Day 12 – Torpor in Topeka

Since Topeka is a decent-sized city, I found a bike shop and bought a new spare tube. Glad to have that taken care of! I also had them check the loose spoke in the rear wheel, but it was nothing to worry about — a normal consequence of the tight spokes on the opposite side of the rim.

I had breakfast and went shopping, then browsed around the town for a while. There wasn’t much to see so I retreated to the motel room to crop photos and write. A low-key Halloween for me, and that’s just fine!

More adventure tomorrow.

Feeding myself in Kansas

I went shopping for food at a store called Aidi. I have now shopped at enough stores in Kansas to reveal a pattern. The easiest way I can describe the pattern is by saying, “I have been totally spoiled by living in California.”

To me, many supermarkets in Kansas are have an atmosphere of resignation and sickness. Everything is jarred, canned, or wrapped in plastic, and most things are either frozen solid or have a suspiciously long shelf-life. There is absolutely no such thing as a fresh vegetable in these Kansas supermarkets. The closest I have found was vacuum-packed unwashed lettuce, and when I read the labeling I discovered that it had been trucked out from Salinas, CA. The only thing that stands a chance of being fresh is the beef, and that depends on where you shop. You will not find the word “organic” used on any label anywhere. I think it’s actually a curse-word in this part of the country, like “democrat” or “Colbert”.

Today I examined every shelf of the Aidi market twice, in search of something I could eat that wouldn’t just widen the nutritional crater that Kansas is digging inside my body. I found a bag of tiny “Ocean Spray” oranges that had been shipped from Chile, coated with wax and sprayed with thiabendazole, and the vacuum-packed lettuce from Salinas. I opened the lettuce in my motel room and carefully washed it in the sink, and that is how I am enjoying my first real salad in two weeks.

Actually, “supermarket” is the wrong word to use for these places. A more accurate description would be something like “junk-food warehouse and butcher’s shop”. More than half of Aidi’s floorspace is taken up with pancreas-destroying sugar snacks and bleached-flour milk-chocolate crap. You could eat a different “food” from this section for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for a hundred days… But by the end of the first month you’d probably be dead. Sure, there are stores like this in California. But in Kansas, in many small towns, this is all you get. When you are planning your meals for the week, for yourself and your kids, this is what you work with.

Walking around here, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I was a local, with limited travel range, trying to improve my eating habits. Would I have the knowledge to categorically dismiss so many of the things in this store as harmful? Would I have the guts to, since it runs counter to the eating habits of my friends and family? The only things we could all agree on would be meat and perhaps a few of the dairy products, and even then we’d have to argue about quantity. Assuming I made enough money to choose where to eat, how would I even be able to locate fresh vegetables? Decent oil? Eggs that didn’t come from some tortured wastrel of a factory chicken? These things are just … not here. At least, as far as I know. Perhaps it just takes some determined searching.

But compare this to where I come from. In Oakland, the supermarkets are loaded with produce. Then, for an appreciable number of residents, it’s not of sufficient quality, so they shop at Whole Foods (and moan about the price – I know I have). But that’s not enough either, because they also raise a stink about how far their food travels, and who owns and manages the outlet, so they have places like Berkeley Bowl and Rainbow Grocery. But that’s not as direct as it could be – so Oakland itself has at least FOUR Farmer’s Markets that assemble every week, rain or shine.

Back in Oakland, I live five blocks away from a store that ships gourmet chocolate from Europe and Africa, and I won’t buy most of it because I’m not impressed with the flavor. Here in Topeka, if I want dark chocolate, I choose between the large bar that tastes like wax, and the small bar with the oily texture.

Is it really just geography causing this? California gets the fancy weather, so it gets the fancy food? Is it the farm bill? Is it just what people are willing to put up with – a cultural thing?

Some optimistic part of me wasn’t expecting it to be true – but as I rove around these cities, I am lost in a sea of people “living and partly living”, as T.S. Eliot would put it. Planted behind desks, browsing Facebook. Arguing about high-school football over dinner. Sitting inert in bars. Kicking around in back lots, doing nothing. How much of this is boiling up from their physiology? How much of this is happening because they don’t feel right, in a way they can’t explain, for a reason that would never occur to them – to most people? Everyone is too busy trying to get any kind of food at all.

Perhaps I’m taking this all to seriously. However, an hour ago I finished all the lettuce in the box – enough for three salads – and my stomach and intestines are feeling better than they have in weeks. My head feels clearer too.

Day 11 – High-tailing it to Topeka

Today was one of those amazing bike-tour days where everything comes together and you say, “this is what it’s all about!” Awww yeeeeeeah.

I bailed out of Council Grove in the early afternoon, glad to see the back of it. I was 30 miles ahead of schedule so I wasn’t in a hurry, and that was just as well because highway 56 was throwing some pretty steep hills at me. If I made it to Topeka that would be great, but if I just got to Osage City or Scranton, that would be fine too.

The weather was beautiful. Warm and breezy. I started out wearing my blue sweater but packed it away after the first hill.


