Tag Archives: Bike

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. 
 
 
 
 
 

Troutdale, VA to Berea, KY

10 Jun

 

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MILES: 740

6 days ago I’m in a log house built in the 1850s drinking wine and watching hockey with Brian and Rebecca, an awesome couple living in Troutdale, VA. It’s raining so they’ve invited me inside to sleep on their couch. As I run my fingers over the rough splinters and axe marks on the original hand-hewn boards in the wall, they tell me about when a 90 year old woman stopped by one morning with her 70 year old son. She grew up in this house that her father converted from a barn, the baby of 9 children sleeping upstairs, and now asks to explore her childhood home. One of the first things she notices: “Oh, you have toilets now!”

I’ve lucked out finding this house. When I knock on the door, hoping to camp in their yard I hear the Rottweiler barking and see the rifle over the mantle and think “This ain’t good.” When Brian opens the door, wearing flip flops and a Bruins hockey shirt with a friendly “What’s up man?” I think “This is good”

As I leave the next day they tell me I’m heading towards the more economically depressed area of VA and KY, poorer, steeper, meth-ier, and uglier. They are right on all counts.

When I was in Japan there was a problem of “Monotonous Beauty” where my surroundings were so idyllic all the time they became unnoticeable. Eastern Virginia is the same. The first time you see the rolling hills, the green mountains, the pastureland of monochrome cows and prancing horses, the barns old and new you want to stop and paint a picture. After 10 more miles of it all I can think about is “My ass is fucking killing me, is this bike seat made of rebar?”

I get a few breaks from the pasturelands. Long climbs into the forests of Mt. Rogers, of Breaks Interstate park where I reach Kentucky. I stand on overlooks and see “The Grand Canyon of the South” where the New River has carved through sheer sandstone cliffs and deep into the more yielding shale beneath to create a steep valley running through the forested mountains. It’s all I can do not to build my own cabin and live there.

But then there’s Western VA and Eastern KY, which is not beautiful, just monotonous. Green hills and mountains loom across the valley, or in front to remind me of the climbs ahead, which are hard; I breath hard, my legs pump hard, my heart pounds hard. I never think I’m going to quit but it’s never enough to be a rewarding challenge. Countless steep hills drain my legs and yield no views at the top, just a sign announcing a new county. I coast on the descents at 35 mph, insects that would spatter on a windshield bounce off my face with a sharp thwack.

The valleys below are full of trailer homes and poverty. People sit on the porches staring at nothing. Confederate flags flap outside homes, sometimes alongside the “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, which is confusing because one represents freedom and independence, while the other represents enslavement and subjugation. Wide yards contain 7 cars with 9 tires between them. Dogs run barking to the end of their tethers or burst from their yards chasing me. I bark back at them till they stop their pursuit, as even dogs know to avoid the mentally ill.

Clothes and toys fill tables and blankets along the roadside. Either everyone is having a yard sale all the time or homes here are built without closets. I even see a sign advertising a yard sale held inside a general store. Most shops are closed and buildings shuttered in the downtowns. Churches, Pawn Shops, Gun shops, and Cash 4 Gold shops remain open. A grocery store I pass by advertises 3 foods on their billboard “Spam. Parkay. Kraft Cheese.” The same orange and black “For Sale” signs adorn empty trucks, ATVs, and homes along the roadside.

The only bicyclist I’ve met so far is Lucas from Denmark. I could immediately tell he was Danish because of the “sh” he adds to the end of every sentence and his indecisiveness about killing his fratricidal uncle. Otherwise, the roads are empty of bikes, just coal trucks, regular trucks, cars, motorcycles and ATVs, all of whom give me plenty of room as they pass and I wave in thanks.

Yesterday I’d had enough of Eastern KY and my 2nd map, so I decided to bicycle the 123 miles from Hindman to Berea (actually 113, but hooray not-admitting-I-made-a-wrong-turn-for-5-miles). For the last few days I’d been trying to remove myself from the equation here, to tell myself these hills don’t have it in for me personally, but in the end I wanted out and it was worth the exhaustion. I know I’m on the trip of a lifetime, and that I need to appreciate this now because it will be over sooner than I think. However, some days all I take as comfort is the flip side of that mindset: “Well Paul, you won’t be in Eastern Kentucky forever”

Onward from Berea.