Thunderstorms rolled through the Flint Hills overnight, and the air is heavy with humidity as we strap the bags onto the bikes in the dark this morning. There’s a light fog around us, and I can sense a heavy fog hanging above – between me and the sky. Some combination of sight and sound and smell makes that layer apparent in the dark. I’ve often wondered how we know it’s there, but we seem to be good at sensing it.
We fill the bottles with water, as we’re not sure if we’re going to find a c-store on our ride north along K177. Technically we go through Strong City right away, but we’re not sure what we’ll find this early. We each eat a granola bar – again just in case there aren’t any c-store calories waiting for us. Better safe than sorry…
The roads are still wet from the overnight rain. There’s a delightful quality to the sound of riding your bike down the streets of a small town early in the morning, before there’s light and before anyone’s up. The sound of the tires on the road and the chain as it turns bounce with a lonely feel off the walls of the homes as you pass. It’s one of my favorite parts of bicycle riding – that early-morning ride through a small town. This morning it’s enhanced by the light fog around us as we ride.
K177 follows a route that misses “downtown” Strong City. By doing this, we avoid a mile or so of travel on US56, which would have been greatly appreciated during the day when the road is busy, but this time of the morning, we’d have preferred to go through the middle of town in case there was a c-store. We recognize what’s happened when we’re crossing over US56 a mile or two west of town. We briefly consider heading back to town in search of a c-store, but quickly decide it’s not worth it – we’ve taken in a few calories, and we’ve got full water bottles.
It’s about a 20 mile ride to Council Grove before breakfast this morning. The air’s absolutely still as we move into the beautifully rolling landscape of the Flint Hills north of Cottonwood Falls. This section of highway might be one of the most beautiful in the country. (I probably said that about the last section too, didn’t I?) The combination of cool morning temperature and complete lack of wind of any sort, combined with the anticipation of riding this section of highway that I love so much, has me energized and excited.
I feel myself trying to edge toward riding harder – maybe getting up out of the saddle and hitting the pedals hard on some of the climbs. As my heart rate settles into a nice high-aerobic rate, and the respiration rate rises on the short climbs, I feel my body trying to find that aerobic “sweet spot” that’s so enjoyable.
This “aerobic sweet-spot” is fascinating to me. I’m not sure if most people experience it or not, but I know Dave has expressed that it happens to him. It’s not exclusive to cycling, but seems to happen with any aerobic activity that has a rhythm to it. Since I’m an atrocious runner, I can’t speak about running, but I know it happens when climbing hillsides on foot and when cross-country skiing.
I don’t have a good singing voice, but I’m passable at harmonizing with other voices. When I’ve sung with folks in the past – especially when singing accapella – there’s a really sweet thing that happens when the voices come into tune with one another. It usually doesn’t just happen with the first note, but rather it’s a progression that starts with folks struggling to find the right pitch. You steal sideways glances at each other, and might see a furrowed brow now and again. Folks are leaning away from the other voices to avoid distraction. Then, as the tune progresses, you hit a spot here and there where the voices come together very nicely. From these little spots of good harmony coming together, folks begin to smile, the wrinkles smooth out of brows, and tension is replaced by relaxation. Folks start to sing with their ears, letting the voice in their vocal chords act as a piece of what their ears are hearing. Most of the time, this is as far as it gets – a few really sweet spots where the harmony is just right, surrounded by a tune that’s close enough to sound pleasant.
But now and again, something happens that feels like a little piece of heaven. The voices come together in a perfect harmony, and they stay there. When this happens, eyes close, and everyone leans together so they can better hear the voice as a whole. Instead of 4 voices, the sound becomes a single voice. If you’re lucky enough to be part of that when it happens, it makes the hair on the inside of the back of your head stand up. You feel chills all the way to your toes. You never want the singing to stop. When it does stop, you feel an unspoken connection to the others in the group that’s quite powerful.
The aerobic sweet spot is a little like that sort of voice harmony to me. It builds slowly, and usually happens on a long climb – especially a gradual climb. My legs find a cadence that feels good. My respiration rate falls into some connection with that pedaling cadence, and it feels particularly good. Sometimes, that’s the end of it, and it’s a really enjoyable climb. But now and then, the heart finds a rate that blends well with the respiration and the cadence, and this sweet feeling of harmony wraps itself around me, and I never want the climb to end.
