Kansas Chronicles: Part I – Kansas City, MO to Newton, KS

Kansas was a pivotal state for me. A state with contradicting reviews. Boring was a description, flat, another. Tales of Kansans’ generosity and overall kindness reigned supreme no matter what was said about the land. It was a state in which I would meet some amazing people that will forever be part of me. These individuals would strengthen my riding and change perspectives on life. It would also be the first time riding through a heat wave and the first time experiencing the United States’ high desert country. Sure I had experienced hot days in Virginia and Tennessee, but nothing quite like this. The joy of watching the sun rise over tranquil, endless plains would turn to torment as the sun reached it’s highest point in the midday sky, providing a constant reminder in the dangers of cycling in such remote and unforgiving terrain. I will forever look fondly on these days and anticipate an eventual return cycling trip in Kansas, perhaps the Dirty Kanza.

July 5: Kansas City, MO to Ottawa, KS (69.5 miles)

I awake early to search potential Warmshowers hosts on my way to Newton, Kansas, roughly a three day ride, where I will pick up the TransAmerica Trail (TAT) west. I reach out to a few individuals, messaging them through the website, but also texting one individual. Jarrett would eventually return the text some hours later confirming a place to stay in Ottawa. I then began some basic route planning out of Kansas City.  Adair and I estimate that I must average 75 miles a day, 6 days a week for the next 6 weeks to reach Corvallis, Oregon in time to welcome Adair to the West. This was the next time constraint and I would not fail to make it by bicycle.

Adair wakes and we pack from our lengthy stay at the Overture B&B. At our last delicious breakfast, Luke, the manager gifted me some jalapeño peach jam, home made on site the day before. I provide profuse thanks for the sugary, spicy yet sweet fuel that I will enjoy along the roadside. Adair calls a car while we get our baggage outside. We say our goodbyes and she is whisked away to the airport. I get all items in order and high tail it out of town.

The roads are fairly quiet at 10:30 AM and I get to the city limits within the hour. I notice an extreme amount of spent firework casings along the street edge and sidewalks. Should have anticipated that considering how late fireworks were being fired off during the wee hours of the morning. I happen upon a Trek store around lunch time and ask for a suggested route to Ottawa while gathering a few small supplies. I was helped by the super friendly front desk associate, Kristen. She tells me she could not get me all the way there, but did provide a local map detailing what streets were good for riding plus some off road directions through a massive park. I buy some chamois butter and an extra tube. The tube was not the exact size 700C, rather a 29” tube that she confidently confirmed would work. Back to the road.

Eastern Kansas was not what I had expected. On the trails it was all rolling hills, bubbling brooks, trees and suburban houses. Not the flat, arid, corn filled plains that one anticipates. A fairly hot day, I take my time with plenty of water breaks in the shade. Once off the trails and back on the street, hunger speaks up. I didn’t want to eat fast-food and settle on a Mexican restaurant. I order a giant plate of rice and beans along with a burrito and eat in the company of construction workers. I chat with my parents for a bit, detailing the next few days of riding and how Kansas City had treated us.

Approaching Ottawa the density of suburban sprawl begins to thin out. Farms increase in frequency with plenty of trees lining the properties. There are a considerable amount of small oil pumps littering the fields. Some pumped slowly, others not at all. How did they work? Did the pumps eerily squeaking making decent money for the property owners? Were the motionless rigs all out of oil? Were the property owners actually collecting the money or were big oil’s fingers firmly grasped on these small operations?

Around 6 PM I roll into Ottawa, noticing a few BBQ joints on the way into town. Normally I would have eagerly stopped for a BBQ dinner, but after multiple days sampling some of KC’s finest, I opt for anything else. Jarrett informed me that he had left his apartment open, provided directions to find it, but indicated he was working at a Casey’s General Store on the edge of town. I could come introduce myself and find food. Not knowing much about Ottawa and staying at this man’s apartment, I opt to say hi. Jarrett works two jobs, his evening gig is food prep at Casey’s. He finishes putting a pizza together, throws it in the oven and comes around the counter.

