Wow, I'm really starting to rack up the states, and it feels like I'm getting somewhere. The journey has been start-stop, circuitous and inconsistent thus far, but in the last week I have really made some progress into the heart of America. Much of it has been spent in Iowa....and as always with these things it has been a mixed bag; a more multifarious week in my life I have rarely had. As has become a happy trend to my travels, the people I have met could not be any nicer. Many nights I have been welcomed into the homes of locals or directed to a safe place to pitch my tent. Always appreciated, I have come to value this kindness even more so during this storm season - something which wasn't really on my radar of the 'highly dangerous' to be watched and feared.
The force of some of these mid-Western storms is unbelievable, and they move with a speed and power more awesome than anything I've known before. Twice now I have seen the front approaching from the south and had to weather it out in a well-placed barn. Others have come at night and left me thankful that my tent was pitched low and under cover. The greatest devastation however was to be reserved for my final night before rolling into Sioux Falls.
I expected the flatlands to be...flatter
After a week of cycling in Iowa, I had become disillusioned with the potholed road surface of Highway 9, the highly confusing and infuriating amount of hills in the so called 'flatlands,' and most maddening of all the overpowering headwind. When the cycling was good, it was great and I had at least one day of almost perfect riding - alone with nothing but nature's beauty and my own thoughts for company. The rest of the week however left me somewhat miserable and exhausted by the time evenings trundled around. Sioux Falls approached like an oasis in the desert of this tough, tough section of my trip. Once the traveling was over for each day my mood vastly improved, and I often had company from locals as I ate dinner and set up camp. Companionless on my bike however while battling the wind led my mind to darker places - what if it was like this all the way to Seattle? I couldn't make it, it would be impossible.
The wind messes with my finely styled helmet hair
Thus the last six days have left me mentally drained, and it's an emotional rollercoaster I hope not to repeat too often. But, despite the lows I would not change any of it and the experience has certainly hardened me to some of the realities I shied away from. That said, I still hope with every fibre of my being that the wind out west is not as constant or overbearing. My hope is rooted in faith more than anything else, and it seems faith may be the only thing that can help.
Dreaming of my day off in Sioux Falls after riding 420 miles in just over 5 days I pedalled into Little Rock, a tiny town with one of everything it needs - nothing more, nothing less. A lot of the towns I passed through in the state were the same; every building must be essential and efficient, otherwise it simply would not survive. Aesthetics are not a priority; a pretty building is no more functional than the most basic looking of structures. It's certainly an effective system, and after passing through the first few places I began to be able to navigate new townships in a matter of seconds based on prior experience. Little Rock was no different, and having found the library shut I went into the grocery store to ask the approximate distance to the next town (plus the opportunity for some popsicles, my favourite time of day.) I was quickly told there was a storm warning out, but for more details I would have to ask at the bar. There I found it was a tornado warning which I learnt meant conditions were favourable for twisters to form and touch down (as opposed to a 'watch' where one has been sighted, and is under surveilence.) Not keen to risk the 22 miles to Rock Rapids under the circumstances, especially with nothing but corn and beans inbetween, I made plans to camp in the town park. As I asked the bartender about where I could find the park, a local homeowner struck up a conversation. He was impressed with my trip thus far, and offered me a place in his house. With the storm coming, I didn't feel like messing around with tornados, so I accepted. A genuinely kindhearted guy with a real trusting attitude, he took me back to his homestead and let me spend the evening with him, his girlfriend, her kids and a buddy of his. Good-natured people cross my path frequently on this tour, and my host for the night in Little Rock was as obliging as they come.
