June 1st- June 9th Colorado Springs, CO to Larned, KS
The hills north of Colorado Springs weren’t steep, and yet I struggled. I checked my tires. They were showing wear and would need to be replaced soon, but the tubes were fully inflated. It felt as if my gear had gained 20 pounds overnight. My tired pace slowed more as headwind struck midmorning. Within two hours I began watching my computer, a chef slowing the boil by watching the pot, and after each quarter mile the miles yet to be cycled stretched out farther in front of me. I stopped beside the massive entrance to a ranch, stone archway over a perfect asphalt drive into emerald fields. Two coyotes wandered along the outskirts of a small herd of aged, tan and white steers; but the masticating bulls had more interest in me than the canines. I peed behind a clump of grass, careful to wait for the road to be clear all the way to the horizon each direction before pulling down my pants.
I cycled on. The road was flat here and yet my pace did not increase. At the end of a long straight away just before entering a small town I saw a sign posted beside the road. It read Palmer Lake city limit Elevation 7225 ft. I wondered what that elevation was doing to my oxygen levels. I hadn’t really done any research on this part of the road. In Portland I had assumed that, if others had done it before me then I could do it. And I’ve always let the road teach me the skills I would need rather than trying to anticipate them ahead of time. I learned this after raising Vasu. I lived so many years in fear, wasting my days fretting over toxins, and allergies, and off-gassing toys, and statistics that showed the danger in everything. And in all my years listening to fear, I only learned how to fear. After Vasu died, I had to learn not to regret.
For this tour I wanted to learn to trust myself, trust my ability to adapt as the road shaped itself in front of me, and trust that the human world would help me when I had need.
I stopped at a coffee shop in Palmer Lake and bought sugar and carbs. Not food, but stimulant, something to wake my body up, and I ingested without noticing the flavor. The next few miles were a little easier with the fast-burning energy in my stomach, but even the gentlest incline felt as if I were climbing through thick mud. Rain shadowed me, sometimes behind, sometimes to the side, often a dark smudge of cloud above my head. I cycled through dark green pastures, following contours of rock and evergreen to my right where the Rocky Mountains tried to touch the stars. As I entered the outskirts of Colorado Springs late in the afternoon, I searched the internet for a bike shop. My low gears had been slipping occasionally since Lolo Pass, and badly since the hail storm; and it was time to have my tires checked. My search came up with a cycle shop on nearly every corner, and the campground closest to my route a good hour the other side of town. My weather App also showed that lightning storms were expected within a few hours.
I called three shops before finding one that could see me immediately. The calm, easy-going voice on the phone helped ease the tension I felt in my gut. The welcome I got from the crew at The Bicycle Experience as I walked in felt like a welcome home. I chatted with the owner of the shop while his young mechanic worked on Old Blue. My work mule got a new chain and a rear tire. Meanwhile, the owner fed me a new type of energy bar and we chatted about our pasts that had led us both to the culture of cycling. While we chatted, I fretted over the radar and the storms that appeared to be moving in faster than predicted. I still had at least ten miles to go, and with how sluggish I was I needed to be a good two hours ahead of the rain.
When the young mechanic brought Old Blue out, he told me that he had overheard my worry about the weather and getting to camp. So he had already called his sister who lived nearby and she offered to host me for the night.
It was just the beginning of a series of kindnesses that this road of mine would offer me over the next few weeks.
The next day I cycled into lower elevations to Pueblo, my last city south before turning east and beginning the long descent into the Midwest. A young bicycle tourist found me cycling Pueblo’s downtown streets, between old brick buildings, in search of happy hour. He guided me to a great pub for a good locally-brewed pint, and offered me a room in his parent’s beautiful home. His mom told me I could stay longer if I needed a break or if I wanted to explore Pueblo and the stone castle to the west. But I felt drawn to the road across Kansas. It had been a week since I had seen my guy, and it would be another week before our next scheduled weekend together in Wichita.
My priorities battled each other. I was supposed to be exploring, finding kind people and beautiful places and writing about them. And I was finding them everywhere. But my need to be near my love drove me on the road like cattlemen driving their heards to new pastures. My desire for my future beyond this tour won out, and I cycled every day with the intent to eat up the miles between me and my love. My writing lagged farther and farther behind with every mile cycled.
