Day 38: The Devil Day
Date: September 02, 2010
From: Larned, KS
To: Bazine, KS
Distance: 51.50 miles
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“That storm’s coming for me,” I joke to myself, immediately thinking “That’ll make a nice first line for today’s blog.” A storm coming for me. Nice semi-dramatic lead.
Legs churning, spinning, I pedal furiously, laughing to myself at the ridiculousness and futility of my 4mph headwind plight. Yes, a nice start. I’ll be able to talk about the storm and how it looked terribly menacing (fact). About how it came for me and at the last minute turned like a shy boy and went off in the other direction (hearsay). Of a wind that blew and blew and blew itself out (conjecture).
What a nice, comfy armchair start for the blog that will be. (Wishful thinking.)
I was going to start with ‘That cloud has indigestion.’ A line I’d uttered in my mind three hours earlier while standing under a hotel awning watching an impolite, burpy sky. But one ducks and dives and moves with the times. Indigestion cloud got pushed off the page with “That storm is coming for me.”
Life is hard for a first sentence. Ask any criminal.
The smile dribbles off my face and down my neck as I look up from the road and back at the storm. My heart, with its fickle on-off and kerthumpity is suddenly a flutter of nerves. Beats per minute up, up, up. I narrow my eyes in the howling wind and stare it down. It has changed clothes. Put on a new face. Clown cloud begat creep cloud.
A wide sheet of air mixed with dust and water and a very bad attitude streaks its way to ground in the distance. It moves in a steady rhythm. From heaven to earth, it’s strung along the horizon like a giant shower curtain. As if the big guy in the sky has stuck out his arm, put it on the tabletop of Kansas, and is about to sweep everything off it in one smooth motion.
Alakazam, alak aloot. Realization creeps up the back of my neck, tripping on all the hairs and making me shiver.
I am on that table.
That storm really IS coming for me.
Hours earlier, I’m standing under an awning, checking in on my SPOT tracker and ogling a collection of off-grey clouds hovering over the houses of Larned, Kansas. Grumbling clouds. Attention seeking clouds. The biggest one rears up into the sky as though waving its arm in the air while drowning in a frothy surf. Over here, look at me!
Still waving, it grumbles.
That cloud has indigestion, I think to myself as I tuck the SPOT into my back pocket and arch my eyebrow.
Are you trying to tell me something, cloud?
A man on a Surly pulls up under the awning beside me and begins a conversation about cycling and commuting and just what I hope to achieve with my ride. Finishing mostly, I think. That’s as good an achievement as any. His advice flows freely and unfettered. It’s a freestyle conversation with good-natured back-and-forth. I nod and answer his probing questions politely.
While we make with the talk of smallness, it starts to spit. Small drops give way to a more serious attack and fat sacks of water begin pummeling the asphalt around us. The sound is cavernous under the awning and liquid bounces with intense urgency before settling into flowing rivers, making their way towards fast-puddling gutters.
I smile. The smell is incredible.
“I don’t think this will last long,” says the man, and almost on cue, it slows to a steady, tolerable tempo. He makes a ‘chores to do!’ break for it and once again I am left to contemplate my next move.
Out with the map to check the phone number of the cyclist hostel in Bazine. I speak for a while to Elaine, the owner, and let her know I’m coming that afternoon. Room required. This was the place Stacia had recommended, with an option to camp on the lawn or stay indoors. Much as I enjoy the outdoors, I’m not really in the mood for it.
“Do you require pampering?” Elaine asks, and I’m struck by how awesome that sounds right now. Annoyed that I’m actually going to have to wait a whole day to receive said pampering, but I tamp down my disappointment and simply say “Yes”. Hanging up, I observe the scene.
Seriously, the smell. It’s glorious. A meteorological casserole of odors; of summer rain on dry dirt and grass and warm road. I suck it into my lungs through my eager nose, then turn to dig through my pannier for my rain gear. I must away. Must go on. With the last pull of Velcro to close my jacket cuff tightly, I clip my right foot in and prepare to push off into the quiet gentle slog of rain riding.
The office door opens suddenly and the desk clerk delivers a line of dialogue to me that is as exciting as it is annoying.
