Sunday, September 18, 2011

Days 50-54: March of the Centurions: The Road to Colorado


9/11 Day 50:Toronto, KS to Newton, KS 101 miles (2281 miles)

        Erin, Mandi, Ben, Charlie, and I all woke up just before the sun today so we could get an early start on our first 100 mile day. The wind, which is always a factor in Kansas, was a 5-10 mile an hour North cross-wind that would be some of the lightest we'd seen since entering the state. This, combined with a predicted temp. somewhere in the mid to high 80s and a lot of flat nothing to ride across made it an ideal day to put a boatload of miles away. We struck camp quickly, ate a couple loaves of monkey bread with some coffee, and were riding by 8. The first thing I noticed when I got on my bike was just how fresh my legs felt and how little, comparatively, my ass hurt. It's amazing how just one day of rest can take you from feeling like you'd like to just take a train to Oregon to feeling like you could pick up your bike and carry it there. Luke and Joe told us that there was a place about 25 miles past Toronto called The Copper Kettle in Eureka, KS that we had to stop at for cinnamon rolls. So, we decided that would be our first stop.
You need to eat this three times a day to survive our trip.
        25 quick miles later we found ourselves elbow deep in much more than cinnamon rolls. Apparently The Copper Kettle also has a breakfast buffet. It was $6.29 to go up to the buffet once and $6.99 to go up twice. Now, if I've learned anything on this trip, I've learned how to pile a plate high- I decided that no matter the size of the plates, I would only need one trip. I stacked biscuits on bacon on ham on eggs on hash on cinnamon rolls (which were out of this world good) and proceeded to tuck in on it. All four of us who got the buffet (Mandi only wanted cinnamon rolls) had no problems cleaning our plates and feeling pretty good about it. After Eureka, we were officially in a region of Kansas called the Flint Hills, a series of low ridges and flinty, limestone hills that form a series of bands across central Kansas and  northern Oklahoma. The hills weren't really hills  at all, to our eyes, but somewhat annoying long inclines. The Flint Hills are also home to the largest area of intact tall-grass prairies in the country, so we were treated to some very scenic views that matched our imaginations of what Kansas would look like, even if it is still far drier here than we thought.
        With nothing but rolling grassland, pastures, and corn fields to look at (when we weren't stuck staring at each others' backs in a pace line) the day sort of flew by. At mile 41, we made a stop in Rosalia to get some water from the Intermediate School and everyone was still feeling pretty fresh. We had a 17 mile stretch of north-bound riding in front of us, into the wind, so we stacked up in a pace line and made our way steadily toward a tiny town called Cassoday. Cassoday, we found out, is the prairie chicken capital of the world. Unfortunately, due to some mismanagement- I'm sure- of this valuable resource the town has been unable parlay their wealth of prairie chickens (of which we saw none, somehow) into material gain. The only establishment in town is the Country Store, a little highway-side convenience store, where we stopped for our second break of the day. Their selection of real food was basically nothing, so I made a lunch of a pre-made ham and cheese sandwich, an ice cream bar, some candy, a couple cookies, and some chips; not the most filling or nutritious lunch, but it would have to do. After eating, we hopped on the bikes basically in the home stretch- 42 miles to go.
      In those 42 miles, there was nothing but huge panoramas of dusty prairies, a few cars, and one lone cross country bicyclist who didn't give us his name but stopped to chat for a few minutes. Everything was fine until the last 10 miles or so, when I bonked hard. "Bonk" is the cyclist term for hitting the wall, I suppose it's a playful attempt at emulating the noise you make when you hit your head on something. Either way, bonking is serious business, and is seriously miserable. The last 10 miles felt like 30 and by the time we pulled in to Newton, I was cashed out and needed something to eat ASAP. Ben had hit the wall, too, and was snacking like a maniac outside of a gas station when I caught up with him. Luckily, there was a burger and shake place right down the street and it was there that I made my recovery via my secret weapon- the gigantic milkshake. Re-energized, we made our way to the city park, set up camp next to an outdoor bandstand, and washed off the day's sweat and grit in the bathrooms with water from the sinks. Newton is, also, a main through-way for a very large volume of freight trains headed to and from Wichita; so we were treated to honking train horns every 15 or 20 minutes all night as we tried to sleep.

