Unfinished Business

Four years ago I rode a bicycle, solo and unsupported, 3,600 miles from Boston to San Francisco, especially including 900 miles of mountainous desert, but notably excluding Kansas and Eastern Colorado. That journey changed how I view myself, and I think I finally started feeling comfortable in my own skin somewhere on the road in Utah or Nevada. Later, three years ago, when I woke up in the hospital with my neck in a brace after a bad bike accident, I found serenity and useful distraction by swimming around in the rich memories from that cross-country time in my life. That I missed Kansas did not, in the end, undermine that achievement for me, but the deviation from perfection was heart wrenching at the time in a way that exposed so many other wounds and gave me the chance to heal while I pedaled on.

My 2017 cross-county bike route: Boston to Vassar, Kansas, then Denver to San Francisco.

I skipped Kansas because it was too dangerous. Temperatures then, in mid-July, had daily highs of 120°F and nightly lows of 95°F with frequent thunder storms. Despite that, I was still pulling off 95-mile days by stringing together stops for ice and water every hour and a half, though those opportunities were starting to run thin. In air temperatures that high, evaporating sweat no longer cools you; it’s not an issue of willpower or strength to power through. I was heading west into ever more sparsely populated lands with strong headwinds and no trees for shade, which meant I was heading toward a life-threatening situation without recognizing it and without being prepared for it. I was actively ignoring the frequent public health advisories to stay inside and to avoid any strenuous activity.

One of a hundred or so thorns that studded my tires in Kansas in 2017.

Then I got a flat tire—both tires were studded with thorns like pin cushions—and I met Dale who drove me to town, and put me in the care of Mary Sue and Willy who owned Osage Hardware. There I picked thorns out of my tires with tweezers while Mary Sue carefully and respectfully tried to talk me out of biking across the rest of the state in that heat. Stopping was unthinkable to me, and I was busy worrying about how to get new tires. When I left I continued another 40 miles in that 120°F heat to the next nearest town with a bike shop, knowing that another flat tire from thorn remnants was imminent. I ran out of water before I got there, and I was just starting to overheat when I reached a Dairy Queen. Mary Sue’s words echoed in my head the whole way, and I couldn’t find a way to ignore them. But in my head, then, to break the perfect line was to fail, and of course I couldn’t let myself be a quitter. Ultimately I decided to rent a car and skip Kansas, and I was crushed.

It was crazy for me to nearly put myself into a life-threatening situation, and for what? Who cared about a perfect, unbroken line? What was I trying to prove? Why was this so important to risk my life? Most cross-country cyclists will become nocturnal on the prairie when daytime temperatures are that dangerous, but I didn’t know that trick. My drive was stronger than my good sense, which scared me. Grappling with all the questions that Kansas elicited in me was ultimately what made the cross-country so elucidating and then transformative. In the end, the most important part of the whole adventure was the hole in the middle.

Back in Kansas.

Over the past 8 days, I finally got to bike the prairie: 550 miles from Topeka, KS to Pueblo, CO over eight days. I didn’t expect I ever would return to fill in the gap because the 2017 ride was complete and needed no addendum. I didn’t need to relive it, and it wouldn’t have been possible, anyway, to recreate the potent mix of discovery and danger of the first time. I’ll admit that something always felt unfinished, that my map looked like two extension cords that just barely didn’t plug into each other when pulled taut. Out of precision, I have always felt the need to attach the caveat “except I skipped Kansas” to my greatest travel story, but I never felt it diminished my original achievement even when others have. Really, I never thought I’d bike Kansas because there are so many more exciting places to spend a couple precious weeks of vacation time… were it not for a global pandemic. I came here because circumstances conspired to make it feasible, and I knew it would be deeply meaningful.

I restarted at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka. I felt a torrent of emotions: excitement and nervousness about the trip itself, relief and hope about changing jobs, and solemnity for revisiting the state that defeated me.

I accepted a new job I’m really excited about, and I wanted two weeks off before it would start to clear my head of old business. For my job interlude, I had already planned to be at one end of The Gap with my bike before I knew what to do with it, and then the answer seemed too obvious, if not crazy.

I restarted in Topeka, which was the closest place to my original end point I could find to return a rental car. On the first day, I stopped by Osage Hardware. I talked to a younger woman behind the counter, Danielle, to ask if Mary Sue or Willy were around, and she smiled and said “nope, they sold the store to me!” I started to explain why I was there, and she finished my sentence. She knew of me. You see, years ago, after I reached the Pacific, I sent Mary Sue and Willy a post card to thank them for their help and to let them know that I took their advice and made it safely the rest of the way. Danielle told me that my post card hung in the store until Mary Sue and Willy retired, and hey had talked about my story and how meaningful it was for them too. Danielle promised to tell them I said hi. Mary Sue and Willy, if you’re reading this, thank you again. It meant the world to me when you helped me then, and it is the highest honor that it meant something for you too. It gave me all the feels. Congratulations on your retirement.