“I just heard they’re predicting tennis ball-sized hail for Rush County,” she says, leaning out the door and looking a touch concerned.
And here’s me without my racket, I think. Her Phil the Weatherman routine concludes with the joyful prediction of severe lightning and 25-30mph winds.
“I don’t want you to go out there if there’s going to be lightning,” she says. I’m touched by her concern, her furrowed brow, and the slight tilt of her ‘if-you-go-out-there-you’re-crazy’ head. If a local is telling me not to go out in a storm, then it’s probably a good idea to listen. But I say nothing. Just stare out, reveling in the smell. Dreaming my dumb contemplation dreams.
“You can wait inside,” she says as if to give me an out and push my flighty brain back into the reality of the moment. “Or I can give you the key back to your room if you like.”
Snap out of it, Gidget, I think. Respond to the lady.
“Thanks,” I say. “I guess I’ll just wait inside. How long do you think?”
She tells me it should pass in an hour, so I park the bike, dig out my notebook, and head inside to start writing up some notes. Good opportunity to catch up on some stuff. I’m hip to this Kansas weather jive. I’ve wised up, buttercup. I’m a stay dry, superfly.
Ten minutes later and the rain slows to a misty shadow of its former self. The sky is light and gentle with timid rain clouds. Not particularly menacing at all.
“They’ve updated the weather report,” says the clerk, sticking her head through the breakfast room door. “You can go if you want. Sounds like it’s passed.”
Well, that’s a bit of letdown, I think. I was quite looking forward to the show. Thunderbolts. Lightning. Very very frightening. Etcetera. Sighing, I close the barely touched notebook and snap the elastic band over it. With a cheery thanks and a grateful nod, out I go, under the awning again. My movements are lazy. My pace, snail-like. I repack my pannier and don my rain jacket. Is the jacket too much? This is not serious rain. This is wet-cloth-on-a-hungover-face dampness. And it really does look like it’s nearly done. I leave the jacket on, if for nothing else visibility in the grey-day traffic.
Off route, off route, says the little GPS in my head. I pedal back in the direction of the pink and black line on my map. Over bricked streets and through leafy neighborhoods. It’s a quiet morning with the residual sweat of the sky slicked across the roads. Even though it’s still lightly sprinkling, I pull over in front of a house and take off my rain jacket. Due to the heat of the morning, I’m actually getting damper wearing it than if I were just riding. Remove. Repack. Off again.
Before long, I’m out of Larned and back on route 156. Out on the road proper. Traffic has picked up and trucks are already asserting their authority over me. Can they not tell that I am the submissive here? I just want a tiny, tiny little strip of the road over here, right on the edge. Please? They care not. I plod on, enduring their rude gusts as they pass.
I’m on the Ozark Frontier Trail. A sign tells me so. I’m kind of ashamed that I’m not really familiar with what that actually means. But I see what’s around me. Imagine what it was like before anyone was out here. Definitely a frontier. Flat frontier. Grassy. Imagine driving a wagon through here on a dusty trail. Hardly seems right to complain about the lack of a shoulder when things could be much, much worse. I could be wearing a whalebone corset.
Is this considered a prairie, I wonder, surveying the grassy land around me? Is there a little house? Will Laura Ingalls come bundling down a hill, all buck-toothed and pig-tailed and do something that will teach me about family values?
A truck blows by. There’s your sixteen-wheeled Laura Ingalls, kid. Only girl be rollin’ down a hill in the grass will be you if you don’t watch where you’re going. Glaring at the back of the truck, I power on. Bit-by-bit the sky is becoming more patchwork in its arrangement. Blue peeks through from time-to-time but has no chance to assert itself. The wind is getting wilder and pushes new clouds over these blue holes very quickly.
Make a hole, fill it in. The cycle continues.
Despondent. It’s what I feel. Just drudgery on wheels. Not really much zip in the legs after yesterday’s century and the land looks so uninspired right now. A harsh judgment, I know, and as if to try redeeming itself I spy a metallic buffalo beside the Santa Fe Trail visitor center. Bisonic art. I stop and take a photo, to balance out all my grassy, flatland shots and I am temporarily interested. But it doesn’t last.
