of the Pleiades meteorites Betty, Summer, and I had sat out watching earlier in the week (Summer counted nearly a dozen shooting stars on her own; Betty and I weren't far behind). The morning was unusually brisk for August. In fact, I had to wear a long sleeved t-shirt under my Gericke jacket, and even then I was a bit nippy. There was little traffic and I made good time, even though I kept the bike down to about 80 mph for fear of deer. I didn't see any live ones, but there was plenty of fresh roadkill to warn me to stay on my toes. The ZZR felt great, that extra wide tire gone from the back (see my southwest tour story for an explanation). I'd forgotten how much better she cornered with the stock tire size (a 180 versus the 200 that I'd had mounted out of necessity in New Mexico).
With the sun coming up, I hit the backroads in Texas for the remainder of the ride. 281 carried me south out of Wichita Falls. The sign for Archer City zipped past and I gave some serious thought to taking that road just so I could drive through the home town of Larry McMurtry -- author of fantastic books like Lonesome Dove -- but that would have to wait for another day, as I had over 300 miles to do before 11 a.m if I was to meet Mike on time at the Howard house. From 281, I took 16 (excellent road!). In Graham, the local law pulled out behind me, obviously disappointed that I had slowed down through his speed trap. He dogged my heels all the way through town, watching that I didn't do 36 in a 35 or something totally ridiculous. As a result of watching my speedometer and rearview mirror more than I was watching the road, I missed the turn I had planned to make at highway 67. 67 would have taken me down through Breckenridge, a bit more direct route to Cross Plains. Once I realized I'd missed the turn, rather than double-back through that Pain-in-the-Ass's town, I just stayed on 16 all the way down to I-20. Just north of I-20, outside a town called Strawn, I topped a rise doing about 90 and got that sinking feeling in my gut. There was a plain white car approaching from the other direction. Though there were no lights on the roof of the car, my gut screamed local law. Just a second after I got off the throttle, blue lights came to life behind his grill.
I grabbed the shoulder of the road right away. Took off my gloves and my helmet. Removed my ear plugs. "Good morning," he said as he walked up. "It's a nice one," I replied, "too nice for a speeding ticket." About this time, the last two cars I had passed coming down 16 breezed past, and I caught the blur of satisfied faces pressed against window glass. Yeah, write that damn sportbiker a speeding ticket, officer! Menace to society! Blew by me like I was standing still, I tell ya! "I got you doing 84," he said as I handed him my driver's license, "but it took me a minute to get a lock on you, so I suspect you were actually going faster." "Eighty-four," I said, incredulously, "was I going that fast?" He asked for my insurance verification and I dug that out, attracting his attention to the tank bag. My Texas map was there in the map window, with my route highlighted in yellow. He looked at it and said, "Where are you heading?" "Cross Plains, but I missed a turn back in Graham." (I didn't tell him why.) "What for? There's absolutely nothing in Cross Plains." (Almost true.) So I asked him if he'd ever heard of Robert E. Howard. No, he hadn't. "One of Texas's most famous sons," I said and proceeded to tell him all about Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, and Soloman Kane. "I'm a writer," I explained, "and I thought it would be neat to visit his home and gravesite because he was such an influence on me when I was younger." "Okay, okay, okay," he said, sensing that I'd rattle on forever. It was obvious all he knew of Conan the Barbarian had come from comic books and the current Governor of California's movie role. Then he leaned over the dash of the bike and said, "One-ninety?!?!?" "Huh?" "Right there," he said, "one-ninety!" I must have appeared dense, because it took him finally telling me that he was looking at the speedometer. One-ninety mph is where it pegs out. I waited for the inevitable "Will it go that fast?" but instead he said, "You haven't ridden it that fast, have you?" "Do I look that crazy?" I asked him, and he just looked at me like he thought I was. I didn't bother explaining that top end on the bike was reportedly something like 180-185 or that I'd personally only had it up to 150. The latter, especially, did not seem like a wise confession to make to a police officer with your driver's license in one hand and his ticket book in the other.
"Wait here," he finally said and went back to his car to run my license and make sure I wasn't some hardened criminal. I got off the bike. Stretched my legs. Got a drink of water from the bottle in my tank bag. Waved to the passenger in the next car that zoomed past. Finally the cop got out of his car and walked back to me. "Well," he said, "I'm going to do you a favor." I smiled dubiously, expecting the favor to begin with "I'm only going to write you up for going XX miles an hour..." but instead he handed me my driver's license and said he was letting me off with a warning. Holy crap! He was foregoing the revenue my ticket would generate? Unbelievable! I thanked him and shook his hand. He told me to slow it down because there were a lot of deer in the area. I could have told him all about hitting deer on a motorcycle, but it was time for both of us to mosey on. I had miles to cover and he probably had donuts to track down.