The prairie is beautiful, and I loved seeing the subtle changes as the elevation climbed over days. Grasses became shorter. Crops changed from water-loving varieties like wheat to drought-tolerant grains like the rust-colored sorghum. Roadkill changed from furry animals to armadillos and snakes. In parts, the grasses seethed with the chirps of grasshoppers. The sky, the wind, and the sunlight all changed frequently. The riding was mostly monotonous, though, and I found myself counting down the miles by whatever naming scheme the county I was in chose to give their farm roads, usually something numerical or alphabetical. It was extra motivating to spot water towers in the distance and watch them grow over the horizon for about the next hour of riding, since water usually meant a store and something hot to eat and cold to drink.

The road through Kansas and Eastern Colorado is hard: convenience stores are generally 30 miles apart and surface ground water doesn’t exist if you run out and need it. Campgrounds aren’t a thing for a good 300-mile stretch, and motels are usually 60 or 80 miles apart. Cell reception seemed to be limited to county seats, which were 30 to 40 miles apart. I stayed in motels every night this time, but I brought camping equipment for emergencies. I didn’t have much notice to train for this trip, so having a bed to rest on each night was hugely helpful to reduce my daily labor. Camping would otherwise be magical in western Kansas, but alas, there was no great Milky Way vista to miss because the smoke from the California wildfires obscures the night sky these days.

I took one rest day in Leoti, KS because my legs demanded it. I got lucky; the town had a good motel, more than one restaurant, a bakery, and a museum! The Museum of the Great Plains is a work of passion for those who care for it, and I was fascinated to walk through exhibits about everything from native artifacts from the Clovis People to a pencil collection, and the basement contained a recreated western town with shops and rooms from late 19th Century houses. I learned that many of the counties in the newly-formed Kansas saw battles over which settlement would become the county seat, and the battle in Wichita County was among the bloodiest, complete with a Western-style shoot out or two. This kind of museum is exactly what American road trips should be all about!

I didn’t end up spending much time thinking about my old work on the road because I didn’t need to; bike touring is extraordinarily effective at keeping you in the Now, which has its way of clarifying what is and is not important. And in Kansas, riding against the interminable wind, avoiding being sucked into the road by the air vortices of trucks passing too closely and too fast, and keeping my legs from falling off in protest were all troubles enough.

Memorial to a cyclist struck and killed in western Kansas in 2018. I felt very mortal riding on Kansas roads.

If you caught that, yeah, Kansas roads are really dangerous. For most of the state, I followed the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, which is the most classic route from coast to coast, so I had hoped it would be the safest. Both things can be true, however: it’s likely safer than all the other roads through Kansas, but it’s still really not okay. Truck traffic is high, the road margins are about the width of a bike’s handlebars, and wind gusts can be upwards of 30mph from either side or head-on. I learned that 6 cyclists were killed on that same road in 2018 alone, while seemingly little has been done about it by the Kansas DOT. Throughout Kansas, I saw signs every few miles telling me Life Is Sacred, but it didn’t feel like that applied to my life. I never saw a sign in Kansas instructing drivers on the law: Share The Road, Three Feet To Pass, Don’t Text And Drive, etc. A cashier at a convenience store mentioned: “Be careful out there. I used to work at the sheriff’s office, and somebody hit one just last month. He was okay though.” The vast majority of drivers did exactly the right thing to give me enough space, and more than ever before, many drivers waved to give encouragement. But until the roads are better, for any future cross county riders out there, my amateur opinion is: it’s okay to skip Kansas.

On the last day, I rode 115 miles from Eads, CO to Pueblo, which beat my distance record, at an average speed of 14mph, all against a headwind and with a broken back brake that left it partially engaged the whole way. I flew like the wind in parts because I was so motivated to finish this thing out well. I think I did.

Thank you to friends who aided and abetted my latest crazy adventure. Thank you to Allan Sturm for keeping my car in Denver for a week and for picking me up in Pueblo when I finished (and for some great ending photos!). Thank you to Ian and Kate MacKenzie for hosting me in Denver both when Kansas fell apart the first time and when I got to fix it this time. Thank you to the friends who watched my progress and encouraged me to keep going. Thanks, too, to my Mom and Kert for putting up with all the lost sleep while I was busy dodging semis and finally and fully completing a dream I’ve had for so many years.

Maybe sometimes my pursuits still skirt the line between impressive and crazy. I’ll grant that. Whatever pride I have for completing this and therefore completing a continuous, unbroken line across North America, is tinged with some regret because it felt unnecessarily risky. I thought a lot about cyclists who have lost their lives on bad roads. Some days, every mile was a physical and mental battle, and I felt like I survived a war. Other days I felt free and playful like I remember feeling four years ago. I got the mental reset I came for, and I found a brand new respect for four-years-ago-me, who was much stronger and cooler than he knew. I wondered if four-years-from-now-me will think the same looking back. It’s good to remember because it’s easy to forget that the answer is probably yes: be fair to yourself.

2 thoughts on “Unfinished Business

  1. WooT! Glad to see you’re using language “needs no addendum”; when we talked after it was done in 2017, it was clear you were still wrestling with that gap.

    Now that said, I think this is awesome; one last “call back” experience to something that was pivotal in your life and mentality. A challenge to overcome to show that wasn’t a “season” of your life, closed and done, but is still a critical piece of who you are *now*. After checking your blog for the last few years waiting for an update, this was pleasant to read. Congrats, friend, and well accomplished!

    Liked by 1 person

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