The fingers of God. I think that’s what they call it. When holes in the cloud ceiling let light from the sun reach down like straight phalanges to the earth and touch it in an overly familiar manner. I stand by the side of the road and admire as it beams on down to a patch on a hill and beyond.
These fingers aren’t that elegant – God must’ve got his fingers caught in a door or something – but the effect is still pleasing to me. No photo captures its true spirit. Doesn’t stop me trying.
Oh, clouds. Are you worried I’ll steal your soul with this photograph? Nah, lens cap on.
They’re dark and weirdy today. No puffy, fat white ones to make animal shapes out of. No angry thunder-bearing beauties. Nope, these are a weird, badly stuffed, flat, and thrown awkwardly on the sky. With grey underbelly and smudged eyeliner.
Dirty clouds. With holes for God to stick his fingers through.
I’d been riding towards them for a while. Could see them lying there on the horizon like a smoggy welcome mat. Then things got darker and somehow they’d crept behind me. When I’d escaped the clutches of the Super 8 in Chanute, they were nowhere to be seen. Not when I’d left the hotel. Not when I’d re-emerged from Walmart as the sun was coming up. Just a typical early morning clear sky. Quiet, peaceful. The air filled with frog song and the rev of engines as two Walmart employees raced each other up the street after their shift was let out.
Small town joy.
It’s a relaxed mood of morning. A slight breeze but not too bad. Straight road and a bit of early morning boredom as I get into the groove of it. Instead of music, I listen to an hour-long podcast. There’s something very soothing about being spoken to while riding. Like someone’s riding with you. No need to tie your pedal strokes in with some regimented beat that you can’t possibly maintain on a hill. Just carry on with a conversation on your shoulder. It’s nice. A change.
Tick, tick. The morning’s pendulum swings on. Then that smokers exhalation of cloud settles in and I’m riding in a light that’s not quite sunglass friendly, but I don’t stop to take them off. It’s undecided cloud now. To my right, the blue sky is winning, but in a streaky and geometric way. Long pillars of white and blue, dueling it out for supremacy over the day.
Oil derricks start to appear with more regularity now, nodding their heads and pecking at the earth. In amidst the soy. The corn. This is a back road with no markings, the edges frayed away and crumbling. But roads like this also mean less traffic to worry about. Infrequent and usually very respectful of my presence, they drift out to the opposing lane and back again in a fluid motion.
The off-white road stretches out in a long, long line in front of me and I just settle in and ride. Capped by the cloud, but still in the sun. Make up your mind. Gradually, it begins burn off and the sun rules all. Total solar domination.
Chocolate milk is on my mind. It’s flooded with it. There’s a point in every day – usually the morning – where it’s all I think about. Chocolate milk. Stop and get a chocolate milk in the next town, I say. And then I’ll chant about it. Forget it. Remember it. Rewind the thought. Hit play. Stop and get a chocolate milk in the next town.
But the next town is a bust. Every store in Toronto is closed. Every single one. Grocery store, cafe. Nothing inviting me in for the chocolate milk. The gas station is boarded up and CLOSED signs abound. Have I trundled into a town on its death bed? In the last throes of little town life, twisting and splutting and finally sinking into the doom grave?
Or maybe everything’s just closed today and I have really bad chocolate milk timing.
Don’t dally. Move on. Flee this town.
I see the pack of dogs in Coyville well before I reach them. I use the word pack, but they’re more like a committee having a meeting about sticks. Four are behind a fence, while three others are on the road larking about. Perhaps they are rival gangs and simply taunting each other with fence separation bravery? Whatever. I approach cautiously and begin chatting to them in a friendly tone as I roll by. They are completely bored by me. I am not a stick. I am not a plaything. The only thing to do with me is ignore.
Turn the corner. Watch them in my mirror in case they’re just foxing me and planning a sneak attack. But nothing. Then two little yappy buggers come off someone’s front lawn with their “yap yap yap I am bigger than I appear” yaps and I’m startled.
“Don’t worry,” says the elderly lady out the front of her house, trying to call them back. “They just like barking.”
They sure do, noisy little mutts. But I admire their bravado. The little ones always do the most yelling. They’re also the ones I really have to watch as they make great wheel fodder. Not good for local/biker relations. Hard to advance the cause with bits of wiener dog in your spokes.
Another bust of a town though. No chocolate milk here either.
On. Been going straight pretty much all morning with a bit of a cross wind but not too bad. I pull up to the intersection that will take me to Eureka. At the Lizard Lips Cafe. Go in.
Local flavor slathered on with a thick hunting knife in here. A little boy stands eye-height at the counter, turns and begs his dad for fried treats. Dads reply: “You ain’t gettin’ that.” And then he hands him a bag of cheesy chips. Yes. Much better.
Men, always a lot of men in these places. Sitting about, shooting the bullshit breeze. They lower their voices as I wander the aisles and glance in the fridges. Finally, my chocolate milk. I was going to eat here, but I’m a little intimidated by the ratio of testosterone to estrogen. Decide I’m not that far from my destination and I’ll just eat when i get there. A real sit down meal with table service and ‘can I get you something else, hun’. The works.