It’d be interesting to know if there is really a connection in the rhythm of these 3 functions – cadence, breathing, and heart-rate. When you’re in that sweet-spot, are the 3 rhythms actually relating to one another – could you see a pattern like you’d see in music? When it’s happening, the last thing I want to do is start to analyze something, so I never really try and pay attention – I just fall into the little slice of heaven that’s happening around me. Pedal, breathe, smile, and enjoy.
I also know that when I find this sweet-spot, I’m not fully aerobic. That is, the rates are high enough that I’m burning calories anaerobically. My sense is that I’m extremely efficient in how I’m burning the calories, but I’m anaerobic none-the-less. This morning, depending primarily on stored calories and hoping for 120+ miles before the day is over, the last thing I need to do is start to dip into the glycogen tank by burning calories anaerobically before I’ve even had breakfast.
So I sit back and focus on the wonder of the morning around me, resisting the temptation to lose myself in that sweet-spot harmony of strenuous work. It’s easy to focus instead on the world unfolding itself around me this morning as the sun moves toward daylight. It’s hasn’t risen yet, but it’s letting us know it’s on its way with a wonderful light show bouncing off the low clouds on the horizon, enhanced by fog that’s still stealing across the plains and hiding low in the valleys.
We come to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, and stop to admire the place. I try taking some pictures, but I’m not hopeful that they’ll turn out well in the low early-morning light. The architecture of both the house and the immense barn structure are beautiful, and we admire the property for a few minutes.
This farm is headquarters for the 11,000 acre preserve. It was built in the mid-1800s as a mansion for a large landowner/cattleman from southeastern Colorado, and changed hands many times since. In the end, it was combined with other properties to form the approximately 11,000 acres that are the current preserve.
When I lived here 35 years ago, the notion of a Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was being hotly debated. Back then, there was a significant portion of the regional population, as well as many at a national level, who could see in the Flint Hills the remnants of what was once the vast savanna of the Great Plains. The only reason that it still survived in the Flint Hills was that, with the exception of a few rich bottom lands, the hills weren’t suited to farming. Consequently, there were some pretty big stretches that had never been tilled, and still held a good measure of native grasses.
There are several varieties of tallgrass native to this region, but Big Bluestem was the dominant player in the tallgrass prairie, (Indian Grass and Switchgrass were also common). While Big Bluestem takes quite a while to become established when it’s first planted, it slowly and methodically expands and strengthens its root system over the years, eventually reaching deeply into the rocky soil in a way that allows it to withstand the ferocious winds, blistering heat, and deadly cold that’s part of life on the prairie.
Prior to 1820, it’s estimated there were 240 million acres of tallgrass prairie across the Great Plains. As America evolved into the version that we know now, the vast majority of this prairie was broken and tilled to be used as farmland. By the 1970’s, only a tiny portion of that original prairie still held the native tallgrass that had defined it. Some of that tiny portion existed in the Flint Hills, where generations of private ranch ownership had used the land for grazing. Generally, grazing is exactly what the prairie wants. However, when Big Bluestem matures and gets big about the middle of the summer, it’s value as forage to domestic cattle goes down dramatically. Consequently, grazing practice over the generations in the Flint Hills has evolved to a very efficient system, where large number of young cattle are brought in about April, and they graze until sometime in July, when the grasses are starting to get too mature. Then the cattle are taken to market, and the land waits until the next grazing season, or in some cases are cut for hay. This works well, except for the fact that Big Bluestem doesn’t tolerate heavy grazing well – especially early in the season. So year after year, the stands of Big Bluestem decrease little by little as they’re heavily grazed when they’re young. The prairie exists and all seems to be in balance, but the “tall” is being taken out of the tallgrass prairie, replaced with species that are more tolerant of the grazing patterns that come with domestic cattle production.
