By Bill Plock
I met a guy, who knew a guy who was carjacked outside of Springfield, Colorado in the 1930’s and dumped out on the prairie somewhere on the way to Amarillo. Turns out, notorious gangster, Pretty Boyd Floyd was the man who pushed him out the door. There are million stories about the plains, you just need to ride them to find them!
This same guy, local historian, author and owner of the Springfield newspaper, who was part of the vendor caravan for the Pedal the Plains, also knew of someone who lived in the Japanese interment camp in the 1940’s. We visited this camp on our ride between Lamar and Holly. There are only remnants now of this incredibly dark time in our nations history. Really quite unbelievable actually and ironic it happened in the plains, the same plains where similar human travesties infiltrate our history as we marched across the Native’s land.
The Pedal the Plains offers cyclists a way to connect with a part of Colorado and history that just doesn’t get the headlines unless maybe they are bit more notorious in nature. Unfortunately.
The Plains are more than a home for irrigated corn and sugar beet crops, now becoming mixed with hemp. The Plains are more than countless square miles of flat semi-arid land very sparsely dotted with tiny oasis’s of trees protecting small farm houses. The Plains are more than vacated small towns grasping for life and longing for a return to vibrancy while still harboring a charm and a way of life that is quite refreshing and relaxing.
The Plains are stories and full of people facing hardships and challenges thrown at them like the stiff southerly breeze that made our ride between Holly and Springfield take twice as long as it should’ve. Maybe like the rancher a century ago using twice the team of horses to turn over the hard soil, we rode flat roads in our small chain ring to fight the hot air blowing in our faces for about 70 of the 108 mile day.
But during those tough miles, peering through sweaty sunglasses at mirages baking off the hot, black roads, when I literally hallucinated that a road sign 200 yards away was a water tower of a distant town, the grandeur of this ride hit me.
We were pioneers for a day. We got to feel that feeling of infinity. To experience the landscape like the Road Runner cartoons that kept going by and never changing. This was the opportunity to reach back in time and imagine ourselves on a wagon train struggling as we bounced and toiled through the prairie cutting a path of maybe ten miles a day. A chance to feel the heat and sweat those pioneers endured for weeks on end with no oasis even known.
I at least knew at some point I had a wonderful meal waiting prepared by the local FFA (Future Famers of America) and an icy cold Coke. Those icy Cokes were the bomb by the way. I also had an out, in the way of a SAG vehicle if I needed one–which I took advantage of in Two Buttes, Colorado–yep look it up, it is a town, more on that in second.
Riding the Pedal the Plains gives you chance to learn if you let it. But more, it gives you a chance to feel something new. In Holly we stayed on the high school grounds; everyone in tents but me. I chose to do it cowboy style and threw my sleeping bag on a mat in the grass. I wanted to feel the stars and air and soak it up. It was glorious to wake up in the middle of the night and with a deep blanket of stars.
Holly is a town of about 3,000 people as East in Colorado as you can get. A town that basically supports local farms and ranches complete with a theater about as wide as an alley and a local grocery store, and one restaurant. Oddly, apparently, the place to go out for a fancy meal was a dozen miles east in Collidge Kansas, a wide spot in the road with a handful of homes, a knick knack shop, a non-working phone booth; and apparently the best restaurant in the area. Who knew.
Back to Holly. There, on a Friday night in the fall, we went to the high school football game. They were excited to have so many new cheering voices. First off, this high school looks like a small, modern college. It is a beautiful, new building housing K-12 students. Apparently the old school was ruined in a tornado a few years ago.
Football games are a big deal in Holly. They play 8-man football which I had never seen. They don’t charge admission, but they do collect donations and give half the money to a lucky fan winning a drawing and keep the other half for the school. Talking to parents you learn a lot. How the team travels hours upon hours to play other towns you never had heard of except on the news when there is some sort major weather event. You learn that kids struggle here just like anywhere with drugs or social awkwardness. You learn that sense of community where everyone gathers to watch a team where most all the boys in the school play and there isn’t a lot of talent to pick and choose from, you get what you get. Some great talent and some yet to be refined. So you just root for them as hard as you can and watch them give it their best.
And then an ambulance drove by and someone said, “there goes our ambulance, hope it’s not bad”. Key word being “our” because there is only one ambulance in town, like there is a sense of pride in saying “our ambulance”—it was pretty cool actually.
