Day 74: Near Walnut, KS to Chanute, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 25, 2011

Day 74: Near Walnut, KS to Chanute, KS

I wake up just before midnight. Someone's in the building.

I hear the door that stands between the outside and the kitchen close, and a half-second later the fluorescent lights come on. A few drawers open and close and items shuffle around, into and out of plastic bags and across the counter top. Ice comes out of the freezer, drops into a cup, and then a soda can cracks open. I don't get up—I just lay in my sleeping bag, half asleep and sweating, trying to figure out why someone would walk into a church in the country, seven miles from the nearest town, and steal something to drink. My tired mind struggles to make sense of anything, so I pretend to be sleeping because it seems like the most reasonable thing to do.

Within three minutes the lights click off, the doors slams shut, and my world is quiet and dark again.

I grab a water out of the fridge before I leave. I notice cupcakes and ham sandwiches that weren't there when I went to bed.

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I always associated Kansas with the color yellow and huge fields of grain stretching out to the horizon as far as the eye can see. But it turns out that the eastern part of the state is mostly green. It's full of corn fields, grazing land for cattle, and a surprising number of trees, most of which run in lines around the edges of properties and along the banks of rivers and streams. This morning the wind blows only subtly from the south, neither helping nor hurting my push to the west. Grayish-blue clouds drop rain in all three directions behind me, but the sky above the long, straight road in front glows a pale and nearly cloudless blue.

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Three unloaded riders roll up from the east and then pass me without stopping as I take a picture in a town-that's-barely-a-town called Shaw. Each of them has a foot-high orange and yellow reflective triangle made out of soft plastic attached to their lower back. I recognize it right away—it's something that the Adventure Cycling Association gives to all of the people who participate in their organized tours. I must be crossing paths with the van-supported group headed from Virginia to Oregon on the TransAm.

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On the lookout for Indian rowdies.
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Over the next ten minutes I see the small outline of a single bike rider gradually get a little bigger each time I check my mirror. When she finally pulls up alongside me I learn that her name is Becky and that she's from Redmond, Washington, just to the east of Seattle. She's middle-aged, tanned from weeks of cross-country biking, and rides a lightweight, blue and silver LeMond loaded only with a few bottles of water and a handlebar bag. I ask her how many people are riding in her group. I guess 13 or 14.

"We have 11," she says. "Nine riders and two leaders."

She pauses a moment.

"Well, actually, we started with 12, but we lost one along the way."

"He dropped out?"

"No. He died, actually. He was 79."

Holy crap. I remember hearing about a fatal accident involving a member of the ACA group a couple of times when I was back in Kentucky. Word of those things tends to spread quickly on the TransAm. But since then I had forgotten about it completely.

"I heard he crashed off the road, all by himself, like he had a heart attack or something."

"Sort of. It was back in ... it must have been ... somewhere back in Virginia. Monticello, I think. It was something like day five of the trip. There was this fast curve, a really sharp hairpin, at the bottom of this big hill. And there were big chunks of gravel in it. I remember riding through there and slowing way down because it looked dangerous. We all did. And that's where it happened."

Even though I already know a little about the accident I'm still stunned.

"They said there was hardly a scratch on him or on his bike. They said that—and I don't want to gross you out—but they said that there was, you know, brain matter on the ground around him. He basically did a face plant. And that was it."

It's sobering. I know deep down that I put my life at risk every time I ride, but it's such a small chance that it seems almost impossible. And in the moments when I do think about it, death-by-bike always involves a speeding 18-wheeler, a senile old woman in a giant Oldsmobile, or a drunken hillbilly behind the wheel of a beat-up Chevy truck. The idea that a rogue piece of gravel, a crack in the pavement, or a gap in an expansion joint could be the thing that ends my life never enters the picture. I think for a few minutes about how the dead man's family must have felt when they received that terrible phone call—when they found out that their husband, their dad, their brother, would never come home from his trip across the country. Then I think about how devastated Desiree, my dad, my friends, and my family would be to hear that the same thing happened to me. Then I have to think about something else.

Anything else.

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I ride into Chanute on its quiet residential streets. They run along a rigid grid, just like all of the roads in Kansas, and stretch wide. Trees grow tall on both sides and the bike rattles and shakes on the surface because it's made entirely of reddish-brown bricks that look like they could be a hundred years old. In the dying but half-open downtown that looks straight out of the 1960s I find a restaurant offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of pizza, pasta, chicken, ice cream, and something called salad for seven dollars. I almost laugh when the waitress tells me the price, because I know right away that they won't be making a profit off of me. The food coma that follows confirms what my body told me all morning: I need to stop for the day in Chanute.

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In the early evening I pedal back to the south edge of town and set up the tent in the park where the half of the Adventure Cycling group that isn't in a motel is staying. Over the next hour I see Becky again and meet Peter, Candy, Diane, Rich, and Phil. They invite me to eat dessert with the group at the motel across the street, where I'm introduced to Janet, B.J., Tim, Frank, and Steve. After several days on my own, not meeting hardly anyone out in the vast open space of Missouri and Kansas, my brain overloads on new names and faces and I struggle to keep up with the barrage of questions raining down from all sides.

The group members are interested in my trip because it's so different from theirs. Even though we're all riding across America, they pedal on lightweight road bikes and carry only water and snacks. I transport everything I need, while a van shuttles all of their clothes and camping gear and electronics from one small town to the next. I have to solve all mechanical issues myself; they have two experienced group leaders to help.

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After dinner I sit in on their nightly map meeting, where everyone talks about the day ahead, plans out water stops, and decides where to meet and who's responsible for cooking duties. I can't believe how formal it is. Most mornings I set out with no plan and don't have much of an idea about what's ahead. It's hard to imagine knowing exactly where I would start and stop and take a rest day for every single part of a cross-country trip that lasts 11 weeks. I feel tired just trying to take in all of the information for the day ahead. But the difference in style is completely offset by the fact that the group is so thoroughly friendly and welcoming. That's important, because Central and Western Kansas don't offer much in the way of camping options. I'm sure I'll get to know everyone over the next week as we make the long, flat push west to Colorado.

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The biker tan is coming in nicely.
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A golf course sits on one side of the park and baseball diamonds on the other. Businesses across the street sell Ford trucks and pieces of farm equipment that take up more space than my apartment. Chanute cools only slightly as the sun sets and a light breeze blows from the south. Everyone who's camping heads to bed by 9:30, with the sky still holding on to its last bits of light. I lay on top of my sleeping bag, motionless but sweating, listening to the booming bass from passing cars and thinking about the hot Kansas day that lays in wait.

Today's ride: 39 miles (63 km)
Total: 3,593 miles (5,782 km)

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