Loving Kansas - The TransAmerica Bicycle Trail

For miles and miles, I pedaled between the flat golden land and the blue dome of the sky.  I entertained myself with dodging grasshoppers and naming the shades of blue.  The hues were endless, starting in hazy pastels at the horizon and transitioning to vivid cobalt above my head.  With my face tilted upwards, I spent hours pondering exactly which place in the sky deserved the term “robin’s egg blue”.

 A sketch I drew, remembering Kansas...

A sketch I drew, remembering Kansas...

It was the last week of September in 2011, and I was nearing the halfway mark of my bicycle tour across the United States.  In the end, my trip would take me over 5,000 miles from Oregon to Florida.  But I didn't know that yet. I only knew that I'd made it to Kansas, which may as well have been Mars.

I’d grown up in the dark, damp, and somewhat claustrophobic rainforest of Southern Alaska.  Tall trees and close mountains had always framed my view. In Kansas, that frame was gone.  I could see the whole world in one glance.  It was liberating.

That afternoon, I waved down two fellow cyclists touring in the opposite direction. They were a young couple, tan and beautiful enough to be the supermodels of bicycle touring. They’d started their journey in Virginia months ago but had recently bought pinwheels and radios which they'd duct-taped to their handlebars. The young man gestured to his oddly-decorated bicycle, “We had to do something. Kansas is so boring”.  

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Their pinwheels fluttered and spun brilliantly in the wind, flashing colors as the cheap plastic circles zipped round and round. The radios crackled some indistinguishable music. I laughed, congratulating them on their cure for Kansas’ monotony.

But Kansas and I were getting along fine.

Her landscape wasn’t like the dramatic Wallowa mountains in Oregon, or the vividly-painted canyons of Wyoming, or the Rockies in Colorado. Those places practically smacked me across the face, demanding my attention. They distracted me, which was great for forgetting sore feet and loved ones left behind.  But Kansas offered no such obvious distractions. I could’ve given up and bought a cheap radio, but instead I leaned in, looking closer.

Her subtle magic turned the ordinary into the magnificent.  I was moved to photograph the wildflowers growing by the side of the road, a tractor gleaming against its field of corn, and a tiny bird on a telephone wire.  None of these things were rare or special, but Kansas made them so.

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That night I burrowed my feet into the dry grass of my campsite, watching a billowing cloud of birds descend into the trees at the edge of the park. The pastel hues of sunset were fading from the sky behind them, and air was thick with their piercing cries. The thousands of chirps and screams became one sound, like a fire alarm, pulsing and shrill.  I hugged my knees to my chest, watching as more winged silhouettes swarmed towards the trees. They alighted in the branches for the night, melting into the tangled darkness of the limbs and leaves.

I felt like I ought to get out my cell phone and call my boyfriend. Or my parents.  But they lived in a world that was far, far away from Kansas, and sometimes the distance felt too vast to cross with a puny phone call.   That night I didn’t want to add my own telephone squawking to the din of bird-song. I just wanted to listen. To Kansas.

Read more about Olivia Round's bicycle travels across the United States on her blog.