Update: Videos corrected!
Bout time, eh... ehhhhhhhhh /Arthur Fonzerelli
September and October, for me, represent one of my busier times of the year regarding family activities - and 2013 has been the busiest ever. I purposefully placed the October ride, therefore, at the back end of all the hectic activities to serve as a big stress reliever and personal vacation opportunity. I looked forward to the Flint Hills route in a big way for those reasons - yet, no matter when I'd have scheduled this ride, the scenery, history, and absolute marvel of the Flint Hills region of Kansas is always worth the drive. Nestled comfortably at the crossroads of the Santa Fe Trail (mostly overlayed by US-56) and the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway (K-177) sits Council Grove, KS., which once represented the last major resupply station for pioneers headed southwest across the great open prairie in the mid 1800's. Beyond the city limits, the landscape hasn't changed much in 150 years - I like that. Lots. This was going to be a great trip - awesome weather on tap, if not a little windy... but, as I recall reading, and experiencing, several times along many Kansas routes: "it's Kansas... it's AL-ways windy."
Cool temps, Kansas breezes, and no rain ... wow! Compared to last year's edition, that last element alone proved most exciting, but, with the new bags and plenty of room for extra layers, the wool cap, and more - who cares? I like being in this particular place in my cycling evolution: the weather can do whatever it will: Especially after this spring's brevet series, I am prepared for, and comfortable in, whatever comes. Just get on, and ride! First, however...a close second to a long bike ride... road trip! I like a good, long car-ride.
Weird scheduling, but it'd have to do; Glen and Terry came along for this month's ride - and Glen brings along the RAAM-wagen... complete, stocked, ready... sleeps 3 comfortably, with all their bikes and gear. It's paradise on wheels - no lie. Yeah, I like my routine, I like my space, I like having things laid out "just-so"... but, that kind of anxiety is becoming less and less of a personal issue as time passes, especially in the face of a 3-way gas-money split that comes in far less than a hotel room - a sleeping space far more comfortable than my reclined driver's seat - and the ability to get ready for a ride with a lot of extra time in the bank. Heck, this place even has a shower and restroom inside... what's NOT to like?? It's new, different, and it takes someone like me a few trials to get comfortable... but, yeah: the idea of an RV in my future is sorta making sense. Maybe a VW Eurovan, with the camper pop-up.... THAT has popped into my head a LOT recently. It's like the Astro van I used to have... but better. (Unless Chevy made an Astro conversion that I don't remember?)
|The RAAMwagen heads west as sunset approaches|
The only concern with the RV (which is a smaller, Dual-wheel van-chassis) is finding adequate (and free) parking somewhere in town, which Glen knows all the angles: easy. We rolled into Council Grove with sunlight to spare, parked, secured everything, and picked a place to eat dinner. Now, I'm a bit of a mess, personally, sometimes. I've got a pretty narrow margin for error when it comes to food, being a vegetarian since '97. That alone produces plenty of challenges while riding -- but, I really didn't start riding longer distances until 2002 - so, it's not like things USED to be easy, and now I've made them more difficult. I don't like making MY issues and choices a difficulty for anyone else: which is why a lot of people are consistently surprised when they learn about this and other things about me. I try not to wear these things like an arm-band: they are my choices, and I don't get weird or stand-uppity when other people make their choices in front of me. On that note, I learned a long time ago that I don't have to limit WHERE I eat... just "what"...and it seems that even in small-town America, the term "vegetarian" doesn't make somebody sound like they're from Mars, like it used to.
As an example, we elected to try out the famous Hayes House restaurant on main street - famous for being the oldest continuously operated restaurant west of the Mississippi River - originally opened to serve it's first meal in 1857. Now, this isn't a restaurant review - but, the food, service, atmosphere all proved great. Good smells, clean, stocked salad bar, quick service. All good stuff, but, the dinner menu is probably "$$ - $$$", as most charts would read for dinner. I was excited and pleased to see "vegetarian platter" on the menu, too - which, for a state and region founded on cattle and good beef... well, I was impressed they'd even considered it. Of course, with the ride coming up, I gave the vegetarian platter the usual pass-by, (and it PROBABLY would have fueled me just perfect... I need to get out of some old habits here.) and I chose instead the pasta-based meal, with 4-cheese sauce and breadcrumb topping...baked... yummy. Now, this may have been an issue, but in most places it seldom is: on the menu, the description included bacon mixed in with the breadcrumbs... but, that's an easy deletion. Waiter asked, request affirmed, and delivered - no issues that I could see or taste, so no biggie. I can eat anywhere, with a few tweaks. Tasted like magic, good salad, tasty bread. Desert? Mmmmm, pie..... Ahhh...game fuel!
