Day 80: Ness City, KS to Dighton, KS - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 1, 2011

Day 80: Ness City, KS to Dighton, KS

I leave town at 4:45. The amber-colored street lights of Ness City guide me to the west for half a mile and then I vanish into the pitch black plains of Kansas. I nearly crap myself and almost crash the bike 15 minutes later when I simultaneously look over my left shoulder and hear Phil call out, "Hey Jeff!" as he zooms past without a headlight. It seems a deeply ironic thing for an insurance salesman to do something as risky as riding a bike along a highway in total darkness. He's gone as quickly as he arrives and I watch his blinking light become smaller and smaller for the next 20 minutes before it finally drops below the horizon.

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The outline of hills start to appear soon after, standing out against the background of clouds that look purple in the first light of the morning. Several deer cross in front of me, all the same way: they speed to the edge of the highway, stop and look both ways for a few seconds to make sure no cars are coming, and then bolt our across the prairie in the other direction. A strong headwind picks up and every mile becomes a challenge. I try to distract myself by focusing on the wide open landscape of yellow grass, grain elevators, old metal windmills, and a view to the west that goes on forever.

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"Huh, that's strange," I think to myself as I approach a sweeping curve in the highway. "Why is that wrecked van sitting off to the side of the road up there?"

I flash back to high school, when the State Patrol would park a smashed-up car in front of the main entrance for a day, as a warning about the consequences of drinking and driving. This seems an unusual place to see something like that—out here in the middle of farm land in the western half of Kansas—but then I think about how fast and aggressive some of the drivers are out here and figure that's a reasonable explanation.

It isn't until I get a little closer that I see two images I'll never forget: a middle-aged woman with a blue top and gray pants lying dead in a heap in the grass after being thrown from the van; and the sad, shocked, lost expression on the face of the woman who happened upon the accident only two minutes earlier. Behind them sits a crumpled Ford Aerostar and a small patch of debris: the van's rear doors, a spare tire, green buckets, and a handful of small parts that flew off when the van rolled.

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I cross to the other side of the road, toward the wreckage, and talk to the second woman.

"She's dead," she tells me. "My husband checked on her and she just isn't moving. We called the paramedics but it doesn't look like they'll be able to do anything."

I ask her if she knows how the wreck happened.

"I was asleep, but my husband saw it. He said that she went off the road a little to the right, tried to turn back to the left, but then skidded into the ditch and flipped. We were maybe a quarter of a mile away and he looked up and saw it rolling."

I look back over my shoulder and see a pair of skid marks arcing across the pavement and leading into a rough, low spot in the grass.

Papers fly all around us in the wind. The woman picks one up; it's a delivery manifest. The driver was transporting John Deere parts to service shops or farms in the area.

It's all so surreal, standing alongside Highway 96 in the vast, windy expanse of Kansas, looking at the death scene laid out in front of me, only a few days removed from the unnerving conversation I had about death with the librarian back in Nickerson. I find myself thinking not of the dead woman, because there's nothing left for her. The curtain has fallen on her life and she isn't in pain. She's just gone. But I think a lot about the people she leaves behind—the kids and husband who said goodbye to her this morning, having no idea that they would never see her again; the parents who lost their child; the friends who will never have the chance to talk to the person they knew and loved and cared for deeply; the State Patrol officer who has to call her next of kin; the paramedic who has to deal with the aftermath of a horrible situation caused by something as small as flipping through a stack of paperwork, sending out a text message, or falling asleep at the wheel for a fraction of a second. I think about how she might still be alive if only she had worn a seat belt. And I think about how relieved I am not to have been the first person to come across the accident. It's one thing to see a dead body lying on the ground 50 feet away. It's something else entirely to be the one to shake the body, to check for a pulse, to ask questions that fall on permanently deaf ears.

Tim, Diane, Janet, and Frank roll past a few minutes later. I follow soon after, just as the first ambulance pulls up, because it does my mind no good to hang around the aftermath of a fatal accident. The group waits for me about a mile up the road so that we can ride together, but that makes things worse for me, not better, because I can see how little room there is between the cars speeding past and the line of four bike riders just ahead of me. It's a cold reminder that the next driver who drifts over the shoulder line could be headed for one of us.

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The wind forces me to work my legs and focus on keeping the bike straight, so I don't have a chance to think more about the crash or the dead woman, which is not at all a bad thing. It soon shifts from a sidewind to a headwind and I ride so, so, so slowly. I can see the grain elevator at Dighton eight miles before I get there, which makes the long, brutal slog into town seem even worse. My back turns tight from fighting the bike. I think about how tired I still am, and how I haven't spent more than a few hours indoors since leaving St. Louis. Then I remember that the weather forecast calls for the wind to continue all day. I could bang into it for three or four hours today, or stop in Dighton, wait until tomorrow, and take advantage of the tailwind that would let me cover the same distance in 90 minutes. It's not even a close call. I decide before I get to town that I'm not going any farther.

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I check into a hotel and spend a lazy afternoon and evening in Dighton, eating and napping and not doing much of anything else. It's totally awesome. I walk through the town just before sunset, watching old trucks driven by older men pass down the main street very slowly. A woman paints a dancing sunflower on the window of her arts and crafts store as part of an advertisement for the upcoming Lane County Fair. Farmers and their wives sit on the white plastic benches in front of the Frigid Creme, where they eat tall swirls of soft serve ice cream from tiny cones and talk about how they only have a little harvesting left to do. The mini-mart at one end of town and the bowling alley at the other are the only businesses that stay open late. I walk the streets alone.

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It sounds like Gaza outside my window, with fireworks cracking and popping all through the evening and well into the night. I realize that it's the first day of July and that Independence Day is almost here, which makes me think about where I might be three days from now. But I quickly remind myself to focus on what comes first: my great escape to Colorado.

Today's ride: 32 miles (51 km)
Total: 3,961 miles (6,375 km)

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