Chapter 23 - Straight, Straight Roads
Over breakfast on the day we left, Don asked, "How would you feel about parting with your kitten?" Susan and Don had made us another huge meal, pancakes and fruit salad and eggs and veggie bacon and cereal.
We looked at each other over the table. Of course we couldn't drag the kitten across the country in my handlebar bag, but it was still sad to leave it behind. "Thanks!" said Wyeth finally. "We know it'll have a good home here." The kitten itself had no qualms—within the first hour of our visit, the tiny fuzzball of a cat had staked out its territory in the backyard and made friends with Shelby, the Peaches' black lab.
After breakfast, we rode away from the Peaches' oasis in the prairie.
"Goodbye!" I said. "And thanks!" The Kitten obliviously chased its tail around the backyard, and the family stood in the driveway, waving until we were out of sight.
Now we were in western Kansas, and we were climbing steadily—on June 20, we were higher above sea level than we had ever been on the tallest mountain in the Appalachians. The state of Kansas was one big mountain, scraping upwards towards Colorado, but with wheat and heat and grassland as far as the eye could see, it didn't feel like we were that high. The grain elevators seemed like the tallest things around, and like skyscrapers of the prairies, they loomed out of the fields like white ghosts.
In the next few days, we passed several feedlots, stinking unimaginably as feces and flesh rotted in the sun. The cattle were crowded into pens that had no grass and no shade, fattening in preparation for their doom. I wondered how the people who worked there could stand it.
The towns we'd been passing through were getting smaller and smaller, and now they usually consisted of a store, a couple houses, and a grain elevator. The road passed through the towns and faded back into miles and miles of waving wheat. Riding along, I felt like the smallest person in an incredibly large world.
“It’s so hot and barren,” I said at one point, "and it's so huge!" We could see oncoming cars miles before they approached down the open road, and so we rode safely in a clump, talking.
“I tell you *what!*” Wyeth agreed. He and Jeff laughed.
Jeff explained the joke. “These two brothers, RC and Ray, camped next to us in Berea, Kentucky. And RC started every other sentence with, ‘Ah tell you *what*.’ He swore a lot, too, and spat chewing tobacco whenever he paused for breath."
"And remember how Ray sort of stood there really quiet?" Wyeth said, laughing some more. "And how he drank an incredible number of beers?"
The five of us rolled under the shadow of a grain elevator, and we had passed through another town.
"Yeah! And they’d go over to the trunk of their car and keep pulling out six-packs and drinking ‘em. But they told us, ‘it’s okay, ‘cause we stay away from the hard stuff!' ”
Don Peach had warned us about the thorns. We'd gotten a tour of his garden and orchard the other night, and when we walked past the compost heap, he'd picked up a clump of decaying weeds. “Have you heard about these yet?”
We stared at the brown, wilted vines and said No, we hadn’t.
“Well, they’re the scourge of bicyclists around here,” Don said, “so take a closer look and be forewarned.”
As we examined the plants, Wyeth said, "Oh yeah—they're Goathead Thorns, aren't they?”
“Yup. They’re parasitic thorns, also called ‘Texas Tacks’ and several other non-complimentary names. And no matter what you do to them, they come back again and again—I weeded a whole bunch of them out of the garden the other day.”
We gazed doubtfully at the tiny, multi-pointed thorns in Don’s hand. Could they really go through the tough rubber of a bicycle tire? We kept our doubts to ourselves, but privately we wondered if Don wasn’t just trying to scare us a little.
Several mornings after leaving the Peaches, Abbey discovered a huge thorn in her already-flat tire—and our doubts about the thorns’ efficacy in puncturing tough rubber were erased. It wouldn't be till Colorado, though, that we would realize how well-designed the thorns were for causing misery to cyclists.
Our last day in Kansas was hot. 103f hot. The road was hot, my water was hot, my body was hot, the fields were hot, and in fact, it seemed that the entire world was very hot. I wondered if there really was a place on earth where there was snow. Whenever I tried to picture it, the snow melted in my imagination.
Hot water didn't quench thirst very well, and it tasted awful, but I drank it anyway. I drank and drank, looking out over the flatness of the landscape that was broken only by the grain elevators and the trains that came by, whistles shrill in the still air. There was no shade anywhere. If I hadn’t been riding with friends, the day would have probably been entirely disagreeable. I tried not to think about what it was going to be like when I left Wyeth and Jeff and Abbey and Bill in Pueblo.
By one o’clock, we were all sweating and hot and exhausted—but Abbey looked the worst. Her face got paler and paler and finally she stopped her bike and leaned over her handlebars. She began to cry, short sobs, and the heat baked us all as we stood next to shimmering wheat fields.
