Introduction - The Empty Middle 2015 - CycleBlaze


This is a tour of the empty middle of the U.S., a region known as the Great Plains. I won't merely cross the Plains like a thousand cyclists do every year on coast-to-coast bike tours. Instead I will stay in the Great Plains for the entire tour.

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Before the tour I knew little about the region other than basic stereotypes: flat, windy, few trees, many farms. In high school I learned the romantic 19th century history of emigrant trails, expanding railroads, shrinking buffalo herds, homesteaders, and fighting Indians. Also the tragic 20th century history of the Dust Bowl.

The Great Plains has changed immensely since the Dust Bowl. Giant wind turbines now dot the landscape, providing new high-paying jobs. More land is cultivated now than ever before, but the population continues to decline as bigger and better machines eliminate farm jobs. Most significantly, today's farms are less dependent on rain. Instead the land is irrigated using water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer hundreds of feet underground.

Sub-regions of the U.S. Great Plains.
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Most of the tour is in the High Plains, the heart of the Great Plains. It's sparsely populated and far away from big cities.

The last 4 days of the tour are in the forested Black Hills of South Dakota. I know that area well because I did a 9-day bike tour in the Black Hills and Badlands in 1993. It was interesting to see what changed. The Black Hills and Badlands region is an excellent but little known destination for short bicycle tours.

July 1993 in Badlands National Park, South Dakota (scan of a 35mm negative). This tour won't take me to the Badlands.
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This tour is the penultimate installment in my quest to travel by bicycle in all 50 U.S. states. The tour took me to 2 "new" states: Kansas (#46) and Nebraska (#47). 3 east coast states to go...

Note the absence of major cities on or near the route. Lubbock and Amarillo are the biggest cities in the southern High Plains with metro populations of 305,000 and 236,000. Rapid City is the largest city in the northern Plains with a metro population of 141,000. The High Plains region between Amarillo and Rapid City is the Empty Middle of the U.S.

One aspect of the Great Plains that fascinates me is that it's empty and getting emptier every year. The population has been declining for decades. Some parts of the Great Plains have had declining population for more than a century.

The Great Plains population shrunk while the nation's population doubled.
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The population will decline even more after the aquifer is depleted. The Ogallala aquifer has been dropping for decades due to unsustainable withdrawals. In western Kansas the water is pumped out 11 times faster than rain water seeps in. The edges of the aquifer have gone dry in many places but irrigated acreage continues to increase. They're pumping more water than ever. Nobody knows how long it will last. But everybody knows the water won't last forever. The water took thousands of years to accumulate but humans will pump it dry in only a hundred years.

A century from now this region will have far less irrigated land. The State of Kansas estimates that its annual GDP shrinks $4000 for each acre of irrigated land converted to dry farming.

"Ogallala changes 1980-1995" by Kbh3rd - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
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I had never really toured through the Great Plains. It has a reputation for being flat and boring but I still found most of it to be interesting. I started out in oil country in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Then farms and feedlots prevailed in Kansas and Nebraska. In Nebraska the terrain is more hilly and the roads more meandering, with an increasing number of trees.

The Great Plains has few trees and is famous for being windy. The prevailing wind is from the south during summer, so I chose to travel north to have a tailwind and the sun behind me.

Fall is the best time to tour in the Great Plains. Summer is too hot, with no shade. Spring is too windy with frequent 40 mph winds. So I'm doing the tour in fall, traveling north as the weather gets gradually cooler. Not surprisingly it was hot at the beginning and mostly cool at the end.

The Bike

This was my third tour to stay in motels every night. Without camping equipment the under-seat panniers alone have plenty of cargo capacity.

Bacchetta Giro 20 with Euro-mesh seat, Terracycle underseat rack, Arkel RT40 panniers.
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Getting to Amarillo

I had reservations to fly to Amarillo in one day, but it ended up taking two days.

I booked flights from Eugene to Portland to Dallas/Fort Worth to Amarillo. Unfortunately the flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Amarillo was cancelled due to a mechanical problem. American Airlines provided a hotel room at the Sheraton in downtown Forth Worth. I arrived at the motel around 11 PM. I wasn't sleepy so I went across the street to the Water Gardens.

Midnight view from the concrete "mountain" at the Fort Worth Water Gardens. It seemed like 10 PM to me.
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I was far down the wait list for tomorrow morning's flight to Amarillo. But tomorrow my parents will drive from Fort Worth to Amarillo to meet me there. I can get to Amarillo faster and more reliably in my parents' car than via American Airlines.

Morning view of the Fort Worth Water Gardens across the street from my hotel.
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My parents picked me up at the hotel and drove me 360 miles (575 km) to Canyon, Texas. It took most of the day. I had no luggage because it was checked to Amarillo with no option to retrieve it in Dallas/Fort Worth. After unloading the parents' suitcases at the hotel my dad and I drove to the Amarillo airport to pick up the bike and panniers.

The airport was deserted, but incredibly an American Airlines baggage person was in the baggage office. She led me across the baggage conveyor to a warehouse area in back. The TSA inspector in Eugene didn't tape the box closed very well, but nothing was missing. The luggage arrived on the morning flight even though the plane had no available seat for me.

I stayed up late assembling the bike, still not quite adjusted to the time zone.

My parents and I will stay 2 nights at the Best Western motel in Canyon, Texas. 15 miles south of Amarillo, close to Palo Duro canyon. Tomorrow we will see the canyon.

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