This is pure friendo country. Sparse. Vacant. Moody. The wind shimmies through the grass, getting busy in that Hawaiian skirt way, and there I am. I fly fly fly along the skillet flat earth. In the silence only Kansas can provide.
It’s not flat, of course. It tilts ever so slightly, pouring everything Eastward. I am headed west. Against the grain, against the script, and against the wind. So take a look at me now. Empty space. All odds. Hazzah!
Once again, I’m having an endless conversation with myself, wherein I repeat the same line, or variations on it, over and over and over again. Friendo this, friendo that. It’s like my brain gets stuck in a 45rpm groove, even though my legs are stuck on 33 1⁄3. This wind really hurts.
This is No Country for Old Men country, and I’m going slightly Chigurh.
“What business is it of yours, Friendo?”
It’s totally my business, brain. I’m out here in this wide expanse of blah and any minute now some dude with a creepy Peter Pan haircut could drive up behind me in a murderously procured car, stick a cattle killer in my face and POP! The glassy-eyed surprise, and Bob’s your father’s brother, and don’t dream it’s over but it’s done. That’s a lot to lose in a coin toss.
Out here, no one can hear you scream. Friendo, hobo, yobbo. Don’t care. Out here the wind reaches into your gaping maw, snatches the scream right out and hurls it to the horizon. Before it even has a chance to squeak through your vocal chords.
And then there’s the nothing.
I think I preferred the darkness of this morning. The pre-dawn dash from Scott City with the mystery of the landscape and the glow of my headlight keeping my mind focused on just one thing. The road.
Remember me brain? Remember us, this morning, standing in the hotel parking lot and stamping our feet to warm our bare legs in the cool breeze? The darkness all around, with the pale yellow light throwing itself at us?
Catalog it. Tick those boxes. Read that list.
Stuff sacks lay like fat slugs in the half-light and I kneel into one to squeeze the air out. Latch it. The delicate order of packing commences.
Almost 40 days in and I have this routine fine-art perfected. I could draw a detailed blueprint of what goes where. The structure, the hierarchy, the pecking order. It’s a dance to get it all in there. A right foot in, right foot out, shake-it-all-about motion.
Seconds pass and in it all goes. This Tetris piece here, this Rubik’s cube of color there. All aboard and I top it all off with the twist down of the bag and the snap shut of the latches. Netting secured.
Ready. Set. Go.
A man has been watching me. It’s 5.10am and wicked-morn moody with it. The engine of his dark pickup is purring away and I am aware of him sitting in the passenger seat, legs out the door quietly smoking what I’m guessing is his first cigarette of the day. A thin trail of smoke rises from both him and the exhaust of his lazily warming truck.
Stepping out of the cab, he twists his body to flick the cigarette away into the darkness, then stands still looking down at his companion. A dog. It totters around sniffing tires and licking cement.
Big guy. Tiny dog. Turner and Pooch. They are jaundice-yellow in this light, as I must be. I sense him walking towards me but don’t look up.
“I wondered how you were gonna fit all that stuff in there,” he says, pausing near the junction of where I’m standing and the path to the back door of the hotel.
The conversation door is well ajar. I stick my toe in to keep it open and set about explaining the theory of weighted jigsaw. How each piece in my puzzle is shaped to fit in one spot and one spot only. That to put it in another throws the balance of the universe on its ear. That the weight and size of objects adds dimension and complexity to the puzzle.
The art is the skill is the mojo of the moment.
Due to my friendliness and rather elaborate response to a question he never asked, he perks up a little and the sleep clouds blow out for a moment. Alas, his bed head remains unmoved.
Questions. He’s full of them. Where am I going? How many miles do I do a day? Do I know that Oregon is really a long way away? Patience is a gumshoe and I answer each with quiet cheerfulness.
The sand runs out of our conversation hourglass.
“I’d better let you go,” he says. “You’ve got some work to do!”
