Day 38: Guymon, OK to Elkhart, KS - American Redemption - CycleBlaze

April 1, 2013

Day 38: Guymon, OK to Elkhart, KS

I wake up at 7:00 and swear I'm back in the deserts of New Mexico. The gentle winds that came from the south last night have shifted and now blow with cold and anger from the northeast. Because this is an RV park on the plains, that means reddish-brown dirt breaks loose from the ground below the drive-in theater screen and sneaks into the tent under the edges of the rain fly, covering everything that's not inside a pannier in a layer of grit. And a lot of things have been pulled out of the panniers for the night. Once again the tent bows and bends with the gusts. All I want to do is burrow deeper inside my blanket and sleeping bag, clap my hands, and peek out two hours later to find all of it gone away.

"You motherfucker," I say in frustration to no one or nothing in particular. "You couldn't even give me the morning."

Nope, not even the morning.

After an hour of hiding in the sleeping bag and delaying the inevitable, I wiggle out and start the 45-minute dance of packing up inside what feels like a sandbox. Outside I have to carefully weigh down tent parts and the ground cloth to make sure nothing blows back to Texas. It looks like yesterday was the calm before winter's sudden return. The blue skies are gone, replaced by a murky gray that says rain is only a matter of when, not if. But I know that snow's coming tonight and that I won't be able to ride tomorrow, so I do the only thing I can: get on the bike, point it north, pedal, and try to keep the apoplexy to a minimum.

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Under a cast of gray it's not exactly a stunning world to ride through. I head past small farming operations and horses that graze near the road in unfenced fields while I look out at dull brown and yellow hills that roll and fade into the haze of the horizon. People don't tie up their dogs in this part of the country, so every time I roll past a house with dogs they tear ass across the driveway and charge toward the highway to bark like they've gone mad. But unlike more redneck parts of America, these are animals that their owners care about. So just before they reach me I yell out an angry Hey! and watch them skid to a stop, gravel flying over the white line of the road's edge, before they turn around and run right back where they came from with a look that says, Whoa, dude, sorry about that, have a safe ride and stuff.

I crank on a road as flat as a dining room table at seven miles per hour — or five or six when the gusts come. My nose runs at a constant drip, my fingers start to move slow because they're stiff from the cold, and I begin to lose feeling in my smallest toes. It's miserable riding, in the strongest sense of the term. And it's not what I signed up for. Last night's forecast said today would bring strong winds, but with highs in the low 60s and some clouds. I could have handled that just fine. But things must have changed since then — and there's no way for me to know how much, or to know what degree of bad I'm up against with the weather. That's because I haven't had data service on my phone since I crossed into Oklahoma. So on I pedal, half blind, toward a weather system that could turn my day into a real shit show.

Breathtaking Oklahoma.
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And that, it turns out, is exactly what happens. 14 miles from Guymon my hands are so chilled that it takes two seconds to close the fingers into a fist and then another two seconds to open them back up. It feels like I only have six toes left, my ears are like fleshy ice cubes, and the constant wind and what seems like below-freezing temperatures give me a pounding headache. Soon I lose the fight to keep my head together, and every so often — usually after the icy stab of a wind gust — the cursing and exasperation pour out of me in the way a wolf howls at the moon. It's not a proud stretch, but I've pedaled about 20,000 miles since getting into bicycles back in 2007 and never before have I experienced such terrible weather. The fact that I've fallen into it by surprise makes the cold and the pain dig into me even deeper. Yesterday afternoon it was 75 degrees and windless and I rode in a sleeveless shirt. Now it's this. Unbelievable.

It's at this point — at the 14 mile mark — that I reach a crossroads and have three choices: backtrack to Guymon and stay in Oklahoma, push into Kansas like I planned and head to Hugoton, or bail the northwest to get a break from the wind and head just across the state line into Elkhart.

A mass of dark clouds hang over Guymon. The only thing worse than being beaten down and frozen is being beaten down and frozen and soaked. And I can't wait to leave the awful roads and brownish flat of Western Oklahoma behind for the rest of my life and never come back. So Guymon's out.

