Not one who sleeps deeply or easily, I slept like a rock on that second night, despite an AC unit that sounded like it was channelling a couple of jackhammers that I’ve used. Upon waking, I realize that a sinus infection is trying to develop inside my head, and that I’ve developed some nasty little saddle-sores. The sinus infection will never develop into anything worth treating, thanks to serious and thick humidity that I’ll be swimming my bike through in the coming days. The saddle sores, on the other hand, are something that I’m going to learn a great deal about as the days roll along.
A SW wind is up before we are in the morning, and 6:30 finds us at the local c-store again, wolfing down some calories and filling water bottles with ice and liquid. We crossed into the central time zone yesterday, so our starts are a little later now. Once again, our first several miles of the day follow a busy highway, (this time US 54 from Plains to Meade. This early on a Sunday morning, the traffic is pretty light.
When Dave and I were choosing a route, we wrestled with what we were looking for in the roads that we wanted to follow. On the one hand is the argument for highways with nice wide shoulders that allow plenty of room for cars to pass. This tactic will keep you closer to civilization for sure, with a greater number of c-stores I would guess. On the other hand is the argument for low traffic levels, even if that means a smaller (or non-existent) shoulder.
If you check out advice on the web, you’ll most likely be shown routes like US 54 as a good bicycle route. The state of Kansas has got an absolutely dynamite resource for bicyclers – it’s a map that describes both shoulder size and traffic volume on all the routes in Kansas, as well as some recommended cross-state routes. Of all the states that I’ve looked at, Kansas is hands-down the best at providing these sorts of good resources to cyclists. In Colorado we think of ourselves as bicycle friendly, but Colorado can’t hold a candle to Kansas in regard to these sorts of resources. Hats off to the folks who made this happen!
In our case, Dave and I decided that we really wanted to opt for less traffic – especially since the first 200 miles or so of the trip would be extremely low traffic. This turned out to be a really good decision on our part, as it contributed tremendously to the enjoyment of the ride. It’s so nice to have big stretches of road with zero traffic, where you can hear and enjoy the prairie around you.
This morning, we recognize the importance of that decision during the first dozen miles of the day, as we make our way over to Meade along US 54. While traffic is light, we still have a big truck passing every couple of minutes, which just grates on the psyche. In addition, even though there is a huge shoulder, it’s littered with a fair amount of glass and other garbage. Even when the traffic is relatively light, most of your attention is focused on listening and watching for vehicles coming up behind you, and watching the road ahead for glass and other “junk”.
We stop at the truck-stop diner in Meade, and I have my first of several chicken-fried steak and eggs breakfasts. After the bonk on the day before, I’m committed to pouring lots of calories into the engine room today. We ride around town a bit before circling back to the truck-stop diner, hoping to find a real diner in town. But alas, we’re able to find no diner that’s survived the ravaging of the walmarting effect.
For many years, I’ve had a special fondness for the small-town diner at breakfast time. There’s always the “big table” – the one where the men in town come and have their breakfast. Seems like there’s always a well-defined but unspoken pecking order and structure defining who sits at this table, and generally where they sit as well. Guys will come and go as the morning rolls along – seems like about the time one guy leaves, his replacement comes in and has a seat. A woman would never have a seat at that table, nor would a stranger in town. This is the morning gathering place, where men socialize like men do, and then it’s off to chores at the farm or the store in town.
A social place, where good-natured jabs are traded, talk of futures prices and rain chances are common, as are good-natured ribbing and teasing, and the bonds that hold a community together are reinforced each morning as the day begins. Women have their spots I imagine – the places and the ways that the local bonds are molded and reinforced – but that’s just not something I’m tuned into. But the “big table” at the local diner is something that I’ve watched and enjoyed most of my life. There’s an energy that comes from that gathering – that “place” in town. It’s one of the sources of energy that holds a town together, and holds a people together. Surely not the only source of important energy in a town, but one of the really important ones.
How can we wonder why so many small towns dry up and blow away in America. A town is a “place”, and people are connected to this place. There’s an energy of place that grows as people build and maintain their relationships between themselves, their families, and their community. They become tied to that place, and the place to them. When we stop sitting together at the big table, the energy starts to drain from this “place” that is ours, and time is all that stands between us and our disconnection from place. Our town dries up, and the wind blows down Main Street in the morning all by itself.