Chuckling, I watch as he cajoles the dog through the hotel door and back inside, no doubt to grab their gear so they can leave also. On their trek for the day. On their journey to tomorrow.
Out of town at last and the darkness is final. Blanket heavy. I’m having a small problem with my headlight today. It keeps dipping down behind a fold in the top of the pannier, robbing me of 3/4 of my beam. I feel a little one-eyed.
Stop. Jiggle the light and convince it to sit higher. I push down the folds of the pannier to give the light room to telescope its neck up and over and cast its beam on the world.
And we’re off.
Stop. Adjust. Restart.
Stop. Adjust. Restart.
It just won’t obey my will today.
There are sounds. Lumbering, thumbering, blumbering big-beast sounds. Off to my right. That one was off to the left. I peer into the black, eyes wide, but see nothing.
Grotesque pictures fill my head. Of wild things. Beasts with gnashing teeth and claws and saliva dripping from clicking jaws. They’re there, waiting to strike and leap and knock me from my perch. Eager to crouch above, breathing their hot stinky breath in my face while letting their rancid fur brush against me in an overly familiar manner.
Coyotes. What are coyotes like? Do they attack? Are they wild dogs with no morals? What is there modus operandi?
Stop it, mind on overdrive. You are being demented. There is nothing out there.
Last time I rode in the darkness, there was the moony moon and the sexy stars and it was like a gorgeous dream from which I never wanted to wake. This time, there’s just the rub of the blackness against my arms and legs and chest and face and I don’t like it one bit.
The sneaky wind shoves at my back and I continue on, into the void.
It’s not completely dark. No. Every now and then, I have the joy of the semi-trailer with its wash of high-beams and not-getting-out-of-the-way attitude to keep me company.
They are being mean for no reason. The road is an empty plate, yet they seem to think they are the bread crust sent to mop me off it. An inch. They won’t give me an inch. I’m lit up like christmas – three rear flashing lights, a safety triangle, reflective jacket and a megatron headlight – and still no quarter.
One honks as it bellows by. Hey, fella, I’m just trying to get through this morning. Maybe I shouldn’t be out here, but I am vigilant about being seen. Don’t fault me for that.
These are stock trucks. I know this because of the fragrant aroma of their farts billowing out the back of their fast retreating taillights. But it’s not just coming from them. I see the familiar form of stock yards lit up and waiting for their cattle chattel and wafting their aura over to the road so that I might participate in the wonder of life on the land.
Man, it stinks. Darkness won’t hide a stench. Manure is magical, the way it grabs your lapels and shakes your nostrils open.
And Scene. Change. The light starts to crackle on through and the sky begins to rouge its cheeks. A purple orange hue to begin with. Shapes announce themselves. No lumbering beasts appear. No coyotes. Just land and wind and grass and dirt.
To my right, a phalanx of wind turbines, churning their quiet moods in the morning. Some, still in their contemplation. Others whop whop whop away. They know they look good against this backdrop of the yet-to-appear sun. Showing off, they are. I valiantly try capture them against the pre-dawn hue. Fail mostly, but figure the more shots I take, the better chance I have of at least one photo being in focus. Between the click and the capture, there is the silence of blur. Drag this one to the trash.
Finally, here it is. That first wink of a solar eyeball as it peeks over the dark sill of earth. I watch it come, then turn to see the blanket of Kansas peeled back in inch-by-inch increments of light replacing dark.
The warmth finally reaches my face, which means I’ve been standing here for quite some time. Wasted time. Time I could have been riding forward, towards my goal. I look down the pencil straight road and to the far-off shape of silo. A blip on my monitor. Time to join the blips. A motion is set and I roll along. The wind and me and my friendo mind.
Hours of straw. Hours of tussocky paddocks. A subdued blue sky, yet to hit the stride of the day.
A field of sunflowers, depressed and naked. They waited for me as long as they could, but they didn’t know I would take so long to get here. They didn’t know I’d crash and be almost three months behind schedule. I have arrived too late to the matinee. Embarrassed, they face the earth in their retirement. Petal-less and pouting. I can’t turn my frown upside-down.
