Road to Nowhere
Retirement — finally time to fulfill my dream of cycling cross-country. So many routes to choose from. Southern Tier? Northern Tier? TransAmerica Trail?
I chose the route less cycled: U.S. 83, a single highway between the Mexico and Canada borders. At 1,700 miles, it’s the flattest and shortest cross-country route — a virtual straight line up the nation’s gut through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and, if you wish to be politically correct, or simply correct, the Rosebud Sovereign Nation.
I had this trip on my bucket list long before bucket lists even existed. I’d cast about for a route with the most “throwback” America and the least amount of interstate.
U.S. 83 appeared to be just that — an endless string of paved ribbon that’s arguably the bluest of U.S. highways. A chance to take an intimate look at a part of my country that most cycling tourists just speed through. Along the way there would be plenty of time and space to think — or not think.
“The route navigates some of the … most aesthetically challenged landscapes in the country, from the yawn-inducing rolling grasslands of the northern Great Plains to … where the hell-am-I agricultural expanses,” wrote Jamie Jensen in Road Trip USA. He called 83 the “Road to Nowhere.”
“For endless miles in every direction, telephone and power poles provide some of the few signs of life between the highway and the distant horizon,” he wrote.
That sealed it. I ditched my 1980s Panasonic for a shiny new Kona Sutra and booked a flight to Laredo, Texas.
I’d be relying on muscle memory from 64 years and 15,000 miles of riding. But my muscles were no longer remembering as clearly. I’m a “trepid” traveler — mechanically disinclined, socially awkward, terrified of insects.
There’s also the matter of the weather. Posters on bike boards warned of 20–25 mph winds, tornadoes, and biblical hail. The Great Plains, particularly in late spring, is the windiest region in the country, a climatologist confirmed.
I originally figured to ride from Canada to Mexico. Instead I charted a reverse course to take advantage of prevailing winds from the south. I figured I’d need every advantage. It also made sense to begin, not end, in early May in southern Texas where the thermometer by June climbs to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The whole country, it seems, is laid out — and thinks — east to west. It’s something about the gold rush and the frontier. I’d be out for an entirely different logic.
It was 100 degrees Fahrenheit when I arrived in Laredo. I hadn’t even begun riding, and I was already a sizzling fajita.
Laredo may be the least diverse city in America. It’s 98 percent Hispanic, according to the docent at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, where I was the only visitor. Seven — not six — flags have flown over Laredo. The Republic of the Rio Grande’s flag lasted all of 283 days.
The tacos down here have strange names: deshebrada, picadillo, lengua, tripas. I was seduced, however, by the tacky-sounding corn-in-a-cup, a staple topped with varying combinations of lime juice, crème fraîche, shaved parmeson, chile powder, and lots of mayonnaise.
My departure was unceremonious. A guard at the Mexico border reluctantly obliged my request to snap my photo. “Demasiado” (too much), his colleague admonished.
I cycled north along a stretch of import shops selling brightly colored lawn ornaments fabricated from sheet metal. I stopped at a shop specializing in devotional candles and Frida Kahlo ephemera. Jerry, the store’s manager, asked where I was headed. “The border with Canada,” I told him. “At least, that’s the concept.”
The towns in western Texas look like something out of the set of The Walking Dead, with their abandoned storefronts glass and brick shells of their former selves. “Please come again” read a sign in a store in Childress that had been closed for years.
Menard has the state’s third-highest rate of unemployment. That actually lures the work averse, said Christy Eggleston, executive director of the local chamber, who said eligibility for unemployment is based on a town’s opportunities, and Menard has none.
I called ahead for a room at the White Wing Motel in Asherton, a man camp for oil and gas workers. “Please note that the WW is the only place between Carrizo Springs and Laredo, and that’s a long haul,” its website warned, and I listened.
I got a hero’s welcome from Martika Hernandez, who proclaimed me the motel’s first bicycle lodger. Martika confided that she had been diagnosed three years ago with a brain tumor. She said she was in a “dark place” and worried about losing her vision but was focusing on the moment. She had a big beautiful smile, even when telling her story. Martika told me of things to see and touch along my way.
The next morning I met her dad, George, who told me the story of the Devil’s Spine, a nearby place where big storms are said to originate. The storms somehow always skip Asherton and nearby Uvalde. The devil apparently can’t reach his spine when scratching.
