Go West Young Man part 6

Posted: December 10, 2020 in Life and Memories, Motorcycles, My view of the world, travel

part 6

US Route 54 takes off from Tucumcari and runs almost arrow straight northeast along the edges of Texas, Oklahoma and whistles through the town of Plains, Kansas, where we planned on turning north toward our next old west town to visit, Dodge City, the home of Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and Festus, familiar souls that we grew up watching the drama of their life’s unfold weekly on CBS. As we bade farewell to our initial destination, we mounted our bikes and turned our sights toward Kansas, another new state I knew absolutely nothing about. We hadn’t been on US 54 that long before the scenery around us began changing from desert scrub to grassy expanse. Looking at the atlas informed us we were skirting the southern edge of some National Grasslands, something I didn’t expect to see in New Mexico. We soon discovered that US 54 appeared to be a major artery from I-40 into southwest Kansas, as we began encountering a number of semi trucks heading both directions along this generally shoulderless two lane highway.

So far on this vacation, Earl and I had settled into a certain routine of keeping anywhere from 10 to 50 yards space between us as we rode and we also made sure to follow the National Speed Limit law of 55 mph to avoid speeding tickets away from our home state of Tennessee. As we were droning through Texas enjoying the fields and small rolling hills that were beginning to appear, two semi rigs rapidly came up from behind and started passing, first me and then Earl, which was riding about 50 yards ahead of me. The lead semi had just passed Earl as we approached a small hill and when he cut back into our lane, he seemingly judged the distance incorrectly and ended up forcing Earl off onto the narrow gravel edge as the right rear portion of his trailer swung dangerously toward him. So far on this highway we hadn’t seen more than a narrow gravel shoulder, though it seemed that there were pull offs large enough for at least one semi about every few miles. I watched the drama with Earl and the truck unfold from my vantage point behind the second semi, and gasped to myself as he wallowed down the narrow gravel shoulder until he managed to get back on the highway in front of the second semi.

My sigh of relief was short-lived as Earl accelerated his bike and as he passed next to the driver’s door of the semi that had run him off the road, he stretched his left arm up in the air and shot the driver a bird, then continued on to get in front of the truck as I helplessly watched dumbfounded at this obviously reckless act. It did turn out that wasn’t the right thing to do, for suddenly I saw smoke puff from the exhaust stacks on the semi as the driver sped up to get onto Earl’s tail. I watched in shocked disbelief as Earl accelerate away from the truck just to have the truck match his speed, almost as if they were suddenly Siamese twins, rolling and weaving down the highway. I could see the driver of the second truck through his side mirror as he was speaking into his microphone and gesturing at the same time, occasionally glancing back at me as I stayed a safe distance back. Earl and the truck that was sticking to him like velcro were approaching a pull off and Earl pulled off the highway, only to have the truck match his move and pull off immediately behind him so Earl shot back onto the highway with the semi snaking back onto the tarmac behind him. I was beginning to fear that there was not going to be a good outcome to this when another pull off appeared ahead and once again Earl pulled of, but to my surprise, the truck just continued on, either tiring of his game, or the driver of the second truck had convinced him that he wouldn’t get away with running over Earl. Carefully continuing up the highway we spotted another pull off and we both exited and stopped and with a huge sigh of relief, I pulled my helmet off and sat down on the ground, suddenly exhausted. Earl had allowed his anger to get the best of him, with potentially fatal consequences, and as we drank water and chatted, I reminded him whether or not he was righteous in any situation, any scenario with a fight between his 500 pound bike against a 25,000 pound truck results in him losing every time. I think maybe he got it…
After a few minutes we got back on the highway and continued toward Kansas. Traveling along America’s back roads is a completely different experience from traveling along the nation’s interstate highway system. Where the interstates are designed to skirt smaller towns and communities, thus insulating the travelers from life outside the bubble of high speed travel, its back roads allows its travelers to experience life in the small towns, communities and farmlands of rural America. As we worked our way closer to Kansas, the landscape gradually changed from grassy prairie to rolling fenced fields with the occasional copse of trees appearing dotted around the landscape. We also passed the remains of hardships in this area as tumbling down and abandoned cabins, sheds, barns and windmills lay scattered across the landscape, reminding us of the uncertainty of life and long term success scratching a living out of the soil. After we turned north at Prairie Kansas, the state roads started winding and zig-zagging along the fertile fields of this southwestern part of the state and soon in the distance the tops of structures started appearing. These structures turned out to be grain elevators that announced the presence of a small farming community ahead. It seemed that just about the time the elevators would disappear from view in my rear view mirrors, another set would begin to peak over the horizon announcing another little community built around the grain production of the American plains.