Place names on the map seem to be nothing more than a gathering of silos, accompanied by a few random buildings. A sign points off suggestively. A thriving metropolis is just out of sight. Right across that railway line.
All I see is Kansas.
Kansas with its melancholy silos, strung together by rail lines. Move the grain. Don’t stand still. From one storage container to another. Rail cars stand idle.
Obnoxious sign alert: “Strong Wind Currents.”
No shit, Sherlock.
Here’s a less obnoxious sign. It lets me know that I have the power to turn back time, literally. As I cross the Greeley county line I go back in time by one hour. Not sure it really affects me, since darkness comes when darkness comes and the sun gets swept under the rug no matter what time my watch says.
But still, I stop and take a photo. It’s a little thrill. To see the words Mountain Time. Strange to mention mountains out here, with the flat-chest landscape. I am buzzing with the anticipation of what’s to come. My legs are ready. My bike is primed. I am a climbing, living, breathing machine of churn and burn and gear changes that don’t make a sound.
Just outside Tribune and the power lines stretch off into the distance until they are consumed into the smudge of the horizon. My eyes are hypnotized.
To break me out of this trance, a Sherman tank of a grasshopper flies square into the delicate skin of my throat. Big dumb thing stings as I rub tenderly at my neck. It’s actually starting to become a thing, the beetle/insect bodily assaults. Most aim for the fleshy target of my cheeks and leave attractive welts on my face. Every time it happens, I can’t help but think about how much it would hurt if one hit me in the eye – an entomological punch to the iris. Yep, that would sting.
In my mirror, I spy a pickup truck with flashing lights coming up behind me, an oversize truck in its wake. The cargo looks like a piece of the space shuttle, hollow and giant. An empty toilet roll of a load. It must be the weight of a toilet roll too because this thing is hauling all kinds of ass. It pulls out slightly to go around this speck of bike and rider and the air that pushes off this oddly shaped thing plays havoc with me.
Here comes another one. This one is wrapped Laura Palmer style, so the wind currents play differently with it and me. I am nearly ejected me into the land of Kansas like a ball from a cannon. Shaken, and possibly stirred, I pull off to the side to let a third one go past.
Oversize load. Over confident load, more like. I shouldn’t complain. This is the most exciting thing that’s happened all day!
With a sigh, I carry on. Up, up and up, ever so slowly and gradually and imperceptibly up. I need to stretch. This constant pedaling is making my quads ache. They’re taut and angry with me. My shirt billows, the grass croons and sways. My flag flaps to sharp attention. An old windmill grinds out a turn of rust and squeak.
Man, my throat is dry.
I am now going to talk about a bee. It has kept me company for a while now. Sitting on my leg as I pedal. I stop, finally, and look at him as he rests there. Remember a book I once read about bees and how they’re like swiss army knives with all the tools on their bodies. How they have baskets on their legs for the pollen. This guy’s baskets runneth over. He’s fat and stupid and drunk with the weight of them.
I swing my leg half-heartedly, encouraging him to vacate the premises. Get off, I say. Fly, be free. I want to gently flick at him now. He steps around gingerly, perhaps sensing my impatience.
I’m going to Colorado today. You can fly there, you don’t need to ride with me. This bee is a Calvin Klein underwear model and he’s waiting for me to take a photo of his package. Once I do, he leaps to his future and flies away.
Ok, now THAT’s the most exciting thing that has happened all day.
But wait. What’s that? In the distance?
I see a wooden structure break the monotony of the flatness. It is ornate. A slight curve in the road, a sweep to the right and I am upon it. Smiling. Giddy. There it is.
THE MOST EXCITING THING THAT’S HAPPENED ALL DAY!
Welcome to colorful Colorado. The words are carved with flair and panache. No standard reflective sign for Colorado. This is woodsy and natural and axey. A mountain man sign. You are entering a new frontier, a new land!
