by Jason Gaikowski
It’s hot and I’m surrounded by a chorus of camera shutters singing snap, click, pop to an irregular tune. Microphones joust about. Thrusting there and there and here, seeking to hit a pithy remark. Beneath the din of questioning voices, camera noises sound metallic and mechanical. The clicks sound real, but digital cameras don’t have mechanical shutters, and so the tune is unreal. Which is fitting. Because everything about this moment is unreal.
An early December email reads “A Special Invitation from Dirty Kanza.” 350 miles. 15,000’ of climbing. Fully self supported. Huge send-off with lots of fanfare. Invitation only. Honored to be counted among the iconic likes of Hauswald, Rusch and Godfrey, I reply yes. And now we’re here standing in the hot Kansas sun as Jim Cummins shares that this was his and Joel’s first dream. Inspired by Trans-Iowa, a 350 mile journey through the Flint Hills.
Standing at this starting line is unreal. 34 riders outnumbered two-fold by enthusiastic photographers. Ten-fold by friends and family. Twenty-fold by locals and Saturday starters. Meiser, Mailen and Gersib. Legan's, Wintle's, and O’Mara's. People I’ve known for years mixed with people I’ve yet to know bound by a shared love of great distance and lonely roads.
The sendoff is huge; the fanfare is completely unreal. Finally we’re OFF! We string out to find room in the narrow corridor of well-wishers, down the alley, left then right on Mechanic street to find our police escort out of town. The pavement is smooth, the spirits are high, and the breeze feels nice. It’s pleasant couple of miles. We turn right, hit pay-dirt, and so it begins. A long day’s journey into darkness.
Petervary’s dial up the pace, Hughes and Salsa boys give chase. Yuri’s in the mix along with Nick and KP Legan. I reach for some grit, grab a wheel and hang on, nearly pulling my teeth out as the pace rises from uncomfortable to unconscionable. Up the hill, over the hill. Across the wind, into the wind.
It’s hot, upper 90’s and a good five degrees warmer than forecast. It’s windy, mid-20’s and a good ten mph harder than forecast. Five and ten matter on a day like this. It’s humid, and as take a drink, I seriously wonder if three and a half liters will last the 50 miles to Madison. Twelve miles in and this group is down to 15. Five miles later we’re down to ten. Three miles more; they are down to 8 and I’m rolling solo wondering how I’ve gone through two liters already.
Looking to my Garmin, I discover that the course file is somehow corrupt as I ponder the direction of this next turn. Garmin one goes into a pocket; Garmin two takes its place and I’m grateful to have a backup for my backup plan. Nick rolls up as I’m making the switch and we join together and start catching up on our lives. Soon we join Sarah Cooper, we ride near one another for a while, our vain attempts failing to match pace over the unrelenting undulating climb into the breathy hot wind. And hour to Madison, maybe longer, and suddenly I’m fresh out of fluid.
Our chatter falls silent, beaten by the sun and drowned in the wind. Off to the right, cows cry out to one another as a herd gallops along, side-eyeing us inquisitively. Beads of perspiration stings my right eye as I wipe a dusty crust from the corner of my mouth. Cresting a hill, it dawns on me that this may be the hardest 50 miles I’ve seen in some time; and the greenest grass, and the bluest sky, and the most unreal ribbon of limestone. It’s beautiful, and I’m grateful to be here.
Cowbells ring in my ears 6000 pedal strokes later. Clapping and cheering and 200 citizens of a small small town celebrating our arrival at the local convenience store. Proud to be on the map, thrilled to play a part in this adventure. Excitement buzzes in the air, and I feel awful. Gremlins play in my fuzzy head and twisted stomach as three and a half liters go on the bike, with one and half down the gullet, with a couple or rice cakes for good measure.
I ask Nick to remind me that that it gets better. The encouragement is a welcome salve even while I recognize that this first encounter with Doubt is an inevitable step in this journey. With the promise of a sunset just an hour down the road, we set off to seek the Darkness. And it gets better, just like it always does. It always gets better.