At the top of the next hill I saw some fascinating rock layers:


I sent a photo to Erika, who immediately dug up some interesting info about them:

The shells of many animals, those that live either in the sea or in freshwater, consist of calcium carbonate (calcite and aragonite). When the animals die, their shells are left on the ocean floor, lake bottom or river bed where they may accumulate into thick deposits. Most limestones are marine deposits, but some are formed in lakes, rivers and on land.

The landscape I rode through was a feast of autumn color. The hills were piled with layers of shiny red grass and brittle orange leaves, wild ochre berries, delicate yellow thistles, defiant streaks of late-season greenery, and twisted, skeletal branches. Occasionally the colors would bottom out in the gritty black of a dried-up pond. Loose herds of cattle picked their way disconsolately across the fields. Hawks roosted in the treetops, taking flight as I rolled quietly by.

The landscape, the air, the sunlight, the sounds – it was all so pleasant that I stopped at least a dozen times to get up close and personal. I took so many photos that the camera began flashing “battery low”.

Every bridge was another feast for the eyes, and an excuse to stop and drink some water and lounge around in the sunlight. My Bryant and May audiobook felt rather incongruous because it was all about rain and sewers and darkness, but I only had a few hours left on it, so I let it run to the end and then switched to some airy guitar and harp music. Aaaah!


There were plenty of critters about. They were all a bit too large to poke with a stick, but oh well!


While cruising along near the town of “Admire”, I spotted an abandoned house. It was quite a thrill to explore.

I also saw a sign declaring a private wildlife preserve, with a nasty surprise on top. I don’t know whether it was left there by a hawk or a human.


Can somebody tell me what kind of fruit this is? It grows on trees in disused fields, or by the side of the road, and the fruit rots where it falls because the animals won’t touch it. It’s pretty hard, like an underripe orange. Anyone?


The whole of the day passed in fascinated exploration of the landscape. The shoulder was narrow but the cars were polite, moving all the way into the opposite lane when possible. I kept riding until the sun set, and then I rode on, making for Topeka.

Then, things got even better.

Just before the sun set completely, a haze of low-lying mist began to creep over the road from the fields. For a short while I was coasting along through a river of the stuff. It was some straight-up Washington Irving-style set decoration, so when the opportunity came along to up the ante, I went for it. Observe this SMS exchange with Erika:

“Dude. This is pretty amazing. It’s the night before Holloween and I am sitting on my bike in the middle of some random graveyard at dusk in Kansas. I just spotted it and turned off the road on an impulse. Now I’ve shut off my headlamp to avoid detection.”

“Sounds eerie and awesome.”

“It would be spookier with the mist and everything but the passing cars make a constant rush sound and their headlights are wrecking my night vision. Oh well, still pretty cool.”

I made a pit-stop in a little town to grab snacks and put my windbreaker on, and when I got back on the road I started listening to a radio performance of “The Crucible“, complete with cackling witches and crackling fireplaces. The night grew deeper. I steered with one hand and crunched corn chips from a bag in the other, and listened to the voice-actors storming around in my headphones. I had no idea The Crucible was such an overheated drama.

I passed through a succession of small towns, the houses all bedecked in happy Halloween ghoulishness. Pumpkins glowing on porches, streamers and fake statues and seasonal lighting, the occasional coven of children and adults blundering around in costume and pausing to gape at my bicycle. Some of the yard decorations were way over the top. I saw a red mechanical tiger, made of plastic and lit from within, crouched down with its leering head rotating back and forth. A local brewery had wrapped netting and cardboard around the bulbous tree on their front lawn, making it look as though demons were bursting out of it. A house set back on a hill, visible through the skittering trees, was surrounded by a moat of dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns, each a different crude expression.

People out here are really into it, and I think it’s lovely. It helps that they have all the raw materials and the time.

Eventually the play ended and I switched to creepy music, keeping the atmosphere going. The temperature rose again, from the low of 35, as I pedaled my way into Topeka. I arrived late but not exhausted.

What a wonderful day!

