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The Herald August 4, 1989
Some call it home
In a western Colorado motel room during my bike ride to Utah, I tuned in to the only station within 200 miles.
Here comes an insurance commercial. Ma and Pa were riding in a covered wagon, making their way across the same scenery that engulfed my motel. They screeched to a halt and Ma said, "This is it. This is home."
Give me a break. Just like me, Ma and Pa were out in the middle of the most imposing gap of nowhere to be found. Ma had some bolts missing when she called this home, and Pa should have known better than to come this way. I somehow make it across the wilderness on my bicycle, but I was never tempted to lock the brakes and call it home.
Tell me, Ma, where is the drinking water" Have you noticed that very few plants grow in this weird-looking dirt that's covered with rocks? Do you see any buzzards? (They don't come this far because there's nothing out here to die.)
It's a beautiful territory, but you'd stand a better chance living on the moon.
I was tempted to write down the insurance company's name from the commercial so I could call and see how many days Ma and Pa lasted.
I had ridden through some parts of Kansas that I thought were pretty remote, but I didn't learn a thing about desolate real estate until I reached Colorado. From Sterling I had to ride 102 miles to reach the next functioning motel at Fort Collins. Luckily there were cafes at 50 miles and 90 miles.
From Craig I pedaled 35 miles toward some lunch in a little town called Maybell. When I got there, Maybell was closed. It was not quite big enough to be a ghost town. It was a ghost store. There was a sign heading out of town, "NO GAS NEXT 57 MILES," That's funny, I didn't see any gas in Maybell either.
Surviving on some junk food in my bag, I finally made it from Maybell to Dinosaur, home of the Bedrock Days Festival. Dinosaurs are a big tourist draw in this area, as this is where lots of bones and fossils are found. I now know what killed all the dinosaurs. They came out here to live.
If you can somehow get yourself to where the people are, it is always a pleasurable experience. I found everyone out West to be friendly and helpful above and beyond the call. The towns are small and isolated, so maybe the folks are simply glad to see a new face.
A traveling bicyclist can expect to receive a fair amount of curiosity and attention, but the folks in rural Colorado gave me lots of admiring looks. They knew exactly what I had ridden across to get there.
I had to admire them in return. If this is where they really want to live, I'm proud of them. It must take a great deal of perseverance to stay in a settlement where you have to drive 50 miles one way to buy groceries. This would be even more interesting after it snows two feet.
The really "big" Midwestern towns have a population of around 2,000. Compare this to a Southern whistle-stop with the same population and you're in for a surprise. The Midwestern town has a row of burger joints, several motels and a sophisticated shopping center. The secret is that the town serves the needs of an entire county covering thousands of square miles.
During the day, folks come in off the ranches to take care of business, and the place swarms with traffic. After sundown, the town is as dead as a hammer.
Most of the folks who work downtown hold several jobs. They do a few hours here, then run across town to work somewhere else. It seemed to me that a majority of people with full-time jobs do maintenance work in the oil fields.
I was surprised when I first saw oil wells in Kansas. In truth, the entire Midwest is infested with them. The pumps chug and thump while the cows graze passively 10 feet away. Wells are scattered across the pastures, all pumping crude oil to storage tanks. The big tanks are usually situated beside the highway for easy transfer to a truck. If pumping oil on land harms the environment, it is not visibly apparent.
The first oil well I saw instantly reminded me of one of those "sipping birds" that sits on your bar and bobs up and down because of the liquid inside. The pump has parts that resemble the bird's head and neck and it bobs slowly up and down in a similar manner.
I was left with the impression that if there was no oil under the Midwestern countryside, there would be nobody out there at all, save a handful of superfarmers. As it stands, the Midwest looked to me to be a vast, untarnished and yet undeveloped frontier. It would take decades to build enough condos to ruin it.
It is a sight well worth seeing, but if you drive out there be sure to buy gas. Particularly in rural Colorado, any chance for gas is your last. It would be ironic to hear your engine sputter when you're 40 miles from a gas station and 40 yards from a chugging oil well.
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