With a big smile and firm handshake he welcomes me to town and offers to make me food. Already providing free accommodations, I deny the offer, but he insists. He then proceeds to make me the thickest turkey sandwich I have ever seen. His counterparts working the register remind Jarrett that he would have to pay full price since the person eating the food was not an employee. I sit at some tables and eat by my lonesome, Jarrett checking in on me about half way through the massive hoagie. I finish up and tell him I am on my way to his place, thanking him for the hospitality. He works till midnight, so it is not certain that I will be seeing him that evening.

Once at Jarrett’s apartment, I pull my gear inside and find a fresh towel. I shower then throw some laundry in, refreshing my wardrobe after a nearly a week without laundry – Adair had brought me normal clothes for our Fourth of July Weekend. I write some notes for the day and put on a Kevin Costner movie about ranchers in the wild west. This helped put things into perspective as I near untrodden territory. Half way through the movie, my eyelids become anchors and sink down my face. I slide out of the EZ-Boy and onto the spare bedroom’s mattress. Jarrett unlocks the front door as I fall asleep.

July 6: Ottawa to Emporia (63 miles)

Up early, Jarrett warms breakfast and starts a pot of coffee. His day job is an electrician working near Kansas City, Kansas. He had brought back a “breakfast” pizza for me from Casey’s. Casey’s serves a lot of pizza and would be a staple for cold drinks and food for the remaining time in Kansas. As I eat, he explains that the camping chair in the spare room was a momento to be signed by his cycling guests. He instills in me the need to do so before I leave. His ride to work appears as I finish my last slice of breakfast. We say good bye and snap a quick photo. I gather my belongings and head out just a few minutes later than I had planned.IMG_20170706_064111

Just outside of the front of his apartment I find the cycling trail that Jarret had mentioned during my dinner. He indicated that Ottawa has a great path that splits the town going north and south. In the coming years a horizontal path would be completed in the State, Ottawa being the crossroads. He plans to open a shop, Jarrett’s Bikes and Boards to accommodate cyclists and the local community. The path leads to Old Route 50 that will take me to Emporia where the next confirmed Warmshowers host, Ben, lived. There is a slight headwind as the morning heat builds. I stop at the next town’s park as the only restaurant is not open and the park would provide adequate shade as I fill water bottles and snack.

While eating, I notice just how much I had been sweating. My chest was soaked, but the sweat had made its way south, drenching my shorts. The pattern it left made it looked like I had wet myself. Laughing, I finish up a call to my nephew, wishing him a happy birthday. I ride for a bit longer on 50 and find the next town for cold drinks and some real food. Lebo is across some train tracks and a Casey’s General Store welcomes me. I head in for cold drinks and something besides pizza. I settle on pizza as nothing else is that appetizing. I ask about a town pool, but the man working the register says I would have to ride some 10 miles in the wrong direction.

Heading outside, I see that the library is open across the street. I head there for some air-conditioning, internet and a chance to hydrate. The librarian chats me up, given my appearance and points me to a quiet room. A woman was also in the same room, breast feeding her child. Not expecting this, I place my stuff on the floor, plug in a few devices and head to the restroom for a bandana bath. With the cold, wet cloth, I wipe the sweat and sunscreen from my face and arms, cooling myself instantly in the temperature controlled space. By the time I return the room is empty. I blog and text Adair.

