by James C. Moore
The last time I saw the Pawnee National Grasslands I was driving a beat up old Ford from Burlington to Greeley, Colorado. I was a radio announcer on my way to do the play-by-play of a high school football game on the Western Plains. The native blue stem and buffalo grasses had lost much of their summer green but the wind moved across their tops and the sky and road seemed like a single piece of creation, and they gave me memories I still cherish.
I daydreamed about buffalo herds and indigenous peoples moving across those flatlands but I also noticed the road. It had not changed since I had first crossed this section of the national park system on a motorcycle when I had been tempted by the throttle and the highway. The asphalt was straight and fresh and there was not a single curve on the horizon nor a vehicle on the road.
My bike was hardly up to any dream of unfettered speed. I was riding a Honda 450 and had cleaned the plugs so many times it seemed impossible for them to deliver spark. I was a college student that summer and did not have the money to buy plugs; my first concerns were gas and food and sometimes a paid campground with a shower.
But I had switched out bikes with my buddy and he had been riding a Kawasaki KZ 1000, which was one of the fastest production bikes on the road when they first came into the market place. We had stopped to hear the silence, turned off our engines, listened to them tick, and walked away to where there was no sound but the wind moving through the grass tops.
“You wanna try it?” Bobby asked.
There is an unspoken rule among motorcyclists, even those with the most modest of machines, that you do not ride the other person’s bike; you especially do not make the request. But an invitation is a different thing.
“Yeah, I’ll give it a go,” I said. “You sure?”
“I figure you’re staring at the white line and wondering about speed.”
I laughed. Friends understood. I tended to move through the world slowly and with observation of detail but motorcycles were transformative. If I felt safe, I liked to roll up the power and let the bike perform. The KZ would carry me faster than I had ever ridden.
We had come down from Nebraska on Highway 71 and the road had been impossibly straight and true. Rocky buttes rose out of the grass and the late afternoon sun turned them white against the sea of green. Our pace was leisurely and slightly burdened with cheap backpacks with metal frames and heavy cotton sleeping bags increasing our drag coefficient. The sun and clear sky and the churn of the little pistons were comforting and made me feel like I never wanted to get off the bike.
But I have always felt that way.
Bobby and I walked back to the bikes and exchanged keys. We had turned onto Highway 14 and were headed west. The road looked like it might not have a single bend before it reached California.
“It’s faster than its reputation,” Bobby said. “Be careful.”
“Yeah, I will. See ya in Greeley.”
I pulled my helmet with the bubble shield over my head and wondered what my Ma might think when she got the news her son had gone down speeding on a motorcycle not his own out in the middle of America’s big empty. She had taught me to entertain the worst scenarios and I had decided to spend my youth in defiance of fear.
I had never been on a bike with that big of an engine displacement and compared to my little Honda it felt as though I were driving a car. The gears made a solid clunk like what I had heard when riding next to Harleys and I pushed the RPMs upward before shifting. I was at 80 by third gear and the wind was roaring in the ears of my thrift store helmet. I passed the cutoff for Keota and tore down the asphalt toward Briggsdale, and as the speedometer crossed 100 the only disconcerting feeling was the loudness in my ears.
There was still too much roll left on the throttle and I wanted to see where it might take me. I did not pull it back all at once but eased the RPMs higher and felt the bike easily increase speed. A bit of buffeting began to change the aerodynamics and I realized Bobby’s backpack had loose flaps that were now being torn to bits in the slipstream of 130 plus miles per hour but I did not want to stop. I took what little turn was left on the throttle and spun it until it would not go further.
I lost my nerve on that long, gleaming straight when the speedo crossed 140 mph and was still climbing. Maybe it was the wind or I dreamed the ride but when I eased back on the throttle and got back down to 60 mph I had the sense I could get off the bike and walk next to it as it rolled down the road.
I have never ridden faster since, nor do I expect I ever will. I crossed the Nullarboor in the Australian Outback on a BMW 1200 GSA while staring down the 90-mile straight, which is known as the longest roadbed without a curve in the world. I did not speed. My eyes were out for ‘roos and camels and wombats and sunsets. High-speed riding is not what motorcycling was ever about for me.
But just one time, I wanted to know. I would much rather slow down and think about natives riding the plains or spring winds through the gramma or wildflowers tilting before a spring storm off the Rockies. But I never remove motorcycles from my mind.
They have taken me to those memories.