Friday, October 5, 2007

Borderline Personality Disorder

I finished Kansas before Kansas could finish me--although the outcome was in question for a while. My last night in the state in Tribune went well enough. I'd been told that I could sleep in the park and that, if the restroom were closed, the sheriff's office could open it for me. So upon finding the door locked, I returned to the office and was told--by a different person--that I was out of luck: No John for Scotty. Crap. I'd stayed in a town back in Indiana called Denver that also had no John. Well, no Rocky Mountain High for the Midwest, and Tribune, Kansas, was continuing the tradition. So another commando camp it would be.

I returned to the park and filled my water containers and studied the area to the north of the park. I could see trees and some buildings. Perhaps... I cut around a fenced field, spotted some grassy area at the far end of another section of the park, and motored cross country to my campsite, which was actually on the border between the park and undeveloped country. Perfect. Trees and scrub would provide a suitable cat box, and I was far from the road. Little did I know that my short cut would have some mildly serious consequences.

In the morning as I pulled away from camp, the bike felt strange. What's wrong with this thing? I jumped off to find not one but two flaccid lovelies splayed out under my once proud rims. (Insert ranting, profane tirade.) Well, this fine turn of events ruined any early start I'd hoped for. The good news was that it was not raining nor was the wind blowing, and I could push the bike over to a picnic table under a light. There in the tread of the tires, buried up to their hideous, bulbous heads, were several nasty thorns, goat heads, what I later heard called "Texas tacks." These are fiendishly effective tools for the puncture of bicycle tires. I lay wounded Mojo on his side and pulled the wheels. Step by step, I scrutinized the tires and pried thorns and tips from the tread. Needle-nose pliers were vital here (praise the Lord Leatherman). I then studied the interior of the tires, careful to invert the inside so that I might expose any remaining points. The rear tube already had two patches and probably two new punctures. I tossed it. Another mistake I could not at the time foresee.

Once on the road, I pedaled straight into a fog bank--huh? No wind, thank you, but this grey muck was no joke. My friends in Bakersfield, California, will know this kind of fog, a thick, gooey, opaque mass that leaves too much to the imagination and covered my glasses with dense moisture. I repeatedly had to wipe my lenses to clear my vision. A final farewell gift from the Great State of Kansas. As I neared the Colorado/Kansas frontier, the sun began to break through, and there, just as I was about to cross, sun hit the pavement and created a muted "fog bow" in the clouds that arched perfectly over the road, a sign from the gods that I was welcome in my first WESTERN state. I did my border crossing rant, and pedaled through the fog of the threshold and into the next phase of my journey. As if to fully signify the event, I broke clear of the sludge just west of the border and sailed into a bright, nearly windless Colorado day. The air was dry, the dome of the sky an almost unbearable blue.

Range land, ladies and gentleman, range land unfurled about me. Cottonwoods filled the stream beds and stood green and familiar here and there. Although I would still see a few more corn stalks to remind me about the past, I was in cowboy country now, coyotes and jack rabbits. And just the next day, I would see the Rockies, mountains of my dreams. I cued up some Grace from the Apostle Paul (Simon) and grinned down the road, my spirits restored, my legs ready for the day.

To seal the deal on my arrival, I met my first long-distance cyclist since Steve in central Ohio. On his way to Illinois, Theodore and I stopped and talked for a while. In the eager, happy way of cyclists, we swapped war stories and information. I was able to give him my map so that he could save some miles on his way. We were both reluctant to get back on our solitary treks, but the miles wouldn't do themselves. To Eads, Colorado, for me, to somewhereville Kansas for Theodore. Ride well, brother. You can have tailwinds after I get mine! I was to get no genuine tailwinds, but I was given a temporary reprieve, so I was thankful.

Got another thorn flat a few miles further on and learned from an old Mexican caretaker how to identify the dastardly plant. After almost 3,000 miles without a flat, I was suddenly getting way too much practice at fixing the damn things.

I arrived in Eads in high spirits with a resolve to take a rest day. I'd been pushing hard since Manhattan, and I needed a break. On studying the weather on the Net, however, I discovered more winds were marching north. If I took my rest day, I'd have to battle some horrible conditions, especially as I was headed south and west, the precise direction of the wind. I scrapped my rest day and resolved to get my earliest start yet.

At first I planned to sleep in the open, but as I finished dinner, I could see sprinklers coming on across the lawn. Pitch tent or get drenched. As I was setting up the fly on the tent, a sprinkler erupted from the ground right in front of me, its ugly head bursting out like an alien from an unsuspecting space traveler's belly. Water sprayed directly into the tent through the mesh. I quickly grabbed my pot and tried to cover the sprinkler but without much success. I ripped my tent from the grass and scrambled to get everything clear of the watering system. Exhausted, angry, frustrated, I just wanted to lay my sorry ass down and sleep. I had a bunch of gear scattered on the parking lot. With a sigh of resignation, I began picking up all my stuff and transporting it behind a small building where I could see no freshly irrigated grass--just dry dirt and leaves. I threw my pad on the ground and worked on getting a little sleep.

