They approach me en masse—blonde, under four feet tall, each carrying a stuffed animal bound by leash. They are so close, their shoulders touch. They may as well be linking arms, but they aren’t. I sit on a bench in Memorial Park in Clarkson, Nebraska in front of the memorial—a grey pyramid of rough-cut stone set on a dais surrounded by big trees. “Hi,” I say, as they stare. One chews her lip. One clutches a tiger, another a lion, the third pulls her long braid. “How are you?” I ask, unsure how to speak to these four little girls. Before dinner in the Opera House, I’d come here to snack, waiting for the local high school dance squad to shake silver pom-poms to remixes of “Jessie’s Girl” in the afternoon light. After the buffet of sausage subs with sauerkraut, dumplings, and strudel, I’d returned to await music, first the pom-poms, and later a polka band, much as I’d come to await any such riches. Within minutes the girls appeared, specter like, something akin to a vision glimmering in summer’s golds. Three were six, one was four, two were twins, two pairs were sisters. For an hour, they flung their stuffies into branches, sometimes letting the leash wrap around the bark and limbs. They climbed a cannon. They drew pictures. They told me they were all Czech, though could not speak the language and on Czech Days they danced and danced. One of their brothers arrived and one of their sisters. Twice one of their fathers stood on a porch calling out minutes left until dinner, the sound of his voice carrying from their lawn, across the park, to where I sat with four girls sitting beside me or pretending to climb trees, eating the snacks from my saddle bag or gesturing as they recounted how they decorated their bikes and made signs that said “Go, bikers, go!” to greet The Seven Cities Century riders when we arrived in town for the night. I was one of the riders, even if I didn’t fully know why I’d signed up, why I’d begun long-distance cycling for fun, what cycling gives me beyond fitness and health. I’m searching and I’ve found that when I bike for many miles, sometimes after hours studying the land moving around me, I arrive somewhere that is less physical and more mental, a place reachable only by bike.
Now, I field their questions, as if they are oracles or fates measuring which of strings to cut and which to leave long and tensile strong. Or maybe they’re Czech maidens of myth who compel some to swallow what’s laced by something sleep-inducing. I am tried. I’ve biked seventy miles, but they’re just girls in a park in Nebraska. “Are you having a sleepover at the high school?” one asks, one of the twins with freckles across her nose.
“No,” I say.
“But my dad said you were having a sleepover at the high school.”
I scan the area—houses, a sweet shop with outdoor tables, old brick businesses, the backside of the Opera House where most of my fellow riders eat, awaiting the band. I look towards the street, unsure of the high school’s location, knowing only that I wasn’t part of a sleepover, even if I’d been on other rides where such high schools opened their doors to cyclists.
When I arrived mid-afternoon to set up my tent, I’d stopped at the Welcome Booth beside a fire station where cheery greeters called, “Hello,” and “Welcome,” including one with a great grizzly, white beard. Had I been elsewhere but on a tour of seven cities in Nebraska, moving through golden light and beneath the big Midwestern skies, upon seeing this man I might have thought Dumbledore, or perhaps a disguised king. Certainly, had he stepped from a grove of trees rather than sat throne-like under a bucking tent of white welcome, I would have thought wizard, god-anointed prince, one of the wise. Even still, I felt something akin to otherworldliness, as if there were riches of this land that I’d not yet glimpsed. “Welcome to Clarkson,” he said, chuckling, nodding at me, my bike, the line of bikes behind me, rolling into town. “What can I help you find?” A sprite of a woman with a cap of dark hair handed me a town brochure, a schedule of local events, and a map. Other cyclists asked about shower locations—pool, park, high school—and I’d asked about where I might put up my tent, hoping for some breezy place to let it’s green dome sway with the wind of the plains. I scanned the sweeps of green, the flicker and catch of light on the pool, the volleyball sand, the baseball field. I wanted to be near water, someplace that bounced the music and melody of the park, the wind in the leaves, the summer song of insects. The white beard said, “Set it up wherever you like.”
