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Common Tread

On election day, I elected to ride

Nov 11, 2016

When you were voting last Tuesday, I was out riding my motorcycle. On election day, I elected to ride.

I could not possibly count the number of times I’ve refreshed my browser since the beginning of the U.S. presidential primaries. I’ve become a political junkie; to the point — no, way past the point — of affecting my productivity.

In my limited defense, politics is marketing, politicians are products, and political parties are brands. After a long career in advertising (and, I admit, some communications-strategy work in local politics), part of my obsession can be excused as professional interest.

But here’s the thing: I’m a Canadian. So when I elected to ride, I didn’t squander my vote; I don’t get one.

We’ve had a suspiciously warm November here in Kansas City. I’m still shaking down a new-to-me 1989 Honda Hawk, and I wanted to put a few more miles on it before finalizing my winter to-do list.

And, there was this: I thought every cop in the country would be tasked with keeping an eye on polling stations, leaving the roads free and clear. You have to admit, it was plausible.

The question of where to ride came down to this: Where would the curve-phyllic Hawk come into its own, within an hour or two of Kansas City? Answer: The Flint Hills of Kansas.

Destination: The Volland Store, perhaps the world’s least likely art gallery, in the ghost town of Volland, Kansas, on the old K-10 state road between Alma and Alta Vista. If you’ve never heard of any of those places, don’t feel less of yourself; their heydays were long before your time. But the Volland Store had been on my mind for a bit, because it has an obscure motorcycle connection that I’ll get to later.

Volland Store
In honor of Otto Kratzer and his epic journey, Tom Strongman, a retired automotive columnist for the Kansas City Star newspaper, recently curated an exhibit in the Volland Store, which has been converted into a beautiful, if unlikely, art gallery. Photo by Tom Strongman.

It may have been warm for November, but it was not warm in absolute terms. I picked out a leather and Gore-Tex combination of good Triumph gear they provided for a feature story I wrote years ago, threw a camera and notebook into a magnetic tankbag, made sure I had some small bills and quarters for tolls, and rolled out with a scrawled set of directions to Volland.

The day’s ride would take me past several historical reminders that political conflict is not a new development in 2016. The fastest route from my neighborhood to Interstate 70 took me across Troost Avenue, which used to be a “redline” — a line dividing the neighborhood to the east, where banks would loan money to African-American homeowners, from the neighborhood to the west, where mortgages were reserved for whites. A van with a loudspeaker parked at the corner of Troost and 39th urged passersby to vote, in a staticy and disembodied voice.

“I would if I could,” I said inside my helmet.

Once I got onto I-70, I was quickly across the Kansas River and into the state of Kansas. I passed the big NASCAR track on the outskirts of the metro area and pounded west. The speed limit of 75 mph was about enough on a bike with no wind protection.

Why did I not check Accuweather? I wondered that, as I rode towards a bank of heavy clouds. There was the slightest skim of moisture on the road, but I came out from under the clouds into bright sunshine. An alert whitetail doe watched the road from a nearby ridgeline. She reminded me that I almost never traverse this stretch of Kansas without seeing smashed carcasses on the highway.

The Hawk’s flat exhaust note was steady for the next hour and as I put on a few more miles, I came to trust the bike more and more. Comfort in such a setting was hardly expected. Or discovered.

I passed the exit for Lecompton. In 1855, it became the capital of the Kansas Territory. Within a couple of years, the process of creating a territorial constitution was paralyzed by infighting among pro- and anti-slavery politicians. Lecompton was a big topic in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was argued in the U.S. House of Representatives. It caused a split in the Democratic Party, opening the road for Lincoln and the (still new) Republican Party. Now, Lecompton bills itself as “Where the Civil War started,” as if that’s a good thing.

The Hawk’s got some rust down at the bottom of its fuel tank, so I don’t like to run it on reserve and risk sucking rust particles into the fuel line. Around 100 miles after its last fill-up, I pulled off the highway and topped it off, taking a moment to grab a coffee and the tiniest snack from Dunkin Donuts. The guy behind the counter was probably 50. He asked me where I was ridin’ to, and told me that he had commuted to work that day on his Harley and expected to ride it all winter; he had no choice, since his truck wasn’t running.

Kansas roads
In Kansas, getting to interesting curves involves a lot of this. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
I approached Topeka, where in 1951 the case of Brown v. Board of Education pitted a group of parents against Kansas’ segregated public schools. The Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. In Arkansas, the Governor called out the National Guard to prevent black students from entering a white school. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by deploying the storied 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling. I was reminded that democracy is often a messy business.

A gusting crosswind broke that train of thought. I remembered a lesson from the Isle of Man; I squeezed the motorcycle with my legs and relaxed my grip on the clip-ons, which helped.

fence post
I passed a farm with hundreds of decorated fence posts. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
I turned off I-70, heading southwest into the Flint Hills on K-4. It was the first paved highway in the state. Signs now mark it as the “Native Stone Scenic Byway,” a nod to a previous century’s stonecutting industry. Across the prairies, it’s common to come across wooden barns and farmhouses, succumbing to gravity and those winds, but in these parts, they’re built of dressed limestone; a century is nothing.

