Days 44 & 45: Highway 96; Desolation Angles
Two days. 117 miles. One highway.
Dear Reader, are you looking for long, flat, expanses? Do you want highways that look cut by laser beams through geometric fields as far as the eye can see? Do you need topography so gosh dang flat that you know when you're coming on a decent town again because you can spot the water tower five miles out, like a lighthouse rising out of a grass ocean? Have you been seeking terrain so flipping flat that, whenever there's a small rise, it feels like you're peering up, out, and over the end of this very world?
Welcome to West Kansas, the actual Platonic ideal of Kansas. Complete with windmills, wind turbines, wind, and fields. And very little else, friends.
We've ridden two days now on Kansas Highway 96, and we're destined to take it all day tomorrow as well (though it will change to Colorado 96, woot!).
Today you find us in Scott City, though out here, if it has "city" in the name, it may or may not have things like... a grocery store, a motel, a gas station. Yesterday we stopped to eat our lunch at some picnic tables in Rush Center (not "City" — they went the humbler/more accurate direction) and found ourselves next to an old sign that claimed: "Rush Center: Home of the Largest St. Patrick's Parade." Largest... in Rush? In Kansas? In the world? Who knows. The world out here is grain, grain, grain, and grain. And wind. And dust and cows. And tiny islands of human activity every 20-40 miles, where some people manage to live so that grain and cows can be processed. It's surreal. It's sobering. It feels like being very very far out at sea.
Oh, by the way — Kansas also isn't flat. Not that it has tons of hills (though it does have them, in a spread out, rolling way), but more that it's one long, long slow incline towards the Rockies. If you're headed our direction, you're essentially going up gradually over hundreds of miles. The elevation maps of each of our riding days right now just look like an uninterrupted rising line. We're kind of already climbing the Rockies.
Last night we stayed in Bazine, Kansas. Bazine is some houses, some kind of mill (along with the water towers, these big silver structures are what you see out there on the horizon telling you that some kind of human/technological outpost is up ahead), and a big, old, decommissioned brick schoolhouse. This schoolhouse is home to David and Krista LaRocque and their remarkable family, who were our hosts for the night. David and Krista have, over the years, adopted 14 kids — from the U.S., Guatemala, Russia, the Ukraine... They moved to the out-of-use schoolhouse in 2016 with a dream to create, among other things, a therapeutic petting zoo and a retreat for adoptive families. We had a wonderful dinner with David and 10 (I think 10?) of the kids still living at home, and then some of our new friends showed us around their huge, unique homestead. Victoria is almost 16, an aspiring author/illustrator who loves vampire stories and is currently fashioning a gown for herself out of hot glue and molted chicken feathers. Jeremy hopes to raise his black rabbit named Shadow into a show bunny. Owen wants to work with snakes. None of the kids have cell phones. All of them are imaginative, talkative, curious, and awesome.
Under their guidance we met hedgehogs and rabbits and guinea pigs, big friendly dogs, potbelly pigs, chickens, a rooster, and a goose that Victoria tamed herself. He lets her hoist him up and hold him like a baby, though I wouldn't try petting him without her nearby to keep him in temper!
Then we passed out mercifully early and got up with the sun to return to the great plains. Bazine to Scott City is just, quite literally, a straight line. Ya get on 96 and you bike for 67 miles. These are desert days. We start them out wearing lots of layers — long pants and double socks and jackets. Sara (who's prone to cold feet) even wrapped the toes of her cycling shoes with electrical tape to close off the vents against the wind. But then, by noon or earlier, we've stripped all the way down. The diurnal shift is mighty. You can start the day at 39 degrees and end it at 91. All while the vast emptiness rolls on all around you.
67 isn't an insane number of miles, but the wind remains our constant enemy and it was slow going. Sara has decided (and yes, she knows she might eat her words once we're back in hill country) that, given the choice, she'd take hills over headwind. At least with hills you can stop and rest and decide when to keep going. Wind is just there. Constantly. Battering you. Whether you're pushing into it or trying to catch a break.
We arrived in Scott City around 6 and checked into our motel. Unfortunately, there was no beer to be had at the local gas station (Sundays! Boo!), so we walked a mile to a Mexican restaurant and drank too-big margaritas. There were a lot of folks there in full-on cowboy hats. There was also a just-married couple — he looked like Garth Brooks and she was in the whole big-fluffy-white-dress. We wanted to buy them a drink but then noticed they weren't drinking, so instead we put $20 towards their tab. "You must be from Colorado," said the owner as we paid — he was referring to the fact that we were wearing masks. People in Kansas do not wear masks. It's unsettling.
Tomorrow, we head even further into the wastes. Though our legs might hate us for it, we're looking forward to mountains again. For now, we ride the great grass sea.
More soon, friends.
Day 44: Great Bend to Bazine, KS, 51.9 miles, 875 feet of elevation, lots of cool kids, 1 (semi-) tame goose.
Day 45: Bazine to Scott City, KS, 67.3 miles, 1475 feet of climbing, numerous edge-of-the-world vistas, appropriate amounts of tequila.