After an hour or so, I head back out into the heat. I snap a photo of a Lebo mural and get back to my route. The country side is starting to flatten out as a near the middle of the State. About 20 miles outside of Emporia, I notice my rear wheel start to skate. I know what this means, it means my tire has a flat and air is escaping quickly! I pull off to the side of the road on a private driveway. This stretch of highway has no trees and I am subjected to the sun’s brutal heat. As I work quickly a large work truck pulls off the side of the road and asks if I am ok. I indicate I am fine, just need to work quickly. As I talk to him, I loose a valve converter that was on the punctured tire. Don’t ever rush things when on a trip! While not a critical component of my trip, these valve convertors make life simpler. He leaves as I search through the grass. I should have asked him for water as I am running very low.IMG_20170706_151443

With wheel fixed and pedaling up a slight hill, I worry about the waning liquid supply. Off to my left I see a home with four people splashing in a pool under a shaded tree. I am super jealous of them and decide to pull into their drive way, determined to refill water bottles. Fortunately a man and his child are in a golf cart routing the house towards me from the pool. I flag him down and ask if I can fill water from his pumps. Harrison is his name and offers all the water I need. We the trip and he tells me about himself. He was a former military vet, back in his hometown working at a local manufacturing plant. He tells me he is going to get his mom to register on Warmshowers and let cyclists camp on their property. I thank him and make the final push to Emporia feeling refreshed and relieved.

Emporia is a cool town, probably the biggest town since I had left Kansas City. It looks like something out of Back to the Future, clean and quaint. I stop at a bike shop to see if they can tighten my bottom bracket, as my cranks seem to squeak each time I pedal, something I thought was taken care of in Knoxville. The shop guys are great and address my issue immediately. As I leave, they close up the shop and head out on a group ride. I make a turn off the main street and find Ben’s place, less than a mile from the shop. Ben is super friendly, wrapping up some gardening that he was working on all day. He helps me bring my bags in and shows me the shower.

Once showered, he asks what kind of food I am in to. I indicate no preference, just that I don’t want to eat at a gas station. He takes me to a burger and shake joint called Braum’s. Needless to say I am blown away by the food. While I don’t believe this place is widely known, I much prefer it to Shake Shack or In n Out. That is saying a lot for fast food burgers! Ben proceeds to tell me about his touring experience, using a recumbent and navigating over 6,000 miles in better part of a year. He suffered from a condition where the constant exercise made his metabolism almost stop and he didn’t want to consume necessary calories. This stopped his journey for some time. Given the ravenous states I have found myself in, I will never understand this condition…IMG_20170707_072054

We attempt to run a few errands for his garden on the way home, but all the stores appear to have closed just minutes before we arrive. We head back to his house. I chat up his wife, Jessie, prior to going to bed. I sleep easily after a long hot day, anticipating another early morning beating the heat.

July 7: Emporia to Halsted (80 miles)

I wake up just before 6 AM to pack, hitting the road by 7 AM to take advantage of coolish weather. Old Route 50 becomes Route 50, a wide and busy version of the old highway. I fight headwinds almost immediately outside of town, as the draft from 18-wheelers pushes me all over the shoulder. I arrive in Strong City where all the restaurants are closed. I ask a woman that had just stepped out of the Post Office where the closest place to get a bite would be. Of course there is a Casey’s in Cottonwood Falls, a mile south of where I stand. Consulting Google Maps and it appears that the stop would be a slight detour to Route 50, and get me off the highway for some 15 miles.

I take water next to the Strong City Railroad Station, long since closed, and read about how they host the largest rodeo in the country. I head south and find my Casey’s meal of the day, coffee and breakfast sandwich, and make a considerable effort to hydrate inside the gas station. Looking at the map again, I will need to back track a bit before I find the road headed east. On the way out of town I find the main drag of Cottonwood Falls. It has a huge courthouse and some old time-y looking shops along a brick road. This appears to be the trend in Kansas. Many of the towns have one main road lined by small store fronts, a post office and some sort of governmental building or town hall. It really does look like the Wild West.

