Summer 2006

Road Trip


The prairie is silent as a church prayer.

I am thinking about last night’s shooting star, arcing across the Flint Hills night, its phosphorescent-green trail striking somewhere unknown. As the sun skims the horizon, townsfolk are sipping morning coffee and flipping through the small town weekly. My motorcycle rises over the hills and falls into the valleys, thin jeans rippling and the whistling wind tugging at my raggedy beard.

Out here in Nowhere, Kansas, there’s room to think as you sweep through the bosomy curves. About the bluegrass jam and the evening spent at a friend’s cabin on the lake. Looking forward to the buffet breakfast at the end of the dawn ride. Regretting the long journey home, zipping past the grass seas of a prehistoric time.

Motorcyclists travel for many reasons. To get cheaply from Point A to B. To gather in clans of fellow riders to celebrate friendships and relive memories. To be at one with nature’s elements. To create a self-image or escape the past. To revel in their iconoclasm, showing disdain for the less adventurous and ordinary fools stuck in a rut.

There is much to recommend this mind-set. For those truly living on the edge of society, there is the outsider’s righteous freedom. For others the novelty of being middle-aged and bored, yet able to afford trendy transportation, makes them feel superior for a few hours a week.

I ride to refill my brain. While many people jump on a motorcycle to get away from the cares of life, I find hours on the asphalt a time to rethink my life: my family, my work, my place in the world. Some great insights have come while doing 80 down the Interstate or munching slowly through gravel on a backwoods lane.

You must be crazy to ride a motorcycle, right?

Disbelievers say the same thing to skydivers, channel swimmers, mountain climbers, firewalkers and all sorts of people who pit their bodies against unforgiving roads, the stratosphere, deep waters, blazing coals and the Alps. People who take more risks than normal naturally live adventurous personal and professional lives. We kick down the boxes that might otherwise trap us. Take a walk on the wild side. Live life to the fullest. Try to bring as many others as possible along on the ride.

On another morning mission my brother Pat calls, waking me an hour early. Oozing groggily from bed, I pulled on thin jeans and a T-shirt, Harley riding boots, and the thick leather jacket with the long scrapes on the back, testimony to a time and place where my bike and a wretched railroad crossing had an argument — and I kissed the concrete.

Thirty-something minutes later we slow and enter  El Dorado (land of the Conquistadores!) and pull into the dusty parking lot of the Edge O’ Town restaurant for hot coffee, omelets, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy.

A light mist rises above El Dorado Lake as we zip over an elevated causeway. On the north bank of Satchel Creek, near a purple pick-up, a check-shirted fisherwoman is casting her line; perfect crappie fishing is perched on either side of the road. It’s too early for the speed boaters to ruin the tranquility.

Too soon, the loamy prairie grass heats up as the sun promises a summer scorcher. Hawks screech overhead and a smooshed fox bakes on the concrete, heat waves hugging the highway. We ride inches above, lusting in the natural beauty.

A few miles outside Cassoday, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe comes hurtling past on the right. The grinning engineer pulls out five long whistle blasts for the waves of motorcycles zooming past. Telephone poles alongside the tracks are angled in a neat row, mirroring the prairie winds that push on them constantly.

A twist of the throttle sends us rocketing down the road.

At Cassoday — population 95 — several thousand motorcycles of all description are spread over streets and parks. Some seem held together with wire and duct tape, others are $35,000-plus custom choppers with ape-hanger handlebars, psychedelic paint jobs, low-slung hand-stitched seats and enough chrome to blind Kojak.

The thousands of riders who gather here monthly are milling about in a sea of jackets and bandanna plumage, admiring machines and snapping photos of their favorites. Others stand in line for Cassoday’s famed breakfast. A handful of booths sell motorcycle trinkets and T-shirts. The dyno machine is popular, as riders pay a fee to find out what kind of horsepower and torque their ride can kick out. The groaning engines of the off-the-dealer’s-floor bikes can’t compete with the earsplitting roar of nitrous oxide-fueled sport bikes.

I wonder, as I wander down the main drag with wife Laura (a rider in her own right) whether I could get a bunch of my students up here for a field trip. It would make for a nice reporting assignment. Something outside the safety of campus. Something outside their realm of expectations. Yeah. Sounds good. Road trip.