I did slow down for a few minutes. Honest.
I had to grab I-20 and backtrack to the west because of the missed turn in Graham. The interstate was crawling with highway patrol. I saw three in the 30 miles from Mingus to Cisco. I was worried about being late, but actually arrived in Cross Plains about a quarter after ten. Despite the missed turn in Graham and the friendly chat with the officer in Strawn, I had made fantastic time. I found the rundown little hotel (Motel 36, only one in town and I don't think they leave the light on for you) where Mike said he was going to spend the night, thinking that he had planned to ride down the night before. Not finding his bike (a Pearl Mystic Black ZZR just like mine) in the parking lot, I checked at the desk, where the clerk was absolutely no help whatsoever ("Mike? I dunno if we have any Mikes registered. I can't seem to find what Wilma Jean did with the registration book...") and insisted on telling me about every lunch special in town and how he was planning to ride his Shadow 750 to Louisiana ( I refrained from saying, "I feel sorry for you, Bubba, 'cause that damn Shadow is gonna wear your ass out going all the way to Louisiana."). Finally breaking free of the guy, I hopped on the ZZR and rode the 100 yards down the street to the Howard house (another 100 yards and you've seen pretty much all of Cross Plains) at the corner of Fifth (Hwy 36) and Mesquite.
I parked around back, only later learning that I had parked in exactly the same spot where Howard had sat in his car, placed a pistol to his head, and blown his brains out, tragically ending what had already been a prolific writing career. (It was about this time that I also remembered that it was Friday the 13th. Good thing I'm not superstitious.) While living in this house from 1919 until his suicide on June 11, 1936, Howard wrote over 800 stories and poems. While writing, he often vocalized his stories and acted them out in his yard, which caused his neighbors to think he wasn't quite normal (naturally, his suicide would further those opinions).
That morning, the house was getting a fresh coat of paint, so there were ladders on the porch and leaning against the roof. The painter was a friendly old guy who leaned in and whispered the inevitable "You know he kilt hisself, doncha?" (which I had already heard from the guy at the motel). I'm not sure Cross Plains has had any excitement since that day.
Howard's house is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, though I'm not sure what that means other than it gets a nice sign out front. I'm guessing the listing provides for some Federal funding and protection, however the place is maintained by a non-profit group called Project Pride, formed (so says their brochure) to promote the Cross Plains area and document its history. They do take donations for the upkeep of the Howard house, and I encourage you to make one for all those times you closed one of his books and swore, "Crom!" (Donations can be sent to the Robert E. Howard Museum, POB 534, Cross Plains, TX 76443.)
When Mike showed up, we got the grand tour and were treated to things like this sculpture of Cleopatra, which Howard bought at the age of 14 in New Orleans. It almost looks like something Krenkel could have drawn for the cover of a Howard book, doesn't it? And it's easy to see it as an influence on young Robert. Note the serpent twining up from her cleavage.
Also on display were four paintings that had originally belonged to Howard's mother. Three were landscapes, but the fourth caught my eye: a sailing vessel caught in storm-tossed seas. Are those pirates in pursuit of her? Or is it a fleet of ships embarked on a mission on conquest? Again, it's easy to see such things as influences on Howard's work in a town like Cross Plains where there'd have been little variation from one day to the next. This was something that had struck me when I visited Jack Williamson's boyhood home in New Mexico: the fact that these two gentleman must have lived very much in the mental realm of their own imaginations. It's easy to imagine young Robert out back of his house, wooden sword in hand, slashing at the mesquite trees there (where our tour guide told me his dog was buried), lost in daydreams of Conan and Kull and his other imaginary friends.
There were a lot of old pictures on display in the house. Here's Howard and his dog Patches. Every boy in Texas had to have a dog, right? The small sign on the front of the house advertises it as the home of Doctor Howard, Robert's father, who administered to most of the people in the town at the time. According to our guide, there are still many people in Cross Plains who can say that they were ushered into this world by Dr Howard.
This was Robert's room. Originally a back porch on the house, it had been enclosed to accommodate Robert. The window you see (on the left) was originally a window on the back of the house. It looks in on Mrs Howard's room, where she lay ill in her bed for most of Robert's life. Thus, he was never far from his mother, caring for her on a daily basis while his father saw to the townspeople of Cross Plains and other nearby communities.