This morning, we check everyplace we can, and find no diner. I’m sad that the only place to eat is the truck stop on the highway, and that we don’t get to sit and enjoy the energy that comes from that big table at the diner. That’s my loss for this morning. I guess I’m even more sad that the town has lost the diner and the big table, and the regenerative and supportive energy that is stirred in that place every morning.
Following breakfast, we head out of town with our bellies full, and the fine feel of the wind on our back as we head east. US 160 forks off off of US 54 just outside of town, and we immediately feel the quiet of the prairie embrace us as we glide along with a tailwind, leaving the noise and clutter of 54 behind us. The sound of truck tires buzzing on the highway is replaced by the sweet song of the Meadowlarks as they sing us down the road.
We’re deep into the hilly grasslands now that were once the northern reaches of the great Comanche Nation. The land has a different feel to it than it did 50 miles back, with the irrigated flatland replaced now with big rolling hills covered in grass and cattle. Riding along on 2 wheels, I can imagine this same ride 200 years ago on a pony, watching herds of buffalo make their way across this rich grassland. The place has a feel that makes it easy to conjure up the presence of the folks who once called this “place” home. 200 years ago, they were the most feared warriors on the plains, mastering the art of horsemanship to a level no other tribe matched. Their nation stretched from just north of where we ride today all the way down into Mexico, from west Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle all the way to the forests of eastern Oklahoma and Texas.
I think about this as I ride, serenaded by the meadowlarks on either side of me, watched by the occasional Marsh Hawk and Red Tailed hawk above. I think about this sense of “place” that the Comanche Nation of people – Americans before I was an American – was attached to. They were part of this place, and it was part of them. They lost their “Place” to invaders who had greater numbers and greater technology. What is it that Americans 200 years from now will attribute to the loss of our Rural Nation and the sense of “Place” that Rural Americans are letting slip from their hands today, diner by diner, hardware store by hardware store? Will it be technology? Will the historians say that we sacrificed the Big Table at the local diner to watch some idiot talking head on some crackpot cable news channel? Will they say that we sold our heritage to the Big Box drug of aisle after aisle of aisle after aisle? Will the fox have stolen the goods out from under our nose while we watched the plasma TV in a stupor?
Having grown up in Kansas, and spent my formative years on the prairie, I feel very attached to this land that we roll through this morning, cruising easily at 20+ MPH and feeling strong and vibrant with a clean wind behind us. This is my favorite ride of the trip so far, by a long shot.
Whoever thinks of Kansas as flat, by the way, has just never ventured to the many places in the state where you have more hilly terrain. These rollers are wonderful going east – they’re probably a little more work going west. Add a tailwind to the eastbound ride and the world is in perfect harmony.
The highway turns south for a few miles, traveling through the area known as Big Basin. Big Basin is a giant sink hole that’s over a mile in diameter. You see these sink holes all through this area, and they really add to the mystique and beauty of the landscape. As we head south, we feel the west wind on our right shoulder, reminding us how sweet the tailwind feels, as we look forward to the turn east again a few miles down the road.
I’ve learned another nice little bit of wisdom by this point on the ride – the difference between the way Dave and I like to view the road in front of us. As we turn south and need to be unhappy about the wind for a while, I want to have a picture of my mind of exactly how far we’re going to ride this direction. I know that it’s about 5 or 6 miles, and then it starts bending east again. Dave, on the other hand, wants to think that its farther than that, and be pleasantly surprised when it isn’t as far or we make it faster than he expected. So I tell Dave it’s about 10 miles, and he’s delighted when we turn before that.
This is a fun little difference that I’ll think about often. I find joy in predicting and planning just right, and if anything tend to be overly optimistic about what I can get done. Dave wants to plan for the worst and be happy about things going better than expected. Dave is the guy who you want to have planning your trip if life and limb is on the line. We’ve both found the way to look forward that works best for us, and from which we find the greatest joy. Switching outlooks would make us miserable, but working together, we end up with some pretty good planning and execution.
After turning again to the east, Dave finds what must be the only tree along the road on the 70 miles between Plains and Coldwater. We stop under the tree and enjoy a few minutes of shade before mounting up again for the remaining rollers leading into Ashland.