I should mention that Little Bluestem is also a pretty common plant that exists throughout the prairie. My guess is that it would grow just about anywhere in the country. It’s a beautiful plant whose seed-heads stand about 3’ tall in late summer. As autumn progresses, Little Bluestem ripens into the glory of the prairie, standing a beautiful rusty red throughout the winter. By the time spring finally rolls around, the ripened and dead top has finally surrendered to winter, laying down on the ground to let the new growth of spring push past it toward the sky. This species is a big player in prairie that’s referred to as “midgrass prairie”.
Big Bluestem, on the other hand, is a massive plant. I’ve hunted birds in fields that’ve been restored to large stands of Big Bluestem, and it’s like working your way through a forest. The seed-heads are 8’ tall, and the plant base is 6’ in diameter or more. I can imagine a stretch of prairie where Big Bluestem has established itself, and has been growing for hundreds of years. It once ruled the tallgrass prairie, and I imagine it was Big Bluestem that caused early white settlers to talk about prairie grasses to high you had to stand in the stirrups of your saddle just to see over the top.
As the years went by and Big Bluestem was pushed further and further from dominance in the tallgrass prairie, a number of efforts were launched to try and find a way to establish some sort of National Park or other protected area, where Big Bluestem could be allowed to reestablish itself, and the “tall” could come back to the tallgrass prairie.
Conservation organizations tried many times to find a way to establish a park or preserve over the years. Local landowners, however, were distrustful of government, and didn’t want the government to own a big piece of the Flint Hills. A generation earlier, the federal government had come in and used eminent domain buy up large tracks of land to flood for Tuttle Creek Reservoir – there were probably other examples like this as well – and this left a bad taste in the mouths of the landowning community in the area.
This is a classic battle in our country. Our culture is fiercely devoted to the rights of individuals, and from the early days we’ve defended private ownership of land, and the rights of the landowner. (Of course, we only got this fervor after we’d used eminent domain principles to take the land from its previous owners in the first place – the native cultures who were here before we were – but that’s a discussion for another time…)
So long as there was an endless supply of land still to the west of us we were OK. As we moved west, we would simply use the might of the federal government to apply principles of eminent domain, and take the land from the existing “owners”. But once we “settled” the land, and re-established ownership under European sounding names, we forgot how much we’d previously supported the notion of the federal government obtaining land in the interest of the nation as a whole. We became fierce supporters of the rights of the individual property owner, and we began to despise any efforts on the part of the federal government to act in the interest of the common good over the interest of the individual owner.
I describe the narrative in this way because it’s important to understand the history of the role of the federal government in land disputes. From the earliest stages of the development of our nation, the federal government has been active in defining the shape of our nation, and the ownership and control of the land of our nation.
It was under the leadership of a visionary Republican president, with the support of both houses of congress under Republican control, that the country took a dramatic turn toward increased involvement of the federal government in the management of vast tracks of land in this country for the common good. It was Teddy Roosevelt who began the National Park System, and who defined and shaped strategy and policy that recognized clearly the need for the federal government to act on behalf of “The People” of the nation overall, even when this was at odds with the interests of individual owners.
Which really brings us back to that word – conservative. I make no bones about the fact that Teddy is my #1 hero in the history of presidents in this country. He was conservative deep into his bones, and believed passionately in a new kind of conservation. While he absolutely supported the principles of individual land ownership, and was a fierce defender of the rights of the individual, he also believed deeply in the principles of pluralism upon which our country was founded. He believed that the interests of The Common Good, or The People, were the interests that the government needed to defend. And as a conservative – a conservationist – he brought more land in our country under government stewardship than all other presidents combined – before and since.
Of course, with power comes corruption, and there’s no doubt that there have been many instances in the history of federal, state, and local government in our country where the power of the state has been abused in the “taking” of property from individual landowners. Look at any major city in this country, and you’re likely to find that the city abused power in the taking of land to build sports stadiums, and that the primary beneficiary of this action was generally a very small group of wealthy owners. Not to discount that the public in general might enjoy some benefit from these stadiums, but when you try and stack the “common good” of a new stadium against the rights of the previous owners of the property, I suspect the math rarely works out so that it’s really “worth it” to the common good to take that property. A few who are already wealthy get more wealthy, the ownership rights of several people are stripped, and the “common good” might see a tiny little boost.
