June 10th – June 20th Wichita – Eureka, KS
I met up with my guy in a dive bar in Nickerson, Kansas. He drove us south to Wichita for a weekend getaway. I was glad to get out of the heat, into air conditioned buildings. A heat wave had begun, climbing into the 90’s, and as we explored the city on foot I dashed into shops to get out of the sun as if I were escaping a sudden deluge. As we walked back towards the car along a lovely river walk, my pace slowed. My guy fretted and mentioned how pale I looked. We weren’t far from the car when my stomach cramped, intestines so twisted I couldn’t lift my leg to step. I found a shadow in a rock wall. He explored a little creek that cascaded out of a hole in a rock wall while I held my breath waiting for the cramp to release me. When we got back to the car, I drank some water but it felt like I was filling a water balloon instead of my stomach. The fluid sloshed in my gut as I walked back to our room to lie down.
The next day we explored some more. But I didn’t move very quickly, couldn’t finish my meals, and always felt thirsty even right after drinking water or juice. We decided on our last night together to go see a movie. The theater just down the road from our hotel was playing The Crow, one of our all-time favorites. We returned to the hotel early, preparing for a 4:30 wake-up to get my guy to the airport in the morning. I woke exhausted, turned on my phone, and discovered that a man had killed 49 people in Orlando over the night. When my guy woke up, it was the second thing I said to him, after I told him how much I loved him. His body deflated, as mine had when I first read the news. No words. No shock. Just… terrorism fatigue.
For some reason, after an entire weekend off, I was even more tired than when I cycled into Nickerson. I was tired of cycling. Tired of searching. Tired of connecting. Tired of saying goodbye to my sweetheart. I packed reluctantly, ate breakfast slowly, and caved in to a craving for bread at the buffet. The first slice demanded a second one. Then, since I’d already contaminated myself, I grabbed a bagel too. When I went back for a second bagel I got a cream cheese danish to go along with it. When I finally got on the road and slowly cycled north towards Newton, I was dizzy and lightheaded and my stomach was beginning to bloat. I only had 35 miles to go, and had received a confirmation email from the Warm Showers family I’d requested hosting with for the night. It was supposed to be an easy day, but my body hurt all over. An invisible surgeon had placed a tube in the back of my neck and was draining my vitality and blocking communication from my brain to my body. When I got to my host’s home, I excused myself quickly and collapsed into bed late afternoon without eating lunch or dinner.
That evening, I still had no appetite. I spoke with my hosts for a while, chatting about the road behind and ahead, and the people they had hosted before me. The next day was supposed to be hot again, until afternoon thunderstorms were expected. I was worried about the storms, remembering the one that caught me in Denver. The wife called a friend and arranged for me to stay at a lake house the next night only 35 miles down the road.
I woke in the morning with a little energy, and got on the road early. But I only made it a mile to town. My body felt like it was starving to death and gaining weight at the same time, my clothing tugged and squeezed, tight at my stomach and breasts. I stopped at a health food store, grateful to find one on this road of only service stations to shop from. I bought some dried fruit and raw nuts, and was disappointed that all they had for electrolytes was some EmergenC packets, formulated more for people with colds than for replacing lost minerals. I was hoping the sugars of the dried fruit would wake my body up. But instead, all I got for my effort was another twisted gut cramp. The heat on the street was unbearable, so I pushed Old Blue around the corner to a cafe. Inside was cool, and they offered a sweet tea station with free refills. I set up my writing equipment at a table, and bought a tea. Then I refilled a few minutes later. I stayed in the cafe drinking cold tea, 1/2 sweet 1/2 unsweet like my guy taught me, until I had just enough time to get to the lake house by evening. I couldn’t stomach food, or water, but for some reason I could take in tea. The thunderstorms were small and shadowed me throughout my ride, but I remained dry.
I cycled up to the lake house just as my new host was calling her five adopted children and two grandchildren to dinner. We ate sloppy joes, and roasted marshmallows until dark. The food went down, and did not twist and churn emediately after. I watched the children, and they watched me. I was strange to them, and they did not have any desire to hide their curiosity about me. To me the children were a reminder of what life had once been when I was a mother. I let my heart be tugged by wanting and yearning and a touch of fear. After Vasu died, I was too busy trying to survive grief to think about trying again. Then, for years, I lived a life where a child was not desired. It didn’t matter to me one way or the other. I’d had my boy, and was content to live with only memory of that kind of love lingering in the shadows. But I promised myself I would revisit the idea of motherhood while I was on this tour. So I watched the kids create stories around the campfire, and for the first time felt a warm, almost nostalgic regret. If I had made different choices long ago I might have been the mother of many beautiful teenagers now. I let the feelings dance through my heart, swirling with my blood to warm my limbs, and that night I fell asleep holding a pillow as if it were a baby.
The next day was prickly hot early on, and I procrastinated getting on the road in exchange for a long conversation with the mother about how she adopted five children so late in her life. I envied her commitment to family. By the time I got on the road, the sun already made my skin feel crispy. But I had energy I had not felt in a while, not tons, but more. There was no headwind here, and yet I still crept down the road at the same speeds I’d cycled in the headwinds, barely reaching an average of 8MPH.