As I worked my way south I came at last to a few meaningful curves, though they mostly had turn-eight-at-Willow-Springs profiles. I don’t like to drag my knee at over 100 miles an hour unless there’s an ambulance crew at the ready, so it was more of scenic ride than a sporting one, which was alright.

Many farm and ranch driveways were festooned with political signs, I didn’t see a single one for Clinton-Kaine. To be fair, most were for down-ballot candidates. There were few Trump-Pence signs in evidence (though I suspect that may’ve been because it went without saying.)

There was plenty of parking on the main street in Eskridge; the town’s population peaked in 1910. There’s still a food market, with three shopping carts available. That’s about as many as there’s room for at one time in the aisles. There’s still a café. Two women sat outside in the sun, smoking and carrying on a conversation so loud that I could plainly hear them a block away. Through my full-face helmet. With my ear plugs still in. One wore a T-shirt with the message, “I am not trying to be difficult.”

My Google Maps recon indicated a winding route into Volland, and I watched for Illinois Creek Road. But it wasn’t paved, and the Hawk’s no fun on gravel. So, I switched to Plan B, which was to ride south and west to Alta Vista, then turn north on Old K-10, also known as the Skyline Mill Creek Road.

Usually “blink and you’ll miss it” is a figure of speech, but I rode right through Volland without realizing it. That was fine, because it meant I had to turn around and ride back eight miles from Alma, so I traversed the best road of the day three times.

That brought me to the Volland Store and, in a roundabout way, the whole point of my ride.

Volland Store
The Hawk at Volland Store. Otto Kratzer left this very spot, in 1914, headed for San Francisco on his Indian. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

In 1904, Kratzer Bros. General Merchants opened for business in Volland. The younger of the two Kratzer brothers was Otto, who’d just turned 18. He had two hobbies, photography and motorcycles. He took many photos documenting life at the thriving store. Some nights, they stayed open until 10 p.m., so local farmers could shop after finishing their chores.

Otto Kratzer
An early selfie, as Otto Kratzer poses with an unidentified female admirer. Kratzer Archive photo.

After a few years, the brothers deemed it time to expand and Otto took on the project with gusto, blasting a hole for a new basement with dynamite. He was, as the Alma Enterprise newspaper reported, “…a dandy good boy.”

Otto Kratzer and Gene Hawes in 1914
Otto Kratzer and Gene Hawes prepare for their big trip west in 1914. Kratzer Archive photo.
In 1914, Otto and Gene Hawes — the local railway station manager — decided to ride their Indian twins from Volland to San Francisco. Their route followed the old Santa Fe trail. Their objective: the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Otto’s photographic record of that journey is a testament to a time when, I suppose, everyone was just tougher and more resourceful than I am. After all, there I was riding a bike almost 90 years newer on paved roads while thinking, “Jeez, this is kinda risky. If I break down, I might not have cell service.”

Otto and his pal got as far as Albuquerque before getting word that gasoline was impossible to find any further west along the trail. They sent their Indians back to Volland on an eastbound train, and continued west as rail passengers.

There’s still a level crossing right there in front of the store, but the station’s long gone. It was time for me to get my motorcycle back home, too.

I made a series of mental notes as I pushed it, a little harder for the last pass, through the eight winding miles north into Alma. Besides the front caliper, which needs rebuilding, I realized that the suspension’s past its sell-by date. It may be time for a trip out to visit my old suspension guru Paul Thede at Race Tech. And there was that one bump, leaned over and on the gas, that made the absence of a steering damper briefly, alarmingly evident. And tires, of course. A guy always needs tires.

Still, the Hawk proved willing. Back on I-70 as I entered Topeka from the west I saw a sign for Heartland Park and remembered a note in some Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts’ newsletter to the effect that the owners were finally repaving the track. “Next year,” I whispered to the Hawk, “I’ll take you to a track day.”

I was hungry and thirsty on the approach to Lawrence, Kansas. I longed to stop at the Free State Brewery on Massachusetts street. I slowed and pulled into the right lane telling myself that I could eat a burger and ride home slowly and safely after a single beer. But then I remembered the deer, and that I’d promised to watch the election returns with Mary, and decided it might be better to get home before dark. I raced my lengthening shadow those last 30 miles.

We listened to the returns on the radio rather than watching them on TV. Even at that, my head was pounding. It could’ve been political stress syndrome, or dehydration; I rode all day on one cup of coffee.

Here’s the thing, though: I passed several other bikers out in the Flint Hills. We all waved to each other. The Hawk ran fine (phew). But if it had broken down, I know that someone — probably the first farmer in a pickup — would’ve stopped to lend a hand. Because we are all the same people we were a year ago.