I was up and packing shortly before 3am. This wasn't cycling. This was war. I was going to escape the advancing armies in the south or know the reason why. I was riding by 3:35am. Good grief, man. Have you completely lost it? I left the pools of light in town and quickly became engulfed by the vast emptiness and darkness of the high plains. Only a few very distant homes and a cell tower or two broke the perfection of the night. Overhead, Orion burned its skeletal form in the velvet black of the sky. A crescent moon glowed through a high thin cloud. Mojo and I made our way towards the mountains we couldn't see. To the south, flashes seemed to indicate lightning. Such a strange and solitary life!

Shortly before dawn, I pulled into a dirt lot to use a restroom, and before I knew exactly what surface I was on, I saw the telltale grass of vicious thorns. Damn double crap! I swung away, looked down and found the tools of detumescence protruding from the rear tire. I pulled out the biggest one to hear the song of my frustration whistling shrilly from the tiny puncture. On fixing this flat I discovered the folly of throwing out that other tube: The additional spare I thought I had was, in fact, for the smaller diameter front wheel. Running low on patches and tubes, I was starting to get worried. The nearest bike shop was still about 90 miles away in Pueblo. I fixed the flat and just tried to be as careful as I could.

The dawn was a magical ride into immense grassy expanses turned to gold in the early light. This was fine compensation for my brutally early start. Then, at precisely 7:19 am, I saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time, a peak off to my right--Pike's? I couldn't say. But the mountains were still there. I would reach them somehow, and these trying high plains would fall into my wake to become a good story rather than the present trials.

After a short break, I started up Mojo only to feel that uncertainty on the road that only meant one thing: another flat. This one, however, was of the slow leak variety, and I decided to ride on, pausing occasionally to re-inflate until I got to Ordway, about 25 miles away. It was obviously a small puncture and would likely require placing the tube under water to detect. I did not have sufficient water to do the job in the wilds where I found myself. Every twenty minutes I would dismount, pump until my arms started to ache, then ride another twenty. This went on until I encountered another cyclist, Matt, on his way to Philadelphia. A fine young lad, he gave me a spare patch kit. I gave a map to Theodore only to receive this. We cyclists must look out for each other, pay it forward, as they say. With renewed repair supplies, I pushed on into the rising wind and heat. Ordway seemed to be a long way off.

The town was guarded by a feed lot with the wind cutting right across my path. Fine particulate matter and raunchy odors assaulted me as I pedaled as resolutely as possible to clear the zone. I pumped up the tire one more time and rolled into town. Matt had told me of a hotel across from the park with excellent ($25/night) rates for cyclists. Couldn't pass this up. I'd stay for two nights and make a real rest of it. The Hotel Ordway was temporarily missing a clerk, and check in wasn't until 2pm anyway, so I went to the park to work on my bike in the shade.

I was right away approached by a small squad of young boys. Eli, the oldest at 14 and a freshman in high school, and his friends quickly became my Ordway Posse, and we spent the afternoon talking about all kinds of things as I worked on my bike. They liked this little town and made a definite point about how much safer it was than Pueblo, which was now known for gangs. I asked them about what they were reading in school, and one boy said, "Not much. We don't have to read much of anything. We don't really like it around here." Nice kids, but I fear for their futures. Later, we did a tour of the town, I riding along at about 3 mph with Eli walking on one side and his cousin, Chris, on a BMX bike on the other. Eli narrated: "There's our saloon. That's the bakery. The library's down there, way at the end of the street." He checked with his cousin to confirm that the street was almost exactly a mile long. The electronic bank sign listed the temperature as 93 deg. F. Only about one thousand people lived here, and Eli explained that it was "an old person's town." What exactly that meant in his mind was unclear as I might be quite old to him. Perhaps affordable real estate meant retirees.

After our tour, I checked into my room and bid the young men good day. It was an excellent introduction to a quiet escape from the road. As I settled into my room, the winds picked up and lashed the trees into a frenzy. The next day I would sleep in, read, write, and do as little as possible. The mountains would come soon.

