“I’m missing a…”
I want to say thong, but I know that’s wrong. That thong is a very different breed of noun here. That to say that I’m missing one sends an accusatory message that suggests both impropriety and shady-man weirdness.
“A flip-flop,” I say. Elaine looks puzzled.
“You know, a flip-flop? Um, I don’t know what else you’d call them here. I want to say ‘thong’ but that’s not right. Um. It’s a…” I make a motion with my hands that doesn’t really indicate anything except maybe the item I’m speaking off is the size of a meal-sized trout.
“You know. They go on your feet? I left them outside last night…”
Dan laughs. A synapse of understanding has evidently flared up in his mind.
“Oh, I know what you mean. I think I know where it is,” he says, before disappearing outside.
Even though Elaine may not know what I’m talking about, she seems similarly enlightened to its fate and clues me in about one of their dogs. Bit of a pack-rat, a collector of personal property. Moments later, Dan comes back inside with my thong held victoriously in his hand.
That just sounds wrong.
“It was exactly where I thought it would be,” he says, handing it to me and leaning on the kitchen counter. He looks well-chuffed at having solved this mystery, and I turn the piece of mangy footwear over in my hands. It is undamaged. Just as beat up as when I left it out there on the lawn. A bit dewy, perhaps, but fine.
“He just likes taking stuff,” says Dan, and apologizes on behalf of the dog. He then proceeds to tell me that he too would have called it a thong. That thong means the same thing to him as it does me. And now I’m really confused about this country. Here, I’ve been told that if I’m wearing thongs on my feet that not only is it really kinky, but I need a lesson in basic anatomy.
“Well, I guess I’ve got everything then,” I say, trying to move things along. I’ve already stayed longer than I intended, due mostly to a good breakfast and some serious dilly-dalling on my part.
I head outside to Precious, who sits patiently under a tree with Zimmerman.
The dogs are out, beautiful retrievers Dan and Elaine breed as a sideline, and I ruffle the head of the one called Bear. I meet the thief, a puppy but already huge and lumbering and way too big for a New York apartment. He shows no sign of a guilty conscience as he bounds up and pushes my legs insistently with his giant head. I give him the stink eye before giving in and petting him.
“Whew! It’s cold!”
It’s Dan’s voice coming from somewhere, and it’s a beat before I see him examining the temperature gauge. He turns and wanders over to where I am fastening down Precious’s load with the cargo net. Rubbing his hands together and hunching his shoulders as he stamps the ground with his booted feet.
“42 degrees! Woo-ee!”
It is a bit nippy, and my knees are already getting their protest efforts organized for later. I pretend my arm coolers are warmers, then pull on my wind jacket as Elaine comes out to join the farewell party. This is the best I can do in the circumstances, and it’s not that cold anyway, I say. The sun is a little weak at this hour, but it’ll be full upon us very soon. And then I’ll be bitching about the heat.
The goodbye is fond and I wave as I pull away and past the ancient bike that marks their driveway. Before long, I’m sucking in the morning air and feeling the cold tears at the edges of my eyes. Moving fast is a double edged sword. I need to go faster, to warm up, but the increased speed hurls cold air right at my kneecaps and they don’t respond well to that. Seriously, first chance I get, I’m buying some knee warmers.
There’s no wind to speak of today. No wind! Well, nothing compared to yesterday. It’s a lullaby wind of shyness and a ‘pardon me, mind if I just squeeze by you’ attitude. I don’t mind at all. Calm like Schezwan. Let me enjoy the chirp of this day’s magnificent crickets in the grass and the trill of birdsong in the breeze.
The first blip on my map is Ness City, and I crunch along in a daydream. It’s straight road running and not much to look at. Fields. Road. Grass. Bales of hay take on new significance, if only for the way they stick out like acne on the face of fields. I spy an interesting spectacle – a building like a column cut in half and laid on its side. But that’s not the curious thing. People with paint have been at it, graffitiing it to within an inch of its corrugated iron life. I wonder what the story is behind it, then take a photo. Another photo EVERYONE must have. I don’t want to be left out. I must have it for my collection. It’s a stark contrast to the golden fields and plain Jane status of what surrounds it.
It’s a billboard. It just doesn’t know it yet.
With a sigh, I step on the pedals and move off. The fields are even more desolate than yesterday, or maybe I was just too pre-occupied yesterday with the gust-fest to notice it. Some are freshly tilled, baring their dirt hearts for the breeze to toy with. Power poles ride shotgun to the road. This is a barrier, they say. This is a constant. Thou shalt not pass! They’re being very territorial about it. Don’t worry, poles, I have no interest in what you think you’re protecting.