I cycled through pastureland that was so green I realized what had inspired the Wizard to be placed in The Emerald City. There were few homes out here, and no towns. Not even traffic disturbed the rolling hills dotted with black cows and brilliant orange milk weed. Bird song was everywhere, but I rarely saw the actual bird. They hid in the tall grasses and dense stands of trees.
Around 2:00 I drifted into a small grouping of houses. Not a real town with a place to buy anything, but a collection of small homes around a large high school. I was feeling light headed from the heat, and my water stops couldn’t seem to get on top of it, so I turned into the high school and found a bench in the shadow of it’s eves. A few minutes later a man’s face popped out of the door, and he offered me a place to sit in the conditioned air inside. I accepted gratefully, mentioned that I was tired but didn’t tell him that I was beginning to worry about my health, and the possibility that I would not be able to complete my tour.
I wasn’t adapting to the heat. It felt like every day I got a little less capable of cycling. Every hour left me a little weaker. I didn’t like the road anymore. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to go home.
A lovely woman with a strong, authoritative smile, came to me and offered to fill my thermos with ice. We talked as we walked to the ice machine, and I told her why I cycled the road. When I got to the part about wanting to see how beautiful humanity is she responded the way I’ve discovered most people do – by telling me about what she loved in life. For her, it was the school and she was very proud of it. She told me how it served several school districts, with students coming from as far as Howard miles away. I paused when she said that, a memory sparked. My father had mentioned that I would be coming up on Howard soon. It was remarkable because it was where my grandfather grew up. The place I had chosen to hide from the sun was connected to my family. I wanted to talk to this friendly woman. I wanted to learn more about this place. But my fatigue was blocking my words and thoughts. My head felt like a helium balloon that was leaking.
A half hour later the administration had to lock the school, so I wandered back out into the heat. I couldn’t even stand in the shade. I gasped for air, and steadied myself by holding onto the wall. It was 4:00 pm and I still had nearly 20 miles to ride to get to camp. I decided to wait, hoping early evening would allow the temperature to drop a bit. I made myself comfortable on the concrete, hidden deep in shadow, and closed my eyes.
When I woke, the sun was dropping into the west. But now the horizon was reaching up to meet it. A dark cloud was going to eat up the last two hours of sunlight. I checked the radar. Red smudged my screen, moving east fast.
I jumped on Old Blue, ignoring dizziness and creaking limbs. My route soon turned east onto a major highway and the cloud became fully visible to me. The heaviness of the cloud seemed to hold up draping curtains of rain that struck the hills just a couple of miles behind me. I pedaled hard, but my body did not respond the way I was accustomed. I did not heave with breath, or pulse with blood. Usually, when I pushed myself that hard my adrenals would kick in and I would have a good hour of intense energy. But wherever my body was finding energy to move, it was not an adrenal high. It was almost as if I were cycling from will power alone. The emerald pastures turned a strange blueish gray as storm clouds spread out over my head. The road was shallow climbs nearly a mile long, and as I cycled to the top of each one I felt as if I were detaching from my body, or perhaps I was still lying on the school porch and merely dreamed that I cycled the road. Then the cool wind of the descent would hit my face, waking me, and my loose shirt tails whipped behind me. On the descents, my detached dream shifted and I felt as if I were flying above the road instead of weaving through glass and the carcasses of blown tires. I was the Wicked Witch of the West, flying ahead of the storm, and in my head her theme song looped on a single track.
I made it to camp with the darkest clouds over my head but no rain. I stopped at a service station, picked up some sweet tea and a protein shake and two cranberry juices for the stinging I had developed in my urinary tract over the last hour of cycling. I found a covered picnic area in the city park and stretched myself out on one of the tables. I should be hungry for dinner, but all I felt was bloated, and tired.
I rested on the table, without thoughts, until the sun was gone and the park was lit by street lamps. I forced myself to drink the tea and juice, worried about dehydration, but I couldn’t stomach the milk shake. Even more than that, I felt done with the tour. There was nothing fun about it anymore. I felt none of the vitality that connecting with other humans offers me, and my body was going to fail out there on some lonely road.
I got my phone out and messaged my guy.
Somewhere in our conversation one of us mentioned electrolytes. Curious, I googled sodium deficiency while we texted. The list of symptoms included fatigue, light-headedness, cramps and bloating. I thought about my food over the last month and realized my diet was missing one very important feature. Salt. My years of learning how to cook for a child with cancer had taught me many things, especially to avoid cooked oils. I had been in the habit of eating raw nuts and seeds as a trail mix ever since. But raw nuts and seeds don’t have any salt. And my gluten free diet cut out 80% of the salt that most Americans eat on a daily basis.
My mouth salivated at the thought.
I dug into my panniers and pulled out my salt. I didn’t have anything to put it on, so I licked my pinky and dipped it directly in. It tasted awful, but the second the salt touched my tongue I wanted more. Over the next hour, as I messaged with my guy and set my tent, I kept dipping and eating raw salt. My head began to clear a little, and my stomach, by the time I fell asleep, felt some relief from the bloat.
In the morning I was hungry enough to drink my shake. I made oatmeal too and dosed it with so much salt that the honey couldn’t hide the metallic flavor. My head felt clear for the first time since before Wichita.
I had found the source of my fatigue, and felt like I could face the road once again.