9/12 Day 51 Newton, KS to Nickerson, KS 51 miles (2332 miles)

             The field in front of the bandstand caught the morning sun perfectly and we were able to shake the chill that has been creeping in to the mornings lately a little more quickly than usual. Erin, Mandi, Charlie, and I hard-boiled some eggs for breakfast and had a couple bagels on the side while Ben went off to find a donut shop just down the street for his morning meal. When we caught up with him, we all ended up getting coffee and donuts anyway. We made a quick Dollar General run for some food, and set off into a mean SSW cross/head-wind. We planned to do a shorter day anyway, in case we were all feeling beat up from the century we rode the day before, but the wind made it less of a comfort and more of a necessity. We have made something of a habit of making whatever amount of riding we have to do consume the whole day. If we ride 100 miles, we'll get to camp when the sun goes down, and if we ride 50, same deal. We labored for a couple hours, really savoring the headwind, until we finally arrived in a tiny town called Buhler.
          Kansas people and drivers have been easily the nicest of any we've encountered yet. Easily 75% of drivers give us a friendly wave if they're oncoming, and the traffic behind us generally moves entirely into the other lane to pass us- a very nice change from Missouri, where drivers would squeeze around us at the first, most dangerous opportunity. The people in Buhler, though, took friendly to the next level. We arrived in the town, which couldn't have more than a couple hundred people living there, and headed for a restaurant we'd found online that was some kind of BBQ and bakery combination. When we reached it, the owner told us that, unfortunately, they are closed on Monday and the grocery would be our only option on a Monday in Buhler. As she was explaining this to us, another townsperson pulled up behind us in her car- she had tried to catch us before we made it to the restaurant in order to direct us to the grocery store so we wouldn't waste time. After the second woman drove off and the first woman went back inside, an old man flagged us down to ask us about the trip and tell us to head to the grocery store if we were hungry. We thanked him, and rode on; we turned one corner and a man actually came out of his house to tell us that, if we wanted to find anywhere to eat, we ought to make our way to the grocery store, since everything else is closed on Mondays. Everyone in Buhler we met was almost off-puttingly nice, and genuinely so. We got some sandwich fixings from the store and ate our lunch on a bench across the street.
           As we ate, the wind continued to whip in from the south and we decided to just hang out in the town library until it died down- as it was predicted to do in the late afternoon. We loitered in the very pleasant library reading area for an hour or two, then made the final 20 mile leg to Nickerson. It was a bit of a slog, as the first part of the day had been, but we were glad to finally arrrive. The only store, or food at all, in town was the Quik Shop gas station convenience store and that was our first stop. We grabbed a couple beers and moved in to the park, which held a veritable cornucopia of dilapidated, dangerous playground equipment that Ben could not resist. The 'long hooked chains hanging from a pole' feature especially attracted him. He ran around that crazily while Charlie and I endangered one another on the teeter-totter. After getting our fill, we all set up shop, washed off under the spigot in the park, made some typical pasta plus beans camp dinner with a whole package of vienna fingers cookies for dessert and retired for the night.

9/13 Day 52: Nickerson, KS, to Rush Center, KS 91 (2423 miles)
           
           First thing out of camp, we hit the Quik Shop for a little breakfast, and to pick up a little something for lunch later because it would be 58 miles until the next town. We had a nice cross tail wind to push us along, and we decided we should capitalize on it by attempting another 100 mile-ish day. Having learned the power of the headwind, we now respected the power of the headwind- and feared it. If Kentucky's lesson was the heat and Missouri's the hills, then Kansas was teaching us about wind and we were doing our best to be quick studies. The amount of time I have spent in Kansas checking the weather on my phone just to keep track of the next day's wind is staggering. Further, the amount that the wind can change here in a day is unlike anything I've ever seen. It can spin around west to east, north to south in a matter of hours and bascially ruin ( or make) your whole day. This variability, combined with the long stretches without towns and basic services, raised the stakes in our minds for getting caught on a bad wind day. If we had a 20 mph headwind instead of a 20 mph tail wind and needed to go 58 miles between towns... well, it wouldn't be impossible, but it would certainly be logistically taxing, and we wanted to avoid the chance of that happening as much as possible, so we resolved to break out of Kansas as fast as we could.
          The 58 mile first leg was long and uninterrupted except for a break at nearly 25 miles for some caloric intake. The area we rode through was supposed to be a wildlife preserve, but we saw almost nothing in the unremitting expanses of dirt and prairie grass to catch our attention. Occasionally one or the other of us would just say, "Holy crap. I can't believe how little there is out here." or "Good God, it just keeps going. How can there be so much nothing?" This line of commentary would be a running theme throughout Kansas as we just turned the cranks and daydreamed about the Rocky Mountains. Around one or two we came upon Larned, one of the larger towns on the route, and stopped for our longer lunch break. Charlie had gotten his first flat of his entire trip on the first leg of the day, courtesy of a goat-head burr, or Texas tack, as they are also referred to. We pulled into a Sonic in town, and I  snagged my lead-reclaiming 5th flat tire of the trip. I patched the tube while we waited for our food to arrive, and then had my usual 3 grilled cheese, milkshake and fries lunch to fuel me up. We watched another cyclist pedal by on his way into the wind, and our hearts went out to him, but- I have to admit- I didn't wish for the wind to change.
Huge beers: Mandi tested, Charlie approved.
        We were all feeling pretty good- because of the excellent time we were making and that we had already gone 58 miles by lunch time- so it was in high spirits that we charged off out of town. We knew we would have a section of northward riding in another 13 miles that would throw us into the wind face first. We knew, also, that it would be extremely unpleasant. We turned out to be correct. Our pace, which had been a lively 14+ miles an hour with minimal effort slowed to a laborious 7-8 mph. We had anticipated the 19 miles to Rush Center being a mere stepping stone to the following 13 miles to Alexander, but after a 2+ hour grind into the wind, we decided Rush Center would do just fine. We found the one restaurant in town in short order, because it is directly adjacent to the postage stamp sized city park that would be our home for the night. We drank some gigantic and cheap beers to go along with our surprisingly good food, before walking back into the little park. We took turns taking spigot baths right next to the highway, set our tents up ostensibly in someone's driveway, changed my shorts in a pine tree, and called it a night.

