Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Sunflowers and Sandhills

July 9, 1997

I made 90 miles, crossing the Texas line, flying across the Oklahoma panhandle, and landing in Kansas. Adios, Texas.

At a gas station in Oklahoma, I was stunned at how different things already felt. People often say that the two panhandles are similar to each other but this was not my experience. There was a very small man in a huge pickup, big even by Texas standards, with his name embroidered all over the place. It was so disparate that it really pulled the rug out from under every joke you could think of.

For half a page in my journal I celebrate a return to internal regularity. I will spare you the entry (which makes me laugh, at any rate), but forgive me for mentioning it. These things are profoundly important to a cyclist.

I paid for a motel room with a check on my dwindling account. I kept the account balance in my head, and I stopped drawing on it after I hit the $100 mark. Years later, I was stunned to discover it still had a positive balance! It was like a little gift for myself.

I had a line of credit remaining. It was my last option.

July 10, 1997

In the morning, I struggled through miles of cattle feed lots against an unfavorable cross-wind that amplified the stench. At any given moment, I was half a breath away from retching. Eventually, I acclimated, but it's not something you can really get used to. Then on to the corn fields, which didn't smell, but were swarming with biting flies. They weren't as persistently nasty as mosquitos, but their bites had an upfront punch that caused me to actually recoil as though I'd been struck. I learned not to linger on the side of the road next to high water crops. So I avoided rest and rode straight through.

All across the plains you could see columns of smoke rising from where fields had been burned to reintroduce nitrogen. It added choking misery to the manure miasma.

Most of the structures I saw from the road were plainly painted corporate ag structures. Every now and then I'd notice a pleasant lonesome farmhouse, but they were few and far between.

I made Garden City, Kansas, a treed oasis amid the industrial scale agriculture all around it. Residents could enjoy a zoo, a giant free pool, and a nice downtown.

Two different people offered a place to stay for the night. Kansas hospitality is good. We talked at length about backpacking in Europe and the US.

I stayed in a basement for the night, near a number of wooden carvings that didn't make the A-list for household display.

July 11, 1997: An utterly strange day

After breakfast with my hosts, I rolled about town and vagrantly loitered. A dire hunger rose up within me, so I gorged on some value menu for lunch.

The weather had turned hot, dry and extremely windy. You know those stories about settlers on the prairie going crazy from the incessant wind? Yeah, I can believe it. Not only did the winds beat me silly, they also amplified the dryness. The bulwark of my morale, loud music, was drowned out entirely. In such conditions you can't ride casual. Either you move forward with great effort, or you don't move at all. I pounded forward, very much not having fun.

I had a little water left, but it was already boiling hot. Fifteen miles out from the next town and already two weeks in on the next month's supply of profanity, I had to get off the bike and take stock. My pulse was absurdly high, I was overheating, and I felt a dizzying nausea approaching. So I swallowed my pride and stuck my thumb out. It would be my first deliberate cheat, but I had no choice.

It wasn't long walking my bike like this that a man and his kids in a pickup stopped, gave me water and a ride into the next town.

The conversation was odd. The driver talked at length about the churches he contributed to, such as Robert Tilton's ministry, etc. Mine was the nodding affirmation of the wisely silent.

When we made town, I was grateful for the ride, and immediately hit the Dairy Queen like a shameless junkie. The icy smoothness smothered my fiery core.

While shoveling a Blizzard into my unrepentant face, an old man approached. He said something with an air of sagacity, but I couldn't understand it.

I nodded very slowly. People around me were watching closely. I snuck glances at them for help, but there was none forthcoming. I think he was saying, "You should get interviewed in Oakley".

People I met constantly had lots of great ideas for what I should do next. The most common was to commercialize my adventure with a sponsor. Like, how, exactly? An Oscar Meyer Wiener bike? Hand out boiling hot Red Bulls? "Sorry, kid, I'm already out…I can only carry six at a time."

