Garrett (garote) wrote,

Day 24 - Rantoul to Fowler

The Amtrak station turned out to be a bench inside a booth with no actual employees around. A schedule posted on the back of the booth listed two trains that stopped at the station only a few times each week, and the latest train had rolled past at 10:00am while I was still packing my things up at the motel. No train service for me. Might as well ride on, despite my complaining legs.

I ate at a run-down diner and got the usual amount of attention and the usual questions from the half-dozen customers and staff. The waitress brought me an omelet that covered my entire plate and was bursting with veggies, and between that and the hash browns I had to ask for a to-go container. While I ate I amused myself with a theatrical radio performance of "At The Mountains Of Madness". So many books and radio shows, so little time and attention!

The wind was blowing from the south, which didn't help me when I rode east but made riding north a breeze. (Pun intended!) I zig-zagged my way northeast towards the state border, thinking about the wind. It wasn't blowing against me when I rode east, but it still seemed to make forward progress harder. Why was that? If I thought about it just in terms of mathematical vectors it didn't make sense. Was it just my perception?

The scenery drifted by for several hours as I chewed on the problem, and finally I came up with something that seemed to explain it. Basically, the wind was trying to push me over, and to compensate I leaned slightly to the side, into the wind, and converted some of that wind pressure into downward force onto the road, which increased my rolling resistance. So the only really favorable wind for a bicyclist is wind that comes from behind, and any other direction is actually unfavorable. Percentage-wise, that sucks!

I rolled up to a gas station that was hosting a charity fund-raiser of some kind, with parents and kids gathered around a sign-up table and talking about local schools -- I couldn't hear the details. I could feel dozens of eyeballs on me as I kickstanded the bike and went inside in search of junk food. One kid came up and nervously asked what kind of bike I was riding, and when I told him it was a recumbent he thanked me and scurried shyly away. Points to you, kid, for being brave!

With my mind no longer puzzling over windspeed and momentum, I decided to continue listening to "The Worst Hard Time". The last time I listened to this book was during a bicycle trip to Pinnacles National Monument, years ago, and I only got as far as the beginning of the crash, when everything started to go downhill. It felt appropriate to resume it now, since I was still passing through mostly farmland. The story it told was stunning, and brutal.

In the late 1910's, citizens were encouraged by the federal government to take part in a land-grab in western Texas, Oaklahoma, and other states, for purposes of farming. They broke up the soil of the Great Plains, ripped away the tall grass, and drilled wells for water. Some of those people were my ancestors, the Birkles, living in Shattuck, Oaklahoma. Life was difficult but they turned a profit through their crops and their cattle and found some happiness. Then the weather turned against them. And then the economy tanked.

As the 1930's began, the entirety of the Great Plains entered a period of relentless drought. No one expected it to last as long as it did. No one had kept any records to study. In retrospect it explained why the Great Plains was covered with grass and not forest: Grass could endure the cycles of drought, trees could not. But now the grass was all ripped away, leaving dry soil to bake in the sun - and get picked up by the wind. Enormous curtains of dust began to roll over the land with increasing frequency and severity.

It blanketed homesteads, turning day into night. Dust would seep in through tiny cracks around every window and door, and no amount of cleaning would remove it all. People would wake up in the morning with a clean white silhouette of their head on an otherwise black pillow.  They would get up and shovel drifts of dust off their doorsteps, then away from their windows to let in light. After big storms they would have to dig out their cattle. The dust was sharp and built up enormous charges of static electricity in anything made of metal. People tended to avoid shaking hands because they could potentially knock each other down with the discharge. Gardens that weren't simply torn apart by the wind were sometimes electrocuted to death instead.

Cattle could not find anything to eat. Not a single blade of grass in the dirt.  They got so hungry they would chew on fenceposts. Owners crushed up tumbleweed and mixed it with salt, and the cattle survived on that for a while, but they all either starved to death or were shot - to put them out of their misery - or were filled up with so much dust that they could no longer digest food. Same thing with people.  Doctors would open them up and find dirt packed inside them. This is not some fiction writer's idea of a horrifying what-if scenario, this is what happened. At some point these people would accumulate too much dust and lapse into what was called "dust fever", and then in a matter of days they would die. Some people just went insane, wandering the streets, their land or their children abandoned.