A silver bauble rests on a golden bed of crop stalks in the distance off to my right, and I know it means Ness City is over there. I know I’m going to be looking at this water tower for miles, but accept that it’s a mirage of sorts. A false reading. It is there, but not there. It is miles away, wedged in-between this layer cake of sky and crop. The road seems to be pointing me to the left of it, but looking down at the map I can see a kink in this straight line road. Not far from here I will be kicked up northwest for a bit, then bam, a striker will kick me straight into the goal mouth of Ness City.
The Skyscraper of the Plains. I see a sign for it and get a little tingle in my belly. I’ve read about this building in Ness City. About how it’s the tallest building in town. It’s obviously not taller than that damn water tower, I think, or else I would’ve seen it by now. Right?
Even as I roll into town, I am alert and ready to be amazed. Where is it? All I can see are cheap hotels and gas stations. I stop for a chocolate milk and am questioned most heartily by three gents having a chin wag outside. They whistle their disbelief at my ‘Finish in Oregon’ statement.
“I detect a cool accent,” says one. I’m not going to disagree with that and I’m grateful that someone recognizes I have one, since I worry so much about losing it. That with each passing year, more vowels check into America’s rehab and get flattened and made less unique.
Stuffing a piece of chocolate muffin into my mouth, I bid my adieus and go looking for this damn skyscraper. At the corner of Main Street and the 96, I stand looking left and right.
If I were a skyscraper, where would I be?
When in doubt, turn right. And so I do. The streets are wide and generous, and I rubber neck at a snails pace, searching, searching.
There it is.
In my mind, I’d pictured it towering above all, magnificent and proud. I got the magnificent and proud part right, but the towering thing was about as accurate as calling me British. But still, a nice block of rock to ogle at. Textures rough and ready for your hand to be run across. Craftsmanship self-evident. Windows tall and wise, set deep into the lego-like brick. It stands alone, with all onlooking buildings bowing in respect.
Must’ve been quite draw when it first appeared, all stony-faced and solid, a beacon to boon and boom. Splendid and regal. At four stories tall, it can rightly be called a skyscraper out here, I guess. The sky is so big and dominating, you can’t help but scrape it, even with your hat. Just a little taller than a stalk of grass and you’re infringing on its big sky copyright.
Turning away, I glance up at the street sign. I’m on the corner now of Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street. Finally! Main Street USA. I’ve heard so much about it. This is where all the real people are. I look around. Parked cars, trash cans. There’s a lady, striding toward a building in jeans and a sweater. A guy drives past in a pick up, dog in the back.
It’s quiet. Main Street is quiet and very familiar.
The sky is quiet. The air is quiet. If this is the tourist hotspot, I’ve hot spotted it and now I must go. It’s just too hot for me. Too much going on. I can’t take the realness of it.
Turning back onto the route, I head out of town and toward the next Main Street, USA. The scene is plain again. Deserted. I stop and record a note, describing the sky as ‘disgustingly blue’ and I mean it. There’s not a cloud in sight, a huge change from yesterday where I felt I was being stalked, harassed and molested by them. Today’s sky is a paint swatch. Today is a clean palette day with grass slightly swishing with the breeze and the occasional passing car to startle me out of my daydream riding.
Off to my right, on the horizon, I spy three horses at charge. Getting closer, I see that they’re once again the handiwork of the metallic craftsman. A nice effect though, I think, as I imagine that’s what it looked like back in the day (probably a Thursday), when the cavalry charged or the indians whooped and I shivered in my wagon and took some ‘powders’ to calm my nerves.
But I see Kansas has an advantage over those hilly states. When you’re about to be attacked, you’ll see it coming. No real sneaking up on you here, unless you’re distracted by the skyscraper of the plains.
It’s not all emptiness and inactivity though. The fields are being worked, of course, by industrious farmers. Some paddocks burst with the rust orange of sorghum, some with corn. I spy trials of dust indicating vehicular movement, or activity far off. A field being attacked by a plow, a rancher bumping down the lane to shut a gate before the horses bolt.
I see it all. I can’t help but see it all. There is no firewall between us, no blinkered viewing. Out here, everyone’s kimono is open. Your business is my business and I can see you go commando.
Here’s a field, rich with life. Here’s a field, rich with decay. Clods and clover, stalks and chaff. Ruler straight fences, colored lines drawn and painted in earthy Pottery Barn catalogue hues. Giant rectangular bales, like clumps of cheese on a board, dot the scene. A square jaw on the face of Kansas.
I can’t take much more of this.
My rearview mirror flashes a tractor at me. It is creeping up the road, waaay back, pulling some giant monstrosity of equipment. It’s a race, but only in my mind. I pedal harder, but it gains. The drums are beating, closer, closer. Here it comes, wide and imposing, hogging more than its fair share of the road. I finally decide it’s close enough and pull over into a the mouth of a dirt lane to let it pass. To let it win in the battle it didn’t know it was part of.
