I was sitting on the porch with a buddy talking about beer. It’s a favorite topic of ours and we can carry on for hours. At one point he asked me what was the best beer I’ve had so far this year. I hemmed and hawed and ultimately couldn’t come up with anything that stood out enough to be the best. The conversation moved on to other things but the best beer question was stuck in my head. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the best beer I’ve had in any given year, except for 2015. That was a special one, let me explain.
I was six days into what would turn out to be an eleven week bike tour from Colorado to North Carolina. With the cool hills of Colorado behind me, I was now significantly into crossing Kansas. I had underestimated just how goddamn hot the prairie could be in July. A steady crosswind blew hard against my left side all day, every day. It offered no respite from the heat. Some days it blew so hard that I would tack across the road like a sailboat just to try and get some advantage. Hot, humid and windy. This is what I imagined being insides somebody’s mouth must feel like. It was wheat harvesting season and various farm equipment moved about all day. Combines lumbered through the fields and pickup trucks filled with workers drove by in every direction. A steady flow of big trucks heading out to the fracking fields passed too close every time. Why do they always have to pass so fucking close? Kansas, the breadbasket and gas pump of middle America.
Shady spots were hard to find along the road. Even with the shadows getting a little longer in the late day sun, it was often a few miles in between patches of shade. I was roasting on the bike all day. My route took me purposely out of the way, where towns were a little further apart. I chose this route because it was completely different than the Adventure Cycling route. Not there was anything wrong with their way, but I wanted to meet people who may have never seen bicycle tourists before. Get to to know them without preconceived notions and have, what I considered, a more full experience. One of the experiments and goals of this ride was simply to wave and say hello to everyone I saw, just to see what happens.
I couldn’t tell ya exactly where I was at this point of my trip. My memory isn’t that good. Unfortunately most cliches are based on truth and everything really does look the same in Kansas. But one benefit of the homogeneous landscape was that it gave me plenty of time to think. I thought a lot about the demise of the family farm as I passed one factory farm and stock yard after another. I pedaled through towns that were still dots on the map but were nothing but modern day ghost towns with only a few scattered residents. Staring down at the white line for hours I would get angry, then a little sad and often lost in my thoughts as I pondered just about how complex the issue really is. The Walmart of the prairie, crushing the little guy in the name of progress. Manifest Destiny, the sequel.
It was later in the day and I saw a farmer a ways off in a field inside his combine. I waved, and to my surprise he waved back. I didn’t think to much about it and kept staring down at that damn white line. About 20 minutes later, a pickup truck pulls along side me and flags me down. We both pull over and to my surprise, the farmer from a few miles back jumps out. An older guy, maybe in his fifties with round face and a bald head under a poorly fitting baseball cap.
“Saw ya back there and thought you could probably use a cold beer. I figured since there ain’t no turns on this road for 12 more miles, you’d be pretty easy to track down.”
I reply “No shit? That would be great!”
Then he reaches into a cooler in the truck bed and throws me a can. I stare at it for a long second. It was an ice cold Keystone Light. Knowing where I was in the world, I quickly scan the can and my facial expression must have changed just enough for him to say:
“Yeah, I know it’s 3.2% but I can drink those things all damn day and still drive. So it’s OK by me!”
It’s more than OK. I crack the can and poured it down my throat. It was so damn cold that it made my chest hurt. I winced and coughed a little bit in between gulps. We both had a good laugh. He asked me where I was heading and I said North Carolina. He just laughed again and said “That’s a hell of a long ways away. Good luck, buddy”. Then he got back in his truck, did a u-turn and drove back to his field.
I was so caught off guard by the whole situation that I failed to even get the man’s name. The thought of him stopping his combine, walking to his truck and driving down the road to give a cold beer to a stranger is amazing. I owe a farmer in western Kansas a beer some day.
So there ya have it. The best beer of 2015, and maybe to date, was a 3.2% Keystone Light while standing on a country road in the middle of Kansas. Beer elitists and arm chair Cicerones will scoff, but you had to be there…