Clinton to Osawatomie, Kansas - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

June 2, 2014

Clinton to Osawatomie, Kansas

I THINK I'd better not say where this happened. The poor woman risks being inundated for her kindness.

The day started with a grumpy café, continued with a broken bridge, persisted in a conviction that I had walked through poison ivy, and ended with a beer shared with a man excavating John Brown. Yes, the John Brown who pushed himself into my travels a couple of weeks back.

Anyway, I set off from Clinton and picked my way across country until a second breakfast became irresistible. I tried my luck in one of those dusty, half-hearted villages bypassed once by one road and then again by a busy highway. And there I found a café. It didn't say it was a café because it didn't need to: everyone who lived there knew it was the café and only the people who lived there ever went in.

Except today.

The owner wouldn't allow a picture of herself, but this is her café. The old boys are probably still sitting in there now
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I pushed at the door to find half a dozen tables, and one wall covered by sketches of the regulars and posters for feed companies and for village events gone or still to come. Three old boys were at the only occupied table, all dressed in that way that suggests a lifetime in farming. Having to walk towards them to find my own table, I wished them good morning. Their heads turned with the slow and unseeing curiosity of the cows they had doubtless tended over the years. They looked, they stared, they said nothing.

"Service is over here," snapped a lean woman behind a small counter to my side. A way of saying: "No good you sittin' at your table because I ain't coming out to see waddya want."

I decided to be cheerful. I smiled, I ordered coffee and, this being America, I specified which of six ways I could have my eggs fried. She tilted her head to one side, stared and said: "You ain't from round these parts, are ya?"

I admitted I wasn't, explained what had brought me there. There was no reaction in her eyes and the old boys, who'd been listening, refused to react. Well, I was there for breakfast, nothing else, so I ate with an eye on my book and ear on the conversation. It went on the lines of:

"Used to be a railroad long that way, but that ain't been there fa years..."

"Used to walk three mahls to school, remember that? Won't get kids doin' that these days, thass for sure..."

"You there when that government lady came in, said 500 siggatures might save the post office?..."

In time I went to pay. Still they didn't look up. But this time the woman waved away my money and said: "You have that on me as my donation towards your ride and take this..." She reached into a large cardboard box and gave me a royal blue T-shirt with white printing.

"Had them made for the village meeting," she said. "Hold it every year."

I asked to take her picture but she refused. Instead, she walked round the counter and gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.

The day could have continued like that. But of course, it didn't. After half an hour of unsurfaced road, a large white diamond propped against a tree decreed "No through traffic." But what did that mean? Perhaps only that those who lived there were tired of their peace being disturbed every hour by a passing car.

In fact it meant that a bridge had been removed. But, la-di-da, the work crew had gone home and it looked as though I could push down through the soft mud of the embankment, across the dried river bed and up the steep return to the road. Except that a hippo-thick mud I have never encountered before lay in wait. Within two steps, my shoes were thick rafts of black filth, each brushing the calf of the other leg as I walked. After three steps, neither wheel would go round any more. I felt I had been there for 20 minutes, at a metre a minute, before with all my strength I got back up the other side.

I scraped and prodded at my bike to make it work again. It weighed twice what it had been 20 metres back. When I stopped at the first puddle to rinse the filth from my shoes and legs, a cheery woman in a post office van called "Cooling off a little, huh?" before driving on.

Not a lot happens round here
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By now I knew how to pronounce Osawatomie. It's Ozza-wadda-me. And the GPS insisted I ride there through the grounds of a hospital and then along a pathway that approached the noise of an unseen road beyond trees but which turned quickly into long grass and weeds.

I have a fear of poison ivy. We don't have it in Europe. And only too late did I realise that leaving a surfaced path may not have been wise. I backtracked and took the main highway that the GPS had refused me earlier.

"Oh gee, you haven't got some o' that, have ya?" Mark asked in the John Brown Memorial Park. He was camping beside a tiny, custard-yellow car slightly smaller than he was. I'd told him I was going to scrub everything, including myself, then douse my legs with a fluid bought for just that.

"I don't think there was any," I said, "because I was out in the sun. But I'm not going to take the chance."

Mark was taking a break from his last weeks as a financial adviser to excavate around the house in which John Brown had lived with his half-family, marking his stay by hauling pro-slavery activists from their beds and slaughtering them. And the park in which we were sleeping was the very site of the Battle of Osawatomie that went along with it.

"He was a complicated man, John Brown, but I don't think there's much doubt that he was absolutely crazy," Mark said.

The town lives on John Brown, though, and Mark said he was repeatedly being asked if his team had found anything else about him or the Underground Railroad escape route for slaves.

"I'm fascinated by their interest," he said, "although personally I'd rather be digging in the prehistoric era."

Today's ride: 124 km (77 miles)
Total: 2,500 km (1,553 miles)

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