Kansas

The flat, enduring roads in Kansas end only because of the horizon, and the peripheral patches of land are never more than acres of crops or weeds. So when you ride through on a bike, over-stimulation is never a concern.

 

Looking up, though, the sky stretches farther than anywhere else and the drops of clouds were reminiscent of Microsoft’s best attempt at capturing nature via their default wallpaper. But that’s been the case this entire trip. The riverbanks and dunes of the country can be seen replicated at our nation’s finest golf courses, and, the smells (the good ones; we passed plenty of farms), the smells can be picked up at the mall’s candle store, but they are never as pleasant as when the wind carries them to you direct from the source. You can hang a picture or spray some air freshener, but it’s simply not the same as opening the door.

 

Kansas, anyways, was a wonderful change from the sloping and ceaseless hills east of the Mississippi. It’s as flat as we could ever have hoped and our main concern, the wind, never slowed us into frustration. We entered the state late one evening in Pittsburg.

 

The town was one of the largest we’d seen in a while but the only shower we could find was at the YMCA. The girl, college-aged and wasting time behind the counter, let us shower for free after some conversation or as Grant likes to put it, after we charmed her. We ate a chain restaurant for the first time in a while, Subway excluded of course, and I bought a yellow “Gorillas” t-shirt. The night, as exciting as our evening was, was doubly scintillating.

 

We’d been concerned about tornadoes for some time and as unfortunate as the reputation is, Kansas clearly is the reputable place to go for tornadoes. So at 3 in the morning, when a fast asleep group of adventure cyclists were awoken by tremendous lights and sounds battling one another in the sky, precedented suspicion took hold and we waited anxiously for the tornado siren. None came and neither did a tornado, but we were sure glad to be camping under a pavilion that night.

 

Most nights we would arrive into a town in the afternoon, the specificity of which depended on the length of the ride. We’d set up camp at a city park or hostel and head out to dinner. Then it’s back to the tent for some card games, potentially some reading, and then off to bed in our, now begrudgingly familiar sleeping bags. Showers, beds, electricity, water and bathrooms were luxuries but we’d been fairly lucky that 90% of our “campsites” had accessible bathrooms, or a well placed tree.

 

We’d also heard Kansas could produce some vicious winds, especially from west to east. We found, for the large part, that the wind which rarely exceeded 10 to 20 miles per hour usually went from south to north, much to our surprise and delight. So when we rode to Chanute, KS, we had a manageable side breeze, but a fantastic tailwind as we headed north for a good section of the trip. We rode about 10 mph faster with a tailwind as opposed to the side wind; we’ve since learned that most people riding our way hit tremendous headwinds, so yes, we appreciate that.

 

Chanute was the first in a series of old western towns. Buildings that looked like assorted shoeboxes sided the wide street and the wooded sidewalks. We began to see cowboy apparels and themes, and the southern foods we grew accustomed to seeing on menus gave way to southwestern cuisine. We’d entered the west, alright, and I think we were okay with it.

 

Our sleeping arrangements that night were rather serene. We had arrived in enough time to eat at some dive, fully occupied though, and set up camp on the banks of a wide lake. An extended family of ducks covered the grassy shores, occasionally dipping in the water only to come back out a few minutes later. The sun set over the far shore and we sat, relaxing, and staring into the trees, partially blocking the sunlight. It was an easy night of sleep and the grass was long enough to cushion our bodies. An appreciation of the peaceful nights is forged out of the uncomfortable sleep we got during storms.

 

As we set to depart west for Eureka in the morning, we sat at a breakfast loaded with old cowboy hats and older cowboys underneath them. One particularly cantankerous man asked us about our trip; the short, skin-tight biking uniforms must have tipped him off that we were not locals. I said we were going through Colorado, up to Montana and over to Oregon and he proceeded to warn us about the Rocky Mountains. We’d heard only good things about the Rockies, but when Grant rebutted that the steep Appalachians were the hardest part of the trip, this man laughed and was absolutely sure we had some impossible climbs coming. A polite argument ensued, no opinions were changed and we left with a friendly good-bye masking the condescension that comes from riding through arduous, tedious mountains and getting no respect from old Kansas cowboys.

 

Anyways, Eureka (ironically) featured nothing spectacular besides a pool and an unbelievable water slide. After we “charmed” our way in to the community pool for free, we spent hours going down that slide and off the diving board, swimming in a pool with what was clearly a large demographic of elementary school students. We stayed in until our hands got pruney, which really wasn’t very long given how much salt, forgive the biology, we lost through sweat everyday.