In Ashland, we stop for an early lunch at the Ranch House Cafe. Our timing is perfect, as the proprietor is just laying out the Sunday church crowd buffet, but the church crowd won’t arrive for another 30 minutes. I’ll find out 30 minutes too late that shoving 2 big plates of meat loaf and mashed potatoes into your belly before going out and pedaling down the sweltering asphalt on a hot July Kansas day isn’t the wisest thing a guy can do, but I’ve never been accused of being the wisest guy rolling down the asphalt either. Remember that I’m trying to assure that I keep plenty of calories stacked in the engine room today, and I overdo it a bit at the Ranch House. Leaving the cafe, we fill our bottles with ice and water at the c-store in town, and look at each other with great disappointment as we realize that our wonderful west wind has now died – there isn’t a breath of air moving. This makes the temperature above the asphalt soar, as there is no breeze to move the heat off the blacktop as it collects. The food in my belly sits heavy and sorry in the rising heat as we continue out of Clark County and into Comanche County. The rollers continue, but they’ve lost some of their joy as the tailwind has abandoned us and we feel the hot air sap the energy from us. It got up to 109 that afternoon. We didn’t know at the time what the temperature was – we just knew it was hot.
We take a quick break at the c-store in Protection, enjoying the AC and some fresh ice. We’re in very familiar country to me now, as Peggy has family here in Protection, and I like to spend time with them. I hunt here a good deal most years as well – usually whitetail archery.
That sense of connection with “place” is very strong for me here in these slowly rolling hills. I feel great kinship with this space. It’s all I can do to resist turning off the highway in order to go sit on the land that I hunt. Each year when I spend time on this land, I feel more connected to it. There are certain corners and spots where I find myself drawn year after year, just to sit and listen.
This connection isn’t an “ownership” thing at all. I’ve many places where I feel this connection – this sense of “touch” with the place. Many of those places are on someone’s private land, many are on public land. That sense of connection and touch actually belies the entire notion of “ownership” of land in many ways. If I lived 200 years ago in the America that supported slavery, how would I have felt toward people that I “owned”? Just how much would I have felt that a slave was really “mine”? My apologist mind likes to think that I would have considered the labor of this person to be “mine”, and the goods that they produced, but that the notion of actually owning the “person” – a person with a soul and a calling – that this notion would have been unthinkable to me.
Of course, I’m not naive enough to think that there weren’t a great many (probably most) people who really did feel like the “owned the person”. In fact, I know that there was significant “religious” teaching at the time saying that we only enslaved people who were “soul-less” – that they weren’t people in the same way that we were people.
And what about a land – a “place” – can it have a soul of sorts?
I think it can, and I think our soul often connects to the soul of a “place”. Maybe the nature of the soul is different among people and land, but I surely feel it’s there somehow. I surely think that when a “people” are strongly connected as a tribe or a group or a community, that this people can then become strongly connected to the soul of a place.
This gets to the nature of the misunderstanding between the Americans that lived here on this place 200 years ago, and the Americans who came later. Our culture today views ownership as a really important notion – in fact we have politicians who like to use the term “ownership society”. The Americans who we conquered didn’t have such notions. They seemed confused by the concept of “owning” a “place” – it was a foreign concept to them.
Not being an anthropologist, I’m conjecturing here and exposing many of my own biases, but I find it interesting that most of the folks who were here 200 years ago seemed to accept a certain notion of “slavery”, in that it seemed common that women and children would be taken on raids from other tribes, and would be raised in a slavery of sorts, but maybe it was different than our concept of slavery? It seems that it was pretty common among most tribes that people taken as slaves would evolve into members of the society – no longer “slaves”. I’m not sure at all how this happened and why, but the fact that it happened suggests to me a different notion of what slavery was, and what “ownership” meant in that context.
Maybe things were thought to move in and out of your life – that you were given certain “assets”, and that you took others. Maybe there was a sense of responsibility for those “assets” for which you were a steward? Maybe the land that supported you was seen as something that you were a partner with – something that you was meant to steward and get benefit from? But maybe it bordered on blasphemy to think that the land that you was partnered with and connected to could somehow be “owned” by you?
