Where in my world, biking crosses everything else

If you read this largely for updates about the Kansas legislature, this issue probably isn’t for you - though I won’t get through the entire ordeal without at least touching on the state of state politics. (Don’t think just because I’ve been on my bike that I’ve forgotten about the issues in our state). But fair warning, most of this will be about my recent bike trip across the state.

Normally, I do this as part of the formal Biking Across Kansas. But due to Covid-19, the annual event had to be cancelled for the second year in a row. I could’ve thrown a fit and screamed about how unfair the world is - or I could just figure an alternate route to accomplish what I wanted. I prefer the latter, no matter how many people seem to prefer the former.

We began on a non-descript county route that was an unofficial marking of the Kansas/Colorado Border. Due to physical and mechanical complications, we changed the route often along the way. The original plan was 570-ish miles from Coolidge to Leawood, on a mix of paved and gravel roads. We ended up doing 512-ish miles from Coolidge to just outside Louisburg, with more pavement than gravel. Overnight stops included: Lakin, Garden City, Dodge City, Larned, Lyons, Hillsboro, Council Grove, and Ottawa.

After the last year to 18 months it felt really good to get out and do something “normal.” I don’t think the world has been itself, and I know that I haven’t quite been myself either. There’s been a lot of uncertainty and hostility in our country, and our state, and it was nice to do something where the goal each day is clear - and to revisit the Kansas I’ve always known and loved.

Along the way, I kept thinking about the ways in which cycling intersects with other aspects of life. Specifically, the intersections with gratitude, commerce, and politics.

Cycling + Gratitude

On a long trip like this, the baseline of what makes one grateful shifts somewhat from normal life. And you’re grateful for things that in everyday life aren’t a big deal at all. For instance, a headwind - which might have been unappreciated throughout the day - becomes a point of gratitude at the campsite. And if it vanishes - as it did overnight at Hillsboro - you have a sudden appreciation for the wind you’ve been cursing during the day.

Biking culture can admittedly be odd (bike touring even odder), and another point of gratitude is a consistent need to urinate. The first day of the trip, I suffered bad leg cramps and I realized that despite drinking copious amounts of water, I had not needed to go to the bathroom - a sure sign of dehydration. From that point forward, the need to stop for a break was a cause for celebration - and a grateful sign that my body was getting enough fluids.

There are countless other points of gratitude along the ride, and most of them are much smaller than what would animate me in ordinary life. A turtle on the side of the road. A sunset over a wheat field. A one shade tree close to the road. So the reminder for me on this trip is to pause and look for gratitude in the smallest parts of my daily life.

Anyone who has ridden Quivira Road between Larned and K-96 knows this stop. It’s along the Trans-America bicycle route, and it’s the only stop for water for at least 50 miles.

Cycling + commerce

The Flint Hills Nature Trail is an amazing path through a beautiful part of Kansas. It is a relatively easy path to bike, and makes getting through the Flint Hills easier than it would be on traditional roads.

But I’m afraid that Kansas isn’t yet fully capitalizing on this asset, or the north/south Prairie Spirit Trail from Humboldt to Ottawa. The two towns along the trail that seem really invested in its future are Council Grove and Ottawa. The Flint Hills trail is supposed to extend west to Herrington, but locals I talked to there indicated there’s a lot of animosity over the trail.

Kansas’ objection to trail development is no secret. Other states that have been more agreeable to trail development have realized their full economic potential. The Katy Trail in Missouri is a good example. People from all over the country plan their vacations on this trail. I have two friends riding it right now, and they are sharing with others the wonderful shops and restaurants they’re finding in the small towns along the way. In fact an economic impact report from 2012 (the most recent I could find) shows that 400,000 people visit the trail each year, generating $18.4 million in economic activity and supporting 367 jobs with an annual payroll of $5 million. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the trail essentially saved some of the small towns along the path.

We don’t much care for change in Kansas, but the world changes whether we want it to or not. The question for Kansas is always whether our state will fight the change or position ourselves to capture a part of whatever comes next. Unfortunately, our track record on this isn’t stellar.

