Solitude and Scenery: Riding West Kansas

West Kansas motorcycle ride
U.S. Route 36 is my favorite road in Kansas. This section in the central part of the state typifies the view from behind the handlebars. Photos by the author.

Kansas is sometimes thought of as part of the “fly-over zone,” a place that doesn’t matter much in the bigger scheme of things. I knew this perception to be inaccurate, at least on the east side of the state where I’d ridden extensively. But did it apply in the west? To find out, I saddled up my trusty Suzuki V-Strom and headed southwest out of Kansas City on Interstate 35.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
Energy production is a major activity across Kansas. Oil rigs, such as this one outside of Hutchinson, dot fields and pastures.

The freeway becomes a toll road at Emporia, as good a reason as any to exit. There, U.S. Route 50 separates and rolls into the heart of the Flint Hills, a 50-mile-wide swath of flint, limestone and shale topped by fertile soil that runs from northern Kansas to Oklahoma. The 10,894-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve represents a tiny fraction of the 256 million acres of grassland that once covered North America. One hundred and fifty years ago, Native Americans roamed the prairies and bison were the dominant herbivore. Today, most is in the hands of cattle ranchers managing a herd more than six million strong. Cows outnumber Kansans two to one.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
At some point in the distant past, a submarine would have been necessary to visit Monument Rocks. Nowadays, a motorcycle works just fine.

Riding south on Kansas State Highway 177’s gently rolling pavement, I was struck by the barren beauty of the Hills. At El Dorado, I pointed the Strom’s front wheel north on U.S. Route 77. By the time I swung east on U.S. Route 56 at Herington, the near-100-degree heat was getting to me.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
It was so hot on my ride through the Flint Hills that I gave serious thought to jumping the fence and taking a dip myself.

A sign advertising the Hays House restaurant in Council Grove caught my eye. I wasn’t hungry, but since the place had been in continuous operation since 1857, it needed to be checked out. I rode down Main Street—the old Santa Fe Trail—and imagined myself a lone cowboy, throat parched and thick with trail dust. I wrestled the Strom into a parking space. There was even a hitching post. Tapped out from the heat, I stumbled inside. When the server asked what I’d have, I rasped “iced tea.” Four of them revived me. After an excellent grilled chicken and rice lunch, I toured what has also served as a bar, town hall, church, hotel, post office and a host of other functions during its 159-year history.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
Did I mention the Flint Hills were hot? Aerostich suits pass a lot of cooling air, but my wicking base layer was still soaked.

The next morning I picked up U.S. 50 again and veered southwest toward Hutchinson, where the Kansas Christian Motorcyclists Association State Rally was being held at the state fairgrounds. As I rode into town a sign on a red brick building claiming “Best Breakfast in Town!” reeled me in. The bike-friendly Fire House Café occupies an honest-to-gosh converted fire station, and the food is good, too.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
The server at the Fire House Café was kind enough to let me pull the Strom onto the sidewalk for a picture.

A strong thunderstorm blew in that night, and in the morning I left the Strom secure under its cover and took a rainy walk to see what restaurants were open. I didn’t have to go far. Just outside the fairgrounds gate was Skaets Steak Shop. A group was already gathering out front, one of them the cook. She said, “We don’t open till six, but go on in and pour yourself some coffee…everybody else does.” Now, that’s my kind of place.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
I’m a sucker for Kansas courthouses, and Rice County’s ranks among the most attractive. But the farther west you travel, the plainer they get.

After saying good-bye to my fellow rally goers, I headed northwest on K-14. Like all of the roads I encountered, this one was in fine condition. I stopped long enough in the town of Lyons to photograph the beautiful Rice County Courthouse. Many Kansas courthouses are architectural masterpieces, particularly in the east. A few blocks away, the bright yellow Scrambled Sam’s beckoned. It was near closing time, but the owner still whipped up a thick-cut BLT for me. My belly full, I pushed harder toward the setting sun.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody earning his namesake, depicted in larger-than-life bronze—nine thousand pounds’ worth—at the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center in Oakley.

The western third of Kansas is classified High Plains. There the road is straight, true and lonely; satisfying in its own way. Fat cattle dotted the fields and munched grass just beginning to show an autumn gold color. At times, windmills and oil rigs shared the cows’ domain. A powerplant appeared to be fueled by manure; several in Kansas are. But the only evidence that this particular one recycled the abundant byproduct was from my nose.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
To me, businesses like Nickels Diner represent the pioneer spirit the West is famous for. Any new venture on the High Plains is fraught with risk.

Lake Scott State Park was my destination for the night. The area was once a favorite stopover of migrating Plains Indians due to its abundant water. The terrain is rugged and like nothing I imagined I’d find, with high bluffs appearing out of nowhere. Several campgrounds reside within the park—the site I chose at Elm Grove was virtually abandoned.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
When I saw this Standard station in Strong City, I was once again 10 years old, and riding in my parents’ ’68 Chevy. Were the cars abandoned? I never found out.