So I had, erecting the dome and unzipping the windows, letting the wind swirl over my sleeping mat. I didn’t know what was to come, much as I still hardly felt like I knew where I lived. I was a born and raised Midwesterner, had traveled elsewhere to know differences, and yet, even if I’d lived in Nebraska for a decade, I still felt strange by its strangeness. Tent up, I showered. I ate among others in a room scented by sauerkraut. I sat in the park with the pyramid and spectral girls. I watched the dancers. I watched the band. I refound my tent, chanting silently in my head to better remember the towns I’d visited during the day—Norfolk, Stanton, Pilger, Wisner, Howells—the towns I’d pedal through tomorrow—Madison, Enola, Norfolk—and the town where I was to sleep—Clarkson. All day and last night, I’d feasted on food spread out—spaghetti and bread sticks, pork loin sandwiches and potato chips, orange wedges and piles of bananas, granola bars, and bagels, big pots of coffee. I felt good, strong, powerful, even if the backs of my thighs ached from the climbs, ones another cyclist quipped, “I’ve never seen so many 6% hills.” I felt hungry, even if I was full. I was intrigued about a town where children dance and dance, of a world with so much sauerkraut, of growing up among dads who play polka. Hills made good work of the body, made it warm and loose and comforted, as if pressing and lifting pedals for hours was an accomplishment provable in one day. I zipped up my tent, still unsure of the high school’s location and the sleepover in which the girls insisted I belonged, and fell into sleep so rich and deep, one would think I wasn’t lying on mat in a tent.
In the morning as soon as I get out of town, I can’t see. Fog obscures the road, the dawn, lights from cyclists ahead of me and lights from oncoming cars. I follow the white line and watch for orange route markers, gauging distance without knowing mileage, for though I wear a GPS watch, it’s not smart or expensive, lacking a real-time map of where I am against where I’m heading. The road is devoid of sound—no birds, insects, cars. The wind roars in the silence as I pedal steadily, not knowing what’s coming or what might be lingering nearby. The light is too dim for sunglasses and when I slide on my clear lenses, they fog. I hook them into the neck of my pullover, one hoary with beaded moisture as if I were draped in spider webs shimmering in dew. When I hit a bump, my helmet showers me. When I grip the drops, my handlebar tape is wet. When I wipe the sniffles from my nose, my nose becomes wetter—everything damp, humid, swimming in strange moisture. Later over lunch, a near-sighted cyclist mentioned he told his son to take off his glasses so at least one of them could see. Another cyclist said, “Wasn’t that the most beautiful country we were seeing this morning?”
I can’t see beyond the shoulder, not in front or behind. Sometime after eight, I hear the first robin crowing to the sun, a yellow dot to my right that disappears, and with it, the sound of birds. I pass three fresh roadkill coyotes, likely taken out by fog and cars and the way sound vanishes in this space. I approach an intersection and turn slowly, knowing somewhere ahead is the second SAG, only when I bike to the SAG sign, no tent of water and snacks emerges from the mists. I bike on, practicing not seeing, or rather trying to see with my peripheral vision, some mental exercise to see what wants to emerge and stop straining to see what isn’t there—cyclists, activity, anyone else on this ride but I.
I feel myself start to unhinge, some combination of miles biked and miles to go, the physical work of cycling, to visiting and being visited by strangeness in parks, to searching for something, as I’ve always been searching, when I moved from the Sonora Desert back to the Midwest, as if the land of saguaros, though beautifully majestic, was not quite the golden splendor of fields of corn spreading across the land, not the shimmering awe of the braids of Platte River, not the wide open spaces that stretch and stretch, letting one see for miles. I was searching for what made me feel good. Biking made me feel good. I was learning this, even if right now, I couldn’t see ten feet ahead of me.
I’m thirsty, hungry. I stop to drink, call out, “Stopping,” to no one, slow and then feel that shift of momentum that means I’m going down. I’m moving too fast to think. I note facts—empty road, shoulder of gravel, both clips refusing to release. The pavement comes up quick and I hit, hard. My knee slams into the ground. My legs tangle, colliding with the frame. I’m half on the road, half on the shoulder. Without thinking, I drag my bike with me, pulling it from the road by my shoes, lest some ghostly beast emerge, made of engine and gas, and half-blind as I. I torque hard to remove the clips. “I’m okay,” I say aloud, to the specters, to the fates who’ve lifted the scissors to nick the string, but not cut it, not yet. My knee bleeds, oozing over fresh road rash. Mud streaks across my knickers and grit lines the crevices of my shoes. I curse, a lot. With a rock, I work debris wedged under the clips, feeling lost in the ethers. I stand and refuel to steady my nerves, that spook I feel inside this silence. I unfold the route map, as if the act of holding it will let me see. I think its ten more miles to the next town, Madison, but it might be more. I remount. I have no choice.
Within minutes, a support vehicle emerges from nowhere, a bike secured to its hitch. A woman leans from the window and says, “The last SAG didn’t show.”
She asks if I need anything, if I’m good and suddenly, I realize, beyond the road rash, I am. “I’m good,” I say, nodding her farewell into the mists that envelops her truck, but to a lesser degree. I listen to the music of her engine, letting it guide me down the road, into a fog that lifts and lifts until it’s gone. In town, I explore a museum with trains and local history, including a display on the orphan trains that arrived at last century’s turn. Greeters offer free bananas, cookies, and iced tea, and I eat and drink from them, sustenance that taste like honey. Tea has never tasted so good, not fruit, as if with the lift of the mists was the lift of some veil that had prevented me from knowing such sweetness, as if I’d failed for years to notice what goodness was right here. “Thank you,” I tell each of them.
