Day 75: Chanute, KS to Eureka, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 26, 2011

Day 75: Chanute, KS to Eureka, KS

The yellow rain fly of the tent chatters all night in the wind that never quite stops blowing. Just before I pull my disgusting self out of the sleeping bag, gusts come up strong enough to bend the poles and move the top of the tent from side to side. If they're working in my favor it could be an awesome day. If not, the rural roads of Kansas will be filled with the kind of language my mom would never approve of.

I miss the turn that takes me out of town, but during the backtrack I pass a store called Dick Liquor. The logo includes a woman's mouth with a tongue sticking out. It's one of the classiest places I've ever seen. Just up the road I catch a bull and a cow in an intimate moment in one of the huge fields off to my left. Together those two things keep me laughing to myself all morning.

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After leaving Chanute under the cover of darkness, the next 15 miles run absolutely straight to the west, where it's only me, four cars, a dozen deer, and a few hundred head of cattle who stare when I ride past, blades of grass hanging from mouths frozen in mid-chew. Farther on the road curves a few times. To figure out which way the wind is blowing I spit out in front of me and watch which direction the the big white blob travels. Between the early start, the tailwind, and the overcast sky that keeps the sun at bay, I feel like I'm beating Kansas at it's own hot and windy game. I can enjoy the riding and countryside spread out before me instead of grinding out miles and longing for Colorado.

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First hanging.
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Only 300 people live in Toronto, but unlike a lot of the small towns of Kansas it has managed to hold on to its post office, public library, bank, market, deli, and a couple of restaurants. Yet on Sunday morning every single one of them is closed and the broad main street sits completely empty of cars and people and stray dogs. I stand over the bike at the edge of town with a grumpy look on my face. I'm starving and mentally preparing myself for another 20 miles of riding to Eureka, ready to call Toronto some long combination of awful words all the way there, when Rich and Phil roll by.

"Two more miles!" Phil yells out as they turn right and fly north.

Maybe the ACA group's marathon map meetings aren't so ridiculous after all.

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We make it to the Lizard Lips Grill & Deli under the first drops of rain from an oncoming thunderstorm. Diane, Tim, Janet, Frank, and Steve the van driver all roll in within ten minutes. No sooner does the last person walk through the door then all hell breaks loose. Lightning blasts from every direction. Huge cracks of thunder break directly overhead and shake the walls. Rain falls at a 45-degree angle in torrents, blurring the view of the field just across the highway. The group lets out a collective gasp when the power cuts out, followed immediately by a cheer when it flashes back on.

Janet, Diane, Tim, Phil, and Rich at Lizard Lips.
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Lizard Lips offers delicious breakfasts and giant slices of homemade pie, served on styrofoam plates by older waitress who's equal parts friendly and surly. She plops them down on a small formica-covered table surrounded by old metal chairs lined with broken down foam. Movies for rent hang on the far wall. Colorful livestock buyer ribbons are pinned above the front door. The ventilation hood above the deli counter is lined with red, white, and blue plastic fringe. And in a single stop I could buy a hunting license, a copy of the Farmer-Rancher Paper, a honey bun, and motor oil. It's the kind of place that I hope lives on forever.

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In true Midwest fashion, I walk out of the cafe under blue skies and bright sunshine, the violent thunderstorm only a memory. I ride west and see signs for tiny towns with old man names like Quincy and Virgil. The land all around works to support cattle ranching. Mile after mile of grass shines bright green, broken up only occasionally by holding pens, loading docks, and gates, all of which are made of rusted brown metal.

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At the city park in Eureka I meet Elliott and David, two cousins riding from Oregon to Virginia. Elliott's from Connecticut and stands 6-foot-2 with a head of thick blonde hair and a strong build that looks suited for rugby. Dave runs 6-foot-4, comes from Britain, has thinner but just as blonde hair, and is so thin and wiry that a strong Kansas wind could pick him up and carry him off to the next county.

Elliott and I sit under a picnic shelter while Dave floats in the refreshing cool of the pool located on the other side of the adjacent fence. He's joined by three dozen yelling, screaming, cannonballing kids and a soundtrack of awful pop music that blasts from four huge speakers. Elliott tells me about the fourth day of their trip, where they climbed McKenzie Pass in rain and sleet and snow, tried and failed to dodge the dirty brown spray thrown up by passing semis, and went more than 80 miles between eating because none of the stores or restaurants along the way were open for the season. Then there was the time they stayed at the house of a plumber coming down off a mescaline high, who they met during a long night of drinking. And soon after there was the helpful hillbilly who rubbed sunscreen all over Elliott's bright white back in front of a restaurant on the main street of a small country town. All of which happened before they left Oregon. The guys ride 20-year-old Trek racing bikes that are way too small for their height and come with a long list of mechanical problems, but they're still having a strange and wonderful trip across America.