Here's a better shot through the window and into Mrs Howard's bedroom. You can see a rocking chair where Robert probably sat and read to her, a bedside table with some of her things, and the head of her bed. It was after his mother had lapsed into a coma and he was told that she would never recover, that Robert went out back, got in his car, and shot himself. His mother died two days later. A joint service was held, with the bodies lying for viewing in the front room of the house. A copy of the death certificate for Robert E. Howard (displayed at the house) lists "gun shot of brain" (sic) as the principal cause of death.
This is Novalyn Price, the woman with whom Robert was in love. She wrote a book called One Who Walked Alone, which was filmed as The Whole Wide World (1996), starring Renee Zellweger and Vincent D'Onofrio. It's generally recognized as an accurate accounting of Howard's life, so if you want to know more, both the book and the movie would be good places to start. Novalyne herself died just a few years ago.
This is Howard's typewriter (actually the exact same model, as the original is in the hands of a collector and not for sale, even to the museum, which I kinda thought sucked) on which his last words were typed:
From the house, Mike and I rode 33 miles south to Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, TX. It's here that Robert, his mother, and his father (who died in 1944) are buried. The Texas Historical Commission had erected a sign, so his grave was easy to find.
Below is a shot of yours truly beside the joint headstone for the Howard family. It was actually a rather somber moment for me, so excuse the pose and smile. This was probably the first time Greenleaf Cemetery had heard the growl of a couple Kawasaki sportbikes, but I don't think Howard would have minded. I've no doubt he would have had a blast if he'd had a Kawasaki of his own. Perhaps, with two wheels and a good motor under him, he'd have found the whole wide world was much larger than Cross Plains, TX and even his own boundless imagination, and then decided there was much more to live for in the world, even with his mother gone and Novalyn not returning his love. I bet he would have absolutely screamed through the twisty stuff, absolutely fearless.
Afterward, Mike and I had lunch at a little diner in Brownwood. Though the place was absolutely packed with people, the food pretty much sucked. We both had the chicken-fried steak special, and I can honestly say it was the worst chicken-fried steak I've ever eaten. Then it was time to part ways, with Mike heading back to his hotel in Cross Plains and me heading to Greg and Elaine's in Irving. Mike promised to meet up with all of us for lunch the next day at Hard Eight's BBQ in Stephenville (something of a benchmark for Texas barbeque).
Out of Brownwood, I took 377 north to Stephenville (unknowingly passing the next days' scheduled lunch spot), then 281 north to I-20, following I-20 on into the DFW metroplex, where I reconfirmed my oath that I'll never live in a city with so much traffic. I pulled into Elaine's driveway between four and five in the afternoon, where the garage door magically went up (Elaine had been watching for me from her reading room, where she was curled up with These I Know By Heart -- what a lovely, intelligent woman with impeccable taste! -- and a dictionary) to reveal that they'd made a spot for the ZZR beside Gregger's VFR and Goldwing.
I'd done 552 miles for the day. Even if I hadn't gotten to see the Howard house, the hugs from Gregger and Elaine made it all worthwhile.
Next morning, Gregger and I hit the street before the sun came up so we could meet with some other nutcases for a day of terrorizing the Texas countryside. After breakfast in Fort Worth, six of us set out at a brisk pace. I'd like to relay our exact route, but mostly I was just a follower, not worrying about where we were or where we were going. All I know is we were going really, really, REALLY fast. Curves marked 40, 45, and 50 were taken at 90-110. Straights ... well, let's just say I saw my speedo needle hit 150 for the second time since I've owned the bike. The roads were amazing. Up and down, so that you got that roller-coaster gut feeling. Twisty as you'd ever hope for. Most Texas country drivers are the most polite cagers you'll ever meet, generally pulling over onto the shoulder when they hear you coming, making passing safe and effortless. (Note: I've noticed this while driving on four wheels in Texas, too. Drive any country road with a decent shoulder and slower traffic almost always pulls to the side to let you pass. Never seen the like in any other State.)