But that’s still in the future, tomorrow, now I’m trying to figure out where the sleepover is, if perhaps I’ve pitched my tent near the wrong pool of water. I glance at the girls who stand around me in the park and though I had the map in my pannier, I only know what I’d already found—hot showers, steaming buffet of dumplings, welcomers with hoary beards and girls who decked out their bikes in welcome. “Some of us are sleeping at the high school,” I say, guessing. “I’m staying by the pool.”
“Oh,” she says, flickering a yellow feather in the air and then drawing its edge across her face, like a spell, like an act by a hypnotist, like a little girl—quirky, honest in commands, wise in curiosity. She pokes the feather into her hair, pulls it out, commanding, “Look.” I do. She asks, “What’s in your bag?”
I take the items out, ask them about school, about what they want to be when they grow up—a Power Ranger, a botanist—if they take dance, science, or art, what they’ve done this summer, what sports they play. “Can I draw?” one asks and they take turns drawing in my notebook—a bike, a house, a mountain. I ask them to read aloud from the town’s brochure. One names the people and places pictured, though it’s unclear if they’re reading the text or naming this world they know. When they finish drawing, I ask them to sign their name, to write the town’s name, the thing they’ve sketched. One of them writes, “bik.”
“You need one more letter,” I say, nodding toward her stick figure on wheels with a round handlebar, a person who seems to be made of a long dress and lots of toes. She looks at me and then at the paper, taps the paper with the pen, as if she needs a little more help in identifying what the missing letter might be and where it might go. “Bike is spelled with an e on the end,” I say, and point to where it belongs. She completes the word, shows it to me, and I compliment her, and we go on like this, drawing and describing, flinging stuffies into the trees and practicing what I call their “mad climbing skills” as they haul themselves up a monument of cannons. Around us burbles the talk of cyclists at tables eating ice cream and pie and cyclists walking in groups to wherever cyclist go post-feed—to town gathering places, to tents, to laughter among folding chairs, to more good food and then, a little more.
The elder sister, a middle-schooler, appears and disappears, sits among us to tease her siblings, leaves and sits again, eyeing me, as if I might be more vagabond that woman, more in disguise than fellow Nebraskan, like some Odysseus cloaked in mists by a god. She rides up on a scooter as one of the twins spin dervishes under the trees holding a twig with drying leaves. “Come here,” she calls, pushing the scooter over to a bed of perennials, “This leaf is bigger than your head.” The girl runs over and she presses her head against the leaf to show her the difference in size. The girl squeals in delight, escaping from her sister’s hand as the big sister trots off, cat-like.
I call to her as she’s about to step from sidewalk to street, her foot hovering midair. She spin-leaps towards the sound. “What type of plant is it?” She glances towards the leaf and back to me, shrugging. “It’s a hosta.”
“Hosta,” she repeats, nodding slowly, like the young botanist she might become. Her sisters repeat the word like a chant, lingering on the rumbling rattle of the word.
When their dad calls them to dinner, one says to me, “I’ll be back. Wait right here,” as two run off to eat and the other two follow for reasons unexplained. I take their departure as the sign to make my own and bike to where I will sleep, to where I will rise to cycling through mists to a museum of miniature trains and a display on orphan trains. But that’s tomorrow, tomorrow when I will ask the volunteer, “How many children were sent here?”
“About thirty, they think,” she says, and I think of the girls, like creatures from another world, wondering if any of them were met with the wonder I’d felt in the park. I thank her again for the tea. I return to ride to the penultimate town of Enola, where three boys wave as they stand in a line on the side of the road. Two of them give me high-fives, while the third looks at his hands considering, measuring perhaps his sense of what bikes are, what people are on bikes, and what might happen should he reach out a hand in such greeting, as if to touch one of us might change him by that fleeting contact. A tailwind pushes me all the way to Norfolk and lunch, where I arrive to chat among others. One cyclist asks what ride I hope to do next as we sit at tables beside a lake. I don’t have a ready answer and the cyclist nods in commiseration. “Now, I’m just a spectator.”
For a moment I’m sure he said “specter,” and glance towards the lake where a fountain sprays water that falls in rainbows, how they dazzle and spectral the light, making the park ephemeral and beautiful. I don’t know what to say. I only know that this was a good ride, a nice ride, a ride rich with cities I’m glad to know are here, so I say, “I’ll see you next year.”