June 1, 2014

The Aliceville Twister - The May 200K!

Mile 105.

The only sound came from the roar of the constant prairie winds in my ears, punctuated occasionally by the rush of a passing car or truck.  Peering out from under the lip of my helmet, the road continued to stretch toward the unbroken horizon ahead of me.  Steven was still a tiny yellowish blip on the radar... barely.  For a few milliseconds I thought to myself, this must be what the Last Chance 1200km ride feels like.  I'm immediately aware of how much more tired I'd likely be, had it really been that event unfolding under my wheels.  Another swig of water, and the pedaling continued for what seemed like hours.  I felt like I'd never reach the highway crossing.  This IS only 200-some kilometers, right?  Had I made a horrible mathematics error?  I don't remember any of this.  Where's Josh?  Where am *I*??  


Don't take this literally... but, from a mental standpoint this particular route is a great one to get lost in.  Compared to one of
my older routes in particular - which suffers from far too many turns (in my newly-matured opinion) and about 600 pages of cue - this latest route is a treat:  long, unbroken sections of road to let the rhythm develop and the mind to wander.  For this ride's shorter cue remaining, however, one does need afford attention to avoid getting TOO "lost."

For May's installment of the R-12, and for likely the next couple of installments, I'm in new territory.  I've been busy over the last year constructing another series of permanent routes to complement the couple I already have on the books - which felt good to knock out after many months of drafts and planning.  My first submissions since 2008!  The Mighty Peculiar stood first in line, then a variant of it called The Archie Bunker, my first populaire-length route called The Border Patrol Express, and this one - The Aliceville Twister.  No, those names don't really reveal too much about where they start, or go, or end - but, I like a little suspense with my routes.  I've hit the pause-button for a bit, however, to let these latest routes soak.  I've so many ideas in the hopper; enough to keep me occupied for the next year, at least.

So, the Aliceville Twister, huh?  What's this all about? 
The whole idea centers around Aliceville, KS., which is difficult to find on a map of Kansas at all since it had never been incorporated as a town.  It just sits out there on a country road, sorta forgotten; yet, remains well cared-for thanks to some involved citizens and historians.  The region had once been famous for its remarkable hay production - Gridley and Leroy, KS. to be specific each had booming hay businesses at the end of the 1800's, which continued to serve regional farmers looking to keep their livestock fed well into the early 20th century, until the Great Dust-bowl and ill-timed Great Depression, of course.  Even in the wake of such an impactful natural (errr, yeah...some could blamelessly argue that point) disaster, I find it interesting how few trees there still are out there.  I digress... Aliceville itself had been named after the daughter of one of those famous and successful agricultural barons, but, in 1903 a major tornado touched down nearby and swept through the town (explaining the 2nd part of the route name) - the damage from which the town never fully recovered.  An historic church, a bank, and a few old foundations remain in place, but most of the town is relatively new - and desperately small.  The railroad which used to run through the north end of town became abandoned shortly after the Wolf Creek generating station switched from coal-fired heat production to nuclear circa 1985, and with it went any hopes that Aliceville might enjoy future prosperity, much the same tale for many rural communities out here.  The rail-lines were never removed, however, and are still visible ... so, perhaps there IS hope.  This ride has been dedicated toward this little town's enduring spirit.

We picked a perfect day.  As long as one likes wind.  Bookended by remarkably calm late-spring weather, the very day of our journey came with a forecast which heralded strong sustained winds up to 30MPH with gusts above 40MPH.  Gre-eeat.  No matter - at least we arrived well-trained, and the storm chances were low.

Steve, Josh and I gathered in the parking lot near the start line, after a nice morning drive down to Garnett, KS. for the start.  After a couple weeks of commuting to work with temperatures approaching 90F, the predawn 60F felt a bit chilly - especially with the already-present wind whipping things up.  It became interesting trying to put on extra layers and secure baggage when the wind attempted to transform everything into a kite!  Forms, papers, and cards ready, we took to the streets of Garnett to find the first control.  Perhaps numb to the usual Casey's fare, since we do frequent quite a lot of them around here, the offerings at Garnett's "Short Stop" looked pretty inviting, and I started the day with a bag of Daylight Donut's donut holes.  Hmmmm.... tasty!  Pure, bready, sugary goodness.... sure to be worth a few dozen miles!  Cards signed, receipts collected, time confirmed, we busted out onto the street with various treats and big smiles... perhaps a bit of a lingering concern for the winds in store - but, optimistic.

