After riding through Toronto, Kansas, we started meeting other cyclists nearly every day.
Elizabeth and Roger were pedaling in style, laid-back on recumbents. At camp, they unloaded their inflatable picnic-table-cushions and tablecloth, and out of Elizabeth's bike trailer jumped Rose the dog, who generally rode in a laundry basket. They rode casually, and took layover days often—like we did.
But many other cyclists we met didn't seem to be pedaling leisurely enough to see anything. There was Chris and Chris and Brian, three college guys who seemed to be on a mission to cover as many miles a day as they could. When we met them, at Toronto Lake State Park, they were planning a 150-mile ride for the next day. In the morning I rolled over and slept for three more hours when I heard them get up around 4:30 or 5:00.
Then there was Glen, tanned and fifty-ish, who had ridden 35 miles by the time we met him at ten o’clock one morning. He told us he'd just passed the Adventure Cycling Association tour group.
"You'll meet 'em today," he said, “if you camp in Eureka.” And to me he added, "They've been reading about you since Virginia, and there’s nine guys and no women in that group—they’re real eager to see you!”
Stefan, the only younger person in the ACA group of men, was 20. When he rode into the Eureka City park that afternoon, he slid to a halt, jumped off his bike, tossed it onto the grass, and said in his German accent, “I can’t tell you how glad I am to meet you!”
After dinner, he said “Let me come with you to town.”
“Uh—okay,” I said, “but I’m gonna make a phone call—you sure you want to?"
“Yes,” replied Stefan, “it would be my pleasure."
We headed down the ratty sidewalk, Stefan walking so close that I practically went off the pavement. I was glad we had our trips to talk about, because I didn't know what to say. When we reached the pay phone I called home, which took at least twenty minutes because my entire family was there.
When I finally hung up, Stefan said, “You must love your family a lot. You look happy.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I do.”
My thoughts were still on home and family when Stefan continued, “Now. Let us go to the café I saw—would you like a soda or something?”
There was a rather awkward silence, because I didn’t want a soda, I didn’t want to be rude, and I also didn’t want to lead him on by pretending I was interested in him in the way he seemed interested in me. “Well,” I said, “I actually want to start heading back—you know, it’s—ah—getting kind of late...” I trailed off, uncomfortably.
“Are you sure?” asked the boy. “We can go back soon afterward.”
“I'm sure,” I said, trying to be gentle-but-firm.
Stefan's face was confused and lonely, and in some ways, I knew exactly how he felt. I was beginning to understand Mom’s pre-trip warning to be careful of loneliness. Back last winter, I had laughed: “Don’t worry, Mom—I’m not going to have sex with someone just 'cause I’m homesick!”
Looking at Stefan tonight, I grasped a little more of what she meant about the potential to feel desperate for intimacy.
On June 8, we met an older couple named Lili and Jack. It turned out that they were from New Jersey and they frequented the same bike shop I did. Soon we were chatting like old friends, and the next day we rode together, our conversation punctuated by the bumps in the poorly-maintained road. It was so fun to ride with people! *Man*, I kept thinking, *I’m not going to want to be alone again after this!* I knew that in Colorado, Jeff and Wyeth were going off the route to visit some relatives, and then I’d be on my own. *Ugh*. I shivered a little, and tried not to think ahead. Anyway, Wyeth's sister and dad would be flying into Wichita next week and the five of us would ride together until Pueblo. There was still lots of fun to look forward to.
"It's so nice and flat here after the Ozarks," Lili said, as we rode along later that afternoon.
I agreed. "Jeff and Wyeth nicknamed Missouri 'The State of Misery', did they tell you?"
“The day we rode to Chanute, Jack and I made up a song about that,” said Lili. She sang it as we bumped along:
I love Kansas in the springtime (ragweed blooming),
I love Kansas in the summer (thunder booming),
I love Kansas! Why, oh why do I love Kansas?
Because it’s near—ly—FLAT!
During the course of the afternoon we'd ridden thirty miles without stopping once. I didn't notice, because Lili and I were talking the whole time—a 59-year-old and a 17-year-old, learning about each other’s worlds while pedaling through the fog and endless cornfields of the Kansas prairie.
But then Jeff rode up next to me. He'd noticed. “I’ve never ridden this long without a break," he said quietly. "And right about now, my butt could use one!”
“We could pull over,” I said. “I’m sure Lili and Jack wouldn’t mind.”
“The thing is–“ he looked over at the older couple riding behind us “–I’m not stopping unless they do. I mean, Jack’s turning sixty next month and he’s riding the pants off me! My butt is *sore* right now. Don’t they ever get tired?”
I couldn’t help laughing: although we rode ten more miles before reaching Newton, Jeff didn't say anything about taking a break. We sang, we talked, we neatly avoided the potholes, and we rolled up to the Wheatland city park before dinnertime.
Every half-hour that evening, Jeff dramatically clutched his butt in mock agony over his “saddle sores.”