The roads from Pueblo were dry, and the air heated up to just below crispy-skinned by mid-day. I cycled without sun protection until 10:00, then slathered every inch of exposed flesh with sunscreen, mixing my sweat and road dirt into a paste that bugs stuck to as I cruised at a much faster pace over this flat, windless land. The high desert was the land of large turtles, and their favorite pastime was to sun themselves on the road. I stopped to move the living ones back into the grasses on the side of the road. The dead ones were only recognizable by the larger pieces of shell and little feet with claws.
Kansas became real for me as I cycled the endless, nearly flat miles. Somehow, all the bits and pieces of story I had accumulated over the years pulled together into a tale worthy of telling. From The Wizard of Oz, to news clips of tornadoes, to family stories of the dust bowl that my Kansas born grandfather narrowly avoided by buying farmland in Iowa. I stood in awe of the emerald fields that must have inspired the naming of the city the wizard lived in. I watched clouds move with terrifying intent across the sky, fretting that at any moment they would begin to spiral.
Although my maps said that the prevailing winds were supposed to be southwest, which meant I should be getting at least a little tailwind, I faced strong headwinds every afternoon. I was supposedly descending into lower elevations but the way the wind captured my panniers, even the downhills required constant pedaling to maintain a slow pace. The humidity increased, and with it the temperatures. Towns here seemed all but abandoned, except that kids filled the public parks and pools. I was following the Trans American Bicycle Route and had been told that the cities along the route offered their city parks to cyclists who desired to camp. I knew I would have to utilize them, since I did not have the financing for hotels and motels, and these tiny towns rarely had anything else to offer anyway. But my anxieties did not allow making that choice easy. My first attempt took me hours to work myself up to set my tent. First, I asked the checkout clerk of the grocery store if other cyclists camped in the park, and was rewarded with a short answer. “All summer long,” she replied. That made me feel confident until I realized I didn’t know where the city park was and could not find it on any map. I stood holding Old Blue, gazing from the sidewalk at an irrigated lawn that looked like it might be a park, when an older man with a dog on a leash walked by. I felt the anxiety burn again as I asked him if this was the city park. He replied no, and then pointed across the road kitty-corner. He then explained that cyclists usually camped at the far side, and that the library was just down the road and they had set the WIFI so that cyclists could access it from the steps even when the library was closed. That made me comfortable enough to at least relax in the park, but I still hesitated to set my tent.
It’s not like this was a major metropolis with vagrants or drug addicts wandering around. The park was a long strip of irrigated grass with some playground equipment at one end and trees shadowing the other half. An old RV sat parked by the curb. There wasn’t a human in sight anywhere, and it stayed that way for most of the next hour as I dozed in the grass. I kept waking, thinking I should go to the library and get some writing done, but the last hours of cycling into headwind seemed to have blown all the words out of my head.
As night fell I finally set camp, my bicycle locked to the fence on the far side of the park and my tent inches from Old Blue’s tires. He might be old and neglected but he had been there for me through my grief in 2009 and had given me brief escapes during the long six years after when I struggled to find space in the world for me to just exist as I was.
I cooked a simple meal of canned beans, corn, cheese, and salad greens mostly made of up of head lettuce which seemed to be the green of choice here in Kansas. I could tell already that by the time I made it to another large city I would be desperate for some dark green kale and colorful baby greens.
It took a long time to fall asleep that night. I felt exposed. I put up my rainfly, even though it stifled the air within, just so I could pretend I had privacy. The park might be empty while I was awake, but anyone could have walked up to my tent during the night. It was the same fear I had with bears in the wilderness; that clawing, biting, aching twist of the gut that made images of my struggles to defend myself ricochet through my thoughts, until finally fatigue shut my brain off. I fell asleep with imaginings of waking to dark shadowy figures looking over me.
Over the next two weeks I learned to feel a little more comfortable in the parks, but I always set the rainfly no matter how hot it was. I pushed for 60 miles every day instead of my goal of averaging 40, and gave up on trying to get any writing done. Just getting through the headwinds everyday took all my energy. It was as if the wind desired to keep me away from my love. When I got up early to avoid the afternoon wind, I would be hit by morning headwinds that would die down as soon as my tent was set for the night. When I slept late, so fatigued from the day before that my waking mind couldn’t find my body until my bladder complained so painfully that I barely made it to the restrooms, the wind would be completely still until the afternoon heat struck like fire on my skin, and then the air would capture my panniers holding me in place, trying to push me back up the road the way I came. My sunscreen was not enough against that sun and I took to wearing my long sleeved riding shirt that had a thumb loop at the end of the sleeve. It covered everything except the first knuckles of my fingers. I may live with fear and anxiety, but it doesn’t make me unaware of the real dangers on this tour. Skin cancer and distracted drivers were my most likely cause of ill health, and I had promised my sweet man I wouldn’t take chances I did not need to. I suffered the confines of long sleeves in baking sun, and pulled into the gravel shoulder for larger sounding trucks, even though they always pulled wide around me.
