This past year.
The past almost two years.
It’s been like a rubbish fire. But just about all the normal things in our lives.
Normally in the first full week in June, I’d be getting ready to ride out the Kansas/Colorado border to start the annual Biking Across Kansas tradition with 800 to 1,000 other people I like very much.
Last year, the Coronavirus threw cold water all over that. But we began to imagine a summer without BAK, without organized rides, and without the chance to see one another. So, a handful of us decided to create our own trek across the state, in something we dubbed Alt-BAK.
Thanks to the legislature doing what the legislature does, we ended up in a special session at the start of June - meaning I couldn’t join my friends until halfway through the trip.
We enjoyed the new Flint Hills Nature Trail from Council Grove to Ottawa, and we created our own unique experience from the ashes of adversity. And we enjoyed each other and the outdoors, when that was one of the few things that could safely be done.
This photo isn’t from Alt-BAK, but from a different fun trip Tyler and I took.
As the end of 2020 drew closer, attention again moved to the traditional BAK - and whether it could be done in 2021. Ultimately, the time required to plan such an event, coupled with the uncertainty about logistical concerns 6 months out, forced the board to call the event off for a second year in a row. (Full disclosure: I’m on the BAK board. You should totally try it some time).
Immediately, our small group turned its attention to Alt-BAK v2.0. My friend Kimberly is the planner, and I’m happy to let her do that. She studies all the routes, figures out which towns have good restaurants and watering holes. Left to me, I’d probably just start riding in a general Easterly direction toward some water tower or grain elevator.
But within a few months, we had a plan, and a route, and a commitment. Kimberly, Tyler, and I would head out on June 4 to Coolidge, Kansas. From there we’d ride across the state and end in Leawood the next Saturday The anticipated mileage: 575.
But, it seems the plague of 2020-2021 wasn’t quite through with us yet.
On Wednesday before the trip, Tyler - an experienced arborist who owns a tree trimming business - sent us this text:
Got some bad news guys. I had a tree collapse under me today and I got my hip impaled on a fence. I'm going in for surgery now but I'll be in the hospital for a couple of days. I'm so sorry.
And because Tyler is who Tyler is, he followed up with this…
I'm not sure if I'll be out by Friday morning to take you to the state line, but it's not looking good
There were subsequent conversations about what to do, but ultimately we decided the ride will still happen, it just won’t include Tyler this year. And that is sad for all of us, for very deep personal reasons. Because there was something about this upcoming ride that had a sort of cleansing feel to it. Like hitting the reset button, or taking a good shower after a day of hard work. A pause - a break from everything else - clearly marking what was before, and what will be after. And it needed to happen with this group, as Tyler said this week from his hospital bed.
These past 18 months have brought a lot of sadness to the world. I think more than I’ve seen all at once in my lifetime. Norms were disrupted. The ways we used to fill our time were unavailable. The work that drove us changed, or stopped. The economy feels like its experiencing some shifting. And we, for a time, couldn’t even grab a friend for a cup of coffee to share our burdens. Even the practice of one’s faith, for many, happened in a new and unfamiliar way.
For some, though, the past two years have meant that loved ones aren’t with them anymore. And I hope that’s something we’ll always remember through the hyperbolic rhetoric that seems to have been embedded in the Covid-19 pandemic.
I think we all get to give ourselves a measure of grace if we weren’t quite ourselves this year. But I hope as the fog of a once-in-a-century pandemic lifts, we’ll take stock of who we truly are and the sort of people we’ve worked - in ordinary conditions - to be.
For our small group, things will look different this year. Fun, but subdued, maybe, by the difference. Or at least aware that what we’re doing is different than what was planned. We’ll head out Friday to the Colorado state line, and begin the ride east to the Missouri state line.
Like most years, I’m anxious about my ability. I’ve not been able to train properly this past year or so. Like many of us, the weirdness of the pandemic has left me, well, a little weird, and somewhat out of shape. My health isn’t nearly what it was at the start of all this. But I’ll get on the bike, and I’ll ride. And if history is a guide, after a few days of sore leg muscles, a sore seat, and unpleasant words, I’ll acclimate. I hope.
I’ll miss Tyler on the ride, but we’ll meet up with him somewhere in Central Kansas. Maybe some other riders will hope in for part of a day. And maybe we’ll be able to connect with friends as we roll through different towns across the state.
Total weight: 78 pounds
But there are a few elements that are consistent on this ride - and I know I’ll encounter them this year, just as I have every other year I’ve ridden across the state.
I know that the individual people of Kansas don’t much behave like the aggregate version of the people they elect to represent them.
I know that if I’m slumped over on the side of the rode, or fixing a flat time, someone’s going to pull up in a dusty old farm truck and ask if I need a ride, or if they can help.
I will guarantee that several people will offer me a fresh, and cold, bottle of water.
I know that we’ll stop and ask where to get a good meal, and without hesitation, we’ll get a stellar recommendation.
I know that people in every small town we go through will be kind, warm, inviting, and they’ll eagerly share some nugget of history or some little-known fact about the place they call home.
I know that kids will wave at us, and ask us about where we came from and about our bikes, and how far we’ve gone and plan to go still. And maybe, like I once did, they’ll think about how they might do the same things someday.
This state, this flyover, empty prairie is a place of wonder and beauty We might not have the Mountain or Ocean vistas, but the beauty here is in the details - a gift reserved for those willing to look beyond the superficial and the obvious. For those special people, Kansas opens its soul.
And what I always find on this ride is a reminder of what Kansas is, or what it can be, at the individual level, and how different that is from what we see from the whole.
Much like the topography of our state, the horizon looks nearly the same from every angle. But in the draws, from the creek bottoms, and in the undulations of every pasture, there’s a unique wonder that’s waiting to be realized - if we’re willing to remember who, and what, we really are.