I slept pretty well at Methodist Cove outside Alma and woke up to dozens of insects on the tent, making me happy I opted against the hammock that night. I was a few miles from the Kansas border, but not close enough. I could feel that I was entering into something better in the next state to the south but I had no idea how right I would be.
I crossed a bridge over Harlan County Lake:
And passed my last Nebraskan farm:
Before making it to the state line.
I hadn’t passed a state welcome sign since Ohio (I think?), and even though I’ve said it before, this one was the best. Evil Nebraska was behind me, I was a couple days from my next milestone stop in Goodland, and just a few more from Colorado, a state that has become mythical in my touring mind. I started dancing right there on the side of the road in celebration without the slightest care in the world. Just joy and childlike excitement.
No shame. None.
I cruised west on state route 383, huffing and puffing through my smile. I was having a blast.
In the distance I saw wheat fields, and this was more cause for celebration. One of the best parts of a cross country tour is seeing how the landscape changes gradually through different geographic regions over many days. I still remember it from my cross-country driving trips in 2011 and 2012, but on a bicycle the depth of the experience is visceral, powerful, and at times overwhelming in the best of ways. There’s really no way to get it other than to do it.
While Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas all certainly have their own flavors, I’ve been riding through corn for literally weeks. The day riding into Norton was the first where wheat began to dominate and I would break often to marvel at it in true appreciation. Being on the road for as long as I have been has really shifted my perspective on the agricultural landscape. In a car you can zone out and you’ll be through the agricultural parts of the country pretty quick. Not possible on the bike. You get consumed by the landscape. You’re a part of it and it doesn’t wash off easily.
Down the road there was Long Island:
Which was neither long nor an island.
Sometimes all it takes for me to stop is a cool looking dead tree surrounded by not much else.
I made it to Almena (population 408) around lunchtime and grabbed a seat in front of the grocery store to fuel up:
Something strange started to happen: people would walk or drive up, pass me, smile ear to ear, and say “hi”. Some would even talk to me about the weather. I was befuddled. It really threw me off guard. Why were people being so friendly to me? Because I was in Kansas! It was like night and day immediately compared to their northern counterparts. I just kept smiling, baking in the sun. It’s really incredible how far a little friendliness and decency goes. Say hi to strangers, people. You just might make their day.
Leaving town I saw a bit of foreshadowing for my destination that night outside of Norton:
Each pedal stroke brought more evidence of the shifting landscape. I was climbing in elevation on either false flats or gradual uphills, slowly but surely. The air started to feel drier, ever so slightly.
Coming into Norton I passed I think my third prison since New York.
And then further down a sign telling me US-36 was the fastest between Indianapolis and Denver.
Indianapolis being only 90 minutes in a car from Cincinnati made me think about how far I’d come. A lot of days it doesn’t cross my mind. I just get on the bike and go. But I’ve come so far, and little things that make me realize it are always welcome.
I stopped at the grocery store in Norton to get some things, then headed for Prairie Dog State Park where I’d camp for the night.
I made it down to the primitive campground area but I wasn’t ready to put up the tent. The temperatures were hovering around 100 and the wind was fierce and erratic. I opted to just hang out at a picnic shelter, charge my battery pack, and stretch out right on top of a picnic table. I actually ended up taking a bit of a nap, which surprised me.
I woke up hot and uncomfortable. I really just wanted something cold to drink before getting ready to wind down for good. I got back on the bike to ride over to where the RVs were to ask about a vending machine or something. I meandered through the park’s roads and stopped to check out the lake:
At the RV park I sought out the campground host to ask about something cold. There was a big group of people all talking and laughing, having themselves a good Friday night in the Prairie. They immediately invited me to join them, and I was thrilled. I was offered a zero gravity recliner (I LOVE these) and a cold Mountain Dew. I was beside myself and felt very lucky to get some good conversation. My gracious company were the campground hosts the Baileys, their family, and their friends the Millers. I had a wonderful evening with them all. They learned about bicycle travel and I learned even more about the RV life, something that’s had me curious since I started riding and staying at campgrounds. I have to admit, I get the appeal. I’ll never trade in the bike though.
I wish I got a picture of all of us together (I’m way too bad at getting pictures of the new friends I make on the road. Gotta fix that), but Colin snapped one of me kicking back that highlights all the sun I’ve gotten, my reverse raccoon appearance because of the sunglasses I basically never take off, and my overgrown beard:
As the sun was setting Vicki invited me to sleep in their super comfy swing with reclining chairs, and oh did I. I was so happy to be around friendly people and out of Nebraska. The good times continued the next day, but just like every day, I had curveballs thrown at me that kept me on my toes…
PS: I’ve bad mouthed Nebraska quite a bit, and without regret. The riding was just as brutal as the people. But I never forgot Cathy and Roger’s incredible hospitality and kindness in Omaha through all of it. There’s always an exception to a rule, and the Carrolls in Omaha are definitely that when it comes to welcoming smelly, crazy cyclists in Nebraska. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it as I leave that state behind me.