9/14 Day 53: Rush Center, KS to Scott City, KS 90 (2513 miles)

Coursing across the nothing, toward something.
              The wind was with us again, and we knew today we could cover another big chunk of ground if we got going sooner than later. We cooked up some oatmeal with dried fruit before repacking the bikes and it was off again. Despite having covered 240 miles in the last 3 days, everyone still seems to be feeling strong. The mornings have been the only sign that Autumn is on the way, since it's been around 50 each morning the last few days, but we also know we are racing the clock on cold weather in the mountains. If our wind luck had been good before, today we hit the jackpot. We had a 25 mph ESE wind propelling us along, and made the 13 miles to Alexander in no time at all. Alexander was another mail drop for us, and we want to make sure to send thanks out to Linda, and Erin's Mom, Dad, and Nina for sending us a few odds and ends and a boatload of tasty snacks.  I ate a handful of Snickers cookies, and we sped off again toward Dighton, the next town on the road. When I say, "on the road" I mean it literally. From Rush Center, we follow Rt. 96 all the way to Pueblo- 300 miles on the same road. Between towns there is nearly nothing to see in any direction. To the left and right are either fallow fields of dirt (brown), fresh mowed corn fields (tan-brown), or prairie grasses (greenish-brown) and to the front and back is endless road.
            You can tell you're coming up on a town miles before you arrive there because the huge grain co-ops where an area's farmers store their harvest loom above the landscape huge, white, and monolithic. They generally contain silos, dryers, and all manner of other contraptions I don't know anything about. They look like someone stuck a giant cheese grater into a toaster- that's Kansas: endless nothing, dotted by clusters of dilapidated homes huddled up against massive kitchen appliances that hold what is essentially the entire wealth of the surrounding area in the currency of the harvest. We covered ground rapaciously with the wind behind us, and made it 30 miles in 2 hours to Ness City where we ate some surprisingly delicious pizza. I ran into another cyclist outside our restaurant headed east and he looked as if he had just been wandering a desert for days. The same winds helping us had chapped his lips and dried some crusty white spittle to his face, he had wind burn and looked genuinely miserable. Here I was, basically glowing with the exhilaration of our speedy progress and having a great day, and looking at a man who was the perfect other side of the figurative coin. We exchanged some quick conversation and he sort of miserably slunk away while I went back inside to eat lunch- amazing how easily that could have been us through Kansas.
           Ness City, another town, and another town drifted by as the day wore on- one forgettable town following the other until the miles brought us all the way to Scott City, the largest city on this part of our route, which may be damning it with faint praise. We looked forward to Scott City because we knew we could get a shower at the local athletic club, and maybe even sleep indoors since there was some rain in the forecast. The club turned out to be something of a bust and the woman running it wanted $8 a person to sleep on the floor in the gym.... not a good deal for 5 folks. We paid her for showers and moved along to the city park where we jammed everything under the only shelter and set up camp. The forecast also mentioned that the temperatures would be plummeting that night and that the next day could be expected to have a high of 45. The night proved quite cold, and we did not regret buying wool hats a few days before. The rain plinked off the tin roof of the shelter as we slept, and we were grateful that even if we were cold, we weren't getting wet.

