The Three Sisters

The most famous ride in Texas for bikers is the group of three roads contained about two hours west of San Antonio. Ranch Roads 335, 336, and 337 are the Three Sisters, sometimes referred to as the Three Twisted Sisters. I’ve been wanting to take this ride for a while, and finally did over the second weekend of August 2019.

One of several warning signs along the Three Sisters route

But the Saturday before, August 3, I took another day ride. It would be the last single day ride of this quest – the last chance to reach a decent number of county courthouses within a 300 mile round trip of home. I went southwest to Gonzales (Gonzales County), Cuero (DeWitt County), Hallettsville (Lavaca County), and Columbus (Colorado County). I ate lunch at Rosie’s Mexican Restaurant in Cuero.

Gonzales, seat of Gonzales County
Cuero, seat of DeWitt County
Hallettsville, seat of Lavaca County
Columbus, seat of Colorado County

On August 10, I took off for the Three Sisters ride. First stop was Bandera (Bandera County), where I got a bite at Busbee’s BBQ.

Bandera, seat of Bandera County

Leakey (Real County) marks the beginning of the Three Sisters. You have a choice of going north on 336 or west on 337. I went west.

Leakey, seat of Real County
Ranch Road 335 near Rocksprings

Rocksprings is kind of a perfect name for the seat of Edwards County, especially when you consider that this “Edwards” is also the name of a plateau, a geological group, a variety of limestone, and an aquifer that keeps much of south-central Texas hydrated. Several important rivers have their source in this area of the Edwards Plateau: The Llano, the Guadalupe, the San Antonio, the Frio, and the Nueces. Ranch Road 336 follows the western Frio branch for a ways, and Ranch Road 335 winds along the Nueces.

Rocksprings, seat of Edwards County

I stayed the night at the Historic Rocksprings Hotel. I had dinner at the Jailhouse Bar & Grill down the street.

Historic Rocksprings Hotel

On August 11, I headed west on 41 and got on Ranch Road 336, the third of the Three Sisters, and took it south back towards Leakey. I then wound my way back north and east to Kerrville (Kerr County), before heading home.

Kent Creek as it crosses Ranch Road 336 before flowing into West Frio River
Kerrville, seat of Kerr County

To Texarkana and Beyond

When I found out my cousin was getting married near Memphis–over 600 miles away–I had a crazy idea. You guessed it: Road trip. Half the ride would be in Texas–a perfect opportunity to see some county courthouses along the way, including such exotic destinations as Athens and Paris.

The wedding was on Friday, July 19th. I took off on Wednesday, the 17th. My first stop was Corsicana (Navarro County). As I sat at a traffic light in Corsicana, a guy pulled up next to me and yelled out the passenger window of his truck, “How many miles you got on that thing?” I told him the number…somewhere around 24k. He replied, “Aw, you’re just a rookie.” He wasn’t exactly wrong, and he looked like someone who had logged some serious mileage over the years, so I wasn’t inclined to argue.

Corsicana, seat of Navarro County
Athens, seat of Henderson County

Packing for a wedding on the other end of a 600 mile motorcycle ride presents a bit of a challenge. I mentioned in a previous post that I got a new backpack for Father’s Day. You can see it in these photos (the darker gray one), along with another bag. Other than the boots I wear to ride, I would need to take my nice boots. I also needed a set of nicer clothes, including a sport jacket. I decided the best way to pack those clothes would be to roll them up like a sleeping bag and slip them into the light gray, tube shaped bag. I then strapped them together and to the passenger seat with bungee cords.

Canton, seat of Van Zandt County

I ate lunch at The Kickin’ Mule, on the Canton courtyard square.

Emory, seat of Rains County
Sulphur Springs, seat of Hopkins County
Mount Vernon, seat of Franklin County
Mount Pleasant, seat of Titus County
New Boston, seat of Bowie County

It was a long day, 350 miles. After New Boston, I drove on to Texarkana, and stayed on the Texas side of the Texas-Arkansas border. The main memory this photo leaves with me is how tired and hot I was, and how dry my mouth and eyes.

Each new day starts out with fresh energy. Even when it’s a warm and muggy July morning, the wind and the sun feel nice. The heat and exhaustion of the previous day are forgotten. But after a pleasant morning ride towards Little Rock, the exhaustion of the road was back with a vengeance long before I rode into Memphis, then south across the border into northern Mississippi, on Thursday. The wedding was on the following day, so that was a rest day for me. The day after the wedding I rode back across Arkansas and stayed in Texarkana again.

