by Stan Purdum
Note: This is excerpted from Stan Purdum’ book Roll Around Heaven All Day: A Piecemeal Journey Across America by Bicycle.
Bicycling eastbound in central Kansas on my ride across America, I rolled into tiny Rush Center. In a grocery store, I grabbed an early supper. The sun, which had been shining merrily all day, continued to gleam. Assuming that promised a fair-weather evening, I decided to stretch my day’s ride the nearly 32 miles through open country to Larned, where I would stop for the night.
The route first ran south for 19 miles on Highway 183 and then turned east on Route 156 for the 12-mile run into the Larned. The wind had been blowing from the south all day, and now, as I turned into it, I found my progress slowed to barely 10 miles an hour, and the struggle quickly drained me of energy.
Like other times when I found myself slogging along on a road made difficult by wind or grade, I recalled a bit of wisdom I’d learned from my father: Beware the path of least resistance — for it often leads in the wrong direction. Since I was clearly headed in the way of most resistance, I knew I must be going the right way! Of course, my dad was referring more to life choices than to highway directions, but the aphorism seemed to fit.
Given what happened next, though, I would have gladly swapped this difficult passage for an easier one. About an hour after leaving Rush Center, I noticed the sky behind me beginning to darken. I hoped it would stay behind me as I plodded on.
When I’m alone, late afternoon under a dull sky sometimes affects me unlike any other combination of time and atmospheric conditions. It strikes a chord of loneliness within me; it withers my confidence and calls into question the wisdom of current endeavors. As I continued riding now, the combined power of waning day and darkening sky clamped me with a nameless despair.
It didn’t last long, however, for a more immediate concern soon replaced it. Each time I glanced over my shoulder, the darkness above seemed to have crept closer. The surface winds may have been against me, but the winds aloft were clearly flowing my way.
Finally completing the southern run, I again swung east, heading directly for Larned on Route 156. This meant that the gray firmament was no longer behind me, but to my left. Soon I saw lightning streaking to the earth from the furious clouds. Sometime in the next minutes, the cloudbank bridged the highway, skyrocketing my anxiety level as lightning now bolted groundward on my right as well. Surrounded by this frenzy, I lost all concern about aches and weariness and pushed the pedals fast and hard. Highway 156 bore a moderate amount of traffic, including semi-trucks, so in the growing darkness, I turned on my flashing taillight.
As I passed Fort Larned State Park, a park ranger waved me over to his vehicle. “We’ve got terrible weather coming,” he said. “You better get off the road.”
“Gladly. I’m trying to get to Larned.” The map showed nothing closer.
“You’ve got six miles to go. Hurry!” he urged.
In the next minutes as I rode wildly, lightning began jumping from cloud to cloud, a display I’d have enjoyed from safe shelter. I now smelled ozone in the air. Numerous vehicles passed me, including several pickup trucks with empty beds. Given the ominous sky and my obvious vulnerability, I was rather surprised that no one offered me a ride. One pickup, in its own race for safe harbor, even ran me off the road, the driver blasting its horn angrily as it roared by.
Ironically, the most comfort came from the one driver with too small a vehicle to take on a bike and rider: a young man on a motorcycle. As he passed, he tooted and gave me the thumbs-up signal, which I somehow found immensely encouraging.
Still feeling like a rolling lightning rod, I finally reached Larned, where several people gazed uneasily at the sky. Bypassing the attractive town park where camping was free, I hurried instead to a motel.
Fifteen minutes later the storm pummeled the town furiously. Rain, seemingly like the flow of Niagara Falls, hit us at the same time as did a high-speed gale. Looking out, I saw roof gutters, business signs, tree limbs and assorted other flotsam whiz by in midair. Although a six-foot-wide overhang projected beyond the front of my room, water, driven horizontally, beat relentlessly on my window. Just as the town’s tornado sirens began wailing, a mighty clap of thunder and a flash of light erupted nearby, and the electricity died. I began to wonder where I’d go if the storm suddenly lifted the roof off the motel. Moments later I heard emergency sirens and spied the reflection of red-and-blue flashing lights. I could not remember ever being in a worse storm.
Nature’s fury lasted perhaps 45 minutes, and when it ended, we denizens of the motel emerged with flashlights and candles lit. The entire town was without power.
The emergency vehicle lights still flashed nearby so I rounded the motel to find out why. An electric company lineman in a cherry-picker bucket was aloft severing a power line to an adjacent house, around which firemen worked, removing siding with axes and crowbars. “The house was hit by lightning,” said a middle-aged man standing beside me. “I saw it happen from my motel room. It hit the pole, traveled right around the house on the wiring, and set the place afire.”
I started to ask a question, but the man launched again. “I figured I’d better check it out. So I ran over and knocked. A lady called out for me to come in. She was 90 years old and stuck in an electric recliner. With no power, she couldn’t get it forward and get out of it. I carried her out.”
“Good thing for her you saw what happened,” I offered.
“Yep. ‘Course, since I served three tours of duty in Vietnam, I don’t get rattled easily. It’s all in a day’s work.”
As he spoke, I caught the smell of beer on his breath. He’d done a good thing in rescuing the woman and was enjoying the chance to retell it. We walked back to the motel, and he pointed at the pickup in front of his room. “The storm dumped a limb on the windshield. Cracked ‘er right down the middle.”
“No problem. I got insurance.”
Just then, a couple in their 30s came up. “Are you the cyclist?” the woman asked. When I said I was, she said, “We passed you riding into town, and I wondered if we should offer you a ride. I was hoping you made it.”
“If you had offered, I would have accepted. But thanks.”
“What happened back there?” asked the man, nodding toward the fire truck.
“The house was hit by lightning,” the rescuer said. “I saw it happen from my motel room. It hit the pole, traveled right around the house on the wiring, and set the place afire. I figured I’d better check it out. So I ran ….”
At that point, I drifted away. Moments later, I heard the woman say, “Wow. Good thing you were there.” The hero responded with some comment about Vietnam. Later, he and the pair sat in front of the couple’s room, drinking beer the rescuer had retrieved from his truck. He had an appreciative audience, and I could hear snatches of his story being retold.
With the town still in darkness, I went to bed and slept soundly.
Awake before 7, I found the town still without electricity, but by the time I’d packed, the power came on. Aftermath of the storm littered the town. Smashed restaurant signs lay shattered in the road along with roof shingles, twisted pieces of metal and broken glass. Major limbs had been wrenched from nearly every tree in sight.
In the grocery where I ate breakfast, a local woman, seeing my biking attire, inquired where I’d been during the storm. (Four others sought the same information before I left town.) I asked her if such storms were typical of the area. “Not at all,” she replied. “I haven’t seen one this bad in years.”
As I rode out of the motel lot, I happened to glance at the rescuer’s pickup, which I’d been unable to see clearly the night before. The items in its bed summoned immediate recognition. The truck was the one that had run me off the road the previous evening.
I laughed heartily as I rode out into the new day.
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Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.