The Larned water tower. In a whispered thrill it calls to me, again and again. A silver solder blob in the distance. A shiny christmas tree ball rolling around on the horizon’s carpet.
“Over here, over here!” it says. “C’mon, you can make it. Come stick your tongue in the socket of my wheat silo and taste the splendor of my small town aura.”
I hear you, strange-talking ball. I hear what you say, weirdo.
It taunts me mercilessly with its sing-song cheeriness and just there attitude. For miles. For ever. For no good reason. But it never gets closer. Never sidles on over to rub its hip against mine and say, “I’m so glad you made it”. It’s a mean ol’ mirage. A tease of a tower.
I’m close to the 100 mile mark for the day. Close, but no cigar. Not yet. No snipping off the end and chomping down to inhale the smoke of ‘man, I’m glad that’s over with.’ Still some miles to go.
Still have to get to that tower. And there’s that not getting any closer thing.
Calling, calling. Stop calling to me! Stop it! Rage. Infuriation. I squint and snarl my lip. Shake my brain fist at it. Why? Why do you taunt me so?
Stopping at a road mouth, I look to my right. Cows. Staring at me with their goofy glass eyes. Methodically sussing me out. Judging me most cruelly.
Without looking away from them, I slowly bring my water bottle to my lips take a deep draw of the warm liquid. Stare right back. Hard. Right into their accusing faces. My expression screams, what are you looking at, four stomachs? They are unmoved. They care not about my plight.
A sigh, with a deep and cavernous beginning, ejects itself. By my calculations, that tower is only seven miles away. Seven miles. I just have to get through seven miles to stab that century in the heart and finish my day. But my interest in continuing is waning. It’s a mental battle at this point, not even physical. My body is on autopilot. My brain has left the cockpit and is in the larder stealing all the in-flight nuts. Come on you two, get the band back together. Reunion tour! We’re headlining in Lander tonight!
I could put my earphones back in, that would help pass the time. Something inspirational, or meaty to help me turn the cranks, sweetly? No. Too much music today. It’s helped me get through the straights and the endless monotony of a road that doesn’t know the seduction of a curve, but about an hour ago, I came to the sudden realization that all the music I have is utter dross. I shan’t be listening to it again. Music and my ride. I tried it once, the affair is over.
The warm air wafts, the tower sits there glinting. My eyes focus on a harvester in a field as it strips the dignity from stalks and dumps them into a bin. A cloud of dust hides the crime but I stop to record it. Caught you, stripper. You defiler of crops.
Procrastination is winning. The afternoon is creeping. I am sagging. I stop often just to glare at that tower. To sip and to whine and to pep myself up and puff and berate and say ‘c’mon, you bitch. just keep going!’
It’s not that I have a choice. The keep going is the only going there is. It begins the day, it ends the day. And at night when you lay there in your bed or your sleeping bag, its one of the last thoughts that strings itself out on the clothesline of your mind.
Just. Keep. Going.
Sedate seeps. The 101 is a sleepy child, a pinkish black crushed gravel road meandering through corn and fields dotted with giant round bales of hay. Insects buzz and heat shimmers. Farmland. Feels like home.
A drought of traffic soothes my mind and edges me on to complacent peddling. Through a corridor of corn I roll, over a small rise and down a long straight I spy a wobble on the side of the road a mile or so ahead. In the center of it, a strange bright light moving with it. Side to side. Unsteady. Vapors belly dance a shimmer over the object and it wiggles and staggers. It is a touring cyclist. I’d recognize that pannier dance anywhere.
Wouldn’t it be funny, I think, if that cyclist was the one someone told me to look out for not three minutes earlier when I checked my email. Stacia. In Kansas. Heading the opposite direction to me. Could it be her?
Slowly we pull closer to each other, their shimmer becoming sharper as they come into focus. Their headlight blinking and turning with each stroke. It’s a girl. I stop and she pulls over to my side of the road.
“Are you Stacia?” I ask, before she even has a chance to say hi.
I tell her how I’d just been told to look out for her. That someone had left a comment on my blog about how she was a good writer. About how weird it was to see her so soon after reading about her.
To bump into other riders, conditions have to be perfect. You have to leave at a certain time, stars have to align. Docking stations have to get their math right.
We chat for a while, exchange a few ‘stay here, don’t stay there’ stories and swap websites. Then, like magnets with poles held together, we push away from each other. I watch as she begins to fade to a shimmer in my mirror, but I hear her say something and stop.
Look back. I think about calling out, but she’s looking at her tire. Told me she’d been coddling a slow leak all day, and was obviously putting more air into it. I smile to myself. Her spirit is solid. Just happy to noodle along and slip by the day, undetected. That’s the way to be.
The smile I wear as I start up again is an unconscious smile of enjoyment. For although the road just goes on and on, so do I. My pace is steady, around 14mph, and I don’t vary too much from my script. I don’t ad-lib the descents. I don’t force the funny where the serious lies.
I just ride.
My eyes are telescopes. They scan the landscape for life. For tractors for farmers. For oil pumps and cows. They are scouts for my mind. Out there, reporting back when they stray across something I might enjoy looking at.