Come dusk the wind turns a bit friendlier. It’s humid, and still hot, but the roads have flattened and I settle into a serene state of lungs and legs and simple being. It’s a good pace; confident, steady and strong. We join up with John M who abruptly flats for no obvious reason, tire punctured by a sneaky sharp stone. We wait patiently as sealant fails, a plug fails, and a tube finds its place. Fifteen minutes is a small price to pay for the company as darkness falls into its full effect. Cory appears as we’re about to roll out, then Matt. We’re a tribe of five now, joined by the blood red moon off in the distance.
An hour of storytelling follows, then another. Headlights and tails, left turns and rights. Snacks and maps and cue-sheets and with nothing to see, it’s a bit like riding rollers; ticking by the miles with focused mindless-ness. This is peaceful, and perfect, when someone shouts “RUTS!” And sure enough.
The night sky is dark and starless, and everything is very quiet, and very still, almost like floating. My helmet’s a bit crooked, hydration pack a bit out of place, and I take deep full cleansing breaths. In and out, and in and out, and I can see clearly for the first time since my glasses first coated with sweat hours and hours ago. Nick asks if I’m conscious, Matt inquires about my collarbone, and Cory wonders if there’s a bone poking through my sun-sleeve while John checks my bike.
I take a full deep cleansing breath. I stand, straighten my helmet, adjust my hydration pack, and attempt to clean the glasses someone has just handed me. The sweat salts smear, and I’m not quite certain whether I’m annoyed by the smear or by someone asking me who’s president. There’s blood on the ground, my elbow hurts and the ragged tear in my sleeve is growing ever more red. I want my peaceful perfect feeling back, to reclaim that moment before the shout. I need my bike, need to pedal, need to flush this adrenaline and get a clearer sense on the impact of this impact.
Three hours to civilization, maybe less. It’s an uphill start as I take a drink, take my bike and clip in. Three hours to civilization, maybe less. We pedal. They ask if I’m OK, but I’m not quite sure yet, and I say very little. Legs are good, back is good, neck is good. The bloody elbow bloody well hurts, but seems to be fading. I feel clear eyed and clear headed, but I can’t quite decipher the cause of this difficult breathing. Perhaps elevation, perhaps fatigue, or perhaps a fall; and only time will tell.
After a time, someone asks about my elbow and I respond with the story of Schrodinger’s Cat, and quantum superposition. When we reach civilization, I’ll look and my arm will either be good or bad, but until then not knowing can be better when there’s no real option but to keep moving forward. The story makes sense, or at least they pretend it does, and we continue on until our time to take a portrait on the famous Salsa Chaise.
Ninety minutes to civilization, maybe less. Pedal, turn, drink; pedal, drink, turn. Blinking tail lights are a distraction from the mindless peace I’m trying to reclaim. The moon has floated higher in the night, and still it’s muggy. Moving to the front, I stretch a bit; calves, quads, back and neck. A drop of blood falls from my elbow and I wonder why the flesh insists on weeping; advancing the gore beyond the point of knowing it’s hurt but not injured. Breathing though, that’s the chore. Full deep breaths turn shallow, and lopsided. Every cough, laugh, and bump in the night stabbing a dagger into my side. Someone asks how I’d feeling and I tell them I’m fine, that my arm’s not a problem. Sixty minutes to civilization, maybe less.
In the restroom at Casey’s, running water reveals a puncture wound half the size of a dime. Don offer alcohol wipes, ointment, and a bandage as I drink some chocolate milk and inhale a slice of pizza. After a spell, our tribe rolls out again. Lightning flashes, winds gust, and every bump stabs in anger. Unable to breathe, I stop to text my wife and tell her I’m ok before turning back.
An hour later, we meet at Casey’s. Emergency lights blinking, she arrives escorted by a Sheriff who’s quick to warn me that she’s angry; that the van is out of gas, the tail lights aren’t working, and the tags are expired. With a kind face and kindly demeanor, he wants to warn me of a coming storm. Thunder rumbles. I look over at a dozen broken riders strewn about the curb; three napping, several eating, and all wondering if they will summon the strength to carry forward. My wife hugs me from behind and whispers; she’s not angry and never was. She buys a coffee to share as I load the bikes and fuel the van. I look around and it’s dark. People I’ve known for years adventuring over 350 miles in the Flint Hills; self-supported and supporting each other, alone and in this together. Jim and Joel’s first dream brought to life. And the scene is unreal.