kansas

Kansas to Colorado – the Sequel

To answer the question that I know has been burning in your minds since the last update: no, neither of my Indian SIM cards ever activated.  Hence the long gap between posts, again.

Needless to say, within half-an-hour of crossing the slightly shambolic, but unusually friendly border into Nepal this morning (Tuesday), I had a new, shiny, fully-functioning mobile internet connection.

A tiny, poor, landlocked country can make this work perfectly.  A country with both nuclear weapons and a space programme just messes you about for a fortnight without success.  Go figure…

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Anyway, it’s not been a bad few days to be off the air.  Almost nothing of interest has occurred, except that the unfortunate rash cleared up, and I developed a rather brutal cough from my daily doses of dust and diesel.

After crossing the Ganges (above) on the way out of Patna on Saturday, there’s been a lot of flat, flat country.  Fields, a few trees.  Then some more fields and a few more trees.  Northern Bihar is just like Kansas was.  Minus the soybeans and sweetcorn, but plus a total lack of driving standards.

Take five seconds to spot the two people in the picture below.  That’s about as exciting as things got…

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The roads were, at least, of a pretty reasonable quality.  Most of the way.  Nice, quick riding all the way from Patna to Motihari.  Motihari, for the trivia buffs amongst you, is the birthplace of George Orwell.  Who knew?

And then…

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The short, 35 mile run to the border at Raxaul yesterday was meant to be a formality.  Pan flat, and on an international highway to a reasonable-sized border crossing.  It might become a formality in a few years, once they’ve bothered to finish the road.  For now, it’s an unsurfaced nightmare, meaning that India (Part 1) finished in a cloud of dust and a rattling of racks and panniers.  An all-too familiar feeling for me and the Beastlet.

So, the verdict on India so far?  Nice food and people, but could do better in a few areas.  Like roads, driving standards, pollution, dirt, bureaucracy and (guess what?) internet connectivity for travellers.  Hopefully it will improve when I return for India (Part 2).

Nepal looked much the same for the first few kilometres.  This was fairly unsurprising, as the miles after the border are still part of the same plain as I’d been thrashing across for days.  And most of the lowland population there are ethnically Indian.

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But as soon as the road started rising into the first ripples of the Himalayas, things started to change.  The air cleared.  The road was a little bit lumpy in places, but not bad at all.  There was hardly any traffic, given that I’m piling up the main highway to Kathmandu.  And the scenery got quite pretty quite quickly, although I’m still very much in the foothills.  The high mountains should be spectacular.

And you can feel the culture change as well.  I’m only 60 kms up the road from India, but the feeling of Nepal is completely different.  There’s a significant wealth differential (India, on paper, is a lot richer than Nepal), so I was expecting the country to feel much poorer.

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But it doesn’t.  It feels much more relaxed (maybe because of the relatively low population).  And the town where I am this evening, Hetauda (picture above), has an unexpectedly European feel to it.  I had a wander along the smooth, wide pavements this evening.  Yes, that’s smooth, wide pavements!  You can walk around town without risking getting mown down or tripping over an exposed electrical cable!

Families were wandering about doing a bit of shopping or a bit of eating out.  Some drunks were playing in the traffic.  Almost British behaviour…

There’s a bar on the ground floor of the hotel, which feels like a nice cosy pub, and there seems to be more English spoken than in India, too.  And, of course, there are those big mountains looming at the end of the high street.

The Himalayas are just beginning, but I already feel like I’m going to like Nepal.  Now it just has to live up to my impression that it’s the subcontinent’s Colorado to northern India’s Kansas…

Not in Kansas Anymore!

Never waste a tailwind.

If there’s one rule that I’ve picked up in my travels so far, that’s it.  Especially on the great plains, where the prevailing westerlies are notorious.  If there’s a tiny element of the wind that’ll help, you take it.  Make as much ground as you can, so the ‘Cycling Zen’ can kick in when conditions are less favourable.

I’ve piled on the miles in the last few days, finally escaping Kansas on Friday (hooray!), and hitting Colorado in the coldest temperatures of the trip so far (boo!).  I’ve also met my first dog in a bicycle trailer (a slightly nutty labrador called Nimbus, who is heading west from Kentucky), which was exciting, although I believe there’s another canine making similarly effortless progress along the TransAm to my north.  The dogs are clearly cleverer than their owners; sitting curled-up and protected from the elements in a trailer while their humans sweat and strain from dragging the extra weight around.  Very smart…

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And now I’m resting up for the day in La Junta, Colorado.  This is the time to take a break for several exceptionally good reasons.

