First Attempt: Clinton State Park or Bust!
"What was I thinking? I must be insane! Why did I think I could do this? You don't do these kind of things! Other people do this, you freaking idiot!"
These were just a few of the choice thoughts running through my head on June 29, 2013, as I left familiar cycling territory while embarking on my first attempted overnight bike trip. The plan was to ride from my home in Overland Park, Kansas, to Clinton State Park, which is just west of Lawrence, Kansas. I had estimated that the trip, which would take me through the communities of DeSoto and Eudora, would require approximately 50 miles, each way, of output from my untried (over this distance, anyway) human power plant. How, at the age of 46, had I arrived at this point in my life?
It all started innocently enough. I had gotten back into bike riding during the summer of 2012 as a way of increasing my fitness. I hadn't been on my bike in about thirteen years, and even then it was just for short excursions around the neighborhood. I pulled my old 10-speed (which was a birthday gift on my 12th birthday!) out of the garage and got her ready for the road.
I started slowly and over the next few weeks my endurance, fitness level, and mileage increased while my body mass decreased. My wife and I went to Kauai, Hawaii, during fall 2012 and I rented a bike for the duration of the trip.
I rode all over Princeville, on the island's north shore, and took several rides up and down the phenomenal Ke Ala Hele Makalae: The Path that Goes by the Coast. It was my first ever "active lifestyle" vacation.
Upon returning home, I bought a new, modern bike, a Giant Escape 2. With my new steed, my gains became even greater. I fitted the new bike with a rack and trunk/pannier bag and began using it for errands close to home. I was becoming a new person, both physically and mentally.
By spring 2013 the idea of doing a long-distance ride started to form in my mind. I made lists of my expected equipment needs. I researched potential routes and destinations. I read books, articles, and online postings authored by others who had taken bicycle trips. I watched YouTube videos of other people's cycling journeys. I rode longer distances. I visualized the trip over and over again. Finally, it looked as if the weather during the last weekend of June would be nearly perfect. I had acquired the most basic set of gear I thought I could get away with, and managed to get everything loaded onto my bike and perform short test rides with the load.
I made the final decision just the night before the trip: I would leave in the morning for an adventure and test of endurance the likes of which I'd never experienced.
I set off on my journey at around 11 a.m., after an anxious and restless night (the kind that always seems to transpire when an exciting event is to take place the following day). At first, I was confident and happy, relishing the feelings of excitement and freedom. The first few miles were over familiar terrain.
But once I left familiarity behind and headed farther west, past Shawnee Mission Park and into the unknown, doubt began to set in.
I managed to make it to Highway 7 -- my first new waypoint, if you will. I should have felt a sense of accomplishment, but the doubt and the nagging voices in my head persisted. The roughly 25 pounds of gear I was hauling began to become more noticeable which each new hill I climbed. My odometer seemed to be malfunctioning, as the mileage increased very slowly.
I did have an abort plan in the event that I determined I just couldn't make the trip. I could dial up my wife and have her come extricate me. The thought crossed my mind a couple of times, but I squashed it. I wasn't ready to pull that ripcord just yet, not until I had given it my all.
I kept churning away, slow and steady. As I progressed into a more rural area, I became aware that the environment around me was quieting, had become more peaceful. Likewise, the voices in my head started to grow quiet and my thoughts became less doubtful. I still wasn't sure I could make my destination, but I knew I had a chance. Then, suddenly, I was looking at a sign that read "Welcome to DeSoto." The voices were back, but the tone was different now.
"You know what? You can do this! You can make it!"
From that point on I knew I could do it, and do it I would, come hell or high water. I stopped for a short rest at Miller Park and then rode through DeSoto on Lexington Avenue. Southwest of Desoto I passed the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant and then stopped at Sunflower Nature Park for another rest and lunch. After this I made it to Eudora and sat for awhile in a small park to rest again. By this time the wind had picked up and was blowing from the west at a nearly constant 25 mph. The remainder of my journey would see me fighting this new nemesis, especially on the stretch from Eudora to Lawrence. Along the Old K-10 highway there are few structures or trees to serve as windbreaks. It was a struggle to keep the bike up to even 5 or 6 mph.
Finally, I made it to Lawrence. I rode through town and reached my most important waypoint of the day, Yellow Sub! I refilled my water bottles and then slumped down in a chair to rest while waiting for my culinary masterpiece to be prepared. It's the first time I wasn't in a hurry for the oven-toasted sandwich to be ready. But I would not partake of this treasure until I reached the campground at my final destination, another 8 miles to the west. A nice bike path parallels the road leading west of Lawrence that would take me right to the state park. It took another hour and a half or so of riding against the wind and terrain to reach my final destination, but the thought of the sandwich jammed into my left pannier kept me going.
I entered the campground at around 6 p.m. and chose the first quiet spot I found. I dismounted, leaned my bike against the picnic table, and flopped down on the bench. I had made it. I had done something that just a few months before seemed impossible. The trip odometer read 51.76 miles. My best prior to that point had been 33.61 miles. I sat for a moment and let the realization of my achievement sink in. Then I devoured that glorious sandwich in record time.
Afterward, I set up my tent, checked in with the campground host, and cleaned up (a campground shower had never felt like such a luxury). It turned into a perfect summer evening, so I sat out and read the paperback I'd brought with me until darkness arrived. With the vanishing light, I climbed into my tent and stretched out to watch the movie Blue Hawaii on the small tablet I had brought for just that purpose.
As the night wore on, I drifted in and out of sleep. I had anticipated sleeping the sleep of the dead, but I guess the excitement of the day was still coursing through my veins and overpowered the exhaustion that I simultaneously felt. The call of distant coyotes may have contributed, as well.
In the morning I rose, still feeling tired but also strangely refreshed. I packed everything back on the bike and set out for the return trip home at around 8 a.m. I had breakfast in Lawrence at McDonalds (uninspired, I know, but convenient and cheap), and then continued on toward home. Somehow my legs and energy held out. I rode through Eudora without even stopping. I paused just long enough for lunch in Desoto and then continued on my way. As I crossed Highway 7 and approached the western edge of what I consider home turf, it hit me again just what I had accomplished. I finally wheeled into my driveway at around 2:30 in the afternoon. Once settled, sleep came easily.
I've made the trip two more times since then and have started doing research on different and longer journeys for the new year. I'm a different person now, the kind of person who rides free into the world and experiences his surroundings more intimately. And it is really quite wonderful.
Tip for this adventure: Since I was not quite sure of my capabilities before I set out, I chose my destination and planned the route for this first trip carefully. I was never more than a few miles from basic services or a place that could serve as an extended rest area, while waiting for rescue in the event that I needed it. I now feel confident enough in my abilities that in the future I'll be willing to stray farther from civilization.
Favorite local bike shop: Turner's Cycling and Fitness is my local resource for bikes, parts, and accessories. They may be smaller than the competition, but the staff is always friendly, helpful, and willing to spend quality time with the customer before, during, and after the sale.