Fort Larned is coming up. Perhaps it shall rise from the scene like Fort Courage in F Troop. Perhaps it’ll be massive and mighty and stop me in my tracks and I’ll have no choice but to give the nod of submission: “Yes, Kansas. I yield to your sexy fort ways.”
Not far now. Will I see it for miles? Will I be unable to cycle past its magnificence?
All I see right now is a sign indicating no hitchhiking and rolling, tiny-shouldered roads flanked by fields rippled with a relentless wind.
I’m not going to stop and look at some dumb fort, even if it’s manned by Captain Parmenter himself. I need to get to Bazine as quickly as possible so as to not drag today out. To not turn this despondency into pain. Decision made. Look at me, being the captain of my destiny.
Coming closer to the turnoff, I change my mind. Not out of guilt about dismissing a historical site, but because of the rather ominous cloud formation that has appeared ahead of me. It’s been slowly snuffing out the sun with a grey, down-filled pillow and seems intent to deliver the same fate to me.
If I stop at the fort, I can wait out the rain. Probably just another quick shower, plus I can absorb some of this fine American culture whilst staying dry.
So, I pull in. Again with the metal cut out sculptures. The first one is at the gate. A giant cowboy on a horse, pointing his rifle at some invisible menace in the sky. I cycle down the drive and find some more. Soldiers all in a row, marching out of a lush green field with rifles shouldered. The person who makes these metal things must be making a killing. They’re rusty and simple and something I bet my Dad could make. But he doesn’t make them, and this guy does, so I should just shut up and say hats off to him.
I see a sign that directs no vehicles beyond this point, and in a fit of ‘I must obey, even though I’m in the middle of nowhere and no-one’s around’, I park Precious under a tree. Begin walking towards a stone bridge leading to the fort, which is hidden behind a row of thick trees.
And then I look back. Poor Precious, out in the open and vulnerable. I won’t be able to see him at all once I cross into this place. Fret. Worry. Stick out my bottom lip. I walk back and get him. Together we forge our way into the fort a whoopin’ and a hollerin’. Actually, all sneaky, sneaky, which I find out immediately is pointless because when I cross the bridge and enter the fort area there’s a bike rack.
I can sense Precious laughing his bike laugh, a sign that I’m probably going insane. The bike rack is actually kind of useless for a bike pulling a trailer—no balance at all—so I lean Precious against the end of it and hope he stays upright. It’s ok, I say, I won’t be long. With camera in hand, I trudge off to see what I can see.
For starters, this fort is nothing like the one in F Troop. Where’s the high wooden fence? Where’s my cliche? It’s out in the open, a square formation of buildings set around a flag in the middle of the compound. The sun briefly reaches out to touch me as I walk towards the first building, though I notice the clouds crouching, waiting, watching. A battle in the sky—how will it end?
An even bigger battle is raging on the ground as mosquitoes attack my legs unmercifully. Hordes of them. Giant buggers too. I feel their sting and swat their lives away. Terrible. I move faster and swat at my legs hoping to ward them off before they get there. It’s a weird little hopping-swat jig.
“Fort Larned. A frontier fort that looks much the same as when General Custer first saw it in 1867.” This was on a sign back where I’d first parked Precious. I glance around.
Really? The first building—the Adobe hospital and infantry barracks—is a tapestry of who-was-here scrawls carved into the stone wall exterior. Deep etchings of names and dates, some more recent than others. While absentmindedly swatting mosquitoes, I spy one from 1886. It’s is the earliest date I find before giving in to the buzz and sting of the little biters. I see one from 1492, but that’s probably a slip of the chisel.
Maybe I will be spared the aerial insect assault if I go inside? Into the barracks I go. Just a quick look. I won’t be long. The room has been filled with period pieces, and with quiet resignation, I realize this is actually not going to be a quick visit at all. I forgot I LOVE looking at this kind of stuff. The barracks with bunk beds and abandoned chess boards, wall-mounted rifle racks, and neatly hung uniforms. Wooden barrels, scabbards, and non-poxed blankets for the soldiers.
I read a note on the wall about how this room was intended to be sleeping quarters for 26 men but could hold 119 if necessary.
