A day filled with conversations, wonder and appreciation

Here’s a small list of just a few of the amazing things that happened today on BAK between Oberlin and Phillipsburg

  • I met a guy who rode in the first BAK, when he was 14, and has started riding again a few years ago.
  • I read a letter from another participant – a man who won’t let me “quote” him and has been doing BAK for 40 year – who said I had understood the “spirit” of cycling and this event.
  • The weather was, once again, nearly perfect. It was warm, but not too much. And just enough wind, and in the right direction.
  • Lunch in Norton. And touring its downtown.
  • Hills. I might not like them by the time this is done, but I liked them today.
  • Getting schooled on speed by “Hot Rod” who egged me on to ride a little faster and left my quads in shreds.
  • Great conversations – on and off the bike. Even on the phone for a few minutes with friends and family.
  • Dinner and drinks with a fun group of people after a long day of biking.

That’s the quick version. Here’s the extended cut.

Breakfast 

At breakfast, I met Mark Winkelman, who as a 14-year-old member of the Topeka cycling club, rode the inaugural BAK in 1975. In that first year, he said, there were about 75 people. Today, there’s upwards of 800. He rode in the event until 1978. Winkelman, who now lives in Plano, Texas said the event was done as a test for the TransAmerica trail, a coast to coast bicycle trail that runs through Kansas. He began riding BAK again on the 40th anniversary  – the year of the legendary Ellinwood storm. As we’re talking, he scans through his phone and hands it to me.

“Here’s the picture they ran of me on the front page of the Hutchinson News,” he said. I explained that is where I work, and that I was writing about BAK, the experiences and some of the people I meet.

It’s pretty amazing to think that of all the people I could’ve ended up eating breakfast with, I sat down with the one guy who was in my paper on that first year – and who might very well end up in it again. It really is a very small world sometimes.

Mark Winkelman, at breakfast
Mark Winkelman, at breakfast

 

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The letter

I can’t say too much about the letter. A promise of privacy prevents that. But I will say that is was one of the most thoughtful, kind and meaningful letters I’ve ever received. I hope he sees this so he’ll know that. And if not, I hope to write a response that is likewise thoughtful. But it’s a really special feeling told you’re appreciated and understood by someone who has no obligation to do so. Thank you.

The weather (and scenery)

This was the second in a row of 70 mile days, which should leave me feeling tired and worn. But it’s done just the opposite. This country – lush and green hills – is hard to explain. And even though I’m trying to take pictures, its not doing it justice. There’s a scent in the air of freshness, liveliness, and each rise over another hill offers another unique view. And this weather! We have sunshine, with few clouds. The wind is soft and largely at our backs. The heat, when it does come, isn’t oppressive. It really is just right. I know there’s liable to be a day where the weather isn’t so great, but so far we’ve been blessed.

There are times when I’m riding this route, when I just look around and feel, I don’t know, maybe fulfilled. If you think about it, there’s an entire series of things that have to happen to make this possible. The road has to be here, and the weather has to fall a certain way. People have to get time off, and have the financial and physical means to make it across the state. All these things come together for this event and make it what it is. And it’s also made what it is by the people you share it with, the interactions that take place and the time spent getting to know one another. It really is a remarkable thing to consider.

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This felt like a canyon riding through, so we wanted to see what it was. It’s dirt, but it looked cool.

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Time is so much slower on a bike, and that’s one of the things I really enjoy. I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere, so I take the time to see what’s around me. When I’m in a car, it’s utilitarian; I’m just getting from point A to B, and everything that happens in between is just lost. There’s a video I like to watch sometimes that talks about how we should approach life more like a concert – something to be enjoyed for its entirety, not something that comes to an end.

That’s sort of how I see BAK. Sure, there’s a goal, and to reach that ultimate goal, we have daily goals that have to be met. But the real beauty is in enjoying the ride – the whole ride, not just the part where you get to where you’re going. On this, I’m able to enjoy everything in between – even the flat tire I got a mile outside of Norton. I had what I needed to change it, and it didn’t take very long. While I was changing it, maybe a dozen people asked if they could help. Then I was back on my way, and soon enjoying my lunch.

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Norton (and Phillipsburg)

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 OK, I know I go on about these towns along the way but it’s really worth talking about over and over again. To a town – from St. Francis to Phillipsburg (so far) we’ve been treated great by the local residents. The school, civic an church groups that work to provide us with food, shelter and fun deserve a great amount of credit.

