Spring has come early to western Kansas, as it has to much of the West - temperatures in the low 80s, gentle breezes at about 20 nautical miles per hour, gusting to 35. Nothing to keep an old man off the bicycle - quite the contrary. If you can't rack up elevation gains during the daily bout of cycling, wind resistance is the next best thing - if, that is, you can master the irritability that comes of riding section lines along sandy roads on a windy day.
I don't actually reside in Kansas, but it's the wind out here that brings me down from the Colorado highlands and gives me my daily bread in this Martian landscape farther east. I'm spending my days in a field office, set among greening fields of winter wheat alternating with corn stubble, making daily forays on a mountain bike of venerable years and aspect just to keep my tone up and my native affability in some fettle. Not a bad life for a geezer, if like me you prefer solitude and the company of curlews to that of commissioners, counselors, clerics, counts, cardinals, carpenters, cornhuskers, contortionists, confidence men, costermongers, curates, commercial travellers and constables.
Long-billed Curlew (J.J. Audubon)
Rural Kansas does have its drawbacks. For one thing, the place is carpeted from one end to the other, town and country, with the dreaded Tribulus terrestris. In the spring the new plant is benign enough in aspect, if a bit stringy.
But "tribulus" is a dead giveaway. This is a branching, flowering, low-growing plant, one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt along with frogs, locusts, boils, hyperactive children, surveillance satellites, installment funerals and robocalls. Like the Evil One, its names are legion - bullhead, burra gokharu, caltrop, cat's head, devil's eyelashes, devil's thorn, devil's weed, goathead, puncturevine, tackweed. A caltrop is one of those three-legged pronged thingies that an unsuspecting enemy is intended to step on and be disabled from further combat, thus:
The Romans, who used them in antiquity, called them "tribuli," - hence the name of the plant. I've always known it as goathead, all the while acknowledging it as the Devil's own handiwork. The flowers give way to fruit . . .
. . . which dries in the summer sun to an incorruptible, indestructible, everlasting, omnipresent hazard the size of a small pebble with the half-life of plutonium. The thorn never decays, never disintegrates, never entirely dissolves its substance into something organic and benign. It litters fields and farm tracks, piling up generation on generation; farm machinery drags it into roadways on its tires; the county road grader pulls it into roadways while grading the verges. The work of Satan is everywhere to be found, lying in wait, seeking the unwary whose bicycle tires it may devour.
Several weeks ago, on an unseasonably warm February day, I ventured out on my old bicycle across the rural landscape, found myself about seven miles from the field office at a dead end. The only reasonable course, short of simply backtracking the way I'd come, was a two-lane farm track that cut along a half-section to the next county road a mile to the north. I took the farm track and in a quarter-mile of careful riding both my tires were fuzzy with goatheads.
I pulled one, heard a slow sussuration of escaping air, so I pulled the rest. It took me 15 minutes to clean both tires of them, by which time both tires were flat. Midway through the operation it dawned that my tire pump was still in the office. But the insides of the tire casings bristled with the broken ends of countless spines - even the tube I carried in my pocket would have been flat in a second. After a five-mile walk and within two miles of the office a school bus driver heading back to the bus garage finally gave me a lift.
Today's ride was uneventful. Even riding along a clean, packed dirt road, I picked up an occasional thorn. But I had taken care to replace my standard inner tubes with "Goo Tubes," tubes filled with some sort of green slimey polymer that immediately flows into a puncture. So far, so good.
I was a scant mile from returning to my start point, thorn free, flat free, when I passed a final farmstead which I knew to be the residence of two charming little Mennonite sisters and a pair of overly zealous and prosecutorial dogs. Sure enough, there were the sisters tearing across a field on a tiny red motorized four-wheeler, waving madly, long gowns aflutter. And there were the dogs, at a disadvantageous distance to be sure, but eager to close on me, which they promptly did to the futile remonstrances of their small mistresses. The larger dog was a bit lugubrious about the pursuit, not wishing to run quite so hard for his sport but spurred on by his partner in crime, a miniature schnauzer whose demeanor seemed considerably less . . . predictable. Summer is returning to Kansas.
Never asleep, never on a leash