The recently concluded Dust Bowl Marathon Series continues to play on my mind. Each of the five towns that served as our home base during the event rolled out the red carpet for us. Ulysses, Kansas stepped it up an additional notch above the high bar exhibited by the rest. They seemed to have a sense of professionalism to their approach, like they’d been through it before and knew what they were doing. I complimented some of the townspeople at the pasta dinner held on the group’s behalf and it was here that I learned the story behind their well-honed abilities.
They mentioned a nationwide bicycle race, and described how the town accommodated riders and their support teams as they passed briefly through Ulysses each year. Some quick Intertubes sleuthing uncovered the Race Across America which indeed routes directly through Ulysses, a town that’s been set along the course for at east the last several years.
First, let’s all understand that Ulysses can hardly be described as a "convenient" location.
Ulysses has the misfortune of falling directly within the middle of an immense rectangle completely devoid of Interstate highways access: 2.25 hours away from I-70; 3.25 hours from I-40; 3.5 hours from I-25; and 4 hours from I-35. Few visitors will ever drop into Ulysses by happenstance as they travel cross-country. No major historical events or entertainment destinations underpin an active tourism industry, either. Ulysses, like many other small towns falling within the freeway void, must rely upon its own wits to cultivate creative sources of income.
The Dust Bowl Marathon Series fits that definition, as does the Race Across America. Ulysses, by showing abundant hospitality, fills its hotel rooms, serve numerous restaurant meals and sells tanker-loads of gasoline to crowds spinning out from these rolling athletic circuses.
I’d never heard of the Race Across America before. It’s fascinating. Here’s the basic story courtesy of YouTube:
Bicyclists ride between a starting point in Oceanside, California and a dramatic finish in Annapolis, Maryland (for the 2013 version), and check-in at 54 intermediary “Time Stations” along the way. According to the RAAM Frequently Asked Questions, time stations "are approximately 40 to 90 miles apart" and provide a place for riders to report their progress to the race headquarters.
RAAM provided tentative lat/long coordinates for the 2013 Time Stations which I’ve dropped into a Google Map. I’ve noted the Time Station for Ulysses, Kansas with a red marker.
Time Station locations vary from someone’s home, to bike shops, to city parks, to the Capital Building in Jefferson City, MO. About half of the Time Stations are staffed. This staff is invaluable in building awareness of the race in the local communities along the course. As racers pass through, the Time Station staff is the cheering section and most importantly there to help racers and crews find services in town. Time stations have offered hotel rooms, gas, showers and food.
The field spreads out as it races across the continent, either as part of multi-person teams or as solo competitors. Solo racers will finish in about ten days, and in any case they must be done within twelve days to be qualified as RAAM finishers. Remember, this is on a bicycle! I thought five marathons in five states in five days for the Dust Bowl series was extreme. RAAM brings physical and mental brutality to an entirely different level. I can’t say I truly understand either event although I respect the participants. Nonetheless I was quite content to serve as non-running support member for the Dust Bowl series.
Speaking of support,
Besides the entry fee, every racer and team has to provide their own support crew and support vehicles. Depending on the number of crew, the number of vehicles, and how deluxe your race is, the costs starts at $20,000.
I enjoyed my brief time in Ulysses, a burgeoning capital of extreme sports layovers. I’d love to be there again to watch RAAM roll through. Just don’t look for me on a bicycle.
A number of items have come up recently although none large enough for a single article. It’s time to resurrect a recurring theme. The 12MC "Odds and Ends" compilation ratchets up to #7.
Google Maps Treasure Map
By now everyone should be aware of the April Fools layer on Google Maps yesterday, a so-called Treasure mode in the style of a pirate map. It’s already ancient history even as April 2 and the layer has been removed. I first noticed it on the afternoon of March 31, a day early. I guess they figured nobody would be checking Maps on Easter. They were wrong.
I started solving the puzzle immediately as did many others around the world. Someone started a collaborative Google Docs spreadsheet and I was invited to participate through my Twitter feed. We’d pretty much solved the puzzle by early evening the day before most people even knew it existed. I think the collaboration may have been the first to complete the puzzle although I don’t know that for a fact. It was amongst the very earliest of solutions in any case.
Here is how it appeared as we worked through the answer on Docs.
My little contribution also involved plotting all of the letters on a shared Google Map.
I was hoping that I might be able to draw a line between the points and maybe find an additional Easter Egg or something. However it appeared that individual solutions were all placed randomly and far apart for perhaps no other reason than to make it difficult to find them without solving each of the clue chains.
The most entertaining part of this was collaborating in real time with about fifty people — all strangers to me — from around the globe in a single Doc simultaneously.
White House Easter Egg Roll
Speaking of Easter Eggs, in a more literal sense this time, I lucked into tickets to the White House Easter Egg Roll held on Monday. This is a 135 year-old tradition that dates back to the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. It’s become a Washington, DC area institution over the years, one of those events everyone living here has to do at least once in his or her lifetime, and one of the simple joys of being near the Nation’s Capital. It’s a sign of springtime as surely as the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin.