Welcome to colorful Colorado!
I look around. Looks a lot like Kansas. Sounds a lot like Kansas. Blows like Kansas. Jump the line at the sign and nothing changes. The road is still straight. The mirages still form and bubble into vapors in front of my eyes. One foot out. One foot in.
Whatever, I am still giddy with the significance of the moment. It means I’m two days from the half-way point of the route. I nearly gave up after the crash. Nearly threw in the towel in a sooky, whiney, my wrist hurts, I’m too unfit tantrum. But here I am, at the Colorado border. My head is filled with back slaps and cheers. Blushingly, I humbly accept the invisible praise.
So what do I do with this moment? I dick around for 40 minutes in front of the sign. Photo after photo is rapidly fired off. The excitement is bubbling and I prop the camera hurriedly on some rocks, then on my handlebar bag. Here’s some of Precious. Here’s some of me and Precious. Here’s me posing with the sign. Here’s me looking dumb. Here’s me without my head. Here’s one of my feet.
Colorado. Finally. I am in you.
I wonder what passing cars think of the scene. This person jumping around like a loon. But they don’t know the thrill. I throw my hands in the air and hold it. It’s fast becoming a standard victory pose of mine. A cliche for sure, but genuinely felt.
Yeah, victory. Suck it, Kansas!
With a self-satisfied lingering look, I finally leave the border. From here on to Eads, the services have dried up. I’ll have to make it the remaining miles on this feeling alone. It’s hot. And dry. I suck down some water and squint into the afternoon.
The town of Sheridan surprises me by actually having a store where no store should be.
Coke, Gatorade, green popsicle. Outside, I lean up against the metal siding and chill the backs of my legs on the cold and shady cement. It is heavenly in its simplicity. The green ice crunches under the supreme power of my teeth. I slam the can of coke down. Bliss is bliss.
I forget to eat. At the Sand Creek Massacre sign I stop and wolf down two peanut butter rolls that are flattened in my back pocket while wondering what the Sand Creek Massacre is. This is the most exciting thing that has… No. It’s not.
The afternoon slips away and the scene changes. A few hills that know they’re hills slope upwards to let me know that things are changing. The land is not as flat, and there’s a new shrub in town. A scrubby, blueish-green bush dotted around. A few trees wave hello and the wind now carries the song of croaking insects.
It’s the plodding time of the day. The goal is simply there, the final destination, and all I have to do is keep turning my legs and watering my throat. I mark off miles by cross roads. Count trucks and cars and motorcycles. Move.
I’ve had enough. My throat is sponge dry and irritated. The sweat of my arms, streaked with dust. I see Eads ahead, then sigh the sigh of someone who’s been fooled before. It’s still miles away. Probably an hour. I can touch it but not.
Plod on, friendo. Plod.
As I pull into Eads, the sun is dying a quiet death and so am I. A rundown ex-Econolodge with a broken ice-machine is my home for the night. I watch a blowfly buzz around the ceiling, bumping into the fan and zagging when he should zig. The room smells of disappointment, the bedspread tries to be optimistic but finds it hard. It’s all the colors of a morbid rainbow.
I shower off the dust of 104 miles of slog through the plains. It is over. Is it, friendo?
Apparently not. I eat in a restaurant across the dirt parking lot. A cheeseburger and a root beer. It takes forever to come, and the waitress seems to make a point of serving locals before scuffy cyclists. I am a seething mass of touring anger by the time it turns up. People have come and gone in the time I’ve been here, and now the place has well and truly cleared out. I’d New Yorker snap if I weren’t so tired.
With aching legs propped up on the bed, I call my parents. A muted fuzzy TV. A fly still buzzing. A dripping tap.
Finally, I fall asleep.
Now THIS is the most exciting thing that has happened all day.
Date: September 04, 2010
From: Scott City, KS
To: Eads, CO
Distance: 104.04 miles
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