Today, I might hire people to work for me. I expect to profit from their labor, and I expect to treat them fairly. They expect to be paid and treated fairly, and they expect me to profit enough from their labor to stay in business and prosper. They expect me to manage the business well. While it’s an employment relationship, implied in this relationship is a sense of shared responsibility to one another. There is an inherent respect and honor that is part of the relationship.
This is very different from the slavery relationship as we conceive it today. While an employer today profits from the energy of his employee, there is no sense of “ownership”. The relationship must nurture both parties.
Because people have souls – they are important in the cosmos – they are not beings to be owned.
And land? If there is a sense of “place” – an energy and feeling with which we connect to a place – then doesn’t this imply some sort of “soul-like” thing? Can you really “own” such a thing?
Don’t get me wrong – I own my house, and my truck, and my business. I’m firmly entrenched in our cultural notion of “ownership”. I’m not planning on rejecting that any time soon.
But I am offering some questions about what this all means. I suppose I “own” my dog too, but that word doesn’t really describe the relationship well. My dog lives with me, and gives me unconditional love and affection. When I grow up, I want to be half the man my dog things I am. I take good care of her, and feed her, and return her love and affection. She and I have spent countless hours in the field hunting birds together. There’s a very strong bond of energy and connection between us, and I’ve seen it working magically in the field. She lives with me still, and I take care of her. She’s my dog, and I’m her man. Ownership isn’t really the right word.
Riding down the blacktop, I’m thinking about this place that I love – just a mile off the road where I’m now riding. It’s “owned” by someone I know well, and he’s been kind enough over the years to allow me the access to the land that’s allowed me to develop a strong connection to the land as I’ve hunted it.
We’re coming up to the final rise before the road where I would turn to get to that land, when I hear the cry of a Broad-Winged Hawk coming from the direction of the land. There’s something wrapped around its head in some way, that turns out to be either a Blackbird or a Kingbird. As we watch, the small bird disengages from the hawk – flying above it again for a few wingbeats – before descending again and literally landing on the hawks shoulders. We watch in amazement as the hawk cries again while the smaller bird harasses it while riding it’s shoulders and head. For several wingbeats the smaller bird hangs on, before disengaging and flying off again. I’ve never seen anything like this, though I’ve heard of it happening, and I’m amazed and pleased that this unique little thing happened just as we were passing by the land to which I feel so connected.
As I crest the next hill, I expect to feel like I’m descending. While I do feel a bit of a descent, it’s not nearly as much as I expected, and I’m having to put energy into pedal strokes much more than I thought I would right here. When I look back later on these next couple of miles, I’ll realize that the heat was taking a bigger toll than I thought it was, as was the anger in my belly over the volume of food I’d stuffed it with before subjecting myself to this heat.
Dave is a couple hundred yards up the road, and it looks from the way he’s riding that he’s suffering too. About a half mile or so up the road we turn, and I see a pickup with a big horse trailer make the same turn that we’re going to make, only coming in the opposite direction – toward us. I see him pull over to the side of the road, and watch as Dave rides over to him when Dave gets to where he has pulled over. I can’t imagine he’d be asking us for directions, and figure maybe he’s just wanting to chat.
All across Colorado and Kansas, we’ve been repeatedly surprised by the friendliness and genuine concern that people have for us as we ride. I’ve often been honked at by cars in my years cycling, and we’ve had a few of those incidents on this ride too. But one of the new things that I’ve seen on this ride is the occasional “friendly honk”. Of course, I can’t say for absolute certainty that the driver was honking in a friendly way when this occurred, but I really felt that was the case, based on how they did it and the circumstances and conditions.
On this afternoon, as I approach the driver and Dave as they chat, the nicest gesture yet was occurring. Just as I arrive, the driver waves and climbs back into his pickup, and Dave hands me a bottle of ice cold water. The driver had seen us cycling, and had pulled over and dug a couple bottles of water out of the ice chest in the trailer, and handed 2 of them to Dave. Then he’s off up the road.
Where else would you see this happening I wonder? This guy takes the time and energy to pull over and dig the water out of the trailer, handing it to us and heading down the road. He wasn’t looking for anything from us, wasn’t wanting to talk. He just sees a couple guys who could probably use some ice-cold water, and he wants to share some with us.
