Beating Death while Cross-Country Solo Motorcycle Touring

Conventional life standards are not my thing. But in June 2014, a trilogy of these standards were underway. I was eight months into a marriage, a new homeowner, and planning for a baby.

The marriage and home ownership were nothing, though I knew once the little one arrived my cross-country motorcycle journeys would be put on hold.

I set out that June on what would become my most memorable solo motorcycle trips, which I blogged about nightly in an ongoing story that turned out to be over 12,000 words (Solo Soul Searching with Concours 14), and consisted of just over 4,000 miles in eight days aboard a Kawasaki Concours 14 test bike.

Lieback’s Lounge: Beating Death During A Kansas Tornado
Kawasaki Concours 14 about to enter Kansas where author figured he’d “beat” a storm…

A friend’s untimely death cut the journey to Washington state short, and I rode from Pikes Peak to Northeast Pennsylvania in what felt like one complete day. I would not—and did not—miss his wake. My friends may have had two wakes that week if it wasn’t for the unlikely occurrence of an elderly Ohioan and a blunt Kansas Highway Patrolman. Let me explain.

While throttling westbound on Interstate 40, the Conny in constant races with the Sante Fe trains, I stopped in a rest station just outside of Garden City, home to about 30,000 residents amid Wizard of Oz type land. While there, I assist an elderly gentlemen walking from the bathroom to his Chevrolet Impala. That took about 10 minutes, and the unexpected meeting turned into another 15 minutes or so of talking.

Twenty-five minutes might sound minimal, but that man traveling back to Ohio likely helped saved my life.

After passing through Garden City, what appeared like a rippled charcoal painting began spreading across the skyline on the north side of I-40. To the left, pure sunshine. The temperature plunged about 25 degrees, and I began zipping up the vents on my Klim Badlands gear, ready for some serious rain.

I got on the throttle, and was easily over triple digits attempting to beat the storm. Droplets of rain began, and even the loaded-down Conny was hard to keep upright due to some nasty winds. Rain fell harder, and my surroundings turned black with not a car on the road—well, except for one who turned my mirrors into a red, white, and blue light show.

How could Highway Patrol possibly pull a motorcyclist over in this stuff? But it wasn’t about speed—rather, my life. Within a few sharp words, he advised me to turn around, get on the gas and back into Garden City ASAP. I said I was from the East Coast, and storms were nothing unusual.

His response is ingrained into my conscious: “These are no Pennsylvania storms. You can continue, but I really don’t want to see your body splattered across this highway. That would surely ruin my supper.”

I could barely get on the gas due to the winds and hail. I have woken up in hospitals after hours of unconsciousness with broken skulls and blood on the brain due to accidents, but not once did I fear for my life. Mother Nature is an entirely different story. Thankfully, that cop followed me with his lights on as I got into Garden City.

As I rolled into a Menards, I parked the Conny under an empty aluminum shopping-cart cover, hoping for protection from the flying sheetrock and shopping carts. While grabbing my tank bag and running into the store, the tornado sirens went off, deafening every other sound. I huddled in the middle of the locked-down store under a center section that was reinforced for tornadoes. About 40 other people huddled there, the sounds appearing like giants were stoning Menard’s to death.

My phone had zero signal, so I couldn’t inform the wife, which may have been a good thing. An hour passed, and suddenly the sun came out. People, used to this stuff, went on with their usual ways.

I never researched anything, but I was told something had touched down. It was the first thing to put true fear into me. Although I had only ridden about 270 miles that day after an early stop in Dodge City, I was mentally anguished. I rode to the spot where the trooper pulled me over and turned me around back to Garden City.

I found a Clarion with a Samy’s Spirits and Steakhouse inside, and knew I had found home for the night. The Petite Sirah and steak were better than ever, and I was able to seriously reflect.

At that moment, all I wanted to do was not only thank the patrolman that saved my life, but also that elderly Ohio man for taking up some extra conversation as I was about to roll through Garden City en route to my goal for that evening, Colorado Springs.

If that had never happened, my irrational thoughts of beating a High Plains storm may have sent me far away—likely somewhere cold and deep. I will cross the world one day via motorcycle, and I’m sure I’ll see other signs of Mother Nature that will instill serious fear. But I never want to experience anything close to a Tornado again like that June of 2014 in Kansas.

As for the elderly Ohioan and patrolman, thanks for likely saving my life. Because of you two, I’ll always embrace extended conversations with strangers, and always have a conscious cinema playing out of that Kansas sky reminding me that nothing can trigger fear like Mother Nature.

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