"Old FSA 10" appears on a few maps, the common name for this meandering stretch of terrific pavement which generally heads west toward Burlington, KS... which you'll get a chance to visit if you space-out on a couple cue'd turns!  Considering the mileage-sensitive nature of those very turns, Steven W. clicks across his cyclometer to gauge our progress to find it unresponsive to the front wheel's rotations.  Uh oh... math time!  Here, we stop for a quick breather while Steven tends to his front wheel sensor position, in hopes of fixing the problem.  It doesn't.  Meanwhile, the problem becomes evident in this shot:  with nothing to break rhythm or create pause, the road just disappears invitingly at the far horizon... and the rando spirit says "follow me!"  The resulting bonus mileage... wow.  Still, a great view!

Computer problems aside for the moment, we carry on, the leftovers from a 20% chance of AM thunder flying past overhead, the promise of sunshine later - the day is full of promise.  Steven, ever looking the part of veteran randonneur, you'd never know it was only his (uh, see, I forgot already) [single digit] year at it.  This time astride his fast bike, a gorgeous '74 Motobecane - an actual lugged steel French example in a mystic blue color with gold pinstripe and logo detail.  In the foreground, his face forever evading the camera ( a skill likely adopted from his stint with the CIA, or was it Mi6? )  is Josh -- assuming that's his real name, of course (LOL)... ok, really... Astride his Trek, wearing the most reflective material I've ever seen in one place, Josh is a consummate randonneur already - only in his 1st year, but taking on the SR series and eyeing his first series of 12, he's a force to be watched - and, also flying the full beard.  I feel a little facial-hair inadequacy for a few miles.

The sun peeks through the passing stratocumulus long enough to cast a reflection from the abandoned rail line on the north edge of Aliceville, as we aim south into the moderating southern breeze.  This would likely be the easiest of our brief southern jaunts.  I have no complaints about the venue, the change of scenery, the excitement of a new route -- but, it crosses my mind how challenging / rewarding a true N/S route would have been on a day like this one.  Gusting above 25 already, the wind would be a constant companion today.  This rail corridor would make for a great rail-trail... although, the rails may have been left in place intentionally.  Difficult to tell, but railroad leases are long-term things, indeed.

A catch of wildflowers alongside the road to Aliceville - one could have created quite a catalog of wildflower shots this day, had one been so inclined.  I hadn't really been thinking about time consciously, but, in retrospect it proved wiser to keep moving.  Despite not having the burden of many direct headwind miles, the wind would still take a toll.  The prairie, however, was alive with wildflowers in bloom along every way, and bumble bees were seen zipping about across the road.  Spring, in full swing.

Steven, on point, the tireless puller doesn't know when to punch out - and I begin to feel guilty as we cross into Aliceville itself.  The sky still cluttered with scud, but we begin to finally see our shadows along the chunky KS chip-n-seal roads.  Reminds me, I need to order a RUSA summer-weight jersey of my own.

Josh taking the front, after the slog southbound from Aliceville is complete - the last serious southbound journey done, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief with the true headwind work behind us.  I never appreciated the gravity of changing up the usual N/S arrangement of routes until coming out here on this particular day.  An east/west majority of mileage came truly appreciated, even if it came from my own pen.  Here, we are approaching Leroy, KS. -- or, as we now affectionately call it:  Leeeroy Jenkins!!!