The driver waves a silent thank you and I watch this hulk pass, trailed by three cars stuck behind it. Flowing in its slipstream but made crazy by its girth.
What’s this? A little bit of a downhill! Well, more of a gentle dip in the landscape, but I notice a little rest area with a historical marker. And a tree. Actually it’s the tree that catches my attention first, and I pull in planning to eat the rest of my chocolate muffin in its shade.
The sign reads: Homestead of a Genius. I see no homestead and once again am ashamed to admit I’ve never heard of George Washington Carver. Stuffing a few more bites into my bored gob, I glance around. Am I purposefully trying to make this day drag on by stopping for these things? It’s only a 70 mile day, I should be able to knock this one on the head pretty quickly. But the gradual uphill is making it stretch on out. Forever.
It’s a plodder day. And plod on I must.
Monotony dings the bell and I’m back in the ring, but now I’m in a corridor of barely perceptible hills. Humps really. Burps of earth lazily yawning their way upward. The wind is slightly subdued and I can’t see for miles around me anymore. Just either side of me. But it’s that annoying kind of height. Like if I stood just an inch taller, I’d be able to peer over this fence, see into the backyard of Kansas and giggle at the underwear on its washing line.
But. I’m. Just. Not. Tall. Enough.
Everything is so geometrically perfect out here. It’s get out your set square time and I hate maths. Straight road, straight field, white lines, straight tilled rows and rectangular bales. Power lines stand to attention, holding hands with each other through taut wires which don’t dare to bow down. Yeah, I get it. Do not pass. Sheesh.
Constantly, constantly rising up, up. Pedaling and pedaling and there’s no freewheeling at all today. Just on and on and round and round and if you stop pedaling you stop altogether. So don’t stop pedaling.
It’s not hard. Just relentless.
Slow incline leads to slow incline. I look up ahead and there looks to be a top to this rise, but when I get there, there’s just more incline. Another false top. Another fake plateau. More huge sky. Unbelievable and vast. It’s kind of boring, and I think that’s the first time I’ve thought that on this whole trip.
A slight kick northwest after Beeler, then back to pure west again. It feels good to be going west. Hard west. It’s the direction I should be going. Right coast to left coast and the left coast is west coast and why go any direction but that? Kansas gets it. Gets straight to the meat of this coconut. Go THAT WAY! We’ll make it easy for you. We’ll draw a straight line on this map. You just have to follow it.
The earth to my left falls off into a gentle slope. A misprint on the landscape for sure, but here lies a graveyard of farm machinery. I stop and look, because when you see something different out here you have to. Just to note it for the permanent record.
Harvesters, hay rakes and trucks. Tractors of all denominations and faiths. Pickups, balers, and scarifiers. There’s a bus up the back, ancient and cool. Rusted grain bins, tires flat and hardened with age. I imagine the secret life in this place. The spiders, snakes and vermin, with vibrant communities and land disputes. Of old grain and stuffing-filled car seat rat restaurants. The smell of rotting industry. This collection of machinery is the land-based reef. The equivalent of a ship wrecked on the spine of a coral outcrop and now home to shoals of opportunistic fish.
It’s such a sight, I take a photo, but as I lower the camera I notice something else. There is a madness here. A sort of paddock based OCD. Order in the chaos. Not only are most things organized by type – tractor with tractor, plow with plow – there is also a color structure. Orange with orange, yellow clumped with yellow, a whole row of grey identical harvesters in formation.
What goes on in the mind of this hoarder? Is his wife always at him to ‘get rid of that junk?’ I salute the symmetry. I applaud the arrangement.
For at least a mile further, I am wondering if its art or commerce. Is everything on display is just advertising for passers by? A spare parts field supermarket for the curious commuter. Or is this master making a statement about decay and decline?
The heat is rising and my steady upward progression too. I look forward, at the rise up ahead, and notice the shimmer of lies each fake crest holds. A mirage wobbles and disappears. Sometimes I think I see a man at the side of the road on the horizon. Closer I go. Closer. But it begins to materialize, to shake itself into shape. The blob of his body stretches out weirdly. His head expands, his torso blips out like a cell dividing and suddenly there are two of him. He is shimmering and shape shifting. And now, now…
Now he’s a car.
A game begins in my head. What color will this car be when it becomes solid in the mirage? What size? Is it a pickup, a sedan or a truck? The shimmering pool stretches down the road towards me, taking a bite out of the horizon and making the road become sky. A trench in which these blobs of oncoming mystery float in. I am going slightly mad with it.