The sun dipped as we crawled back into the RV and headed out of town toward the Corp of Engineers lake north of town, and their well-maintained campsites. We had the place to ourselves - with cold air on the move and only a week until the gates would be shut for the winter, the place was literally deserted. Only one vehicle came through while we were awake, and the highway was quiet and far enough away that we couldn't really hear it at all. Camping perfection... and, another plus, the walls of an RV are much thicker than those of a tent. Yeah, I know that's not really the point - but, it was nice to bed down without shivering... which really speaks about my inability to build a good fire, and is not really a bash against tent camping.
Seems like, however, in either case - camping takes some time and set-up. You can't ever really just "park" an RV. Glen skillfully went through the checklist of leveling the camper, hooking up the water and electricity, and converting the tables and benches into beds and producing sheets and blankets from various cabinets. I'm pretty sure that, if it came to a race, setting up a tent would take about the same amount of time. So, yeah -- it's just another way of doing things - but, it's a far cry more comfortable inside Glen's RV compared to the last time I unrolled my sleeping pad onto a random patch of ground.
The night's sleep was restful, nearly perfect -- and accompanied by lots of yawning and post-meal lethargy, timely, as well. Each of us settled-in, the lights went out, and it took mere minutes for me to drift off. I woke up once, barely remembering where I'd been, and peered out the side window - which faced east - at the rising moon, a lonely, orange-ish disc slowly crawling up the trees surrounding the campground. Pulling the shade down a bit, I drifted off once more - and that was it until my alarm sounded at 5:00am.
We rose right at the alarm, and instantly the action began. Bags appeared, Terry took off for the shower-house up the hill, and Glen slipped into the RV's bathroom for his shower. I unpacked and laid out my assorted gear. The wind was nearly non-existent, and the temps... not too bad... both items arriving as good news compared to the way forecasts had read the night before. We'd all been quietly dreading the results of a promised tailwind on the way out of town, which would, by consequence, make for a long, tiresome slog back north into it. Maybe this won't be so bad?
Eventually, it was my turn for a shower - and it was an interesting experience showering in an RV... maybe hotel rooms are worth the cost after all? I dunno... I can't really call it a make-or-break deal, because the water was clean and hot and it definitely woke me up, and I only had to move about 10 feet to get to it. Combine with the notion that not all small towns have hotels, well, you get the idea. All considered, yeah -- it's a REALLY small shower, as showers go... but, it worked fine. I got out, and dried off, and got into the leg warmers and shorts. That's when a coughing fit ensued. I've never had this experience - nothing had been eaten yet. I downed some bottled water at wake-up, but that was all. Still, thick mucus began to boil up from below - feeling a little like heartburn - and, ultimately, things progressed enough to activate "the button." The details will be held back - but, clearly something wasn't happy in Stomachville, and I still can't figure out exactly what it'd been. Maybe something was in the water.... or the pie? A lot of things are possible... maybe some bacon sneaked past my sonar nets, maybe it was a temporary bug, maybe it was just the phlegm triggering an involuntary reaction -- but, the damage was done. The other unfortunate item about an RV; you certainly can't be shy or want for privacy. I'm not sure if either of my RV companions heard the ruckus - but I'm sure it didn't sound all that good from the other side of the door. Everything cleaned and sanitized, I emerged after a REALLY long interval, and proceeded to continue dressing for the day's event.
Sometimes, if a short-term bug IS to blame, clearing the upper GI system provides almost instant relief. In this case, I did feel a little bit more awake - but queasy, and like I'd been punched in the gut. More bottled water, please, to hopefully negate any fluid losses. I finished dressing - feeling cold and weary and not even underway yet... not a good sign.