Yeah, this isn't an auto-blog - but, consider for a moment my love for unique, classic bicycles; which sometimes transcends actual year-of-production.  IE, I'd totally geek-out on a Trek Y-Foil road bike, should I happen upon one... despite it not being terribly rando OR classic OR retro... yet, it's still interesting.  So, that often transmits from two-wheeled human-powered fare over to the automotive world:  thus, submitted for your approval, the Honda Acty mini-truck.  (I still think it's supposed to be "ACTV", pronounced like 'active', as opposed to "ACTY"... 'actey?'  I dunno... sometimes the internet surprises me, so I called Honda.  No, not really.  Bit of a story, if you'll excuse the non-cycling content, but, if I'm reading correctly, these tiny wonders were never meant for market outside Japan.  They've been used there mainly for urban delivery work, maintenance, and well... "truck stuff."  If you've been to the Kansas City Zoo, you've likely seen something similar in person already - the Daihatsu HiJet, or one of its variants.  These "off-road" (for the North American market, anyhow) mini-trucks are living proof that one doesn't need a F-7000 StoopidDuty Bro-Cab dually with a 69.0L CumminAlliCat Diesel to get stuff done.  You work in a cubicle, your truck is NEVER dirty, and you spent $70,000 too much money.  Get over it, cowboy, and sell that thing to a barely-hangin'-on-farmer that will use it for what it's made for.  Clowns.  

Sorry... blacked-out with rage for a second there...

The Honda Acty is the exact pure opposite of the aforementioned suburban compensation-mobile.  In fact, the Honda Acty is SO cool, it is one of the only mid-engine'd, all-wheel drive vehicles you can buy that isn't a six-figure 'supercar'.  I wish I could have talked to the owner about how he'd acquired it, its story, and some of its details.  Unfortunately, for reasons that might be obvious, they were never meant for U.S. roads; but, that typifies the US market in general -- most things are larger than they need to be.
There is a glass of water on a table, and it has been filled with water, about halfway to the brim.  The pessimist would see this glass as half-empty.  The optimist would see this glass as half-full.  The engineer would see the glass as being twice as large as necessary.
Fairly, however, our roads and the speeds exceeded on them, and our passion for sensationalism vs. "real safety", it is doomed to the same non-US market category as the Land Rover Defender 90.  The only air-bag this little truck has ever heard of usually sits around the dinner table at Thanksgiving and answers to the name "Uncle Keith."  Any sort of collision in this thing pretty much digs the grave for you, and the underpinnings haven't changed all that much since its release in 1977.  This 1992 (est.) example, however, is an honest workhorse, serving as in-town runabout and light-duty scamp (note the "approved for occasional on-road use" permits where the license plate would normally be.  TOTALLY distracted from the really cool and unique rest-stop behind me I geeked out over this thing longer than I should have - here included - but, this may well have been the only one of these I'll ever see again.  I'm like that guy in the 1989 movie "The Dream Team" with Micheal Keaton, where - if I recall - everyone comes into a fair amount of money or something, and the usual stuff happens where they want [insert expensive dream car here], but there is this one quirky guy (probably a model of my personality, really).  He could have anything in the world, but really wants a 19xx Saab Model 90, or 99?  Or 900... I can't remember... but, you should watch the movie anyway because Peter Boyle and Christopher Lloyd are in it together.  Whichever character has a quirk wherein he incessantly spouts statistics about Saabs... that'd be me.  (also has a flair for alliteration?)  Long live whoever this guy is, who is man enough to drive a Honda Acty.  Bless you, sir.

Marking this point in time as perhaps a barometer for the state of our rando-training to-date this year, it should be noted that - considering the strong winds - I should have been mumbling to myself in a corner, desperately searching a forecast for any mention of the wind dying off.  Instead, I couldn't have cared less, and was instead attending my own private autoshow.
Hmm.  Mental game, level-up.

Meanwhile, behind me, my counterparts were capturing awesomeness like this.  This control is a pure gem.  I'm not giving out any more details.  You need to ride this route.  Luther's C-Store and Jerky shop.  You could spend hours pouring over all of the stuff on the walls - photos, news clippings, and tons of solid Kansas humor and curiosities.  Excellent store!

Only mildly concerned about the clock, we concluded our business at Leroy, KS., and hopped back onto K-58 for the remaining jaunt west to the halfway control.  As we emerged back onto K-58, the wind clearly still out of the south and increasing, the sun began to finally peek through the remaining clouds from the morning.  It was already a great day - a touch humid - but, the sunshine kicked it up a few more notches.  Awesome riding day!  The highway pavement was smooth - and I'd begun to notice a recurring theme, something I'd thought would end as soon as we left the small county backroads and hit the state highway system:  the waves.  

