In mid-afternoon of November’s first Saturday, I head out for a long bike ride. A low gray sky on a windless day offered temperatures in the upper fifties as I headed toward the flats of the river bottoms east of Ark City. Just past the roundabout where Kansas Avenue and US-77 connect, I turned north on Cowley 17.
I could have stood a bit of sun or a slightly heavier shirt than the one I had on but at least I didn’t have to worry about sweating much. Still, in its own way it was a perfect day for riding.
I love the muted colors on an overcast autumn day, the way the lingering greens are intensified and the shades of prairie grass and wild growth blend and mingle. I love the look of big rocks and boulders, grays splotched with lichen tumbling among the roots and bases of oak, elm and hedge lining the edge of the road and running up the short bluff.
About five miles out, the road curves up from the river bottom, a long hill that makes a man glad for lower gears. I ride along farms and fields, some with the short stubble of cut beans and some already worked for the planting of winter wheat. Riding near one rusty oil well, I hear the tump-tump-tump of a single cylinder pump engine that reminds me of an old John Deere tractor.
Another few miles north and I turn east on 20, toward the river. Going down the long slope, I study the shapes of the Little Mesas on the western edge of the Flint Hills, love the defining flat lines above the lower fields. Hardwoods yellow the bluffs and banks with the occasional accent of maple and the dull tinges of sycamores along the Walnut River. Native grasses blanket the crests and slopes with the occasional of scrub oak along the fencelines. I pedal through the curves and upslope again where the river bends back hard near the road.
As I pass out of the trees and back into open country, I startle a large doe grazing near the road. She bounds off, flagging the trademark warning of whitetail deer. I watch her deliberate run and then see a buck take off at an intersecting angle. He pauses a few hundred yards away, looks back toward me and then resumes his run, occasionally jumping high over the low brush scattered through the field.
I ride on, bending along the river bottoms, studying the fields and trees, the softened shapes of woods and bluffs. I try to memorize the way large brown leaves clump along the vines and stems of the vineyard, the soft reflections in the surface of the river passing into the dark bends north of the bridge, the way light reflects around the slowly shifting clouds and the beauty of this peaceful day.
We need these times of muted life, the slower pace of examining the world around us, absorbing the light of softer glory, storing up its peace and quiet times of unhurried travel, listening for that still, quiet voice. It speaks through the centuries, offering yet a comfort that is greater than the darkness.