On July 21, I travelled to Clarksville (Red River County), Paris (Lamar County), Bonham (Fannin County), Sherman (Grayson County), McKinney (Collin County), Greenville (Hunt County), Rockwall (Rockwall County), and Dallas (Dallas County).

Clarksville, seat of Red River County
Paris, seat of Lamar County

I look forward to getting back to Bonham at some point after their renovations are done.

Bonham, seat of Fannin County
Sherman, seat Grayson County
McKinney, seat of Collin County
Greenville, seat of Hunt County
Rockwall, seat of Rockwall County
Dallas, seat of Dallas County

After 280 miles logged, I stayed the night in Dallas, because I had a work meeting in Dallas the next day. After that meeting on Monday, July 22, I hit two more courthouses on my way home, in Waxahachie (Ellis County) and Hillsboro (Hill County).

Waxahachie, seat of Ellis County
Hillsboro, seat of Hill County

Over the course of six days, I rode 1,605 miles through four states and visited 18 Texas County courthouses. It was the longest ride I’ve taken, so far.

Widening Circles

As the Summer of 2019 began to heat up, the opportunities for productive day drives were dwindling. Over three weekends in a row in June-July, I took day drives to reach a few of those courthouses that lie within a 300 mile round trip from home.

On June 22, I went north and east to Marlin (Falls County), Waco (McLennan County), and Gatesville (Coryell County). I encountered a little rain heading into Marlin, just enough to cool things down a little.

Marlin, seat of Falls County

The grandeur of the McLennan County courthouse in Waco isn’t quite captured from this ground-level angle.

Waco, seat of McLennan County

I ate lunch at Barnett’s Public House in Waco. I rode about 236 miles on this day.

Gatesville, seat of Coryell County

On June 30, I rode east for about 280 miles round trip to see Brenham (Washington County), Bellville (Austin County), Hempstead (Waller County), Anderson (Grimes County), Bryan (Brazos County), and Caldwell (Burleson County).

Brenham, seat of Washington County
Bellville, seat of Austin County
Hempstead, seat of Waller County
Anderson, seat of Grimes County
Bryan, seat of Brazos County
Caldwell, seat of Burleson County

On July 6, I rode northwest. 264 miles was what it took to reach two more counties. I saw the beautiful Bosque County courthouse in Meridian, and another in Hamilton (Hamilton County).

Meridian, seat of Bosque County

It’s a beautiful drive between Meridian and Hamilton. About halfway between them is the hamlet of Cranfills Gap. I snapped this photo of St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church there, because the Norwegian immigrants who settled here did so about the same time that my Norwegian ancestors came to America. Mine settled in Illinois before moving on to South Dakota, where I was born.

Hamilton, seat of Hamilton County

I ate lunch at Storm’s Hamburgers in Hamilton before heading home.

Family Business

In June 2019, my older daughter moved to San Angelo for an internship. We had to help her move some things. Naturally, I let my wife drive our truck while I rode my motorcycle! Not so efficient when it comes to gas mileage, but it was the perfect excuse for my first overnight trip on this particular quest (though not my first multi-day bike trip). 

On the way out, first stop was San Saba (San Saba County). Unfortunately, it was behind scaffolding for renovations. Good news is, I’ve just heard that renovations are complete, and I’m looking forward to getting back there to see it.

San Saba, seat of San Saba County

Next stop was Brady (McCulloch County), then Paint Rock (Concho County), before rolling into San Angelo.

Brady, seat of McCulloch County
Paint Rock, seat of Concho County

Next morning, after a Father’s Day breakfast with my daughter at Roxie’s Diner in San Angelo, I hit the Tom Greene County courthouse before leaving town. This courthouse looks like it belongs in Washington, DC. 

San Angelo, seat of Tom Green County

For my trip home, I decided to take a long detour south before turning back east to home. This took me through Eldorado (Schleicher County), Sonora (Sutton County), and Junction (Kimble County). The two-day trip was just over 500 miles. This path took me out of the way of Menard (Menard County), but I would pick that one up later in the summer, when I would head west again…all the way west this time.

Eldorado, seat of Schleicher County
Sonora, seat of Sutton County
Junction, seat of Kimble County

I made it home in time for a late Father’s Day lunch with my younger daughter. My Father’s Day gift was a new backpack–perfect for taking to work. I would soon be putting it to good use for longer trips on my bike.

On the Road Again

In May of 2019, it still wasn’t clear to me that visiting all 254 county courthouses across Texas was more than a long term aspiration that might or might not come to fruition. Mainly, I was just eager to get back in the saddle and ride. It was good therapy.

