Harley Ride Through The Upper East Side of Texas
Ever since I was a kid traveling through East Texas on the way to Granny Neal’s house in Louisiana, I have played the same game inside my head. I try to spot the exact point where the plains end and the piney woods begin. The problem is that I get so caught up in the beauty of the place that I miss it every time.
The same thing happened last week as my husband Clarence and I rode our Harleys out of Paris, Texas, on the Texas Forest Trail Route headed towards Jefferson. I kept wondering when the “forest” part of the trail would begin, and next thing I knew, there it was — I missed the exact spot again, but that didn’t matter.
Clarence and had I planned this week-long adventure on our Harleys recently to loosely follow the Texas Forest Trail to see some of the beautiful Northeast Texas scenery and make discoveries along the way.
We arrived in Paris from our home in Oklahoma close to sundown after a 265-mile ride with tired fannies and wind-chapped faces from the first long ride of the season. We stopped to ask for directions at a bar & grill named The Depot, a spot so biker-friendly that it has a private, walled, and fenced parking lot just for us two-wheeled sorts. I regret that we didn’t have the energy to return there for dinner after checking in to our hotel, but we have it on the top of our list for a return visit. Anyplace that will pamper my bike while I dine is the sort of place I like to frequent.
In Paris, we stayed at the first of several Holiday Inn Express hotels simply because we have had positive experiences with them in the past. As those of you who bike know, some hotels will look at us as if we’ve got a third eye or, at the very least, a loaded weapon when we pull up on a pair of motorcycles. We have had only positive experiences at The Express with safe spots to park the bikes, clean rooms, and breakfasts that are not only tasty, but available until 10:30 a.m. so that we don’t have to wake up before the crack of dawn to get coffee and a bagel. Besides, when the morning temperatures are still starting out in the 40’s, I’m not in a rush to leather up. The evening and breakfast cost here was $107 total.
We had dinner in Paris at Ta Molly’s mostly because it was a stone’s throw from the hotel. We thought we would have to settle for so-so food in exchange for proximity, but were delighted to find the food was good. In fact, their salsa is SO good I didn’t even bother ordering queso. Our waitress, Tabatha, kept our salsa bowls full of their thick, fresh, spicy-hot concoction promptly poured from a pitcher at the very second it looked like we might be getting towards the bottom of the bowl. The chicken and cheese enchiladas were also very good. I recommend Ta Molly’s for dinner, but don’t expect to wash the Tex-Mex down with beer because there isn’t any. We could have driven back to The Depot to wash it down!
As soon as it warmed to 50ish, we started our second day’s ride toward Jefferson. We paused on the square in Mount Pleasant to check our maps only to be pleasantly surprised to hear soft jazz coming from the courthouse. What an excellent idea! There are several shops on the square worth a look, but we passed through on a Sunday morning when all was closed.
Our next stop was at Daingerfield State Park. Wow, it’s lovely. It felt like I’d been zipped back in time. The swim beach is a perfectly manicured lawn rolling down into the water divided by a paved walk-way that points towards the swim dock floating a few hundred feet out in the lake bordered by forest. At the top of the walk-way there is a large cabana with bathrooms, covered picnic tables, and a seasonal snack-bar. There are picnic tables tucked under the shade of pine trees along the shoreline. Around the bend from the swim beach is a marina with paddle boat and canoe rentals. There is an excellent playground that my grand-girls would have adored. The cabins looked clean, comfy, and easily accessible with the motorcycles. Daingerfield State Park is an absolute must stay, so call ahead for reservations.
Close to noon we zipped through a small town named Hughes Springs. It was so cute, we meandered a bit through the streets taking a peek at the park and inhaling a fantastic aroma coming out of the restaurant with a marvelous mural on its exterior wall. We were moving too fast for me to get the name — my navigator sped off before I could suggest stopping in so make sure you tell your navigator ahead of time that you’d like to stop for a spell.
We jumped back out on the highway headed towards Jefferson. We were drawn to a screeching halt where county roads 2993 and 2985 cross by the Turkey Creek Baptist Church. We were stopped not by an accident, but by the heady perfume wafting up from yards and yards of blooming daffodils. It was a sun-burst river of fragrance. When you see them next spring, give a honk of appreciation to the home owners who share this gracious gift with those traveling this spot of road.
