I headed out of Glen Elder in the morning, opting to take highways instead of gravel roads because i wasn't sure where i wanted to end up and figured i should make good time. Usually going down the highways doesn't really feel super scenic, but in this case it randomly led me to a town that had the world's biggest ball of twine. This sort of roadside attraction is the sort of dumb shit i love, so i read the story then snapped the selfie and continued on my way.
After hitting the next town i turned right up one of the loneliest highways i've ridden. Don't get me wrong, there was traffic, but much like parts of southwest Saskatchewan, there were very few buildings, and many of what had been there was abandoned. It felt like a road to nowhere, but actually it's the road to the geographic center of the contiguous United States.
I stopped in at Lebanon, which i know of as the town nearest to Sam and Dean's underground bunker from later seasons of Supernatural, but it's also the town nearest the center. Nothing was open, but that's not saying much since there's almost nothing there. But, just as i was about to cycle away, a lady walked out of a nondescript door and said "they're doing five dollar burgers in there". Turns out i had shown up during a weekend fundraiser for the Legion Hall (veterans' club) and there was a table set up in the back selling hotdogs and hamburgers for a five dollar donation. Chips on the side, ice tea and dessert included. Not bad!
While i was in there i met a lady who in her younger days had cycled "the x", crisscrossing the USA from coast to coast. Another couple had just been on a morning bike ride and suggested taking the back way to the center. It was a really nice surprise.
I got to the center and it was another example of exactly the kind of stupid attraction i adore. To think, a plaque (and a miniscule chapel!) erected at a random arbitrary point on the continent, that only really makes sense in some cartographer's imagination. If Red River Colony had stayed autonomous, the spot would be elsewhere. If Texas hadn't joined the union. If France hadn't sold Louisiana. If the decision to draw the Canadian border was not along the 49th. It's like a monument to how fucking absurd and meaningless national borders are. Absolutely fantastic spot to visit.
I thought it was going to be packed, but actually i only saw one motorcyclist who stopped long enough to snap a photo and a couple who i struck up a conversation with. Like the oldies back in Lebanon they were excited to tell me that the song "Home on the Range" was written nearby, and you can in fact visit the actual range referenced in the song. I have to say that meant very little to me. But then they said there's a statue of liberty out in the middle of the prairie, and, fuck, i had to see that!
So after cycling half gravel half highway to Smith Center and taking a photo of their full-size Dutch windmill, i went south past Gaylord and found the damn statue of liberty. It's awesome. It's just randomly sitting there, on a hill, in the prairie. You might not even notice it from the highway if you didn't know it was there. It's the best fucking thing. The only thing that would've made it better is if it had the pro-immigrant poem from the one in NYC, but it just says something like "erected in 1975 by the local scout troop", which perhaps makes it even funnier.
Of course, i had shot myself in the foot and i knew it by heading down that road. Because there were no campsites for another 50km, and i didn't have the energy to cut across back to Glen Elder, or the will to backtrack to Smith Center. So i just continued to the next "major" town and hoped i could find a stealth camping spot. There was one park that looked like it might allow RVers, but there were no toilets and no signs posted. I stopped into the local bar to ask.
The people at the bar said there are no campsites in town, but that RVers do sometimes use that park, they just weren't sure if the cops ticketed them for it or not. I had my eye on a patch of green i could see on the map a few miles to the east, but you never know till you get there if it's an actual public use area or private land, so eventually i resolved to eat dinner at the bar and just spring for a motel.
See, lots of bike tourers and pretty much all hobos and hitchhikers stealth camp all over the place. They don't give a shit, they just find a spot where they hope people don't walk their dogs and pitch a tent or roll out a bivy. But also a lot of them have been cited for trespassing or kicked out at gunpoint or thrown in jail because landowners and local cops are assholes. And i know that might only happen one night in ten, or one night in twenty, but i don't want to go to sleep worrying about the odds, and i don't want to have to wake up and hightail it out of there before anyone spots me. It's just too much stress for me, especially given i can afford the yuppie option. That's privilege, i suppose, but also it's the desire to avoid conflict. One reason i don't break the law more often isn't because i think i the law is good. Usually i think the law is stupid. But i also can't be bothered fighting it or trying to explain myself, because that's more trouble than it was worth to break the law in the first place. Fuck the authorities. But, also, meh. I'm not a revolutionary, i'm just someone who wants to be left alone.
Anyway, i stayed in the motel and then booked my next night's camping in advance. Because i saw it was on a fucking Cold War missile silo! Yeah! My kind of sightseeing!
I checked the weather and a spot of rain was forecast for the evening. Not enough to worry about. So i figured instead of cycling around or away from the rain like i normally do, i'd head into it.
It fucking rained, buddy! Buddy, did it rain.
I did have an amazing 20 mile ride to Luray, a dead straight highway with absolutely nobody on it, and dozens of abandoned buildings around the place. Luray had nothing in it, but Lucas had some art. Lucas was the place i had been recommended by the dog lady (and immunologist, did i mention that?) on my first evening in Kansas. Some old eccentric guy lived there and turned his house into a giant sculpture, then when he died he had himself mummified and left on the site as part of the artwork. The whole town has leaned into the quirky art thing, so there are bizarre installations all over the place.