Looking back at the foggy Kansas/Colorado border:

Sunrise on the high plains:

Have the Slovenians overtaken me? No, this is Theodore, headed east:

A knee's-eye view of the road:

This is what it's like in video. Too cool:

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Wits' End

In the dark of an early October morning in Kansas, a television glows into a motel room. A man with a forced, phony smile explains the weather for the coming days. Like a chant, he repeats the phrase "South winds, 15 to 25 mph, South winds, 15 to 25 mph," for all the days into the forecast. For almost everyone in the state, this causes no particular emotion, just a shrug of the shoulders--Oh, well, so it's going to be windy today. For a lone cyclist in that particular motel room, these words are a meteorological prison sentence for which there will be no pardon, no time off for good behavior, just hard time in solitary confinement on a recumbent bicycle.

I set off knowing that I would be facing more punishment. Earlier is better, for as the day warms, the winds intensify, so I was rolling before first light. Always from the south today came the wicked force, the road straight and predictable, no surprises. Oh, look at that, a field of corn stubble. Wow, haven't seen one of those before. Oh, say, that's new, a grain silo. Such novelty. How can I bear it all? Here's something else to add to the list of things I dislike about cycling in Kansas: truck traffic. While the traffic in general is fairly light, most of the vehicles are big rigs, growling monsters stalking the highway. While I am plugging along, taking the general abuse of the cantankerous wind currents, getting pushed and nudged this way and that, I'll see a dragon approaching from the west. As it closes in, I brace for what is coming. The Doppler-shifted groaning of the engine reaches me first, and I instinctively grip the bars. For the wind my have its way with me, but what is soon to come is a full-on Gretzky body-check. The grill of the beast, its chrome teeth, swell in my vision, but at the last instant, I tilt my head down and close my eyes in preparation for the blast. Then it hits, a wall of roaring sound and turbulence that leaves me momentarily fighting for control. A second or two later, the event is over, and I may ride for several minutes before I even see another vehicle.

Part of the issue here, I'm sure, is the harvest season. The wheat seems to all be collected, but lots of corn and milo still stands. The hundreds of square miles of crops mean steady trucking for many days. I'll have to leave farming country to be free of all this. So it goes.

At one point, late into today's ride, I started to lose it. Something deep within me cracked. I had this overwhelming sense of how funny my circumstances were. Spontaneously, I yelled out to myself, to the insensate wind: "Wooo--ha! Fuck YOU!" The deep absurdity of what I was doing gripped me somewhere deep and I started to laugh, a genuine visceral rising of mirth that I could not resist. I was yelling and pedaling and rolling and laughing down the highway, a mad cyclist gone mad. This lunatic high didn't last long, but the after effects carried me the final miles to Tribune and my third Time Zone--yeah--Mountain Time. Tomorrow, it's Colorado. The West is almost mine.

Biker Scotty without coffee:

Biker Scotty WITH coffee:

Getting closer:

I purchased a bunch of real estate on my way through:

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

High Plains Drifter

These miles come dearly, distance claimed with a currency of vain curses, grit-filled eyes, a pummeled body, mind and spirit. The road stretches out infinitely to a liquid horizon that I can never reach. Mile follows upon identical mile. I've been beaten, whipped, lashed, thrashed and wind-lynched across the high plains.

This is the most difficult part of the journey so far. I have logged my lowest daily average speed (8.5 mph), but it's the relentless nature of the landscape and wind that wear me down. Mostly, I have not faced direct headwinds. The blasts usually come from the south or north, pushing me back and forth across the road. I spend my time in the saddle getting bitch-slapped by God.

Sometimes I make progress in a rage-filled push, but I can't sustain anger for long. A few miles fall to this technique until I'm worn out and back off, drop once more into single-digit speeds, weave and wobble like a drunk punk. Many times I can look fore and aft for miles and not see another vehicle. All points of the compass speak of emptiness save for a distant silo or spinning windmill. Now and again, green locusts pop up from the road or fly across my path, caught in the gale as I am, and bounce of my legs, my chest, my face and then vanish into the vast fields of chopped corn stalks or milo or plowed earth.

This is pure, raw, animal struggle, and there's just nothing else to do but endure. I tell myself that this is why I came, to dig deep and face my own weakness and uncertainty. This is the marrow of the journey. Crack the bone and see it ooze onto your shaking hands, fool. Who are you to be out here on your own, miles from nowhere? Are you mad? Take it and like it. Choke on the bone. Rejoice in the struggle, for it is all you have.

The temperatures swing wildly. Two nights ago I awoke to a fine, chilly low 40's F. dawn. This morning, I faced the low 70's F. This happens all the time. The forecast now is for highs in the upper 80's. Summer will not lessen its iron grip. I just have to endure. About five more days and I'll be in Pueblo, poised to enter the Rocky Mountains. It can't come soon enough.

Stay centered, Scotty. Walk the path, talk the path, be the path:

Shots of classic motorcycles I saw at a Museum in central Kansas. The place had at least $1 million's worth of beautiful machines:

Classic guerrilla campsite-- I just pulled in behind a utility building:

A Rob Thomson shot (See