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Early morning in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri.

Biking With Bob: Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky

Editor’s Note: Longtime Oakhurst resident Bob Kaspar continues his epic ride across the United States from California, through Kansas and beyond, heading toward his hometown in Massachusetts.

From Wichita the route heads directly east on US Route 400 through the Flint Hills and later the Osage Hills of eastern Kansas, then into the Ozarks of southern Missouri and across the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at their confluence in Cairo, Illinois. Then I’m trending slightly northeast through the coal mining areas of Western Kentucky, the home of bluegrass music.

The highways and rest areas of Kansas are well-maintained, especially this one just east of Beaumont. There was a maintenance person on-site at all times who was clearly proud of his work.

The site itself is stunning, being located on a high bluff with a commanding view in all directions of the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills are characterized by a thin layer of soil over a solid layer of flint. They can’t be farmed because they can’t be plowed. They do however provide perfect grazing for cattle.

Sunset at the Beaumont rest area in Kansas.

The last 10 miles into Parsons, Kansas, the weather was a torrential downpour that included some marble sized hail. Upon entering town I was immediately able to take shelter and get the brisket plate with an extra side of onion rings in a great barbecue restaurant.

I generally despise selfies but I met Willie from Cologne Germany who was traveling east-to-west on the TransAmerica Route and he insisted we take one.

I’m not following any recognized route across the country although there are several.

In Missouri I followed a route called the TransAmerica for several hundred miles and met other cyclists who generally stick to the recognized routes.

I generally despise selfies but I met Willie from Cologne, Germany, who was traveling east-to-west on the TransAmerica Route and he insisted we take one.

 

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

All legs and at the center of attention, a three-day old Quarter Horse in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri.

A Lone Tree on the Ozark Plateau.

Often featured in the town square, monuments to veterans are found everywhere in the South and Central States. This one in Summersville, Missouri, consisted of rows of flags and granite monuments.  As is typical, the monuments and memorials are maintained in perfect condition.

I try to start out before daybreak. This was partially in an attempt to see an actual live Armadillo. No luck with that. However, it’s very humid in this area of the country and this humidity often results in a beautiful pre-dawn ground fog.

I arrived in Van Buren, Missouri, expecting to stop for lunch. However, as it turns out, the town was largely wiped out the week before in the floods. All the buildings were being gutted and the contents piled in the streets. The town lies on the current river whose previous record crest was 26 feet in 1904. The crest the week before was 47 feet. The residents seem to have pretty good humor about the whole thing.

Daybreak.

Flood-ravaged Van Buren, Missouri.

About 10 miles from the Mississippi River, a spectacular sunrise at Sikeston, Missouri.

This is the largest fireworks store I have ever seen.  The interior probably covered half an acre.

In the fireworks store there were signs everywhere that said, “No Smoking.”

The “Old Bridge” over the Mississippi River at Cairo Illinois.  This bridge has narrow lanes, absolutely no shoulder, and receives heavy truck traffic in both directions.  As trucks approached I would pull my bike to the side and climb up on the railing.  The trucks would then pass by about 18 inches away.

Even though the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers had receded slightly from flood stage, the volume of water was incredible. Each section of a coal barge measures about 50 by 150 feet. They are huge. Many of the barges had floated off into the trees and were anchored there.

As I was eating lunch at McDonald’s in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, this fellow Corky came over and simply sat down across from me and said, “I think I’ll talk to you for a while.”  

Reminiscent of my encounter with the nut guy in Alamosa, who had made a similar approach, I had some degree of trepidation that I was about to be yelled at,  jumped on, or that he simply may get down on all fours and start barking like a dog. 

However, as it turns out, Corky, 85, was a retired professor who, like me, was just generally interested in stuff. He had quite a bit to offer. He told me about the geographic regions of Kentucky, the role of the rivers in the settlement of Kentucky, and that Kentucky bluegrass is not a distinct species but is in fact simply common fescue grown in soil with a certain mineral content. 

He also opined that there are only two reasons to sit in the back of an airplane: 1) if you are air sick, or 2) if you are anxious to meet people who are air sick. We talked for about an hour. Completely restored my confidence in eccentrics.