In this particular case, I really believe that the great fear was leftover from what folks in the area considered the abuses of power of the federal government when they created Tuttle Creek Reservoir. Throughout the Midwest, the Army Corps of Engineers was taking possession of thousands of tracks of rich farmland, and flooding it beneath a network of reservoirs meant to allow control of flooding further downstream in the Kansas, Missouri, and Mississippi drainage systems. Once the Corps decided on a project, they came in and took what they needed to create their reservoir.
I suspect that this network of flood-control measures has reduced downstream flooding tremendously over the past 4 or 5 decades, but I’m not qualified to argue that science. For the sake of argument, let’s say it has. We were able to control flooding downstream, but doing so required that we take the land of hundreds of farmers upstream. Surely some good resulted, but was enough “greater good” won to justify the taking of the land? Was something saved that couldn’t be replaced?
If you’re one of the landowners who lost your land, the answer is probably no. If you’re one of the folks downstream who experiences less flooding, the answer is probably yes. But what about me and the other 99%+ of America – do we feel that the equation was fairly weighed out? I can only speak for myself, and I’ve got to say that I’m not so sure the system was worth it. Why not accept that flooding occurs, and make sure that when people build in a flood plain, they accept responsibility and risk? Sure we loose some portions of cities, but when it happens, rebuild on higher ground. Even if the government picked up some of the tab, how much would we have saved when compared to the cost of building and maintaining this network of reservoirs? Bottom line – the costs incurred from a flood are avoidable – don’t build in the flood plain. If you choose to build in the flood plain, why should the federal government – The People of our nation – step in and bail you out? All we do is set ourselves up for continual and endless bailouts when disasters strike.
In the case of the Tuttle Creek project, I think I’d come down on the side of the landowners – there’s just not enough common good at risk to justify taking land. I could sure be full of s–t, but that’s the way I see it.
In the case of finding a place to preserve the final remnant of a once giant sea of tallgrass prairie, I think I see enough greater good to justify it. But the funny thing was, in this case, there probably wasn’t a lot of eminent domain type purchasing that would be required. In the end, after the preserve was created, the Nature Conservancy stepped in and bought all the land. So, it sits in private ownership, managed by the federal government. I suppose that’s a nice compromise that gets the job done. And of course, there’re probably big pieces of the story that I just don’t get.
The most important piece of this story to me is how important it is to see things from the other guy’s perspective. If I’m a landowner in this area, I’ve been brought up with a severe distrust of the government. No different than the Pawnee or Kansa tribes that lived here before, and were swindled by us through our federal government out of their land. Both sets of landowners distrust the government, because they’ve both seen abuse. They’re distrustful for good reason – they want their individual rights to the land protected above all else, and the federal government has proven that it will sometimes come down to protect the greater good of The People over the individual rights of owners.
On the other hand, folks who would benefit from the Prairie Preserve – essentially everyone who isn’t a landowner in the discussion – sees benefit, and can’t figure out why landowners are so distrustful. They stand to benefit from a Prairie Preserve, in that we’ll successfully preserve an important ecological piece of this great nation. These folks aren’t a bunch of wild-eyed radicals – they’re average Americans who believe in conservation and preservation – they’re extremely conservative in this respect. In fact, they’re probably a whole lot like the ancestors of the current landowners, who saw great benefit when the government took the land in the first place from the Pawnee and the Kansa.
Remember back on Day 1 of our ride – back when we talked with the folks who were opposing the expansion of the bombing range in southern Colorado? To my little tiny eyes, that’s a clear case of government abuse in trying to take land for something that just doesn’t serve enough common good to warrant the taking of the land.
Every situation is different. There isn’t a single right answer that applies all the time. That’s what I loved about the way Teddy approached things – pluralism – looking for that balance that represents the broadest possible interests while respecting individual rights.
We do live in a wonderful country, don’t we? How lucky we are. Lucky indeed.
And I’m feeling like one of the luckiest guys in the world this morning as I enjoy this perfect morning ride. This morning I take more pictures than any other morning of the ride. Before we stop for breakfast in Council Grove, I take over 100 pictures. In one spot, I’m so taken with the gestalt of the morning – the combination of beautiful early morning light, zero wind, low traffic, and the glorious morning sounds that I stop the bike and turn on my digital voice recorder – seeing if I can pick up some semblance of how nice the birds sound this morning. I’m not real handy with the machine, so just hit the “record” button and hold the little machine up in the air for a minute.