“…I’ve got my period,” she said, through her tears, “and my cramps are really horrible. I’m sorry if I’m slowing you down, but I just can’t go any faster. You can’t even know how horrible it is to be sitting on this seat and be pedaling right now...”
She sobbed for another minute, as we all stood uncomfortably in the hundred-degree afternoon.
“Well,” said Bill gently, “we’re not going to get any closer to shade unless we ride. It’s about fourteen miles to the next town—do you think you can make it?”
“Well, do I have a choice?” Abbey almost laughed through her tears. “I guess I have to.”
I was the only one who knew from experience how terrible the pain could be, and I knew the next fourteen miles wouldn’t be easy for Abbey.
That afternoon we met Mike and Marie, a young couple riding from Fort Collins, Colorado to Yorktown. Mike was riding a couple miles ahead of Marie, and when she caught up to where we stood talking with her husband, she looked tired, sunburned, and generally as miserable as Abbey had a few hours ago.
Later, I thought about how it always seemed harder for women than men. I hadn't met any women who rode faster than their male companions. And I hadn't met any women riding alone. *It's not fair!* I thought. *It's not like Marie was in terrible shape, especially compared to some of the pot-bellied male cyclists we've met. And those guys were cranking out the miles even though they were much heavier than Marie was.*
It seemed like men got stronger more quickly than women did. Alice and Dale had been in fairly equal physical condition when they'd begun their trip, and he had started riding, gotten a little sore the first few days, and continued to ride—while Alice was still feeling run-down a month later.
I was beginning to understand why I was meeting fewer female cyclists than male.
An east wind pounded our tents all night; it continued in the morning, and on the first day of summer that wind pushed us down the highway at nearly twice our normal speed. The wheat fields flew by, and in sixteen short miles we arrived at the Colorado state line as the landscape began to change to sagebrush. With the lovely, cool weather and tailwind, Kansas said goodbye with aplomb.
Colorado said hello with the first flat tire of my trip. I discovered it outside Sheridan, where we stopped for lunch. But it was a slow leak—I figured it would probably hold up until Eads, our evening destination.
And I was soon distracted by something else, when I discovered that I’d finally gotten *my* period for the first time since Virginia. I quickly ran to my bike to get my tampons, and giggled to Abbey, “I’ve caught it from you!”
We started giggling uncontrollably then, while Jeff buried himself deep in his book and muttered, “Oh Christ!” That only set us off again, and as the wind blew the grasses westward, Abbey and I couldn't stop laughing.
The tailwind helped us pedal the sixty miles to Eads in less than 4 1/2 hours of "seat time."
We were right outside town when the flats started. First, Abbey got a huge thorn in her front tire. We could hear the air hissing out when Wyeth pumped it up, so we pedaled madly into town before it went flat again.
By the time we'd arrived at the fairgrounds, our home for the night, my tire was flat again and so was Abbey's. We leaned our bikes next to the pavilion, and then I saw Bill holding up something small that he'd pulled from his tire.
"It's already flat," Bill said, as his front tire gently hissed out the last of its air.
“They’re everywhere! Look at all of 'em on the bottom of my shoe…" Jeff said. And look!" He pulled several thorns out of his own tire. “One....two…three…” HISSSSSSS went Jeff’s tire—thorn #3 had made it through to the tube. "Oh shit!" said Jeff.
"Okay, now it's your turn!" I said to Wyeth. We stood next to the bathrooms and saw that goathead thorns covered the ground, everywhere. Suddenly the fairgrounds seemed like a very hostile place.
From now on, we vowed to carry our bicycles over anything that wasn't paved, since goatheads seemed capable of growing on any surface besides asphalt and concrete—although they sometimes made their way onto pavement, too. In the evening, the pavilion turned into a mini bike shop as we all wrestled with our tires and wheels and replaced the punctured tubes.
That night I wrote in my journal:
*I've ridden through nearly all of the spring, and today is the longest day of the year. And as of right now, the tally stands at five states down, five big ones to go—and only two months till The Coast.*
The next day we got up early, determined to beat the heat as much as possible. But Jeff awoke to discover that his tire had deflated silently during the night. I had never seen Jeff so annoyed as he was when he discovered that flat.
Jeff was really not a morning person. He looked like he was sleep-pedaling when we left the fairgrounds at seven-thirty, and once when I rode up next to him and said something, he didn’t even hear. Not only that, he didn’t crack a single joke till around noon—a truly worrisome sign. Maybe because of Jeff's rare bad mood, our whole group was more serious than usual as we pedaled onto Highway 96.
