For me, one of the best things about heading to Colorado for SBT GRVL is the opportunity to cross the Great Plains yet again. I’ve crossed them many times and always enjoy being here. Truth be told, this is one of my favorite places in the world.
I’ve never been content with interstate highways and I’m growing even less so with the passage of time. I always try to pick a different route between home and wherever it is we’re going. This time we left the superslab at Lexington Nebraska and veered south along US 283, a lightly traveled two-lane that passes through the towns of Elwood and Arapahoe before depositing us in Norton Kansas. Along the way, we stopped and rode around Johnson Lake. There’s a surprisingly nice bicycle trail here that forms an eleven mile loop around the lake. It’s worth exploring if you’re out this way.
There are a lot of places in America worth exploring. It’s a shame that most people never bother. Instead of national fast food chains and look alike motels, these places have fully functioning main streets lined with traditional business like hardware stores, markets and diners. They’re not all dying as is the popular myth of the day. Many remain as vibrant as any big city anywhere, if on a scale less grand.
Some contain genuine treasure. There’s a coffee house named Fresh Seven in tiny St. Francis, Kansas that comes to mind. My daughter and I stumbled in one cold December morning not long after sunrise and were instantly made to feel local. I suspect they don’t get many out of towners.
I’m thinking of this all in the context of small towns and how modern America marginalizes those of us who love them and choose to live in them. These days, most of us live in the suburban sprawl surrounding what were once big cities. Many of these cities now have large swaths of land that has been abandoned. Others developed it poorly to begin with. People generally have to travel great distances to get where they’re going on a daily basis. As a result, speed is valued above all else. Time is money, after all.
This other America, the one I opted out of two years ago, lives by the gospel of “more.” This seems so clear in hindsight even if it didn’t at the time. Crass consumerism and compulsive motoring are the new national religion. Ever notice how the high rise with the corporate logo…almost always a bank… has replaced the church steeple as the focal point of so many skylines?
Out here, bigger isn’t better unless we’re talking about skies. Dirty Kanza, the Super Bowl of Gravel, is all about big skies and big vistas and big hearts. It is about as far from all of that other world stuff as is humanly possible. Based in Emporia Kansas, as unassuming a town as you will ever find, it traverses the Flint Hills…an area not generally known outside the region. If you were to ask people to identify where the Flint Hills were in Kansas, I suspect most would answer “Kansas has hills?”
But those who have seen and felt this stark countryside almost universally comment on its breathtaking beauty and how small and insignificant they feel in comparison. Those who ride through it are often reduced to tears. Getting here and lining up is a holy pilgrimage. Many of those drawn seem to understand that something has gone wrong with modern life even if they can’t quite put their finger on what it is. Twelve or sixteen or twenty hours later, they know. To read their stories is to understand that their lives have fundamentally changed…forever.
This morning, I’m on the bike south of Lexington Nebraska. It’s just a short taper ride before Steamboat, but I’m as happy as can be. I’m at least four or five hours of hard pedaling from the nearest bank logo in the sky. Church steeples and water towers are still prevalent. Windmills, too. Windmills are everywhere on the Plains these days. There’s no need for protected bike lanes or three foot passing laws out here. The few people you see are more than happy to cede the entire lane. They invariably wave as they pass. You do the same because it feels right and good and almost sacred.
The air is fresh and clean. I can see twenty miles ahead. The day is full of promise and I am happy. The road crunches under my tires. As it does, the knowledge that I am home washes over me like a wave. I am glad that Gravel found me and allowed me to understand that slow is better than fast and that they only way to understand fullness is to be truly hungry first. This land is my land. This land is your land, too. It is ours to use and share and cherish and it is waiting patiently for us to come back home. We should, too…on two wheels…on gravel.