Girard, Kansas to Ordway, Colorado – Headwind and the Angry Inches

29 Jun

 

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And now, Kansas:

Despite all evidence that it remains connected to the contiguous United States, I held the firm belief this past week that Kansas is falling into the sun. 


It’s been a week of exhaustion, frustration, disappointment and sullen acceptance that’s required me to amend my customary advice of “There’s always one more hill” with “and sometimes that hill is an entire state.” To give you a quick news update: this week Kansas had the hottest location in the world. At 115f, it’s hotter than the Sahara Desert, Death Valley, and Molten Lava city (Come see the Lava!). In the rest of Southern Kansas it’s been triple digit temperatures since Sunday with winds gusting constantly from the South or West up to 30 mph, meaning that if I’m really pedaling hard, I can sometimes make 8mph, about half my normal crusing speed for the past month. When I’m 15 miles from my destination, straining against the wind and heat, and know it’s going to be like this for the next two hours, it’s awful. Except it’s more than two hours, because 2 1/2 miles from town, I still need to rest in the shade of a stranger’s yard before the final push. He wanders out for a chore and waves. I raise my hand weakly in reply. No words need exchanging, we both know why I’m there.   


My first few days in Kansas were idyllic. A summer evening swimming in a local public pool, doing flips off the diving board, laughing as I try to remember how many years it’s been. I chat with high schoolers about the bicycle trip and their plans for the future, sports scholarships and military branch fall backs, smiling as I realize that as I near 30 I’ll never again speak with such confidence about my future, knowing how much was in store for me between high school and now. Their teacher supervises the pool and I chat with him about travel and his SE Kansas origins as his children mill about. The next day when a closed highway forces me to detour along an upaved road and my tire blows out an oil well capper drives me back to the highway in his pick up. Asking how he finds the extinct oil wells, he points to a rolled up blueprint on the dashboard. Unrolling it, I’m looking at a map of Fort Scott from the 1888s, copied from a cloth and papyrus original. The days are pleasantly hot and pleasantly flat. In between towns I’m hitting 20 mph speeds regularly and when I enter these small towns they’re straight out of Frank Capra, American Rennaisance architecture, unlike the previous states the homes are still occupied, the businesses not boarded up. With days like these, I expect to fly out of Kansas like Superman. 
 
Then the winds begin, and the heat. After a hellish day of 9 hours and 110 miles, I change routine and shrink my distances. I rise at 5am, leave at 6, and am finished by noon in whatever town I can escape the 107 degree heat. The temperatures rise quickly with the sun. One day, from the time I left my seat at a diner to when I walked outside to my bike, the bank thermometer has jumped 3 degrees. Worse is the wind. Blowing hot and constant from the side it robs me of momentum, I strain to earn every pedal stroke just to keep going slowly nowhere. The gusts steal the moisture from my mouth and whip it towards Nebraska. I always need more water than I have, no matter how many extra bottles I carry, and my lips chap about an hour in. The days end with me exhausted, muscles drained, voice hoarse and knowing there’s more of this waiting tomorrow, and the day after, and after. 
 

Kansas becomes a mental game that I sometimes win. When I accept the situation and look past the wind blasting in my ears and pushing me off the shoulder, the passing trucks that yank my bike back and forth in the pressure drop, the sun’s constant stinging rays, I see the piece of America I wanted to experience. The boundless landscape of green, gold, and brown patchwork that dwarfs the gargantuan machinery needed to harvest it. 70 foot grain elevators that stand stark white against the sky, the bright red, blue, and green tractors, backhoes, harvesters that group beside homes or roam the praire in halos of dust. The birdlike irrigation pumps forever pecking at the soil. And once, on one of many necessary breaks, I stand at a wildlife refuge beside the road and stare out into the preserved grasslands, wind making the blades slash at each other, hissing through the expanse. Birds chatter and crickets chirp and for a moment I see how it used to be, imagining some of the 150 million buffalo wandering the plains, the 40 foot long grass huts of the natives, an ecosystem long since plowed and planted over. And above it all, a clear blue domed sky and angry, angry sun.

 
But usually, I lose. Another cattle semi passes, getting thwapped twice in the face with the scent of cow shit, then the wind is back to howling ceaselessly in my ears. I’m working my ass off, going as slow as the steepest climbs in the Appalacians or the Ozarks, but there’s no peak to reach, no downslope, no coasting, just a thankless, draining slog for hours that used to result in distances. Ahead the concrete is a mirror that occasionally produces cars but rarely towns and surrounding me is a flat empty landscape of few surprises. What is 10 miles behind me will be 10 miles ahead. Pedaling my ass off against an invisible obstacle, so tired it’s hard to keep my head up, and when it drops all I see is how slow I’m going, the 10ths of a mile I’ve gained since I last looked, and I crack. I swear in rage at the wind at the top of my lungs, but the breezes and gusts remain indifferent, as to reach the Wind Spirit Tate I’d need a fire and dance steps I’m unfamiliar with. Except the wind isn’t indifferent, it’s fucking with me. I know it. No matter which direction I turn one day, there’s headwind. Just when I’m in sight of a town, when my legs get that extra burst of energy to the finish line, the oven-hot wind gusts to blow me off the road and I glare daggers at the South, expecting to see cause on the horizon. A jet engine, a Monty Python head holding a giant blowdryer, but nothing new. Just land stretching to Oklahoma, no sign of my invisible tormentor.  
 
 
I remind myself constantly that though this experience will remain in memory, the hours spent at it will slip away. Finally I reach Colorado, and am surprised at how quickly the landscape changes from agricultural expanse to Ansel Adams photo. More importantly, the forecast is improving. As I checked the weather for Ordway, CO, my final destination for the night, 103 degrees and winds gusting at 5-10 mph, enough headwind to make it a fight, but not be helpless in it. For the first time in a week my odometer hits 15 mph and I pump my fist and laugh, happy to be free again. Then, of course, with 20 miles to go, a freak storm appears on the horizon and winds howl in my face. I’m back to fighting just for 6mph, and sometimes, just for a forward direction. I flag down a pick up, toss my bike in the back, and ride the rest of the way. There’s always one more hill, but sometimes, fuck wind. 
 
 
 
 
 
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