On May 12, I rode south to San Marcos (Hays County), New Braunfels (Comal County), Seguin (Guadalupe County), and Lockhart (Caldwell County). I ate lunch at Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart.

San Marcos, seat of Hays County
New Braunfels, seat of Comal County
Seguin, seat of Guadalupe County
Lockhart, seat of Caldwell County

On May 26, I went further south and west. I had already visited Johnson City, the seat of Blanco County. But the original seat of Blanco County was in Blanco. The Old Blanco County Courthouse below was built in 1885, so was in use for only five years before the county seat moved to Johnson City in 1890. This happens to be the same photo used on my home page.

The Old Blanco County Courthouse in Blanco

I continued on to Boerne (Kendall County), where I ate lunch at Hungry Horse Restaurant.

Boerne, seat of Kendall County

It was difficult to find a safe/legal spot to get the photo of the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio, so I was in a hurry to snap this one. Only later did I realize I cut the very top off! Another one that I’ll need to retake some day. This was a beautiful day of riding.

San Antonio, seat of Bexar County

Interlude

In November of 2017, I began to consider running for political office. Not for Senate District 5, but for the top elective office in Williamson County, which is called the County Judge. Despite its name, it is not a judicial office. Think of it as the Mayor of the County.

It was the first time I had ever run for office, and I was off to a late start. I got in when I realized that no one else in my party had yet filed to run, which would mean that the winner of the other party’s primary would win the November 2018 election uncontested. I could not allow that to happen. I threw myself whole-heartedly into the task, though I still had a full-time job. What it meant, in part, is that my free time, including all my weekends, was spent on the campaign.

Solitude was hard to come by as I shook more hands, met more people, and knocked on more doors than I ever had in my life. The most surprising thing was that I enjoyed it, and apparently I was better at it than I thought I’d be. 

Solitude was hard to come by, but not impossible.

I did find some time to ride, usually on a Sunday morning. Those rides during the campaign were an hour or two at the most, usually within Williamson County. It was a different perspective, seeing the county through the eyes now of someone seeking to be an elected public servant.

Mankin’s Branch at County Road 100 before it flows into the San Gabriel River

Riding through limestone roadcuts and black waxy fields, it’s hard to even imagine the land the way it was when it was the hunting grounds of the Tonkawa Indians. And as development grows unchecked in this suburban Austin county, it’s getting harder to imagine when it was ranch or farm land. But not impossible. It’s still there, but for who knows how long.

Williamson County Road 156

The outcome of the election in November 2018 was not in my favor, though it was close. I lost by 6 percentage points. But getting out of my comfort zone was a rewarding experience. In fact, I threw my hat in at the next opportunity to run for office, which was a city council election in May 2019. There was little time to rest before getting back into the work of campaigning. That election also did not go my way. I lost by 179 votes to an incumbent councilman.

A week after that election, and after a year and a half of political campaigns, I was back on the county courthouse circuit. 

Solitude

Solitude. It’s one of the things I look forward to on my rides. Being in the moment moving through a constantly changing landscape.

I only made three more day trips in the summer of 2017. I went in different directions in a widening circle around my home. At some point the idea of visiting every county courthouse in Texas began to take shape. 

My long held ambition of taking longer rides got a shot of inspiration from someone who was criss-crossing Texas at the time: Beto O’Rourke was running for US Senate. 

Beto was committed to meeting and visiting voters in all 254 counties. Though ultimately it did not lead to an electoral win, I loved the ambition and scope of the plan. 

At the time, I don’t think I believed I would actually follow through with my plan, but it was something to think about. I certainly would not be holding rallies and giving speeches, like Beto. I’d be exploring a big beautiful state and the solitude of its lonely highways.

On June 4th, I went northwest through Burnet (Burnet County – rhymes with “durn it”), Lampasas (Lampasas County), and Belton (Bell County).

Burnet, seat of Burnet County
Lampasas, seat of Lampasas County
Belton, seat of Bell County

About 54 counties have a county seat that shares its name. Burnet/Burnet, Lampasas/Lampasas, Even Belton/Bell can be seen in that light: Bell-town > Belton. Another 20 counties have a name that is the name of another county seat. For example, Ozona is the seat of Crockett County, Crockett is the seat of Houston County, and Houston is the seat of Harris County.

On July 2, I went southeast through Bastrop (Bastrop County), La Grange (Fayette County), and Giddings (Lee County).