The day’s ride was going to be 62 miles to Ordway, with only three tiny towns along the way. And all the strength that we'd had in our tailwind yesterday reversed directions that morning to give us a vicious headwind for the entire ride.
At mile 22 we stopped in the deserted town of Haswell for some water. We found a water spigot in the side of the service station, and we rested in the shade of the gas pumps. When we rode out of the shadow of Haswell’s ubiquitous grain elevator, the wind became unbelievably strong. And on top of it all was the heat—melting, draining, searing, extremely uncomfortable and mind-blurring heat.
My head began to ache as we pedaled, and my impatience with the wind began to mount. It was the most frustrating thing to be pedaling, in nearly my lowest gear, on a road that appeared flat. The wind wasn't like a mountain. *At least a mountain's a* physical *obstacle!* I thought while I pedaled furiously. Everyone *has to climb it if they go the same way.*
But wind was fickle, and a west-bound cyclist passing this way tomorrow might get a tailwind. For all of its power, I couldn't even see it. It seemed to be laughing at me, daring me to get angry as dust whipped my face. I struggled in silence, willing myself not to rage uselessly.
I felt like giving up several times, and almost pulled off the road and cried at the horrible wind. If I were alone, I might have done it. But just when I would think, *I can’t take it anymore!* I would make myself look at the others' faces. I wasn’t having a worse time than Abbey, who hunched over her handlebars, determinedly spinning her pedals. I wasn’t feeling a stronger headwind than Wyeth, who led our pace line for more time than was his share, trying to make it easier for the rest of us who followed closely behind. Bill certainly wasn’t taking it easy on his bicycle; one glance at his set face showed me that. And Jeff still wasn’t saying anything funny. I looked at all of them, and I lost my self-pity for a while.
It was only the five of us, five tiny dots in the vastness of sage-brush and sky. Thousands of crickets hopped onto the pavement, and the air sizzled with their incessant chirping. The drone made my head ache more, and I gulped the hot water that brought no relief from thirst. We didn’t talk much, just rode on and on through the never-changing landscape. If I hadn’t had an odometer, I would never have guessed that we’d left Eads at all. The heat was overpowering, and yet the air was so dry that our sweat evaporated instantly, leaving white smears of salt on our skin.
We stopped in Arlington and asked a woman if we could get some water. She reluctantly handed us her hose. And although the water tasted awful with lime, we had no choice but to take it. By the end of the ride, I was drinking a fourteen-ounce bottle of water per mile.
Although it seemed impossible that the wind could get any stronger, it seemed like it did when we left Arlington. Jeff muttered, “Five miles an hour—I can’t believe this.” None of the rest of us could, either. We were pedaling so hard, and we were going five miles an hour. And onward stretched the road, forever and ever in front of us, like there was nothing in the world but miles of sage brush.
A few miles before Sugar City, we saw The Rocky Mountains. They loomed in the distance, over 150 miles away, and the snow-capped peaks were like phantoms. Snow? We couldn’t really believe it. But there they were, ethereal yet solid looking, awaiting our arrival in a few short days.
When we got to Sugar City, we collapsed into an air-conditioned café. We were dazed and exhausted, but our spirits had improved markedly by the time we finished a half-dozen glasses of lemonade and had dragged ourselves back out to the bikes for the last six miles to Ordway.
Three miles later, we saw the storm on the horizon, coming fast. The clouds were big and black and dangerous-looking, but there wasn’t much we could do about them except ride—hard. About two miles away from the city it got quiet. Then the wind switched directions and the storm began pulling us in closer, closer to the fingers of rain but also closer to the Hotel Ordway, our home for the night. For the first time all day, we rolled along at over ten miles an hour, and we arrived under the awning of the Hotel as the storm began pummeling the heat-baked earth with enormous drops of rain. Once again, it felt like we'd reached Paradise.
For the last thirty years Madeline Ferguson has managed the Hotel Ordway, which is also a hostel for cyclists. She gave the five of us directions to the bedrooms: “I’m givin' you three rooms, since I figured the girls can share, the young men can share, and the gentleman can have his own. You can sign our guestbook right here, and there’s a payphone to your left."
"Thanks," we each said, slightly dazed.
"Oh, an' if the rain and wind don’t let up, you can go upstairs and cook on the balcony. My son and his girlfriend live up there, and they’d be happy to let you. And by the way, you passed the halfway mark on yer TransAm Trail six miles before Sugar City.”
In the Hotel Ordway logbook, we saw Roel, Lili and Jack, the ACA group, and some of the east-bounders we’d met. We added our names to the list.