Well, half the town. The other half has Trump flags and Fuck Biden signs all over it. It's the first really overtly political town i've been to in Kansas. In Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, every larger town had one house that was the overtly political house. Without fail it was always the biggest, most expensive house in town, or a ritzy ranch on the outskirts. You could argue that poor people can't afford to festoon their house with political paraphernalia, but i think the reality is most hardcore right-wingers in America are actually fairly well-off, despite their claims to speak for the downtrodden, forgotten, rural poor. I think they're the ones who employ the actual rural poor, and then complain that said poors are lazy for wanting a living wage. Small wonder half the country doesn't vote at all. The loudest right and left wingers, they're both just wealthy people with the time and money to spout ideology at one another. Meanwhile the poor and working class don't feel they have any representation at all. That was the sense i got while traveling through the US in the lead-up to the 2015 presidential election and nothing much has changed since.
But yeah, Lucas, the first town i've been to where it wasn't just the richest person in town wearing their Trump or bust beliefs on their sleeve. I suspect part of it is a reaction to the town being a roadside attraction for presumed liberal elites. So much of this political propaganda feels like petty point-scoring, hardly anyone seems to bother putting an actual policy they care about on a sign.
And, i gotta say, the whole art thing went over my head too. I didn't even bother taking a tour. I just don't get it. I don't get most capital-A Art. Murals, graffiti, sure. Trippy installations and psychedelic graphics designed to complement a night of excellent electronic music, yeah i get it. Statue of liberty in the middle of the prairie, giant ball of twine, i get that. SPAM. Star Trek. Wizard of Oz. Supernatural. Pop culture shit, i get it. Some whole sculpture made of clay or cement or some damn thing, some deep concept, a dead body on display, nah, that's over my head. I don't care. High art can get fucked. I am sure all my art-loving friends are cringing but i am what i am. If i need to read a booklet to find out what the point is or why it supposedly matters, i'm out.
I also got a mediocre breakfast.
So Lucas was not my cup of tea, but things got much worse when i cycled south to Wilson. It poured. It pissed down. There is a giant Czech egg in town, and i don't even know what a Czech egg is but giant ones are very cool, but i couldn't even enjoy it because i was sodden. I stopped in for another meal not 2 hours after my first one just to cheer me up. This meal was much better.
And now i am camped on top of a missile silo, which i will hopefully tour tomorrow morning when the rain stops. All the fields around are full of oil derricks and windmills. The interstate is just a couple miles away. No 4G. It's a very odd and contradictory spot. But this, this is my kind of spot. I will cycle through hours of heavy rain to come somewhere like this. You can keep your art. Gimme a bunch of power plants and a military base in the middle of the prairie. That's my jam.
Still raining. I am cold. I think i will stay in the tent to eat. Maybe i will watch a show. I wonder if i have anything Cold War-y or post-apocalyptic downloaded? Maybe Y: The Last Man.
It was so neat watching the first few episodes of Y: The Last Man. I read the first few seasons of the comic years ago, so it was sort of nostalgic to see it come to life.
The next morning the sun came out and dried up all my gear. The camp host took me and an RVer couple for a tour of the missile silo, and it was rad as hell. It's just straight-up cool to go underground in this base built to withstand a nuclear blast and get an idea of what life would've been like for the soldiers working there. It felt a bit like walking around in an abandoned vault from the Fall Out: New Vegas computer game.
And then i embarked on a long, uneventful ride south. There was basically no towns 60km south to Great Bend and then another no towns 50km south to the place i am camped near St John. I didn't take any scenic detours. My body is hurting from the ride. I just wanted to get south, fast. I did get a fantastic lunch from a mercado in Great Bend, so that was something.
But, yeah, set up the tent, ate dinner, lay down with the intention to watch some TV, then immediately passed out. I just woke up to type this. And then i will go back to sleep. I am zonked.
I have to admit the lack of campsites round this part of the country is a bit annoying. They either seem to be too close for a day's ride, or too far. I got into the rhythm of about 100-120km a day, so when i go less it feels like i'm not making efficient use of the day, but going more is really pushing my limits.
The reason i'm getting antsy about distance is i penciled in a Skype drinks with my friend R, and that means i will need to be in a motel for guaranteed internet connection. But if i stay in a motel, i'd like to at least stay in a town whose food offerings are a little more exciting than fucking burgers.
I am getting sick of small town dining. Every time i see another menu with the same bland combination of meat and cheese on white bread i want to bash my head into a wall. I still appreciate it as a way to connect with and put some money into the local community, but it's making my taste buds and my stomach sad. I find myself looking forward to my evening meal of peanuts in a tortilla with some Tajin, maybe with a few dates or dried mango strips... because that's the most filling and flavorful thing i eat all day. Which says more about country restaurants than my Ursack bounty. I can't believe people here don't eat any fruits or nuts unless they are baked into a pie with a half pound of sugar, but it seems that's the way it is. And vegetables? If you're lucky enough to even see one, which you probably won't be, they're either deep fried or smothered in cheese. Sometimes both.