Norton routed us to the local armory building, where we had a lot of dining options – hamburgers, spaghetti, yogurt, loaded baked potatoes and more. And also homemade pie. I went for the baked potato and it didn’t disappoint. But the main thing that came out of lunch was a new term – Safety Pie.

As Kimberly and I were discussing whether it was a good idea to get a piece of pie, we worked it out in our minds something like this, that pie wasn’t just something we should get, it was something we needed.

“We can afford to eat a piece of pie. We’re burning a lot of calories today.”

“Yeah, and there are lot of hills coming up. We’re going to need some extra energy.”

“True. And pie will be like a sort of reserve tank of energy, that we’ll be able to tap into when we need it and we’ve spent all the energy from this lunch.”

“It’s safety pie. It’ll keep us safe from running out of gas for the rest of the day.”

So, we both settled on pecan as a good bet for safety pie.

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Before heading out, we decided to explore Norton a bit. We found several old gas stations that were really interesting, a couple of cool houses and a nice little park.

We also found this tall building in the middle of town.

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I really wanted to know what it was, so I rode around until I found a local resident who could tell me. Turns out it’s a tower for the bank, which sends out from the tower the information about the day’s transactions.

Phillipsburg also did us right. There was a bus that took us back and forth from downtown and the school where we camped. There was a great selection of food at the city square, and a nice downtown to keep us busy for the evening.

Hills and Hot Rodding

I’ve talked about the hills some already, but they really are grand. Not the steep agonizing sort of hills, but they don’t end up here. It’s just one after another. Yet throughout the day, I found that I enjoyed them. It’s a struggle to get up some of them, but then there’s the top, and the view to the next series of hills that stretch out on the horizon. And there’s the downhill, and those are always fun.

On one of those hills, another man in our group nicknamed “Hot Rod” pulled up alongside me. Then, a man much younger than either of us, blew past us. Rod looked over at me and said, “That kid shouldn’t have passed us like that. Let’s go.”

Next thing I know, I’m trailing Rod at a clip far faster than I commonly ride. We passed the guy who had passed us, and few other people, and kept the pace up for a good while. It was a challenge, and by the time we slowed down, I could feel my quadriceps burning from exertion. But it was fun to spend some time today being challenged to ride a little faster and put some hard work into the ride.

Conversations

Sometimes those conversations are about our families, friends and events in our lives. Sometimes it’s about what we’re experiencing right now, or something we saw in the last town, or hope to see in the next. Sometimes, we talk about world affairs, the nature of people, or the parts of our lives that give us pause, frustrate us, make us smile or feel incredibly grateful.

But not one has been bad.

The people who ride BAK, by and large, are friendly and open. At least in this environment. I was told last year that BAK is like summer camp for adults. And it is. We are all sharing this common experience – different people from different walks of life who come together for a shared purpose.

And I don’t want to get too into the weeds here, but there’s something to this. On this trip there are people who politically, religiously, and ideologically are different than me. But we all get along. Even though this adventure allows me to escape the daily worry about the state of affairs in our state, country or world, my mind still drifts there – but with the context of this trip, and these people. There is much anger, fear and hatred in this world, and, frankly, if it can’t be stopped it at least needs too be muted somewhat. And there’s no reason we can’t do that. There’s no reason we have to define ourselves and other people by the ways in which we disagree with them, or the ways in which we are right and they are wrong. There’s is commonality among us. If nothing else, we’re all human, and that’s something. But I think without too much effort, we could step back and find the things we share in common and begin the conversation there.

And if that doesn’t work, give everyone a bike. Because that seems to work pretty well.

Dinner was a fantastic affair – 13 of us all seated together laughing, sharing food and drinks, telling stories and laughing. Just enjoying this day, and this moment with others who shared in it  in one way or another. It was a good way to end the day, and to prep for what I expect will be another magical day tomorrow – a roughly 61 mile ride to Mankato.

One last thought

There are a few people who rode with us last year that can’t be here this year. And I want them to know that we’re missing them. We miss their smiles, their laughter and their presence. Harlen and Frita – your names came up a lot today. We’ve eaten a lot of good food, and seen a good number of merry-go-rounds. We know you’d have enjoyed both, and we hope you can make it again next year.

We miss you Frita and Harlen!
We miss you Frita and Harlen!

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