Cycling Across America — Part 55

Kansas: Counties Rooks, Ellis and Trego

Excerpts from the journal of my 1996 cycle across the US. Read the entire story from the beginning starting with the introduction in Boston.

“Saturday, 5th October 1996.

Almost like going through the motions at this stage. Take away the wind and the days are deliriously perfect.

Plainville was probably the town I liked least of all I’d passed through in Kansas so I just wanted to leave and get some miles under my belt rather than hang around and have breakfast. A gamble though, as I would need food to be available at Zurich, 8 miles away, or Palco, a further 7 miles away, because then it was 25 miles on before more life.

Cycling west instead of south wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Although the wind was still definitely from the south, it was now SSW instead of SSE and that kept me down at 10mph.

Everybody waved on this road. Zurich was small with one shop and no main street. The shop was closed. If Palco was the same I’d have some thinking to do.

Three miles from Palco a stream of cars headed towards me and turned into the cemetery across the road. I guess about 200 cars. I slowed and looked down but the wind was pulling me all over the road and when I looked up the people in the nearest car were waving.

Passing so many people attending a funeral I felt very lucky with my lot, and then I started worrying that perhaps there was nobody left in Palco to serve me food.

Turned off the road to take the minor road to the southern end of Palco but then realised it was going too far south and I would have to cycle all over the town to try and find food so I then took an unpaved road. This was hardpacked limestone, and with the wind no longer against me it was perfect.

I entered the town by the grain plant and other inhabitable equipment. Came across a paved road and then I saw what was the main street. Only a handful of buildings but I was hopeful.

Palco, Kansas. Main Street, as photographed in October 1996.

A grocery store, open. Across the street, a cafe. I went in. They were having a Mexican Day so I had a Combo plate — burrito, enchilada, rice and beans — also a dip with chips, and a dessert — sopapilla — which I’d recently seen featured on the television.

Again everybody looks at you when you enter. Luckily I got there before many people from the funeral arrived. Everybody was old and it reminded me very much of being in a pub in the west of Ireland, the way they spoke to each other.

When I was leaving I was asked where I was from.
 -Ireland.
 -I thought so, said the young waitress.
 -How come?
 -Well your accent kinda gives you away.

There is an Irish person at her college. And apparently I look Irish!

The only paved road south was the County Road to Ellis. A normal road again. No markings, no traffic, no having to be confined to a shoulder. A lot of this stretch reminded me of Rosmuc.

In the next 25 miles I passed about 4 houses and a church. One of the houses had an elaborate large face at its gateway — created from pumpkins. I notice Americans talk a lot about Halloween. In Plainville there was an ad on the local station for an empty house so people could turn it into a Spook House for children. Shops and restaurants have ghost and pumpkin decorations up. Newscasters say — ‘Well, it’s almost Halloween now…’.

Mostly I was looking at flat uneven lands of turned fields and various grasses. Unlike southeast Kansas there are no wild sunflowers. Indeed there are very few wild flowers of any kind. The grasses are the rich combination of ambers and yellows and whites and browns and greens and purples and reds.

In the distance to the West I could see a large flat area stop and become a ridge overlooking a much larger flat area. My eyes were constantly drawn to that huge space overlooked by the stone ridge.

Although I was now going directly into the wind it wasn’t as bad as yesterday. In the high 70s Fahrenheit (25–26C) I could’ve done with some drink though. After those cold days I’ve been getting very casual on the drink front. And the only food I had with me was a Snickers bar and a banana Twinkie. Oh, and a packet of Halls lozenges. One of them would last for exactly 2 miles but if I really pushed it I could make it go for 3.

To the east for many miles was uneven bumpy grassed hills with rocks exposed almost lunar like. From the distance they looked just the colours of pale green and rich red.

Sometimes there would be cattle and they would run away from me. If there were any horses they would just stare at me. There were no people for miles. Not in houses. Not working the land. Not in traffic.

A couple of miles from Ellis a car passed me and a young girl gave me the thumbs up out the back window. I waved thinking I should’ve returned the thumbs up.

I had actually been climbing for quite a bit and at the high point could see back to Palco but despite it being downhill to Ellis the wind prevented me going faster than 10 mph.