 

We left Eureka the next morning, and as we got through our first pedal, we saw an absolutely crazy looking man on a crazier looking contraption attempting to wave us down. The man had a long white beard, a boxed hat, dark sunglasses and looked like Billy Connolly in “Boondock Saints”. He hopped on a 10-foot tall bike and as he approached us we set off in the other direction because lunatic discussion was not in our itinerary for the day. His “bike” as he called it was a massive construction of metal that required a running, jumping start and it looked like pedaling was done by both arms and legs. As we rode by he yelled out, “Hey get a real bike! This goes twice as fast and is half the work!” But you look ridiculous, man.

 

We rode to Newton afterwards and the ride, through cool morning air, was going as smoothly as could be. Grant and I were tipped off by Lauren that a major part of our route, Route 7, had been under construction for some time and that we might not be able to get through. She had given directions for a detour to a couple of riders ahead of us who used that information wisely. Grant and I, however, decided to take Route 7 figuring that even if construction was happening, we would still be able to find our way around it. Plus, a tie-dyed man and his family in an old, brown minivan told us that we could probably get through on bikes. What we encountered, then, was a one-mile stretch of unoccupied, open road followed by the complete and abrupt end of pavement and the beginning of an endless mud-pit. A road could have never existed as far as we were concerned. Figuring that if we continued to walk straight we would meet up with the other half of Route 7, we trudged through the quagmire for about 2 miles until we came across a group of construction workers. They promptly directed us down a perpendicular gravel road, a road that lead us to the detour Lauren suggested we take. We have no regrets.

 

After that episode, we headed south to Wichita for a day off from there. We were lucky enough to peer into the life of professional square-dancers as our hotel was the site of an annual convention. Conversations about favorite callers and inept partners was all the entertainment we really needed during breakfast, but we headed out to the zoo that day for a look at the wildlife we wouldn’t be seeing on this trip. One thing we learned: Grizzlies truly are terrifying, our fears are justified and I would never like to see one on the bike because we would surely and swiftly be eaten.

 

After Wichita, we rode back up to Newton and then over to Hutchinson on a cold, rainy morning. A storm had rolled through the night before and the ecological debris scattered across the road. Wet leaves, fallen branches and wind-shook trees lay under a grey-white canopy of clouds. The rain had stopped, but the sky didn’t show it. When we arrived in Hutchinson, we were greeted at a church hostel and given the basement. There were ten tables set up, all with boxes of literature and Sunday school materials. We slept on cots on the stage in the back of the room.

 

After breakfast, we rode then to Larned, KS. We once again “charmed” the lifeguards into letting us shower and swim for free but the water slide was shut down and the pool was frigid so we retired to our campsite, also known as, the area adjacent to the caged duck pond, featuring 30 very loud, very nocturnal ducks.

 

We slept intermittently that night and the next day we had our first “century ride” or 100-mile ride. It’s as long as it sounds, especially in Kansas. Your mind quits before the road does, and the road ends in a pool of incomprehensible, clear liquid, a mirage because of the abundant length of the road. Towns appear out of the distance and slowly come into color, defined only as a town by the water tower and dirtied white silo. Most towns have one or two restaurants and absolutely nothing to do; you can see it reflected in the work-hardened faces of locals.

 

Coming from a place like New Jersey, where towns are connected by a strip-malled busy road, it’s foreign to pass through the town in the blink of an eye and re-enter the painfully void wilderness of middle America. We rode the stitching of America, the landscape perpetually abandoned. The Kansas landscape is burned, and ultimately uninhabited. It is divided into mile-long squares of either crop, dead crop or dust. Standing at an intersection of one straight paved road, and one dirt road, both endless, is humbling in its isolation.

 

We came into Dighton, after the 100 mile ride, on a Sunday… a town you shouldn’t come into on a Sunday. The only place to grab food was an overcharging fried food joint, the likes of which we certainly saw a lot of across the country. Everything in the town was closed besides the one restaurant. It was unsentimental when we left for Tribune, our last stop in Kansas, and yet another small, small town.

 

We met up with our friends Mike and Mary at the Burger Bar in town. We had met them early in Kansas and had seen them quite frequently on the road and in restaurants since. They are an older couple who took their time to cross, but rode about the same mileage as we did. They were one of the first people, out of many now, who we met on the trail. The adolescent waiter at the Burger Bar asked us, the five of us then, if we were visiting or in town for harvest. Well, we’re just visiting now, but don’t worry, we’ll be back for this harvest you speak of. Mike and Mary had opted to stay at hotels during the trip, so we parted for the night and went back to the old city park.

 

I’ll say though, it’s absolutely mind-boggling to walk into a town with a population of 100 in Kansas and recognize someone as a friend.

 

Advertisements

No Responses Yet to “Kansas”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: