Open sky, open mind

July 30, 2010

July 20

Despite Chief Jerry’s tepid endorsement of the prairie reserve, I still had an urge to see it. For one who has lived in cities most of my life, the chance to spend time in the vast openness was a rare opportunity. The master itinerary of this trip had Paul joining me on August 8 in Kentucky for about a week’s worth of riding. I spent last night conservatively estimating whether I could make that rendezvous. I could with a few days to spare. So this morning after saying goodbye to Javier and Jerry, I headed northeast toward Strong City and the Preserve. I had a favorable wind and made it to Strong City by mid-day. It was a hot and hilly two miles further to the prairie.

Tallgrass prairie once covered most of the midsection of the United States. As new settlers began to discover how fertile this land was, it was plowed under and converted to farmland. The Tallgrass Prairie area was “preserved” in a sense, because the topsoil was too shallow to plow, so it was used for cattle grazing–a use, fortunately similar to what bison had been doing for eons.

This stately home conveyed the success of the cattle ranch that once occupied this area.

The barn was designed so that haywagons could drive right up one ramp into the hayloft, then exit down the second, never having to turn around.

This preserve is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas. This was once an ancient shallow sea which converted over time to limestone and chert, which is more commonly called flint. The late 1800’s ranch house and barn remain as an impressive historical counterpoint to the natural features. Only in 1996 was the ranch designated a National Preserve. It is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the National Park Service.

I felt roasted by the time I made it to the shady shelter of the Preserve’s barn/visitor center. I briefly questioned why I would want to take a hike in 95+ degree heat in the open sun, but the effort getting here and the opportunity to see a nearly vanished part of our country compelled me to venture out.

I asked the ranger how to best experience the prairie in the time I had. He recommended the 3 Pastures Trail, which was a 4 mile loop that would take me far out into the grasses and offer some sweeping vistas of the hills.

I could just about walk under the curved trunk of this massive cottonwood tree, but set against the hills it is a minute feature of the land

I started walking, first down from the barn into the first pasture. The wind that had help propel me up here now helped moderate the heated air. I crossed a dry creek bed and passed through a pasture gate. Huge cottonwood trees dotted this low land. But their size became apparent only when you came near them. Otherwise, they were dwarfed by the great expanse.

Clouds, sky and grass--the defining elements of the prairie

The trail next led me up a ridge. I began seeing the seemingly endless rolling of the hills, soft and green, occasionally dotted with cattle herds in the distance.

Clouds, sky, grass. That’s all that was around me. Not a person in sight. All I could hear was the wind. This is the sight that perhaps westward travelers saw and feared–a vast unknown they were heading into. This may have also been what some settlers saw and dismissed–what could be valuable about this type of land? I was trying to feel what those who loved the prairie felt. What was the connection, the attraction, the power, that the prairie offered to these people?

I still haven’t been able to answer that. Perhaps the connection comes as you experience a lifetime there, not a few hours as I did.

The breathtaking simplicity of the prairie vistas can make you overlook to complex beauty of the prairie grasses themselves

Prairie seeds ready for launching

Up to this point, I had been struck by the big beauty of the prairie. At a junction in the trail I sat down on the ground. The prairie world changed. I saw different grass heads swaying thickly in front of me. Seed heads were opening, pushing out furry progeny. An indentation in the grasses marked where a bison had lain for a rest or the night.

The prairie, and being in the prairie, was beginning to mean something to me. I was reminded you could find beauty on different levels. Because there was so much sameness, I was not focused on a point or a destination. It cleared my mind to think. One reason I’ve always enjoyed biking is that it forced you to experience the world at a slower pace. Walking through the prairie (or walking anywhere) slows your perspective even more.

This re-realization made me think about the power and purpose of walking in our lives. These days, walking is often associated with good fitness, but people have walked for social and political reasons as well. Think of the pilgrimage or the protest march. I once strode up the Philosopher’s Walk in Heidelberg, Germany, trying to imagine what Kant thought about centuries before me.

As all this circulated through my brain it dawned on me how valuable this day’s diversion was. The consistency of Kansas’ wind, heat and roads was turning my days into a focus on getting to the next town before it got too hot. Experiences like this were part of why I wanted to take this trip–to see, feel and hear what was unique about this country; and reflect on how and if that had any effect on me and how I viewed the world.

These seedheads, seen at eye level, were among the tall grasses growing along the bottomlands trail

To compete with nearby grasses, these sunflowers piggybacked upon each other to gather sunlight

Despite its effect on me the 3 Pastures Trail did not provide me what I had originally come here to experience–being amidst tall grasses. The ranger had explained that in these uplands, the grasses attained those highs in the spring and fall, when there is more rainfall. He directed me to a bottomlands trail near the Fox River.  There I walked past grasses and sunflowers taller than me. A century ago, when the prairie was still dominate, people could only find lost cattle when they saw the tops of these grasses part. Nearby, thick stands of trees overhung the Fox River, making it seem dark and claustrophobic compared to the openness of the prairie.

To cap off this day of impressive natural experiences, rumbling dark clouds moved overhead as I finished the bottomlands walk. I made it back to the motel in time to escape a strong storm that moved through the area. After it passed I stepped outside to watch the setting sun illuminate the passing clouds and turned eastward to see impressive lightning bolts arc downward from the sky.

The sun putting back color in the sky that the thunderstorm had taken away

A Tallgrass Prairie vista

Fire and nice

July 27, 2010

July 19

On one single farm, this crop of sunflowers stretched far off into the distance

I woke up feeling better today, good enough to eat breakfast again. Kansas roads continued to be I roads, but now slightly three-dimensional Is. The roads were getting more hilly–I was beginning to coast downhill. Alongside the road, more trees were appearing and corn was replacing wheat as the farm crop. Some of the homes were getting fancier as well. I was close enough to Wichita and Hutchinson that they might have been commuter’s homes.

I was now seeing fewer westbound cyclists. So as the silhouette of two cyclists appeared in the distance, each of us waved and slowed to a stop. “You have to stay in the firehouse in Newton,” they urged. “Is it a hostel?” I asked. “No, it’s a firehouse on 3rd and Main.”

My curiosity about this lodging option remained a bit longer than expected when I ran into a Road Closed sign outside of Buehler. No detour option was given, so I had to figure one out for myself. I pedaled up the highway and turned onto the first dirt road I thought was heading east. At first I thought the pedaling was hard because of the rough road surface, but then, realizing I was pedaling into the wind and not the sun, I surmised I was heading south. Just then a farmer pulled up to the intersection where I had stopped. He confirmed my directional error and gave me guidance on how to get back on track. After about a 5 mile detour I made it into Buehler where friendly townspeople made me quickly forget about my extra efforts.

Newton Firehouse #2. A place of clean machines and fine hospitality

I reached Newton around noon and found the firehouse without difficulty. Uncertain how welcoming the firemen would be (this was not one of the lodging options listed on our map), I was indirect about my inquiry: “I was told you could help me find a place to stay in town.” “Oh, you can stay here,” the fireman replied. “I’ll check with the chief.”

Battalion Chief Jerry confirmed the arrangement. “We’ll put you up in our Training Room. You can shower here, use our laundry, and chill out in the lounge with the guys.” I then promptly got a tour of the station and an open door admission to the building.

Hungry again, I took the fireman’s recommendation, and ate my fill at a nearby buffet. After spending the rest of the afternoon at the public library, I returned to the station. Chief Jerry stopped in the room to chat. I had become intrigued about visiting the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in an area known as the Flint Hills. It would involve a day’s diversion off-route to travel northeast to the site. I asked Jerry what he thought of the place. “It’s just grass and hills to me,” he advised, “but maybe that’s just because I grew up around here.”

Jerry next mentioned that another cyclist had arrived later in the afternoon. He was about to drive him to dinner and asked if I wanted to join in. Javier was a teacher from Chicago. I discovered he lived in the same Pilsen neighborhood where my mom was born and raised. This was his first bicycle tour. His circumstances were similar to mine–he had received a grant to take the tour and was blogging to inform and involve his students. We compared our trip experiences and talked about how our absences affected our families (he had been recently married).

Chief Jerry came back to pick us up and announced he would take us on a tour of Newton. This region of Kansas was settled by Mennonites from Russia. Their gift and legacy to the state and country was bringing over a strain of wheat called Turkey Red. It was a winter wheat, and it survived the harsh Kansas winter much better than the strains then in use. Turkey Red was critical in establishing as Kansas as a primary wheat growing state. Winter wheat, I believe, is much used today to make whole wheat bread flour. Newton also had a nationally-known Mennonite university and a number of nice city parks. Although Jerry had grown up in a smaller town to the north, he had come to like Newton very much. “You get to know just about everyone in this town,” he reflected.

Me and the chief

I had to get my picture taken with the fire chief and fire trucks. Javier did as well. “It’s too bad you weren’t around in the afternoon when we had the aerial ladder truck out,” Jerry commented. “You could have gotten a view of the entire city from 100 feet up.”

July 18

It is hard not to be cheered by the sight of sunflowers alongside the road

The temperatures were forecast to be near 100 once again today. Now, this weather called for a travel strategy different from one for the mountains. Back there, I would wait a bit for the sun to rise and warm the air. Here, I sought the opposite. I was on the road at 6:45.

My malaise still persisted. My stomach was borderline queasy, so I skipped breakfast. That’s unheard of for me, and seemingly risky on this tour. I reasoned I had eaten enough at lunch and dinner to propel me down the road a ways.

I had no intention of camping in this heat. Last night I had made reservations at a bed and breakfast in Nickerson, about 60 miles away. As had happened yesterday, movement and exercise made me feel better.

The Quivera National Wildlife Refuge. Looking north to the salt marsh and a view Coronado would have seen 300 years ago.

Along the route I passed through the Quivera National Wildlife Refuge. During migration season it is a major stopping point for birds, but today I saw few. Still the area was interesting. Parts of it were a salt marsh, which I could see and smell. Also, the Spanish explorer Coronado visited this area in the 17th century on a true wild goose chase in search of a city of gold. Having been duped in his quest once already further south, he again succumbed to tales of trees dripping with gold and marched his troops north to this region. Disappointed again, he put the native guide to death. Because Quivera has seen little development, it is believed the scene I was remains much like what he saw 300 years ago.

I made it to Nickerson before noon, eating only a few small bites of an energy bar. I rode up the main street in town looking for the B&B. The weekend host there had given me her cell phone number and said she was willing to pick me up if I couldn’t make it to Nickerson. I used that number to try and reach her for directions. After getting no answer, I set off to find it on my own.

An unusual assortment of barnyard animals

My map had given me one clue to its location–the state road I had just turn off of. I rejoined it and headed southwest. There, at the edge of town, I found Hedrick’s Bed and Breakfast and Exotic Animal Farm. I came upon a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture scene. The barn and the pastures were there like any other farm, but in place of cattle were ostriches, giraffes, zebra and camels.

Objects in viewfinder are closer than you think!

It had been too hot to explore the farm during the afternoon, so I waited until dinner to walk around. It was feeding time. The first corral I came to had the ungulates dining together. A baby giraffe noticed me and pulled away from the food trough. It stuck its head over the fence and stuck its tongue out at me, trying to lick my camera. Getting no gastronomic feedback, it eventually sauntered away.

At the front of the property was the ostrich pasture. In some ways, these birds look as though they’ve been assembled from spare parts. Small heads and skinny legs are attached to a broad feathered body. Their eyes are piercing, but otherwise expressionless. One by one a group of them sauntered toward me, as I was standing by the feed bin. Their S-shaped necks would swing their heads down, then pop them back up occasionally to check the scene, as any non-predatory animal instinctly does. I got a close look at the ostrich feathers that were in such fashion demand a century ago. These were dirty and unimpressive–no need for pretension here. After taking a last look at the kangaroos dozing in the dark, indoor compound, I retired to my room to do the same.

These animals were about 6 feet tall.

A feverish rate

July 27, 2010

July 17

It was great to have a full sit-down breakfast–cereal, toast with jam, and fruit. As I was departing, Dan gave me what you might describe as a manly hug–one arm around my back, and a little squeeze. Despite how awkward it seemed, I knew it was heartfelt, and meant that Dan had valued our evening together.

Awake at 7, I had stepped outside into a comfortable temperature. Now, an hour and a half later the sun had worked the atmosphere up into the steamy range. I pedaled the first leg of today’s ride, through Alexander to Rush Center, at a good pace, but I still didn’t feel all that great. I stopped in a little park to eat and drink and felt an uncommon urge to rest.

Pushing myself to go, I next turned south for a 19 mile leg. I had a long, gradual ridge to climb. Although I began to feel better, my energy still seemed low. I was drinking exceedingly warm water at this point and feeling like those fictitious movie characters who fixate on water in the middle of the desert. I was dreaming about drinking something cold.

Fort Larned

I finally turned east out of the wind onto the final 15 mile leg into Larned. Two-thirds of the way there I pulled into the Fort Larned National Historic Site. It was built to provide a safe haven and offer protection for travelers on the Santa Fe Trail during the mid 1800’s. I imagine 19th century travelers rejoiced as I did upon seeing the site. I did not find the pop machine I was dreaming about, but there was cold water and air conditioning.

Fort Larned is said to be one of the better preserved forts of the Western expansion era. What remains standing today is not the original fort, made of adobe mud bricks, but more solid structured built from limestone blocks. Although is it graffiti, it was interesting to see all the people’s names carved in the blocks up through the early 1900s. The Santa Fe Trail skirted right around the fort, so I walked on it trying to feel history. But it was now just a gravel road, covering  over any sense of the past.

I still felt quite warm and returned from a short hike around the grounds to sit in the shade under the covered porch. Another visitor asked how I was. “Hot,” I replied. “Welcome to Kansas,” he chuckled.

I went inside to fill up my water bottles for the final leg into Larned. On the ranger’s desk was a sign reporting: Heat Index–108 degrees. I immediately made plans to check into the first motel I could find in Larned. That one, a Best Western, was full. There was a golf tournament in town this weekend. The clerk kindly called the motel down the road to check for a vacancy. Happily, the tournament wasn’t that big–there was space available for me.

Larned residents taking advantage to socialize in the cool(er) nighttime air

The heat did not lessen until the sun went down. Then, Larned’s quiet streets got busy. The local drive-in restaurant was full of cars and people gathering on their pickups’ tailgates. Their sensibilities were certainly driven by the environment.

July 16

This was unexpected. I had gotten used to my legs just responding to the demands placed on them day after day. But today they felt less sprightly. Maybe it was yesterday’s 100 mile day. Maybe it was the heat. The humidity seemed to be rising along with the temperature. There was no shade along the road, much less trees anywhere in sight. So when a sign announced a historical marker ahead, and that spot was anchored by a large shade tree, I declared it lunch time.

In wide-open Kansas, history+shade=lunch spot

I usually swing through these historical pullouts to take a quick look at the headline on the marker. This particular spot was somewhat noteworthy. George Washington Carver, the noted African-American agricultural scientist, had a homestead nearby in the late 1880s.

Kansas has a significant historical legacy, most of it from the 1800s. A lot of westward expansion progressed through the region. The Oregon, Chisholm and Santa Fe trails passed through the state, as did the Pony Express and lastly, the Transcontinental Railroad.

The "Skyscraper of the Plains," a beautiful, proud old building in Ness City

Character and craftsmanship in the skyscraper facade

By mid-afternoon my progression needed a break. I spent a couple of hours in the Ness City library, cooling off and checking emails. Libraries along the TransAm trail have been very accommodating to vagabonds like me, allowing use of their wireless networks without a library card.

My destination this evening was Elaine’s Bicycle Oasis, in Bazine. Way back at the church hostel in Dayville, Oregon, a cyclist had posted Elaine’s business card on the bulletin board, adding it was an “awesome” place to stay. I took note of that 4-star rating back then and had called Elaine from Pueblo to reserve a place at her house tonight.

Well, I thought it was tonight. Thinking I was expected this evening was one of the reasons I had biked 100 miles yesterday. The Bicycle Oasis was a modest looking house that had a cool canopy of trees in back. I knocked on the door, but no one answered. Happy to just sit and rest for a while, I plopped down on a bench, figuring Elaine was away and would return.