I got up each day hurting from the previous day’s wind, and tucked my head low trying to get under the southeast winds I faced for eight hours every day. I pretended that the sun was not hot, and that my slow pace was the speed I desired to go. My awareness narrowed to a point just a few feet ahead of my tire; the few times each day I looked up I saw wheat fields that looked like the same wheat fields I had already seen. But each day I felt a little more desperate to get to Wichita, and each day the wind blew a little bit harder, always from ahead and to my right. My right leg, exposed to the sun, turned crispy tan while my left leg, shadowed every day, barely lost it’s winter moonglow.
I forgot the days. My road was wheat and wind, punctuated by a car or truck every hour or so. The only measuring tool I had, besides my phone’s maps to prove that I was not cycling in endless circles, was that the road slowly changed from being marked with the carcasses of turtles, like the stripes on a ruler to measure distance, to being marked with snakes, then little birds. At they end of the day I would check my computer. At first I was averaging 9MPH. Then it dropped to 8. Then 7. The wheat, which had been turning yellow when I first entered Kansas, was now a dark tan and many of the fields had large green combines slowly eating the blades in wide straight lines. The air filled with wheat dust, and my legs turned bright red with rash. A few times per day I passed a feed yard filled with cattle and the stench of confined excrement. Another memory to connect with the story of Kansas as I recalled documentaries a decade before showing the torture of our meat processing in America. I wondered what it felt like to live a lifetime nose to tail with dirt and shit and the smell of terror. But the cattle only gazed at me with the same look that the free range ones in Colorado had watched me with; curiosity, a little fear, suspicion, and finally disregard as I cycled passed.
Finally, I reached the first change in the road in what seemed an eternity of cycling east. My route turned south for less than 20 miles. At the crossroads was a tavern. Tired of canned food and pale vegetables I stepped inside, suddenly desperate for a large chunk of beef and deep fried anything. The steak was huge, juicy, rippled with fat that melted on my tongue. My shrunken stomach filled too fast, but I continued to slice tiny bites and chew and swallow until an hour later I had finished every last bit and every Freedom Fry. Several of the farmers chatted with me as I prepared to head out for the last half of my day, and I was hopeful and energetic for the road ahead.
But as I turned south I was struck by the full force of the southern winds.
I tucked my head, trying to get under it like I had done since Pueblo, and the wind caught me so hard that I struggled with every rotation of the pedals just to keep a straight line. Tears streamed my cheeks and dried before they could reach my chin. And on this new highway was a new enemy I had never faced before. Rumble strips, deep and wide, took up most of the shoulder, shifting from the white line to the edge of the pavement in a maddening, patternless meander. I couldn’t get under the wind. I couldn’t tuck my head. I couldn’t let my mind wander and let my ears take care of listening for traffic from behind.
All of me focused on dodging the rumble strips, shifting into the road or balancing on my six inches of pavement next to the drop off into gravel and grass. I could see only a few feet ahead, could hear only wind rushing passed my ears, felt only sun slowly frying the patch of rashed skin on my right thigh.
After an hour I had traveled only four miles. Another hour and I did not reach the ten mile mark. On the horizon ahead I saw the road curve and rise, and I hoped that the slight change in topography might give me respite from the wind for a few minutes. But when I reached the hill I found only more wind rushing down the slope to greet me. It brought me to a standstill.
I pushed Old Blue into the gravel, legs on either side of his frame, tailbone rested on his crossbar like he were a chair, elbows leaning on his handlebars. I let the wind howl over my face and ears, feeling the heat of it.
“Fine,” I said out loud. “I get it. This is your road. I give in. You can have it, but please, please, let me get to my camp before dark.”
I waited for a long time, and the wind did not slow. But I noticed that it was no longer blowing in gusts and instead had found a strong and steady speed. I plucked my earbuds out of their ziploc bag, searched through my music library for tunes that would match a slow pace, and set out.
Gone were my expectations of speed and distance. Gone was my belief that I could create my own path. I set my head to the wind and let the wind keep me at 4 MPH until I finally cycled into camp at sunset.