Strangely, I felt good enough to feel hungry -- maybe that was a good sign? Getting in enough water, the smell of hot coffee and breakfast food filled the air and met with positive vibes -- back once again at the Hayes House. Ok.... so, logic dictates that if one seems to think a certain restaurant may have been partly responsible for stomach distress, that one wouldn't intentionally return within a short timeframe to the same establishment. The chances of my issues truly being the fault of the restaurant, however -- especially with a full meal-genre change -- seemed pretty slim. So... breakfast, something hot, something OTHER than c-store food, still spoke louder than whatever had popped up in the previous hour.
We met up with Del G. from central KS., chatted for a few minutes, and found our way to a table. Del had ridden with us (er, me) back in April, as he'd come into town for the Oak Grove 300k... otherwise known as the "headwind of doom ride", and before that I'd met him on the "Snowpocalypse 200k" only a few weeks earlier. His normal mode of cycling is long-distance self-supported touring, so there isn't much you can toss his way that he can't handle, readily.
Hot coffee tasted great, water chaser, and a short stack of basic pancakes and maple syrup... can't go wrong. Excellent food, and the breakfast prices are super-cheap ... great value. With breakfast accounted for, we relocated to the start-area, and started to unpack the gear and bikes for the ride. Waivers and checks handled quickly, and final layers chosen, it was only a matter of minutes before we'd be off, on the road to the Flint Hills!
Uh oh... this time, a definite gurgle from below after swallowing my usual morning vitamins and such with another small bottle of water from the fridge. At this point, I was starting to get frustrated - but, the thought of NOT riding (at least starting) never really took hold in my mind. I, instead, stepped back into the RV restroom - and the "evil from within" proceeded to "smack the button" once more.
Uuuuffff..... more cleanup in aisle "B", I emerged again, this time feeling a bit more shredded - a bit less easy. Glen may have mistaken my groans and cumbersome for hesitation about the weather or the promise of the headwind... hard to tell...but, words of encouragement came my way. He's a good "voice of reason" sometimes... and I continued my start-up routine, ultimately rolling out for the c-store only a half-block away.
Here's where I stop remembering things.
Now, clearly I know I was there -- I know I was riding a bike; but, my usual eidetic memory (with regards to rides - unless it involves skunks) seemed to go offline here. I don't really remember the long climb out of town, the sunrise, or what/when/where we passed anything notable visually, audibly, or otherwise. Things like the big barn on top of the ridge, a few photos down, were explained to me by my constant companion, Del, but the information came in transcendental waves, between jaw-dropping stares at the vastness and the clarity of dawn, and the heavy exhales of a man not quite at ease, physically, with whatever it was he'd eaten.
Here, the photo log is dominated by Glen's shots, as I often thought about snapping a photo or two - but found myself once again frustrated by compromised equipment... this time, wool gloves vs. the slide-to-take-a-picture touchscreen of my "smarter-than-YOU, silly rider"-phone. I know there are "silver thread", touch-screen friendly gloves for phone users, but I file that under "really? we can't stop for a second to take off our gloves?".... and since that's compounded further by being on a bicycle, I find it safer to simply wait until later for pictures --- unless I want to stop. ANYhow.... The pics will speak for a little bit:
|The old stone schoolhouse (Lower Fox Creek School?), atop another hill - timeless guardian of the memory of a time gone by.|
|Whomever lived here had lived well - a proud property, now safeguarded within the confines of the Flint Hill's Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. An awesome spectacle, and a reminder that all of this... ALL of our surroundings as far as our vision could stretch, up to 13,000 acres at one point, had been held by one family.|
|The Santa Fe railroad depot just on the edge of Strong City, KS., near where Highway 50 and K-177 cross. We were treated to a couple train fly-bys here as we cycled through.|
|The bicycle and the tree, near Matfield Green, KS.|
|The sign-posts are the tallest thing for miles, as Del and I pedal onward to Cassoday, KS.|
|Aged barnwood, some shade, and a place to rest - the Cassoday Country Store is a welcome stop. Terry swaps layers and takes in calories for the next leg of our journey.|
I greet the other half of our riding party with a hearty thumbs-up and a grunt as I waltz into the Cassoday Country store. The previous hours have given way to an improved state, my speed had begun to improve, and the calories taken in back at Cottonwood Falls (which I barely remember having passed through), proved priceless. Hydrated, feeling fresh, the day became suddenly as bright as the skies above had been. Perfect weather for wool, camera pointing everywhere, and a spring in the pedal stroke -- it took far longer than the usual "just give it 15-minutes" mantra... but, things finally had passed. Regrouped at Cassoday, Glen, Terry, Del and I enjoyed the comfort of the benches inside as we crunched and slurped up the needed grub for the next leg of our ride to the halfway point at El Dorado, KS. The wind from the north, however helpful at that moment, would begin to occupy our minds the closer we came to heading back north. Confident, and determined to not let anything get to me after having endured a tough 45 miles or so, I placed the thoughts of headwinds and struggles in my saddlebag under lock and key, and saddled up for the highway once more.
