Day 76: Eureka, KS to Newton, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 27, 2011

Day 76: Eureka, KS to Newton, KS

I wake up to a Yorkshire Terrier puppy sniffing the top of my head. The rest of the house slowly comes to life as the morning wears on, filling with talking and laughter and the smell of breakfast burritos and French toast, which the Brits call eggy bread. I go back for seconds and thirds and then slowly repack my bags. The practical part of my mind knows I should start riding and take advantage of the tailwind, but I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to my huge new extended family.

As the riders load up their bikes the party moves outside. Becky's son lights off firecrackers and throws them at his sisters. This triggers Dave's pyro instincts, so he joins in and starts a back-and-forth battle of popping and snapping and low-level explosions that turn a normally quiet corner of Eureka into a mess of yelling siblings, singed grass, pale white smoke, and frantically barking dogs.

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Everyone has to come together and smile in unison at least 20 times for what seems like a dozen different cameras. But for our troubles we get parting gifts—Elliott an orange t-shirt with a logo I don't recognize, Dave a blue Eureka wrestling t-shirt, and me a bright pink Eureka girls volleyball t-shirt. I take it after the brothers decline, supposedly because it's cotton and not good for wearing while bike riding, but more likely because good Christian boys don't wear pink.

With new shirts in hand it's time to leave. The five other bikers are all headed east, so I shake hands and say goodbye to them all. When I wish Phil good luck and safe travels he shakes my hand, says thanks, holds on for an extra second, and then looks me in the eyes.

"Take time for Jesus, ok?" he says with a smile.

Out of context it would have surprised me, but in the moment it trips me up only for half a second, because it's the kind of response that fits for a guy who travels with white plastic bucket panniers that have "Repent and believe the good news" and "Sin is death" painted on their sides.

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After a short ride down the block, the guys turn right, I turn left, and we head up the road bound for different coasts.

It's noon but the sky remains overcast. A tailwind pushes me west and I ride full of good feelings and wonderful memories of Eureka. I get a few honks of support from passing truck drivers as the view becomes even more sparse with the horizon turning flatter, the trees thinning, bushes becoming weeds, and cows spreading over thousands of acres instead of just hundreds. All of it stands separated from the highway by a single barbed wire fence on each side, where five evenly spaced strands hang tightly between narrow metal poles turned rusty from 50 years of harsh prairie weather.

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In between periods of belching at the cows that stand along the fence line I look up and see a solo, fully loaded bike rider headed my way. His name is Andrew and he's headed to Virginia after starting from the Bay Area in Northern California and passing through long and lonely stretches in Nevada, Utah, and much of Colorado. Neither of us has seen many solo riders and we end up spending almost 20 minutes talking about the tremendous freedom that comes with traveling alone—stopping whenever it feels right, not worrying about set schedules, and having the ability to make selfish choices all day long for months on end. We also have a laugh at the supported riders on lightweight bikes and the Oh-man-I-rode-150-miles-through-hundred-degree-heat-yesterday guys we've both run into along the way. Most of the time I feel like the strange one because I'm riding across the country by myself on a bike packed with everything I need, so it feels good to talk to someone else who instantly understands how and why traveling this way is such a rewarding experience.

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A raging headwind blasts me for almost 20 miles when the route makes a 90-degree bend to the north. It's a little reminder from Kansas about who's in control of this show. It almost seems like it's screwing with me on purpose—whenever I shift up a gust of wind zooms down the chute and forces me right back into the easier gear I just left. My mind wanders as I try to think about anything other than the wind. I look out at the horses and cows on the other side of the fence and wonder if they get along. I wonder what Mountain Dew withdrawals will feel like. I wonder if there will ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark.

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A few miles farther on I stop along the side of the road and chug half a bottle of Gatorade. I close my eyes, lean my head back, and stand there and listen to the wind rushing past my head, the chirping of dozens of birds, and the whooshing of tens of thousands of blades of grass as the force of the breeze moves the bike from side to side below me. It's the kind of pure, unblemished, isolated moment I imagined day after day, month after month, year after year while working in a small cubicle under the glow of fluorescent lights in the stale air of a Seattle office building.

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The stretch between Cassoday and Newton runs uninterrupted for 38 miles, offering no restaurants, no gas stations, and no water fountains—just mile after mile of countryside. The rolling hills in front of me rise smaller and smaller as I ride farther west. It's such a desolate place that the sight of oil derricks, storage tanks, and large piles of gravel give me reason to get excited. Without much to look at I turn to other kinds of entertainment—mostly making strange noises in the direction of grazing cattle like a drunken fool and then eagerly waiting to see their reactions. The north wind gradually turns to the northeast, picks up strength, and gives me a good push. My riding becomes efficient and workmanlike and I pound out miles in a slow race against the setting sun.

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Under the last bits of daylight I pedal through Newton's city park until I spot the quiet grassy area filled with half a dozen tents and all of the bikes, gear, and people of the ACA group. By the time I finish putting my tent together it's 9:30 and most everyone is already lost to sleep. I stay up late and write, talk to Desiree, listen to a steady stream of trains rumble and honk their way past, and think about how much I'm loving my huge ride across Kansas. I can't wait for the day ahead.

Today's ride: 79 miles (127 km)
Total: 3,740 miles (6,019 km)

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