I honestly have never been waved at in the ENTIRE time I've been riding a bicycle as much as we three were waved at during this one, single ride.  I don't know if the stars had finally aligned, if I was hallucinating, or if it was just that Kansas hospitality I've always read about but had never experienced (because of where in Kansas I live.)  Seriously, a couple of times I had to forego the wave-back because it would have caused me to drop something or weave into the ditch.  Nearly EVERYONE waved from their passing cars, in either direction, all day long.  A fella could get used to this, I'd thought... and I'd begun to mentally shop for property as we passed by seemingly endless fields and tiny communities.  In this age of telecommuting, why can't I just move out here, where it's like this all the time??  Lordy, how I wish I could swing that.
At the very tail-end of my most recent ride - a 100km populaire that I'll post about later - I found myself back in Johnson County, where - by comparison - I counted one wave from someone in a Smart For-Two, and another "wave" from a younger driver with Jo Co plates... except it was backwards and four of his digits were retracted - which confused me, since he'd been heading in the opposite direction - so, I decided to wave back (using the friendlier, more acceptable, palm-outward, fingers fully extended version).  A few days before during a commute home, someone in an SUV decided to verbally inform me about the nice bike trail nearby, seemingly forgetting the he'd an entire lane just to his left available for his safer passage of me.  So, I followed him home, obtained his license plate number, make & model, some photographs, and his future address - as he's having a nice new home built in a new development.  We then chatted calmly (no, really) about the situation, some solutions, and the differing opinions of bicycling in the metro which had developed his opinions.  He apologized, we shook hands, and I continued home - a small skirmish won, perhaps ... one driver reeducated... 350,000 to go.  No, not quite the same as rural KS at all.  But, it is where I hang my hat, it's where I raise my kids and hug my wife, and it's where the bills get paid.  As "easy" as it would be for me to move to safer grounds, perhaps none of this is an accident.

Boy, how I enjoy this route... a navigational success, with long stretches unmarred by needless turns and cue-sheet checking, with most intersections happening at hard-to-miss "tees" and the like.  Awesome.  We navigated out to US-75, jogged north, and then continued west on K-58 again, toward the next little town in line, Gridley.  Slowly, the landscape began to change from familiar trees and farm fields and the occasional house, to longer views, lush, rolling terrain, and big, big Kansas sky.... the eastern fringes of the Flint Hills lay ahead, and suddenly it seemed as if we'd started a completely different ride.  This stretch of road from US-75 out to the halfway is terrific!

A shy box turtle hides in its shell after being carefully lifted from the center of a lane to the shoulder to which he'd been pointing.  Steven is a good guy... as I simply made remark of the interesting and seldom-seen chelonian, Steven performed a quick stop and moved him to safety.  In the backdrop, Steven is already on his way again, Josh is ready to remount, and I've barely gotten out my camera.  It was a neat moment, and I hadn't expected the shot to come out so well.  

As the trees thin and the skies clear, the horizon seems to extend toward forever - cycling bliss descended upon us with each passing mile, despite the roaring south wind.

We arrive at Gridley, KS. - what I had expected to be merely punctuation to the ultimate destination of Madison, KS., it turned out Gridley held a unique charm of its own.

Almost better than a museum, the side of a building resplendent in hand-painted mural depicting Gridley's role in Kansas history, boasting the largest hay shipping business in the world for the time in its heyday (pun intended?).  The railroad, which enabled this success, pulled up its tracks 40-years earlier, but the town remains proud.  Although I hadn't made time to visit the site itself, the town also boasts having had the 2nd largest hand-dug water well in the world:  56 ft. deep and 36 ft. in diameter...think about that... dug BY HAND to provide water for the railroad locomotives.  Unfortunately, the railroad filled it in when the tracks were removed.  The #1 largest hand dug well?  It may be in Kansas, also... out west in Leoti, boasting 102 ft. of depth.  Yowza!  

Old farmstead west of Gridley, KS.

Terrific pavement on the highway to Madison, and nothing but blue skies!

Just right of center, a slight dip in the landscape reveals a distant horizon, as we find ourselves perched and riding along a massive ridge demarking the Flint Hills region.  The trees and houses are nearly gone, as are the power lines and phone poles.  One can quite literally see for miles and miles here.

