Day 77: Newton, KS to Sterling, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 28, 2011

Day 77: Newton, KS to Sterling, KS

I wake up to a perfect summer morning. It's cool and partly cloudy with a dark orange horizon to the east and the promise of another beautiful day of riding laid out before me.

On the road I feel a crispness in the air that's been missing for what seems like months. Tree leaves, blades of grass, and stalks of corn look dramatic and well-defined in the long shadows of the early morning. I see one-and-a-half story farmhouses in the distance, the occasional tractor, and fence posts with rusted metal signs attached that announce awards received for soil and water conservation. By now the hills of Kansas are gone and all I climb are little rises. The scenery isn't what most people would consider beautiful, but on this morning, under these conditions, it's wonderful—although I shout out the occasional "Oh fuck you!" when I speed through a cloud of mosquitoes.

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I also yell out "You dumb bastard!" half a dozen times when passing drivers act like—well, like dumb bastards. Most give plenty of room, but for the first time since Florida several don't even hesitate to pass me at the same time an oncoming car fills the opposite lane. Everyone seems to be in a rush to get to Buhler, which makes me wonder what amazing things wait for me only a few miles ahead.

The most honestly named business in America.
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When I ride down Main Street I feel like I've stepped back in time by 20 years. ("Tired of checks? Get a Farmer's National Bank debit card today!" says the reader board of the only bank.) My time in the middle part of the country has conditioned me to expect small towns not along a freeway to appear in some stage of collapse, but Buhler turns out to be an attractive place of about a thousand people. It's lively by Kansas standards, with a cafe, several shops that appeal to people with more money than taste, and elementary and middle and high schools that the community supports strongly—all watched over by a pair of large, white grain elevators. Neither a big nor a small highway runs through, next to, or even close to Buhler. I can't figure out how it's still alive when so many of the towns around it welcome visitors with empty streets, shuttered businesses, and a lack of hope for the future.

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I dive into a restaurant in Nickerson in the middle of the day and eat an entire pizza and drink a gallon of Dr. Pepper—mostly because I can. Later I work for hours in the library to avoid temperatures that push toward and then well past 90 degrees.

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The only other person inside the building is the librarian, a skinny, gray-haired woman named Gay. She wears thick-rimmed glasses, has several brownish-purple spots on each arm, and looks to be somewhere in her 80s. We talk about how she moved to Nickerson 13 years ago after spending most of her life in Southern California, because she couldn't afford the cost of living in the San Diego area. She explains how she sees bike riders from all over the world come through this little library all summer long. She also tells me that her daughters are a real pain in the ass. After Gay had surgery last week, she begged her kids not to come up from Texas and take care of her, because she didn't want to cook for them and has grown tired of dealing with their constant stream of problems. She's a hard-ass who doesn't take shit from anyone. I do my best to make her laugh just once, or even get her to crack a smile. I fail completely.

Eventually the conversation turns to Kansas drivers, who she agrees are a lawless and dangerous bunch. This leads me to tell the story about the rider in the ACA group who died back in Virginia. Gay listens patiently, pauses a moment, and then drops a bomb.

"When was the first time you realized you could die?" she asks, stone-cold and serious.

It isn't a question related to bike riding, but rather one about mortality in its broadest sense. I mumble some answer that I can't remember five minutes later, but the truth is that I've never actually considered death as a possibility, even when flying down the side of a mountain at 45 miles per hour on a loaded bicycle. But now I seriously consider the question—here, in the quiet back room of the tiny public library in the thousand-person town of Nickerson, at the center of Kansas and the center of the United States. As I sit and stare into the stacks of geographic reference books and trashy romance novels, she continues on without me.

"I'm not scared of death," she says. "I'm not afraid of anything."

One look into her unflinching eyes tells me that's absolutely true.

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I ride out of town in the late afternoon, something I might not be able to do again until Colorado. I grin like a complete idiot for most of the next ten miles, thanks to another massive tailwind. It drops me off in Sterling, which is home to the most beautiful small-town park in the country. A lake sits at its center, and around it I see lush green trees, a walking trail, gazebos, docks, and a swimming pool complex. I sit on a bench in the shade, with the southerly wind blowing across the lake and washing over me in a wave of cool along the northern side. I hear quacking noises from a few ducks and even sweeter-sounding chirps from the tiny ducklings that follow their mothers everywhere. Pop country music echoes from the speakers at the pool, tennis balls smack against rackets at a doubles game on the nearby court, and men fish from plastic chairs wedged against the sloping shoreline at uncomfortable angles.

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The group also ends their day in Sterling. I don't want to intrude on their dinner and meeting, so I grab something at a place called Paddy's, where the sarcastic and hilarious young waitresses flip each other crap endlessly as gray-haired men and women look on, either incapable of laughing or simply unimpressed. Before he leaves, the man behind me asks about my trip and we spend a minute, maybe two, talking routes and timeframes and why I wanted to make a trip like this in the first place.

My waitress comes over a few moments after he walks out the door.

"Just so you know," she says, "Pastor Ken paid for your meal. You're good to go."

Amazing.

As I smile and think about how much I appreciate such a kind gesture from a complete stranger, an 80-year-old woman walks slowly through the middle of the restaurant and lets loose with one of the loudest trombone farts I've ever heard.

Kansas is doing everything it can to win my heart. And it's working.

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I spend the rest of the evening talking with the group under the giant covered pavilion next to the lake. It's another cool and pleasant night, but I head to bed planning to ride early, because temperatures in the hundreds stand ready to punish all late risers.

Today's ride: 63 miles (101 km)
Total: 3,803 miles (6,120 km)

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