I’m getting pretty good at fixing flat tires. I’ve had about 6 so far. Takes about 20 minutes. Passers-by generally comment “Have a flat tire?” To which I generally respond “No thanks, I already have one.”

In Kentucky I was pursued by a crazed pack of about six dogs.  I slowed down so that they could catch up and surround me. They did and I gave them affection individually and collectively. They were miniature Beagles. Soon they were off to their next project. I really love Beagles.

This statue, about five feet high, was by the side of the road on the grounds of a large estate. Since my GPS indicated that I was nowhere near Kathmandu, I have absolutely no idea what it is, why it is there, why it is looking over its shoulder, while it is holding an American flag, or what that pile of stuff is that it appears to be stepping over.

I can’t think of any way to be gentle about this except to not take pictures… and I didn’t.

The Midwest, starting about in Kansas, produces an astounding amount of biomass. I’m not talking about cattle or wheat, I’m talking about men, women and children. I have long heard that there is an obesity crisis in the country and, looking around Oakhurst, concluded that this was all just more media-driven hype. 

To be sure,  most of us could stand to lose a few pounds at one time or another. I’m 6’ 1” and weigh about 190 at the moment but I once weighed nearly 260. But, in the Midwest, there are huge numbers of individuals whose weight is so massive that I can’t even estimate it accurately. 400, 500, 600 pounds seems to be commonplace. It would be unusual to go into a restaurant without seeing several, if not many, people of this weight. 

I was at a truck stop near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, when a pickup pulled in. The passenger door opened and out plopped about young teen boy who was about 5′ 4″ and weighed maybe 300 pounds. How does a fourteen-year-old end up weighing 300 pounds? The driver’s door opened and out plopped either the mother or the father who weighed maybe 400 to 500 pounds.  

Lunchless in flood-ravaged Van Buren, Missouri.

On another occasion I was in line at McDonald’s and the line, it seemed to me, was taking too long. I stood aside and looked up front to see what was going on. The girl taking the orders was maybe 18 years old and weighed about 400 pounds. She was sobbing and explaining to her supervisor that her medications for her back pain were not working. Her supervisor was totally unsympathetic and having none of it. Her supervisor was heavier than she was.

Stuff like this really depresses me and I feel badly for these people and can only speculate as to the circumstances of life that would bring a person to this situation. I’m not a big fan of governmental  involvement in enforcing every social norm, but I would listen to an argument that allowing your child to end up weighing 400 pounds constitutes de facto child abuse. And I would tell these people what they probably have already noticed: that there are old people and there are morbidly obese people but there are no old morbidly obese people.

Meanwhile, it turns out Dunkin’ Donuts is the Starbucks of the East. 

They are everywhere and I’ve recently discovered jelly doughnuts. I’ve also learned to not stand outside admiring a line of Harley Davidsons and bite into the donut on the side opposite the jelly injection hole because it will then become a jelly ejection hole and jelly can squirt out and on to whatever (um… motorcycle) is in front of you. The biker guys don’t like that.  Nope, not at all.  Not even one little bit.

I guess I’ve become something of a connoisseur of convenience store cuisine. There seems to be no limit to what you can dip in batter and then fry in 350-degree oil for five minutes. At odd moments when it’s quiet in the eating section I think I can almost hear arteries slamming shut. Near Rosine, Kentucky, I asked the counter person what the oblong shaped food was. In a thick southern drawl he said, “Deep fried pickles. Y’all ain’t’ from around here, are ya?” He appeared to be of East Indian descent, BTW.

From Lexington, Kentucky, the route trends northeast into and through West Virginia and then head first into Virginia where it takes a left turn and heads north through the historic Shenandoah Valley, where many are still fighting the Civil War. To Gettysburg. Until we meet again.

Often, when I would stop to look at cattle, the would gather at the fence to look back at me. Sometimes there would be hundreds . When I would then continue down the road they would all stampede along the fence beside me and keep pace with me for a mile or two. I am not sure why they do this but it was very cool.

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