Bastrop, seat of Bastrop County
La Grange, seat of Fayette County
Giddings, seat of Lee County

On September 2, I went southwest and then north, through Johnson City (Blanco County), Fredericksburg (Gillespie County), Mason (Mason County), and Llano (Llano County). I ate lunch at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano. Can’t go wrong there.

Johnson City, seat of Blanco County
Fredericksburg, seat of Gillespie County
Mason, seat of Mason County
Llano, seat of Llano County

After that September ride through the hill country, it would be another year and a half before I would visit another Texas county courthouse on my motorcycle. Solitude became a rare luxury as I would meet more people, shake more hands, and knock on more doors than I ever had before.

Close to Home

About a week later, on April 21, 2017, I took a quick ride to the two county courthouses closest to me, in Travis and Williamson Counties. The seat of Williamson County is Georgetown. The county courthouse in Georgetown is the centerpiece of a bustling and historic town square, truly a treasure.

Georgetown, seat of Williamson County

As you can see, out in front of the courthouse is a statue commemorating Confederate soldiers and sailors. It was placed there in 1916, fifty years after the end of the Civil War, but during the height of the Jim Crow era and the time when the Ku Klux Klan was gaining popularity in Texas. About 40 county courthouses in Texas have a Confederate monument, and most of them were erected during this period.

Interestingly enough, Williamson County was one of a handful of counties in Texas that voted against secession in 1861.

I am among many residents of the county who think, at the very least, there should be a plaque added to put this display into its proper historic context. To many people, in particular the descendants of slaves over whom the Confederacy fought to keep enslaved, the monument is a painful reminder of that history. But the statue is also a reminder of the era in which it was erected, when America’s laws and institutions still conspired to block access of black Americans to their full liberties and pursuit of happiness.

More than a monument, it is an ever fresh scar that should motivate us to resist hatred in all its forms and work for our common good.

[Update: in June 2020, I met with a local reporter to talk about my rides. Here is the story.]

But the Williamson County courthouse is most famous for a trial that took place there from 1923-24. The case was brought against several members of the KKK, not for crimes they had committed against blacks, but for beating up a white man. It was the first successful prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan anywhere in the nation. The guilty verdicts weakened the political power of the Klan in Texas. The young DA who brought the case, Dan Moody, would go on to beat a Klan-backed candidate for Attorney General in 1924. In 1926, he would become the youngest person ever elected governor of Texas, at the age of 33. There is a also statue of Dan Moody on the grounds of the Williamson County courthouse.

Austin, seat of Travis County

The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse in Austin also has a special story. It is best told through the historical marker that stands in front of the courthouse, which is named for the story’s hero. (I’ve transcribed the text below the photo)

Historical marker in front of Travis County courthouse

“Despite outstanding academic credentials, Heman Marion Sweatt, a black man, was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law in February 1946 because of his race. In May 1946, Mr. Sweatt challenged the University’s segregationist admissions policies by filing suit against T.S. Painter, the President of the University of Texas, in the 126th Judicial District Court of Travis County, Texas. Supported by the NAACP Thurgood Marshall, a future United States Supreme Court Justice, argued the case of Sweatt v Painter here in the Travis County Courthouse. The trial judge ruled against Mr. Sweatt and upheld the University’s policy of refusing to admit persons of color.

On June 5, 1950, after a four-year court battle, the United States Supreme Court reversed the 126th District Court and ordered Mr. Sweatt admitted to the University of Texas Law School as its first black student. By his courage, perseverance and sacrifice, Heman Marion Sweatt helped ensure the opportunity to achieve a higher education for all persons in Texas and throughout the United States.”

The Quest Begins

When I set out on April 15, 2017, I didn’t exactly know I was starting something big. My intent was to get a closer look at some counties I hadn’t really spent much time in. Specifically, I was getting to know Texas State Senate District 5.  If I was to be perfectly honest, I was harboring secret thoughts about a possible run for political office, something I had never done before.

I rode out east and north from my home in Round Rock. US Highway 79 takes you through corn and cotton fields interrupted every few miles by another town, with the Union Pacific railroad tracking alongside. Hutto, Taylor, Thrall, and Thorndale, which is where Williamson County ends and Milam County begins.   

Cameron, seat of Milam County

The first photo of my bike in front of a county courthouse was in Cameron, the seat of Milam County. There’s a big sycamore tree obscuring the courthouse in my photo, and I almost immediately regretted not trying to get a better angle. Eventually, I’ll get a better shot. Unfortunately, I’ve had several cases where getting a good photo of a county courthouse from the street is impossible because of the thick foliage of trees. But this is one where I could have done better by just moving to the left a bit.