Firstly, there are three route options to consider to get to the mountains.  I can head a little north to rejoin the TransAm trail in Pueblo, or I can head south-west to Trinidad and the RAAM route.  Or I can go down the middle, and get to Walsenburg, rejoining the RAAM route a little into the hills.  Decisions, decisions…

Secondly, I’ve hit a couple of big landmarks, which required a small celebration.  Friday was the end of my second calendar month on the road (this seems completely outrageous to me, as it already feels like months and months of changing places, languages, food and cultures; it’s been quite a ride…).  And I hit a big mileage landmark yesterday; 3000 miles on the road.  That was worth a couple of beers last night.  A day off to take stock, look after a slightly achy head, and establish some perspective on how far I’ve come (and how far I still have to go!) seems entirely appropriate.

And thirdly, the strangely freezing weather of the last few days has left me with a bit of a cold.  Common sense says that I want to try to get shot of that before tackling the Rockies.

So, a bit of thinking to be done and a little planning required, along with the standard laundry, refuelling and bike tinkering.

Colorado seems nice so far.  A bit more relaxed than Kansas.  The Hispanic influence, which really started to be noticeable in the west of Kansas (not surprisingly, as the Kansas section of the Arkansas River, which I’ve been riding along, used to be the border between the US and Mexico), is stronger in Colorado.  It’s a reminder that I really need to get past Unit 2 of my teach-yourself-Spanish book!

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And after the cold snap, the skies are now clear, and the temperature’s back to the low 80sF.  Pretty much perfect riding weather, as it will get a little cooler as I get higher.  And it looks like it will hold for a while (hopefully, I can get through the hills without blizzards or freezing rain, which would be nice).

Just need to clear my sniffles and head for the hills on Monday…

High Plains Shifting

I had a good look round Dodge City; it was interesting enough that a portrait of star cop Wyatt Earp replaces the now-traditional ‘another road in Kansas’ picture at the top of the page.

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Big Wyatt and the various Wild West shenanigans are only a small part of the history of Dodge. It started as a fort on the Santa Fe trail (yet another old settlers’ trail to the West, which I’ve been following for a while), became the lynchpin of the US’s buffalo-annihilation business, went through its ‘wild’ stage, and was a cattle-trading centre once all the buffaloes were out of the way. And the museum notes, with what sounds like relief, that once the railway arrived, it all gradually calmed down and became the ‘respectable’ farming town it is today. Personally, I think it sounded a lot more fun before the farmers took over, but still…

Dodge is also on the 100th meridian. Locals will tell you that some magical property of the land around the meridian means that the weather changes there pretty much constantly. One thing that certainly happened was that in the 48 hours since I got to Dodge, the daytime temperature has dropped from nearly 100F (mid-thirties C) to just 11C (fifty-odd F). In UK terms, that’s a very hot mid-summer to late autumn in two days. I thought it was clearly time to get moving before the snow started.

Despite the chill, I shot out of town with the wind at my back, and drizzle in the air. The riding was so easy that it took a while for me to realise that I was heading uphill. Super gentle uphill, yes, but uphill. In fact, it’s been there right through Kansas; I started out at around 300m (less than 1000ft), and am now up at around 900m. You don’t really notice it happening, as the height gain has happened over hundreds of miles. Reckon there must be some mountains up ahead…

The altitude causes another 100th meridian phenomenon. It marks the transition to the high plains. A much more arid area than the lower levels, which caused the early settlers major problems. One last Kansas road picture will show you the incredible difference that makes to the scenery:

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Ignoring the fact that the road has a curve, can you see the difference? As far as I can tell, the grass is a bit scrubbier, and maybe not as green. But overall, it’s the same scenery it’s been for days and days. And days. I remember a guy I met from Missouri who was talking about western Kansas. He said that, “you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for five days”. Can’t disagree with that.

But it’s also providing me with a break from the heat, a nice bit of drizzle, and a tailwind (in fact, with what I’d consider perfect English bike-riding conditions). With a bit of luck, it’s Colorado tomorrow. The flat bit, naturally…

Deja-Vu and Cycling Zen in the Wild West

There’s every chance that the picture below will look slightly familiar.  Compare and contrast with the road picture in my last post.  Yes, there’s a tree in this one.  Yes, the hard shoulder of the highway is a little wider.  But there’s not much doubt that we’re still in Kansas, is there?

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For the record, this is about two-hundred miles from the previous picture, and not a whole lot has changed.  The grass desert just rolls on and on.  As I write, there’s another thunder-storm battering the roof (and presumably the tent, which is some way distant, but hopefully up to it).