Each room I peer into has been lovingly touched with the same detail. A kitchen filled with utensils and LARD tins. The words ‘beef suet’ jump out at me and my arteries harden reflexively. Into the hospital ward and I’m right into the thick of the sickness. Each bed is made up, waiting for a patient that will never come. A card hangs, ready to be filled with name, diagnosis, and next of kin detail. The startling words ‘nature of missile’ and an empty space to fill catches my eye. Surely missile is enough, who needs to know if it was sweet-hearted and mean-spirited?
Outside again and I’m looking towards the next building. I really should be moving on, since it doesn’t look like the rain is serious about falling. But who knows what treasures these other buildings hold? Swatting yet another a mosquito, I walk to the end of the verandah and see a cemetery a mere cannonball-heave away. Hovering behind the scene, the grey cloud that threatens my advancement should I get back on the bike.
Over I go.
In a fit of Noodlemania, the mosquitoes swarm over me in a misguided frenzy. But my curiosity outweighs their pointy little bloodsucking beaks and I get closer to the headstones, noticing that it’s actually a well-organized memorial. Closer, closer I go in an attempt to take a photograph. But finally, the buzzing in my ear gets to me and like Custer, I retreat gracefully to a safer position in the next building.
This room is filled with petrified bread. An approximation of a bakery from the time, but what kind of evil chemical must those loaves be bathed in to make them look golden and fresh as all getup? There’s probably a secret back door to each loaf with a rat living inside, and a landlord charging each rodent an exorbitant price. Poor rats. And eating that chemical has probably made them a super race, capable of overthrowing governments and putting on plays.
It could happen. I’m making a note of it.
Into the darkened tomb of the blacksmith’s shop and the metallic air of forged tools and bellows, chains, and long-quenched heat. And acme-like anvils.
Outside and the storm is getting no closer. In fact, it seems to be moving off in the direction of Larned now, and I breathe a sigh of relief about dodging this soggy bullet. I should go. I really should go. But there are only a few buildings left. I press fast forward. Speed touristing, here we go!
Schoolhouse. A dunce cap, lessons on a chalkboard, maps on the wall. Idaho is missing. Next, the general store and they’ve really gone to town on this one. Fake meats hang from the ceiling, potatoes in the scales. Exotic boxes stamped with their contents—though the thought of the one filled with pickles makes me tremble a little. Here we have the staples of the time: cornmeal, flour, spices, salted beef, tea, and coffee. Tins depict simple illustrations of contents and I know they’re probably not accurate but let me live in this illusion. Another barrel. Pure vinegar dated July 1867. That’ll be a pretty sharp batch, I think.
Faster pussycat, faster! I zip into the armory. Lots of ammunition boxes, big guns and muskets. A 12-pounder Mountain Howitzer. Next, the Quartermaster Storehouse, filled with uniform supplies. Re-imagined. White Berlin Gloves. Leather Gauntlets. Every size you can imagine, even for the big-handed fellas.
As I come out the door I glance over in the direction of Precious. He is scuttled like a beetle on his back. Unable to get up. Damn Zimmerman and his power to pull down the mighty. That bike will not be happy when I get back. I look to my left. Just one more building. Look back at the helpless Precious. Or should I just skip it?
Into the officers’ quarters I go. It’s a little more homely. Skins on the walls, moose antlers towering over the desk. Frontier clothes and uniform hats plus all the accouterments of a frontier officer’s life. Chess boards, a footlocker at the end of the bed. An elaborate saddle in the bedroom. I look down to the floor at a giant bear skin. Imagine the size of the animal that could shuffle on that coat. Holy crapsticks, that thing was massive!
Enough, enough, I say. Time to leave. Outside and although the sky is still grey, it’s a light and sicky shade. It looks apologetic and embarrassed for not having more substance. I pull yesterday’s leftover danish from my back pocket and eat it while walking over to Precious. It’s still good, if a little gooey, and the tart sweetness of the filling inside crinkles up my eye. Man, too super sweet, but all this tourist activity has made me hungry, so I endure the pain.
If Precious notices the crumbs on my lips he says nothing. I pull him up off the ground and apologize for my careless parking. Wonder once more if I’m starting to go a little crazy by talking to a damn bike so much (let’s ignore the part about expecting an answer). But is it any different from talking to myself? Really?
