USA Part 5: The Great Big Boring Plains (Ordway CO to St Louis MO 27/07-11/08/17)

I felt sorry for Kansas. Prior to my arrival into the state, I had not heard a single nice thing about the place. Boring, backwards, uninspiring were among the most frequent adjectives people used to describe the state, both the landscape and its people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’d had a couple days of introduction to the Great Plains since leaving Pueblo at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and it wasn’t taking long for the novelty to wear off. The mountains had faded into the hazy horizon and now all we could see was flat in every direction.
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I’d spent the last 6 weeks praying for helpful winds across the plains. They’d gently pushed me towards the East over the Colorado Plateau but now they had turned, just as I was most in need of a helpful tailwind. Typical!
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A word of advice: When you are travelling by bicycle, the prevailing winds will never be blowing in the direction they should be. Especially when you are expecting a tailwind. For the next week we had the most awful winds blasting into our face.
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It was boring as hell. Unlike the huge wooden structure that welcomed travelers in the opposite direction into Colorado, the sign informing us that we had arrived in the new state was small and bland. “Fuck you Kansas!” yelled another cyclist coming from the East who had reached the border at the same time as us. I had a feeling I’d be saying the same at the other end…
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I’d barely seen any other cyclists during my first 5 weeks in the country but suddenly were passing tourers daily. The reason was that we were now on the Adventure Cycling Association’s ‘Trans-Am’ route, which crosses the continent from coast to coast. One of the reasons I’d decided to cross over the mountains where we did was so that we could ride a section of this famous route. I wanted Lea to experience the community side of cycle touring and we had the pleasure of meeting many other travelers on this route.

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Kansas on the map: just a series of straight lines…

The Trans-Am cyclists were a funny bunch. It will be hard for me to describe them without sounding like a snob, so please bare with and remember that there is no right or wrong to bike tour…

I have met cyclists all around the world but those riding in the US were a little different (neither better or worse). Most of them wore lycra and clipped their shoes into their pedals. One of the guys we met was amazed that I could possibly cycle without wearing padded underwear and riding in normal shorts. People generally travelled light (I saw very few front panniers) and they were putting in big shifts on their bikes. We met plenty that were averaging 80-100 miles a day (although they did all have the wind behind them).

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Campsite breakfast!

They also had more money than the bums I’d met cycling around the world. They’d recommend a restaurant for us to eat or a hotel to stay in. I always appreciate a good tip but I never go into restaurants and I haven’t stayed in a hotel for a year. A couple of English cyclists we met suggested that it was cheaper to eat out than to cook dinner. I’m not sure what planet they were living on…

But the weirdest thing about the Trans-Am cyclists was that they wouldn’t all stop to say hello. Most would, but plenty just waved and pedalled past. I’ve never passed another touring cyclist and not-stopped to say hello. Only once (when I was in Laos) had a cyclists not stopped to say hi and he had an American flag on his bike.

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That’s debatable…

Perhaps it’s boring to ask where people are heading when you’re all following the same route across the country. Everyone (me included, thanks for the loan Ann & Walt!) has the same ACA guidebook/maps in their handlebar bags and are allergic to alternative advice. I’d say to some: “the main road on that map is quite busy for cycling but there’s a slight detour on the dirt that is in great condition, free of traffic and drop-dead gorgeous” and they’d just reply “I think I’ll just stick to the route” without actually paying any attention to what I said. For many, cycling the official route end-to-end is more important. Still, it was lovely to meet so many cyclists. While we were on the route we passed other cyclists almost every day. Those who stopped were all completely lovely. Cyclists always are.

Another reason that I’d decided we should join the Trans-Am was for camping options. All the land is farmed on and privately owned but the Trans-Am has towns marked out where cyclists can camp in city parks for free. And that’s precisely what we did. Most afternoons we would pause in a small town, find the local park and make ourselves at home.

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Camping by Tribune’s old fair ground

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In Tribune we camped on nice patch of glass in the local park by the outdoor pool. Now that we were out of the mountains the humidity was slowly creeping up as we moved East. The nights were getting  stuffy but the skies were clear so I left my tent fly door open. In the middle of the night I woke up to a shower. It wasn’t raining. The sprinklers had turned on in the park and one was pointing straight into my open tent. I was nice and wet by the time I’d figured out what was happening and had fumbled the door’s zip down.

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Camping in Nickerson park

Immaculate lawns are among many peculiar American obsessions. I’m not sure when this country began to pay so much attention to grass but perfect lawns are now an entrenched national fetish. Even in the arid states the grass is just as perfect. The Americans must waste an insane amount of water sprinkling lawns in places far too dry for them to grow naturally. In every suburb you pass through there will be people standing around in their front gardens with hoses or driving around on mowers.