After about fifteen minutes I heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner from inside the house. Perhaps I didn’t knock loud enough the first time. Elaine opened the door and I introduced myself. “I was expecting you tomorrow,” she replied. Too tired for any Plan B I said, “Can you still put me up?” After just a slight hesitation she responded, “We can make it work. But I can’t serve dinner until 8.” Immediately though, I was offered a cool orange drink and a seat at the kitchen table.

After I showered and she napped, we both returned to the kitchen. “There’s a Relay for Life going on in Ness City,” she informed me. “There will be food and events to raise money in support of people with cancer. If you would like to go, you can take my car to get there.”

Elaine's Bicycle Oasis

I thought back to the story Terry Tignor told me about the Chicagoan whose faith in people was restored during his cross-country trip. He must have had experiences like this. Would you give your car keys to someone you just met an hour ago?

Although she was born in the area, Elaine’s life experiences had taken her on a circular loop around the country before ending back in Kansas. I asked her what she liked about living in Bazine. “The simplicity of the people,” she responded. People here were conservative and patriotic, she said.

Eight o’clock passed, but she was still holding off on the crock pot dinner in hopes that her husband Dan would arrive home to join us. Finally she decided we would begin without him. I was into my second helping of the chicken, onion, potato and carrot stew when he arrived. He walked in the door, tersely shook my hand, and sat down to eat.

I later learned he had a rough day, having gotten some equipment stuck in the mud. The farmer and the city boy ended up having good conversation around a variety of things–gardening (his solution for the MN rabbits eating our raspberry plants: “pellet gun.”); oil wells in Kansas (he heard that one elderly women has made a million dollars by allowing wells on her property); public funding of sports stadiums (I don’t know how this came up); and football (he remembered Walker Lee as a Vikings player). By evening’s end his terseness had evaporated.

I had arranged to sleep on their screened front porch. A week earlier in Pueblo that sounded like a pleasant experience. Tonight, I thought about that prospect with some apprehension, because along with the natural heat, the living room air conditioner was also venting onto the porch. Thankfully, Dan offered up his living room floor as an option. “No need to suffer,” he declared.

Deep down I held out hope that the heat would lessen so I could experience what, for an urbanite like me, would be a unique, Americana sleeping experience. Instead I ended up sleeping on the living room floor, something I end up doing on occasion at home.

Hey Cimarron kids! You have a sister community in Kansas.

July 15

It seems like transitions give me ambitions. Two transitions would happen today–I would cross into Kansas and move into the Central Time Zone.  These kinds of changes energize me. That energy, combined with hearing cyclists’ reports about the high mileage days they were achieving, made me consider doing something I rarely do at home–ride 100 miles in a day.

The Colorado/Kansas border. Colorado had the bigger welcome sign.

The conditions seemed good. Clear skies, a decent tailwind and that still subtle descent from the Rockies. Leaving around 8, I traveled the 42 miles to the border before noon. The landscape had been varying from scrub land to crop land. But once I crossed into Kansas, it was clear that folks here intended the land to be farmed. Grain elevators were scattered across the horizon. Golden wheat fields provided a sharp, beautiful contrast to the blue sky.

I was clearly on I roads now. Straight. The grain elevators provided the only dimensional punctuation to my view, signaling another town on the distant horizon.

The town of Tribune was my lunch stop, three-fifths of the way to 100. Tribune, along with the neighboring town of Horace and the county they exist in (Greeley), were named in honor of New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who was a champion of the agrarian way of life.

Not only is wheat good to eat, it is also beautiful to look at

After lunch I lost an hour traveling into the new time zone, and lost my pedaling speed due to side and headwinds. Earlier, I had been traveling at speeds up to 19 miles per hour. By the end of the day, I could only manage 10-11 mph.

Near 7:00 I reached Scott City, which was 105 miles from Eads. It was hot, I was tired and not interested in the chores of camp setup. One of the lodging options in Scott City was the local athletic club. It was a novel option and fit my desire for simplicity.

