The early morning wind swept under my helmet as I approached seventy miles per hour and within minutes the lower half of my face was numb. The waking sun seemed to yawn and stretch as its beams caught my eye between shadows cast down from roadside trees. As I cruised down the old, line-less highway, the trees emitted a heavenly glow with the fresh sun light catching their multicolored leaves of green, orange, red, and yellow. The dew glistened on the rolling pastures of grass and fields of crops. It was as if a fairy had come in the night and sparkled the world to make a beautiful Halloween morning. The cows grazed; the goats roamed; the farmers stayed in bed a few extra hours. The countryside had awoken that morning in content tranquility.
Living creatures stopped and observed us if they were distant enough to feel safe. To them we were odd humans sitting atop loud machines, interrupting their peace. Those close to the broken edges of the pavement like rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels scurried away when we approached. To them, the noise was something created by Satan himself, something so monstrous it could kill them with a heart attack. To me, it was therapy.
The engine roared beneath me. Exhaust thundered out of the pipes. My entire body shook with the energy of a beast, the beast in my control. I gripped the vibrating handlebars and occasionally squeezed the clutch and brake with my leather-gloved hands. The more I dropped my right wrist, the faster my problems were left behind in that dinky town, the faster my hair blew behind me, the colder my face became. Papers, tests, rent, work, bills. They were all out of my mind. My left foot travelled through the gears: down one, up two, up three, up four. My right foot reluctantly pressed the brake to decelerate only when necessary while its partner descended the gears accordingly. I was free. I was peace-filled. I was happy. My smile forced my constrained cheeks upwards as I grinned the entire way from Humboldt to St. Paul.
We approached the small, rural, Southeast Kansas town in about an hour. My small two and a quarter gallon tank was begging for some fossil fuel nourishment. I signaled with my hand and made a left turn on my vintage bike. Those with turn signals used them, of course, and the five of us occupied all three pumps at the gas station. We talked about the beautiful weather and the value of our leathers during the chilly October morning as gasoline filled our machines with life.
Inside the gas station, lines of camouflage filled the isles. Opening day of duck season had brought all of the gun-bearing Kansans out of their homes early that morning. They didn't need gasoline for their adventure. No, they needed snacks. My high school classmate, Justin, happened to be one of them. He was sitting in his parked truck looking at his phone, texting, I'm sure. My uncle, P.J., loved picking on Justin. P.J. was only three years mine and Justin's senior, the same age as Tyson, Justin's older brother. P.J. and Tyson ran around together during high school. As a result, Justin found himself at the butt of P.J.'s jokes as well as Tyson's. Although P.J. had only a couple of inches to Justin's height, he out-weighed the youngster by at least thirty or forty pounds.
P.J., a six-foot, bulky, 200 pound man, approached Justin's white Ford Ranger. He wore a black stocking cap on his head, sunglasses over his eyes, and a black leather bandana that covered his mouth and neck with an upside-down triangle. On it was a cracked skull with crossbones and the words "Road Rage." His leather jacket was zipped up and his black leather gloves covered his hands. Black leather chaps were layered over his blue jeans. His steel-toed boots covered his feet. P.J. walked tall with his chest out toward the small truck. He was a walking tower of darkness; the only flesh showing was his cheeks.
When P.J. arrived at the truck's driver's side, he was able to look down on the roof. Justin, not knowing anyone had approached his truck, sat in the driver's seat and kept his eyes focused on his phone.
BANG. BANG. BANG. P.J. beat his fist on Justin's driver's side window. Justin whipped his head up and stared at the unidentified biker with eyes the size of quarters. P.J. raised his hand and pointed with four calm, but abrupt and demanding motions to Roll. The. Window. Down.
Justin cracked the glass and quickly said, "Yeah?" in a nervous voice. P.J. pulled down his bandana, took off his shades, and let out an intoxicating belly laugh. P.J.'s shoulders slouched back into their normal position, and Justin finally exhaled, smiling just a bit.
"What's wrong, pussy? You scared?" P.J. teased, not meaning any harm.
"I didn't know it was you," Justin stammered out, now with a big smile. The stereotypical bad-ass-biker had turned out to be a common face from home.
