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Southern Rail: Movin’ on up

By Robert Filla

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I was running late, way behind schedule and pulling out all the stops to make this ride. The bike needed new rubber on the rear for this 800-mile trip and I enlisted the only pit crew in sight, a couple of maintenance workers that were tending the apartment complex shrubbery. They helped me jack the bike up on a stack of unstable lumber to clear the rear wheel and were paid with two frosty cans of Tecate for their assist. After yanking off the assembly and using several tools that were never designed for breaking a bead, I soon had a new tire for the trip south and my first coverage of a major bike rally—the South Padre Island BikeFest.

It was 1996 and, after being recently divorced, I was busy developing a new life and feverishly creating a new career, working freelance for a motorcycle mag based in Houston. I’d met my editor the night before the ride to South Padre to secure some “traveling expenses” (one bottle of tequila and one of bourbon), grab a box of magazines to introduce the Rio Grande Valley to our publication and garner some “get there safe and back home safe you idiot” wishes. The magazine was a local, home-brewed effort and only about six months old. It was where I honed my journalistic expertise, sleeping many nights on the office sofa with the company dog (some weird shaggy mix of Afghan and stray hound) serving as my overnight blanket and waking to the smell of biscuits and gravy along with plenty of Bloody Mary chasers. Yep, it was as much a party as it was a career—and a most interesting time in my life.

So the bike was up, I was revved and, amazingly, the seals on both of those liquor bottles were still intact. I hit the road and after a full day of riding and crossing half the length of Texas (including the desolate expanse of the King Ranch), I arrived in Port Isabel at 9:00 that night. Not too shabby for an old guy on an old rigid. After getting some fuel and grabbing some tasty soft-shell crabs and a dozen raw oysters at a roadside diner, I crossed the two-mile Port Isabel Causeway that spans the Laguna Madre and connects South Padre Island to the mainland. The night sparkled with stars and the skyline glittered with condo lights and raging parties. It was one of the most memorable visual experiences I’ve ever enjoyed while aboard a motorcycle. And although I’ve ridden that bridge many times since, sometimes the first time is the best time.

Once on the Island I met Mark Lacey and GJ Reyna, founders of the feast, the SPI BikeFest. They embraced me like a prodigal son, provided me with all the media access that any reporter could possibly dream of and, most importantly, introduced me to all the locals. That one single meeting forged friendships that last to this day. Soon I was looking for any excuse to ride to the border and hang with my new amigos. I fell in lust with a local gal, attended birthday parties, made toy runs and enjoyed the rough-and-tumble companionship of area riders. (One favorite place to assemble was Crazy Ray’s backyard where we’d gather after a day of riding to drink beer, eat tacos and watch wrestling on TV screens hung in the trees—Mesquite Vision.)

As my duties as a writer and photographer increased, eventually becoming a fulltime gig, my time became more divided and I wasn’t able to ride to the border as much as in earlier years. But I did attend the SPI this last fall and was reminded of exactly why I’d fallen in love with the area in the first place. It was a grand time. And then a few weeks ago… I received an unexpected call from GJ.

Celebrating their 20th anniversary event this coming October, the South Padre BikeFest will be relocating north to Corpus Christi. The reasons for the move are varied. Some politics are involved; some monetary concerns are a factor. But mostly, the promoters feel it’s time for a change. A bigger venue is on tap and Corpus seems truly energized about the rally coming to their town, throwing their resources into making it a success. For those living in the Golden Triangle (Houston, San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth) the ride to the event just became 350 miles shorter so attendance is certain to increase. I’m sure it’s a wise move and will make for a healthier rally. And although I will miss the mystique of the Mexican border, hopefully all of those old amigos of mine will make the trip north. And that’s much more important than anything an exotic location can offer.

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