Day 39: Elkhart, KS to Johnson City, KS - American Redemption - CycleBlaze

April 2, 2013

Day 39: Elkhart, KS to Johnson City, KS

I look outside in the morning and expect to see a world covered in white. What I find is just damp and kind of icy. The Florida Keys it isn't, but it looks like the jetstream pushed the worst of the weather to the north and the east. I have no desire to deal with this kind of cold and wet together, but I think I have enough layers and ingenuity to at least overcome the cold.

That doesn't mean I'm anxious to head out into a winter's ride across Kansas. I sit around for hours — in the motel room, in the dark-paneled restaurant next door where the country music blasts loud — looking at the forecast and going back and forth about when to leave. I want to bag out on the day and wait for the sun to come back, but the weather for tomorrow is much the same. I'd only delay the inevitable.

There's only one choice: I've got to move.

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I wait until mid-day so that things warm up about as much as they're going to. At 12:30, with little icicles hanging from the bottom of the street signs and a lazy mist drifting down from above, I ride along the attractive, tree-lined streets of Elkhart and start to head north again.

I pass through the Cimarron National Grassland, which I think are what they call National Forests when the land doesn't have trees. It's free of houses and farms and the large-scale oil and gas drilling operations I've seen for the last week, which makes for a broad, flat, empty landscape where patches of pale purple wildflowers line the road. Well, for about ten miles. Then, still within the boundaries of the Grassland, I crest a hill and see laid out before me houses and farms and somewhat smaller-scale oil and gas drilling operations. I don't think I'll ever understand America's desire to declare millions of acres as public land, only to then turn around and parcel out major parts of them to private owners.

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The view is constrained by the low cloud cover, which takes away the sweeping vistas and blocks off everything that's more than four or five miles away. But it's a trade-off I'm happy to make, because it comes about from something I never knew was possible: a windless afternoon in Kansas. That helps me cover ground quicker than yesterday, although it still can't mask the near-freezing cold. My core stays warm from all the layers of shirts and jackets, and this time I manage to block some of the chill from my feet as well. Before I left the motel, I stole the plastic bags from the little garbage cans in the bathroom, put them over my socks, tied the top in a knot around my ankles, and then put on my shoes. With a line of bunched up plastic showing in the gap between the shoes and rain pants, it looks like the sort of thing only a drunk or mentally unstable person would do — although the longer this crazy cold goes on, the more I become like one of those.

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Eventually I roll into Richfield, where entire blocks are filled only with short yellow grass where you'd expect to see houses. A lone brown horse wanders all by himself through the empty streets, stopping every now and then to take a few bites of the grass. The town looks like maybe a couple dozen people still live here, yet the post office is somehow still in business — and somehow open from nine to four every day. I have a second camera lens I never use and some souvenirs from the Big Texan to send home, so now looks like a great time to take a break and do it.

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I walk through the front door and into a room where the heater is cranked all the way up. It's like a blanket pulled right out the dryer being draped over my entire body. After three-plus hours outside in wet, 34-degree weather, I just about melt into a puddle next to the small stack of pewter-colored P.O. boxes.

It's the smallest post office I've ever seen. Most master bedrooms back in Seattle are bigger. At the counter, Vicky helps me box up my stuff and get it ready to ship back home for some outrageous price. If you had to cast a Southwest Kansas grandmother for a TV show or movie, she would win the part every time. She's in her 70s with a welcoming smile, a sweet disposition, close-cropped blonde hair, glasses, and a dark blue sweater with, randomly, a detailed map of New Zealand on the front. She's lived in Richfield for 45 years.

"How old is this town? Do you know?" I ask her.

"Well, the church was built back in about 1887. There used to be quite a lot of people here at one time. Back in the 50s there were maybe 2,500. There were a lot of houses, and they had restaurants, shops, a grocery store, three banks. Even built this huge white county courthouse — two stories tall, a real big, imposing thing. People called it the Castle on the Prairie."

I peek out the tiny window to look for it.

"Of course it burned down back in the 50s," she says. "Then back in, oh, I think it was 1961, they moved the county seat to Elkhart. That's when things started going away."

That explains the grid of streets that now stand empty but for the grass.

"So how many people are left?" I ask.

"Oh, someone counted just the other day. I think we're about 40. Been pretty consistent, too. Only had about 50 back when I moved here."

"What kind of folks stick around in a town of 40 people?"

"Well, there's about five young families. A lot of retired people. There's some farming around here, a few people work at the grain elevator you passed on the way here, and a few others work out in the oil and gas fields, although some of that's on the downswing."

"What about this post office? I was surprised to see this place still open."

"We serve about 40, 50 houses. The mail carrier has to drive about 150 miles to reach them all. A few more have post office boxes, but that's about it. They wanted to close us down a few years ago, but for now we're still here — at least until I retire and they cut back on the hours."

It's a major waste of money to keep open five days a week a post office like this, in the middle of a near-dead town that is itself in the middle of not much at all. If you wondered how the U.S. Postal Service managed to lose $15.9 billion dollars last year, Richfield's part of the answer. But with waves of heat pumping from the near corner and a smiling face and hearty laugh to help me better understand this part of the country, I don't mind at all.