They exchanged a few short words while I finished gassing up. I had to admit P.J. could be intimidating, especially in leather from head to toe. The only way he could have looked scarier was if he was at a "dim lit" bar, characteristic of cliché motorcyclist images. He could have easily passed as a member of a bike gang by the way he acted and was dressed. Instead, he was a lighthearted jokester playing off his image, conscious of the preconceptions many people had. I felt glad to be on the same side as that ornery big kid. After all, Justin was initially pretty scared.
I walked up to the Ranger for a quick chat. Luckily, the guns were in the back, unloaded with sixteen dead ducks. I wouldn't call it smart to scare someone with firearms, but P.J. never thought twice about the risk of disaster. Soon Joab, another high school classmate, came out of the gas station. He was Justin's hunting partner. Justin deceitfully called in the prey with murderous intent, and Joab made them fall from the sky like missile stricken airplanes. Joab was extremely proud of his kill: four teal and one shoveler. He had hit limit on the opening day. Three other hunting buddies were inside. They were responsible for the remaining limp ducks.
It was time to head out once again. I departed my old friends and joined my family in our cluster of motorcycles. We formed a long, staggered line down the right side of the highway. We arrived at the Harley Davidson Training School in Frontenac, Kansas about 30 minutes later.
"What in the heck is that thing?" a man asked me as I pulled off my helmet.
"It's a Sportster," Tom said.
"What year is it?"
"It's a '78," I replied.
"Vintage. Cool. I like the seat. Shows character. What's it run?"
"1000 cc. Had it ridged when we first bought it, but Dad found the shocks. It makes the ride a whole lot smoother. It's worth it even though I can't sit flat foot. I hear we'll need 'em once we hit the Oklahoma line." I let my dad finish answering the questions about my bike from onlookers and went inside the Harley-Davidson Training School to see my little brother, Billy. He was working registration with the other first year students.
"Hey, Bill," I greeted him as the warm air and scent of black coffee filled my nostrils. My boots squeaked on the freshly waxed black and white checkerboard floor.
"Hey," he quietly replied. "So this is it, huh? I've never been able to make it down here and see your school. Manhattan has me running like crazy." My eyes were drawn to the Harley Davidson orange lines painted on the white walls.
"Yep. This is it. Wanna see my work station?" Billy asked with excitement shining in his eyes. For being a quiet boy all of his life, motorcycles could really get him talking.
We pushed through heavy "Authorized Persons Only" doors and entered the shop. Two hundred motorcycles filled the floor space and engines were stripped on work tables. Rectangular work stations where each student completed assigned maintenance and repair jobs on the practice bikes divided the huge garage into parallel rows. Personalized tool boxes of all colors identified each student's station. Billy's station couldn't be missed. In it sat a four and a half foot bright orange Snap-On toolbox with the letters S-C-H-O-M-A-K-E-R sprawled across the front. He proudly presented the engine he had been working on during his lab, exposing its innards. We browsed and looked at some bikes, and then Billy showed me the rest of his school (which consisted of only a few classrooms designed for no more than twenty-five students). It had only been in operation for five years. Although the school was small, it was very modern and specific to the program. Impressed didn't begin to explain my reaction.
We made our way back to the registration area and met my dad on the shiny checkerboard floor. He paid for his own five poker hands and me and Billy's two hands each. The hands consisted of only a piece of paper to be signed at every stop. At the end of the poker run, if the paper was signed three times (once at every stop) you could draw your poker hand and possibly win prizes.
Billy unloaded his bike from the red, single bike trailer while Dad and I joined the family crew by our bikes. Billy had driven to Frontenac early that morning to help out and took his bike so he could ride in the afternoon. We all dressed in our layers of leather and protective gear once again. I pulled on my silver helmet and boarded my one passenger dark grey Harley. Billy entered our group of five, and our pipes roared as we entered the highway on the way to our first destination. My small tank needed a refill again (as it did about every fifty miles) so we pulled into a gas station one more time before our actual journey began.
The gravel crackled under tires as we rolled into our first official poker run stop: Bill's Cycle, Inc., on the south side of Pittsburg, Kansas. Other riders were sitting on their bikes in front of the business casually talking. The six in our group went inside to get our papers signed, showing we made it to the first stop. Outside, I met a very interesting young man.
"How's it going?" the college student asked.
"Oh, not bad. It's warming up now. It was pretty brisk at nine this morning."