Nearer the town there were a couple of fields of milo. The road went underneath I-70 and there was a restaurant. I had a BLT. Nice but again it couldn’t touch the Peanut on Main, back in Kansas City, Missouri. I drank 4 pints of water and 2 large glasses of Mountain Dew. I must remember to call it Mountain Doo not Jew.

Running late, Quinter my intended destination was now in doubt. I would need an extra half hour of daylight — more if that last 5 miles of unpaved road gave me any trouble. I kept wondering was it wise to go to a town where the only paved way in and out was on an interstate. Picked up a leaflet proclaiming I-70 the Main Street of the state of Kansas.

Downtown Ellis was pretty. Paved with bricks and giant sunflowers painted on its junctions. An old Union Pacific engine painted yellow. There was a busyness about the small town. Maybe it was just so much life compared to the lack of it over the previous few hours.

I found what I decided was the County Road to WaKeeney but I thought it better to check. At the garage they told me it was but it turns to gravel outside of town and stays gravel all the way to WaKeeney.
 — Is there no paved alternative?
 — The interstate.

My map said it was paved and anyway I had no alternative. In the centre of town the road goes past the boyhood home of Walter P. Chrysler. I wasn’t interested.

A mile out of town the road turned to sand. Actually it was originally paved but sandy gravel had been poured all over it. Nothing used this road so I chose a smooth line in the centre of the road, often where the sand had been blown away and it was fine.

Going northwest I could now go 15 mph, which was great until I hit heavy sand, slid towards the edge of the road, and got thrown off the bike.

I landed on my feet and waited until I checked the bike was okay before laughing.

This whole stretch of road was fabulous. I’d forgotten what it was like to cycle faster than 10 mph. I almost forgot about the wind. It would find a gap in the bike somewhere to whistle through or if I took out one of my water bottles the wind would whistle at its top, but when it wasn’t in your face the day seemed so much more perfect.

A pure blue sky, grasses of yellow and greens. Hills to the very distant south. Flat to the North. Here was the carpet flatness I’d been waiting to see. It went on forever. It was beautiful. Segments of brown or green or yellow. All behind a pure white grain plant itself behind the strong yellow grass. A large shadow of a bird goes across my path. I look up and see the striking red tail of a hawk. Meadowlarks keep changing places in the grass. To capture the awesome huge flat Kansas I was looking at my camera needed a panorama twice as long.

Ogallah was pretty and tiny but it gave me half a mile of paved road before returning to the sanded back road. It was after 5pm when I reached WaKeeney and to look at the town properly meant it was time to call it quits. I cycled all over, liking it a lot. Its main street was also paved with red bricks but it was about a mile from the interstate and the motels. Its residential area was small but leafy and very green.

I chose a Best Western to treat myself after being cooped up in the holy woman’s tiny roomed motel the previous night. Don’t think I mentioned her. That room felt like a kiosk. One with lots of Christian ornaments. She had given me a twin room for the price of a single if I promised to only use one bed. I pointed out that there was only one of me.

Left a message for Kansas City of no consequence and failed to get an answer from my contact in Liberal, Kansas. I reckon it’ll now be four days when I get there due to this wind. It’s the wind that’ll dictate how much time I get to spend in Dodge City. Maybe things will work out like they did for the Pioneer Village in Nebraska.
 In the restaurant for dinner I was again asked where I was from.
 -Ireland.
 -Where’s that ?
 -Europe.
 -Hey wow! He’s from Europe! Hey everybody! We’ve had people from Australia, from England, from France, and [gesturing at me], from Europe!

She talked a lot and was very friendly but once again I had to explain that it was necessary to get a ‘plane across the ocean before I could begin cycling in the US.

On the TV the Huskers whupped Kansas State — hooray (39–3), the Orioles surprised baseball’s top team — hooray for Maryland, and on Monday night the Chiefs are at home at 9.00 pm.

The news is dominated by the build up to the first Presidential Debate. Seeing Senator Mitchell in a domestic context is very odd. No reference at all to Northern Ireland as he helps Clinton prepare. The other big news is the banning of Roberto Alomar in baseball.

I read the local papers in every town. Farmers receiving weed citations in Nebraska, measuring road markings in Plainville, and Cedar Bluff reservoir is almost full.

Watched the opening sequence of ‘Deliverance’ and it was stupendous. Every American programme I watch now seems different the more I cycle.

Wrote a postcard for a friend in England.

Time to roll on.”

Read the next segment: Part 56