Day 27: The stray in Caney

by James

I’m sitting on a bench in the windy city park of Caney, Kansas. Big incandescent lights throw pools of orange down on most of the park. This ocicat, probably a stray, sits next to me, occasionally making brave stabs at scaling my keyboard and mucking up my text file.

It’s ten o’clock at night, but that doesn’t stop the locals from running around, within earshot of the park, trying to catch a rabbit. At one point, the small-time hunters were outside of my tent. Two of them passed and all I heard was one say to the other, “the kid ain’t crazy, he just readin’ in a tent!”

Several families are playing with their kids in the park. At ten o’clock at night, when it’s dark and windy. I’m not sure if this is typical for the state of Kansas. It is surreal and oddly comforting.

Family park

This cat’s still next to me, statuesque and waiting for attention.

She’s been following me around for the past 50 minutes. Lurking outside the tent while I read Bukowski. Coyly slinking ten feet behind me while I walk around the park, enjoying the coolness and the wind. Rolling in the grass when I finally stop to look around, check my phone.

Mike’s over at another corner of the park, writing by booklight. I don’t understand how the guy keeps a handwritten account of the trip. All that wrist movement must force economy of words.

A windy ten o’clock in Caney, Kansas.

Mike and stray
Mike and the stray.

We got up and out of Wen’s today with record leisure. Wen made a beautiful breakfast of greens, pancakes, and an elaborate omlette. The meal even came with some yogurt-drink she’d whipped up. She said it contained all kinds of good bacteria.

We ate for a while and slowly, talking with Wen and Derya about their jobs and hometowns. Shortly afterwards we skedaddled because we were behind schedule, not to mention the poor women had a few things to do besides entertain fools like us.

Wen saw us off, asking questions about biking right up until we pedaled away down South Boston. The girl is so sweet and inquisitive.

Mike and I booked it hard out of Tulsa. We averaged 18MPH for the day, but early in the ride, we were clocked officially at 23MPH. I had waved to a black dude riding with his kid in a red mustang; the dude throttled his speed to ours and hovered beside us as we were trucking down Peoria. He opened the window and I asked, “hey man, how we doin’?”

He responded, “you boys are going 23MPH!” We cheered and he cheered and drove off. His kid was probably dumbstruck. I’m glad we got a solid sendoff from Tulsa.

We pedaled and pedaled and tore through the Oklahoma flats with a tailwind so heavy you’d think Apollo was blowing out birthday candles behind us. Before not too long we’d changed a flat and picked up enough mileage to stop for lunch.

We stopped at a little shack in a three-store town called Ramona that promised Hamburgers and Donuts. We walked in and chose the burgers. We ate the greasy, satisfying stuff while getting accosted by a crooked-eyed guy called Jim who may or may not have worked there.

Jim was missing three teeth and the majority of his monologue consisted of telling us to have a good day and avoid getting sucked into the vacuum created by large trucks. These are nice things to say, but repeated more than twice makes a listener tired.

I have been talked at by a few people in the past few weeks who make it very hard for me to decide whether or not they’re crazy. There are probably degrees.

It’s a moot question; I’d talk to them in any case since I’m always the hell out of town in an hour.

We left, having paid immediately after ordering, to make the remaining thirty-something miles to Caney.

Pounding it out to Caney
Blowing through nothing.

Midway through those thirty miles, we stopped at a McDonald’s where I had a conversation with a girl who had seen the two of us earlier in the week at a gas station in Sinclair. She sat down right next to us without revealing this and immediately asked our names. We talked while I tried to edit a draft. I was weary from Jim, but I warmed up to her after a while.

She told me she’d dreamed of being an artist but decided to become a mortician instead because that gig pulls down $130k on your very first year. She said she was close to securing a spot doing this sort of work with a friend of her dad’s, the only thing preventing her being child-labor laws. She spoke clearly and quickly and was thirteen years old.

I gave her tired, snappy answers to actually-pretty-good questions.

At the end of our conversation, she asked if I was a wizard. I told her I was more of a zen-master. She said, “no-no-no, like a mind wizard.” I asked what that was. She explained that, usually, she’s mean to strangers, but she had been nice to me throughout our meeting, so that made me some kind of a wizard. She hypothesized (more realistically) that maybe it was because I reminded her of her sister’s cool ex-boyfriend.

She left the McDonald’s to go back to the football training camp she was working at for the summer, hustled out by a stocky, bald football coach who called her “tiger.”

I later walked out, wishing I had given the kid my email address so she could drop me a line, tell me how she’s doing every once in a while. I could watch her letters grow up. She sounded like she’ll make it okay.

The ride into Caney was easy with the tailwind and the plains. We ate at a sandwich shop without event. We found the city park a block down from the sandwich place and obtained permission from a police dispatcher to camp. It didn’t take too much effort.

Now I’m at a picnic table, still enjoying the shush of the wind through the trees and the dark Kansas evening. I hear flag-poles further down the street, the poles knocking against the metallic bases on the wind’s time.

Provided the cat lets up with the tent-pawing, I’ll sleep like an old country beagle in a heatwave.

Stray got personal
I tried to get a picture. She did her best being friendly.
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