A taste of high-speed tailwind-driven pleasure along K-177, heading due south toward our halfway control. Good times!
|Good news on the road sign - but the wind had been taking a toll. We would arrive at Cottonwood Falls a full 2 hours later. For some reason, spirits remained high -- but forward progress became real work.|
|Another shot of full sunshine, and a passing train. Never gets old!|
|Passing Bazaar, KS., and the cemetery there.|
|Horse and Donkey.|
|Here, after catching back up from taking the shot above, Del and Terry climb out a particularly long and windy grade, as we finally get Cottonwood Falls into our sights. The shadows are growing longer, however, and soon we'd be resorting ourselves to finishing under nightfall. (no complaints from me!) The microphone noise and flapping reflective vests here only hint at the windy battle -- still nothing to compare to what we'd all endured back in April on the Oak Grove route, but still a challenge.|
|I'm very glad this turned out - an over-the-shoulder shot that should have been all crookedy and wobbly ends up as another personal favorite: that same schoolhouse, shadowed by the dipping sun, and its companion, lone tree.|
After clearing Cottonwood Falls, Terry, Del and I started the last 20 mile leg back to Council Grove under growing shadows, and - graciously - calming winds. Calm is relative, but we'd take any improvement! Just as it tends to do in the desert, very little exists in the Flint Hills to hold in heat after the sun dips this time of year, so out came the layers from the morning to help us home. The headwind battles of the hours from El Dorado had certainly taken their toll, and while I knew Glen was likely enjoying a cold beer and waiting for our return, I wasn't - and couldn't really be - in any kind of hurry. The stars came out, and so did the MP3 player for a little inspiration on the final leg. Low traffic, but some of the larger cattle trucks - resplendent in modern LED lighting, and representative of owner-operator pride - came out of the darkness like spacecraft. Professional, courteous - traffic remained forgiving as we plunged further into the blackness of a moonless fall prairie night.
The Big Dipper, passing planes, and the twinkling lights of the far-off radio towers marked the horizon line, and Del and I pedaled the last few miles into town, enjoying the last, long downhill into Council Grove immensely, as the last gasp of gusty wind finally faded into memory, and the chills of the Flint Hills valleys gave way to warm streetlights and the smells of hot food. Ahhhh, the finish! Glen had retired to the RV, while Terry was found inside the last control - we wandered in, smiles of relief across our faces -- another epic journey in the books!
Take aways.... not many, aside from perhaps trading variety for more predictable restaurant fare. Boring... but, it beats blowing choad the morning of a long ride. The thought crossed my mind only for a fleeting second that venturing out after such an eventful restroom experience that morning would be a bad idea... but, heck, what was I gonna do? A repeat of Iowa, day 2? Maybe I'll wander over to Pizza Ranch... again. No. No way... even if it'd only been a 40 mile out and back to Cottonwood, I was GOING to ride. I'm so glad I stuck it out... it was worth it!
What a great trip!
Man... thinking back, it seems, already, as if this ride happened MONTHS ago, not weeks. I long for the open skies out west... but, I've traded those thoughts, recently, for the satisfying crunch of fallen leaves under my tires, and the cool, inviting fall rains.
Still, I can hardly wait to return.
Glen, Terry, Del... thanks, again... it's always a pleasure riding with you guys!
Songs of note:
This is What it Became - Kutiman (from ThruYou)
Feel So Good - Mase
Start Me Up - Toots and the Maytals (live)
Stay tuned for the November ride.... already running out of month, it won't be long!
Thanks for reading!