Abbey and I took showers and flopped onto our beds, too overwhelmed by the day to do much besides be amazed that we survived it. But hunger began to gnaw at my stomach, and soon I reluctantly pulled myself out of bed and dragged my aching body up to the balcony. Madeline’s son came out as I was coming up. “Make yourself at home," he told me. "My girlfriend's right inside if you need anythin', and I’ll be back in a bit.”
I thanked him. “But are you sure it’s okay to cook on the wooden balcony?”
“Oh definitely. Lots of bikers do it when they come here.”
*They probably don’t have Svea stoves,* I thought to myself. Ever since Virginia, my stove had acted strangely. It never lit the same way twice, and at random intervals it would shoot flames several feet into the air. Jeff and Wyeth had nick-named it "The Flame Thrower." But because it had been expensive, I didn't want to replace it, and I'd figured that if I was careful it would be okay. I hoped that it wouldn't try any tricks tonight. As I started cutting up vegetables, a female voice from inside began talking to me.
“Where y’all from?”
“Well, I’m from NJ, three of the others are from Connecticut, and one's from Florida.”
“Hey, I’ve been to NJ,” she said, as I chopped the parsley. “My family went there once, when I was younger. I couldn’t stand the humidity though. That’s why I like it here, ‘cause it’s not. I couldn’t live anywhere else.”
“Well—um—it certainly is *dry*,” I said. “We had to be careful to drink enough today, because we couldn’t even tell we were sweating. It probably would've felt hotter if it were humid though, wouldn’t it?”
“My *God* yes! I just can’t stand humidity at all—like I said, I couldn’t never live out east ‘cause of that. Say, do you mind if I ask how old you are?”
“My God, really?? You’re brave—your parents, too. You must have quite the parents. I’d be so scared! I couldn't never do anything like this, and if I had kids I wouldn't let 'em do it neither. I've sometimes thought it might be fun—we see all you cyclists every year. ‘But what if something went wrong?’ I always say. I don’t like taking risks. But say, how come you got so much time off from school?”
“I’m homeschooled,” I began, as I chopped the carrots. “I...”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that. I think my cousins did that when they were little. But don’t you think you’re missin' out?”
“No. Although, on days like today I think, ‘if I were in school I would've been sitting at a desk and it might've been air-conditioned.’ Also, it wouldn’t have been so windy!”
She laughed. “Yeah, that wind must’ve given you a lickin’ today. I said to Mom today, I says, ‘I hope there’s none of them cyclists out in this weather coming west.’ ”
She kept talking as I set up my stove. I pumped it, let out a bit of the fuel to light it, and struck a match. *Please light,* I implored it. *I don’t need any more excitement today.*
“...And so for years I worked down south of Sugar City in this bar that used to be there,” the woman was saying. As she spoke, still invisible somewhere inside the apartment, the stove lit. And almost immediately, I jumped back as flames shot up five feet in the air. *Please don’t look outside just now,* I thought to myself, willing the woman to keep folding laundry or doing whatever she was doing.
“Oh?” I said politely, “What did you do there?” *Just disappear, flames,* I thought, *just go away and I’ll pretend that you’ve never been here.*
“I was a bartender. That was a really fun job,” she said, reminiscing. “I enjoyed it. All sorts of people would come, from miles around. But it was just such a long drive to get there from here.” The flames weren’t dying down. *Oh God, this just isn’t the time for this!* “...In the winter, sometimes the storms are just so bad...”
Finally the flames died down, and again I tried to light the recalcitrant stove. Again, though not as high, the flames spurted into the air and then went out. “...So I quit working there. I think we might move soon anyway,” the woman continued, still not even once looking out the door, “and I think that’ll be good. It’s so isolated here…” *Finally.* The stove lit, and although it sputtered and used up all the fuel before I’d finished cooking, I managed to make an edible supper.
When I’d finished, I packed my bags and said to the woman, “Well, it was nice talking with you. Thanks so much for letting me use your deck.”
“Hey, no problem,” said the still-invisible woman, “all of you cyclists are such nice people. Have a safe trip!” Still weak-kneed, I carried everything down the stairs in two trips. The woman’s high estimation of cyclists would have gone down a few notches if she’d looked out the door that evening.
“Hello?” said my mother, her voice sounding so normal when I called later that night. I expected her to sound different, to somehow know about my day before I told her and be suitably impressed by the fact that we’d ridden a zillion miles in 300-degree heat with a headwind.
“Hi Mom,” I said. “I’m in Colorado now, and we just had the most incredible day...”