Towns are few and far between on Pedal the Plains. People often ask is it a RAGBRAI “light version”? Yes and no. RAGBRAI is the annual massive bike ride across Iowa. There are some similarities in that the ride routes pass through mostly farm lands, you camp, it’s hot and you visit small towns. But really they are quite different rides. RAGBRAI has about 20,000 cyclist and in some segments like this year, the estimates are 50,000 people took part in one of the days. It’s more of a come join atmosphere and many people ride just a day or two. And there is lots more partying. There are a lot more towns in Iowa than on the Eastern Colorado Plains. A lot more trees, and many more places to stop for refreshments. It’s a rolling city and no doubt an economic windfall for host towns, but its also a burden with 20 some thousand people looking for a place to camp, have a beer and coffee the next day. Most riders are part of “teams” that have buses or RV’s that roll from town to town. So not only are there masses of cyclists, there are lines of big vehicles for miles that take alternate routes to stop towns.
Pedal the Plains is more intimate with about 700 riders and no team buses really, and a small village that follows the ride and works with local organizations to feed the riders. The towns we passed through couldn’t have been more excited. It was a big deal for them and their enthusiasm was amazing. At the Springfield fairgrounds on the last night, the local midget football team practically fought over who could help us with our bags, it was super cute.
Besides the football game, the most memorable place we stopped, for me, was in Two Buttes. Two Buttes lies about 20 miles Northeast of Springfield. Two Buttes is a town of 43 people as of the 2010 census. At one point it was home to about 2,000 people and as such there are still buildings from that era that authenticate a period of time much different than today. Our last aid stop was a gymnasium built in the 1930’s thanks to President Roosevelt’s New Deal WPA program. The gym (more info HERE) was built with local stones and is still used for local functions like weddings and boy scout meetings. In the auxiliary room pictures hang of every graduating class between 1932 and 1965. Each picture had about ten or so students all dressed timelessly and looking so much older than the kids they were.
But as a basketball lover, as someone who spent hours upon hours in gyms and as a super fan of the movie Hoosiers, this gym was a Mecca. I was so overcome with joy to step out of heat and enter this time capsule and hear the creak of the floorboards as I walked across the ancient hardwood, jaw dropped, looking at these backboards of painted pickets and imaging the roar of local crowds cheering their for their team. I imagined taking off my hot, stiff bike shoes and lacing up a pair of Chuck Taylors and jacking up some three’s beyond an imaginary line because there was no three point shot when these boys played. I was so tired and so happy to be here I laid down on the non-moveable old wood bleachers and took a nap.
I awoke and wandered more and went up to the balcony and saw some original chairs tucked in the corner and imagined the locals watching their kids after toiling on the farm all day. I looked at the old score clock imagining the hands on the dial moving ever so slowly one second at time. I imagined the kids in their silky shorts and white or black sneakers and buses from some distant town that delivered a crowd and a team of boys who maybe had never been more than 20 miles from home.
I still had 20 miles to ride and I emerged back into the heat as a van was loading a few bikes and people who had had enough. I looked back at the gym, recalling the nice nap and the joy of being in a place I wished I could’ve spent more time in, shooting some hoops if only in my imagination, and I smiled and thought, “you know what, I’m gonna quite while ahead.” I had ridden 80 some miles and had been on the road for more than 8 hours battling the heat and wind. I have nothing to prove–so I took “my ball went home” and hopped on the van. Screw it.
The next day that wind became a tailwind and I rode the 50 miles from Springfield back to our starting point of Lamar. Lamar is a bustling town of about 7,000 people but actually feels larger. It also has daily train service and lies on the route of the Southwest Chief, Amtrak’s route between Chicago and Los Angeles. The town seems healthy and clearly is an important part of this sparsely populated part of Colorado.
My journey complete, it was time for the four hour drive home but, first, a stop at the nearby Bent’s Fort, a rebuilt, extremely authentic fort replicating in painstaking detail the bustlingly last stop before pioneers hit the mountains on the Santa Fe Trial in the early to mid 1800’s (More info HERE). It is a reminder that people like Zebulon Pike and John C Fremont who mapped out routes in the Rockies where a sister event, Ride the Rockies takes place, that these Plains are more a part of our history than we might know.
Go check em out, try this ride next year!