The screaming bitch comes out of nowhere. I am looking through my Nikon so it takes a moment for me to see her hackled fur coming for me. Even when I do notice she’s just a little dot of advancing size, materializing from behind the chicken sign.
Dogs in lens appear further away than they are. Noted.
She’s low-ground, flat-out, silent running at first, but soon cranks it up to big-belly barking and growling. And holy crap another blue heeler who hates me for no reason. My last nerve twangs like the A string on a cello before it ptwangs and snaps its gut off my neck.
I give her the hairy eyeball of death. Yell something in her mutt face. Something I wouldn’t want my mum to hear. She turns her body away and teeters back towards her yard a little, but her head remains fixed and swiveled to me. Her eyes don’t leave mine. Back atcha, lady. Narrow gaze. Laser beam iris eyes on the plains. I will shoot shoot shoot and burn right through you.
Win. I look down at my camera. Lose. She’s back at it and is hurtling her body towards mine.
I’m not scared of her menacing demeanor, just supremely annoyed. Can’t I be left alone for just one minute to take a suitably touristy shot of the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World sign? I need it for my collection of Photos that Everyone Who’s Done the TransAmerica Has in Their Albums. Can’t you get that through your canine pink matter?
“You’re a mum,” I say. That’s pretty obvious, judging by her appearance. “Go back to your puppies!”
Where does she even find the time to harass a poor hapless bike tourist with dubious skill and increasing over-tiredness issues?
Tiredness. Lethargy. This tiredness is like a dog on my quads and that bitch won’t let go either. It’s been with me all morning. From the pre-dawn ride out of Eureka to here, in Cassoday, with a 38 mile stretch of no services on my horizon and no reprieve from the wind in front of me.
Quad riot. Leg union strike. Fever on the femur, which I expelled from my mind at 5.20am when those tingling quads took their first push off from the hotel and immediately pressed the “unlike” button.
Second push. Third and over and over and churn and burn and ignore it for now. It will go away. You will get on board, legs. You will see the team for what it is. Unbeatable. Undeniable. Indefatigable.
These are just words. Hollow, yet somehow full of shit.
Trucks blow by me in the darkness and the wind has already started breathing its rank breath on me. So much for beating it by starting early. My high beam shows the way, picking out the lumps of roadkill to avoid long before I reach them.
Frogs creaking-door croak. Insects cartwheel in front of the light. Crickets and mysterious unidentifieds impress me with their vocal gymnastics.
The shape of the land begins to reveal itself as the light enters the frame.
Tired. I am tired. Not just in the body, but in the brain. My spongey grey matter is heavy in my head, making it feel like it weighs more than my neck can support. Wake up, wake up, my idea-laden friend. Tell my face to stop frowning or those lines will stay there forever and ever.
I begin a bit of climb in the early light. The wind is as unfriendly as a poorly tipped waitress and I just watch the road disappear underneath me. It’s going to be one of those days. Knee warmers. Again, I could do with some knee warmers.
Halfway up the slow rise, I catch a glimpse of the scene behind me in Fletch. Slight flick over of my eyes into the square mirror hanging from my glasses and there it is. A giant ball of reddish orange.
The sun, a karaoke ball bouncing on the horizon.
Here comes the sun [bounce to line two] do-do-do-do.
It’s incredible. Pink sky, orange ball. More blood orange by the minute. I keep riding, waiting for the perfect moment. The right shot. But when I stop, the photo I attempt to take is a bust. The color isn’t real. It doesn’t match what I see. The mood is lost. The next one, the same. I lower the camera. Pause. Watch.
This is just for me.
This is not for you.
I saw it, I was here, it is seen and burnt on my brain. This is filed in my mind drawer marked ‘sunrise wow-kapows’. This minute, in this spot, on this hill, on this day. This moment is mine forever.
Can we just get this over with? My quads interrupt this moment and I finally turn away and start up the hill again. Crawl, crawl until I breach the surface of it. Now onto straights with a breeze swinging around and touching me all over. A bit blowy this morning. Go here, go there, swing the trailer, sway the load. Stop for a drink and look back again.
The ball is gone, but I can see for miles out that way. A splatter-sheet of rain in the distance, made a purplish-pink by the morning light. A cloud curls up around the sun and purrs. Long sip of the scene. Long sip of my water.
It would be great to just stop here.
Move on. Move on. A long way to go. My goal, my destiny is Hutchinson. A long day and I don’t feel well at all. The leftover pizza I ate before leaving sits like a petulant child in my stomach and I can tell it’s going to be throwing its toys around all day.
A ‘long slog’ pencils itself into my day calendar.
Somehow, in my dream state of ache denial, I miss the turn at Rosalia. I realize about a mile later that I never saw the town, never saw the turn, but it must have been there. I must’ve been sleep riding or something. Turn around awkwardly and head back to find it. There it is, plain as day. A whole town that escaped my gaze.
