Cindy Hoedel

A Dirty Kanza adventure: Storms, mustangs and the right travel buddy

Wild mustangs were our companions when we got stranded in a rain storm while driving sections of the Dirty Kanza bicycle course through the Flint Hills.
Wild mustangs were our companions when we got stranded in a rain storm while driving sections of the Dirty Kanza bicycle course through the Flint Hills. Special to the Star

We were four hours into our back-roads expedition when all hell broke loose. The sky darkened and a barrage of rainfall coming sideways from the west sounded like an angry mob beating the car with their fists. We could no longer see the waterlogged ruts we had been carefully skirting all day.

There was nothing to do but stop, so we did. The SUV listed in the gale toward a watery ditch but the tires held their muddy ground.

I tapped the weather apps on my phone but none would load; no service. At 20- to 30-second intervals, towering cloud banks to the north flashed into view, backlighted by lighting. At least no bolts were zigzagging our way.

That’s when Dave Leiker, the photographer at the wheel, tapped the driver’s side window and said, “I think those are wild mustangs behind that fence.”

I knew what was going to happen next. He was going to get out and make art.

He raised his eyebrows apologetically and said, “The rain is coming from this side, so when I open the door, it’s going to drench everything.”

My response was swift and direct as he reached around to the back seat to grab his camera: “This is fantastic!”

And it was. Dave jumped out, I got soaked, and he got the shot.

Which just goes to show that the secret to successful roadtripping is finding the right travel buddy. It is often not your romantic partner. Later, as I recounted to my companion the day’s adventures — getting lost, running into dead ends, riding out a storm, MacGyvering tracks out of large rocks to cross fast-moving water on a flooded road — he repeatedly made a pistol shape with his fingers and pointed it at his head.

What one person thinks is a gas, gas, gas would make another person twitch with anxiety. I think it comes down to whether you are closer to zero or 100 on the spectrum of needing to be in control.

There is no right answer, but your travels will be sweeter with people who share your enthusiasm or disdain for predictable outcomes.

Which brings us to the Dirty Kanza, the mind-bendingly remote and bone-crushingly rugged 200-mile gravel road bicycle race through the Flint Hills. I was exhausted after traversing about a third of it — in a car.

The race begins and ends in Emporia on May 30, with aid stations in Madison and Cottonwood Falls. Dave and I were looking for the best spots to shoot photos and video of the grueling second leg of the course, where cyclists will confront the steepest inclines and lowest water crossings.

Look for the full story June 7 and live updates on race day at Race organizers and participating teams are using #dk200 and #decadeofdirty on Twitter.

In more than five hours and 80-plus miles, we did not encounter another vehicle. But the wildlife was out in force. In addition to wild mustangs, I saw a prairie chicken fly up out of tall grass not 10 feet in front of me. We saw a jack rabbit, a box turtle, a killdeer faking a broken wing when we got too close to its ground nest and several scissor-tailed flycatchers.

Down by the rushing creeks or up high on plateaus with 360-degree vistas, the sense of isolation was pervasive. I found myself lamenting that I do not have the bicycle or the conditioning needed to compete in the race.

But then a happy realization dawned: I live here, and I can ride the course on my fat tire, one-speed Schwinn at my own pace. That might just be a mile or two per day, a couple of days per week. If I’m lucky, I can find a riding buddy who doesn’t mind getting caught in the rain with mustangs.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and at