Day 78: Sterling, KS to Rush Center, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 29, 2011

Day 78: Sterling, KS to Rush Center, KS

I reach the highway out of town just after 6:00, yawning because of a night spent mostly awake from the noise of howling wind and well-targeted sprinkler spray slapping against the rain fly in a slow arc every 20 seconds. I hum to myself and think about how kaddywompas is one of my favorite words—and how Kansas is anything but, with a grid of roads and plots and property lines that bring order to all of its land.

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The group members who left camp after me zoom by all morning—first Frank, then Becky, then Phil and Janet, and later on B.J. Every day I expect the green grasses and trees to give way to an ocean of gold but it never happens. Even though the landscape turns flatter and more wide open than in the east, I still ride through a world of beautiful views. That's even more true today, when I pass huge fields set aside for grazing that sit dotted with bright yellow wild flowers, abandoned red brick grain silos, and a million blades of tall grass that bend and dance along with the wind. Few houses and no services pop up along the 50-mile stretch between Sterling and Larned.

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The beauty of Kansas is offset somewhat by the Ace of Base song that plays over and over again in my head. I have no idea where it came from, but I'm happy when I ride through a section of beat-up road, because the bumps and cracks shake the bike and drown out the Swedish pop music with the sounds of clanking fenders and racks and panniers. As the morning grows older, the light tailwind becomes a strong sidewind. The sun rises higher in the sky, and in the process the colors turn less dramatic and the world around me seems less interesting. Passing 18-wheelers make the air come alive, speeding by with a loud whooshing sound that's followed by a stiff smack and a jolt that bounce me around before a crashing wave of turbulence pulls the bike back in the opposite direction a few seconds later. I become tired and catch myself dreaming of pizza and beer and an air-conditioned motel room.

Yielding.
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Ten miles out of Larned the winds turn huge, blowing a constant 25 miles per hour and gusting higher. They knock me all over the road and turn the last push into a slow and agonizing crawl. I lean into the wind as if I'm turning left, but I actually go perfectly straight. I ride near the center of the lane, because strong gusts try their hardest to push me off the road and onto the gravel shoulder. (Twice they succeed.) I've never experienced anything like it. Dust blows across the highway in waves, my eyes dry out almost completely, and my contact lenses stick in place and blur my vision. I don't get mad or frustrated because I'm too focused on staying upright and on the road to worry about anything else.

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By the time I pull into town at noon it's already 97 degrees. The public library turns into a cool and relaxing oasis for the next five hours. I lean back and then slump down in a comfortable leather chair, savoring every minute of air conditioning but never forgetting that a furnace waits for me just on the other side of the double front doors.

Thanks for the reminder.
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The shade under the pavilion at the city park keeps the sun away, but can't hide the fact that it's 107 degrees in the early evening. Worse than the heat, however, is the wind. It serves up a constant blast of cool, but also provides a look into a hellish future. Tomorrow's weather forecast calls for a high temperature of 110 degrees with sustained winds of 15 to 30 miles per hour from the southeast. I can't make it a short day, because the 34-mile ride would drop me in a 200-person town with no library or motel where I could escape the heat. The only other choice is Ness City, but after today I know that I wouldn't finish the 67 miles until deep into the miserable afternoon.

There's only one option: wait until the sun goes down and perform a cross-country riding rite of passage by doing a night ride across Kansas.

This kind of ride requires special preparation. I hop in the Adventure Cycling support van with Steve and B.J. and Candy and head to a mini-mart, where I come away with a Mountain Dew-flavored slushie in a cup that's taller than my head. I balance out the huge amount of liquid with three-quarters of a large-sized pepperoni pizza that tastes barely better than cardboard. My stomach bulges out a few inches, walking becomes a little uncomfortable, and I feel a dull ache all over. I'm a high performance machine and I'm ready to go.

The slushie crew.
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I leave Larned at 9:00, with the winds lighter and from the southeast, and the sun a ball of pink that drops below the horizon as I pass the city limits. Between the better weather, the excitement of a new experience, and the adrenaline rush from doing something a little dangerous, riding at night turns out to be as wonderful as the late morning was terrible. I fly to the west with a smile on my face and a lightness in my legs.

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Within the hour I reach the junction with Highway 183, with only the tiniest sliver of daylight clinging to the sky. I turn north and pick up a strong tailwind that makes pedaling across the nearly flat terrain almost effortless.

"This is awesome!" I scream out into the dark nothing that surrounds me.

My body tingles with happiness.

I'm alive.

The bike's headlight glows white and its taillight flashes red. Many small creatures and a couple of bigger ones rustle in the grass that lines both sides of the road when I zoom past. A few bugs cry out, but all of the birds are asleep, and with the tailwind canceling out much of the breeze blowing past my head the world is strangely quiet. I ride wherever I want to, because I can see the headlights of approaching cars five miles before they arrive. When they finally reach me I pull to the side, let them pass, and then watch their red lights fade slowly into the distance. A couple of times I flick off my headlight and plunge into the black for a few seconds before freaking myself out and turning it back on. In my head I sing REM's "Nightswimming," but change the lyrics "Nightriding." Thousands of stars fill the sky and I savor mile after mile of clean, smooth, perfect pavement.

I only ride 34 miles, but I will remember them for the rest of my life.

The light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
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I coast into Rush Center at exactly 11:00 and then spend the next 15 minutes rolling up and down the town's dark streets, grumbling and cursing as I look for a city park that doesn't seem to exist. It isn't until the fifth time I pass a dark lot dotted with a few trees and picnic benches that I realize it's actually a park and not someone's backyard. One bicycle rider sleeps inside a small tent near the back of the place.

I unroll my air mattress and sleeping bag on top of a picnic table and lean the bike up against one of the benches. I climb inside the bag and try to fall asleep as cars pass less than a hundred feet away on the highway, a street light shines down on my head, and the rush of a constantly blowing wind surrounds me.

Today's ride: 90 miles (145 km)
Total: 3,893 miles (6,265 km)

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