By the middle of the 1930's, dust storms were blowing through northern Texas at an average of one every three days. In 1935, northern Texas got one short rainstorm for the entire year, allowing some farmers to raise meager, stunted crops ... and then a plague of grasshoppers descended on the fields and ate everything down to the ground.  They crawled over the polished handles of the shovels, trying to eat them, too. The National Guard tried to crush the pests with massive rollers and poison them but it made no difference.

The year 1935 brought one of the worst, and the most documented, dust storms of the entire era. The day it struck was named "Black Sunday". Several people in Dalhart TX were struck blind by the flying grit from this storm and never recovered their sight. It was the event that pushed the federal government into full action and led to an avalanche of recovery programs, assistance, and legislation, some of which is still in place.

In Kansas, on the first day of bicycling for this trip, I passed through the Comanche National Grassland, which is one of the preserves that was established by the New Deal as part of the land restoration effort. Even that grassland does not look like it did before the dust bowl.

And guess what!  Seventy years later, and we're still floundering in the aftermath, still requiring major course corrections! What a world. I honestly don't know what to do about it. In the broadest sense, there will always be people interested in having a go at living in a location that is not suitable for farming, necessitating either inefficient shipping or destructive terraforming. Always.  Not even the highest most electrified barbed-wire fence or the direst warnings would keep them out. What solution is available, for such a tragedy of the commons?

Boy, I sure did go all-out on that digression. Let's bring things back on track with these lovely photos of a nest and an Osage orange I took today:

As I was pedaling through the side-wind, headed east and enjoying my book and some chocolate, a woman drove up alongside me and offered me a banana from the open window of her car, leaning over her young son who gazed at me from the passenger seat. "Do you need something to eat? I've got this," she yelled at me.

I was dumbstruck but I held my composure. She was just trying to be friendly. I turned her down as gently as I could. She wished me luck, then pulled ahead of me into a driveway to reverse the vehicle, and went back down the road. She had pursued me to offer me a banana. Strange...

The book was fascinating and before I knew it, the sun had set:


I pedaled on into the night, eventually stopping on a small bridge behind a cluster of trees growing along a riverbank. Here I rested for a while, enjoying the shelter from the wind and snacking on the remains of the omelet. A few pairs of headlights drifted past me but I averted my eyes, lest they think I was encouraging them to stop by looking at them. People are inclined to be helpful and I didn't want them to feel silly for that urge.

The stop was uneventful and after about 20 minutes I was back on the road. Five minutes later a truck rambled up alongside me, and since it was obvious the driver wanted to engage in some sort of dialogue I hit the brakes. Once my eyes adjusted from the glare in my rearview mirror, I saw a man and a woman sitting side-by-side. The woman leaned out the window and said she'd spotted me while driving the other way about 20 minutes ago, asked how I was doing, and then, with a hint of shyness and embarrassment, offered me a roast-beef sandwich that she had prepared at home especially for me.

I was beyond flattered by this - I was touched. I have always had a serious soft-spot for people cooking or preparing food just for me. Something from a shelf or a package I could take or leave, but something prepared by hand, with me in mind?

We chatted for a while and I eventually accepted the sandwich with as much grace as I could muster. I tucked it away and forgot about it until late that evening, when I took it out and got a closer look:

They even threw in a wee chocolate for dessert! Aawwwwww! I don't know who you are, but you guys are the greatest! Thank you!!

I kept on cycling and zig-zagged my way over the state border, crossing into Indiana on highway 18. There was no sign for me to photograph myself next to ... oh well. I saw rows of red lights on poles in the distance all around me, blinking in unison. I couldn't figure out what they were for. There was no airport around, according to the map... Any ideas?

I also paused at the foot of a hill and made this nifty recording of the wind:

11-12-11 10:03pm - Wind

At long last I arrived at the Pheasant Country Bed And Breakfast, in Fowler, Indiana. The proprietor woke up to let me in, and served me tea while we talked about travel and bicycles. She asked lots of enthusiastic questions and I enjoyed her company, but I was exhausted, so pretty soon I stumbled up to bed. What a day!
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