by Greg Larson
Preface (July 6, 2017)
I wrote this blog at a time when Gretta and I were at the peak of our fitness and in good health. Thank you for letting me share it with you on the one-year anniversary of her death from cancer.
It was one of those memorable spring mornings in Eastern Kansas when I filled my lungs with cool moist air and thought how great it was to be alive. The meadowlark perched on a fencepost and announced the sunrise. The sun's first rays painted the clouds lavender and pink, and the dew sparkled on the prairie grass.
Gretta and I pedaled our tandem bicycle to the east, leaving Council Grove behind us. The Flint Hills stretched to the horizon, like a rumpled green blanket that faded into the early morning haze. We were riding with a group of two hundred cyclists along a seventy-five mile route of paved roads and highways. Topeka was our final destination to complete a three-day tour.
We pedaled all morning through a collage of rural scenes: cattle drinking from mirror-surfaced ponds, horses standing beside weathered barns and wild flowers blossoming near the barbed-wire fences.
I guided the bike around a long curve to the north on U.S. Highway 56 and estimated it was about six miles to Burlingame. The town would be a good spot to stop for lunch. The clouds thickened during a long and slow ascent to the north. We crested a hill near Elkhorn Knob and viewed the valley before us. What we saw was both breathtaking and disconcerting. Burlingame lay in the valley, about four miles ahead, but further northwest, storm clouds were brewing with veils of rain and fingers of lightning.
The valley and the storm made a panoramic, colorful vista, but an urgent question needed to be answered. Would we . . . could we get to Burlingame before the storm? I estimated the rain and lightning would hit the town in about ten minutes. We’d have to muster a bundle of energy and average a speed of twenty-five miles an hour to have the slightest chance of beating the storm.
The bicycle began to coast down the hill. Sitting on the front seat, I turned my head to the side to talk to Gretta.
“Yeah, I see it.”
“Think we can beat it?”
“We can try.”
“We’ll have to pedal like crazy. We’re talkin’ time trial speed.”
“Let’s go for it.”
The bike gained momentum as we raced down into the valley . . . twenty-five, thirty . . . over thirty-five miles an hour. I put my hands down in the drops of the handlebars, and focused on the road ahead. The road noise and the wind made it impossible to talk anymore, but Gretta knew that once we began pedaling, we would not stop until we made it into Burlingame.
At the bottom of the hill, we stroked a steady pedal motion, seeking a gear and expense of energy that would be consistent all the way to town. The two of us and the bike became a leg-pounding locomotive. Every so often, I’d glance at the speedometer to make sure we kept our speed above twenty-five miles an hour. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the wheat fields begin to stir with the approaching storm. We rocketed across creek bridges, past thickets and groves of cottonwoods and Osage orange trees.
Rumbles of thunder rolled across the prairie. One thousand-one, one thousand-two . . . I began counting the time between lightning and thunder. A ten second delay meant the bolts were less than two miles away. I could smell the rain in the air. Time was running out. We kept pushing the pedals, maintaining the speed.
Some of the other riders stopped along the side of the road to put on their bright-colored rain jackets. Many riders continued, but at a much slower pace than our tandem. I felt like a Ferrari passing slower cars on the back stretch at Le Mans, pulling the bike wide to pass the riders in a blur.
With a clap of thunder, our adrenaline flowed faster. Sporadic raindrops, the size of silver dollars began hitting the pavement as we flew past the city limits. The bike vibrated along the brick-paved street with elm branches waving overhead.
The limestone buildings of downtown came into view, and we turned onto the main street. Like a port in a storm, the large windows and lace curtains on the storefront at the Santa Fe Trail Café wooed us to a stop, and we parked the bike across the street between two buildings.
Flash, crackle, BOOM . . . the thunder and lightning unleashed torrents of rain. We ran across the street and dove into the café.
As soon as we shut the door, our glasses fogged over. The only sound that came out of us was heavy breathing. I peered over the top of my glasses and saw a short grandmotherly woman with rosy cheeks walking towards us. Her greeting made us feel at home. “Hi! You folks just made it in the nick of time. Sit wherever you like. We’ve got burgers, sandwiches, and homemade pie.”
The spring day was still young, and we had lived life to the fullest.