Off toward Eureka and I have a tail wind of sorts. It’s a pleasant shoulder and a nice shot down the 54. Specks on the opposing shoulder and I make out two cyclists coming towards me. I slow. They cross over to chat.
Rod and Charles. Rod has a stuffed boxing kangaroo strapped to the back of his bike and I just have to ask about it. He’s a transplant. An American who has made the great southern land his home for thirty years. We have a good yarn about what’s ahead for both of us. Charles is leaving the trip in Chanute and Rod is continuing on his own, a soloist for the remainder.
“May the wind be at your back,” we say as we part ways.
When you say that to a cyclist going in the opposite direction, you may mean it, but there’s a part of you that adds another line in your head.
“May the wind be at your back,” you say. Cue internal dialogue: “…but preferably at mine.”
We part and zoom zoom crank crank wide shoulder mine. It’s not a total tail wind, but I’ll take it like a tumbleweed and roll on down the road.
I can see for miles and miles and I sing to myself as I swivel my head to check out the world. Some people call this scenery boring, but I find it peaceful and lovely. To just ride through the land with a wind at my back and the unknown in front. Traffic is as light and breezy as the wind and miles fall off my travel desk and to the asphalt carpet.
A sign emerges. Experience the Flint Hills. Opportunity knocks and I pull over and reach for my camera. Not quite close enough. Not the right angle. I don’t get off Precious and while holding my camera in one hand and my handlebars in the other, I shuffle my motley gang over to the sign to get a better shot.
Shuffle, shuffle. Crab crawl speed. Bang slam, oh damn! My right pedal thwacks my right ankle and I am speechless and eye-watered with the pain of it. The pedal has made a direct hit to an old broken ankle scar and I am momentarily unable to form a coherent thought. Pause in pain.
But this is not the time to be a baby on the side of the road. I’m angry now, but determined. You can bet your arse I’m getting that photo. No pedal injury will stop me. With face scrunched in a wince and with throbbing ankle, I bring the camera to my eye and frame it in my sights. Click.
Experience the lint hill.
Yes, that was worth the crippling agony. Pft.
It is a great thought-seed though. Lint hill. Oh yes, now there’s an image. You just think about it. In your mind, what does your lint hill look look? Is it big and fluffy? What color is it? One more question. Did you build your lint hill from washing machine or belly button lint? That says a lot about your personality.
Finally, I’m rolling into Eureka. The Blue Stem Lodge calls to me from the right side of the road.
“I am a roadside hotel just like you’ve seen in the movies. One where fugitives hang out. I have a real key with an orange plastic tag jangling on it. Your room will smell like life.”
The clerk is having a bit of a bad day and isn’t very chatty at all. Me, I’m all sunshine and roses and wind-at-my-back happy. Relief runs up and hugs me tightly as I open the door and see the room is ok. Fine even. Not bad for $44.
I unpack slowly. Shower. It’s early afternoon due to the short sixty-odd miles and I find myself with time on my hands. The lonely pool looks back at me as I gaze at it through my cheap hotel window. We shall not be touching each other. That swimsuit issue again. Dare I entertain the idea of sneaking out there in the darkness tonight and taking a dip in my skivvies? Time will tell, but I know in my heart that the answer will be no. I’m not such a great risk taker.
Food. Must get it. Starving.
Up past the bowling alley I go. Up towards another fast food institution out here. One that I’ve never been to. Sonic. Head towards the door, then realize there is no inside area. Only parking bays to pull up in and press some buttons to order.
“Sorry, but is there anywhere I can just order if I’m not in a car?”
The girl rolls her eyes, I swear, then points to a bay.
“Just stand in that one and order.”
I hesitate, then walk over. Feel quite the fool as I loiter in this parking bay and read the menu. All around me people are pulling up in their cars and following advertised model of doing business. I feel very weird. Very not-car-like.
But the weirdness does not overpower my hunger and I have a meaningful dialogue and rewarding relationship with my parking bay and order wall. The payoff is pretty instant. A milkshake, which I attempt to suck through the straw all the way back to the room. It is heaven. Thick and chocolatey and I should’ve ordered the large. The chicken sandwich is…acceptable. But the shake. The shake may be in my stomach, but it’s also in my heart. I file Sonic in my go-to-emergency-milkshake purveyor file. Next time, I might just pull Precious into the car bay and assert my legitimate vehicle authority.
Daylight is slowly crushed out by night and I sit on the multi-colored bedspread editing a video. From time to time, I glance out the window and watch as road workers slowly check into the hotel with their pickups and wander, grime-faced, to their little rooms. Homes away from home.
The pool, yearning, alone, and stuck behind its parking lot fence, watches us all. How are we judged by it? With my lack of skivvy-dipping bravado, I know what it’s thinking.
Date: August 30, 2010
From: Chunute, KS
To: Eureka, KS
Distance: 63.34 miles
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