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One of the more run down villages…

I liked the small Mid-West towns. They weren’t very exciting but they provided relief from the boring miles in the sun. Some of them were quaint and charming, others looked like the sort of place Jerry Springer finds his guests.

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The grimiest public toilet I’ve seen since Asia!

Each of the towns had a huge grain elevator that looked 5 times older than it actually was.The fields were either corn, milo, soy or wheat. It all looked the same. We stayed with a Ben, a pilot in Scott City who flew over the fields spraying God-knows-what type pesticides over the vast fields. The day we left he and his girlfriend were flying in his tiny plane to Denver to watch a Zach Brown concert. The following morning they’d just fly straight home. I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard…

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Grain elevator

I can’t imagine it would be a scenic flight. Everywhere we passed was so boring. Aside from the occasional little town, the anti-abortion signs provided the only road-side entertainment. The people of Kansas are obsessed with abortion, it’s very odd. Almost everyday we would pass these big billboards with pictures of cute babies and Bible quotes. My favourite one had a picture of a whale alongside a baby and read ‘some species are protected, others not’.
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I have no idea why they are so fixated about abortions. That is a subject that should be thought about and decided upon by the potential parents, no one else. I am pro-life. Everyone is. No one has ever chosen to have an abortion without it being an incredibly tough decision. Do these anti-abortion-ers really think that a twelve year old girl who was raped should be considered under the same conditions as an older couple who couldn’t be bothered to put a condom on and didn’t fancy having a child? And if the latter woman decided to have an abortion, then what on earth does it matter to you?

I have met and befriended Americans who are devout Christians and firmly anti-abortion, so perhaps I should tread carefully here. Or, I could say this: I know I just said I’m pro-life but now I have changed my mind. Anyone who goes to the effort of erecting an anti-abortion billboard should be forced to have an abortion if they ever conceive. A little enforced natural-selection. Imagine what a women who had an abortion would feel driving across Kansas and past sign after sign reminding her what an awful sin she’s committed. How awful would that make her feel?
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We started passing cattle feedlots and I was transported back to Australia where I worked on a farm for 3 months. They smelt awful, I’d forgot how bad that smell was and how long it had taken to become cow-free after leaving. I’m amazed I managed to do it so long. In Australia the feedlots were all hidden away from the road but here they are right next to the highway so anyone can see how unpleasant a life the cattle live.
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There was more than feedlots to remind me of Queensland. It was the same heat and big bubblegum clouds. The same long, straight roads that pass by endless crop fields and no shade. Occasionally there would be a gap for a dry creek with trees clustered around it. In Australia the kangaroos had been the exotic roadkill. Here it was the scaly armadillos. Just as in Queensland, everyone drove pickup trucks (cars were not cool at all) and the drivers had akubra hats on to keep the sun off their heads. This was cowboy country too.
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When we got to a town with a big supermarket (not just a community’s general store) that would be a big highlight of our day. I love American supermarkets. Everything is ginormous inside them and most of the stuff seems to be frozen. Lea reckons that they’re actually more expensive than the UK (fruit and veg seems a little dear here) but to me – having come from Australia and New Zealand – it is very cheap.

I’m not sure why they make everything so big. Things like cereal bags, bottles of maple syrup, cans of iced coffee come in sizes unlike anything you’d ever see in the UK and it’s often cheaper to buy the larger size of two items, which is infuriating. I usually just head straight for the donuts (almost all the supermarkets bake their own), grab a couple and get out as fast as I can.
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We usually pop into petrol stations to fill up water. PETROL stations, guys, they don’t sell gas! All of them have serve-yourself soft drink and coffee dispensers where you can get free water and ice. In one petrol station we bought a 32oz cup of coffee to share for just a dollar. 32oz! That’s almost a litre! Who on earth can drink that much coffee on their own? Who’s bladder can handle that? Should it even be legal to sell? It’s no wonder they’re obesity is such an issue here…