After an hour or so on the road, we make a nice fast descent into Council Grove. There’s a lot of history in this little town. It was a key point of “interface” for the Indian tribes that owned this land before we did, it was an important supply and provision point on the Santa Fe Trail, and it was the site of more than one important “treaty”.
Council Grove was right at the boundary between the lands of the Pawnee and the lands of the Kansa prior to the middle of the 19th century. What became known as the Santa Fe Trail had been a trading trail for many generations prior to the coming of the wagon trains, and I suppose it made sense that this ancient trading route would serve as a boundary between nations.
We look for a place to eat breakfast. There may be more places open for breakfast, but we found only the Saddlerock Cafe. I suppose with a great place like this to eat, a little town might not need any other breakfast spots. It’s toward the east end of town, just south of the main drag through town, at about 6th and Main.
Their chicken-fried steak and eggs might be the best of the trip. We end up sitting down next to the “big table” – the one where the local men gather for breakfast in the morning. It’s not a particularly big (physically) table, so the guys sort of rotate through as is generally the practice when it comes to this grand small-town tradition.
After breakfast we climb back into the saddle, and head further on up K-177. The wind is supposed to come up out of the NE today, so we hope to make it to Alta Vista and K-4 before it kicks up. By the time we reach K-4 and turn west, the wind has been hitting us in the face more and more strongly, and the left turn feels heavenly.
I’ve probably said it a dozen or more times, and I’m gonna say it again: There are few things in life as sweet as turning your bicycle so that the wind stops beating you, and starts to favor you. One minute you’re hearing the constant irritation of the wind blowing in your ear, frustrated by slow progress working against the wind, and the next minute a sweet and beautiful world opens up to you. The wind is on your back, the pedaling is suddenly easy, the sounds of the prairie around you replace the bitter wind in your ear, and you begin to notice the sweet smells blowing across your face.
K-4 has no shoulder on it, but the traffic volume is so sparse that it really doesn’t matter. While we’re still in the Flint Hills as we turn west, it doesn’t take long until the landscape around us has changed from prairie grasses to tilled farmland. We’ve transitioned to yet a new face of Kansas along this highway, with a deep earthy smell when we pass recently tilled fields with dark black soil. The population seems sparse still, though it seems to get a little thicker as we move west during the day.
On the map, it would appear that there are towns every 15 or 20 miles. While this is true, don’t expect to find much in the way of services in these towns. Since they are not on a major highway, they seem to serve a pretty small population. While you can find a gas station at most of them, and a c-store if you’re lucky, a place to sit and eat is pretty much out of the question until you hit Herrington. And if you want to eat at Herrington, you’ll need to detour off of K-4 to the south for 3 or 4 miles to get to a Pizza Hut. This morning we don’t want to take a chance, so we make the detour and eat at the Pizza Hut. As it turns out, there’s a place in Hope that we could have eaten as well, which is probably about 15 miles west of Herrington. Noon buffet at Pizza Hut is pretty hard to beat when you’re looking for lots of calories though…
One thing that surprises me along K-4 is that I’m still seeing Scissortail Flycatchers. I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by these birds. They have a long scissor-tail, as the name would suggest, and they’re quite pretty. In addition, they’re grace in the air is pretty hard to match, and they seem to display and enjoy their graceful gift often as they frolic in the air in pairs between the power lines and the fence lines. It may be that they’re actually catching bugs together like that, but it sure looks like dancing in the air to me.
I don’t remember these birds appearing this far north 35 years ago when I lived here. It might be that they were here and I just never saw them, or it might be that they’ve extended their range northward as part of the general warming that appears to be effecting us. Whatever the reason, I’m happy to see them.