I ate lunch at Clem Mikeska’s Barbecue in Cameron, then got back on the road. The highway crosses the Brazos River on the way to Franklin, in Robertson County.

Franklin, seat of Robertson County

Then I turned north and hit Groesbeck, in Limestone County, and Fairfield, seat of Freestone County. 

Groesbeck, seat of Limestone County
Fairfield, seat of Freestone County

Texas has some beautiful county courthouses. Often, it’s the most prominent feature of a small town: A historic and beautiful building surrounded by a grassy square, with cafes and antique shops across the streets. But just as often, it can be a nondescript concrete structure, off the main street, with little around to draw shoppers or diners.

No matter what they’re like, every county has a courthouse and each one is unique, which makes it a great reference point to document my journey.   

From Fairfield, I took I45 down to Buffalo, where I connected with 79 all the way back home to Round Rock. About 322 miles, round trip. As it turned out, it would be another 3 years before I visited all the county courthouses in SD5. Some very capable people stepped up to run in that race, and I was happy not to be one of them.

Backstory

On April 15, 2017, I took a ride on my motorcycle. In many ways it was no different than the countless rides I had taken over the past 9 years. But this one was different. 

I rode out east and north from my home in Round Rock, Texas. US Highway 79 takes you through corn and cotton fields interrupted every 6-9 miles by another town, with the Union Pacific railroad running alongside. Hutto, Taylor, Thrall, and Thorndale, which is where Williamson County ends and Milam County begins. 

This is the story of my motorcycle ride through all 254 counties of Texas.

I started riding relatively late in life. I was 37. I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was intrigued by the prospect of a new kind of experience of the world that riding could bring. When we moved to central Texas, we could not take a drive through the Hill Country without me daydreaming about rolling over those hills and curves on two wheels with the wind blowing through my hair and the sun on my face. I got my first bike in 2008. It was a 1999 Yamaha V-Star 650 with about 32k miles.

1999 Yamaha V-Star 650 Classic

It was a bike I could take a wrench to and do some work on. I regularly changed the oil and filter. I replaced spark plugs, fuel filter, and master cylinder. I replaced the rear blinkers and the clutch cable. I enjoyed that aspect of owning a bike, but it was not a vehicle I trusted to make long trips. Maybe that was in part because I didn’t know its history and how it had been treated before I owned it, but also in part because I knew who the the current mechanic was. In 2011, I bought a new bike so I could take long trips. It’s a 2009 Yamaha V-Star 1300. I was its first owner. It had been sitting at the dealership for a long time. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s smooth and reliable. The only modifications I’ve made to it are to add a back rest for a passenger, a windscreen, and saddlebags. I let the professionals do all the maintenance on it.

2009 Yamaha V-Star 1300

The idea of taking long motorcycle trips had been with me for some time. I read books about them. Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., took a solo bike trip around the world between 1932 and 1933, and wrote about it in his book, One Man Caravan. Ted Simon wrote Jupiter’s Travels, chronicling his trip around the world between 1973 and 1977. The late drummer of the band Rush, Neil Peart, wrote a book called Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. It’s about a trip he took across North America after the death of his wife and daughter. He rode from Quebec to Alaska, then down to Mexico and Belize.

Those stories of marathon motorcycle trips largely inoculated me to the temptation of doing something that dramatic myself. I love my wife and I have a job, after all. But taking long rides with modest goals that would allow me to keep my life intact was still something I wanted to try. I am blessed to live in a place with some beautiful rural roadways that begin just a short distance from my suburban home. I began to target local highways to conquer. I rode the 143 mile length of TX State Highway 29. I rode the 253 mile length of TX State Highway 71. I rode the 122 mile length of TX State Highway 95. I rode the 261 mile length of US Highway 290. But I never got around to riding all 855 miles of US 79, the 1250 miles of US 183, or the 2460 miles of Interstate 10. Not yet, anyway.

Nike wants to ride, but I don’t have a helmet for her. Yes, I do wear a helmet.

My first multi-day trip was in 2012. I rode west to Fort Stockton, then northwest to Ruidoso and Roswell, New Mexico, then back home through Big Spring, Brady, and Llano. 1360 miles in three days. Over the years, my wife and I have taken a few overnight trips into the Hill Country. Other than that, it would be 2019 before I would take another multi-day trip. 

But let’s get back to April 15, 2017.