Back out on the road and the wind has picked up considerably. It shoves me from the side most rudely. Shove, shove, shove. Ugh. In a few short miles, I’m going to turn North and from that point on, I’ll be riding straight into it. For 19 miles. I can’t wait!
But at least it’s not raining, right?
This is the one thought I’ll be able to console myself with, I think as I turn onto the 183. Nineteen or so miles to Rush Center. My time estimates are usually based on a conservative 10mph average. Typically, I’ve been doing better than that, but over the course of the day, hills or wind will even it out to a 10-11mph average. So, two hours to get there and with the wind attempting to blow the lids of my eyes, off I go.
Man. This is gonna take forever, I think, gritting my teeth and focusing on keeping the cranks turning. Let the battle begin!
The shoulder is completely non-existent on this road. The white line is on the very edge and crumbled off in some places, so I claim more than my allotted share of the lane. But not much more. I’m a little timid about it, actually. The wind is completely in-my-face, head-on blustery, so when the trucks and cars blow by, they don’t really affect my progress much at all. Kind of great, to not be blown off the road for once.
Least of my problems, as it turns out. Moving forward is the great grand issue of the day. I spin and I turn cranks and I put my head down and it is comedy. A great grand comedy. I am laughing at the wind. The wind blows the sound right back into my mouth, then ratchets up, blow by gusty blow. I am grinning like an idiot. I don’t know why. It’s just funny to me, this moment.
Fallow fields, straw, and dirt witness this show and throw their bodies at me to voice their disapproval. This is not funny. This is serious. Here’s some grit in your eye to drive that point home. Let go, let go earth. Let go of your topsoil and throw it at me with all of your might.
I stop. Put on my clear glasses. Barrier. I laugh at your attempts to grit my eyes and blind my view.
Miles and endless miles. A flat and shapeless horizon. And that’s when I notice the storm. That’s when I notice the weirdness of the clouds to my far left. Their wicked underbellies. Their shape reminds me of sucking Cling Wrap into an open mouth and waiting for the pop. And then there’s that shower curtain of doom, bruise-blue, and streaking toward me in an effort to beat me the same color.
That storm’s coming for me. Oh, yes. Who’s laughing now?
Fear. I am afraid. A gnashing belly-jawed fear. I don’t scare easily. Fake scared maybe. But not that fear you get as a kid when you think there really is a monster under the bed. This fear is creeping and pinch-me real. Weather is a powerful thing. Beyond your control and capable of punching you square in the jaw and kicking you while you’re down.
This is bad.
Frantic, I scan the road ahead. Where is some cover? Where? The path forward is naked and barren. Nothing, nowhere, no-one. A house, passed a while back, pops its frame and trusses into my memory.
Too far back.
Two silos off in a field up ahead. Possibly, but even if I make it there, there is no protection, no shelter, no relief.
An elderly barn, wooden and eager, raises its hand in the distance. Can I make it there? It’s maybe a mile, I think. A mile of gut-busting cranking for my dear life.
It’s two, says my brain, you are in denial.
Shut up, brain. Since when have you ever been right about anything? It’s one mile. It’s most definitely one mile. I can make it. Book it, book it, T-bird!
I churn my legs with the same viciousness as the wind hurling its abuse at me. I throw Precious into a bigger gear to stress the urgency to my legs. We crank, we mash, we are a unified presence in our quest to make it to the barn. Nothing can stop us. I am throwing myself at the wind. Desperate.
You are barely moving.
Shut up brain!
You are not going to make it.
Shut up! We are an engine of efficient carburetor action, smooth with viscous oil and firing pistons. We are a freight train blowing through this deserted Kansas station.
No, we are a blowfly in a bottle. Drunkenly buzzing and trapped and banging our dumb heads against the glass.
Getting closer. We must make it to the barn. We are very close. We can make it to the barn!
We’re not going to make it to the barn.
Truth, like auto-tune music, hurts. It stabs me in the face.
I pull up.
What am I going to do? I stand and look at the situation. Fear is squeezing my lungs in its fist.
The curtain rapidly moves towards me, wrapping itself around the barn in an eerie embrace. The very barn I was aiming for. It arcs around the edge of it and the wind forms a curve. A wall of wind, like the puffed-out cheek of a bonsai tornado wannabe, calls to me.
