Wyeth's dad Bill was, as Jeff put it, "the most unworried adult I've ever met." He was 65, he liked to claim as few responsibilities as possible, and his main interest was sailing his boat. He often pedaled in white shorts and tee shirt, and wore a visor under his helmet.
When I met Abbey Friday, I thought she was soft-spoken and shy. But though her voice and body were diminutive, her determination wasn’t. She'd operated a backhoe while working on a farm the previous summer, and she danced and taught aerobics—which was a lot more physical activity than I'd engaged in before beginning this trip.
She smiled like Wyeth; her blond hair was cropped to just below her chin, and she was pretty even in her helmet. I couldn't imagine Abbey being unkind to anyone. And I was impressed that she and Bill had ridden fifty miles on their first day of riding.
Wichita was a lot of fun, they all reported. Wyeth got a new rear wheel, they went to the Sedgewick County Zoo, and Jeff got a haircut.
“…The mall could've been any mall in America," Jeff said. "And there I was, sitting in the chair, getting a totally normal haircut. But then I remembered that I was in Wichita, Kansas, and that *I rode my bike here!* I kept saying that the whole time we were there: *‘I rode my bike here.’* It’s pretty amazing."
On our first day riding, we pedaled through Hutchinson and past Nickerson for lunch. We were twenty miles outside Nickerson on a desolate stretch of road when Abbey found the kitten. It was scraggly and gray and white, was missing its two front teeth, and was mewing pitifully from the ditch. There was no sign of a mother anywhere near, and it was not a happy cat.
"Someone probably abandoned it here," said Jeff.
"That's horrible!" I said.
"Yeah, but there's no houses around, and there's no other way it coulda gotten here." We gazed around at the endless flat fields, no houses in sight.
“What should we do with it?” I asked. The small-but-strong animal was clawing at Abbey's hand.
“Let's mix up some powdered milk,” she said. "Ow! Stop it!" She extricated her hand from the kitten's needle-sharp claws.
“Yeah, and we could give it some cheese,” I suggested.
We tried unsuccessfully to feed anything solid to the kitten—maybe its broken tooth made it too difficult to chew. It liked the milk, though, and it managed to lap some from a bottle cap that Abbey held in her hand. Meanwhile, Bill looked on with an air of amusement.
“So—ah—you’re obviously planning to keep that cat, aren't you?” he asked.
"Of course!" we responded heatedly. "We're not going to leave it here!"
“All right, all right: I have no problem adding the cat to our caravan here,” he said, laughing. “But you girls are going to be in charge of it—right?”
Since my handlebar bag was the only one big enough, we put the kitten inside on a bed of bandannas. Until we found a new home for it, we thought it would be a nice, comfy way for a kitten to travel.
The kitten thought otherwise. For the next 30 miles, it mewed almost continuously, until I wondered how it could possibly have any voice left. During the ride, I made sure the kitten had air, I talked to the kitten, I pushed the kitten back inside numerous times, and I tried to steer my bicycle and stay hydrated at the same time.
But that cat was so cute that it was worth the trouble. It was gray and white and fuzzy, tiny enough to balance in one hand, and Abbey and I cooed over it like adoring parents. We kept feeding it milk, and applauded when it finally ate a piece of cheese.
Despite our excitement over the kitten, there was no way to avoid noticing the hot, still air. Sweat evaporated on our skin leaving tiny salt crystals, and we nearly ran out of water. By the time we reached the deserted town of Hudson, we were ready to stop riding. We set up camp near a line of trees on the edge of a wheat field, next to the bleachers. The cat (we couldn't figure out if it was a boy or a girl) fell asleep, contentedly purring on my rear rack.
It was about an hour before dusk when we began to take notice of the brooding sky. The puffy cloud formations were slowly melding into one big, dense mass on the western horizon. The sunset flamed red and orange through gaps in the clouds. We tied down our possessions, and while Bill and Wyeth smoked their pipes, we sat on a picnic table and waited for the storm. The kitten played at our feet, and then finally fell asleep on someone’s lap. The evening was eerily silent.
"Hey—um—so, what do you know about tornadoes?" Jeff asked Bill.
“Well, I hear that they arrive with a noise like a steam locomotive,” said Bill cheerfully, eyes twinkling. “Actually, I don’t know very much. And if one comes tonight, I don’t see what we could do, anyway.” We decided we could take shelter on the opposite side of the bleachers if the winds got too rough. If a tornado came through, though, nothing much would help.
We fell silent again, and watched the sky. The air was stifling hot and still, like a wet warm towel was pressing in all around. At the first few drops of rain, the kitten and I retreated to my tent. It was even hotter in there.
Then, without much warning, the temperature dropped at least ten degrees. And with a whoosh of wind and a crack of thunder, the storm struck. The wind lifted the bottom of my tent, and I braced it with my body. I lay against the right side, and put my left foot on the roof.
SMACK! The wind plastered the fly against the tent and the rain began to pound.
FLASH! The lightning lit up everything with its powerful light.
CRASH! RUMBLE! BANG!!!
“Mew! Mew! Meow!” The thunder woke up the cat, who burrowed its head into my chest.
And there we were, the cat and I, in my tiny tent in an incredible storm. The temperature dropped another ten degrees, and for a while I was on sensory overload. The thunder and lightning didn’t pause for a second, and my body was rigid as I tried to keep my tent from being blown away. Once, I dimly heard the others shouting to each other, but I couldn’t hear well. And so Cat and I tried to reassure each other that there was nothing to worry about.
I didn't fall asleep for a long time. The storm abated and started again, and from inside, it seemed like the sky was exploding. I tried not to think about tornadoes, and the little bundle of fur at my head kept me comforted.
The kitten rode with us for three days, and continued to be perfectly annoying while traveling via handlebar bag, and perfectly adorable when it curled up in someone's lap at camp. Abbey liked the name "Cycle Vera." Jeff liked "Turtle." But since we couldn't figure out the cat's gender, it remained The Kitten until we arrived in Rush Center, Kansas.
I'd written to the Peach Family back last winter, and they'd offered to host me and "any companions" on my way across Kansas. And after a hot, dusty day of bumpy roads, five cyclists and a kitten pulled into the Peaches' driveway outside Rush Center and saw paradise in the form of a wading pool on the green lawn under real, live, maple trees.
Don and Susan Peach treated us more like visiting friends than the hot, smelly strangers that we were. Elliot and Clark, 8-year-old twins, and Nolan, 1 1/2, wanted to know all about our bikes. "Feel free to use the shower or go in the wading pool," Susan told us. "And we've got plenty of ice water."
Besides giving us the use of their showers and pool, the Peaches set up beds in their family room for us and gave us Real Pillows. And they made enough dinner for everybody, including the cat.
Back in Missouri, when Jeff and Wyeth and I had stayed with the Wallen family, they had cooked for us too. "I wish I could make your family a meal," I'd said to Linda Wallen, "but all I have is some pasta and peanut butter!"
"Don't worry," Linda had answered. "I cook for you, then you'll cook for someone else, and some day people will cook for me. It all goes around, you know."
*I've got a lot of cooking to do,* I'd thought then. After the Peaches' kindness, I figured my debt was growing.