by Sara Dykman
It feels almost religious as I crawl along the shoulder of the road. I am bent over the handlebars, like a follower praying to the wind and the road. I tuck into my bike, trying to make myself more invisible to the wind, and it feels like I am on a pilgrimage to some distant horizon at a sorry speed of six mph. With four miles to town I can see the first sign of a city in the distance: the water tower. It’s nothing more than a lollipop stuck into the range land of this high desert country, but that lollipop points to the wind breaks of buildings and a break from the oppressive desert squalls. Water tower in sight, I do what I have been doing for the last 10 days: I keep my head down and plow ahead.
Wind is air moving from high to low pressure. Terrain, the rotation of the earth, heat from the sun; they all change the intensity and direction of the wind. None of that matters when the winds are so strong you must struggle to bike DOWN a hill. I don’t accept the wind though I know that the prevailing winds go from west to east and that it is spring so the winds are even more intense. No, I don’t accept the wind; I bike with my head down resenting the wind, dreaming of the next wind break.
After two days of slogging through the wind on our westward advancement to the Rocky Mountains it was obvious from both pace and moral that a new strategy was in order. It is true, no one said it was going to be easy, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t try.
The first strategy was to bike when the wind was calmest. This meant biking early in the morning and late in the evening, leaving us to wait out the worst of the afternoon winds somewhere on the open road. This new strategy brought us to a lonely house on a long stretch of road lined mostly with prairie, winter wheat, cow pastures, and oil fields. After explaining our situation to the woman that greeted us in the driveway, we were invited to relax in the yard. Under the shade of a tree, blocked from the wind by the house, five kids stared at us from the windows. It was obvious why we had an audience: we were adults, on bikes, picnicking in their lawn, somewhere in the panhandle of Texas. It turns out we picked the right house for such an unusual request. The kids greeted us with lemonade and ice, we were invited in for showers, and we got full use of the kitchen to cook our vegetable curry.
Two meals and a shower later, the sun was setting and the winds were calming. We took off towards California, with little wind and a beautiful view of red sky broken by silhouettes of power lines, oil wells, and neglected homes half swallowed into the plains. And though we managed to get a full day of riding in, we knew that we needed a new strategy. It is, after all, harder than you think to spend a day waiting out the wind. You never really rest. It is more like sitting in a waiting room waiting for your name to be called. And so we concocted our next plan.
ur newest strategy, inspired by the wind and yesterdays affair, began early in the morning. The plan was to bike as many miles as possible before the worst of the afternoon winds. Our morning and early afternoon was devoted to biking with a quick lunch on the side of the road. Lounging was cut from our typical lunch time routine and we settled on stuffing ourselves with PB&Js, crackers, and carrots. The winds were building, and it almost felt like it was yelling “eat faster, I’m coooommmmminnnnnnnggggggggg…”
The wind was coming and we were still 25 miles from the next town, Sunray, TX. The miles to Sunray were spent biking in a formation similar to flying geese. The person in the front absorbed the shock of the pounding wind, allowing the followers a chance to rest. After a time, the person in the front would move to the back, allowing a new person to be the hero and keep us going. There was no shoulder on the road, and though there was little traffic, it would become necessary to break the formation and loose the wind break when a car needed to pass. We were rag dolls, waving in the wind, watching for Sunray, TX.
Before Sunray we pass plastic bags entangled in barbed wire fences struggling, flapping to be free. I gage the direction of the wind and the intensity by looking for clues. I note the wind on my skin, feeling the current of air trespassing through the weave of my worn-out jacket. I watch the trees and the grasses. I look for flags. I never miss a flag. It is programmed into me to watch where the flags fly, where plastic bags flap.
Sunray was everything we hoped it would be. Buildings blocked the wind and some of the buildings were full of ice cream we could feast on. The five of us downed 10 twin pops and 10 ice cream sandwiches before we were human again. We had made it to Sunray, but none of us had enjoyed getting there. It was time for yet another strategy.
Our next strategy was more a product of circumstance than calculation. It started the day we arrived in Sunray and were directed to a sizable windbreak: the Methodist church. The church was made of brick, and seemed solid enough to withstand the wind. The picnic tables, on the north side of the building, were spared from the worst of the wind, and so we waited. As we sat reading, dust collected in the seams of our books, and coated our skin and clothes. We watched dark clouds of dust and smoke circle the town, and filter through the buildings to our picnic table.
The wind carries what it can. It picks up top soil from the freshly plowed fields and delivers the dirt miles away. It circulates pollution, smoke, pollen, and seeds, anything light enough and not tied down. The wind doesn’t choose what to push down or take away; it pushes what it can and carries what it will. Today in the panhandle it was carrying dirt, smoke, trash, pollen, and our desire to bike through town and far away.
Back at the church, evening came, the winds were still strong, and kids started showing up at the church for movie night. By the time the stars were out we were eating popcorn, watching Toy Story Three, and planning to spend the night at the church. The winds never died down that night.
The next morning the gusts were still ravenous and we were in no hurry to confront another head wind. We opted for church. I could digress with tails of our first church service of the trip or my opinions of religion, but at last this is a blog about the wind. After church we attended a fundraiser barbeque and auction, where a crème pie went for $210. We returned home, to our swath of land next to the church, had diner, and packed our bags. This was our third strategy: wait out the day in town and bike at night.
We have not done many night rides on this trip. It is one of my favorite times to bike. Cars, with their bright lights and loud engines stand out in the quiet of night and this makes me feel safer. I can hear and see the cars coming long before they pass. Night riding also feels faster than during the day. Your sense of perspective is skewed and it almost feels like floating. Lights from distant farm equipment blink on the horizon. Because it is so flat, the blinking lights form a 360 degree ring around us that mimic the stars not lost in the moons glow.
I could continue with more and more of our strategies to cope with the wind, but they are really all versions of the same. We ride the most when the winds are bearable. When the winds make us want to scream we trudge along until an acceptable wind break lets us rest. We find wind breaks behind buildings, in libraries, and roadside diners. Of course finding the wind break is only half of it, the other half of the time is deciding what to do. We read, we wait, and we ask each other what to do.
“what do you want to do?”
“I don’t care. What do you want to do?”
“should we ride?”
“I don’t care, do you want to ride?”
It goes on and on like this, us indecisively determining our blustery fate. And when we finally ride, when the others look like nothing more than a dark blemish on the road, I have conversations with myself.
“What are you doing out here sara?”
“This is not fun, biking is just not fun”
“I hate the wind”
Head down I see only what the next few feet of pavement has to offer. I look up to see the approaching mountains we have been dreaming about for so long. I look up to see pronghorn, elk, deer, scissor-tailed flycatchers, cows, meadowlarks, and the layers of distant mesas, but only for a bit. Then my head goes back down to watch my wheel.
It sounds depressing, and maybe it is just that we have not taken a break in awhile so my body is tired and my motivation is deflated. I have taken up the habit of turning on my ipod and listening to This American Life, one hour-long episode after another. It is a great distraction from the wind and gives my mind something new to think about.
I can’t really compare the last two weeks of biking to a pilgrimage. For starters, I don’t consider Nevada (our 49th state) as the promise land, and the glimmering lights of Las Vegas are certainly not shrines. It also seems to me that on a true pilgrimage you couldn’t escape the worst winds by having pancakes in a diner, reading books at the library, or drinking lemonade in the windbreak of a house. No, these last windy weeks have tested us, but we are not pilgrims. We are just bikers, blowing in the wind, trying to make it to the next wind break.