Cycling among the people of the south wind
August 24, 2005
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles submitted by South Lake Tahoe photographer Rick Gunn, who is riding his bike around the world to raise awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Over the next two years, he will be chronicling his journey across the globe for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
There was something out there. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was there. I pulled to a stop and wiped the sweat from my head. I scanned the long, straight, impossible sameness of the open plain surrounding me. In the distance, a farmer kicked a whirl of dust that circled around his boots like a beloved pet. The two were inseparable. The people and the wind. Each was inescapable, and a formidable influence upon the land. This was Kansas – the Lakota word for “people of the south wind.”
“Smells like money!” came the voice of co-rider Alex Calvert ahead of me. We had met a day earlier and agreed to ride together along the way. Alex was referring to one of the mammoth dust and urine-vapor clouds spewing from a nearby cattle-feed lot.
The lots, which stretched for nearly two miles and bulged with up to 125,000 head of livestock, emitted an asphyxiating odor that could land a rider on his knees.
“We’re almost there.” I gasped, breathing through my mouth, and pushed harder toward the turnoff to Garden City. We pulled into town and up the driveway of a house that a fellow traveler had recommended along the way. I raised my hand and knocked on the door. It was the home of Kansas bike shop owner Randy Bartel and Karen Borgstedt.
“Welcome,” they said and invited us in. For the better part of the evening Randy and Karen fed us, showed us around town, tended to our bikes, and entertained us with stories of Kansas, its people and the wind – a wind I would come to describe as the beauty or the beast.
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“We have no real hills; the wind is our hill training here,” Randy said. The wind hills must have been great, because the two were both state cycling champions.
The topic turned to the people of Kansas. Nearly everyone smiled, waved, or more often than not, stopped and took the time to say hello.
I asked Randy what gives.
“I think its about population density,” he said. “Every time you take a step down in the size of a city, it seems like people are more likely to talk to you and wave at you. You have time; there’s not as many people that cross your path.”
He paused for minute and finished.
“Here, the heart of the wide-open spaces are reflected in the hearts of people,” he said.
The next morning I said my goodbyes, and set off solo, pointing my handlebars south toward Dodge City. A steady, 20-mile-an-hour headwind emerged like the head of a gargoyle, casting me into a spell of slow motion. Slowing to a average speed of 3 miles per hour, I watched my life drip by as slow as molasses.
I struggled against the beast for hours, encrusted in layers of salt and sweat until I stumbled into to small café near the town of Bucklin. When I entered the room, all eyes turned. There was something different about that room, and that something was me.
Shining like a neon light of Lycra within a sea of suspenders and plaid, I took to a small booth and sipped coffee and tried to look nonchalant. A grizzled man with a John Deere hat and deep lines carved within his face stared from the booth next door.
“Where’d y’all cycle in from?” he asked as if I’d just landed from outer space. The room quieted and the occupants leaned there heads in like drooping sunflowers.
“San Francisco,” I said quietly, hoping to shake the unwanted attention.
A buzz filled the room and the man’s eyes lit up. He smiled and said, “Hell, I’d be dead by now!”
Not knowing quite how to reply, I commented on my difficulty finding water along the way.
“Son, there’s nothing but grass and dust in this state,” he said, the café erupting into laughter. They smiled and wished me safe travels along the way.
I continued southeast on a series of county roads, alternatively hindered by the blowing wind. Outside the tiny hamlet of Mulvane, I entered another small café. It was the same scene all over again: the stares, the inquiries, the disbelief. But this time, as I went to pay the bill, the woman behind the counter smiled, and said simply, “Honey, this one’s on me.”
Here, it seemed, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
From Mulvane I traveled along a series of back roads, past never-ending fields of corn, soybeans, sorghum and sunflowers that danced in the wind. I passed breezily through the towns of Ford, Cunningham, Wichita, and Elk Falls to Baxter Springs. Eerily, these small towns have half of their businesses boarded up, as if farming technology had become so efficient that it simply replaced the people needed to farm the land.
It seems that over the past 30 years, rural Kansas has been marked by large-scale population evacuations. Its people have left for the larger cities or out of state altogether to seek jobs. That night I slept beneath an old span bridge in Elk Falls.
The next day, tired and hungry, I pulled into a gas station offering a special on biscuits and gravy. A man who looked to be 200 years old stepped out of his car and fixed upon me with sparkling blue eyes. “Where you headed son?” he inquired, his back bent perpendicular as if he’d carried a 90-pound sack of cement all his life.
“I’m traveling around the world,” I said to him.
“My son’s 70,” he replied. “He’s does all that kinda stuff. … I always wanted to but I got too old.”
His face donned a wild smile. “Whenever you get sick of pedaling that thing,” he said, pointing to the gas price sign that read $2.61 a gallon, “just think of that – that’ll keep you going.”
He was the last I’d meet of the people of the south wind, and as I looked back, a gust seemed to carry him way. I pedaled to the edge of the plains, to the flint hills just outside the Missouri border. The lyrics from a Bob Dylan song poured out of my headphones: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
I pulled to a stop and looked around.
If Dylan was right, then Kansas surely held the secrets of the universe.
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