Day 28: Laugh it off to Ark City

by James

The day to Arkansas City (pronounced “r-kansas”) was one of those days. One of those days when I dream about Greyhound buses and spend most of the day wondering what kind of moron bikes 3600 miles across a jagged landmass when there are machines that do the job eight times faster and with considerably less pain.

We left from Caney heading north. We still had a tailwind going, which helped us up the long hills and shot us down the other side. This lasted for about ten minutes, then we turned southwest onto 166.

The shoulder narrowed to only 18 inches wide and our nice tailwind turned into a wicked crosswind, partial headwind. Ten-tonners flew by every so often, only a few feet away, and each time scaring me shitless and throwing my bike around in the smallish shoulder.

You use all kinds of weird muscles trying to straighten yourself out in the wind, which saps energy quickly. In winds 20-30MPH, the sort we had that day, if you lose focus for only a few seconds, you’ll find yourself careening into the nasty roadside terrain, which exists only to house exploded Armadillo carcases1 and puncture tires.

The wind kept me in the bottom chainring for 90% of the day. Our ten mile breaks were seperated by seemingly endless stretches of low-speed struggle.

The day had the same awful iteration of hill-climb and -descent that I described very early on, somewhere around Charlottesville, but in Kansas it’s stretched out. The hills are probably the same height, but crest-to-trough is probably like 2 miles.

So I’d get to the top of a hill, heart feeling like it’s under a dragnet, and see about 4 miles in front of me, knowing it’d take around thirty minutes just to get to the next crest.

A Kansas hill
Up one of these incredulously long hills.

It was demoralizing. I had started the day feeling jittery and tired, and the wind sapped any initial enthusiasm I had very quickly. Allergies (or something) had my nose dripping and my throat sore.

Early on, all I could think about was what a bad idea this trip was. I’m not a biker; I don’t particularly enjoy biking—it’s just a way to get around—so why the hell should I bike across the country?

I guess, as one tourist has said before me, I didn’t want to miss out on a great experience. A cross-country bike trip sounded like a great experience. It sounded huge. It sounded Hemingway. It sounded like a fine way to see the country, to build character, to meet people, to become more worldly.

Build character? All I could think about was how pissed-off, tired, disgusting, congested, and weakened I was. I was miserable; I wanted to stop, sit by the road, and weep. That’s building character?

But the thought of all this misery made me keep going. Another reason I started this trip was to face emotional poles and walk away unscathed. Or at least walk away.

I could see how low I was and somewhere I knew that the lows make the highs.

So I thought about Bukowski and his going into the post office for a 12 hour shift horribly hung-over and I smiled and kept pedaling, however ineffectual each stroke was.

I thought about a high-school anecdote my friend Jake Perrone told me: he was ordered to carry around lacrosse goals for hours one practice. It was brutal, but he got it together and just started laughing at the horror. He laughed his way through the practice and ended up in one piece. Jake may not even remember the day he told me that years ago, but it stuck with me and I think about it whenever I’m in a spot.

Would I do another cross-country tour again next year, knowing what I do now? No way.

That’s not to say there haven’t been wonderful parts of the experience so far. I’ve met fascinating people, seen wild and strange things, and I’ve learned how to camp out behind convenience stores and live off the value menu, for whatever that’s worth. I’ve found a new city that I’ll someday call home for a while.

But much of the trip just seems like irrational self-flagalation. How would I do it instead? I’d bus or drive and take leisurely weeks in a five or six cool places with CouchSurfers. Maybe that way I’d actually get to write for more than a few hours everyday (maybe even outside of fast-food joints!).

All the griping aside, I’m finishing this trip. I want to get to SF more than any gain to be had from spending the next month in a sane way.

Do I regret doing the trip? It’s too early to tell, but I don’t think so. There are probably a bunch of subtle benefits that I don’t realize yet.

We stopped at a convenience store for lunch, since it was the only source of hot food for miles. We sat outside at a picnic table eating the surprisingly decent lunch. A few minutes later, I fell asleep under a tree in the midday heat. The townspeople probably thought I’d died.

We pounded out the remaining 30 miles to Arkansas City. By the end, it was all I could do to keep pedaling and not fall down.

We dropped by a bike shop and I replaced my rear-derailleur for $20, since the old one had fallen apart before we left Caney. I’m convinced that when I get to Lombard St., the Trek will explode into its atmoic parts like the Bluesmobile outside of the Calumet County assessor’s office. Mike poked around for some kevlar tires while I watched the mechanic twist a 20-year-old spring with two sets of pliars. He looked unimpressed.

I made an effort not to ask the mechanic if I could buy one of the drinks from the small refrigerator he kept under the desk.

We got dinner at Braum’s, some combination ice-cream/hamburger stand, which was simultaneously awesome and horrible. The decor looked like it hadn’t been updated since the early nineties (awesome), but the burgers were extremely salty (horrible). Thankfully, an after-dinner milkshake made up for the burger.

We slept on the concrete floor of an outdoor pavilion in the city park without asking anyone. This went down fine, except when a pack of high-schoolers showed up after midnight, yelling and stomping around like a pack of enraged Ricki Lake fans.

Park at dark
Surprisingly good place to sleep.

These heartless kids even came into the pavilion, saw us, verbally acknowledged their sighting of us “sleepers”, and then proceeded to hang out for half an hour doing a profane rendition of Riverdance on the pavilion’s stage.

Primitive Kansas Teens: 1, Ad Hoc Adventurers: 0.

You wouldn't believe how well sound carries from there.

The damn irony of it was that we couldn’t do a thing: the public park belongs just as much to these kids as it does to us, if not more so, and nobody was supposed to be there after dark. Eventually they decided to go buy some weed, allowing Mike and I to sleep peacefully during the remaining hours before sunup.

  1. I have seen more of these in the past week than I have had hot meals

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