Aside from trails, there’s another dynamic afoot - where companies in high-rent areas are actively encouraging employees to relocate to lower-cost areas. Certainly, this could be a positive for states like Kansas - if we’re ready and willing to do the work to be an inviting place for people who hail from higher density areas. That will require some self-examination, and a willingness to adapt. But Kansas has long struggled with opening itself up to outside investment and migration. This, from William Allen White’s 1896 editorial “What’s the Matter with Kansas” still rings true today.

If there had been a high brick wall around the state eight years ago, and not a soul had been admitted or permitted to leave, Kansas would be a half million souls better off than she is today. And yet the nation has increased in population. In five years ten million people have been added to the national population, yet—instead of gaining a share of this say, half a million—Kansas has apparently been a plague spot, and, in the very garden of the world, has lost population by ten thousands every year.

Year after year, I hear the lamentations about how our youth flee the state, how we can’t attract or retain a skilled workforce, how most areas of the state have lost population since the early 1900s. Yet, it seems to me, we largely don’t acknowledge a changing world, and we don’t put in place investments and policies that might draw people to our state.

Like it or not, the world is changing - and the workforce of today holds different demands than the workforce of a generation or two ago. They do not want to live in a cash-starved state with few amenities and schools, roads, and bridges that are held together with duct tape and baling wire. Those rural counties that have figured this out and embraced forward-looking leadership - and there are a few bright examples out there - are thriving and turning the tide at the local level.

Cycling + politics

Midway through this trip, it hit me that not once along the way did anyone ask me about my party affiliation. No one asked me about my position on any of the hot-button, emotional, hyper-partisan social issues. And that’s not because I didn’t talk to anyone - quite the contrary. Much to my riding partner’s chagrin, I talk to almost everyone. The running joke among some of my friends is that when I’m on my bike, all one needs to do is say ‘hi” and they’ll find themselves involved in a lengthy conversation.

The people I met along the way were nice. And curious. And helpful. And unassuming.

We wandered around a scale house in Kendall until Ron opened the door and gave us water. Luke, a working cowboy who was sitting next to me at BG’s in Council Grove, didn’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with two fully geek-geared cyclists. Lisa and Clayton, walking their dog on a dirt road near Whitehorst, told us where they grew up, how they met, and where they got married. We had a great visit with Ernie and his family from Syracuse, and they made sure we knew the best route to the next town.

Time and again, along this entire route, I met the real Kansas. That’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the official Biking Across Kansas, and what we’ve come to call our Alt-BAK. These communities open themselves up, and their people want us to see who they are and what their town has to offer.

My hope is that what I see on these bike tours could be realized in other parts of life - including our political discourse and discussions about Kansas’ future.

We asked Ron if we could use a garden hose or sink. “I’ll do you one better,” he said and pointed us to the cold water cooler.

Luke let us meet his horse “Dank,” outside of BG’s in Council Grove.

A Kool-Aid stand in Holcomb. We had just stopped, but there’s an unwritten rule that we always stop and buy Kool-Aid or Lemonade from stands like this.

Ronnie and Thomas - met them in Holcomb. They are travelling to New York from Arizona. Thomas lived in Hutchinson for a while, so they planned to stop there.

Dave and Cheerie Baker put us up for the night in Council Grove. They gave us a great dinner and breakfast, a much needed chance to do laundry and cool place to sleep.

We had a great dinner and visit with John Wheeler, who also took the time to show us around Garden City.

Patrick, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, was hauling a rocking horse to his sister in Council Grove. We both appreciated the large clouds that provided shade on a hot day.

We met this group on the trail east of Ottawa. Most were from the Kansas City area, out for a long ride on the Flint Hills Nature Trail.

Lisa and Clayton on a road near Whitehorst. Lisa grew up on the farm in this picture. Clayton grew up in Spearville. They got married at the Immaculate Heart of Mary church in Whitehorst, and now live in Garden City but return to the farm to help Lisa’s parents.

Despite his injury that kept him from riding with us, Tyler met us several times, and served as my road mechanic, cook, and mood-lightener.

At The Spot in Herrington. I just thought this was funny.

Janice, from Dighton, had to go to Wichita for a recall service on her car. Her options were Wichita or Colorado Springs - she chose Wichita so she could swing by this quilt shop in Alden on the way home. I don’t know anything about quilting, but I quickly learned that anyone who does knows about this store.