Day 79: Rush Center, KS to Ness City, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 30, 2011

Day 79: Rush Center, KS to Ness City, KS

At 4:30 in the morning I stand next to a soda machine at the only gas station in Rush Center. I look out at Highway 153 coming up from the south and Highway 96 leading to the west, eating the crust off the pizza slices I saved from the night before. A tractor-trailer rolls up to the intersection, stops for half a second, and then slowly rumbles its way out of town. Once the noise of engine revving and gear shifting fades away I'm alone again.

Soon I spot what I'm looking for: a pair of small white lights cruising quietly to the north. It's B.J. and Becky, who roll into Rush Center after leaving Larned two hours earlier for a little night riding of their own. As we stand off to the side of the road, a mass of blinking lights and reflectors, I take a mental picture of the intersection. After we head onto Highway 96 the TransAm doesn't turn onto another road until Pueblo, Colorado, 285 miles away. 285 miles! I want to make sure I remember what a hard break in the road looks like.

The three of us ride to the west in a triangle pattern, with B.J. up front near the center line, Becky in the middle toward the shoulder, and me in the back on the left half of the lane. Except for our talking it's quiet, and except for our tiny, underpowered lights it's dark. B.J. and Becky cruise easily on their lightweight bikes, but I have to push hard to keep pace and my right knee starts to ache. I say a thank you in my head every time they decide to stop for a break. Still, it's good to be out early, because a southwest wind kicks up just as the sun rises over the plains behind us.

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I'm far enough west that I ride past fields with a mixture of yellows and greens that crawl into the distance as far as I can see and stretch out in front of me for what looks like forever. A few years ago I watched a documentary about food production in the United States called Food, Inc. In the movie, one of the talking heads drops the statistic that 90 percent of the land in America has been developed, mostly for the production of corn or as grazing land for cattle. Looking out the window of my apartment in Seattle at the Olympic Mountains, or thinking about all of the areas of wilderness that make up the western part of the country, it's a number that seemed made up at the time, like something created to support the argument that factory farming is destructive and harmful. Staring out at what's before me today, and thinking about the hundreds of miles of Kansas I've already seen, I'm now a believer.

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B.J. and Becky pull ahead farther on, but passing through the town of Bazine I pick up a pair of replacements: Al Nordstrom and Keith Wilson, a couple of older guys from Illinois riding from Virginia to Oregon. They'd been half a day ahead of me throughout Kansas until they stopped early yesterday and I decided to ride through the night like a fool. We ride 10 miles up the road together and reach Ness City by 8:00, with the crickets still chirping and the morning still cool. B.J. and Becky are already inside the town's only open restaurant, so the five of us grab breakfast and try to figure out what to do with an entire day in a 1,500-person town in the western half of Kansas on the hottest day of the year.

Trailing behind Al and Keith.
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Al, Becky, B.J., and Keith.
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When I pull into the city park I see two young men and one woman slowly eating breakfast, folding up tents, and loading their bikes. They're from San Francisco and bound for New York. One of the guys tells me in a quiet, slow-paced voice that they rode a hundred miles yesterday and that they're planning to do another hundred today. Today—in broiling heat, with 30 mile per hour winds surging endlessly, with the sun beating down on them every mile of the way. That's when I realize that he talks so slowly because the sun is melting away his brain, one hot Midwestern day at a time. I wish them luck, but in my mind I feel sorry for them, because a death march across Kansas is a surefire way to turn an incredible cross-country trip into a demoralizing grind that makes a desk job seem like a wonderful alternative.

The park has a screened-in picnic shelter, but it's in such bad shape that I spend hours killing the mosquitoes that crawl through holes in the mesh and land on my head and arms and legs. The wind picks up steadily all morning, and by noon it passes through the trees with a loud howling sound and tries to blow everything that's not pinned down into the next county. The temperature climbs all the way to 108 degrees and the dirt from the parking lot blows to the north in giant waves, coating every bike, bag, box, and folding chair in a fine layer of tan-colored dust.

The building known as the Skyscraper of the Plains.
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Just past noon, Becky gets a call from Steve, the ACA group leader, and gets a message no bike rider ever wants to hear: Frank was hit by a car.

Amazingly, it's followed by the greatest possible phrase: he's ok.

It's truly amazing because he was hit by a car as it flew past at almost 70 miles per hour. The driver, an old woman who was paying more attention to the conversation with her mother than the road ahead, drifted just over the white shoulder line and clipped Frank's elbow with the mirror attached to the car door. The mirror exploded and the elbow swelled up to the size of a baseball, but it soon returned to normal and Frank otherwise walked away unhurt.

I stand up from my seat at the bench and hold my arms out in front of me, in the same position I use when I ride. Even at their widest point they extend only a couple of inches away from my legs, and no more than a foot from my torso. If the car had been six inches farther to the right it would have instantly knocked Frank to the ground at a huge rate of speed. Six inches beyond that and he probably would have been killed on impact.

He literally cheated death today.

Becky and I are both relieved to hear that Frank is safe. But we also know how close we came to losing him—and that it could have just as easily been us.

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I escape the heat, wind, blowing dirt, and talk of near-death in the library, and soon the rest of the campers follow. B.J. falls asleep with his head on the desk in front of shelves filled with low-quality fiction books, while Becky passes out in the pink and green beanbag chairs in the children's section. Candy and Steve and I talk and work on computers for hours, because the only other thing to do in Ness City is drink heavily and it's still too early for that.

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Tomorrow the group and I break paths, as they push 80 miles to Leoti and I stop short in Scott City. I've had the best time getting to know the camping crew and I hope I'll see them again as we all head west. But at the same time, I look forward to a return to the slow solo style I love so much.

I'm in the tent well before dark, dead tired and hoping to rest enough for an early start that beats most of the heat and headwinds. From the other side of the park I hear the wobble of a diving board, the ping of an aluminum softball bat, and the screaming of happy kids chasing each other around the jungle gym. The sounds of small-town summer surround me as I lay my head down and close my eyes.

Today's ride: 36 miles (58 km)
Total: 3,929 miles (6,323 km)

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