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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.