Our next quick drive-thru was the Caddo Lake State Park. There are lots more cabins here and nicely paved roads making easy access for motorcycles, but I didn’t see a swimming spot that didn’t more closely resemble a crocodile feeding station. If fishing is the plan, it looks like it would be impossible to miss coming away with a nice catch. It was my first time to see moss-bearded cypress trees; a bit eerie even in full day-light, but way cool.
We finally arrived in Jefferson in the early afternoon thinking to ourselves we were down-right clever to have located such a quaint, quiet little town for a Sunday ride, at least until we turned right on Austin Street. The brick paved street was lined handle bar to handle bar down both sides with motorcycles for well over two blocks! Obviously, this destination wasn’t such a clever secret after all!
The draw on this block seems mostly to be Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club which is far more bar than grill, by the way. The biker clientele ranged from new-chaps and fringe, sporting not a single bug splat to the well-worn and crusty togs of seasoned riders. It didn’t seem to matter because all were equally welcomed and not a one sneered because I chose soda over brew. I must admit, I’m getting soft in my old age. I’ve been riding motorcycles for 42 years now, and I’d like to continue for a few more, so I shy away from mixing bikes-n-brew.
We wandered our way up to the Jefferson Historical Museum where we got lost for a couple of hours ambling from basement to the third floor viewing their holdings. The upper-floor gallery that was once the federal courtroom holds an unexpected surprise. The lofty ceilings that once housed justice, now provide gracious walls and lighting for an interesting assortment of paintings and tapestries. Make sure to leave time to wander at the museum for a while.
When Clarence and I do these rides, we make no plans, adhere to no schedules, and call forward no reservations so that we can go where we please to go at whatever pace we please to move. The downside to this is that when we stumble across fascinating places like the cabins at Daingerfield State Park or the haunted Jefferson Hotel advance reservations are usually necessary to stay. Although we missed the opportunity to stay at either this time, we now know where we will stay next time.
Since the Jefferson Hotel was full for the evening, we decided to scoot on down the road to Marshall where we could find a Holiday Inn Express. After an easy, leisurely 155 miles on day two, it was good to wash off the road grime in a room where I only had to part the curtains a smidge to see our bikes parked safely beneath our window.
East Texans cook up some mean barbecue and after riding in and out of the mouth-watering scent of it all day, I was hungry for some ribs. We spotted a Bodacious Barbecue on the way in and returned there for dinner. Since I couldn’t exactly make up my mind what to eat I tried the sampler basket that came with three meats, two sides, two slices of bread, and a drink. Oh my. I thought for $8 the meat portions would be small — was I ever wrong! If it hadn’t been so danged good I would have left some behind and not suffered the shrinking-belt disease but it would have been a pure-dee mortal sin to leave barbecue that good laying untended. I felt like Jerry Clower hollering, “Mercy,” after that meal.
The Holiday Inn Express in Marshall was just as friendly as all that we’ve visited and they didn’t even balk when we packed two extra apples for an on-the-road snack after breakfast the next day — bed, breakfast, and snack for just $107.
Making a little side trip over to the Harley shop in Longview, we then skee-daddled on down to Rusk where we stopped at The Daily Grind Coffeehouse & Bakery. The mushroom soup was fantabuloso, the sandwich yummy, the coffee perfect, and the brownie to-die-for. Best of all was the company. The owners, Karen and Rachel Loden, made us right at home and even shared cake-decorating stories and photos with us.
The Daily Grind is one of those rare, rare finds that combines hospitality, soothing music, good eats, and scrumptious coffee with adorable décor. There are three rooms with three different personalities sure to match your current mood. The front room is the hustle-bustle barista room. The middle room is the low-light and wing-back chair room just begging you to settle in for a long read. The back room has several tables better suited to chatting with friends. If you travel through Rusk, you just gotta stop in for a bit.
Leaving Rusk, we headed on towards Nacogdoches. This is where the roads get gooooood by biker standards. For non-riders, that means the roads were curvy and smooth. After the last 178 miles of the best scenery and riding of the trip thus far, we pulled into Nacogdoches to take a look at the Old Stone Fort. We didn’t realize it was located on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus. My husband has decided he will retire and “allow” me to teach there while he plays house-husband. It is a beautiful campus, which may be a lame reason to want to work there, but it certainly is a bonus, don’t you think?
We tried to stay at another Holiday Inn Express, but they were full with oil-field workers so we moved down the road to La Quinta. It was older and a little frayed around the edges, but it was also cheaper —$68. Breakfast was cleaned up and put away by 9 a.m. so we missed it, but the desk attendant was so nice that she went back in the kitchen and brought out bananas and yogurt for us. Very sweet.