It was a little late in the day, so I found a city park to take my chances with. I gathered twigs to make a fire for some ginseng tea. I was now trying to recreate my ginseng surge experience from a few days ago, but it eluded me.

Some kids ran up and asked me lots of questions. Their mom worked at a fast food franchise on the highway. One of the kids rode off on his bike and came back with a bag of free food from his mom. Four triple cheeseburgers.

I think… I think I ate all of them.

Later, the kid's mom came by and invited me to stay at their trailer overnight. I was grateful. They were super nice people but the trailer life was not pretty.

I set up a tent outside, to their confusion. "I sleep best outside!" (this is actually quite true) I went into the trailer to use the restroom during the late hours, and in the darkness stepped barefooted on a pile of anonymous poop square in the carpet. Dog? Baby? I may never know. I can't think of a more primal terror.

July 12, 1997

I headed out with my hunger satiated and water bottles full. It rained barely four miles out of town, and I ducked into a barn for cover. The shift in air pressure caused me to almost immediately pass out on a bale of hay. When I woke, I emerged from the barn, waved at an utterly confused farmer, and got back on the road.

I rode into a headwind for a ways until I came upon rolling terrain, presaging a river valley. I stopped at a picturesque little shop and farmhouse overlooking the pleasant rolling fields.

A family there sold artwork and food. I picked up lunch and we talked about TexMex and Kurt Cobain.

Although Kansas doesn't have any elevation of note*, its western portion has many latitudinal river valleys, making for a series of steep drops and climbs if you are moving north or south. Kansas was a real workout with nothing to show for it.

After a long haul, I made it into Oakley, Kansas. A couple of kids bombarded me with questions and then insisted that I camp in their backyard, and for once, I politely declined. But their parents came out, and the invitation was extended formally. I was grateful for the place to crash but I was wary of someone getting the wrong idea. Sure enough, the next morning, the grandpa was hostile. "Aren't you supposed to be on the road by now?" Geez, man, I can't blame the guy, even if his only objection was being downwind.

* http://www.kansastravel.org/mountsunflower.htm

July 13, 1997

Short and sweet journal entry, no editing required: Hilly terrain to Oberlin. Desolate and hot. Ate lunch, homemade, good, pink stuff for desert.

Keep in mind "hilly" is a reference to roads running orthogonal to drainage valleys, not any altitude of note.

Soon I was coasting in on high spirits again, even though I wasn't able to talk my way into the museum for free. A museum that cost $3. I believe I was starving for entertainment.

July 15, 1997

This is the first date I have written since July 9, so somewhere between July 9 and 15, a day is missing.

I don't recall much of the ride into Nebraska, besides the heat and sweat and dirt. On this day, if not in the past few, my bike computer had completely melted—actually physically melted from the triple digit heat—and was no longer providing speed and mileage data. Which is fine, since it was at best just a sanity check for fighting high plains headwinds ("Am I even moving forward in this flatland hell? Oh, 9mph, good").

Somewhere past the Nebraska state line in the early afternoon, US 83 was unusually devoid of traffic. A pickup appeared on the horizon, and as it passed I saw two guys my age loaded up with furniture and luggage. They honked and honked, and waved and cheered as they passed, as though I were an entire winning sports team. I felt amazing. No one ever cheers English majors. Their truck disappeared over the other horizon, but the celebration echoed in my memory for years, and still does today, like some renewable fuel when all else is spent.

I had a cassette player with an FM radio, and I picked up a local rock station broadcasting from a pizza place. Free pizza, they said. I headed straight for it, only to discover that the show was already off the air when I arrived.

They gave me some sunblock and a t-shirt. No pizza. I was crestfallen.

A guy my age offered his place to stay. I followed him home. His girlfriend came over and we hung out for a while before heading out for beer.

I'd been homebrewing the past year, and had gotten really snooty about hops and IPAs. The swill they bought made me recoil. I feigned tiredness and hit the sack early. They looked at me like I wasn't cool anymore. Of course that was totally lame on my part, swill or no.