Once I’m through it, things change. Suddenly. I am going due north on NE Flinthills Road and I have a glorious crowned prince of a tailwind. I am flying, flying, gleeful and giddy. Pushed along and doing 25mph effortlessly on the flat. Avoiding road turtles, glancing at my shadow on the grass beside the road. Watching my legs turn over in glorious harmony. They aren’t complaining anymore. This is bliss. They are drunk with the joy of effortless grace.
With a smile as wide as my ass, I stop. As I revel in the traffic free morning, I pose Precious in the middle of the road and take his photo. He looks handsome and enigmatic. Park him back on the side of the road and breathe in deeply. Gaze out over the land. This will not last, this feeling, but I want to suck it up and digest it and make it last forever. Eleven miles. This will last for eleven miles and then I shall turn and my quads will remember who they are today and the harmony and symphony of joy will be over.
But for now, we have each other. Body and bike. Friends again.
I approach a long line of power lines as they cross from one side of the horizon to another. Perfect regimented formation. Perfect geometry against the perfectly angled land. The end of the bliss streak. Here it comes. I feel it, I feel it.
Turn. There it is. Still not a direct head wind but it sucks the speed out of my cranks and all I can do is just ride through it. With purpose. With tenacity. With vigor.
Cassoday. I make it to Cassoday, the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World and scene of the latest dog ambush. It is the final point of restock for me today. Ahead, 38 miles of nothing muc. No stops, no food, no water. Just the steadiness of moving forward to today’s destination. The only thing holding me back, my quads, my brain, and the weight of my extra water bottles on top of Zimmerman. I know it’s an excess amount of water, but I’m Australian and we panic about these things. Well, us farm-raised ones do.
Looking down the street, I can’t see a grocery store or service station. But there must be one here somewhere. Someone must have a pre-longhaul chocolate milk for me. With one last look at the retreating form of the blue heeler, I clip in and slowly pull away. Take off down the street.
And there it is. The sudden thundering paws through the bushes as the dumbest dog in the world appears in my helmet mirror, thinking she can sneak up on a sneaker. The sudden stop and vicious hurl around to yell at her startles her and she slinks off. Finally. Goodbye and good riddance. Tell the blue heelers union that you gave it your all but failed against the mightiness of a true blue dinky di pack leader.
Noodle out of town. Meander, glance about, and then I see it. Just past the turn for Newton stands a gas station and general store. I wander on in, all helmeted and spandexed.
Heads turn and men stare. I retreat up the back and examine the contents behind the glass fridge doors, searching for chocolate milk. The lady behind the counter, digging into a box just delivered, informs me they are out. She is preoccupied. The guy has not delivered the chewing tobacco. Chewing tobacco is important. Screw that, what about my chocolate milk!? Though I do wonder how chewing tobacco would power my ride. Just for a second.
With no chocolate milk in my future, I pick out an apple juice. I don’t really drink apple juice, so I am puzzled as to why this happens. As I stand outside and twist the lid off, I think “this looks like the outcome of what it will do to me if I drink it.”
A strange thought to have, but with 58 miles of no services it’s a valid one. Still, I sip, sip. Sip some more. Shove the half-full bottle in my jersey pocket. Repacked, restocked, I move off. A large stock truck pulls into the drive and dust swirls around me. One final hurrah in the parking lot of a small store at the edge of a small town.
Back to the turn I go. No dogs, no distractions, no chocolate milk.
And now it really begins. The wind is from the south west, so it lays itself across my face at an angle. Half cross, half head wind. For now, I can bear it. For now, I can go on. If I really think about it, I will think “This is kind of strong. This is kind of draining.” But there will be plenty of time to think that over the next, I dunno, six hours.
Gusty gust. It slides across the skin of my face, stealing energy as it goes. But the worst consequence of it is the effect it has on trucks. I see them approaching from behind and as they appear beside me they halt the wind suddenly, suck me into their slipstream, and then blow me back out the side after they’ve passed. Stock trucks, wicked and heaving with the stench of long unpacked cargo inhale me as they pass, and expel me like a sneeze.
I endure it multiple times, before a double whammy changes my strategy entirely. I see two trucks coming, the first goes out to give me room and I brace, but the second has not realized I am there and is a bit slow in moving out to do the same so doesn’t get as far out. The result is a double suck and blow – which sounds more exciting than it is. The second has furious intensity and I literally get blown off the road and into the rough gravel. Somehow, I manage to keep Precious upright and moving and jump back up the ledge onto the road.
But I stop.
My heart is beating.
My arms are shaking.
I swallow my good fortune and vow to pull over now, before trucks reach me. It’s too dangerous with this cross wind to keep playing with my accident proneness. It’s just as bad when they come the other way. I see them coming for me and I clutch my handlebars tight, squeeze my lips together to barricade the grit and hold on. Sometimes they blow my map bag right off the top of my handlebar bag and leave it hanging there, awkward and uncomfortable.
