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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Nebraska and the Kansas State Fair

Before I’d even started my trip, I had images in my head of riding down from the mountains of Colorado and spending the next week criss-crossing a patchwork countryside of tall golden cornfields and sparse pasture lands with romantically hazy sunsets at my back and surrounded by a pleasant late summer warmth. The reality fell far short of those expectations.

Northeastern Colorado flattened out quickly and the air thickened to the point where I could hardly breathe without having to clear my throat. It was some kind of mixture of cow shit and dust that stung the eyes and lingered in the nostrils. The road cut past enormous cattle farms and stockyards with their plumes of stench so powerful as to make you gag. The rest of the land was wide open commercial farmland with nothing left in the fields but the stubble of cut stalks left behind from the harvest.

With nothing to stop it, the wind became a powerful force. It swept across hundreds of uninterrupted miles of dirt and picked up the dusty remnants of the harvest before slamming into me as I made my way east into Nebraska. Somehow the upper level winds were driving the storm I’d dodged in the mountains eastward towards me while the lower level winds roared directly into my face.

Back in early August, when I crossed the plains of North Dakota with a strong headwind, I had looked forward to when I’d be on my return trip across the country and traveling in the same direction as that powerful force of nature. Yet it seemed that no matter where I went this time, I just couldn’t get a tailwind. Instead, I was stuck fighting to keep the bike upright amidst powerful gusts from the side and cursing the rattling roar as my helmet was buffeted by the turbulence of it all.

I rode to the town of North Platte, NE, where one of my friends had grown up and which seemed like as good a place as any to make a destination of. As with many of the small towns I’d passed, this one was a hub of grain elevators and railroad tracks with clusters of quiet buildings huddled along the main street. It felt pretty lifeless on a Tuesday night and so I moved on in search of a place to make camp.

There had been parts of the day’s ride where I don’t think I saw a tree for 100 miles at a time. Luckily, North Platte had some small forests and lakes in the vicinity and I set up the hammock in a state park. I knew I would be racing the storms again the following morning so I set the alarm early and turned in. As the storms approached in the night, the winds got gusty and, if you’ve ever tried sleeping in a hammock with a healthy crosswind, you know how futile that effort is. I woke up in a poor state of mind.

I hit the road under a sickly gray sky that threatened to pour constantly but never actually opened up. I could see the gray sheets of rain falling in slow motion to the west, though, so I put my head down and fought to put some distance behind me on what was to be a 560-mile marathon of a day. The early scenery as I headed south in to Kansas was little more than functional, a mix of more dirt fields and country roads with the occasional mercy of an ever-so-slight hill. And, of course, constant head- and cross-winds.

Aside from the wind, one of the most consistent factors of my midwest experience were the oversize load convoys bearing enormous wind turbine blades. I passed several each day, probably making their way north towards the wind power bonanza of the Northwest. The scale of those contoured white blades, which spanned the length of multiple ordinary semi trucks, was darn impressive.

Finally, around midday, the sky cleared up enough in places for the sun to almost poke through. As I headed further into Kansas, the dusty fields of the previous day were occasionally interspersed with green meadows and divided by small patches of trees.

Most surprisingly, though, were the oil wells that began to pop up in the middle of the fields. Having traveled from Texas, I was no stranger to seeing the silhouette of one of those mechanical dinosaurs rising from a lonely patch of ground in the middle of nowhere. I just can’t say I ever expected to find them in the middle of Kansas corn fields. It got to the point, though, where I became convinced that oil and not agriculture was the main factor of production in the state. After a while, nearly every field I passed had two or three giant holding tanks at its edge and a pumpjack working away, encircled completely by the brown stalks of harvested crops. I passed more tanker trucks on the road than tractors or trailers or other farming implements. That dusty harvest smell became interspersed with the sickly sweet scents of oil and refining.

I passed hundreds of these fields before finally rolling into Hutchinson, KS, with an unreasonable level of excitement about seeing the Kansas State Fair. I’d never (in memory) visited a state fair and couldn’t resist the chance to see a patch of pure americana like that. I happily paid my $10 and headed for the Ferris Wheel.

The state fair both impressed and disappointed me. I was a bit disappointed to find the rides to be little more than what you might find at any traveling carnival and the food to be more of the same. I was also expecting to see all the prize winning livestock and giant pumpkins and tractor pull competitions all laid out before me and that, of course, wasn’t the case. I’m not sure where the livestock portion was but I didn’t see it.

There was a hall filled with all the best quilts, crafts, jarred fruit, wines and baked goods that Kansas had to offer but none of it was for sampling.

I *was* impressed with the spread of farm equipment, RVs and military machinery that occupied the back section of the fairgrounds. I also enjoyed walking through the 4H hall and getting a sense of midwestern life from their sampling of photographs and dioramas. My cynical side really enjoyed walking through the Hall of Hucksters (my name, not theirs) and getting pitched on everything from bracelets to help regulate my mood to incence to cure my arthritis. Everything was total snake oil but at least the hall smelled amazing from all the different remedies burning and seeping within.

It didn’t take long before I’d pretty much seen it all and I decided to push all the way east to Kansas City. I wasn’t due there until the following evening but none of the campsites in between had enough trees to hang my hammock. The downside of that long evening ride is that I missed out on seeing some of the countryside, but I did occasionally get a whiff of ripe manure and I could sense an increase in the number of trees as I neared Kansas City and located their finest (cheapest) motel.

I lived in Kansas City for a couple years back in the early 90’s when Real McCoy was topping the charts and Magic cards were all the rage. I spent a dismally rainy Thursday riding around to see my old house, school, and neighborhood. Kansas City, “City of Fountains”, has plenty of good character within it despite suffering heavily alongside the rest of the country in the Great Recession.

The cold rain continued into Friday morning, when I woke up before dawn to catch a flight to Washington DC for a cousin’s wedding. One thing about being on the road is that it really makes you appreciate the value of friends and family. I haven’t looked forward to a family reunion like that in a long time and it was great to take a brief respite from my travels to see everyone once again.