"I bet. You in college?" he questioned as he stroked his red, untamed beard. His styled hair and name-brand clothing made his beard look like an intentional effort to look rough.
"Yep. Drove down from Manhattan to be here. My brother's in the program. How about yourself?"
"I just moved to the area from Wichita. I'm studying plastics at Pitt. The science of it really interests me, but then again, I've always enjoyed science." Now that he mentioned it, he did look like a smart fellow, the way he held his head straight and stood with great posture as if he were used to wearing slacks.
"Nice major. There's a lot of money in it if you do it well. You here with some buddies?"
"No. I haven't met too many people. I got an apartment by myself and live alone. I thought this run would be a fun way to spend Halloween." Unfortunately for him, his face was the most unkempt of all the riders. Instead of blending in (like he imagined his facial hair would allow) he stuck out as an untrimmed fellow.
"Yeah. I'm not much into Halloween. This is an ideal October day for me. You staying around here after you graduate? I like the area, but Southeast Kansas doesn't exactly have many opportunities for jobs."
"Planning on moving to Colorado. I've always wanted to ride in the mountains. How about you? What you doing in school?"
"Studying to be an English teacher. I have no clue where I'll end up, though. I'm just taking it one step at a time, you know?" My family began to mount onto their bikes. "Looks like we're heading to the next stop. See you around."
I had to let myself giggle at the appearance of the college student. As hard as he tried to look like other bikers, he should have just shown up as he normally looked instead of preparing his face for weeks. The bankers and teachers on the ride didn't look much different from him (except they were shaved and trimmed, of course). On this ride, the fun was found in meeting diverse people that might not fit the biker stereotype but enjoyed riding just the same. Once again, our group of six sped south toward our next destination: Miami, Oklahoma.
It was evident we made it across the state line without the oversized "Welcome to Oklahoma" signs. The ride immediately became rough when we drove over the many buckles in the road. My grandpa's new Yamaha handled the road as if it were no feat. My rugged bike bounced me off my seat a couple times, though. There was no way I would have had a healthy back without the shocks that were just recently added to my bike.
The Oklahoma curves were a refreshing change of pace to Kansas' straight shots, and the highways were relatively clear with it being Halloween. When we made it to Miami, the amount of traffic was considerably larger than any we had seen that day. This didn't pose much of a problem except for their screwy stoplights. A single traffic signal was suspended over an intersection by four cables that connected to tall poles on each of the corners. In a strange city with heavy traffic, these were extremely difficult to notice. There were lights on all sides of the single traffic signal, common to four-way stops. However, it was not a four-way stop-and-go. It was a regular red light.
Tom locked his rear break to avoid hitting the car entering the intersection driven by an old woman. My dad slid past him. His rear wheel jerked to the right slightly as it squealed. I slid to a stop between the two and everyone behind me made the appropriate accommodations for the surprise light and near collision. When the old woman passed, my dad sped through the intersection and pulled into an empty parking lot to confirm that everyone was OK and that no bikes needed repaired. Everyone except my grandpa followed him, still not realizing we were infringing upon the law. Once we figured out that we were the ones at fault for running the red light, the story just grew funnier and funnier as we laughed about our sudden fear and adrenaline rush.
We pulled out onto Miami's road once again and made our way to the Route 66 Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum. We parked our bikes as three boys of about eight years old waved and gawked at us. Well, not really gawked at us, but me rather, seeing that I was not a boy. I had not filled their expectations of a Harley rider. My blonde hair spilled from under my helmet and the shape of my breasts could be seen in my leather jacket. A blonde, busty girl did not belong riding her own Harley; I could read it on their faces, them not being old enough to learn how to conceal such awe yet. Rather than think about the feminist spiel I would normally plan to dish out, I simply waved as they pushed themselves away on their skateboards. After all, the weather was warming up, and it was too beautiful a day to spoil it with ignorant children.
I followed our group inside to have my paper signed again. We decided to take a tour while we were there and saw quite amazing historical artifacts. One of Evel Knievel's original helmets was on display, all scratched and tattered from one of his many crashes. The museum was filled with bikes from all over the world from all different time eras. There were bikes suspended from the ceiling. There were bikes on the floor. There were bikes lifted on displays. There were bikes refurbished to the original. There were bikes left rusted.
