AMERICA LONG GONE

RETURN TO HALLOWED GROUND

Photos by Jimmy Bowron | Words by Andrew Campo

 

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Sitting just above the stars on The Great Seal of the State of Kansas reads “ad astra per aspera,” a Latin term chosen as the state motto that in translation means “to the stars through difficulties.”

An unusual May storm that produced an abnormal amount of snow had been hammering Denver, Colorado, for days and was now beginning to push east toward Kansas. It was early evening and snow was still falling to the north and to the south of the city, leaving us only two options: get some sleep and head out in the morning like a normal person, or throw on our helmets and hope for the best as we tempted fate and rode east into the unforgiving night. Although covered by clouds, we of course chose to run to the stars, and the word difficult as mentioned in the Kansas state motto would become a bit of an understatement in this case. The snow had turned to rain, and all I could see was a glimpse of red illuminating from the taillight in front of me. We were on a mission, and regardless of the weather, there was simply no turning back. Three hours later, we found ourselves drenched and nearly frozen stiff as we piled into a roadside motel like a pack of drowned rats. 

Fingers slowly thawed and the laughter began to flow as we talked about the many things that could have gone wrong. Distinct and fitting guitar and harmonica offerings soon filled the room, echoed by the voices of Jimbo Darville and Paul Tamburello, who made up the traveling band duo I had pulled together for the ride. Our like-minded crew was in search of the same thing – escaping the urban landscape and daily grind that we know so well and embracing the lonesome road and soul-cleansing wide-open places unique to the Great Plains region. Although brutal and scary as hell, our journey had begun in memorable fashion. With Mother Nature dictating our unknown path the following day, we eventually drifted off to sleep knowing only the destination: Comanche Road.

 

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In an attempt to honor Indian’s brand history, we had set our sights on venturing through the back roads of Kansas en route to hallowed ground, where race history was stamped into the record books by way of Glen Boyd over a century ago. In 1914 Boyd earned the honor of winning the inaugural Dodge City 300 aboard his Hendee Indian in front of a crowd of spectators who had traveled from around the world. The event attendance was estimated to be nearly twenty thousand strong, five times larger than the population of Dodge City at the time. The two-mile dirt oval track just north of Dodge City would later become recognized as home to one of the largest and most iconic races steeped in motorcycle history. 

Morning light was soon upon us, and as we traded turns drying our boots with a hair dryer, I recalled a quote from Kansas author Cheryl Unruh that reads “We who live on the prairie love our sky. It is as much a part of the landscape as the land itself. While the earth gives us roots … the sky gives us flight, imagination ….” I had discovered this quote while doing a little research on Kansas leading into this feature. As we faced the new day, her words would be my inspiration, my simple reminder to live in the now with my eyes wide open. 

We were in search of America long gone and for all the right reasons. The opportunity to be confronted with a glimpse into a simpler life coupled with the ability to escape and somewhat journey back in time was ours for the taking. Small towns can be beautiful that way. They can make you believe that things are simple, things make sense, and remind you that anything is possible. The people can inspire one easily. A simple wave is common; everybody wants to know your story and to tell you theirs. Genuine would best describe most roadside encounters in these parts.

 

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As the day unfolded we ventured south along the Colorado-Kansas border, stopping often along the way to appreciate and explore nearly every town we rolled into. We were in search of aban-doned barns in hopes of discovering fragments of motorcycle history along the way. While resting lakeside under shade trees, friendship bonds were strengthened and memories unique to this ride were etched within the spirit of all of us.  As dusk approached, we found a deserving watering hole just south of Syracuse, Kansas, and decided to tempt our fate with the locals. Outside was a collection of weathered farm trucks, and as we approached the front door we all looked at each other and agreed that we might be in for a good, old-fashioned ass-kicking. 

As we stepped up to the bar, the voices under the looming tall hats among us began to fade to an awkward silence, and wisdom told me that it was time to buy a round for the locals. Spirits were lifted, and we had found what we were looking for: the opportunity to share the gift of music and tales of adventures with strangers. Jimbo fired up “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” on the six-string, and Paul soon joined in with some elevated harmonica riffs. You can’t go wrong with a Willie Nelson offering, and that solidified us as legendary strangers with the good ol’ boys in no time. We couldn’t stay long, as promise of a wild night in Dodge City was only a few hours away. The music soon died, we said goodbye to our newfound friends, and once again pushed east and into the night.

Dodge City is best known for its rich frontier history from the days of the Wild West and is recognized by locals as The Wicked Little City. Originally a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, Dodge City was once home to legendary deputies Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp and a long list of outlaws and gunslingers. The lore of the city runs deep.

 

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After enjoying a proper cowtown breakfast and taking in a bit of culture at the Boot Hill Museum, we had finally arrived. The sky had a cold but calming tint to it as we stood along the side of Comanche Road. In the near distance a roadside history marker had been placed in honor of the Dodge City 300. The field was empty, and only a few dilapidated yet beautiful structures remained. One of the buildings had a little side window that looked to be where race entry sign-up might have taken place. I locked eyes with that window and let my imagination fly. As I walkedaimlessly through the field, my mind was filled with images and sounds of period-correct recollection. Racers, including William Harley, Walter Davidson, Bill Brier, Carl Gowdy and Glen Boyd, had gone to battle on this very ground. Exemplary machines brought to life by the Indian, Flying Merkel, Thor, Pope, Harley Davidson and Excelsior manufacturers had once shaken the soil beneath me. The thought of a sea of people traveling across the world in 1914 to witness this race and the mountain of stories their adventured birthed simply overwhelmed me. The thought of twenty thousand spectators roaming this field over one hundred years ago truly made me believe that anything is possible. Monumental in grandeur and influence, this ground was powerful, meaningful, and nearly unfathomable. 

A bit of chill came over me, the kind that comes from inside when moved by something compelling; history had given me goosebumps. I picked up a little rock. It was flat, smooth and perfect for rubbing between your fingers. I played with the rock for a minute or so as I pondered back in time. After putting the rock in my pocket as a keepsake, I turned and glanced over at the Indian parked under the historic marker and smiled as I felt a sense of pride knowing that we had brought her home. We were here to honor the spirit of those who were instrumental in bringing to life the quintessential motorcycle racing history that marked this hallowed ground. In that surreal moment, I felt complete and as if I belonged.

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Featured in Volume 009