I camped outside, afraid even to touch the sink for a sponge bath.

July 16, 1997

I was feeling pretty ragged, since the house's shower was so nasty that I had to pass. My beard had grown out (such as it is), my stench wilted flowers, I was still caked in salt from days of sweat, and I had no cash on hand. To be clear, when I say "caked in salt" I mean actually caked in salt. Large swaths of my gloves and bike shorts were powder-white with it. The Camelbak straps were especially crusty.

It would be totally gross to suggest that my salt depletion compelled me to lick my own arm to recover it. Of course I would never do something like that.

The rides were getting progressively harder as the heat wave continued unabated. At one solitary house along the way, I pulled over to ask if the owner could spare some water. She shouted through the door that I could get water from the spigot on the side. I had already been drinking well water from a few places, so why not? Gimme that Ogalalla.

At a gas station diner, I met a trucker from Houston. I couldn't understand a word he was saying—and I'm from East Texas, the country part.

At North Platte, there was a city park with camping. It being a weekend, the place was packed with other campers, not just the usual RV and travel trailer families, but young people too. I had discovered a place of myth where camping was a cool thing to do on the weekend. At night, people drove circles around the campgrounds in their loud custom cars. Like, what the hell, North Platte?

July 17, 1997

I made a long haul from North Platte to a tiny town, where there were virtually no other homes or businesses along the way. No letting up on triple digit heat. I haggled at a tiny store in the tiny town to write a tiny check so I could have deodorant and a few other essentials. I felt like a brow-beating meanie when the tiny clerk caved. He got his money, though.

I met an old guy from Arizona—and when I say I met, I mean that I was minding my own business when this guy came up to me and initiated dialog, as is the case 99% of the time—who spun dense stories around his personal life but seemed incapable of anything resembling an actual two-way conversation.

He was kind of a jerk, and poured out hostility while boasting about his accomplishments. He claimed to have been one of the only twelve American military advisors to survive the Bay of Pigs invasion. He claimed to have killed a guy, then jumped back into shark-infested waters to escape when the invasion failed. "I used my knife as a paddle."

He gave me an almost rotten banana that I didn't ask for, and seemed to be haranguing me for being a beggar, or something. It was one of those situations where it could have been interpreted as ribbing, but if it were, the delivery was way over the top.

To cap things off, he complained about his wife.

It Came From the Unmarked White Van

Another event transpired nearby that has been the source of much speculation among the people I've shared it with. I don't think it's wise to share it here on the naked internet, especially since it's more a story of what could have happened had I not kept a few wits about me. In a sense, it is the capstone story of the trip. I escaped unharmed and unscathed but unrested. Perhaps the subheading above suggests the nature of the tale, but trust me, it was weird.

This story resumes with me on Nebraska State Highway 2. I rolled into a forested park at the crack of dawn and lay down on the first wooden picnic table I could find for the only sleep I'd had since waking the day before. I was exhausted, physically redlined. Unfortunately, summer heat was quick to rise, and within an hour I woke, sweating and miserable. I couldn't stay here.

July 18, 1997

I headed west on 2 and made Thedford. I was running on an hour of sleep and my body was a wreck. I had a conversation with a prim elderly artist, and she asserted that art of the human figure was too close to pornography—that it excited the senses—and that Episcopalians were better human beings than Baptists. Then she switched gears to sweet and motherly, and gave me five bucks. I almost handed it back. Almost.

I hadn't made or sold any drawings in a few days. All of these little towns had big signs reading "No Peddling", like something from the Depression era. Often I handed out little sketches for free to anyone who wanted to see what I was drawing. Then they might donate, or they might not, or they might return the drawing. That was my racket, mild as it was, and it technically bypassed the peddling restrictions. Not that any cop cared; it was just a sign to justify getting rid of undesirables.