Heavy dew on my tent the next morning gave the impression of overnight rain. I set out in a thick fog for Monument Rocks, known locally as the Chalk Pyramids. Gravel roads leading to the site are infrequently used but fairly well maintained, and I had no problem negotiating them on the V-Strom. Still, they would be challenging in the rain, and cattle roam freely here.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
Heavy spring and early summer rains had turned the Flint Hills uncharacteristically green for August. Just 90 miles from Kansas City, they are well worth a visit.

After visiting the Pyramids, remnants of a vast inland ocean that once covered the area, I got back on U.S. Route 83 and pushed north to Oakley, home of the first-class Buffalo Bill Cultural Center. But before I visited the shrine to the frontiersman, I stopped at the Nickels Diner, so new that the sign was being painted as I rode up. Breakfast had just ended, but the owner offered to heat up a burrito for me. That’s when my mouth overrode my brain. “Frozen?” I quizzed. “What…no, I’ll have you know I make everything from scratch.” Another customer recommended the cinnamon rolls, also homemade, excellent and reasonably priced. And in spite of the bumpy introduction, the owner and her husband cued me in on the finer points of plains life: the people, economy, weather, and of particular interest to a tent camper like me, the rattlesnakes.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
I’m in the middle of nowhere, standing by a sunflower fabricated from railroad spikes. Mount Sunflower is one of those places we ride to just to say we did.

Designated a National Scenic Byway, U.S. Route 40 was a major artery across Kansas before Interstate 70 was constructed. One place I would recommend is the Fort Wallace Museum. The fort operated from 1865 to 1882, charged with protecting settlers over a vast area covering western Kansas and eastern Colorado. The original rendition was demolished in 1886, but an historical society is constructing a scaled-down replica as part of the museum complex.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
U.S. 36 on the east side of Kansas. Interstate 70 may be faster, but the few hours shaved also cut into the reason we hit the road in the first place.

The skies were clear as I set out for Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas at 4,039 feet. Like Monument Rocks, the site is on private property. Located a mile or so from the Colorado border and just off Washboard Road, it is basically a high knoll with a fine view of Colorado. Actually, the road wasn’t much worse than many paved streets around my northwest Indiana home.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
Unlike Mount Sunflower, there were lots of people at the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States. One was kind enough to take my picture.

I worked my way back to K-27 on graded gravel, then north to U.S. Route 36. What a beautiful road! From Missouri to Colorado, U.S. 36 clocks 392 miles of smooth, lightly traveled pavement and offers a slice of the various geographic zones of Kansas. The western end is straight and flat, and the middle, while still straight, rolls gently among stunning panoramic views. The eastern end keeps on rolling and features cuts in the limestone formations that are prevalent on that side of the state.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
I’m not sure if this Harley rider on U.S. 36 was Sturgis bound, but wherever he was headed the road was a fine one.

Numerous side trips wait just off the roadway. One is the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States, where I stood in the middle of it all. An original Pony Express Station is another attraction. From St. Joseph, Missouri, to Maryville, Kansas, U.S. 36 follows the original route and is named in honor of the mail service. And though it only operated from 1860 to 1861, the contribution of its teenage riders is forever burned into the American psyche. A famous period advertisement says it all: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” I like to think guys up to that challenge would be drawn to motorcycles were they alive today.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
Coming at you, the Pony Express! The mail service didn’t run for long, but oh what a legacy it left. This sculpture is in Marysville.

Since it was early August, I met scores of riders headed for Sturgis as I pushed east. To their credit, most were riding rather than trailering their machines. A big Dodge pulling a trailer full of vintage bikes was the exception. The driver, a South African, explained that the load would soon be aboard a container ship bound for England. The Brits would rebuild the motorcycles that had languished unloved in some Kansas pole barn.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
In my mind’s eye, I can see exhausted ponies tethered in the very spot where the Strom is parked at the Hollenberg Pony Express Station.

Altogether, I covered all but 32 miles of U.S. 36 in Kansas. I exited on K-7, a Kansas Scenic Byway, on its north end, filled with curves, but not nearly long enough to balance the wear the straight roads of the west had inflicted on the center of my tires. I hit Leavenworth and loads of traffic at 5:00 p.m., apparently just in time for the shift change at the prison. It wasn’t unbearable, but I’ll take the solitude of the High Plains any time. I can’t wait to go back.

West Kansas motorcycle ride
A map of the ride route, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Enjoyed the write up, we traveled via KS 36 a few years ago to see friends in IL. In 2018 we plan on doing it again, but our destination will be Hannibal, MO. to take a Paddlewheeler Dinner Cruise, then head to Kansas City, MO. to vist the H-D Sportster Plant as we ride a 2014 883 Sportster Super Low, set up for touring, (always 2 up)! Thanks for bringing back some good memories! 🙂

  2. Glad you liked the story. I enjoyed researching it. Kansas is a fine state with big spaces and great people. I never get tired of of riding there. Missouri is another favorite of mine. As a matter of fact, I’ll be moving there in three years. I’ve toured the Kansas City H-D plant twice. It’s easy to get to and well worth a visit.

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