I’m going off topic again. Let me get back to the cycling. But one last thing on the subject of drinks. Why do the Americans put so much ice in them? I see people going up to the dispensers, buying a big cup, filling it to the brim with ice and then topping it up with coke. I want to grab them by the shoulders and say: “The ice is just frozen water! It’s free! The coke is what you’re paying for, fill it up with that!” I don’t get it. Americans just love ice.
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Actually there is nothing to write about the cycling. Everything looked the same and the wind was blasting in our face harder every day. We passed a couple of cyclists coming the opposite way on the way into Ness City and I said, “must be hard in this wind guys” and the bloke replied “oh, actually I think it’s coming from behind us”. No shit Sherlock! I thought the flags on my bike were going to fly off they were flapping so hard in the wind pummeling into us. Not only have I learnt that Americans love ice, I have also learnt that many of them do not understand sarcasm.
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I think I’ll just keep writing about strange stuff in this country. On the way into Ness City’s park we saw a front garden decorated with a Confederate flag. We saw many Confederate flags across Kansas and Missouri but tried not to think much of it. This one was different though, because it had a statue of a little black man beside it. That can’t be a good thing. A couple weeks later the riots kicked off in Charlottesville. It’s a confusing country.
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On another supermarket visit I stopped the cashier putting our food into plastic bags. I like to put stuff straight into my panniers because they waste so much plastic on those bags. If they’ve already started I usually just let them get on with it but Lea is a real anti-plastic Nazi. She’ll make a point of taking our groceries out of the bags but on this occasion she was distracted by the pepper spray for sale. The pepper spray was on display right by the checkout, beside the chewing gum and chocolate bars. It was coloured in bright pink.

Anyway, the point of this story was plastic, not pepper spray. The cashier told me that she wasn’t allowed to give me the items not in bags. “Why on earth not?” I asked her and she mumbled something about company policy, theft and continued bagging my shopping. Wow. So while every other ‘developed’ country is starting to make you pay for bags, America is forcing you to take them. Good thing you got out of that Paris deal, Donald.
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We had our first dog chase out of Nickerson. Other cyclists had warned us they’d be trouble but I hadn’t taken them seriously. I hadn’t had any canine trouble for a very long time and they couldn’t possible be as bad as those I encountered between Turkey and Central Asia, surely?

The first ones that came out barking were big fuckers. They took offence to us cyling past their home down a quite country road and came charging onto the road after us. I’d already warned Lea how to deal with dogs which was fortunate, as had we continued riding those big dogs would have torn into our bags and ankles. (For the record, if a dog is chasing you make sure to stop. Stand tall and shout at it). We stopped and I kept my bike between ourselves and the crazy dogs. These ones were mad. Pretending to throw rocks (the trick that works everywhere else in the world) didn’t deter them at all. Eventually two young girls came out from the home but they couldn’t contain the dogs which were the same size as them and now snarling just a couple of feet from me and Lea. We could probably have left without chase at that point but I waited for one of the girls to run home and get their father, who ran out and tied the dogs up. What a shame his kids were out. I’d have loved to have given him a colourful earful. Instead I told him what I thought of his dogs in just-about-civil language.

Lea had hit her first 1,000 km. I remember when I hit my first thousand, way back in Germany at the start of this trip. I was cycling with Hillrich, who’d hosted me the night before. We paused for a break in a small cafe and Hillrich told the owner that I’d just hit 1,000 km. It felt like such a big deal at the time. The owner then piled me up with free cake and coffee as congratulations.

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Camping in Newton park

I wanted Lea to have a treat for the occasion so we stopped early to camp in Newton city park. After a quick swim in the park’s outdoor pool (not only could cyclists camp in the park, we could also get into the pool for free!) I headed into town to buy us a pizza for dinner. Just as I was nearing the pizza place my chain snapped. That’s only the second time that’s happened to me – the last was in Uzbekistan. I didn’t have any of my repair stuff with me so I had to walk all the way back to the park. At least the food had been cheap: a $10 14″ pizza from Papa John’s was enough to fill up two hungry cyclists. The supermarkets might not be cheaper here than the UK, but fast food certainly is.

Leas punctures were getting ridiculous. Every other day she seemed to be getting a flat and every time there were complications trying to get back on the road. My pump has been misbehaving and I could never get enough air into the tyres for them to be ride-able. One morning I lost my temper trying to pump Lea’s one millionth flat and managed to burst the seal in the pump (I’m not that strong – it had already started breaking, hence not being able to get enough pressure). Sod’s law, after repairing the puncture Lea got another flat later that morning. Now I had no working pump. Rats. Fortunately we were just a couple of miles away from the next village, where we found a mechanic who had an air hose and we could get enough in the tube to keep going.

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What is this!?

We changed our route to get into a town where we could buy a new pump and left the Trans-Am in favour of Great Bend where we bought a pump for $10 in Walmart. After that the landscape finally started to change. In Eastern Kansas the ground began to undulate into frustrating steep little hills and everything became more green. Rivers flowed between the soy fields and small clusters of trees offered shelter from the sun.
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We camped by the state border, next to a reservoir off a dirt road. It was nice to be camping ‘properly’ again. The city parks were great but hardly an adventure. We cooked popcorn (our nightly routine), I went for a swim and we cooked a curry for dinner as the evening sun reflected the forests onto the water.