Cycling through Texas is all about shoulders and semis. The former came and went without warning whereas the latter had no patience for small rigs like me. Some 18-wheelers blared their horns from 100 yards away while others delighted in waiting until they were about to overtake me. I was pulled over by a trooper on the grounds that I was riding on the roadway instead of the broken-up shoulder. The traffic calmed farther north, although I continued to get lectures on cyclists’ proper place in the universe.
Southwest Texas, with its bountiful thickets of prickly pear cactus, seemed subtropical. Farther north I passed dry riverbeds and rich red and gold canyonlands. Mexican hats, flowers with mahogany red petals edged in yellow, resembled sombreros.
I got my first workout north of Uvalde on the edge of the Texas Hill Country, where I followed the Frio River through groves of cypress, pecan, piñion, and mountain laurel.
Texas is chock-full of curiosities. In Aspermont I visited one of only three Cold War–era underground high schools that are still in use. It’s a bunker with windowless corridors and huge fans for ventilation. Near Wellington I navigated the bridge where, in June 1933, Bonnie and Clyde had missed a detour sign, plunging into the dry riverbed below.
I came upon an impossibly large cross outside of Ballinger. There was a guestbook for the faithful. I contemplated asking for a ride free of flats, but, because I am a heathen, I thought better of it. I got my first of two flats the next day.
I made a rare detour off 83 in Canadian, Texas, to visit a group of bulb-headed aliens, a bearded centaur, Jesus, and a mostly naked cheerleader — outsider art all in concrete.
I was now in ranch and farm country. Texas is famous for its brisket, and there’s none better than the Shed BBQ in Abilene, where owner Stacie Stephenson saw to it that I was properly fed and gave me an inspirational Christian tract for spiritual sustenance.
A week on the road and there was already a sameness to the cuisine: I could only take so many throwback salad bars with sneeze guards. I swore off chicken-fried steak forever.
Forget getting your kicks on Route 66. The Mother Road may have the brand, but 83 is the “Last American Highway,” opined Stew Magnuson, author of a book with that title. He sees 83 as a largely unchanged journey through time.
Any road trip worth its salt — in my case, sweat — has at least one Elvis sighting. Teresa Caldwell, a guide at the iconic U Drop Inn café and visitor center in Shamrock, where 66 and 83 meet up, claims that Elvis once occupied the very corner booth where we sat chatting. One of her friends, Kim, at age three accidentally ran over Elvis’s foot on her bicycle. So she said. I believed her.
Two weeks on the road and I was still in Texas. Not to worry, I reassured friends and family, Texas accounts for 40 percent of the trip’s total miles.
Then, at last, Oklahoma! The Panhandle was dry and dusty, and there was little to distract me. Turpin and Bryan’s Corner came and went quickly. In 37 miles, I was in Kansas.
Kansas, with its windblown plains and limestone hills, was at times mesmerizing, at times stultifyingly tedious.
Kansas has 10 million acres of wheat, and it seemed as if I rode past every last bushel. I played mental games to combat the monotony of Groundhog Day landscapes. I cycled bird by bird — writer Anne Lamott’s way of saying one step at a time. For me, each bird was a dotted white line.
Long-legged spider-like contraptions stalked the fields, dispensing water pumped from an underground aquifer, and devices that resembled nodding heads dipped into the ground for oil.
It was in the high 90s, and folks cooled off in huge municipal swimming pools.
I stopped at a rare tourist attraction along the Road to Nowhere. The Land of Oz, in Liberal, is a trippy walk down the Yellow Brick Road with life-size versions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. There’s even a tornado simulator. I snapped a photo with tour guide Jessica, who was Oz’s first Hispanic “Dorothy.”
Today was a layover day so I visited the International Pancake Day Hall of Fame. Every Fat Tuesday, 20 ladies don skirts and scarves, grab skillets, and race down Liberal’s Pancake Boulevard, flipping flapjacks. There’s no end to the cheesy artifacts.
I had a tailwind six days out of seven. I felt as if I were riding an eBike. It was all too easy until I noticed a persistent noise from my bike’s drivetrain.