The scene in the museum didn't fall short of the treasures it held either. A replicated 1950's gas station decorated an area while memorabilia from Steve McQueen and Evel Knievel lined the walls with vintage riding gear and helmets. The oldest bike on display was a 1917 Harley Davidson with one of the first 1000 cc engines. The bikes had been used in World War I and were produced in a standard color of army green. One stood refurbished as it would have looked when it came off the line. Another stood rusted, boasting its battle scars.
After we took our time looking through a Harley Davidson walk through history, Billy and I returned to our bikes outside. The day was turning out to be stunning. The sun was shining and warming us all up. It was a great day to meet other riders and that was just what we did. A man was standing between mine and Billy's bikes looking in admiration. Everyone on the ride (except Billy and I) was riding new model bikes. Billy's bike, a completely refurbished, red and white '72 Sportster was getting oohs and ahs. My bike was getting chuckles and questioning looks. This wasn't because my bike was ugly; it was because it was different. It didn't look like anything on the market. It was defined as a work in progress, but very custom for sure.
"Nice bike. This yours?" The man asked me.
"Yep. It is."
"Really. Hmm." The man paused, looking to pinpoint exactly what he was questioning.
"How did you get it lowered so far?"
I answered the same questions everyone gave. "What year is that? How did you lower it? What's it run? You can handle that much engine?" But then he threw me a new one: "What are your plans for it now?" No one had bothered to ask me that before. No one expected me to have input on my bike. They always asked my dad, brother, or uncles, not the girl who rode it.
I spoke with bubbly enthusiasm. "We have it running great. It hits a flat spot in the top of fourth, but with cut off streets, it the best we've had it. The pistons are tuned just right. There's a small leak in the gas tank. You can see it there where the paint is starting to bubble. That'll be taken care of though when my dad and I repaint it this summer. Now that it runs, we can work on the cosmetics."
"You planning on keeping it vintage?"
"I want to keep the vintage seat for sure. I'm looking around for places that recover it but no one has been able to meet my needs so far. I'm going to keep the front fender off and my back fender chopped. I like the look. It won't stay dark grey, though. I'm planning on dark purple—almost black with large metal flakes. Then doing scallops in dark silver against the purple on the tank." I suddenly realized I hadn't let him speak much. I was so excited to share my ideas I had let common courtesies of conversation pass my mind. "What do you ride?" I asked, pathetically trying to recover.
"I have that blue Softtail. It's a smoother ride than these Sportsters."
"That's for sure."
Billy signaled to me that we were about to leave. I said goodbye and pulled on my helmet. I never got to talk long when I met someone interesting. My mouth just ran on, finally getting to have a say, instead of listening. I didn't even find out much about him. Oh, well. We were heading to Sonic for lunch, and I could do my talking there.
After I was served my burger and fries by an ironically dressed carhop in a stereotypical biker costume, I asked my dad about the man I had been talking to. My dad knew him.
"He's unemployed now. He used to be a Catholic priest."
"Why is he unemployed? We need priests around here."
"The Church wanted to re-station him, but his wife is a school teacher in the area and didn't want to leave her job."
"His wife?" I questioned in disbelief.
"Yeah. He was actually a priest in a different religion and had gotten married. Then he joined Catholicism and got special permission to become a priest with a wife and kids. Not everything is so run of the mill anymore."
He was right. Previously unusual things were now becoming common – like a comedic big biker, a science guy trying to fit in, a girl who could ride on her own, and a married Catholic priest on a poker run.
We rolled out of Miami in quest of better roads in Kansas (after another gas up for my small tank) and headed to the last big stop on the run.
County roads full of manure and potholes led us to Big Brutus outside of West Mineral, Kansas. The retired giant topped the scales, being eleven million pounds and sixteen stories high. It overlooked the country side of Southeast Kansas, frozen in its position. This stop was used mainly for a bathroom break and to get our papers signed. The chatty old women who volunteered to work the museum eyed all of the leather-comers as if they were already guilty of theft in their seldom-visited tourist attraction. When our bladders were empty and our third stop was signed, we went on our way to find a gas station in the sticks.