"Thank you for your business," Vicky says sincerely, for the second or third time in the last 15 minutes, as I wave goodbye and head back out into the cold.

There's something I'll never again in my life hear from a postal worker.

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Gray clouds that look like they're weighted down with rain hang above me all day, threatening a terrible wetness that could turn the afternoon in a cold, wet, freezing disaster. But other than a handful of spits just to screw with my head, the day passes cold as hell but dry. On the mostly empty highway, telephone poles run on the left side of the road for awhile, then cross over to the right, and after that go back and forth every few miles. Along with the birds that chirp in the fenceless fields they're my only companion. Trucks with Eat Beef, Drink Milk posted on the sides of their trailers fly past but give lots of space, while a few passing car drivers wave to the bright-yellow-colored dude on the bicycle who must be out of his damned mind to ride on a day like today.

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By the time I reach Johnson City, more trucks pass with their headlights on than off. Over a dinner that centers on a legitimately awful slab of chicken fried steak I decide that I'm tired of motels, and that even though it's cold I'll set up in the park at the end of town and try to get myself back into a better routine for the next few days when the weather improves.

But after I leave the tip I step outside to find a strong east wind that wasn't there before. It's joined by a light freezing rain falling from the dark clouds above. Of course. I ride to the park anyway, where I find a picnic shelter under which I can set up.

Except I can't. I just can't do it. I'm standing in a cold, wet, dark, isolated park where with the wind chill it feels like 23 degrees. (On this day one year ago in Johnson City the high temperature was 71. Two years ago it was 88. The amount of bad luck on this trip has been staggering.) I can't work up an ounce of desire to put myself through a night out here, knowing that I'll have to pop back out around 8:00 and try to push on. There's a limit to how much I'll put up with to camp. After almost six taxing weeks on the road, combined with weather far colder than I ever expected to have to deal with out here, tonight that limit's in the rearview mirror.

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At the motel — another unremarkable small-town motel — I chat online with Desiree. For awhile it's small talk: where I've been, the bad weather, her misadventures in cake making, our amazing dog, school, and so on. But I'm down again and I need to let it out.

"I hate to say this," I write, "But I don't know how much longer I can keep going. I don't like to compare this trip to my last one because they're so different, but when I read my journal from that one, and then I think about how I feel this time, the joy and happiness just hasn't been there."

"I don't know. Everyone seems to think it will get better as you go further north and east. You've had really bad luck with the weather. If it were me, I probably would have given up by now. But that's why I'm not out there doing it."

"You would have hated all but about three days on this trip, I think."

"Agreed. But I think if you came home now you'd be disappointed and unhappy, much more so than if you stick with it."

"Yeah, but I'm disappointed and unhappy now."

"Maybe if you just give it until Chicago, and if it still sucks then come home. If it gets better, keep going."

"I only have one week left in me at this point. I know you're right, but I don't know if I can make it that far."

I dealt with a lot of adversity when I rode from coast to coast two years ago. There was the madness of the Florida sprawl, terrible sunburns that blistered my skin, and huge thunderstorms that both terrified and drenched me. I rode the full length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the almost 50,000 feet of elevation gain that went along with it. I tackled the Appalachians and the sweltering late spring heat of Kentucky and Illinois that followed. Kansas punished me with extreme winds and temperatures and desolation. There were hundred-mile days, tire problems, wheel replacements, deep longing for Desiree and my family, a crash that tore up my body and my panniers, and some truly awful lows when it came to personal hygiene. I had to handle the Rockies, the madness of Yellowstone National Park, mosquitoes sent from the depths of hell, awful fried food, bad drivers, a digestive system more active than I ever thought possible, and then four mountain passes in four days, on exhausted legs, to punch over the last line of mountains and once again reach saltwater.

My point is, it wasn't easy but I survived. I kept going, kept pushing. And not only did I survive, but with few exceptions I could look back at the end of each day and feel a sense of joy, of accomplishment, of purpose. The journey was a mental and physical grind like none I've ever known, but from start to finish I felt a deep and profound sense of fulfillment. I set out to tackle one of my life's greatest goals and it was amazing. Not once — not even once — did I think of quitting.

It's not like that this time. Not even close. I've thought of quitting at least half a dozen times already, and I'm just over a third of the way across the country. And after almost six weeks of waiting for the tide to turn, of hoping for a spark to ignite that sense of magic and purpose I felt before, I'm now drawing on a sample size large enough to know that it's not going to happen. Or that even if the right combination of people and places and events somehow start to present themselves, I'll be so down and out and focused on grinding through the miles from one town to the next that the things worth noticing and taking time to stop for won't register in my head.

I told Desiree that I had a week left in me, but that's not true.

It's only an hour.

That's how long it takes to finally accept the fact that what should have been a rewarding experience has instead turned into a battle against America, where I'm pushing on only out of obligation to finish what I've started. There's also a limit on how much I'll put up with to make that happen — and that limit is now in the rearview mirror as well.

By the time the light clicks off and my head hits the pillow, my mind's made up: I'm ending this trip and heading home.

America, you win.

Today's ride: 50 miles (80 km)
Total: 1,892 miles (3,045 km)

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