As we sat outside drinking beers in the hot evening, the storm gradually rumbled into life. The lightning started with a magnificent blaze illuminating the shape of a thousand clouds. Thunder followed soon after, and the sky darkened. The radio reported tornado warnings for our county and all those surrounding it. We watched as the sky worked itself into a frenzy, and the new reports got worse and worse. Everyone was advised to take cover inside, and told to be ready to head for their basements at a moment's notice. Cautiously we remained outside under the cover of the garage, surveying the heaven's turbulent spectacle. I have never seen anything quite as surreal as clouds dropping into spirals and beginning to spin. To the south we kept our eyes peeled - many spirals formed, but none touched down. The radio broadcast announcements of tornadic damage in Sibley, just 3 miles west. With the sky now unashamedly raging furiously the lightning was persistent in it's violent flashes, and forks struck all around. It seemed all around us was getting hit but somehow we were dodging the bullet. Twice everything went calm...a bad sign I am told. The sudden still was unearthly. I could only stare into the clouds in wonderment at the display of dominance.
The Tornadic trail, notice the missing roof
Eventually we retired to bed - it seemed we had been given a spectator's seat but were not invited to the party. That was quite alright with me. The next morning it became clear just how lucky we'd been. Taking a drive to survey the damage we found that a tornado has come within a mile to the north of us. Houses were levelled, trees torn apart, power lines spread out like matchsticks. The countryside was littered with debris. Inappropriately, it reminded me of some post-apocalyptic scene from a bad Hollywood movie. No-one was hurt which is the important thing, but I can't help but keep thinking of how those people lives must be affected. You wake up one morning same as every other and before the day is done you have lost every material possession you own. I cannot imagine the anguish.
I felt guilty even thinking about taking photographs. It didn't feel right to snap any of the houses that were completely totalled, but I did take a couple of some of the lesser damaged homesteads to provide a pictorial aid to my story. I wanted to stay and help, but I didn't even know where to begin. I believe that material possessions are just that, raw matter that we can live without, but it's so easy to say that without having to act upon it, and I am enormously attached to some of my things. It was absurdly hard to get rid of all my belongings that didn't fit on my bike when I left New York, but at least that was my choice. These people just get hit by nature, and have to deal with it. It's a rough deal, but the real power in this story seems to come from the way in which these communities pull together in times like this. I don't mean that to sound as corny as it maybe comes across - I really am in awe of how robust residents in areas like this can be, and the way in which one person's struggle becomes everyone's. This journey has taught me a lot in such little time already, but what I have discovered on a personal level about smalltown America is something really special, and I hope at some point I can effectively divulge my enlightenment to a larger audience -via my footage or some other medium. It truly is remarkable.
My notions of my own wanderings seem somewhat transformed recently. At stages I have felt the journey is futile, merely pushing myself through ludricous situations for what is maybe nothing more than self gratification. I have felt insignificant and helpless in the face of an Almighty power much greater than I. When I see an event like the aftermath of this tornado I am reminded of how much else there is going on in the world outside of my personal bubble - it can be easy to get caught up in the world of 'me and my adventure.' Taking time to reflect today I can see that many of these sentiments are reactionary, and not necessarily accurate. It's natural to get preoccupied with my own day-to-day events and decision making processes, and in fact it's essential to be like this for a time in order to use correct judgment. Hopefully it does not come across as a self-indulgent journey to the people I encounter. I do have pride in my expedition, and I do believe it serves a purpose. The most exciting thing is that the objective is constantly morphing and mutating, and I feel honoured to be able to absorb everything I am experiencing. Despite my failure so far to edit footage on the road, I am managing to shoot some, and hopefully the eventual videos will help spread some of what I am learning to appreciate. There are things out of my control, and I have to accept that. It's part of the challenge, and part of the reward at the end. It's also at the root of much of the excitement, as well as the trepidation.
The next few weeks promise more of the same - inconsistent weather and roads, emotional highs and lows, tough decisions and things I will never forget. I am headed west from Sioux Falls through South Dakota, taking a loop through the Badlands before heading north into the Black Hills. Rapid City will provide brief respite, then the Devil's Tower will mark the start of my route to Yellowstone National Park. The naysayers have stopped their talk of bears for now (that won't start again till Yellowstone); presently it seems all I have to worry about are Coyotes, snakes, charging Bison, and further stormfronts.
Sounds like a blast, guess I should go to bed; I'll never be able to outrun a Bison on four hours sleep.