cowboys and steel horses

Steel Cowboy

I avoid taking long rides to hot places in August for obvious reasons. This year though, my goal is to do an article on north central Kansas from the Missouri to Colorado border. Since the Christian Motorcyclists Association state rally was slated for Hutchinson, pretty much in the center of the state, I figured I could meet with some like-mined riders and incorporate it into the story. It just happened to be in August.

To bone up on local lore, I’ve been reading a book, Prairy Erth, by William Least Heat-Moon, one of my favorite travel authors. As only he can do, Heat-Moon constructed a 500 plus page narrative based on one just county in Kansas, Chase. Cool, Chase county lies in the heart of another place I wanted to ride and write about, the Flint Hills. This is process of how I construct my riding stories; connecting bits of random ideas that pop into my head. Hopefully a salable piece emerges at the end.

So, I jumped on the Strom early yesterday morning and headed southwest on U.S. 50/ I-35. Like Heat-Moon, I too eschew the super slab; they’re useful to digest vast chunks of real estate, but lack character. Trouble is, many fine old routes like U.S. 50 are being supplanted by them.

U.S. 50

I-35 turns into a toll road at Emporia, another reason to exit. Emporia also marks the entrance into the Flint Hills. I didn’t have an itinerary, but Chase County courthouse where Heat-Moon did much of his research was a must-stop. Other than that I just rode. All told, my loop of the hills covered from Eldorado in the south, to Council Grove in the north. Tally for the day was just under 400 miles, not particularly ambitious, but given it was in the upper nineties, challenging nonetheless.

Chase Count, Kansas Courthouse

Coincidentally, the previous evening I read a list of ways to make hot weather riding safer and more enjoyable, ironically on the Rider Magazine website. Of course covering all skin was a no-brainer; my Aerostich Darien suit handles that well, with vents that pass a lot of air for cooling. I also froze a couple of bottles of Gatorade and stashed them next to the camera to remind myself to hydrate. I figured I was good to go. The suggestion I didn’t heed and should have: avoid riding during the hottest part of the day. And if you do feel heat stress coming on, get to a cool place. On a bike, that last one can save you life.

Along K-177 in the Flint Hills

Trouble is many people don’t recognize heat stress. The steel mill where I work constantly hammers away at “shared vigilance,” looking out for your co-worker under hot conditions, something my preferred ride-alone mode doesn’t allow for.

So, when I saw a sign advertising the Hays House in Council Grove, Kansas, an establishment dating from 1857 and located right on the old Sante Fe Trail to boot, I knew I had to check it out. That I wasn’t hungry didn’t enter into my thinking. After I located the place, I stumbled into a cool in more ways than one, throwback to another century. When the server asked what I’d like to drink, I forced out a barely audible “iced tea.” After four or five of them I was revived enough to take a tour of what has served as a restaurant, bar, town hall, church, hotel and  host of other functions over the years. General Custer and Billy the Kid were once customers at the bar in the lower level. Lots of story material to work with.

Hays House, Council Grove, Kansas

This whole deal has got me thinking about the connection modern motor cycle riders have with horsemen from another era. In my mind’s eye, it’s not hard to see a lone cowboy strung out from a long day on the Sante Fe Trail tying his mount up, maybe to the same hitching post I parked the Strom in front of. I like that image.



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