Scott City Athletic Club

The club was tucked away in a neighborhood on the north side of town. Things looked quiet around the building, but a sign indicated they were open. Yes, they did accommodate cyclists for the night. I was offered either a lodging or a lodging and swimming option. Since the building would be closing in less than an hour, and the pool area was as hot as outdoors, I skipped that choice. I asked if I would be along in the building once it closed. No, I learned, the owner lives upstairs.

Despite the lengthy list of things a visiting cyclist could not do, the athletic club provided quiet, reasonably comfortable (for sleeping on a folding cot) accommodations. The staff person’s optimistic judge of distance led me on a long walk to dinner. Yet that too offered a satisfying way to wind down a momentous day.

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Winter wheat. It's beautiful to look at even after being harvested

Sweet talk

July 21, 2010

July 14

Only on a few instances have I found or made the opportunity for something other than a “functional” breakfast.  A functional breakfast is eating enough calories to fuel me for the first part of the day. Whether it is granola in the mess kit or cereal/oatmeal in the Styrofoam plates of a motel’s continental breakfast, neither offers a sit-down-and-savor experience. So when the Hotel Ordway’s owner talked about homemade cinnamon rolls in Sugar City, I made a mental reservation for a morning treat.

The Sugar City Cafe

Something worth talking about. The Sugar City cinnamon roll.

Sugar City was only six miles from Ordway. The town got its name from the sugar beet farming that used to take place in the area. The Sugar City Café was a small, plain white building around the first corner into town. Pickup trucks were parked in the front and on the sides. I walked in, already dripping sweat from the early morning heat and humidity. There was chatter going on at the tables. Local men (curiously, I’ve seen few women eating in these small town restaurants) were joshing with each other. A man was ahead of me at the counter, so I stood patiently waiting, and waiting. Then one of the men at the table hollered, “Lynette, you’ve got a customer–not old Sam, someone else.” The waitress then appeared and took my order. The ranchers at the table asked where I was going, said I was headed downhill for a while, and wished me safe travels.

I looked up at the menu board before opening my wallet: ROLL-.75. 1 PANCAKE-$1.30. 1 EGG-.60. What a small bit of change paid for was a sticky-warm cinnamon roll the size of my hand. Figuring an outdoor breeze might help cool me off, I stepped outside and polished off the treat in minutes. That .75 roll gave me enough to talk about for the rest of my ride. I crossed paths with 7 other cyclists, and gave each of them the sweet news about Sugar City.

Companions for the day

For one of the first times in my entire journey, the scenery did not change significantly from the previous day. The horizon remained flat.  Long strings of boxcars on rail sidings accompanied me in fits and spurts. I kept looking for something of interest, something changing. Any rise or turn in the road was a welcome change. Finally I began seeing more green landscape and evidence of cultivated wheat. Grain elevators began appearing on the forward horizon, signaling a town was ahead.

Headwinds and enough uphill for the first two-thirds of the day made this a tiring effort. In mid-afternoon I rode into Eads and looked for the city park. It was to be my first free public camping experience. The park occupied a shady, grassy strip of land next to the grain elevator and city water tower. Four or five bikes were parked there, with their riders sprawled on the grass in various states of rest. One guy, upright and alert, saw me and waved.

Campsite in the Eads city park. With a little imagination, that grain elevator looked like the Sears Tower

This group of four college students from Seattle was express riding across the country before heading to study abroad in China next month. They had allotted 60 days for their trip. Because of the heat, they were taking a siesta in Eads, waiting for the evening’s cooler temperatures before riding on another 20 miles or so.

It was fun watching them keep themselves amused. One had brought a portable high wire rope, which they cinched around two trees (below groin level, one made a point in saying) and took turns traversing across. Later, they caroused through the city park sprinkler system to keep themselves cool. It was obvious boredom was not to be part of their journey.

After the merry band left I had the park to myself. I took a walk down the main street, again seeing a majority of shuttered storefronts. Despite the frequent appearance and sound of trucks unloading their wheat at the adjacent grain elevator, it became a pleasant evening. The once opposing wind now brought welcome cooling. I reveled in the opportunity to walk barefooted on soft grass. Clouds moved in from the west, perhaps bringing rain, I thought, but at least an interesting sunset. Daylight faded away. I crawled into my tent to end another day.

A flatline terrain EKG between Sugar City and Eads