More endless skyways, and an inviting dirt & gravel road extending toward the horizon.  The scenery is breathtaking, so I take an opportunity to simply stop, and stare off into the prairie.  To have come upon this 175 years ago would have been indescribably beautiful:  I can imagine a scene of perhaps wild buffalo, someone erecting a windmill... only the ruins of which remain today... the entire scene absent of fences and sign-posts.    

A panorama capturing nearly 180º of field still barely lends credence to the beauty of the open landscape.  I know it's not really designed to do so, but, I so wish the panoramic software of the camera would have captured a full frame of Steven riding past - instead we see only a sliver - but, I still love this shot... a quick blur of motion across a giant landscape... it's a picture of randonneuring.

Maybe the significance of their surroundings is lost on their bovine capacities, yet even the local livestock seem more at ease out here.

A giant H-truss guyed microwave relay tower, from the old AT&T long-lines days, likely seeing renewed use thanks to an ever-increasing demand for data throughput in the backhaul sector.  I'm such a telecom geek.

We can nearly see all the way to Madison as we descend off the ridge into the valley beyond.

A small, family plot - right next to the highway near an old farm house.  Mad respect for those who braved the unknown to settle out here, over 100 years ago.  While only a spec in the volumes of world history, the original pioneers who accepted the challenge of settling the vast prairie were truly hardened individuals.  Riding a bicycle for any distance, by comparison, diminishes in significance dramatically as I consider this tiny grave-site.  Their land and home, unmatched in beauty - but unequaled in work, sweat, toil, hardship, hunger and thirst.  Pure sacrifice on a gamble for prosperity and the early versions of the American Dream.  The land grab.  Hard, clay-riddled virgin soil cut and worked with hand tools and draft animal.  The Dustbowl.  The Great Depression.  The New Deal.  The AAA Act.  We are merely spectators to the legacy our pioneering ancestors left behind - and this writer feels that each of these old farmstead sites should be restored, preserved, and immortalized.  One needn't be a senator, war hero, ex-president, or railroad tycoon to have their 'childhood home' preserved or historically registered, in my opinion.  For any farm here to have endured at all remains worthy of attention and pause.

Miles and miles of great highway - clouds returning later in the day to provide some shelter from the sun and heat.

More Flint Hills livestock

Majestic, lush green hills east of Madison, KS.

The road pitches up - Flint Hills earning their reputation for solitude, beauty and challenge

Sweeping landscape, we come upon some road construction - passage is simple, and punctuates the long hours of pedaling.  Sometimes it's nice to have a brief rest to stretch the legs.

Unmatched Kansas cycling bliss

Another of countless old farmsteads west of Gridley, KS.

A terrific stone home, right off the "trail" - the glass and wood long gone, overgrown and ramshackle - but, still a jaw-dropping reminder of the prairie's past.  Long shall it stand.

Words are useless - it's perfect.

We arrive back in Leroy, KS. for another well-deserved break from the road.  The wind remained relentless and the hours of crosswind fighting had taken more of a toll than I'd realized.  Upon arrival, that old familiar feeling of being a bit 'zapped' fell into my conscious realm.  Yikes... a good workout, for sure.  Time for more food, definitely in need of some rehydration and a nice, comfortable bench in the shade.  Or in the air conditioning... yeeesss.
One by one, we three dismount and lumber into the c-store; cards signed, receipts collected, sandwiches ordered, bottles filled, faces washed clean of salt and wind-driven grime.  

While we'd never been in danger of missing a control cut-off all day long - in fact, our average speeds had been impressive for our lot - we still felt the weight of the clock, as we each checked our clocks... and then rechecked them in something resembling confusion mixed with amnesia.  Had it really taken us that long to get back here?  The stop in Madison wasn't that long, was it?  Is it really that time of day now?  When does the next control close?  Crap, are we going to finish on time?? 

The allure of an extended sit-down traded punches with the time tables - when, in reality we'd been in no hurry, the math became garbled and improbable.  The conversion to military time required careful thought, the mileage remaining vs. our last-leg average spelled disaster... but moments later re-spelled comfort... ugh... let's do this while we pedal, eh?  Time to move.

By the way --- be REALLY careful when first sitting down in the very-comfortable-looking bench across from the front counter at Luther's c-store.  Ask Steven next time you ride with him.  It's a moving experience!