Hugoton is almost 30 miles to the north and east, into the teeth of the wind and cold the whole way. Some guys would see that as a challenge, as some great achievement to shoot for, as a way to prove how strong and tough they are. If you ride the TransAmerica Trail in the summer you'll meet these guys. They're the ones that are young, tanned, and churn out 120-mile days regardless of the weather or the terrain in order to make it from coast to coast in 40-something days, yet still manage to drink five times as much beer as you along the way. It's remarkable. But I'm not one of them, and I'd also like to avoid frostbite. So Hugoton's out.

Pray for sunshine while you're at it, please.
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Elkhart it is. I hang a left and head west. (I realize this is not the most direct way to get to Maine. Not at all.) Turning my face away from the cold gives me some relief, and for a few miles things seem like maybe they won't be so bad. But it's a short-lived break. A few miles down the road I have to jog north, and in two minutes all of the heat I worked so hard to pump back into my hands and feet is sucked away. Soon I come to a stop along the side of the road. For a few minutes all I can do is stand there — head down, eyes closed, frozen, wishing I was almost anywhere else. It's another moment where all of the trip's obstacles and hardships flash through my head and run in a whirlwind loop like some kind of awful slideshow. I ask myself if I really have the desire to keep going, if I'm ready to deal with weather like this for the next two or three days, and then probably also some time next week. I know that I can. But I don't know if I want to.

I feel so, so low.


But there are only little homes and farms and drilling operations out here in the Panhandle, where the land's so tough that farmers have to use a tough-looking implement called the Crust Buster to work with it. So for now all I can do is ride and ride. Without being able to pull up a map on my phone, I have no idea how far I have to go beyond the vague somewhere between 15 and 40 miles. I pedal on and on into what seems like infinite flatness, muttering horrible things about Western Oklahoma most of the way. The road surface turns to an even greater level of shit farther on, and I never really warm up, but at least I manage to miss the rain that looms in the dark clouds to the north, the west, and the east.

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Elkhart clings to the Kansas state line like a barnacle. I could take a piss while standing on Main Street and just about hit Oklahoma. (I don't.) But the simple fact that it isn't Oklahoma makes me feel a distinct sense of relief. Still, by the time I roll into town in the late afternoon I'm exhausted, like I've had the crap kicked out of me in some kind of rural street brawl. It makes sense when I realize that it took me six-and-a-half hours to ride 48 miles while half frozen and stopping to rest along the way for all of 20 minutes.

When I notice that I have full phone service again, I finally check the weather and — oh for fuck's sake. With the wind chill it's 26 degrees out here. On the first day of April. What the hell happened to the low 60s? There's no way I'm camping in a windy, 20-something-degree day with fog and freezing rain and snow forecast overnight, so it's back to another motel. There the overly made up woman behind the counter tells me it was 80 degrees here yesterday. From 80 degrees to this! If there was any doubt before, today proves that the weather in this part of the country is completely batshit insane.

"Oh, it's so cold out there today," the woman says as I fill out my name and address on a little slip of carbon paper two sheets thick. "And yer ridin' on a bicycle. Bless yer heart."

I look up at her, then laugh and smile. "You wouldn't be saying that if you heard all of the horrible things I said on the way here."

Welcome to Kansas. Make sure to bring a parka and a tuque.
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I only leave the heat of the motel room twice: once for food, once for drinks. Both times I freeze in about nine seconds. I learn that the high temperature tomorrow is supposed to hit 38 degrees. That's the best-case scenario. The winds are sticking around, too. On both trips outside I try to imagine pedaling for four or five hours in this wet, stinging cold. It seems like the dumbest idea I've ever had.

I peek out from behind the ruffled, pale blue motel room curtain just after midnight. The streets of Elkhart are quiet, except for the subtle, high-pitched hiss of an easterly wind as it blows lines of freezing rain across the sky. When I passed through Western Kansas on my last trip, not far north and east of here, it was 110 degrees and the wind ripped over the barren landscape at better than 30 miles per hour. How could anyone live here by choice? I remember thinking at the time. Two years and difference of more than 80 degrees later I ask myself the same question. I'm no closer to finding an answer.

Today's ride: 48 miles (77 km)
Total: 1,842 miles (2,964 km)

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