Hold me closer, tiny biker.
Ok, that’s not good. This is not a good place to be. I look around wildly and decide to throw myself at the mercy of the ditch beside the road. A wide expanse of grassy low ground that’s probably there for this very reason.
Down I go. I lay Precious and Zimmerman on their side, then get down with them. I coward up and hide behind the bulk of Zimmerman. As flat as I can go. I am a speck on Kansas’s windshield. I am Elastic Girl. I am flat and invisible. You can’t see me. I am not here.
The wind is much reduced down here, almost cool and apologetic. A few sharp pinpricks of rain hit my legs, but nothing more. I feel the force of the curtain move over us all and in a beat, it’s passed. A swirl of frantic dust, gust, and confusion and it’s gone.
I sit up. Watch it move on as it looks for someone else to freak out. It stretches across field and ditch and road and is a complete shield to what’s behind it. A sudden realization—there has been no traffic for quite some time. Locals must know to stop. I am the only idiot in this landscape. The only witness to this random act of violence.
Still shaking, I grab my Nikon from the handlebar bag and attempt to photograph its retreat. I must document my stupidity for all to admire. Lower the camera. Become aware of the sharp and insistent prickles sticking in my buttocks. Scan the ground. Some kind of native burr I guess, as I stand and shake myself off. What a strange day. My heartbeat is gradually going back to normal as I watch the storm carry on. An angry mob, chasing down its prey.
Sadly, it has not taken the wind with it, and if anything, it’s gotten stronger and more agitated.
Dragging the rig out of the ditch, I swing my leg over and push off again. The traffic slowly comes back and things return to a windy norm. About ten minutes later and I’m back in the ditch, but this time simply because the wind is too strong. I am barely moving. Might as well sit it out down low where the gusts are lessened and there’s less chance of being hit by a car or truck.
It becomes obvious after a while that the waiting it out part is pointless. It’s not really dying down at all, so I pull myself up again and just get at it. Plod on, soldier. Forward is the future.
A slight turn in the road towards the east and it becomes an epic battle of me and it. Holding on for dear life to my handlebars and trying to stay upright as it nudges angrily from the side. Being shoved off the road from time-to-time, only to wrestle my way back on. And then a slight turn north and we’re back to head-on. Much relief. Odd to think that I find a headwind to be of great comfort, but it is.
Normally, a situation like this would make me very grumpy, but I feel quite resigned to simply keep on keepin’ on. No real choice. No place to stop, nowhere to give in early. I’m actually kind of cheery. This is a challenge and I’m going to complete it.
I count down the miles. Ten to go. Seven to go. Three. Two. I can see the town. A slight detour around some bridge construction and finally, finally, into Rush Center. Home of the Largest St. Patrick’s Parade, whatever that means. I glance around at the tiny town. What does that mean? Are there Irish people hiding under that old tractor? Does the Guinness naturally run green here? They can’t just put up a sign if it’s not true.
Down the street and a hard left turn. Hard west turn. West. The way of the future. The way of the crosswind.
Numbers flash on my brain billboard. Two hours and 45 minutes, not including lay in the ditch time. It took me two hours and 45 minutes to go 19 miles. Ok. I chew on this fact for a moment. Turn it over under my tongue.
Kansas, you deplete me.
But strange happiness settles into the basement of my stomach. Puts up its feet on an ottoman. Twiddles its thumbs and looks smug there in its smoking jacket. I feel as though I have overcome the great windy brute in my path and slain him with my awesome bike. Churned him up in my spokes and left him bleeding on the flats behind me. Against the wind, I am victorious. This delay has blown (literally) my predicted arrival time to smithereens, but I care not. I will still make it to Elaine’s easily before sunset, and that’s all that really matters.
I leave. I arrive. Stick to the script, all the way across America.
At the rest stop in Alexander—the fanciest building in town, truth be told—I am approached by a guy who’s pulled in to let his dog out for a walk. The dog is old and fat and trots over to sniff my hand before moving on to the interesting shrubs.
“How do you like riding in this wind?” he asks.
“Well, like is a strong word,” I say, and we laugh and settle into an easy conversation. Before I set off, he asks “Don’t you worry about being out here alone?”
Only when people say stuff like that to me, I think.