And the headwinds just keep on coming, together with more heat, though this is apparently about to break properly.  But I think I’ve cracked those evil winds through Cycling Zen.  I’d copyright it, but I actually have no idea whether it has anything to do with Zen (yet another layer of ignorance reveals itself); it just seems like a good label.

After the rest day in Newton, I was raring to go again on Sunday.  I’d been half-listening to the conversation between the other three bikers on my first night there, and decided to follow Ian and Alejo’s example by switching routes from the TransAm to the Race Across America (RAAM) route, which finishes close to San Diego.  It cuts a little further south across the Rockies, but still drops me out on a good line for Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.

With the remnants of a tailwind(!), I made 80-odd miles that day, charging across the featureless plain like some sort of caffeine-and-sugar-fuelled buffalo.  On wheels.  Roughly.  I reckoned I’d make it to Dodge City (who could miss the real Wild West if passing reasonably close?) in another day, easily.  Just the same again, thanks.

It took two days.  And pretty much two whole days.

It became apparent yesterday that the headwinds were back with a vengeance.  And the weather people were talking about 25mph winds for today (they were right, by the way).  I mindlessly deployed the same tactics I’d used on that horrendous day to Eureka, put my head down and put the pressure on as hard as I could.  More sweat, more aches and pains, and a grand total of 42 miles covered in a total of eight-and-a-half hours, including about a thousand stops for water and to ease sore muscles.  A one-legged tortoise would find that a tad on the less-than-quick side.

I spent the evening considering my position.  This was not fun.  This was not even sustainable; remember how horrible that ride to Eureka had been?  Could I even face another day like that?  Clearly, a new approach was required, which is where Cycling Zen came in.

I had about another 40 miles to get to my target campsite at Dodge City.  You can walk 40 miles in a day, at a push.  And however slow I ride, I’m always going to be (a little) quicker than walking.  So I was going to make it today.  That was a fact.  And the speed didn’t matter.  Another fact.  The wind could do what it liked, and I’d just go as slow as necessary to take the pressure off my legs.  I’d retreat into a little bubble of non-worry, telling myself amusing stories (these are unprintable, so don’t get your hopes up), and try to enjoy the ride.

My moving average speed today was 8.4mph.  That one-legged tortoise is killing himself laughing.  But I rode without pain or effort, and with a smile on my face.  A slightly loopy smile, but still…  I only stopped a couple of times for drinks, and for lunch at a truck stop.  And somewhat miraculously, within six hours, I saw this:

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So…  Going slower in headwinds makes you quite a lot faster over the course of a day, and happier to boot.  There’s a lesson I didn’t think I’d learn.  And a new weapon which will get me through the headwinds.  Don’t fight it, just relax, switch off, and enjoy the ride.  Cycling Zen.  Or arguably, just what cycling should be all about, anyway…

There’s a lot of history in Dodge City, so I’m taking tomorrow (Wednesday) off to explore.  More from the Wild West soon.

Oases in the Grass Desert

I’m not sure how it happened, but I’d hit a fairly low ebb a few days ago.  The constant thunderstorms and heat had probably got to me, or maybe it was just too many days in a row of ploughing west across the USA (I think I might have mentioned that it’s quite big).

It got worse before it got better.  Kansas is where the US begins to stretch out; there’s less to see, and ever larger gaps between towns, shops or petrol stations.  This picture is pretty typical of the east of the state – outstandingly long, fairly flat, and almost featureless.  Road and grass and telegraph poles.  And I now know that the west will be very similar.  Some people call it the Grass Desert.

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I’m having to carry extra water for the first time since Spain, and for the first few days in Kansas the elements were not kind.  By the time I shambled into Eureka, after 50 miles which had felt like a hundred, and with a rather artistic batik-style design of dried sweat all over my clothes, I was nearly in pieces.  But coming the other way was another tourer (the first I’d seen for days), who turned out to be Kat, from England.  I can’t explain how good it was to get some food and have a few beers and a long chat with a fellow Brit, especially one who’d also spent the day being pasted by heat and headwinds.  Kat is in the middle of riding the TransAmerica trail from Oregon to Virginia (a chunk over 4000 miles).  As I’ll be following her path (in reverse) until the Rockies, she was also a gold mine of useful information about my days ahead.