Twice during the ride, I pull over for tractors hauling giant harrows and seeders and watch them pass by. They bundle up the road with huge importance. Me, a speck on the side, just making my way in the world. I am in no hurry. I have plenty of time and I feel strong as an ox. Bold like bull. Mighty like buffalo.
The straight road makes it easy. But also hard. Easy, because you can see what’s in front of you. Hard, because you can see what’s in front of you. It’s all the same. Straight. Sometimes a slight hint of up. Sometimes a slight hint of down. But mostly up.
I cross a road and the surface is different again. This time, a bit more loose and gravelly, though coarse. Speck in your eye type consistency. And the slight grade is starting to be a bit of a dominatrix on my legs. The speed is dropping. Slowly, ever so slowly. I see a truck approaching and don’t think much about it. Just another truck on another straight bit of road on another mid-afternoon ride.
It flies by at warp speed and I am suddenly sandblasted. Actually say “OW!” out loud. Pull over to the side of the road and look back at the offensive beast. Stupid truck. I’ve got grit in my teeth now. But you know what? This shit is true grit.
Off route, off route! My internal GPS is yelling in my ear, but I switch it off and creep out of Newton all cat-burglarish and sneaky-sneaky like. I’m being naughty. Saving myself some grief by doing a straight line run for it over to Hutchinson on the 50. I say grief, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking I’m being very smart and tricking the wind. Pulling a little swifty. Teehee. Me so sneaky.
The 50 is fast and wide and tickled by a rumble strip. The traffic flies by with nary a care and so do I. My sunglass are perched in the top of my helmet and I’m seeing the morning for what it is, unaltered by polarized lenses. Unfettered by trick perception. It is a glorious day. Golden morning.
I am feeling ace. The tingle in my knees is but idle chatter today. The healthy snap of my quads is powering me down this road like pure electricity through heavy duty cable. My legs can barely contain the energy within.
It is a no drama road. Ruler straight and so protective of its traffic lanes that it is at times double-rumbled. One thin set and a second set of jaw-chattering ones. Not sure if that’s to keep me off the road or the hulking beasts in, but we both keep our distance.
Irrigation booms throw their bounty in the air and rainbows dance in their misty spray. Secretly I hope some of that mist will reach me out here on the hot road. Water stretches and arcs. I lean towards it. No joy.
There is the smell of massacred grass as I come upon a man slashing by the roadside. He pulls over and stops so as to not shower me with rocks and I wave. We two, we lucky two, out here on life’s highway. One slashing grass, the other slashing miles.
I hope the wind stays like this. All quiet and non-intrusive.
Ass. Donkeys. Not a lot is catching my attention, but I see these burros to my right behind a fence and pull up in the dirt driveway beside them. Say hi.
A few come over to talk to me and I stick out my hand. Somewhere in the back of my mind a ‘they will bite’ alarm goes off. Curious eyes zero in on my gloved hand and a nose comes out to sniff. I pet it, cautiously, then with more affection. Here I am, prolonging the day. A donkey diversion. Today is gonna drag. Today is gonna be one long donkey trek. Just me and my beast of burden, Precious. Our pack, the ever-resilient Zimmerman.
Push off. Ride on. Move on through and get it going.
Fifteen miles from Hutch and the stench of what can only be crude oil invades my nostrils and sets up camp. Such a weird and pungent aroma. Evil. I would hate to live near here and be subjected to that every day. My face would be a constant wince of anger and disappointment at my lot in life. This smell makes those stock trucks seem as positively rosy. I glare accusingly at each and every oil pumpjack as I whistle past.
Time is strangely not on my side, even this early in the day. Quick calculations and as I roll into Hutchinson I realize I won’t have time to go to the Cosmosphere and Space Museum. Not if I hope to finish my 107 miles before nightfall. I swing into a gas station with a pretty decent grocery selection and stock up. Apple danish in the back pocket, chocolate milk in my hand.
I talk to a truck driver outside for a while. He asks me about my flag and where I’m going. Tells me that he worries when he veers out to give cyclists room on those back roads. About the coupling on his truck. That it’s not that easy to maneuver. It’s interesting to hear this perspective. When you’re out in it, you only see it from your point of view. Sometimes you imagine intentional aggression, an anger seething through the steering wheel and into the shoulder where you reside. Big rig rage. But there are two sides to every road I guess.
While he talks, I eat a donut. I rarely eat donuts but there was something about this one, sitting there in the fake golden light of its glass display case, that caught my sugar-craving eye. I’d gently reached in and removed it with my papered hand. The icing was now surely stuck to my teeth, but the milk washed that dough boy down like a river running through an ancient canyon.
“I must away,” I say to the truckie, throwing my trash in the garbage and climbing aboard my chariot. I must away. Away to get back on route. Away to get this day on the conveyor belt and moving along my mileage disassembly line.
Away. Away to the end.
Date: September 01, 2010
From: Newton, KS
To: Larned, KS
Distance: 106.57 miles
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