Now, there’s cold water, and then there’s ice-cold water. This water has obviously been sitting in ice for a while, and man is it cold. I’m sure the contrast with the temperature on the road makes it feel even colder, but I don’t remember many times in my life when I’ve had cold water like this. I never stop the bike – just take the bottle from Dave as he hands it to me. I drink it while I slowly ride the bike there on the side of the road, and savor the ice-cold liquid as it sucks some of the heat out of my insides. It’s the perfect elixir – meant for exactly this moment – delivered by an angel in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, with as many wrinkles as I’ve got myself, sporting a smile, a wave, and a heart of gold.
Riding north for a few miles into Coldwater, I think we’re both questioning whether we want to continue past Coldwater today and into the Medicine Hills. We want to enjoy the ride from Coldwater to Medicine Lodge, and the heat this afternoon is rapidly draining the pleasure from the riding. Plus, there’s a hint of NE in the air movement that we’re feeling around us, making us wonder if we’d be fighting a headwind if we continued. There’s nothing at all on the 30 miles or so from Coldwater to Medicine Lodge, so we don’t want to start the ride if we’re not positive we’ve got those miles left in our legs.
We stop in Coldwater and sit down at the the place that has become the local diner – Dave’s Pizza Oven. Dave’s has been around for several years, and does a pretty darned good business. Sometimes they have a dynamite buffet, but today we just order something light and some ice water. Dave (Pizza Oven Dave) comes over and chats with us for a while. He’s a bike rider from way back, and once worked in a bike shop up in Hays. He says he doesn’t spend much time on the bike these days, but I suspect that some bike riding days are coming around again for Dave in the future.
Peggy meets us there at the Pizza Oven for lunch, dropping off a couple things I forgot, and taking from me some things that I found I didn’t need to drag around with me any more. She’s headed to Wichita to visit with family for a few days, and we’re glad to have the chance to do some equipment exchange here.
With a short day behind us, (our first sub-100 mile day), we rest up in the afternoon, and come to realize just how much the heat had taken out of us during those last 30 miles on the sweltering blacktop. We enjoy dinner at the Pizza Oven early, and with some rest behind us, we’re game for some good discussion.
To this point on the ride, we’re usually pretty wiped out at dinner. But this evening, our afternoon rest has re-energized us, and we’re up for good conversation. In this sparsely decorated old corner-store-turned-pizza-oven, there’s a vibrant energy of connection. It’s that energy that happens in the town diner, where folks come together to “just be together”, and truly socialize. While most towns have lost their diners, Coldwater is lucky to have someone like Dave who’s willing to keep that “place” and that energy going. And the pizza’s not bad either.
Dave (not Pizza Oven Dave) and I really enjoy the kind of discussion that usually gets us kicked out of casual encounters – stuff like religion and politics. This is important stuff, and Dave and I both feel strongly and passionately about many things. We might not always agree, but we respect each other enough to disagree with respect for the opinions of the other. And at the end of the day, even when we don’t agree, we usually find that the points of agreement dramatically outnumber the points of disagreement.
It’s sad that we’ve lost that ability to disagree in America. I guess its because so few people actually think for themselves anymore – they just find the TV channel that will feed them the opinions and the slanted facts that they want to believe, and learn to demonize everyone who doesn’t agree with them. My grandmother is 101 years old this year, and this is something that she has lamented with me many times – this loss in our culture of respect for opinions and beliefs that are different from our own.
If people actually spent the energy to learn real facts, and form their own opinions, they’d usually find that there really isn’t a great deal of difference even with those with whom we disagree. Generally our foundational values are similar, and we just see things from a slightly different perspective, colored by the different life events that we each carry inside the lens through which we see the world. However, when people only watch news feeds that tell them the facts that support their already held opinions, then it becomes harder and harder to see the similarities, and it becomes harder and harder to see and understand the subtle differences in the lens that we’re looking through, and to see the real and big similarities that do exist.
This evening, Dave brings up an idea that he’s tossed around a bit before – the notion of how much real joy different people find in the things that they do in life. This is a real interesting line of conversation, and I’ve continued to think about it often since that evening.
On the one hand are the “destination folks” – the folks who view life in general as a series of checklists. Folks with this mindset tend to move through life, and participate in activities, in order to “check them off” of a list someplace. They are focused on the destination more than the journey – the journey is something that must be traveled in order to check the destination off of the list.