Day 10 – Crashing Council Grove

In a kind of reverse-karma, just as I was rolling out of town I discovered that my rear tire had a slow leak. So I sat down in a corner of the parking lot, took my bike apart, and replaced the tube with the spare, and then got lunch. In the next big town I’m definitely going to need to find another tube… Along with the fabulous Bryant and May mystery I listened to all day, I solved another mytery: Mystery I’ve found at least ten of these by the side of the road. Today I realized why. They’re the metal clamps that make the end of a cable into a loop. If the loop breaks, the trucker has to make a new loop, but he can’t remove this clamp, so he cuts it off the cable (dropping it by the side of the road where he pulled over), makes a new loop in the slack from the cable, and applies a new clamp. Then he climbs back into the cab and it’s “keep on truckin'” and whatnot. The day passed easily, biking northeast with the wind at my back. I chomped chocolate and had conversations via text message. Two enormous trains passed me on the nearby railroad tracks, the first stacked double-high with cargo boxes, the second an endless chain of black steel tanks. Railroads are incredible.
FUN FACT: Long bike trips make you pee frequently. Today I peed by the side of the road five times!
I had the chance to stop in Cottonwood Falls, but decided to press on into the evening to get ahead of schedule and spend the night in Council Grove. Bryant and May were just about to investigate their third spooky crime scene when I pulled to a stop in front of the Cottage House Motel. I’m not usually prone to complain about the quality of a motel room. I’ve stayed in some real stinkers, and since I come with a big pile of my own gear to mitigate the problems, a crummy room is more of an adventure than an inconvenience. But today is an exception, because I was genuinely surprised by the number of things I found wrong with room 10 of the Cottage House Motel.
When I opened the door, the room was as hot as a sauna and as humid as a jungle. Condensation was all over the interior of every window. I had to turn the ventilator on full blast and leave for about two hours just to make the air breathable.
The lighting of choice was fluorescent, and the frame was cracked.
The motel’s idea of pest control is to give you your own personal fly swatters. Is this some midwestern thing? Am I being too harsh?
While leaving to find food and wait for the room to cool, I discovered that the door stuck.
When I came back from dining, I decided to take a shower. That’s when I discovered that the towel rack had been busted off.
The hot and cold knobs in the shower stall were reversed. Hot was labeled cold, and vice-versa. Plus, every now and then the water would blast red hot at me for a few seconds, in some twisted ploy to cook me alive.
When I got out I discovered that the towel was pre-stained with blood.
While toweling off, I looked in the mirror, and an ugly defect in the glass stared back at me.
Then I went to plug in my devices, and noticed the wiring. Utmost Kwality™.
Still, I wouldn’t have minded if the price was low enough. The motel I patronized in Hutchinson was barrel-scraping but only 30 bucks a night. The room in Springfield was an acrid, mouldering ruin but I just opened the window and threw my sleeping bag on the bed. The price was right. Here, the price was wrong. This morning I left a room in Newton that cost me 90 bucks and looked like this: IMG_9212 Tonight’s room was over 90 bucks, and looked like this: IMG_9213 The vagaries of the road! The good news is, I don’t have to come back here ever again! Whee!

Day 9 – Nipping Over To Newton

I finally emerged from the dank hotel room in Hutchinson, ready to tackle the road once more. My first task for the day was to inspect the washing machine I’d used the previous night in the common area. Yup, there’s that one wool sock I couldn’t find. Rescued! On the way out of the parking lot I finally noticed the writing on the marquee in front of the hotel. “Well now, that’s a first,” I thought to myself. “I’ve never stayed in a motel that promised Free Adult Movies In Every Room before.” Even if I’d known, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to turn on the neolithic television set. Adult Movies? Hah! That’s what the internet is for! (Just ask the denizens of Avenue Q.) I queued up a Bryant and May Mystery audiobook called “The Water Room” and got down to pedaling. Apropos of murder and mystery, I got to take a quiet detour in a local graveyard:
Side trip
I also noticed this sign, apropos of the book “Methland” that I finished a few days ago:
More culture
And this sign, apropos of nothing, and very strange taken out of context:
New culture!
Also, trains! Chuffa chuffa chuffa chuffa.
Whoo whooo!
Sometime in the afternoon, I saw a truck pull over to the opposite side of the road with a very badly blown front tire. I rolled to a stop, and watched a grizzled man in work boots climb out of the cab and inspect the flat with a look of harried frustration on his face. He was clearly late for something. I waited for a lull in the noise of passing big-rigs, and then shouted “Need a hand?” “Well,” said the man, “I’ve got a spare; now I just need to find that jack…” He opened the rear doors of his cab and began rummaging around in the back seat. “Ahah! I hope this works. I’ve never had to change a tire on this thing before. Man, why today? I’m already late for work…” I walked my bike across the road and parked it behind his truck, and swapped my bike helmet for a baseball cap. The man was trying to raise the jack under one of the suspension arms in the frame, and I warned him away from doing so before he damaged his suspension. He didn’t seem to mind the help. We got the jack squared away. Then I sat crosslegged on the gravelly shoulder while he wrestled with the bendy metal handle, cranking the flat tire up into the air. We chatted about trucks and vans and my bicycle trip, in segments of words, speaking during the gaps in the howling traffic. He turned out to be a very nice fellow. He listened to my story, then asked my age. “Sounds like you’re having one of those mid-life-crisis things. The only thing I can think of to say is, figure out where you want to live. That will make the other decisions easier.” He eventually yanked the flat tire off and threw it into the bed of his truck – causing it to wobble alarmingly on the jack. After that we got the decrepit spare lowered from its retention cable and fitted it on. While the man was tightening it down, I swapped into my biking gear, anticipating that he would want to make a fast getaway. We wished each other a safe journey, and as I was about to ride away, he came running back and shook my hand again, pressing a five dollar bill into it. “Here’s something to help with supper. Thanks again for stopping.” Supper turned out to be Montana Mike’s again, in Newton. First place I’ve been where they serve a “Ceasar Salad” with raw onions and iceberg lettuce on it. The motel across from the restaurant was brand-new and very comfortable, though.