So I kept that five bucks, and it felt like I'd stained my wallet with it. Incredibly, this same lady later drove by the park that I was at and gave me four boxes of Jell-o. Still in powder form, the kind that you have to put in a fridge. Out of politeness I expressed thanks, and with some regret at the senseless waste, threw away the Jello. I mean, what am I going to do with four boxes of Jello? Is there some open secret about jello I don't know about? Does it double as baby powder or something? I considered that maybe she was dealing with poverty on her own, and was in her own way trying to be generous in spite of all the barbs. Like that jerk with his rotten banana.

As if the day couldn't get any stranger, I walked into town from the park I was at, and passed a bunch of good ol' boys standing around a pickup. "You wanna beer?" One guy asked.

"Sure. How you guys doin'?" There were loose cans of Busch Light in an icebox. Aw, dang. And thus began another weird, strained conversation. Most of the good ol' boys were eerily quiet. There was one guy who came across as a town bully, making rude comments left and right under his breath. The others seemed to hold him in respect, but no one was acting wild or like they were having fun.

Conversation with good ol' boys (adult language)
"You ridin' a bicycle? Shit. You must be broke or stupid. Prob'ly stupid."
I didn't have a comeback ready. I mean, he wasn't wrong.
"You got a piece of ass with you?"
"Not tonight."
"There's a whore down the street."
"In this town?"
"Well, shit, she don't cost nothin'!"

Nearby, a teenager had a Mustang getting washed. It was a real beauty. I wondered where the money came from. There was not much in this town. But if they could hold out ten or more years for reality television, they could make a fortune.

July 19–20, 1997

Highway 2 rides the sandhills, a surprisingly hilly part of a state generally known for being flat. The terrain is rolling grass-anchored sand dunes, with a fair amount of ranching. I saw cattle and horses aplenty as I pushed westward. The towns had been active in earlier years but had a desolate entropic quality when I rode through.

The sandhills are also quite pretty, in a way that Texas Hill Country is pretty. The secret is well-kept, and enforced by an absence of creature comforts.

I have no journal entries from this period, and my memories are almost entirely impressionistic; I had switched to a grind mode that didn't lend itself to higher level thinking. I rode from Thedford to Hyannis, and from there to Alliance the next day.

I straight up camped right off the main road the first night, but I can't find the exact site. I vaguely recall conversations with curious townies, but mostly everything was closed on Saturday and Sunday. There is a cowboy culture here, not so over the top as you'd find in parts of Texas or Montana, but very much a workaday ranch culture.

Much of it was hard going, and at one point I carbed out and just had to stop. I sat at the side of the road for a while under a lone tree in the heat, unable to go forward. The last heat wave had passed but it was still the dead center of summer. I summoned the energy to pull out my food. For lunch I'd already eaten the last of the cheese and crackers. Nothing left except a can of beenie weenies and jar of peanut butter. I ate spoonfuls of peanut butter straight, chasing with warm water, hoping to put enough energy in me to at least stand up. I remember sitting there for the longest time, my body refusing to follow orders.

Journal entry: Bugs in the Sandhills
Bugs were everywhere: grasshoppers collided midair, flies circled me constantly, gnat-like things floated through my clothes and bit me, orange fly-moths dove for me constantly and penetrated my defenses, even more grasshoppers flew into my spokes and bounced off and then flew in the other direction.

Finally I got back on the road and plodded on.

I reached a summit of sorts then dropped down into a level plain, leading to Alliance. First things first, I hit a country cafe in town. I downed a nondescript meal of whitefish and potato.

As I wandered through the popular city park where a band played, a family chatted me up and soon I was on their front porch. My laundry was thumping around in their washing machine and I was freshly showered.

So many of the homes around there were unlocked as a matter of principle. At some point, their house was robbed, but they made the conscious decision to leave it unlocked anyway.

That night we played Sequence and Speed Scrabble. I came in last both times. If it had been Monopoly, though, I'd have them fist fighting each other in no time.

I had a lovely sleep and felt refreshed, but I felt feverish and my pulse was still high.

From there, I intended to head for the Black Hills. I was eager to see them for the first time, having read about them at length.

Next: Black Hills, Badlands