Weather plays a huge part in most days on the road. There are parts of the world that we have now biked through where the heat of the day dictates when we ride or how far we go, and certainly how miserable we look when we get there. This is climate, but there have also been times when that day’s weather has been the most dangerous thing we have faced. The turn of the seasons is really what people sit around breakfast tables talking about. We have listened in on farmers having the same conversation the world over – ” I got four rain gauges now and the two in the yard never seem to agree “. We heard this a few days ago, as we biked through a part of Kansas that has been in drought for 10 years ( they really want to know about rain ).
This is climate, and it can make you lose the farm or close the schools and shops, and turn thriving places into ghost towns. We have seen plenty of this over the last week of riding. What we have also witnessed is weather. We have had three close calls with lightning on our trip, and now treat approaching thunder storms with the greatest of respect. Listening to a recent BBC podcast did not help – ‘ as many as 24,000 people are killed globally each year by lightning ‘. This feels like a big number for something often used to describe lottery win stats that will almost never happen. Crouching in a tent as the random dice is thrown is hard on the nerves, and gives you a sort of post traumatic anxiety at the sight of the next T storm forecast. Which is just what happened, twice.
Overcast, not a breath of wind as we push the bikes onto the road in front of the motel and pedal away from Lindsborg. It is Sleepy Sunday morning quiet, and even by 10.00 am is just 60’f. To add to the joy of things, we have a tail wind that is pushing us along HWY 4 as we go West. Small towns come up and pass behind. Some look prosperous, others less so. It is hard to stay focused on the pedalling. The hills offer just enough resistance to snap down four or five gears, but nothing that requires focus and curse words from the Anglo-Saxon legacy of English. It is almost a day off for the brain.
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Refuge, a dizzying expanse of flat land is visited by just about every migrating bird that passes here in the Autumn and Spring. It is disorientatingly flat, and presents a bit of contrast to the ripples in the landscape around it. We pass through our 2,000 miles done point and draw closer to the centre of the continent. Hoisington was going to be our destination goal for the day. It comes up at 3.00 pm after 64 miles. We feel good and after a team talk, push on for more distance.
All day we have been climbing theses small ramps or steps. Kansas goes up as you bike West, but it is in easy bite sized pieces that take you up to meet the border with Colorado. We are over 2,000ft for the first time since the mountains of the Appalachian chain. With 9 miles to go we hear the first rumbles of thunder, and to our right pass a field of Bison. They are young and do the teenage thing of running alongside our bikes on their side of the fence. The town of La Crosse and the end of the day after 94 miles and over 2,000 ft of climbing.
I win a round of “I Spy” against Esther – ‘ The letter P, which she fails to get – ” Possible approaching thunderstorm “. I would have given here half marks for Prairie. We pitch the tent at the ‘ Grass Park ‘, which is just across from the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, so you really can not miss it. I rains heavily for most of the night and strong gusting winds give the first testing of our new Big Agnes tent – it does a great job, hurrah, which is good as the local motel looks less than inviting.
Now that it has got the habit, it continues and we wake to rain and even start to ride in rain. This has been a wet spring here and there is a green and lush feel to the landscape for the first time in years. We stop in a shop and people are talking with excitement about the rain. We drop down the slope of one of the folds in the land the four miles to pick up HWY 96 and rejoin the official TransAm route after our hundreds of miles of truancy from it.
With just 30 miles on the clock for the day clouds are piling up all around us. HWY 96 and the path West is heading in the only direction that has any sort of brightness about it. The wind begins to blow much harder. It has been on all day and as luck would have it, it is from our backs. Two cyclists are biking the other way and we stop for a chat. They are from Austria and pose for photos – ” I am smiling, but only for the camera “. They have had headwinds since they got into Kansas and hate the state, the girl is close to tears and we hear swearing in two languages as they try to pull away behind us.
Ness City, and a good diner. We sit with locals, eat and watch the rain fall, ” That is a good rain “. When you wait for months this is the day to go check the gauges and phone around the results. As soon as we are out the door it is obvious that the wind is now much stronger. What is worse for us is that it is now gusting and hitting the road from the North, across us. We bike on, leaning into the gusts and clutching at the bars to the point of cramping.
Payback for the few days of tailwind and now we have a bad situation where we are in the middle of nowhere and have nothing to shelter behind. We are running the risk of being blown under the passing trucks. Very soon it goes from unpleasant to dangerous and we take shelter behind a shed in a cemetery. We are very exposed and there is no place for the tent to be pitched out of the wind. Just 15 miles to go to the next town, but it is just insane to try to get there. It is a big cemetery for what not that long ago Beeler was a thriving little community. There are a few houses left and we go down a sandy track to try to find some shelter.
This being the USA, a welcome awaits us. Grandmother is looking after the kids, and she has the keys to the community centre. An old school has been given over to games of cards and social meetings. The class of ’66 was the last to get an education here, and it looks like they just closed their books at the end of the day and walked away to watch the Beatles on TV that night. Eight days ago all of this area was brown and crisp to the touch. Then the rain came, the cattle no longer need to be sold and by the end of the day even the lowest rain gauge will have 2 1/2 inches in it. There has been a lot of praying here.