With math laid aside, we finished our control business, packed up, and headed east toward Colony, KS., the penultimate control.  Knowing that the Prairie Spirit Trail's less-than-paved surface might slow us down, it suddenly became unclear how much time we really needed to successfully finish the day.  Right about that point, my personal "wall" for the day arrived.  With a steady diet of something resembling "training," I've managed to continue ratcheting my personal wall from roughly 70 miles in January to near 100 today; yet, it's still there.  Maybe 15-30 minutes where my engine simply doesn't want to turn over anymore... at least, not with the same energy.  It's never a full-on bonk - but, the slow effects of under-hydration and caloric deficit will inevitably pop up and slow me down for a bit.  This day, it's difficult to tell if the section of road became a factor, or simply the "wall" - but, looking at the elevation profile it may have been both.  K-58 from Leroy is generally uphill... but only just:  as it makes a slow, gradual climb away from the Neosho River, it becomes enough to task the legs after many hours of relatively flat terrain.  Here, I watch helplessly as Steven begins to advance up the road.  Josh seems to have timed his rough patch with mine - but, recovering quicker he eventually passes me.  Not wanting to stop for the earbud, I still decide some tunes will help - so I pop on the music from my phone's internal speaker.  It'll do, and it comes with the added bonus of not having to fiddle with a cord, or the feeling like I've left a finger in my ear.  I still prefer to leave entertainment fully removed from my lifeline to safety - but, the battery draw is negligible, and I have a spare.  Eventually, the lull in energy passed, the music silenced, and after what seemed like 30 miles, the 15 or so miles to Colony had been covered.  Control, air conditioning, and water.... sweet water!  After only needing roughly one bottle per control leg all day long, this shortest section of the ride suddenly required two full bottles.  Yikes... but, I'd finally switched toward being on the mend.  

After many tough miles, US-169 comes into view

Steven arrived in Colony a full 15 minutes ahead of Josh and me, but it appeared we'd all needed a unifying amount of rest once seated there.  Cards signed, receipts in hand, we each took precisely the agreed-upon amount of time to get ready for the next leg - which would be scenic, interesting, and rewarding - but, would require work.  

The Prairie Spirit Trail section... 17 miles to the finish.
To those who would whine and moan about this not being 'paved':  of course it's paved.  If it wasn't, it would be grassy and muddy.  This is no reason to NOT try this ride - bear that carefully in mind:  to deprive oneself of the experience of a rail-trail excursion for reasons associated with having too-narrow a tire or the "wrong" bike is to forget the very fabric of randonneuring history and tradition.  Ignore your equipment, stay loose, smile, and remember the first rule of gravel or loose surfaces:  if the bike gets squirrelly, pedal harder.  Speed adds stability.  In truth, while the crushed limestone does add some rolling resistance, it's not dangerous nor dicey.  It's a freakin' blast!  Remember rule #5, and just do it.

Despite the surface, it should be noted our average speed as a group increased thanks to a steady diet of speed-play, joyful sprints, and mild panic about the time remaining.  Finally free of the trail, we emerged into Garnett, and began our search for the final control... which would have gone better had my cue sheet been slightly better.  (Such improvements have been made since this account)

The day, however, had indeed taken its toll -- with only 20 minutes remaining, we finished the ride with a setting sun and a cold chocolate milk in our hands.  Ahhh... success!
This had not been a normal day, however... the slim finish had more to do with our control lounging, and the unusually strong cross/headwinds.  Even upon arriving at the only extended south-to-north section of the ride, the last trail section, the tree shield and rolling resistance hit negated anything the tailwind might have done for us.  It had been a tough day, on a great route.  Nothing to frown about, that's for sure... although, next time I might save the discussion and relaxation for the saddle instead of the curb, lest I drift into tourist territory too much.  I still dig this rando thing... and R-12 #4 is close to wrapping up.  

Major thanks to Steven and Josh for coming out to enjoy this rare day with me.  I can't wait to ride this route again, personally!  

Paying the daily-use fare for the Prairie Spirit Trail at Colony's trailhead

A restored Sante Fe RR caboose marks the return to Garnett, KS. along the rail-trail

A few bonus miles lead us past the old Garnett water-tower, as shadows grow longer

Stay tuned.... more ride reports to come!
Thanks for reading! 

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