This is one tough ticket. Each year the White House opens a lottery, and although tickets are free, the demand far outstrips supply. I’ve never attended the event before. My kids are getting older and we figured if we didn’t act on the tickets this year then we might never get another chance.
It’s a rare privileged to be able to walk on the White House lawn, even as part of a large crowd. This was only the third time I’ve done that in the many years I’ve lived here. The kids had a great time and will probably remember this forever. Even the weather was perfect. The only tiny blemish happened as we left and right after as we cleared the security gates, when we could hear someone start to sing the National Anthem. I knew we’d just missed an opportunity to see President Obama by maybe thirty seconds. I guess that means we have an excuse to try again.
Go South to Go North
I love it when readers notice Twelve Mile Circle articles and use them as inspiration for their own personal travel adventures. Please send a message to me whenever you do that. Unlike some of your friends, family or loved ones, 12MC understands your geo-oddity obsession and consider it worthy of accolades and attention. I want to share your stories with fellow enthusiasts who will find them endlessly fascinating.
"Kevin" was influenced by North AND South, an article about a town named North located south of the South Carolina capital and southeast of Due West, and by All Ways – Every Cardinal Direction, where I imagined that one could travel to neighboring states in numerous counterintuitive ways given sufficient motivation.
Kevin traveled to a point outside of Charlotte, North Carolina marked on the map. I’ve edited Kevin’s photo, below, by adding a line on the border and a circle around a sign that reads "North Carolina State Line – Union County." I had to shrink the photo down to make it fit within the margins of 12MC so hopefully my additions will increase the clarity. It might be more legible if you open the image in another tab, too.
Traveling here, one can drive south from the state of South Carolina into North Carolina, and vice versa. Go south and hit north. Go north and hit south. This isn’t some insignificant border anomaly either. It’s actually rather more noticeable than many of the tiny border nicks I pointed out in my previous article. Also, at least for now, Street View does not provide coverage here. This will be your only chance to view the spot unless you go there personally.
It’s good to be back home although I will always cherish my brief journey to the Dust Bowl territory of the lower Great Plains. I enjoyed and appreciated the beauty of the emptiness, the towns appearing fifteen miles distant first noticeable by their distinctive grain elevators, dodging and getting caught in clouds of dust, and tracking a history that runs deep, of Native Americans, of pioneers, of financial and ecological hardships during the Great Depression.
People work hard here, making an honest living with their backs. They are farmers, truck drivers, oil workers, builders, wind turbine cowboys, and laborers of all stripes. I’ve never seen so many weathered, dusty, so very obviously workaday pickup trucks anywhere else. One also gets a sense that this land hasn’t yet recovered from the recession of the last decade and that times were probably tough for many of the folks even before that happened. I’ve never met a friendlier, more hospitable group of people though.
It seemed to track closely with populations of the various towns on our circuit:
Clayton, NM – population 2,980
Ulysses, KS – population 6,161
Dalhart, TX – population 7,930
Lamar, CO – population 8,869
Guymon, OK – population 11,442
Clayton and Ulysses practically rolled out the red carpet. Lamar and Guymon didn’t much notice our presence. Dalhart fell somewhere in the middle. I can imagine that a group dropping into town, occupying a bunch of hotel rooms on a random weekday in late winter, buying meals, and filling gas tanks would give a small town a nice little financial bump. Then our circus would head to the next small town and drop another windfall.
The Water is Down in Clayton Lake Reservoir
Every town, every hamlet, every place we wandered, people mentioned the drought. Examine the U.S. Drought Monitor and one will understand why. All of the towns we visited were considered "D4 Drought-Exceptional" or nearly that, and have been in a difficult situation for a long time. The conventional wisdom, the oft-repeated phrase in each town where we stopped was, "we’ve had less rain lately than the Dust Bowl years." I don’t know if that’s true or not although people living with the dry spell every day certainly believed it.
Those who settled here in the 1920′s and 1930′s were sometimes called "next year people" because they held a certain faith that conditions would improve, that rains would come, that life would get better if only they could last one more year. One person I spoke with suggested that the expression might have to be changed to "next decade people" because a single year didn’t seem like it would cut it anymore. We’re save from a new Dust Bowl only because of improved soil management techniques, center-pivot irrigation and millions of acres of restored grasslands.
I found I could track my travels via Google Analytics. I don’t get a lot of 12MC visitors from this very rural corner where Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico come together in such close proximity. I took a screenshot covering the five days we roamed the plains. Those are my dots. Maybe my recent travelogues will attract a few new visitors from these parts and I can begin to fill-in the map a little more.
Twitter seemed to work. I know that many of you subscribed to my new Twitter feed so you could follow along. I hope that you enjoyed watching the adventure unfold in near-real-time and getting a sneak peek at photos and stories that would be appear in more detail a day or two later on 12MC. Often I could send a tweet from literally the middle of nowhere because mobile phone coverage was surprisingly good. Every town had at least one cell tower and of course there weren’t any topographic features to deflect their signals; just flatness to the horizon.