For the last 2 days we have had that most unusual of blessings – a tailwind. The winds here in Kansas could bring the most stoic of cyclists to their knees in floods of tears. There are many who ride west to east because of the winds here, which conventional wisdom has it, blow from the west. It may come and bite us in a day or two, but at the moment to ride west is to be on the money. To ride with a tailwind is a wonderful thing, a thing of pure joy. To quote a Thai person we met – ” we are Christmas Happy!! “. Now, I have told you before of the horrors of Skunk roadkill. With a tailwind the experience is worse, there is no preamble, no odor tail to ride into, to prepare to hold your breath. With a tailwind you are right on top of ground zero stench before you know it. You have to hold your breath immediately. To continue to breath in or out is horrible beyond words. Then you have to guess how far you need to ride without breathing. The experience is vile in ways I and possibly the finest writers on the subjects of food and wine could not find words to describe.
A last night in Sedalia, and food with a beer. But we did not count on Esther being asked for ID, and of course we do not carry ID. She is 22 years older than the legal drinking age here and so we walk out in quite a huff in protest at the stupidity of it. We go and eat in SUBWAY, which is not quite the same.
We have a few more miles of the Katy Trail to do. I have new shoes on my feet and a sunny disposition, what could go wrong? It has rained in the night, and the surface is the consistency of cheesecake base on a week old cheesecake. We are going SW into a strong wind from the SW. We ride on, leaving deep tyre snakes in the trail. There is no feeling of rolling or coasting, none. It is hard work even to go downhill. The gps shows a black-top bailout to Windsor, we take it. The effort vanishes. Even with a headwind HWY 52 feels like biking on silk. If the trail had been wet for the last 200 miles or more it would have defeated us – be warned my biking buddies.
The end of the trail comes up without any fanfare at Clinton. A haircut, a coffee and we continue west, towards Kansas on tarmac. We run out of energy short of our nest state and go in search of a pitch for the tent. We ride into the farming lives of Jim and his father who are working with some cattle in holding pens to the side of the road. We have a place to stay. Jim owns what were once five family farms. You have to go for scale to make ends meet, he tells us. Making ends meet is far from a fancy lifestyle, but Jim is happy with farming life. The weather here goes the whole spectrum from winter snow to harsh drought of summer. Everyone sounds their horns as they pass and see us out on Jim’s porch.
The night is still and quite cool. Coyote are hunting, their cry comes to us over still fields that will soon turn brown as summer begins to take a hold. Firefly and the perfect night in the tent. It is warm and then within minutes, too hot to be in a sleeping bag. People here do not consider this to be either hot or humid. We think it is both. We are up and away and soon biking between fields of corn and grass that stretch out from our road in increasingly big fields. I would not want to be here in July or August, I think we have got it just about right and are enjoying the green of early summer.
We spend all day on HWY15. It knows its own mind, the imperative to head west. All the major roads head west, all share the ambition to head for the horizon. Clouds are building but we should stay south of this storm. We are obsessed with weather here and you need to be, it could kill you. Kansas is just 1 mile ahead, but the road takes a sharp turn to the right to take us to the town of Drexel for second breakfast. Population 651 and 6 churches of exotic denomination on the Christian menu.
We cross into Kansas and then head north with a slight tailwind. Our forward speed cancels the breeze and we ride in a 95’f fug of humidity. Esther tells me to get up earlier and that she will not moan, promise. Some how the day runs away with us, lost in a haze of heat and stiff little climbs that drain the last drops of energy. Osawatomie, a difficult town to pronounce, but it has a city park with camping. Guess where the rail tracks are? All night trains go by. They are long slow moving brutes. Up ahead the engine is robbing the sleep of people almost a mile away as the cars still roll by our pitch.