“Nah,” I say. “I think most people want to be good.” I’m not sure he understands, but it’s a thought I keep coming back to. Most people do want to be good people. They want to help. It’s hard to explain the ones who aren’t.
The miles tick by, the wind howls on, but not as bad as before. I am content to just rumble on and not think too much about it. I’m not thinking, not bitching, not brewing or kvetching. I’m just riding and it’s nice to empty my mind like an old suitcase and ride.
Before long, I am in Bazine and searching for the sign for Elaine’s Bicycle Oasis. It’s hard to miss. A rusty bike with a crudely painted sign. I pull in and up under a tree in the yard. Hesitate and walk down a path to the back door. Knock.
Elaine is on the phone as she opens it.
“I have to go. The biker is here,” she says, motioning me inside and finishing up her call.
As we chat, I watch her cut limes and put into a jug of icy water. She brings it over to the kitchen table with a bag of raw sugar and a spoon.
“I’ll let you decide how much you want,” she says, and I dig in and sift a spoonful into my glass. It’s refreshing and cool after this terrible day of fighting the wind. I tell her about it.
“Oh, a dust devil!” she says, and I thank her for letting me know what they’re called out here. I would have called it a Willy-Willy.
“We thought you might have turned back. Because of the wind. Some people do.”
That was never an option, and I tell her so. I am made of sterner stuff, I think, but realize by sterner I mean stupider stuff.
A bit later, after I’ve showered and made myself human again, I sit at the table chatting as I watch her making dough for the pizza she’s inventing for dinner. From-scratch dough, for real made-up spontaneous pizza. I am salivating with anticipation of the meal to come. We talk about biking and the town, and how long she’s been opening her house up to cyclists. We talk about careers and life and if I mind the cat being inside. She asks me how much rent I pay in New York and I tell her. Watch as her eyes widen, and her kneading fingers pause before working at the dough again.
“Guess how much rent she pays?!”
It’s one of the first things Elaine says to Dan, her husband when we sit down to eat dinner. Both are shocked at the expense. Dan names a guy down the road who paid a very low price—which might as well have been a nickel when compared to my rent—for a house.
“A whole house!” he says. “With four bedrooms!”
It is quite scandalous, I think. But I live in New York City. That’s kind of very different than out here where the wind blows and the dirt flies freely.
I steer conversation expertly away from politics and religion and instead talk about my upbringing. They’re very interested to hear I’m a farm girl. That I was raised a certain way and understand the way of the land. That my brother is a John Deere mechanic. In fact, I get the sense that if my brother had been at the table, he would have been treated like royalty. Dan himself has a John Deere round baler that he contracts with.
We talk for a while about the differences between farm and city folk. I say it’s a matter of perspective. Of what you grew up with. I miss the openness of the sky, the quiet stillness of the farm. I miss the chill of the morning which seems different in the open spaces than it does in a city. I miss the gentle wave of a neighbor as they pass on the road
“But the city is not bad. It’s just different,” I say.
After dinner, Dan digs out a newspaper clipping—a story about a farmer taking a flight for the first time—and reads it to me. It’s very familiar territory, particularly since it reminds me greatly of my Dad going through airport security in Sydney with a pocketknife in his pocket. Bloody from some farm chore, I seem to recall. Farmers, god love ‘em.
As I sign the guest book, Elaine tells me she’s noticed that more solo women tend to come towards the end of the season, and she doesn’t know why. That they tend to be older too, whereas the young things come in groups right at the start. It’s an interesting observation and one that pegs me into a certain category. Slow old ladies.
I flip through the book, read entries. See Stacia’s name, and there’s John who I shared the youth center with, in Sebree. I sign the book but think it’s probably premature to do so. My stay has only just begun, and yet I’m talking about how great it was.
Bed comes early for me. The fighting wind has done me in and I sink into the comfortable mattress with a kind of welcome exhaustion. The bed is old and creaky, the bedspread familiar and homely.
With a click, off goes the lamp and I lay still in the darkness. Listening to the Kansas wind whispering to me as it cuts through the leaves on the trees outside my window.
“Tomorrow,” it croons. “Tomorrow we begin again. Just you and me.”
I drift off to dream my Toto dreams with that airy threat looming over me.
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