In Nacogdoches we bought the absolute best meal of the entire trip at Aunty Pasta’s. OMG!! The crusty French loaf was hot out of the oven served with crunchy garlic bits floating in herbed olive oil. Our appetizer was crab cakes from heaven. We shared a fabulous bottle of Rex-Goliath Pinot Noir with our meals. Clarence had jalapeno chowder followed by a sirloin balsamic. I had a salad and the chicken Lombardi. Our waitress, Tory, was adorable and didn’t even mind that we were swapping food and audibly smacking in delight over all three courses. Aunty Pasta’s is well worth a drive from where ever you are in East Texas. If Tory waits on you, tip her well — she’s working her way through college to be an Ag Teacher.
On our fourth day we awoke in Nacogdoches to misty, grey skies. We rode through sprinkles to Texas Thunder Harley-Davidson. Clarence got some oil and I looked for shirts for the grand-girls. The clerk was so sweet she offered to run up and down the stairs to show me new inventory items that weren’t on the floor yet. Our plan had been to go to St. Augustine, but another rider at the shop to get a flat fixed warned us that the roads were a mess due to a combination of construction and oil field trucks. We took his advice this time, but really want to get that way next year to see the Mission Dolores Visitor Center & Archives.
It turned out for the best because just a few miles down the road the clouds let loose with buckets of rain that sent us for shelter under an over-pass for a while. We replotted our route, and headed to Ben Wheeler for shelter with family and a couple of days rest. One hundred forty miles later, a bit frosty and soggy we bumped our way across a newly rocked drive.
I managed to drag myself out of bed our fifth day out just in time to head to Tyler for lunch. Heaven knows I really NEEDED another meal. We headed to Breakers for California-style seafood. The food was so beautiful and smelled so wonderful and I highly recommend that you drop in for unique seafood dishes I’m certain you’ll not find anywhere else in East Texas.
After a good day’s rest, we were ready to get back in the saddle for a nice day ride through Wood County. Our first stop was for coffee in Mineola at Legal Grounds, another cute coffee shop. It was such a nice morning we sat out on the sidewalk in a pair of cushy chairs overlooked by a rather large metal chicken; not sure what that’s all about, but it’s cute! We sipped our coffee to the tunes of Norah Jones, Eric Clapton, Elvis, the Stones, and Willie. I really love the town-squares-that-play-music trend in Northeast Texas!
As we were sitting there thoroughly enjoying ourselves, one of the locals, Lloyd Leach, pulled up to sit at another of the coffee shop’s sidewalk tables. Lloyd chatted amiably about Mineola and motorcycles while the sunlight twinkled off his earring. As we were about to leave, Lloyd insisted that we step into the Dragonfly Art Gallery just a couple of doors down. There were no less than a dozen what-nots and baubles that I just neeeeeeeded, but traveling on a bike limits what one can carry. I settled for a ceramic and metal chicken (much cuter than it sounds) to replace one that met an early demise. Owner Melissa Till was busy creating another masterpiece, but took time away to expertly bubble-wrap my new treasure so that it would travel safely. The girl knows how to wrap — the chicken made it home in one piece!
After leaving Mineola we wound our way up 852 to Winnsboro which is another adorable little town. We had lunch at Brewbaker’s Restaurant & Pub. This meal ranked as the second best that we purchased. I ordered the Sizzling Goat Salad because I simply HAD to know what the heck that was going to look like — sizzling goat?! HA!! Well, it looked fantastic and tasted even better. The goat part was a lightly-breaded and pan-fried patty of goat cheese; yuuummm. Clarence ordered the Pork Tenderloin Sandwich which was also yummy. It was far too early in the day to visit the pub, but we took a peek inside and decided we’d have to come back one evening when the live music is playing. This is yet another place you’ve got to take time to visit.
Friday we had to ride a hard 293 miles home leaving East Texas behind. We loved the part of the Texas Forest Trail that we saw. You’ll find a fantastic brochure on line at www.thc.state.tx.us/publications/brochures/forest_trl.pdf that gives a town-by-town run-down of what you’ll want to see as well as maps and history. We also referred frequently to the East Texas Travel Guide that Clarence brought up on his Blackberry at http://texasescapes.com. Y’all Northeast Texans are blessed with awesome landscapes, roadways, and friendly people. Thanks for letting a couple of Okies visit for a while. We’ll be back!