Though I can't give our exact route, I do know we traveled some of these roads southwest of Fort Worth: 1189, 56, 205, 203, 927, 1238, 219, 914, and 174. Put those together into some sort of wild loop and you've got yourself one hellacious day of motorcycling. Traffic was light -- rare might be a better word. Away from the city and the interstate, we only saw one local police car. (Andy's radar detector warned us in plenty of time and we all cruised past him at the sedate speed usually reserved for grandmothers retired to Florida. I actually waved.) We lunched at the aforementioned BBQ place in Stephenville. Here's the motley crew in the parking lot. I tried to get them to line their bikes up for a proper photo op, but they were too busy being cutups. That's Crazytrain on the left beside his new ZX-11, a 2001 model that he located with a mere 6,000 miles on the clock. He'd just a day or so before returned from flying to Utah and riding the ZX-11 back, setting all kinds of landspeed records so that he'd be back in time to make this ride with me. The ZX-11's a beauty, especially in that burgundy color. It's the predecessor to the ZZR. If the 2005 ZZR comes out in that color, I think I'll be riding mine down to the dealer to trade it in.
Here's a shot of Crazytrain beside the ZX-11. There are some excellent photos of his ride through Utah (he traveled some roads that I didn't get to) posted at ZZR1200.net if anyone's interested. His writeup of the trip makes for excellent reading.
Here's a shot of yours truly (photo taken by Crazytrain).
And a shot of the naughty biker boyzzzzz: Mike (not the Mike from Austin), Andy (a displace Brit that I've ridden with before -- such a wonderful bloke to hang out with), bah hisowndamnself all folded-armed and serious looking in black (why do I look so short beside these guys?!?!), Jody (talented photographer responsible for the Pride Rock webpage), and Gregger. Crazytrain's behind the camera again.
Mike from Austin arrived about an hour late to have some cobbler while the rest of us were picking BBQ out of our teeth. One of the guys took this shot with Crazytrain's camera: the three of us standing beside Mike's ZZR (looks a lot like mine, eh?). Afterward, Mike needed to head back for Austin, so he split off while we went and broke the law some more.
We eventually headed back into the DFW area, where the traffic was even worse than the day before. Everyone pealed off, heading for their own homes. Gregger and I arrived in time for hot showers and Elaine's wonderful supper. I forgot to record the mileage for the day, but it was somewhere around 500 miles. We got sprinkled on a time or two, but never saw any serious rain -- just as well, since neither Greg nor I had bothered to bring our rain gear (I had stripped the bags from my bike for the day so I could lean into the curves like Valentino Rossi). It was a glorious day of riding on the edge, where the bikes were designed to be ridden, and, as always, extremely good company. I hope to do it again soon. There are a million more great roads in Texas that I haven't seen.
Sunday morning, I got up and hit the road for home. What ensued was a rather boring ride up I-35 to OKC at an unchallenging but safe 90 mph. It was an overcast day, but that was nice because it kept the heat down. The clouds got thicker and blacker the further north I rode. I kept thinking the rain would bust loose eventually, but I didn't feel like gearing up for rain. (PVC rain gear doesn't breath well at all and is extremely hot.) Traffic was light until just north of Lexington and Purcell, where it really got crowded going into Norman, Moore, and OKC. Cars, pickemup trucks, semis, RVs, people hauling their boats and campers home after the weekend ... you name it. They were all moving along at a pretty good clip and I was trying to weave my way through them and make sure none of them ran me over as they chatted on their cell phones, yelled at their kids, peeled at their sunburns, checked their makeup in their vanity mirrors, and basically did everything but pay attention to their driving -- typical drivers in other words. Except for little kids waving at you from the rear windows of cars and attractive young ladies pursing their lips while wondering what you look like behind the impenetrable black of your visor, traffic generally sucks with a capital S.
Just south of the I-35 bridge over the Canadian River, the storms erupted with absolutely no warning and I was caught in a major deluge. In less than a minute, I was both soaked and cold, having forsaken the motorcycle credo of "Gear up before the rain hits." My visor fogged. Already coated in bugs, the rain simply would not sheet off, even when I turned my head to the side like I normally do in rain. In no time at all, there was an inch or more of standing rain on the road surface because it was coming down faster than it could run off. I got caught behind a semi, blinded even further by the plume of water and steam whipped up by the passage of the truck. I gotta grab an exit and get the hell out of this, I thought. Riding in the rain didn't scare me, but I needed to gear up and clean my visor. I couldn't see squat around the truck in front of me. There was a solid line of cars beside me and two pickup trucks climbing up my ass (I had just recently passed both of them and sought to put some distance between them and me because they were making some dangerous passes and I just knew some bad shit was about to ensue and didn't want to get caught up in it). A sign whipped past. EXIT. Just what I needed.
