Day 81: Dighton, KS to Eads, CO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 2, 2011

Day 81: Dighton, KS to Eads, CO

This part of Kansas is so flat that I can see the lights of tiny towns twinkling in the darkness 15 miles to the west as I leave Dighton.

The moments before the sun rises that soon follow are truly amazing. The sky appears a grayish-blue to the west, but when I look back over my right shoulder I see clouds reflecting orange and purple, mixed in with the ripples and bands and layers of the cloud cover, towering 25,000 feet above me and stretching hundreds of miles back over the country I just finished riding through. It's the definition of stunning. And then, within 15 minutes, the incredible show disappears, gone again until the next partly cloudy morning.

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My bike shorts shrunk a bit from washing, which means a tighter fit that mashes everything together even more than normal. A couple of horses look upset when I adjust myself as I ride past. I offer an apology but it doesn't seem like they accept it. Farther on I pass several feedlots, some of which keep more than a thousand head of cattle, and all of which force me to dodge the windblown chunks of cattle crap that sit along the edge of the highway. The plains seem even more desolate today, with a small house just off the road every few miles and the occasional grain silo, but mostly wide open grass land and fields with young corn plants that stand only a foot tall. With the wheat harvest nearly over I keep a close eye on my mirror and stay on the lookout for semi trucks hauling giant combines that stretch a lane and a half wide. Thanks to a strong tailwind I zoom past everything.

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The layout of Leoti follows the same pattern as every small town in Western Kansas: a liquor store at the east edge of town, a couple of restaurants after that, a gas station and mini-mart at the central intersection, a Main Street with a few insurance agencies and lawyers and a bank, and an inexpensive, single-level motel at the west end that waves goodbye just before the highway shoots cars, trucks, semis, and bicycles back out into the endless expanse of the Great Plains.

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When the east wind shifts slightly to the northeast it causes the back of the bike to wobble from left to right.

"It's dancing," I think to myself. "It's moving around back there."

I have no idea what happens after that, but somehow those words rattle some place deep within my ridiculous brain. Within ten seconds I find myself flying across Kansas at 20 miles per hour singing the words to Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music:"

Yeah they was dancin' and singin' and movin' to the groovin'
And just then it hit me, somebody turned around and shouted
Play that funky music white boy
Play that funky music right
Play that funky music white boy
Lay down the boogie and play that funky music 'til you die
Till you die!

Singing is actually an understatement—it's more of a performance, yelling out the words with feeling, squealing out the high parts, and then dropping way down into the deep bass voice for the last few bits. It's a weird, soundless karaoke performance that repeats itself at least half a dozen times—except when cars pass, because I'm still sane enough to know what crazy looks like. When I get tired of funk rock disco my mind inexplicably changes gears and fires up Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," which I belt out with all of the blue-eyed soul I can find before banging out the drum solo on the sides of my drop handlebars. Eventually I stop to consider whether I'm slowly going nuts or just drunk on a sweet, sweet tailwind. I never quite figure it out.

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I pull myself back together when I see an unloaded bike rider coming up behind me. His name is Ike, and he's a white-haired guy who's part of a 16-person group riding from Virginia to San Francisco as part of a Multiple Sclerosis fund raising effort. We talk for a few minutes along the side of the highway, just before we cross into the Mountain time zone. He tells me that he often thought of quitting back in the punishing hills and heat and humidity of Virginia and Kentucky, and that he only recently started to enjoy getting up every morning and biking across America.

It's the first time on this trip that I've met a rider who seriously considered going home. It reminds me how wonderful everything has been. I haven't wanted to quit, not once, not even for five minutes during an awful thunderstorm, while climbing a monster hill, or when camped on the lawn in front of a drunken woman's home. This country is so beautiful and interesting and entertaining that all of the pain and sweat and sleep deprivation are completely worth it.