The gas station we found was ancient. The parking lot consisted of broken concrete, letters were falling off the faded red, almost pink, building, and the pumps looked like they survived the '60s. It was back to the old days where there was not an option to pay with a credit card, and consumers weren't required to pre-pay to avoid burglary. Trust was the basis of how these people lived. Farmers filled the parking lot as gas trickled into my tank with a high pitch sound as the drops splashed against the bottom of the tank. The rural fill station was in dire need of a fill up; their tanks (as mine) were running dry. Everyone there was kind despite the retired setting and didn't seem to mind that our vehicles of choice were incredibly different from their old rusted pick-ups.
P.J.'s speedometer became loose on his bike and had to be electric-taped down as a temporary fix. My old bike was running down, too. My battery was shot and an entire night of charging didn't even do me good. After slowly filling up the tank drip by drip, my bike wouldn't start. The engine wouldn't even turn over. "Great" was all I could think. My bike was growing just as tired as I was. Dad and P.J. push-started my bike. I had just enough juice to make it back to the Harley Davidson Training School in Frontenac for a break out of the cold autumn air.
About forty minutes later, our group made our way back to Pittsburg. On the outskirts of town, stoplights speckled the highway. The intersection we approached was empty but the roads were full in every direction. A female cop was sitting to my right waiting to make a right turn in the direction I intended to go. The light turned yellow. I pressed on my brakes but couldn't slow fast enough. I had to choose the safer action rather than risk a wreck trying to stop too fast at high speeds. I let off my brake and accelerated. I sped through the intersection just as the light turned red. The police officer turned right and followed me. All I could do was follow Tom who had also made it through the intersection. I watched in my mirrors for lights although I couldn't see any specific details. My bike vibrated the mirrors to the point of dizziness if one looked into them too long.
I couldn't get a ticket; my diversion for my last speeding ticket would be revoked, and I would have given a hundred bucks away to Woodson County. Every illegal piece of my bike ran through my mind. I had no blinkers or muffler. I did not have legal pipes, but cut off streets instead. My mirrors weren't extremely secure. My headlight couldn't be turned on because of my low battery life, and to top it off, I had no speedometer or even an RPM gauge for that matter. I caught up to Tom and followed at a steady pace, hoping I was within the speed limit. At the next intersection, I merged into the left turn lane. The officer stayed right and drove right on past.
The rest of our group reunited with us and rolled into the Harley Davidson Training School together as a family. They teased me about running a red light in front of a cop, but I didn't care. It was all in fun since I didn't even receive a warning. The officer could have seen me press my foot and hand brake (that were both on her side) in an attempt to slow. After all, I did try. My dad said she just shook her head when I passed. Whatever it was, I was glad not to deal with a lecture and a fine. My back was aching from the long trip, and it was all I could do to pull in my stiff clutch for every shift. I was ready to be back in Frontenac for a short break before making the last hour and a half trip home.
My old bike had enough by the time we reached Frontenac. Since my brother hauled his bike to the school early that morning, my bike got a free ride home and took the place of Billy's on the small trailer. Because Billy's '72 Sportster was a bit too heavy for me, Grandpa agreed to ride it while I rode his Yamaha home. Billy, like that morning, pulled the trailer.
My eyes squinted as the sun lowered into my line of vision. The dusk air became even chillier as it circulated through my helmet and filled every crevasse of my tired face. For all the crap my Harley-riding relatives gave Grandpa, his Yamaha was an easy ride. I didn't have to brace myself for imperfections in the road anymore; I just glided right over them. My back was highly appreciative. Instead of hooking themselves onto a peg, both of my feet rested easily on the footboards. The windshield blocked a majority of the wind from hitting my chest, and I didn't need to grip the handle bars quite as hard. The clutch wasn't nearly as stiff as mine so even my left hand caught a break by riding the Yamaha home.
My problems returned to me as we rolled into Humboldt, finally home after the nine-hour trip. Now, however, they were not problems; they were just things to do that pertained to my everyday life. My homework didn't seem as difficult. My fingers created a paper with magic touch. My checkbook was not in negative numbers after paying my bills, and work didn't seem so bad. The trip refreshed my spirit and deleted my anxiety as I noticed it did in all the types of people I met that day. Being more than a hobby, riding is a method of escape and letting go of stress for me. People of all types enjoy this sense of freedom (leathers, facial hair, male genitalia, weapons, and crime not required). I returned home feeling content and calm in body and mind, in sync with the peace-filled, autumn countryside.