The voyage of Rick Gunn: Cycling among the people of the south wind

Photo by Rick Gunn A sign signals the beast. In his two-year trek across the world, Rick Gunn was confronted with the beastly winds of Kansas.

Photo by Rick Gunn A sign signals the beast. In his two-year trek across the world, Rick Gunn was confronted with the beastly winds of Kansas.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles submitted by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn, who is riding his bike around the world to raise awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Over the next two years, he will be chronicling his journey across the globe.

There was something out there. I wasn't sure what it was, but it was there. I pulled to a stop and wiped the sweat from my head. I scanned the long, straight, impossible sameness of the open plain surrounding me. In the distance, a farmer kicked a whirl of dust that circled around his boots like a beloved pet.

The two were inseparable. The people and the wind.

This was Kansas - the Lakota word for "people of the south wind."

"We're almost there, " I gasped to my co-rider Alex Calvert, who I had met a day earlier.

We pulled into Garden City and up the driveway of a house that a fellow traveler had recommended along the way. It was the home of Kansas bike shop owner Randy Bartel and Karen Borgstedt.

For the better part of the evening Randy and Karen fed us, showed us around town, tended to our bikes and entertained us with stories of Kansas.

"We have no real hills; the wind is our hill training here," Randy said. The wind hills must have been great, because the two were both state cycling champions.

The topic turned to the people of Kansas. Nearly everyone smiled, waved or, more often than not, stopped and took the time to say hello.

"I think its about population density," Randy said. "Here, the heart of the wide-open spaces are reflected in the hearts of people," he said.

The next morning I said my goodbyes and set off solo, pointing my handlebars south toward Dodge City. A steady, 20 mph headwind emerged like the head of a gargoyle, casting me into a spell of slow motion. Slowing to a average speed of 3 mph, I watched my life drip by.

I struggled against the beast for hours, encrusted in layers of salt and sweat until I stumbled into to small café near the town of Bucklin. When I entered the room, all eyes turned. There was something different about that room - and that something was me.

Shining like a neon light of Lycra in a sea of suspenders and plaid, I took a small booth and sipped coffee and tried to look nonchalant. A grizzled man with a John Deere hat and deep lines carved in his face stared from the booth next door.

"Where'd y'all cycle in from?" he asked as if I'd just landed from outer space. The room quieted and the occupants leaned there heads in like drooping sunflowers.

"San Francisco," I said quietly, hoping to shake the unwanted attention.

A buzz filled the room and the man's eyes lit up. He smiled and said, "Hell, I'd be dead by now!"

From there I traveled along a series of back roads, past never-ending fields of corn, soybeans, sorghum and sunflowers that danced in the wind. I passed breezily through the towns of Ford, Cunningham, Wichita, and Elk Falls to Baxter Springs. Eerily, these small towns have half of their businesses boarded up, as if farming technology had become so efficient that it simply replaced the people needed to farm the land.

The next day, tired and hungry, I pulled into a gas station offering a special on biscuits and gravy. A man who looked to be 200 years old stepped out of his car and fixed upon me with sparkling blue eyes.

"Where you headed, son?" he inquired, his back bent perpendicular as if he'd carried a 90-pound sack of cement all his life.

"I'm traveling around the world," I said to him.

His face donned a wild smile. "Whenever you get sick of pedaling that thing," he said, pointing to the gas price sign that read $2.61 a gallon, "just think of that - that'll keep you going."

As I looked back, a gust seemed to carry him away. I pedaled to the edge of the plains, to the flint hills just outside the Missouri border. The lyrics from a Bob Dylan song poured out of my headphones: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind."

I pulled to a stop and looked around.

If Dylan was right, then Kansas surely held the secrets of the universe.

Travel log

When: Aug. 6-12, 2005

Where: Kansas - Garden City, Dodge City, Ford, Cuningham, Wichita, Elk Falls, Baxter Springs

Mileage log: 1,954-2,401

Elevation: 700-2,500 feet

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