9/15 Day 54: Scott City, KS to Sheridan Lake 79 miles (2592 miles)
         
           When the day dawned today it was a frigid 42 degrees with a windchill of 37, and it was raining. We all layered up, put on leg and arm warmers, our rain jackets, and whatever else and packed up tents as quickly as our numb fingers could go. None of us really had the proper gear for this kind of weather, since it was so unseasonably cold and wet, to boot. The chill seemed to seep into our bones, and we planned to get some breakfast at the Subway just a couple blocks up. Ben and I, however, didn't really have water or windproof gloves, and knew that riding in conditions like these could be dangerous if it did start to rain. Frostbite was not an imminent threat, but something that danced in the back of my head as my purpling fingers throbbed in protest as I gripped the handlebars while we rode to the hardware store to try and find some gloves. I ended up with a cheap pair of thermal gloves, not entirely water proof, but serviceable and Ben decided to put some dish washing gloves over the cheap fabric gloves he'd bought the day before. Charlie bought some huge, ridiculous knee socks to serve as stop-gap leg warmers, and we were prepared to cope with the day.
       After a light breakfast, we were forced to linger for a little while and wait out a passing front of bitterly cold rain. It was, needless to say, with very low spirits and very little enthusiasm that we mounted our bikes and headed off into the bleak, colorless, featureless prairie that would lead us into the sky (since we were gaining a few hundred feet a day, and were already around 3,000 ft by Scott City) and to God knows where. I really didn't know if we could ride in the weather presented to us, given our equipment and morale, and didn't know how far we could make it if we even could ride. Without destination, but at the very least, with the wind at our backs, we gutted out an incredibly miserable day of riding 78 bitterly cold and wet miles. Riding that day was so strange- it never really rained on us, but because we were so high in elevation, we rode inside of a moisture laden cloud that more or less just deposited water on our faces, helmets, and clothing. It was not an entirely joyless affair, though, because we managed (around mile 60 something) to pass into Colorado.
"Ok, we got the picture. Let's get the hell out of here."
        Colorado's high prairie and drab nothingness seemed, somehow, worlds better than that of Kansas- if only because we knew, latent in every blase mile of brown flatland was the promise of the Rockies. Kansas held no lure, excepting the knowledge that with it out of the way, we could enter states where the country's trove of natural treasures are kept. Kansas was a perfectly fine state, but seemed more like an entrance fee. Its slow climb to the clouds was more or less 4 or 5 hundred miles of "You must climb this high to enter Colorado." We happily snapped a picture at the border, but certainly did not linger, because we weren't yet sure where we would be staying, and the cold and slow-departing daylight made the solution to our dilemma a bit of a pressing matter. We had hoped to ride over 100 miles and make it to Eads, where there was gauranteed camping, but it simply wasn't an option in the weather. My pinky fingers had gone numb, and the wind had turned into a nasty, soggy, frigid cross-wind that deposited more liquid on us, saturating the clothes we were wearing. Basically, things were looking bad, not life threatening, but extremely crappy, and we had to roll the dice on finding a place to sleep in the next town.
        Sheridan Lake, a town of somewhere around 180, was that town. We went fishing for an answer to our problem, hoping to camp on the leeward side of some building and out of the cold wind, and ended up catching a whopper of a break. Our maps said we could potentially camp by the convenience store in town, but upon inquiring with the store clerk, we were informed that there is a church in town that has been taking in cyclists. In order to find out whether or not we could stay there, we needed to contact Pastor Virgil. The clerk made the call for us, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves warm and dry in an amazingly well furnished church. There was a huge kitchen with a long table and chairs, a few comfy armchairs down the hall, a big open gymnasium to spread our stuff out in, bathrooms, and a pre-school room with double-padded floors for sleeping. We cooked some food and lounged around the church; mostly we spent the entire night being grateful we weren't outside in the blustery, cold, wet wind that didn't let up til the next morning.

2 comments:

  1. It's Suzanne, my husband & I met you guys yesterday going the other way. Places to go we can think of are:

    Saratoga, WY - free public hot springs, just follow the signs

    Lamont, WY - teepees, info on Adventure Cycling maps

    Jeffrey City, WY - Monk King Bird trailer, painted like a seascape, would only sleep 3, you can also camp there - donation. I also called the minister at Jeffrey's Baptist Church who said we could stay there inside.

    Twin Bridges, MT - city park w/ hot showers & screened in area in case of bad weather, donation. Met the mayor there, the town loves cyclists.

    Hamilton, MT - James stayed with a lady whose son did the TransAm a few years ago and now offers free cyclist camping / lodging, I think he found her info on the AC maps

    John Day, OR - James stayed at a cycling hostel on the AC map

    Mitchell, OR - has a free city park right across from The Oregon Hotel B & B where we stayed

    Good luck & stay warm!

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