Some time around noon a horrifying thought popped into my head. It was actually the second time I had had this thought during my journey. That little voice in the back of my head sternly told me, "Colin, if you keep riding then you are going to die."
How did I get here? Well, my day got off to a normal start. I awoke in the home of my Warm Showers host and gathered my things. I chose to spend a little extra time doing errands from my phone this morning, so I didn't begin riding until about 9 am. Given the intense heat of the last few days, I should've gotten off to an earlier start in order to "beat the heat." But on some level I was reassureed that today would go smooth because I would be riding on a bike trail for most of the day.
My route involved following gravel back roads about 10 miles to the Flint Hills Nature Trail, then following the trail another 50 or 60 miles, all due West . This was bound to be a challenge, because today's winds were consistent with the general pattern for this area, meaning that they came from the South West. So, on top of heat, I could count on heavy head winds slowing me down.
Just a mile or so from the Flint Hills Nature Trails I paused. I found myself atop a hill, gazing into the desolate countryside. I became hypnotized watching the heavy gusts of wind beat waves into the helpless grain crops. This display of the wind's strength was humbling, making me feel as vulnerable as the plants, jolting to and fro.
At the entrance of the Flint Hills Nature Trail is where I first got a sense that something was wrong. While taking pictures with my phone, I was prompted by a message informing me that my device would have to restrict certain applications because it was overheating. This was certainly the first time on the trip that I had received such a message. I didn't pay this message too much attention, choosing to keep peddling instead.
By about mile 18 I was puzzled. On a usual 60 mile ride I would go through about two-and-a-half liters of water. I hadn't even done a third of that distance but had already consumed two liters of Gatorade. It seemed like I was drinking more liquid than usual. On top of that, my body seemed to need a water break every 2 miles. Between the frequent hydration stops, gravel roads and headwinds, I couldn't seem to find a rhythm.
Around mile 25 I dismounted my bike for another PB&J lunch. It was high noon at this point, so I sought shelter beneath a tree. Man, even the breeze was warm. The air around me just felt disgusting. On second thought, it wasn't just the air that felt disgusting, I felt disgusting. Something wasn't right. Despite the demanding ride, my appetite was shot. I had to force myself to eat the little sandwich I had prepared, though I should have been starving. To make things even worse, I felt confused. I couldn't tell if the sensation of heat that I was experiencing in my head was the climate or if I was growing anxious. Something was off.
"Okay," I reasoned with myself, "you're not doing another 40 miles today. Let's just get to the next city and rest up there. How about Osage City, it's only 10 miles away?" That seemed like a good plan. I was proud of myself for being both reasonable and flexible. I hopped back on my bike, but then dismounted within a mile. "Dude, what the heck is wrong with you?" I didn't understand why I was being so lazy. My analytical side kicked in. "Maybe it's the heat? I wonder what the temperature is in Osage City." I checked my phone...
"Colin, if you keep riding then you are going to die."
Forget Osage City. The town of Lyndon was only two miles away. I headed straight there. I pedaled slowly, being mindful not to over-exert myself. Well, I think that at this point I had already over-exerted myself, so the goal now was to not injure myself. I pedaled to a diner just North of Lyndon for shelter.
I quickly cooled down at the diner. As a matter of fact, I cooled down so quickly that I was beginning to feel a bit chilly. After being there only 15 minutes I relocated closer to the door because it almost felt too cool. It was there that I heard another customer remark, "Oh boy, it's even warm in here."
My confused internal dialog continued, "Wait a second, dude. If they feel warm then you should feel warm. There's really no reason you should feel cold right now." I accepted that my health had been jeopardized and that I needed to reestablish my equilibrium. I decided that my day of riding was officially over. I now needed to figure out how I would get to my host's home in Emporia.
I checked in at the police station. The chief and his clerks suggested trying the Osage City cab service, which had a fleet of one. They warned me it would be expensive, about 40 or 50 dollars, but that it could get me to the BETO Junction, about halfway to my host. They also suggested hanging out at Casey's General Store until the sun went down. So, I headed to Casey's.
I spent two hours in front of the store unsuccessfully attempting to hitch a ride South. My heart sank a little deeper each time I got rejected. I was sort of in disbelief that no one would offer to help. One guy even mocked me. I told him that the heat had gotten the best of me and that I needed a ride to shelter. He snapped back, "Well what we're you thinkin' goin' for a ride today!?" Man, his response pissed me off, especially because I knew he was right to call me out. I, and noone else, had put myself in this situation.
Then came the cop. As if I hadn't had enough reality checks for one day, here came the boys in blue. The officer recognized that I was in a bind. He very gently suggested that it'd be better for me to hang out inside to avoid the heat...and to stop loitering. Once again, he was totally right. I went inside to regroup. This whole hitch hiking thing wasn't going very well anyway.
Inside I apologized to the staff for hanging around for so long. Byron, one of the store's employees, offered to give me a ride to the junction when he got off at 7:00 pm. Thank goodness. This kind gesture put my mind at ease.
When he got off I accompanied Byron to his home around the corner. Again I was greeted to Kansan hospitality as his wife gave me some water, grapes and dinner rolls. During our ride to the junction I was able to distract myself a bit by learning about the interesting story of Byron's career in correctional center reform. For the first time in about five hours I was actually beginning to feel like myself again.
My time at the BETO Junction was spent much like my time at Casey's General Store, unsuccessfully attempting to bum a ride. Man, at this point I really did feel like a bum. My only consolation was watching a serene sunset, nature's way of letting me know that the debilitating heat would soon be gone.
I grew sick of waiting and sick of being rejected by everyone. I had gear for night riding, I decided that I would take the old highway 50 to my host's home in Emporia. I was so eager for the day to just be done, so I hopped on my bike and headed West as the sun dipped below the horizon. About eight miles into my ride it was nighttime. We're it not for my headlight I wouldn't have been able to see anything. Though the clear night sky was beautiful, I wanted nothing more but to be in a safe place. I was sick of riding, sick of feeling vulnerable. I picked up my phone to text my host, Ben. The text was an admission of defeat. I asked if he'd be able to come pick me up. Ben promptly responded. With no questions asked he told me he was on the way. Finally, this nightmare of a day would soon be over.
That dark ride home in Ben's truck was an opportunity to process everything. I was really shook up. Feeling physically vulnerable was a miserable experience. Ben, who had substantial touring experience, admitted that my day sounded pretty bad. He shared some of his biking wisdom with me, suggesting that on truly hot days it may be best to avoid the road between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. I was comforted to be accompanied by someone who had been through it before.
Once at his home I could relax. I was safe. I got to know him and his family over ice cream. It turns out that Ben and I had erie parallels, including working in professions related to database analytics/management, living in Battle Creek, MI, and, obviously, quitting our jobs to do a cross country ride. Our light conversation helped my mind escape from the gravitas of the day's events.
As I laid in bed I reflected. The day was a reminder. A reminder that above all else I was at the mercy of nature. Having been exposed to so many phony authority figures over the past several years, I had forgotten where true power resides. It was not in a uniformed man with a gun, nor was it in a professionally-dressed woman behind a desk. In fact it was right above me all along, waiting for the right moment to send me a staggering reminder of my mortality. Perhaps I needed to feel closer to death in order to become closer to life. I was okay now. My nerves calmed, whisking me away into the sweet solace of sleep.