This is hard. I’m down in my granny ring quite a lot, athough not in the lowest gear. I’ll save that for a real headwind. Although the Flint Hills are a bit rolly in nature, they should be easy terrain to negotiate. But this wind adds invisible climbs which I must continue to attack and attack and never crest. It wears me down. As the day drags on, I stop more frequently to talk to myself. Think about how much fun this stretch would be with a tailwind. It’s like thinking how great your life would be if you won the lottery. Ultimately pointless. And you realize how gauche your taste in furniture really is.
I pull off the side to allow yet another giant piece of farm equipment the full use of the road and wave to the driver. He gratefully waves back as does the golden grass as he passes.
Open fields. Windmills. Oil pump jacks nodding their sleepy heads. Miles slip through my drain and into the open sewer of done. My mind has lulled itself into a ‘just keep moving’ mode.
Finally, I am in the home stretch to Newton. Hutchinson is a watercolor vision that has washed away with my sweat. It seeps into a no-way smudge on my dream easel.
I put my head down and climb a long climb, thankful that it will be over soon. Everything hurts. My knees have been brutally attacked by this wind when they should have been having a nice lazy day. My only thoughts are of bags of ice and the shock of that first touch on my kneecap. My ankle twinges. I accidentally touched it earlier, forgetting I’d thwacked it yesterday, but it was quick to remind me of my abuse. Too scared to examine it. No doubt it is swollen under my black sock. No doubt it is blue and purple and also writing a stern letter to the editor about my violent attack.
Turn those cranks, McCrae. Keep those big wheels turning.
I see a shadow coming down the hill toward me and at first think it’s another touring cyclist. But he has no real gear. Looks too lightly loaded. I don’t want to stop, just want to churn on and get there, but he pulls right over to my side of the road and I have to pull up. It’s only polite.
False bravado, I appear cheerier then I feel. Chatty even. He introduces himself and asks where I’m going. I find out he’s a pastor out at Elbing and rides out there every day. Unprompted, he tells me I can stay with the church in Newton if I want, but I’m too fuzzy in the brain to take him up on it. I hem and haw. I have a fault. When my mind grabs hold of an idea, it’s like a blue heeler and won’t give up a bone. And my mind is set on a hotel with ice on my knees and mindless television and a daydreaming shower that lasts well past what my mother would allow with water restrictions and drought considerations.
There’s a cafe in town, he tells me, where if I mention his name they’ll give me lunch on him tomorrow. I like the sound of this and say thanks as I take his card. But I know I won’t be in Newton for lunch tomorrow. Still, it is another one of those moments where I am happy people like this exist in the world.
“This wind is getting to me,” I say. He looks around.
“I guess you do have a slight head wind.”
Easy for him to say. He’s going the other way. I’m beat. A combination of the tiredness I’ve felt right from the start of the day to the constant push of a rude, shoving wind and incredibly frequent stock trucks harassing my form. We part and I keep telling myself: You’re almost there. You’ve almost made it. Not far now.
Hotel. Hotel. Hotel. It’s the one word that floods my brain as I finally enter Newton. Not getting something to eat, which I should. Not getting some calories into me, which I desperately need.
No, I think about the ice. The bed. The shower.
Pulling into the first hotel parking lot I see, I stop and ponder the sign. Econolodge. Hmm. I look across the road. CheapAss Rooms. That’s not the name, but looks like it should be. I can do cheap. I don’t mind cheap. I can rough it with the best of them, and actually find some kind of weird thrill in judging hotels by how crap they are. But what I need right now is comfort. Soft sheets. Curtains that reach the edges of the windows. A hug from an impersonal franchise hotel with fluffy towels and turned down bedspreads.
In the distance, I spy a far off Best Western sign. That’s a pretty big chain. Can’t be too bad, right? Off I go.
The door bursts open and there I am, helmeted and bedraggled. The girl takes takes pity on this weary cyclist and gives me the AAA rate. I must look absolutely trashed. I am chatty now. I don’t even have to fake my happiness. I know relief is but an electronic key away.
Screw the shower. Screw getting changed. I head straight for the ice machine with my little bucket in hand and crank some of those icy cubes out. They tumble like notes through a pianola. It is the most beautiful sound in the world.
This room has a recliner and I kick it back and throw a bag of ice on my poor abused knees. Feet up on the footrest, I flip on the TV. That incredibly long Kevin Costner movie about baseball is on. Sink down deeper. Lap it up. Smile the smile of someone who has defeated the day. Yes, we are old and broken in our sports, dear Kevin. It is our final season. The last legs of our fame. The dying embers of our body’s glory.
It is the season of the bitch. And we are kicking its arse.
Date: August 31, 2010
From: Eureka, KS
To: Newton, KS
Distance: 75.27 miles
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