Following the little highway we were traveling on, was a set of railroad tracks on our left, the tops of the rails glistening in the afternoon sunlight, showing regular use…something that I should have paid attention to, but didn’t. I also noticed as we traveled along about every half mile to mile there would be a drive off the highway to give the farmers access to their fields. I also started seeing cattle for the first time since we left Oklahoma along with weather-worn, working windmills that pumped fresh cool water into the large galvanized livestock tanks for the cattle to drink from. We don’t have windmills in Tennessee and to watch these towering, wood latticed machines catching the wind with their plethora of rusting green metal vanes spinning creakily as they pumped the water was a rare threat, as this was the first time in my life I had seen any in action. As the sun started racing toward the western horizon I motioned for us to pull off onto one of these gravel drives to find a spot to camp. We had gone up a slight incline (in Kansas they called these slopey little bumps on the earth “hills”) and this particular farm track led into a field that was partially below the road and out of sight of passing vehicles. As we turned onto this gravel track I glanced to the left and saw a flat, level leaf covered area near the railroad track cut that was surrounded by trees and looked like the idyllic spot to set up the tent. We stopped and unpacked the bikes and as Earl set the tent up I headed toward the nearest town which was about 5 miles away, according the the size of the grain elevators I could see in the distance to rustle up some grub. I arrived at the only store in town just before closing, a store about the size of a postage stamp and as I looked around at the near empty shelves I realized our dining choices were extremely limited. So for supper Earl and I had loaf bread and American cheese…and I was happy to be able to get that. Earl dug out the rest of the bottle of wine we tried the evening before and so following this luxurious meal of bread and cheese was half flat wine…it was great. As the sun began to set the mosquitoes started attacking in force and we retreated to the tent. We had been hitting the sack soon after dark and rising with the sun anyway, so almost as soon as we got inside, I fell sleep.

I was shaken awake to, what I assumed was the end of time. Earl was shaking me and I awakened to the most awful raucous shrieking, banging, roaring and whining, while the darkness was broken with this ominously glowing bright light sweeping back and forth. As the ground beneath us trembled and shook, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the end of the world or a UFO attack, but an approaching train. As the noisy behemoth growled and moaned as it ate the distance between us, I almost panicked as I swiftly wondered if we had camped on the tracks themselves and were about to be squashed like a couple of unnecessary bugs, as the lights seemed to be bearing straight down upon us. As the locomotive passed us about 30 feet away, we sat dumbfounded in our sleeping bags, the ground trembling beneath us as the train passed and passed and passed some more, and kept passing for three or four minutes. Back home in Tennessee, we had railroads but trains in our area might travel through maybe once a week bearing ten or twelve cars, but here we were being passed by several engines pulling more than a hundred cars. Once the train was finally gone, Earl told me the noise awakened him and he looked over at me sleeping peacefully and decided that if he was going to die screaming, he was going to make damn well sure I died screaming also, so he woke me up. I went back to sleep, very happy that ordeal was over. It was just a couple of hours later I realized it wasn’t. Two more trains roared by that night, but at least with these, we knew it wasn’t the end of the world or alien intervention, just Union Pacific delivering fresh goods to the east. The next morning as we heated and drank coffee; we chalked up the weird night we had just experienced as one for the books. We packed up and bade farewell to this farm in southern Kansas and headed toward Dodge City.


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