I limped my way to a reputed full-service bike store — the Tinker Shop in Garden City, where two 70-somethings tinker with everything from vacuum cleaners to outboard motors. Tinker #1 didn’t think I had a problem, but then again, he said, he is hard of hearing. Tinker #2 booked me an appointment with a local chiropractor who turned out to know about more than just backs. I was okay, but my chain was fatigued. Dr. Rupt performed triage to get me to the next bike shop 240 miles up the road.
Besides being mechanically disinclined, I am camping averse. No mosquito netting after a hard day’s ride for this fella.
The motels I stayed in shared a certain sameness. That is, until I happened upon the Free Breakfast Inn (its actual name) in Oakley. Owner Jeffrey Harsh told me his place is on an energy grid with healing properties. Out front, nymphs sat atop gigantic columns by a broken-down Mexican tour bus. Think Sanford and Son on acid. “I’m a naturopath,” Harsh said. “God created me. I do what He says.”
Three weeks on the road and it was getting warmer, if that was possible — 102, 104, 106 degrees Fahrenheit. I went from fajita to fireball. I was in a zone, and hydrated, so I managed. The nightly weather forecasts routinely threatened 50 mph winds, pounding rain, and hail endangering man, beast, and structure. Fortunately, the monsoon-like rains all occurred at night or during layovers. I avoided any and all precipitation for my entire 52 days of travel. It was uncanny, really. The devil must have a particularly long spine here in the High Plains and prairies.
Hail in the plains varies in size, I’m told, from a quarter or ping pong ball to a softball. I mercifully got no direct evidence save for golf ball–sized hail someone kept in a freezer. It had fallen only a few nights earlier.
It became hillier as I approached Nebraska. But I had my sea legs, and my muscles were beginning to remember. I stopped referring to my goal of reaching Canada as a concept.
“There’s nothing out there … I mean nothing. It gives me anxiety just driving through it,” warned Shayla of the upcoming Cornhusker State, from the last big town in Kansas.
Nebraska has more cattle than people. I rode by feedlots — way stations where cattle are fattened en route to the slaughterhouse. “Eat beef, keep slim,” read a gigantic sign on the side of the National Beef Processing Center. Trucks with caged livestock arrived from as far as Colorado.
In North Platte, I sampled runza, Nebraska’s signature sandwich of chopped meat and ground onions in a pocket with cabbage. It seemed like a steamed White Castle hamburger. Still, it was a welcome novelty.
Nebraska 83 skirts the Sandhills, huge dunes formed eons ago by strong winds and carpeted in more recent years with a mélange of grasses. Stark and beautiful, the Sandhills are one of the nation’s most endangered ecosystems. They appear in every direction for miles.
Valentine, in the northern part of the state, capitalizes on its name. Just put your V-day card in a larger envelope and local postal workers will return it with a Valentine inscription and a rubber stamp. People write in from as far as China. It’s clearly a labor of love. “We’re part of rural America,” said postmaster Arlene Paulson. Arlene invites art students to design the cachets, affording them recognition.
A clerk at a motel unexpectedly appeared with egg salad, fruit, and assorted pastries. She grabbed my bag of dirty laundry — one of many acts of kindness.
But it wasn’t all roses. A shop owner made assumptions about my politics. “I’m Deplorable Number 1 and this is Deplorable Number 2,” he said, pointing to a friend and referring to Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet. Refusing to be baited, I changed the channel.
Four states down, two to go. I entered the unsigned Rosebud Sioux Reservation just over the state line in South Dakota. I asked directions from Red Dawn Foster, who, it turned out, is introducing a bike-share program as part of a larger plan for sustainability. Back home after college, she’s throwing her lot in with her people.
The wind changed its mind and remained in a contrary mood clear to the finish line: I regularly sliced through winds from the north at 17–20 mph. Headers are worse than hills — they can sap your spirit if you let them. I avoided looking ahead at the unchanging sightline. I counted my blessings: I was dry, and nothing hurt.
The sky grew menacing as I left Pierre, the state capital. “It’s a code red,” some guy told me. Tornado? Fireball? Meteor? He wasn’t sure. I never found out.
I cycled past umpteen water towers, farmers’ co-ops, and impossibly large grain elevators.
Gettysburg, South Dakota, bills itself as “where the battle wasn’t.” But the guest directory at my motel warned against cleaning guns in the rooms. So I didn’t.
In Selby, blond-haired, blue-eyed families — the region is decidedly Germanic — enjoy cones at Mr. Bob’s Drive-in. Agar, a billboard announced, is "Home of the 1977 State B Track Champions."
