Friday, June 15, 1984
La Crosse to Utica, Kan.
I’m reprinting the day-to-day journal entries of a cross-country bike tour my friend and I took in 1984. More about the TransAmerica Tour 1984
How many times have I heard people complain about driving across Kansas because it’s soooooo boring?
Chalk up another reason why bicycle touring is the best way to see the country. Kansas, by bike, is anything but boring. For one thing, you get to stop at all the small-town cafes.
I have a notion that many of these towns where we’ve stopped lately — Bison, McCracken, Ransom, Utica — are all frontier towns. Each is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of wheat farms and pasture.
The highway we’re on runs past the southern edge of town. The grain elevators are one or two blocks north on Main Street, sitting on the railroad tracks. Main Street has the post office, cafe, bar, and grocery store. These towns boast the only trees on the landscapes. The trees offer shade from a hot sun and help block the hot winds blowing across the praries.
In each town, the cafe is the hub of life in the town. At Utica, the Community Cafe is so-named because 50 people own it. Without it, there’d be no place for folks to have a nice sit-down meal and no place for the farmers, workers, and salesmen to meet.
Sassy cafe owners
A woman ran the cafe in McCracken (above), as they did in Ransom and Utica also. They are sassy, loud-talking and brash; they take a lot of guff from the men, then dish it right back.
The cafes we preferred had luncheon specials. When we arrived at McCracken, the owner was setting up the buffet. In Ransom, a meal from the “Serv-a-torium” (basically a serve-yourself steam table) cost $3.50 for all you could eat. Pie extra.
All this mileage the past few days has taken its toll on Bruce and me and we got a late start. Our 53-mile route today had exactly four turns. There was just enough terrain in this part of the Smoky Hills (not hills, really) to make the riding interesting.
We called it quits at Utica and stopped in the Short Branch Saloon where we heard about the weather, the Little League game against Ransom (a major rivalry), some jokes, and more talk about the weather.
That night we camped in the City Park — a square lot surrounded by houses on three sides and a church on the other. Eight little kids came over to visit, and they said we could wash up in the Christian Church across the street. Sure enough, someone there said we could use it; he left it open all night so we could use it early in the morning too.
That evening I walked a block away to the edge of town where the shade trees end and I could see the endless prairie. I mused about this place, where kids are allowed to talk to traveling strangers and people leave the church open for them.
Camped at the city park in Utica, Kansas. Made only 55 miles today in a bad wind. We were both run down anyway from our fast pace the previous several days, so we knocked off early, around 4 p.m.
We pulled into town and Bis headed for the Short Branch Saloon. I met him there later, after a pineapple shake at the Community Cafe, the only restaurant in town (population 300), which, incidentally, is owned by about 50 members of the community. After the shake, I went to the Short Branch for a 3.2 beer.
We had “bucked” the wind, as one fellow in Ranson put it, all day. It felt like we had come 155 miles, not 55, by the afternoon. I took a nap in the sun at the city park and Bis wrote in his journal. It was good to relax.
As usual, the local kids came around and were curious about us and our trip. This has happened to us in just about every city park we’ve stayed in. This park has no shower or toilet, but it’s the cleanest and nicest we’ve seen so far.
Anyway, the kids were really cute, and they took us over to the church, where their moms were cleaning, and we got washed up over there. It worked out well.
Bis is making beef stroganoff tonight. I have reservations about new menu ideas after his Cincinnati chili back at Lake Anna in Virginia. It took me three days to get over that.
The sun is setting now, but it’s still hot. It was in the mid-90s today, but low humidity. And with the strong wind, it wasn’t overly hot on the bikes. Still, I’d take the heat over the wind any day. But the breeze is fine now, cooling me as I sit under a nice shade tree, getting ready for dinner. This is the first unhurried night we’ve had in nearly a week, and I’m savoring it. We’ll also get to bed early tonight.
After dinner, we’ll probably walk over to the ball field. The Utica little leaguers are supposed to be playing the Ransom team tonight.
I ran across this picture postcard of McCracken while surfing the Internet a couple of years ago. Probably looking up the same street as the picture above.