A Backpacker Discovers Bike Overnights
New to loaded bike touring, on October 21-22, 2011, I did a solo overnight in the Flint Hills, a section of east-central Kansas that has largely escaped the plow. It's tallgrass prairie land containing few roads. Big and open. Cattle country.
Backpacking is my main outdoor activity, but I have to drive out of state to pursue it seriously. Living in eastern Kansas I always felt adventure should be here. Loaded touring seems like a nice way to get it. My wife and I have hiked in the Tallgrass Prairie, and I went on an overnight backpack outing on the plains last year at this time, so the idea came to do a solo bike overnight on the prairie this year.
Last year I dealt with the Flying W Ranch, southwest of Cottonwood Falls/Strong City, and I like them. They are a working ranch whose main agribusiness is accommodating horse people and their trail rides. For a $10 camping fee, I have access to their 7,000 acres of prime Flint Hill pasture. My plan was to drive there, unload my bike and gear, and get in a good ride on the back roads between Clements and Bazaar, maybe 14 miles, this being my first long venture on gravel. After the ride I would set up camp in an isolated pasture, with the goal of catching a great sunset and/or sunrise on the prairie. I pulled Friday as vacation so it wouldn't cut into the weekend too much. My goal: Do the ride in 24 hours or less.
I hit the road early Friday morning, right on schedule. While driving south from Topeka I got the brainstorm of catching the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway (Hwy 177) between Council Grove and Strong City. That cost me 30 minutes (and was worth it). While driving through Council Grove I spied the Hays House Bakery, with their sign for coffee and doughnuts. Oops. That cost me another 30 minutes (also well worth the stop, and the calories).
I arrived at Flying W Ranch, paid my fee and pet the dogs, and parked my car at their bunkhouse area just down the road as arranged in advance. I unracked the bike, loaded up the packs, and changed into my biking attire.
Then I hit the road, but had some complications: three flat tires and a rear rack that almost fell off the bike. All were fixable.
The ride went on, and the weather was perfect.
The unincorporated community of Bazaar has played a big part of the region's cattle history. It was a major trailhead for the railroad, so I expected at least a gas station and place to grab some cold water. Nope. Only a few residential houses and a church. A local dog immediately took a disliking to me and the owner called him back. Even the cattle pens have been removed. Oh, well, it’s a clean town. I rested in the shade by the church and then hit the road again.
My water bottles ran low, so when I found a rural homeowner in her yard, I asked if I might refill them; she was most accommodating. I learned that she had ridden Biking Across Kansas a few times with her husband -- who drove up as we were talking and offered their place if I needed help with anything for the night. My plan was to make it a couple of miles farther down the road, so after refilling, I was on my way again.
I made it to the pasture! That was a 29-mile day over rock and gravel. A short day by serious touring standards, but my longest day off pavement. The creekbed had some spring water in it, making it better than the dry creeks I’d seen everywhere else. Supper went fine. The sundown view wasn’t great since I was in a draw down by the creek, but it was still nice. A whitetail buck snorted at me for being in ‘his’ spot, then wandered away. Then a squirrel barked at me and dropped black walnut shells on my tent. The locals were rude! I built a small fire in a dry part of the creek bed to pass time, then opened the book I'd brought along. The sky was clear, with tons of stars. I started to doze off ... then, BOOM! like a July 4th aerial bomb. I opened my eyes to see a black sky filled with bits of amber floating away like fireworks. So pretty! But wait: I was in a dry pasture in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by flying embers covering a 15-foot radius. I was standing maybe three feet from the source of the embers, wearing a synthetic rain jacket, synthetic polar fleece jacket, and synthetic pants.
Fully awake again, I ran around stamping out the embers. My clothes were fine, but the Crazy Creek chair had new holes in it. Then it struck me: Never use river rock to line a campfire; its internal moisture can turn to steam and make the rock explode. Duh!
On that note, I put out the fire, heated up a hot chocolate for a nightcap, and went to bed. I had a good night’s sleep, followed by a beautiful sunrise with hot coffee.
This was “the moment." Every trip should have a special moment you remember it by, when you realize all the work has been worth it. This was that moment.
I patched the front tire after breakfast, and re-worked the back rack. A nice early 9-mile ride on back roads got me back to the bunkhouse, where I loaded up to go home. This was primarily a learning trip, but also a terrific outing in the wilds. The Flint Hills in fall are great to ride a bicycle through, much better than seeing them from a car.
Tip for this adventure: This country is beautiful! Part of that beauty is that it's sparcely populated. That means you need to be self-sufficient. There's not much cell phone coverage, either. Also, retailers rarely take credit cards, so have cash on hand. Count on more traditional business hours, too. Gravel is harsh because the Flint Hills have tons of flint.
Favorite local bike shop: Capps Bike Shop in Topeka.