Up at 6.00 in an attempt to get ahead of the heat and thermal wind. The landscape of rolling grass fields has the usual sturdy black cows, but they share the fields with oil well pumps that nod day and night. This is small scale oil, but still the smell drifts down to the road on the heat of the day. Today is 70% humidity and 96% is forecast for tomorrow. We have become road hardened after 2 months back on the bikes. Catching sight of yourself in a mirror is strange and unfamiliar. Angular, darkly tanned to the point of walnut, and with sharp edges with skin pulled tight over bone.
By 10.00am we are in McDonald’s in the town of Ottowa having done a good stint on the saddle. It is strange how I scan horizons and roof tops of towns as they come up looking for that golden M and WiFi with aircon oasis. At home they are just not part of my life at all. Not sure I could live in Kansas is my considered opinion as we end our first full day here. The wind has been on our left shoulder all day. With 20 miles to go, it flips 180′. We pitch the tent behind Jerry’s Thrift Store. Jerry looks like every perfect Uncle you could ever hope for and shows us to our patch of grass personally. He points out the storm shelter and wishes us well.
The forecast is for a fine night and the promise of tailwinds for the days ahead. Which is why it feels a little unfair to be running for the shelter of a barn at 5.50am. We have the tent in our hands and will deal with dismantling it later. It is as dark as night, darker even and with a malevolence. Lightning is dancing from cloud top to cloud top. Then comes the wind that pushes the trees over and rips branches away.
There is a lull, and we make a dash for a more comfortable spot. Coffee and a chat in a gas station. A customer comes in, she works at a local store, ‘”Our worms are bigger than yours, people are always complaining about your worms “. Fishing and hunting in general are big here. It is not a good day and many are considering that they should have just gone back to bed. Outside the storm is back and there are drivers coming into the store with harrowing tales. I go for a walk around to see what is on the shelves – a Tree Freshener, New Car smell !!!
We only need to ride a short way today, but we had better make the right choice. Two hours in SUBWAY and then we are off with a good forecast. For the first time things start to look like what you hold in your mind when you think of prairie. The horizon opens up and the sky begins to dominate. Off to our left the clouds of the tail end of the storm. Grass to the far horizon without fence or ditch. It is green after a wet spring here, but it will turn first golden then brown and almost pink before next winter. The wind is pushing us. It is from the side, but enough at our back to be a friend today.
We stay in Council Groves at the end of what feels like a day of sailing along HWY 50. A town, any town feels inviting when you have biked through barren country. This is a good town, with a feeling of warmth of character. We like it very much and eat like hungry pigs ( old Simpsons joke – more like ducks, pigs chew ). We go to sleep with one weather forecast and wake to a completely different one – slightly better for us.
After the rain of the storm, the humidity will kick in today. We have a long ride planned, but a tailwind is forecast. We will need every bit of help. As we step out of the door, the humidity hits – why did we not get up earlier? As we start, the forward speed of the bike helps to make it feel better. Out of the town and it is open prairie and hundreds of miles of straight roads with right angle junctions. My gps looks like tartan. I zoom in and out looking for a break with conformity, nothing. There is a lot of Kansas ahead and much is like this or worse, sorry Kansas, but you are hard to cycle across.
Herington and all we can find is a Mexican restaurant for breakfast. It takes me back to Asia and I can not find any hunger to match the assault of Mexican food at 11.00am. We take a tour of the town and pick up lots of drinks and then head back to the riffle straight roads. It is hard to stay focused, even to keep the bike on the road and out of the gutter. It is straight, but the wind is on our team today. This would be hell going the other way. We stop once more for food and then it is back to the trial of mind against landscape.
The morning has been cool enough, but in the few minutes we were eating the cloud cover has gone. This is the full heat that makes every dip of the road into a promise of a miraged lake. Whatever the opposite of sensory overload is, whatever anechoic room of deprivation, none could be too much worse than going the opposite direction toady. Lindsborg or ‘ Little Sweden ‘, after 78 miles and we take a motel for a rest day. A new storm hits in the night. Kansas is hard, but I think we are doing well.