IMG_20170707_101221
Chase County Courthouse in the distance

I venture to the country road detour and enter the Flint Hills as the sun beats down on the pavement. The grass fields are dried out as far as the eye can see. The Chase State Fishing Lake is just off route, but I find that it is uphill and an unknown distance from the road into the heat of the country side. I push forward as there is still considerable mileage for the day. An email appears from a potential host in Newton. Garrett, indicates that he is located 10 miles on the far side of Newton and would be able to help in a pinch if no other hosts were available. Moments later another message appears from the other Newton host stating she is all booked up and that I should reach out to Garrett. Looks like I will need to impose my will on Garrett. In a message back I let him know that he is my only option at this time. He confirms he will be able to make it work and to get ready for a 4th of July part on the 7th.

I find Route 50 again heading southwest. The wind seems to have died down and may have actually turned, providing a subtle tailwind along with a slight downhill. I maintain over 20 MPH for some time, pushing it to 26 MPH for a bit to catch up on the distance needed for a 90 mile day. Drenched in sweat, I pull over into a driveway that has some trees offering shade not far from the highway. Ducking under a sapling, I lean the bike against the tree and remove my shirt to get a slight breeze on my sweaty skin, cooling me instantly. Within a minute a pick up truck pulls into the drive, passing me as I smile like a crazy person back at the driver. The man looks at me odd as he heads towards the house over a quarter mile away.

A few minutes pass as the man returns and stops to ask a couple questions, who am I, what am I doing on this property, etc. I tell him about the trip and that I was looking for some shade while getting water. He figured as much and introduced himself as Roger the property manager. Roger offers water out of his personal water jug, warning that it had “touched my lips”. For once I am not in short supply and indicate that I am well provisioned. I confirm with him the Florence is not too far down 50, maybe another ten or eleven miles. Roger confirms the distance is on target and that he may have something for me. He pops open the glove compartment and tosses some Fig Newtons my way. Score! He shakes my hand and heads down the end of the drive. I finish the pack before he can turn back onto the highway.

Somewhat refreshed I push to Florence, my lunch destination, hoping Roger’s suggestions are open to business on a Friday afternoon. I find the same wild west town I expected, though this one may have had a huge population of 150 people. The Flint Hills Market & Bakery that is open and adequately supplied with lots of home made snacks, pies and pizza. Their bakery looks incredible and a made to order sandwich is a welcome sight. I order turkey with brie and bottomless soda. The sugar and sodium from soda is my new favorite sports drink as it provides a considerable lift to the spirit during a hot long day on the bike.IMG_20170707_141943

Eating and hydrating for the better part of two hours, I catch up on some blogging and chat up the locals. The ladies behind the counter are super friendly and interested in my trip. Then a few older woman and grandson show up behind me ready to order. A few had been eavesdropping and ask even more trip related questions. They are impressed to say the least, surprised at the decision to ride in the heat and more so my traveling alone. I assure them that as long as there are cold beverage and food, I will be just fine.  My strawberry rhubarb pie is heated and handed over to me with a healthy dollop of vanilla ice cream on top. The ice cream provides a massive chill down my spine in the heavily cooled market. I do some route planning for the coming days with my TransAmerica maps, as I will finally reach the predetermine route the following day.IMG_20170707_132429

I settle up with a bunch of bananas in hand and have my water bottles filled with ice water.  Route 50 leads to Newton, where Garrett will be meeting me with a pickup truck in the parking lot of his Cross Fit studio if I need some relief. An ice-cream break occurs in the small town of Walton just before I find a large grocery store in Dillon to pick up provisions for the next few days. I then run into a CVS across the street to get some travel sized items, to conserve weight in my bags. I meet a young guy also touring with a considerable amount of weight packed on his bike. He was headed the same direction, but wasn’t sure where he would be staying. I couldn’t offer my host as an option as Garrett had not yet cleared my stay with the wife who was actively setting up her home for a party.