As we talk, a middle-aged woman wearing black shorts over a brightly colored bathing suit walks over and says hello. Her name is Becky and she's in charge of the pool. She lets us know that we're welcome to use the showers, and asks us where we're from and where we're headed. Then she tells us that we can hang out at her house if we'd rather not spend the afternoon roasting in the heat.

"I kinda do the Warm Showers thing," she says. "You can come over and do a load of laundry, grab whatever you want out of the fridge, and stay as long as ya want. You can sleep inside, set up your tent on the lawn, whatever. There's actually three other bikers there right now."

We talk for another ten minutes, but one important question goes unanswered.

"It's air conditioned, right?"

Becky nods her head, says yes, and gives me the smallest hint of an eyebrow raise, as if to say, "Did you really just ask me that stupid question?"

We're sold.

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Within the hour the three of us walk in through the back door of her house and into a cool oasis that makes me forget I'm riding a bike across Kansas in the summer. There we meet Jacques, Chauncey, and Brian, three college-aged kids from Western Virginia. They've been in town since yesterday, when a drive-side spoke on Jacques' rear wheel broke and left the group stranded. But in a gesture so helpful it could only happen in rural America, a bike mechanic from Newton—located 75 miles to the west—is on his way to Eureka to pick up the three riders and all of their gear, take them back to his shop, fix the busted wheel, and make sure they can continue their ride to Oregon.

Newton-bound.
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The afternoon passes with basketball and shooting games on the Xbox, the end of Apollo 13 and the start of some awful Clint Eastwood movie on TV, ice cream bars, and tall glasses of cold water. It's so pleasant and relaxing, but all I can think about is how I have to make 75 miles tomorrow through heat and headwind if I want to reach a town with anything more than a mini-mart and a big white water tower with its name on the side. I feel tired and worn down just staring into the screen of my phone.

Becky's house and yard become more and more packed as the day wears on. After the three Virginia kids pile into the hot and stuffy canopy-covered truck to head to Newton, Elliott and Dave and I remain. There's also Becky's son, her four daughters, a long line of friends, and three dogs. It's a non-stop rush of opening and closing doors, yelling, talking, some more yelling, whistle blowing, excuse me's, barking, complaining, ringing telephones, and the constant buzz of low-level madness. In the evening I stuff myself on the best barbecued hot dogs ever, bacon-wrapped turkey kebabs, drumsticks, and a steady stream of soda and beer. It's such a good time.

David and Elliott, animals.
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Elliott and Dave and I talk with Becky on the back patio after the sun and heat start to die off. She tells us about her younger days when she worked at a state prison and dealt with robbers, rapists, child molesters, and murderers every day. It takes a certain kind of person to deal with a killer who has the number 666 tattooed on his forehead, to carefully balance never-ending suspicion with compassion and respect, but Becky is that kind of woman.

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She also tells us the story of the house across the street. It's a stunning, classically beautiful place—a miniature mansion made of brick with two full stories, a huge covered front porch, a two-car garage, and a perfectly kept yard with large trees that shade the property.

"The guy who lives there now, when he was younger, he used to help the old couple who owned the place," she says. "He'd mow the lawn, clean up the yard, run errands for them, things like that. Did it for years. When the couple died, they left everything to him. Everything. And not just that house, but property in states all over the country."

It turns out he's a terrible neighbor. He doesn't talk to the people who live around him, but instead keeps an eye on his house and yard using an elaborate system of security cameras. When Becky's kids were younger and rode their bikes in the street or played on the sidewalk, he'd repeatedly call the police and report her for child neglect. And when the kids set up a lemonade stand on the corner in front of their house, he responded by placing a stocked cooler on his lawn with a sign reading "Free Soda" to try and drive away their customers.

"He lives in his basement," she explains. "Has that amazing house and only uses the basement. A couple of the neighbor kids were down there once. Said he had this long line of freezers all down one wall."

Elliott and I are immediately convinced that Becky lives across the street from a serial killer.

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Just before 11:30 the house gets fuller still. That's when Noah, Phil, and Tim ride into town after pulling the 75-mile run from Newton, which they started in hundred-degree heat and finished in complete darkness. The three are brothers between the ages of 17 and 22. They're riding from Oregon to North Carolina before taking a train to Iowa and riding back to Oregon along the northern edge of the country. To do all of that before October they need to average around 90 miles a day, a goal that's complicated by the fact that their devout religious beliefs don't let them ride on Saturdays, and compel them to spend every Sunday morning in church. They've chosen a demanding path, but with Jesus on their side and the most positive attitudes I've ever seen, they are bending America to their will.

The later it gets, the less likely my early start becomes. By the time I inflate my air mattress and lay my head down on two soft pillows at a quarter after midnight I'm totally exhausted and the plan is entirely shot to hell. I turn off my alarm and give myself up to sleep.

Today's ride: 68 miles (109 km)
Total: 3,661 miles (5,892 km)

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