I’ve been trying to point them out to Dave, but have never been riding close enough to him when I see them to get his attention. He’s stopped up ahead at a dirt road, and I’m excited because I see several Scissortails on the lines overhead. I point and holler, and he smiles and nods his head – I assume letting me know that he sees them. When I get up there though, he’s enthralled with the road sign that he’s stopped under, and hasn’t seen the flycatchers at all. The road that he stopped at is called D Avenue, and the sign reads “D ave”. Cute. The flycatchers are gone, so I take “D ave’s” picture by his sign, hoping they’ll return so he can see them. A couple of them do, so I feel great to have shared this wonderful little bird with “D ave”. He nods and smiles with obligatory appreciation, but I’m pretty sure the street sign is way more cool to “D ave” than are my little flycatchers…
With the wind at my back, I’m sitting higher in the saddle, and looking around more. I’m seeing lots of birds and hawks this morning, including several pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers. We don’t get those in Colorado either. I’m excited to point these out to Dave as well, and I get the obligatory smile and “neat”, but I’m pretty sure Dave’s still watching the street signs. And I’m right of course, because pretty soon he describes to me the pattern that this particular county seems to use in naming their roads. Turns out this is one of the many things that Dave’s been counting and cataloging along our way – how the different counties name their roads.
Dave loves to do that stuff. Count things, catalogue things, find the patterns. Did you know that “Main Street” almost always runs north and south in towns through southeast Colorado and southern Kansas? I might have that wrong, and Dave’ll correct me when he reads this if I do. But they consistently run one way or the other. This is one of the many little patterns that Dave pointed out to me as we rode. I think he found an exception or two, (he can probably tell you exactly how many and where they were), but it was clearly a consistent pattern. Typing these words, I’ve checked Google to see if someone else has explained this, but am unable to (easily) come across this observation. But it’s true.
Bringing us back to that wonderful yin and yang thing that goes on between Dave and I on this ride – the difference in what we see, what we notice, what we enjoy, and how the miles pass beneath our wheels. Dave’s commented on it before, and today I’m noticing it more than any other day of riding. Dave focuses on the “things” of the ride, hence the counting and the cataloging. Neil focuses on the “experience” of the ride – the moment if you will.
I love being mature enough to appreciate this difference. There’s no right/wrong or better/worse about this fundamental difference. Dave stated it one day earlier in the ride in a way that made it clear that he thought it would be better to be able to “experience the moment” rather than “count the things”, but I still don’t agree with him. Sure I’m finding exquisite joy in our ride this morning, but Dave is smiling and enjoying the ride just as much as I am. He’s busy cataloging road names, counting miles, making all sorts of connections to patterns that I’ll never see. He’s smiling the whole time. I’m oblivious to the things that are giving him joy because I’m wrapped in the experience of the “moments” that I’m passing through. It’s his focus on those things that are giving him joy that distract him and keep him from experiencing the ride in the same way that I do.
And right now, riding west along K-4 with the wind at my back, its the sweet smell of alfalfa that I’m experiencing. I’ve been around alfalfa all my life, and I’ve never noticed until today just how intoxicating that sweet smell can be. Off to my right is a quarter section of rich ground planted in alfalfa that hasn’t been cut at all yet this year. The flowers cover the field as far as you can see, and the butterflies and bees form a thick layer of activity over the top of the flowers. The smell is a deep one that blooms in the top of your head as you breathe in, and then hangs deep in the back of your throat with each breath. A mile further down the road, I’m still able to taste that deep, rich smell in the back of my throat.
Alfalfa is a fun crop to observe. It’s a perennial that comes back for several years. I’m not a farmer, but I’ve had farmers explain the cycle to me before, and I’ve come to appreciate the cycle when I hunt farmland for whitetail deer. (Alfalfa is to whitetail deer as tenderloin steak is to me.) It seems that when you plant Alfalfa, the first couple of years are the best and richest crops, and then the quality of the crop starts to drop off significantly. By the time you’re 3 or 4 years past the planting year, it’s time to plant something else. Which works out great because Alfalfa – being a legume – sets the nitrogen into the soil, making the soil that much better for nitrogen-hungry crops like corn. Synergy.