Yesterday was a case in point.  First, Kat had given me a target to aim for; Newton Bike Shop, of which more later. And I now knew that the TransAm route from Eureka to Newton only has one place to buy water and supplies in over 70 miles, and that there are a couple of sections of gravel road (which is fun, but very slow).  It’s mainly westerly, but with about twenty miles of north thrown in as well.  The wind flipped around to the north-east in mid-morning, and without the inside info, I’d have been straight up the TransAm route, and would probably have run out of water in a cloud of headwind-blown dust way before I got halfway there.  Oh, and there were thunder storms forecast, yet again, and that sort of distance with virtually nowhere to hide could have been nasty.  This didn’t look like a good idea.

As it was, I made an informed decision to leave the route, and head towards El Dorado, before cutting back up to Newton.  This worked a treat, breaking the northward stretch into two smaller chunks, and ensuring I was closer to shelter and supplies.  The only downside was that it was all highway riding (see that picture above again for what the road looked like; it’ll serve for most of Kansas).

So, yesterday afternoon, I rolled up to Newton Bike Shop.  Not too tired, and not wet, bedraggled, or struck by lightning.  A good day.

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I’m resting here today (Saturday). I’m bang in the middle of the TransAm, and pretty much in the middle of the US.  And it really is a little corner of touring cyclists’ paradise, with a hostel section, as well as laundry facilities and bike repair (not that The Beast seems to be in any need of repair).  It even has an indoor ‘bike shower’ to properly pamper the machinery.

There were three other cyclists here when I arrived, although they’ve all headed off today.  Ian and Alejo are heading for San Diego, so it’s not impossible that we may cross paths again, while Debbie is heading east on a modified TransAm route.  Pizza and ice-cream and chats about cycling last night; more therapy for my psychological bumps and scrapes – it’s a lot easier to deal with when you know there are others out there having the same issues.

And finally, I found a real contender for ‘best loo-roll holder of the trip’ (a new competition that I’ve decided to set up to fill my emptier hours):

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There are, needless to say, no other contenders at present…

Back on the road tomorrow, with the western half of Kansas still ahead before I hit Colorado.  I’m well rested, well fed, and have even had a shave and haircut.  I may not recognise myself in the mirror anymore (I wasn’t quite aware of how yeti-ish I was getting), but I’m hopefully back on form and ready to push on.

Euphoria – it’s one of those days…

I was a miserable git this morning, wasn’t I?

Five hours later, and the world looks very different. I’m making the best average speed of the trip down Highway 54, with (whisper it) a bit of a tailwind. The sun is out, it’s not too hot, and all’s well in the world.

My clothes were dry by eleven. Then more rain swept in. I went and lay in the tent, coming reluctantly to accept that I’d have to stay another day at the campsite. I got out of the tent to pay, and a sliver of sunlight broke through the clouds. There were no more black clouds heading in. I packed up my kit and legged it.

As soon as I hit the 54, I felt the wind at my back. My legs were pumping around, easily turning the big gears on the flat, and climbing a couple of gears higher than usual. The bags were helping, acting as sails and pushing me up the road, rather than backwards, for a change. The best half-day of riding of the trip so far.

If Kansas is like this all the way through, I’ll be emotionally, as well as physically, drained by the time I get to Colorado…

I can understand why travel and journeys are so often used (and abused) as a metaphor for life. Today has shifted from frustration to elation in a matter of hours. The highs and lows come quicker on the road, and you can’t really appreciate the one without the other. Which I suppose means that I should be grateful for the frustration. I’m not.

Roll on tomorrow…

Frustration

Well, I’m in Kansas. Just about.

I was held up by a big belt of electrical storms at the edge of Missouri. There was another big one here in the early hours of the morning, and now I have a dilemma. The weather services say the system has gone through and is gradually heading east. My eyes say different. But it’s hard to know whether I’m just looking at hideously dark clouds, or a day of rain-soaked misery. Do I stay or do I go?

Tricky, tricky. Kansas seems a tad unpredictable. I arrived yesterday morning to a very British light drizzle:

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And by mid-afternoon, it was more like this:

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It’s immensely frustrating. Having a rest day for every riding day won’t get me across the country quick enough. But getting hit by baseball-sized hail (which they had here a few days ago) won’t get me across the country at all. I’ve already waited until ten o’clock, so I won’t leave until at least eleven by the time my stuff’s dry. So I can’t get a full day’s riding in anyway. But I need to feel I’m making some sort of progress – sitting around for days just doesn’t do that.

I probably need to find some positives here. Well… Another lovely family at my last camp in Missouri. A couple of free beers last night. Oh, and I’m part way through the trip of a lifetime. Really mustn’t forget that…

Time to stop moaning and get on with it, I think.