Friday, July 22, 2016

Beware the Pepper Spray

Clinton, Missouri to Ness City, Kansas (2,956 - 3,365 miles)
Making do.

I foolishly rely on Google to come up with the best bike route back to the TransAmerica Trail. The app has me on gravel roads out of Clinton, and the roughness beats up both me and my bike. Thankfully, the gravel only lasts a few miles and I'm back on paved roads. I'm headed due west and the first 30 miles are hilly. I've had a day and a half rest, my legs are super-charged, and I average 9 miles per hour or better on the climbs. The downhill coasts have me smiling, and I'm in Kansas before the morning is out. I have a tailwind today—my first in a long time—and I put in 115 easy miles.

Three days later I arrive in Newton. I
Wait a minute; I thought I was in Kansas.
resupply and decide to take the day off in a city park, where I also plan to pitch and spend the night. I doze off and on atop a picnic table under a shaded pavilion, walk across the street to the liquor store and return with a cold Foster's. An old man sits at the end of the table, opens a bottle of cheap vodka, swigs, then slides the bottle in my direction.

"Have yourself a drink," he says, lips moving behind a scraggly beard. He smells bad, worse than me if that's possible, and his clothes are so stained it's hard to guess at the original coloring. (The shirt might have been blue off the rack; the pants . . . I have no clue.)

TransAmer showing me a voodoo doll someone gave her.
Not wanting to offend my new friend, I sip and slide the bottle toward him. He's homeless, on probation, tells me to keep my beer on the "down low" if I want to avoid the cops. I set the can at my hip, listen to him tell high-school wrestling stories. Apparently, he was quite the star 40 years ago. Within 15 minutes he slurs his words—I have never seen anyone get drunk this fast—and I begin thinking it might not be such a good idea to spend the night in this park.

"So, what about tornadoes," I say. "Where do you go to find shelter?"

Looking back, I so wish I hadn't asked that question.

He begins a soliloquy on the best way to get to the tornado shelter, stumbling over his words, verbally backing up occasionally, as though he stepped into a deep rut and needs to find another way around, and somehow—please don't ask me how—arrives at the conclusion that I asked about the shelter because I wanted to use it tonight. Ten minutes later, or perhaps an hour, he's still telling directions, despite my assurance that knowing how to get there is not all that important to me. Finally, I start laughing and hold up my hand.

"Okay, Edith," I say, a reference to how Edith Bunker told her husband long-winded stories on a long ago sit-com—

"You calling me a faggot?"


He gathers up his bottle and what's left of a Subway sandwich. "I should punch you out."

"Wait a minute," I say. "Edith? Edith Bunker? Long-winded . . . look I apologize. I was trying to make a joke."

His hands tighten into liver-splotched knots. "I don't swing that way."

I discreetly remove the trigger guard on my pepper spray, listen to him call me a few choice words, hope he doesn't invade my three-foot danger radius. (I've decided to treat him like an attacking dog.) Maybe I should pull the machete? He drinks a huge gulp of liquor, gets up and stumbles out from under the pavilion, slumps against a tree, stares at me with malevolent eyes. I pack up and cycle out of the park a few minutes before dark. I'm not sure where I'm going, know it won't be anywhere around that drunken ex-wrestler.

The soccer field on the edge of town beckons, grass so green, but the field is fenced on three sides and the gate is locked. No worries. I pull off the road and roll my bike alongside a cornfield, come up on the field from the rear. I pitch on the soft grass in the dark, set my alarm to wake me before daylight, fall dead asleep—

I rouse to a sound I don't recognize. In the stillness of the night, the sound is almost a roar and my addled brain is trying to wake up so I can make sense of the situation.

Oh no.

Pepper spray!

My pepper spray is going off, must have a faulty trigger mechanism.

I unzip the tent and execute a silent but quick barrel-roll into the soccer field. Then I come erect with the deftness of a swat team member, leap away like a gazelle dodging the talons of a deadly predator. . . .

Okay, if truth be told, maybe my silent, perfectly executed barrel-roll was actually a fat man squirming into the open while screaming so hard it hurt his throat, and maybe standing up was more of a creaky groan of balky joints than the gracefulness of a highly-trained police officer, and maybe the gazelle leap away from the tent was really only a 2 inch hop.


I made my escape and for that I am thankful. But then I notice a few things.

  1. Ran out fuel; Coke for breakfast
    The roar inside my tent is ongoing. My pepper spray would have discharged by now.
  2. I don't smell any pepper spray. (I tentatively lean toward my tent for a verifying sniff. Nope, no pepper spray.)
  3. Streams of water have appeared across the field, arching into the air under the yellow moonlight.

I pitched over a pop-up sprinkler head. Mumbling, I drag my tent 30 feet to the left, off the gushing water, attach my fly and crawl inside. I sop up the water using a dirty shirt, listen to the intermittent rattle of spray against my tent.


Even a dummy gets a good idea once in awhile.

I grab a bar of soap and head outside, straight to one of the sprinkler heads, where I stand in the streaming water and take a high-velocity shower. The pressurized water feels so good, nice and cool and clean, that I take the longest shower of my trip.


Hot, hot, hot.

The Big Nothing
Kansas is hot and getting hotter by the day. Fortunately the humidity is lower on the western side of the state, which means 105 degrees isn't supposed to feel all that hot. Yeah, right. I cycle westward, through the flattening countryside—leaving the cornfields and the bean fields behind—under a broiling sun, into a Big Nothing so flat I can see for miles. I swelter away, slather my skin with sun block, tell myself if I can keep going sooner or later I will reach the Rockies. I arrive in Ness City, after a 20 mile morning ride. I've averaged 80 miles per day through Kansas, and I need a break. But I also want out of this state and this heat.

Hot, hot, hot.

It is so frickin' hot.

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  1. Pitch a sail so long as you have a tail wind....

  2. No kidding, Neal. I wish I had a sail as large as a schooner's.


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