Riding the ACA Trans America Bicycle Route.
Wind. That is the defining thing out here. It colors every action and defines every moment. There are sort gusts, sudden blasts, curling sweeps, hot waves, and cooling zephyrs. Most of all though, there is a constant barrage of headwind pressing against a rider’s desire to go forward. This Mid-western Mistral never really stops–it just presses and presses. It is my constant irritating companion and the sound of its demanding hiss for attention never leaves my sad ears. Sometimes I imagine it as small horse jockey. He is wearing a grarish livery of purple and yellow checks and has his two-toned horsey helmet strapped on tight. He has his little hands clamped hard onto the flats of my handlebars, and he is leaning in towards me, pushing me back with all of his might. His feet are flat to on the ground and as I ride forward despite his pushing, the heels of his riding boots scrap backwards along the pavement leaving little scratch marks and trails of gravel. All day long he stares angrily up at me. Oh, and he is screaming at me too. Sometimes I take a break for a drink or just to enjoy the shade. But when I come back to the bike, the jockey has rearranged himself. For the next few miles, he is going to lay flat on his stomach behind the bike and grasp my rear rack and make me pull him along. I don’t think he minds much how he does it–as long as he is slowing me down. At one bend in the road, near a non-place delightfully named Chivington for the man who oversaw the attrocities committed in 1864 at Sand Creek a few miles to the north, I managed to give the jockey the slip. The road reoriented, and for a moment the Jockey was off his post. He was still there, screaming at me the whole time, but for a mile or so he was sort of hanging onto the left end of my handlebar. Suddenly, my speed jumped up. In no time I was overpedaling and had to shift up three or four gears. The ground was flat but my speed increased even as I felt my effort actually lessen. From the usual 11mph (my depressing Spinal Tap joke–this only goes to 11) I sailed to 13, then 15, then 17mph. The Jockey was still there and screaming, but he was less intense and I could see he was having a hard time giving me a hard time. But then the road turned again, he found his footing once more, we resumed the position of our all-day battle.
The trucks have a role to play in this too. It is harvest time in this part of Color-ansas, and huge vehicles are shooting to and fro. The horizon is often dotted with lines of giant combine machines strolling along looking like backward mechanical brontosauruses. I see their drivers at every convenience store I stop at–dusty young men in baseball caps mostly, who seem to be in endless good cheer razzing one another and eating snacks. Some trucks carry the grain hither and thither to the silos that are the only buildings breaking the horizon. In Colorado, they also mark towns–but in Kansas they are more frequent and often just sit along rail lines. Other trucks though carry huge farm machines between fields. These are simply enourmous 18 wheelers plus a second trailer bearing 6 more, and are heralded and followed by warning SUVs. The machines have to move between fields because their owners’ livings depend not on the owning of land, but on the operating the machines to harvest it. Teams of harvesters move between towns and fields as needed as well, sometimes staying a day, other times a week or more. My hostel in Tribune is now home to two teams who are in the fields all day and just go to sleep at night. One of their number though seems to be on his own. He just sorts of haunts common room watching Shrek, or sits glumly outside watching the horizon while his fellows work. He has a new cast on his forearm–a clue perhaps to his seemingly unwanted leisure.
But there is no leisure when the trucks speed by on the road. Their effect differs depending on which way they are headed. The ones coming towards me are the worst. Their arrival is preceded by a momentary silence and then, all of a sudden, the Jockey has five or six friends with him. For a second or two, they are all over me. One jockey wearing black and white stripes is pulling my bike to the right while another all in orange satin, is doing all he can to pull me leftward. The two tug and sway and the bike feels all skittish and unstable. I have to remember each time a truck is coming to get low in the drops and brace for the Jockeys. Meanwhile one dressed in a red top with light blue jodhpurs jumps onto my shoulders and grabs my helmet jerking my head side to side–he kicks my chest with his feet. One time, a jockey in a yellow and green kit tried to grab at any loose items I had on my racks and throw them into the grass, all the while kicking at my panniers. But, blessing of blessings, once the truck passes and the attendant SUV zips by with its dopler-shifted “f*** Youuuuuuuuuuuuuu” trailing in the distance behind me, the new Jockeys all vanish just as fast as they showed up, and I am left alone with my usual friend screaming at me as always.
It is slightly different when a truck comes up from behind me. These of course, present more danger to me than do the ones in the oncoming lane. They are closer–and that is scary enough–but they also once in a while pick up some road refuse and throw it at me. One rock hit me smack in the middle of my back and I had to stop for a moment to recover. If I am going to be hit, it will be by a driver trying to get to the same town as I am. But, my deadly friends have an odd effect on the Jockey. I have two mirrors so I generally know when things are coming up–larger than they may appear in the reflection. The first thing that happens when a truck gets close is that my Jockey lets go for a moment. On top of that, there is a hot wind that pushes from behind and for a second it is as if everything is lighter than air–no jockey, no loaded bike, just a pushing hot blast. The local drivers know there will be cyclists on the road and they are all adept and thoughtful in giving us plenty of room. Most occupy the oncoming lane as they fly by. This much appreciated consideration has an effect beyond putting safe distance between us. As the truck passes and the Jockey is for the moment disoriented, there is a moment when the full size of the vehicle actually blocks the wind entirely and it is as if I am drafting the truck. The Jockey is, for a second, gone. It is a welcome respite and almost makes up for the mortal terror of having to share the road with these beasts. But, it is a tiny a respite, and as soon as the truck farts its way away, the Jockey is back. He slaps me in the face for thinking that there may be some possibility of a life without him. How dare I dream, how dare I hope. “I am the Gulag and you are Ivan Denisovich, I am Alcatraz and you are my Birdman, I am French Guyana and you are Dreyfus!” he screams at me as he settles his little gloved hands back onto my bars, and the ride continues as before.
You can laugh now, you screaming harpie–but I will win. I will wake up earlier and earlier each day to ride as many miles I can while the Jockeys still snooze and take medication for their sore throats. If 5:30 am is not early enough, then tommorow I will try 4:30 am–whatever it takes to find the times when you are slacking. And as I get lower in altitude and deeper into Kansas, stable heat and greater humidity will sap your energy. Each mile I ride takes me a little bit closer to the place where your grip will finally fail you, and you will slip, and my wheels will roll right over you. I will back up and roll over you a second and a third time for good measure. And you too trucks. I know your routines now and can avoid the hours when you are most eager to get home. The harvest can’t go on forever. As long as I can make miles, I am winning.