On the other hand are the “journey folks” – the folks who are headed toward a destination, but they find the joy and the satisfaction in the journey. While arriving at their destination might be important, it is really only important in that it marks the final milestone on a journey. It’s the journey and the joy in the journey that they focus on.
I like this juxtaposition, and the ideas and discussion that it stimulates. I remember reading somewhere that a difference similar to this translates pretty effectively to the political leanings that a person has – that the more “destination” focused someone is, the more likely they are to support more authoritarian and right-wing political positions and outlooks, while the more “journey” focused someone is the more likely they are to support more liberal and left-wing political positions and outlooks. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but have to say that the anecdotal evidence in my life would support this idea.
I know that in my life, I’ve evolved quite a bit in this regard. Earlier in life, I was pretty darned destination focused. In fact, when I got married, I dang near caused my wife to divorce me on our honeymoon by driving us straight through from Kansas to Myrtle Beach, stopping only for gas and food – and probably not often enough for the latter. I know I took a couple of 1-hour breaks for little naps along the way. It was something like 1400 miles, and when we pulled into our destination at sunrise the second day, I could almost hear the cheers of the crowd delighted with this great accomplishment. What I was actually hearing, I think, was the fading sizzle of any remnant of affection or positive feelings that my wife may have had for me prior to that drive. A little more journey and a little less destination was what my wife seemed to have had in mind, but all I knew about at the time was destination.
From that day forward she understood that all she needed to do was give me the destination for the day when we traveled – tell me where we were going to stop for the night. That way, I had my destination, and as long as we made reasonable progress toward that destination, I learned to find satisfaction. I can be taught.
That’s a key point – that satisfaction that I learned to find. Because it isn’t as though the “destination” folks are joyless – we find great joy in checking things off our list! We miss a lot, but we do have that one thing that we know gets us high – checking that item off the list.
Dave feels certain that he falls generally into the “destination focus” group, and is pretty hard on himself for this focus – seeing it as a weakness I think. I have to admit, Dave is a walking adding machine, able to recite at any moment exactly how many miles we’ve gone on the trip so far, and how many today, and how many to the next town with a motel. He keeps track of our mileage covered hour by hour, so in the middle of the day he can tell you exactly what our average speeds have been hour by hour throughout the day.
I usually don’t even want to know this stuff, because it changes the complexion of the ride for me. But for Dave, he finds real joy in keeping track of this stuff and thinking about it as he rides. True joy I think. And what’s wrong with that?
Over the years, I’ve changed quite a bit in my “journey vs destination” focus. I’ve learned that there’s often real joy and magic along the journey, and if I’m too focused on the destination, I’ll miss this joy and magic. I’ve learned that I still require a destination of sorts – a place where I’m headed – but as long as I have that destination on the map, I’m able to focus my attention on the path that I’m walking. By doing this, I often find that the place where I arrive is very different from what I expected – that allowing the journey to change me and define both me and the journey itself, I can find a much greater destination than I had envisioned.
By the same token, if my attention and drive is focused too much on the destination, then I seem to find a way to arrive at exactly the destination that I am aiming at, missing the opportunities that present themselves along the path that might expand and present a “more right” destination. I become blind to everything except the goal. If not blind, then at least oblivious to the real joys and magic that might be lurking in a little corner now and again, and certainly unable to allow the journey to redefine or enhance the destination.
Of course, I’m sure there’s lots of folks who fall prey to the other extreme – they have no destination in mind at all, and just wander along from path to path. This isn’t an extreme that I’m familiar with, but can imagine that it would be equally as dangerous as the “destination only” focus. Wandering from path to path, never having any focus for where it is that you might want to end up, spinning wheels and wandering in circles.
Like everything, there’s a balance in there someplace that seems like the healthiest place to be. Some notion on where it is we’re headed, but allowing focus on the journey, the joy, and the path. Enough tolerance and open-mindedness to change the destination and the direction when the wisdom of the path suggests it would be a good idea, enough discipline and drive to make sure that it’s the most right decision.
Dave and I talk through these notions as we quell what little remaining appetite we have at the end of this day. We certainly don’t end up knowing much more about the great questions of Life, The Universe, and Everything, but we’re pretty sure the answer is 42. (For more on this subject, see Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker Guide To The Galaxy series…)