Anyway, yeah, so i have been planning ahead and trying to find a route that will take me to an interesting town for Thursday and maybe Friday night. I think the winner is Stillwater, Oklahoma, which is a college town and slightly more diverse than the other Extremely Fucking White towns i have mostly been stopping at. Obviously i could also go to Wichita or Oklahoma City (Tulsa is too far), but they would create too-short (or too-long) days of riding, which was my original dilemma.
Not that it's much of a dilemma, but that's what my life problems have been reduced to. Oh no. If i go that way, i might only have a 60km day between this lake and that one. Woe is me.
Ho ho ho, said Mother Earth, let's bust this little cyclist's hubris.
If you checked LiveJournal yesterday, you know i got caught in a pretty big storm. The forecast did say there would be some storms, but only overnight. Instead the first wave arrived just after lunch. I had eaten a large omelette in Cunningham, listening to the next table over talk about climate change and how it isn't human-caused so there's nothing we can do, but i didn't arrive early enough to know that their conversation must have started as a conversation about the surprise storm that was now less than an hour away.
I had no internet, you see. For a very brief and joyous band between Great Bend and St John, i had 4G. Then, after just going a handful of kilometers south, darkness. And no free wifi to be found. Not having regular weather updates is a very big problem in storm prone areas. I only started getting the emergency broadcast updates for tornado watch in the evening, after i had already checked into a motel.
Leaving Cunningham i got fucked by a bypass which had one entrance to the freeway a half mile out of town, and then no entrances for a few miles in either direction. So the main road i was on which seemed like it should rejoin the freeway ended up turning into a dirt road and heading back out into the prairie, directly away from the highway. That's when the storm hit me.
My bike, my gear, my clothes - all caked with sand. Most of the back roads in Kansas are not gravel roads, they are just packed sand, and in the rain that means mud and grit. I figured the safest place to be would be the highway, since it'd be less likely to flood and at least i would be visible in a real emergency (tornado) and able to get help.
I had to cycle about 40km in the end, arriving at Kingman with soaked everything, cracked skin from the hail stones and missing my wing mirror which must've flown off during the fiercest wind gusts along the highway.
So my plans will have to change, and i might only make Ponca City by Thursday. RIP my search for good food.
But, whatever. At least i survived. Overnight the storms lashed Kansas again, and tornadoes hit in some rural parts of the state as well as in Oklahoma. No major damage, but i'm glad i wasn't camping through it. Perhaps getting caught in the daytime was a blessing in disguise. At least it got me into shelter.
I really need this fucking internet to work better, though. It's a safety issue. It's fucking nuts that you can't just have one SIM card that works all over America. It seems you need SIMs from at least all three major carriers just to have assured service in every small town. I feel like i have stepped into the dark ages.
I suppose i could've pushed on to Winfield, if not my original plan of Arkansas City. But i am soft and stopped at around 120km, Wellington KOA camp site. KOA campsites are sort of uncool in the bike tourer and hitchhiker set, because they are family-oriented and cost twice as much as a sketchy RV park or scenic state park, but this one was conveniently located and i feel like i still deserve some pampering. That is, wifi included, spotless flush toilets, private showers, and a cheerful bunch of happy kampers who come to these places to socialize as much as to camp.
I met a full-time RVer who goes week by week. That's a smart way to travel. Set up at a site where you get weekly rates (cheaper), leave your caravan there and take the truck around to visit all the attractions in the area. Bit more of a relaxed pace than my every-day-a-new-town thing. He said he books in monthly in south Texas towns for the peak winter time, since it's cheaper and less packed with snowbirds than Arizona or Florida. Man. He's living the dream. Full-time travel would be the greatest.
Today's ride was an uneventful one. Blasted down the freeway with a tailwind (finally!) then switched over to a greenway when i got closer to Wichita. Stopped into a store for supplies, then had the best damn lunch ever at a Peruvian place i stumbled upon. Then booked it south and here i am. Tomorrow Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is one of my least-want-to-visit states. It has such a fucked up history. It started as "Indian Territory", which is where they drove all the indigenous people from the eastern states away to. Then as usual the promises were broken and the white man came in and settled it anyway in a first-come-first-serve land grab that the state denizens are still proud of cheating to win. Then former slaves started their own businesses and industry in Tulsa. Then the white man came along and massacred them too. Somewhere along the way there was a geographic clusterfuck that made the panhandle a no man's land that used to belong to Texas but Texas wasn't allowed it any more because they wanted to keep slaves and slaves were not allowed north of the 36°30 parallel. The whole state is a giant blazing reminder of how the white man screwed everybody else on the continent. Also, wrestling commentator Jim Ross comes from there. That's all i know about Oklahoma.
But i will keep an open mind, and it might just surprise me.
Oklahoma is tomorrow, where i will pause in a motel for a couple days for Skype drinks with R and to email friends and family who are not on LiveJournal and have no idea where i am. Tonight i say good night to Kansas. This state has been pretty good to me.