Now I’m noticing everything around me. Every chip in the perfection plate of Kansas. Strangers stand out in the fields. The visual sameness of a sorghum crop molested by the up-down bobbing of a filthy, industrious pumpjack. The pull of a silo in a field of maize stalks. Anything out of the ordinary, anything that breaks the monotony is a fly in my visual ointment. Something that must be documented and photographed and recorded.
A John Deere emerges from a dust cloud, ripping the guts from a paddock and letting loose the dogs of dirt. The most mundane signs get put on pedestals in my mind. I stop and flip the lid of the handlebar bag to snap a photo of one with an arrow on it, then notice my clear glasses have fallen out and are now laying beside my foot. Instead of picking them up immediately, I wait. A few cars pass close by and I send a reminder to my brain to pick the glasses up before riding off. I then spend way too long composing a shot.
Of a sign. A simple sign.
Oh, look how arty! Now the arrow is in the left corner, now the right. That signal tower in the background is really ruining this shot.
Further down the road and it’s horses! Like I’ve never seen a horse before. But you’d never know that with the way I screech on the brakes and try get them all with their long faces pointed toward me. Their painted hides are a standout against the grass. I’m so excited by it, every shot I take is out of focus.
My mind slowly grinds down to what’s right in front of me as I move on. The shoulder. My lane. My hook. My home. I follow its wide path, eyes down, stuck staring at the white strip to the left, the green strip of grass to the right. Me, focused on the grayish pink chipped asphalt that is my way forward. I stake a claim to it and play a game of fractions. Now I will ride at exactly 50% of the distance between the white line and the green strip of grass. Now 75% from the white line. Now 50% again. Do not deviate from your mission. If it remains constant, so do you.
Oh, crap. I forgot to pick up my glasses. We have a piper down! Repeat, a piper down!
There is no way I’m going back for them, even though I know exactly where they are. From now on, the grit in my eye on a low-light day will have to be deflected by my eyelashes, as nature intended from the very beginning of eyelash evolution. Time to get all Corey Hart sunglassy at night. Farewell my $10 bargain-bin lovelies. You served us well. Sorry you only made it for 38 days. May I get a meaty bug in my eye as punishment for my forgetfulness.
If I take one more photo of maize, people are going to think we’re in love. It’s not that. It’s just that with a sky as uncluttered with sky furniture as it is, and with the geometry of the day, everything is just so, so… linear. Makes me want to get out a spirit level and square this thing off. Push it down at the slightly elevated end and flatten out Kansas so it’s easier for us West bounders.
Now Dighton. Here we are in downtown Dighton. Another Main Street to explore, but I fly on through, stopping only for a snack at a gas station. As I sit inside, I watch a group of four girls wandering from business to business hawking for money for the local team. Through the window and across the road, the First National Bank catches my eye. Do they really sell roadmaps for the soul, I think, and laugh at my own lyric nerdery as I chew on my sandwich.
Outside, a young man asks me about Zimmerman, then tells me he wouldn’t be even able to ride 10 miles without dying. This is a common sentiment, though most people say 1 mile, so I figure there is hope for this boy yet. I tell him he should get the trailer for shopping, rather than the giant pickup he’s in and he laughs right in my face.
Right in my damn face. Ok, maybe no hope. As I leave, he tells me to be safe, so even though he will not be hauling groceries behind his bicycle any day soon, he’s been raised to think kind thoughts and respect those nut bags out there in the world who aren’t like him.
So there is hope.
Twenty or so miles of mind numbing road later and into Scott City I ride. Past the Lazy R Motel and some other awkwardly named lodgings that look suitably cheap. I contemplate stopping, but decide I’ll keep pedaling. It’s like I can’t stop now. Like I can’t remember how to stop when there is no curve, and I have a whole grid of a town to roll over and explore.
When I hit the 83 in the center of town, I turn left for giggles. South. I’m going south to find me a bed. Down past the high school. Down past the usual players in a semi-small town. The Wendy’s, Radio Shacks and Diary Queens. I ride for a while, thinking surely I must nearly be at the edge of town. I see a Best Western and decide I can’t be bothered turning around and heading back to the cheaper beds. My brain says cowboy up so I stop. Wheel the rig inside the front door and get a ground-floor room.
Later, I suck on a beer and eat some Wendy’s on my bed with bags of ice on my knees. With a map spread out beside me I examine the next few panels.
Reality bites. It’s Friday, not Thursday. I passed 2,000 miles yesterday and didn’t even notice. And tomorrow?
Tomorrow I’ll be in Colorado.
Date: September 03, 2010
From: Bazine, KS
To: Scott City, KS
Distance: 68.74 miles
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