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The tailwind makes everything better. The bike runs smoother, the sun seems not as hot, and my ass hurts less. It's the most perfect going away present Kansas could have given me. Thanks to the wind and the time change I rack up 72 miles by 11:15, which gives me a profound sense of joy and also makes me feel like a bit of a cheater. I celebrate my success with lunch in the town of Tribune. The guy in the next booth wears a red t-shirt that reads, "Larson Harvesting: We don't pull out until the job is done." The rest of the place is filled with loud rednecks. After a look around the room I figure I might be the only customer with all of my teeth, no tattoos, and no drug problem.

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The temperature soars into the mid-90s, but with the wind staying strong I don't even think of stopping. The road runs completely straight to the west, but a mile ahead the heat waves turn it blurry and make it look like the surface is covered in a shallow pool of rippling, light blue water. Kansas finally lives up to its stereotype and I ride with fields of golden wheat all around me. Some stand tall and rustle in the wind, while others are short or totally barren, having been plowed in the last few weeks.

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No street addresses, only directions.
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I give a heartfelt goodbye wave to Kansas as I cruise into Colorado. A lot of cross-country riders look at Kansas as a barrier between themselves and the West, as a long and boring stretch of America that's something to be conquered rather than experienced. I wasn't sure what to expect when I crossed the state line. The stories I'd read about killer headwinds for days on end made me nervous, but I tried to approach it with an open mind. Kansas rewarded me every day, with stunning open spaces, wonderfully flat roads, amazing early morning rides, and some of the kindest, most generous, and most supportive people and communities I've come across so far. Even though an air of death and near-death hung over much of my week in the state, I come away a little wiser and a more aware, both about riding and about the fleeting nature of life. I'd come back in a heartbeat.

State number ten!
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Colorado gives me the same long and straight Highway 96, lined with telephone poles that all lean slightly to the left or the right of center. Combines harvest grain and kick up dust off to the south, the wind rushes past my ears, and my mouth feels hot and dry and pasty because I'm becoming dehydrated. At the mini-mart in Sheridan Lake I learn from a couple of slow-talking farmers that biting flies or cows huddled together in the corner of a pasture both indicate an approaching thunderstorm. Standing out front I feel one and see the other.

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Kansas has nothing on Eastern Colorado. I see no homes, no farms, no cows, no horses, not even any fences—just mile after mile of desolate space, all covered by a soft-looking layer of grass that reflects a thousand different shades of green and yellow. When I pass through the sad shells of what used to be the towns of Brandon and Chivington I ride by brick homes that sit abandoned and mostly collapsed, along with no more than a dozen dirty double-wide mobile homes that a few families still call home. I try to figure out how anyone could live in such a place and feel happy; whether there's any scenario where that's possible. It's a bleakness matched only by the darkest corners of Eastern Kentucky.

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The flies and cows don't lie. Thunderstorms soon move in, bringing with them winds that blast me straight-on at 30 miles per hour. It's an agonizingly slow and demoralizing grind, and my left leg cramps from dehydration, but I don't stop—mostly because there isn't anywhere I could stop, but also because I'm committed to breaking my single-day mileage record. Just as a night ride across Kansas is a cross-country rider rite of passage, so too is a monster day across the West. Today is that day and I won't be denied. I beat into the wind for hours, alongside a pair of railroad tracks, barbed wire fences, and tens of thousands of scrubby green sagebrush plants. The grayish pall of the overcast skies makes all of it look vaguely depressing.

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A full 131 miles after starting I reach Eads, another dying country town that's home to only 747 people, yet remains the largest place in Kiowa County. I spot Al at a motel across from the restaurant where I'm about to eat and ask him if I can store my bike in the room with Keith and him while I eat. He says yes, because he's one hell of an awesome guy.

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When I come back to pick up the bike an hour later, Keith invites me to crash on the floor of their room, because he's also one hell of an awesome guy. We talk about our amazing trips for almost an hour before I head to sleep, happy to have set a new riding record, but happier still that I never have to do it again.

Today's ride: 131 miles (211 km)
Total: 4,092 miles (6,585 km)

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