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In the morning it was pissing it down. It rained so hard we couldn’t face getting out the tent all morning. We waited for about 3 hours in the tent before finally embracing the day and it’s miserable weather. It was a relief to find a shelter in Clinton’s town park to camp after an entire day in the rain.
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That night a storm raged like nothing I’ve seen in a long time. I peeped my head out the tent near midnight and saw that the park was starting to flood. Sections of our picnic-area shelter were starting to be covered by running water and it looked like the concrete sides might burst, which would leave us camping in a stream. “Erm, Lea. I think we might have to relocate pretty damn quick!” and we ran up with all our stuff to a higher shelter.
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Clinton is the western terminus of the Katy Trail, a 240 mile long rail-to-trail program along the old MKT railway line. The trail is car-free and ends near St Louis, so it looked like a perfect way to end our ride into the city.
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The ground was annoyingly soft after the heavy rain but it was nice to be under the trees and away from the traffic. The trail was well made. At the old stops the stations were converted into rest areas with historical billboards and there were informative signs along the way.

After a couple of days on the trail we stayed with Ellen and Ian in Columbia. They were a American/British couple and it was nice talk about some cross-cultural differences. It was especially nice to hear about the things Ellen thought weird about the UK (and there are many of them!) after me and Lea’s endless discussion about all the oddities of US life.
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Ian worked for a charity that promotes walking in the US, which is one thing that doesn’t exist in the same way in the UK. America is made for cars and people rarely walk anywhere, especially in all the small towns I’ve been in so far. I recently read Bill Bryson’s book ‘I’m a Stranger Here Myself’ in which he (an American) returns to the country after 20 years living in the UK and he talks about the frustrations about trying to get places on foot. In one anecdote he writes about being stuck in a shopping-complex unable to get from one store to another without getting into his car and driving, despite them only being a stone’s throw apart. We were in a situation like that ourselves in Pueblo, where we tried to get into a diner from the highway but couldn’t get across from the road into the car park due to a huge fence separating us. These places weren’t made for pedestrians.
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It’s hard to get around these places on foot but the Americans do seem to love driving everywhere. I’ve only ever seen one drive-through in the UK but here they are everywhere. Do they actually prefect eating in their cars than sitting down at a table? Drive-through culture seems to have evolved beyond fast food. There are also drive through ATMs and pharmacies. I often see suburban homes with 3 car garages as big as the house they are attached too. Cars rule here.  

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The Missouri State Capitol

The next night we stayed with Nick via Warmshowers in the state’s capital, Jefferson City. Nick works for the National Guard and was such a nice guy. It was funny to stay with an Army boy as that very morning we’d been talking with Ellen and Ian in Columbia about the size of serving forces in the UK and the US. Nick is the fifth currently serving or ex-military man I’ve stayed with in this country which has really suprised me. I only know a couple of people in serving in the UK.
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Lea began our final morning on the road with another puncture. In one month she had more punctures than I had in the last year. It was a long slog into St Louis and we were tired from a long month of cycling.
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It was strange to be entering a big city again. I haven’t been in any since leaving San Fransisco two months ago. It was an odd ride into town. For about 10 miles we cycled past only mansions. It was just huge house after huge house. All of them big tasteless square houses with large porches and perfect lawns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a long stretch of such wealth.

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St Louis’ iconic Arch

The following day we went for a spin around town and headed up further north. We popped into a busy supermarket and it suddenly occurred to me that we were the only white people in there. In fact, it looked like we were the only white people in the entire area.
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I was surprised to see such segregation between neighborhoods. I come form London, one of the most multi-cultural places in the world but we all pretty much live on top of each other. There are areas with a predominant ethnic group, but not like what I saw in St Louis.

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The kooky City Museum

After that long posh area we rode through on the way into town it was odd to see areas that were derelict and unkempt. Here the lawns weren’t looked after, weeds grew up through the pavements and litter blew across the road. I only found out the other day that Ferguson, where Michael Brown got shot in 2014 and started all those riots was just north of here.
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We ended Lea’s month on the road with a pretty all-American experience – baseball! Our host Jerry took us to see the Cardinals beat the Atlanta Braves and patiently explained all the rules to us. I loved it. I only wished the beer could have been cheaper in there and that the players could just try to catch the ball without those big gloves on. Surely that’s cheating?

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Thanks Lea for being such good company the last four weeks. It’s been a blast.  

Now it’s time for a little holiday, but I’ll tell you lot all about it next time…

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