I flipped my turn signal, jogged the bike hard to the right, and shot down the exit ramp. Another sign instantly whipped past me, just barely registering in my peripheral vision. The sign was yellow and featured a sharp fishhook of a curve and the number 25. Shit. I was doing 70 mph easy. Maybe 80. The ramp had absolutely no run off. Who the hell designs such a thing?!?!? You were required to go from interstate speed to 25 mph in something like 50 feet. On dry pavement, no problem. Not only could I have brought the bike down to that speed, I didn't even need to, as I could have taken the curve at 40 or 50 with no problem. But the pavement was freshly wet and slicker'n snot. The ZZR did what she could, but the tires locked. The bike was sliding. My rear tire was fast becoming my front tire and I was going down in a classic lowside crash, about to slide to the pavement, trash my bike and my gear -- easily four or five thousand dollars worth of damage, not to mention the real possibility that I could be injured or even killed.
There was no way I was going to make the curve. The bike was slewing sideways across the road and I had only a nanosecond to either do something or brace for impact. There really wasn't time to think. I know I quickly scanned the area where I was going to go down. There were no fences or concrete barriers or culverts, just a broad shallow ditch and a smooth field of knee-high grass then the service road 100 feet beyond. I wasn't scared. I didn't have time to be scared. Ride long enough and you develop instincts. My rear wheel was locked and unlocking it would generally result in what's called a highside crash, much worse than a lowside crash (basically a slide), as the rear wheel regains traction, jerks the bike back upright, and literally throws bike and rider head over heels. But I was on slick, wet pavement, so there was no way the rear end was going to regain traction. I got off the brakes, jerked the bars hard into the slide, and snapped the bike upright and straight. Forget the exit ramp; it was going to kill me. The ZZR bounced through the ditch, tossing me high in the air off the seat, then her front wheel plowed through the soggy field with me modulating the front brake in an effort to keep the front end from washing out and sending me down. At least the grass would be soft. Fortunately, there weren't any stumps, rocks, or concrete culverts concealed by the grass. I slowed enough crossing the field to come out on the service road and make a safe stop, the ZZR covered in grass and mud, yours truly just beginning to shake with adrenaline.
And that, boys and girls, is the difference experience makes. 20 years ago, I'd have gone sliding out on that curve and after shredding a lot of leather and plastic on the concrete still have gone tumbling off through the field much worse for the wear. I did what needed to be done to keep the bike upright without really having the time to think it through. Pure instinct.
Before you go patting me on the back and calling me the great god of bikers, however, with all humility I'll admit that: (a) I should have geared up before the rain hit so that I was prepared for it; and (b) I should have never taken that ramp without having a clear line of sight down through it. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. A valuable lesson learned, fortunately at no cost. I think I've been caught in the rain so much this past year that I've become rather blasť about it. Make no mistake; it is dangerous. And you need to not be riding with your head up your ass.
After sitting and shaking, still in the pouring rain, for what was probably only 5 minutes but seemed like 20, I looked around to see if there was anywhere to get out of the rain for a bit. There was basically nothing at the exit. I saw what I thought was a small business of some sort just down the road. I rode over to it to see that it was a residence. Why I'd ever thought it was a business, I haven't a clue. Just proof that I was rattled, I guess. I parked the bike on the road out in front of the house and proceeded to dig out my rain suit and waterproof gloves -- not that it really mattered since I was thoroughly soaked by this time, but I could catch my breath and recompose myself by doing something. I'd only just managed to fight my boots through my rain pants when a lady in a van drove up the driveway from the house. She pulled up beside me and rolled down her window. "I was yelling at you trying to get your attention," she said. I apologized, explaining that I had my ear plugs in and couldn't hear her from that far away. "Well, I was trying to tell you that you're welcome to come use our carport to get out of the rain if you want." "That is so nice of you," I said, then told her about my near death experience and how I probably could stand to stop for a minute out of the rain and collect myself. She backed her van back down the driveway and went into her house, while I got back on the bike and pulled it down into her carport, out of the rain.
I rested about 20 minutes, made a call home to let them know I was doing fine and only 30 minutes from home, got geared up, then knocked on the front door and thanked the lady and her husband for their kindness. Then I rode the remaining miles home in the pouring rain without incidence.
1,173 miles total for the trip.
Thanks to Gregger and Elaine for having me out, Mike for telling me about the Howard house and meeting me there, Crazytrain and all the others for showing me some incredible Texas roads, the cop in Strawn who could have written me a ticket but didn't, and the wonderful people at that exit who went out of their way to try and help a stranger stay dry. The rest of you ride safe now, ya hear?
Next road trip is Big Bend National Park in October. Stay tuned.
Brian A. Hopkins
Copyright © 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-31 20:14, www.bahwolf.com