This field must be in its first or second year, judging by the thick, rich plants. A couple miles down the road, as Dave and I are riding together for a change, I mention the field to him, and he has, indeed, noticed the smell. I make some comment to him about alfalfa, as-if to educate him on this little bit of knowledge that I’ve got about farming, and he looks at me as-if I’m describing to him how to pedal a bike. Dave, you see, did grow up on a farm. This little tidbit that I had to wait until I was probably 30 years-old to learn was something that he probably knew before he was very far out of diapers. Maybe I exaggerate. But suffice it to say I feel pretty silly – a city kid trying to tell a farm kid about farming…
We have one more day to ride on our adventure, and this fact hits me about the middle of the afternoon. Carol is driving across Kansas today, and will pick Dave up tomorrow and head back to Colorado. It strikes me that she could drive to Lindsborg where we’re likely to end up tonight, and we could all have dinner together, not to mention that Dave and Carol could have a room to themselves, meaning (selfishly) that I’d have a room to myself. I tell Dave about this idea, (making it sound, I’m sure, like I was suggesting this for his benefit), and he calls Carol and they hatch a plan.
Now we have our hard destination for the day – Lindsborg. I’m really happy about this, as I have fond memories of Lindsborg from when I lived in Kansas. I remember it as a friendly and quaint town, and I’m sure Carol will love it. While part of me now starts to feel excitement and anticipation about “nearing the finish line” tomorrow, the other half of me is feeling pretty blue about the ride ending. (I should mention that the part of me that sits on the saddle is definitely anticipating the finish line…)
As we near Interstate 135 running north and south between Salina and Wichita, K-4 turns south and parallels the interstate for a while. This section has a shoulder, but it’s also very busy with both car and truck traffic. When we come to Assaria, the signs tell us that K-4 turns right. Turning right here would be a mistake for a bicycler, because if you follow the “official” K-4, you’ll spend about 4 miles on I-135. The savvy cyclist will NOT follow the sign and turn right here, but will stay on the nicely paved road headed south, and eventually join up with the official K-4 where it exits the interstate. It’s pretty dang silly that they did this.
On this day, Dave and I are not savvy cyclists, and are not aware of this little mistake. We follow the sign, and turn right. In about half a mile, we cross the overpass, and see the mistake – we see that in order to stay on 4, we’ll need to get on the interstate for a few miles. We’re not willing to do this, and just keep riding forward. The road we’re on is paved, and surely we’ll come to a paved road headed south soon, and this will take us to Lindsborg.
Someone should do a doctoral thesis someday on why it is that male humans find it so hard to turn around and backtrack. Our choice here is a really simple one: Backtrack half a mile and follow the nice paved road south, or just keep going forward on the off-chance that a nice paved road will appear out in the middle of nowhere that will take us to where we want to go. How stupid would we have to be to just keep riding forward? Deranged. Idiotic. A sandwich or two shy of a picnic.
Of course, we keep riding forward. After several miles, we comment to each other that the smart thing to do would have been to backtrack. Right. But it’s too late now, right? Duh. So, we get on a gravel road headed south, and the final 10 miles of the day into Lindsborg we ride a gravel road on skinny road tires. Which is a lot better than backtracking…
Dave and I beat Carol to Lindsborg by 2 beers. By the time she rolls in, we’re feelin’ pretty dang good. I notice that she’s not sitting very close to Dave, and figure maybe it’d be nice if we connected with a motel and showered before we ate. Carol agrees – quite enthusiastically it seems to me. We decide a nice little B&B would be fun, so we decide to try a couple that we’ve seen downtown.
Lindsborg really is a pretty little town. But I’m a bit disappointed by the general “feeling” of the town today. We walk into a B&B downtown – I think it was The Swedish Country Inn – and the guy behind the counter is downright snotty to us when we ask if he has any rooms. He doesn’t have any, and doesn’t know of anyone who might. Maybe he’s just having a bad day. But the gal who waits on us at supper is a little less than happy as well. Maybe it’s just a bad day in Lindsborg.
After all the miles we’ve ridden, and all the little towns we’ve been through on this adventure, I guess we’ve come to expect a certain sort of midwestern “feeling”. I can’t really call it “friendly”, though it certainly is that. Hospitality doesn’t seem like quite the right word either. It’s something bigger than either of these things.
I think it’s that genuine and real sense of care and concern that we’ve felt from so many folks along the road. Not overtly friendly. Not all sugary-sweet fake hospitality. Real, heartfelt care and concern. That’s what we’ve come to learn about the little towns and the people who live there.