No-see-ums, black dots whose sole purpose is to bite and annoy, were virulent. I counted 47 bites, both real and imagined.
Road Trip USA’s Jensen described the 265 miles on U.S. 83 through North Dakota as epic plains too green or too golden-hued to process rationally. I didn’t quibble.
I rode through an area populated descendants of Bavarian-born Catholic farmers who fled the Russian Empire in the 1800s. I sampled the Fleischküchle — gravy-laden ground beef fried in dough.
I came upon only a handful of other long-distance cyclists the entire length of the Road to Nowhere. All were riding east to west or along the Lewis & Clark Trail. “Welcome to” and “leaving” signs at times appeared only hundreds of yards apart or, as The Last American Highway’s Magnuson put it, “Town is created in the middle of nowhere. Railroad passes it. Town dies.”
Sometimes I was lost in my thoughts, other times I found myself in the stillness. Colby became Sublette became Friend became Shallow Water, each important in its moment, only to fade to memory. I discovered the spaces between the places.
North of Bismarck I passed the Coal Creek Station, the largest power plant in the state. I saw the ravages of coal and strip mines.
Then Minot — the final city of any size before Canada. I continued due north past a military base that controls hundreds of nuclear missiles hidden underground all over the High Plains.
Twenty-one more miles and I was in Westhope, the last of the wide spots on the road that had entered and exited my world in the past seven weeks. Only one car passed me the final six miles.
At 8:13 pm on June 19, 2018, I reached Nowhere — a single-building border station so small it closes at 9:00 pm. I solicited a photo. The lone guard obliged.
I wondered if this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. I couldn’t find even a puddle in which to dip the wheels of my bicycle. So I just turned them in the direction of my next bike ride.
Nuts and Bolts: U.S. Highway 83
To avoid brief dual-signed interstate sections, take:
- Laredo, Texas: 83/I-35 frontage road north of the city
- Junction, Texas: State 481 south of town (avoids all but three miles of 83/I-10)
- Murdo, South Dakota: Old 83 (State 248) via Draper, parallel to I-90/83
- Bismarck, North Dakota: Old 83 (County 10) to/from Sterling, east of the city
Two worthwhile scenic bypasses:
- Abilene, Texas: 131/151/Buffalo Gap Rd south of the city, looping back to 83
- Selby, South Dakota, to Bismarck, North Dakota: State 1806 along the Missouri River (100-plus miles with few services)
Extend your trip 450 miles by riding 83 in its entirety from Brownsville, Texas, to Swan River, Manitoba (Canada 83). The first 70 miles in Texas dovetails with interstates.
How to get there
Start in Laredo, Texas, and end at the border with Canada, 70 miles north of Minot, North Dakota. Both Laredo and Minot are served by major airlines. You might find cheaper flights by taking a train to or from Minot to hubs in Chicago or Minneapolis.
When to go
April–June, if going north, October–November if going south, to take advantage of prevailing winds. You’ll be cycling through Tornado Alley in the spring. I did this trip in seven weeks, but it can easily be done in as few as five.
Mind-numbingly flat to gently rolling with some large hills in a few places. All paved.
Long distances (50–85 miles) between water sources, so plan accordingly.
Where to stay
Clean, inexpensive indie motels. The Leakey Inn in Leakey, Texas (leakeyinn.com), hosts lots of cyclists doing the Southern Tier. Iversen’s Inn in Murdo, South Dakota, (iverseninn.com) has a great collection of classic lunchboxes. There are occasional campsites and a few Warmshowers hosts in the larger cities.
Best to be self-reliant. The only full-service shops are in Laredo and Abilene, Texas; North Platte, Nebraska; Pierre, South Dakota; and Bismarck and Minot, North Dakota.
Pioneer Auto Museum, Murdo, South Dakota; Golden Spike Tower, North Platte, Nebraska; and Ludwig Welk Farmstead outside of Strasburg, North Dakota. Starved for kitsch? Visit the Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 20,000 miniaturized pieces.
- The Last American Highway (three volumes) by Stew Magnuson
- Slow Road to Brownsville by David Reynolds
- Empire of the Summer Moon, a compelling account of the struggle for control of the American West, by S.C. Gwynne.
This story originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.