The remnants of the storm are nothing more than a moderate wind from North, as we set out early the next morning. A night in an abandoned school in a storm is not restful after formative years of Scooby-Do. The landscape is becoming increasingly open, with little to rest your eye on or old attention. This is hard on the mind at the speed of a bicycle. We climb up to 3,000 ft and into what we can now call – High Prairie or The Wild West, take your pick.
Dighton, which is where we should have got to yesterday. The bowling alley diner is the place to eat – ” If you want to sit down it’s the only place ” We get told this by the mayor. ” It’s the best place in town ” – he also owns the place. We take second breakfast. The afternoon ride is a constant question of trying to stay alert enough to maintain balance. The wind changes from northerly to southerly in a moment. By the end of the day it has worked its way around the compass to South East enough to push us along a bit.
We enter Wichita County, of Lineman song fame. As you know, this is a personal favourite and a significant moment. We ride into the town of Leoti and the pitch for the night is in the city park. Which is where we come across the horror of Tumble Weed for the first time. It drops horrid little spikes small enough to hide in things and sharp enough to slice through high tech camping gear. The soles of my Crocs are covered in the sods. Behind us and stretching to the horizon is a field that is trying to grow something. It must be 300 Acres and is a small field here. A full moon rises into a cloudless night sky and we feel for the first time the cool night of elevation.
All coolness is gone early the next morning. We cross into Mountain Time, and gain 1 hour of day. Grain Silos mark the little towns. Few if any have anything to offer the passing touring cyclist. We climb up towards the 4,000 ft mark in temperatures that are now 107’f as we leave Kansas and enter Colorado. This Eastern part of the state is far from the picture that the State brings to mind. If anything it is flatter, wilder, dryer and all round less easy to make an honest living here than Kansas was. What is more, the road surfaces are worse, too.
Train wagons are backed up in sidings, all have Tumble Weed caught up in their cables and wheels. They have not moved in 10 years or more. A Coyote calmly watches us ride by. With 6 miles to go, it is 109’f and my head is spinning even at the end of a short day. The wind drops and takes away all cooling, leaving us to suffer for the final miles. We are heading for Sheridan Lake, the gps map no longer even has the lake marked. We drop down onto the hard seats of the cafe and convenience sore. Outside the weather is changing.
When we come out there is a storm coming and we have a problem. Sheridan Lake is a small town, but it is the biggest town for a very long way in all directions. This makes it significant enough to have one large church. The good news is, they are very welcoming to cyclists. By the end of the day there will be 11 touring cyclists who are all thankful beyond words for the hospitality here. There is already a Tornado warning as we ride up to the doors of the church. Within a matter of minutes locals are arriving with their children for shelter in the basement. The storm rolls in as more cyclists turn up.
Lightning, thunder on the leading edge and there is a green tint to the clouds that means hail and tornados. The storm hits ripping up the top soil and sending it high into the air. A call from a neighbour, a Tornado has touched down 3 miles south. This is wild, fascinating to witness but very scary. They have just 1 or 2 of this type of storm here per year and we are here now. We wait for someone who knows the signs to tell us to get to the basement. It is obvious you could wait too long. By the end of the storm, an hour or so later, Sheridan has a lake again and there are little white capped waves on it as well. We were so lucky.
Next morning as we ride on there is standing water under the rail bridges and croaking from very happy frogs. A green sheen from grass that stretches to far horizon and the air cool. It is a good day to ride a bike, which is good as we have a very long way to go. The town of Eads, for second breakfast after 24 miles. Time to stock up for the wilderness ahead. On the horizon there is a line of clouds. The clouds of mountains and height. But there is 200 miles of high ground to cross that is trying very hard to become desert.
There is nothing, and very flat nothing at that. Truck drivers wave, a sure sign of the brutality of where we are. Neil Armstrong had already had the glory of going down the steps first onto the lunar surface. Buzz Aldrin went down second. He had a good line prepared as well ” Beautiful beautiful, magnificent desolation “. Nothing could describe this part of Western Colorado better. You really do not get any sort of meaningful insight by taking a photo it is just too visceral.
An old man driving a yard tractor goes by. He is on a mission and is towing two trailers. He waves, and once again I wish I was a documentary maker, this is Discovery Channel Prime Time. Both trailers have two dozen white Doves and perfect Dovecote homes. There is a story and a life here. The road continues to climb. We gain height to over 4,000 ft by the time we end the day after 90 miles. The final climb gives us our first view of the Rockies off in the heat haze of distance. The town of Ordway, we have had the second batch of Adventure Cycling maps sent here and we are worn out from the mental strain of straight lines. It is time to have a day off and consider how lucky we were to be in safe places as we crossed Kansas and entered Colorado.