Running a few minutes behind I locate the Cross Fit gym as well as Garrett and a couple of class participants. Garrett is in the process of jumping their car with his awesome classic truck. He looks like a gym owner, but also kinda looks like Mathew McConaughey from Dazed and Confused. Having already completed 80 miles and the day still heating up, I decide to throw my gear in the back of his truck and establish some report while reducing my evening by another hour and gaining ground on a much needed shower. When we arrive it appears as though half the party is already there.IMG_20170708_073708

Garret has me unload my bike and place it next to the VW Bus parked in his garage. He has all the classics. He then introduces me to numerous friends and shows me my wonderfully frigid basement accommodations for the night. Even though there is a cookout about to start at any minute I decide I cannot wait longer for food and eat a roll stuffed with cheese and prosciutto. It is salty, filling and glorious. I go upstairs to take a quick shower in the main bathroom used by party goers. Refreshed and dressed I head outside for the party. The grill is fired up and beers are cold. The host’s friend leads the party in a quick prayer and we dig in.

Everyone is super friendly and inquisitive about who I am and what I am doing. It seems like a huge social circle where everyone may not be close so I am able to fit right in without missing too many inside jokes. The food is great and so are the drinks. I wasn’t really planning on imbibing considering how long the day was and how early I wanted to start the next morning, but I could not pass up partaking in such a great event. Just before dusk sets in, Garrett indicates his neighbor, a farmer, has come by to burn off the grass on his property, anticipating the fireworks celebration that is to follow as soon as it gets dark.

What follows next is a wall of flames, six to ten feet tall appears just beyond the tree line on Garrett’s property. Had I not been so engrained in a conversation with a Federal Law Enforcement member, I would have like to take some video. This guy was badass, someone that the Rock would play in a blockbuster movie.  These controlled burns are quite common in the area, for local farmers and ranchers, as the scorched earth quickly spurs growth within a few short weeks allowing cattle to graze.  I move to watch a wiffle-ball game take place, boys vs girls, as the fires die down. Soon enough it is dark and the mortars come out into the street.

Not one to shy away from fireworks, I never had the opportunity to participate in lighting mortar shells and find the show pretty impressive. I had been passing huge parking lot fireworks booths for the past few weeks, it was fun to see what was actually sold. After about an hour, I walk up to incendiary team. Before I know it I have a punk in hand and am lighting wicks in unison with the others. Not a perfect science, one risks taking too long and having the other mortars firing while you’re still crouched near the exploding shells, the eardrums feeling the repercussions of the violent explosions. Quickly you retreat from any wicks nearing the gunpowder filled shell and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Sure enough, the police show up.

A call had made it to the station indicating some hooligans, including children, were blocking traffic on this quiet country road, firing mortar shells directly at cars. Far from the truth, it is amazing to see what one person who had been inconvenienced, slightly slowed from passing through, will embellish to the authorities. Garrett talks the officer down. He was friendly just asked we wrap it up ASAP. Apparently it is illegal to shoot fireworks off on any other day than the 4th. None of us knew there was a specific date to use fireworks. That being said we had free range to put on an epic spectacle for the following hour. I also got to shoot a Roman candle from the hand. One of the fellow arsons indicated that he and his brother used to stand 30 yards apart and shoot them at each other. I am happy we are both past that stage in life.

The party begins to dwindle as the night sky comes into view as the self inflicted light pollution ended. It was now, Garrett, his wife, myself, another couple and the two dogs. One of the dogs, Gus, was a blood hound and amazing to watch as the dogs played and begged for potato chips. At this time I learned how truly amazing Garrett and his wife are. Not only did they take me in, no questions ask and bring me in as one of their own, but that they had adopted their two twin kids earlier in the year. I was blown away by their willingness to do this, being shot into parenthood without the baby years, taking in two five year olds, removing them from what I understand was a very harsh living situation.

Around 1 AM we all decide its late, I help clean a few items up and hit the hay. The cold room provides great sleeping conditions. The darkness of the the basement is good for falling asleep, but makes it tough to wake up.

As always, please feel free to comment, ask a question or let me know your experiences in Kansas, riding or driving. Thanks for making it to the bottom of this one!

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