Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Motorcyclists playing (prairie) chicken

Cassoday, KS is a dot on the map, just off I-35 between Topeka and Wichita. Weathered signs declare it to be the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World. This is not a reference to chicken farming on the prairies, but a reference to a wild member of the grouse family. Back in the '60s, on the opening day of hunting season, thousands of hunters converged on Cassoday.

The Greater Prairie Chicken's current situation, however, is not so great – they've been extirpated over much of their historic range. This is not so much a hunting problem, per se, as the result of human encroachment of the natural long-grass prairie habitat the species requires for survival. Another problem is – if you can believe it – Chinese ring-necked pheasants. The latter birds, introduced from Asia a long time ago, lay their own eggs in prairie chicken nests. Pheasant eggs hatch faster, and when the pheasant chicks emerge, the prairie chickens seem to think they're their own young and that the prairie chicken eggs are duds. They abandon their own eggs and raise the pheasants.

So if you were a prairie chicken you might conclude that guns don't kill prairie chickens, people kill prairie chickens. And the oriental outsourcing of egg production.
I assume that the pistol grip on this shotgun means this Christian biker didn't bring it to hunt prairie chickens.   I guess I could have asked him a question I've long pondered: "Who would Jesus kill?"
How this is, in any way, connected to motorcycles is that about 20 years ago when healthy prairie chicken populations were already just a memory, a group of bikers looked at a map and saw Cassoday, and thought it would be a good destination for a Sunday morning ride. One of them called ahead to ask the cafe if it was open on Sunday. The cafe owner told the biker that if he'd bring a dozen of his friends, then the cafe would durn well be open.
Cassoday wasn't much more than a good place to stop and stretch your legs before riding back home through the Flint Hills. But the truth is most of Kansas is pretty featureless – a town a couple hundred miles to the north promotes itself as, and I'm not making this up, the home of the world's largest ball of twine – so it didn't take much to capture local bikers' imaginations. Riding out to Cassoday on the first Sunday of the month became a Kansas tradition. By some estimates, as many as 5,000 motorcycles show up nowadays; that looks like a real crowd in a town without a stoplight and makes motorcycles as important to the local economy as bird hunting once was.
"You ridin' yer hog, Cletus?"
"Nah, she's got her own bike."
Another smiling, helmetless rider. My guess is that she'll eventually start wearing a jacket, if for no other reason than it provides sunblock.
Kansas City is half in Missouri (a helmet law state) and half in Kansas (where only  minors have to wear 'em.) So as I headed down there, about half the motorcyclists on the road were wearing crash helmets. As we got deeper into Kansas, picking up traffic from Topeka and such places, bare-headed riders were in the majority. 
Interestingly, their body language – especially on bikes that lacked full fairings and windscreens – was almost uniformly miserable. Trust me, I've tried it; riding at highway speed without face protection is not pleasant. You might think that a full-face lid is hot in the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the prairies, and it is. But so's a 95-degree, 70 mph Kansas wind-blast, and at least a crash helmet's effective sunblock. Almost no one who was riding bare-headed looked as if they were having fun.
As I expected, the parking lot was probably two-thirds Harley-Davidson. (Most of the sport-bike riders in the region would press further south and east, into the twisties of the Ozarks plateau.) There was a smattering of metric cruisers, adventure-tourers; a few extended 'busas. While the crowd wasn't all-white, it was white enough that anyone with skin that wasn't on the pink-sunburned spectrum stood out; so did anyone under about 50. One lost soul wore a Rossi shirt with a big '46' across the back, but most people identified him – wrongly – as a fan of part-time NASCAR driver J.J. Yeley. 
A terrible band belted out covers. There were a few dozen vendors, selling stuff ranging from BBQ and breakfast burritos to fringed chaps and German-WWII-styled helmets. Kansas riders need those to travel in Missouri, but they can stick to their principles by making sure they buy lids that provide minimal actual protection. Those are for sale in Cassoday for about $20.
I have to say that walking around in that crowd provoked quite a lot of thoughts, most of which were melancholy. I guess no matter how many times I'm reminded of it, I keep trying to forget that for the majority of street riders, motorcycling is not a sport but a kind of social (tribal?) activity. For the thousands of bikers converging on Cassoday (turning it into a one-day 'Sturgis' without the beer or bare-breasted babes) their motorcycles are a just a signal to, and selective filter for, like-minded individuals. They're literally and proudly rednecks; totally unaware of the irony that they've co-opted  the biker's rebellious image as a symbol of their political and social conservatism.
The crowd at Cassoday is peaceable. The county sheriff makes sure there are a handful of officers in attendance, but there's never been any trouble. His only complaint is that he can't write enough speeding tickets to keep the riders under control as they leave town. But judging from the T-shirt slogans, from the tired “If you can read this, the bitch fell off,” to “One Big Ass Mistake for America” they're an angry, frustrated lot. 
Basically, the T-shirts, patches, and stickers on bikes make comments that can be divided into three general types. There's aggressive, in-your-face jingoism of the if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us type, or there's just plain angry insults usually aimed at lily-livered liberals, or there's general grousing.
I have to say that riding a motorcycle without wearing a crash helmet is stupid. So a gathering of people who, mostly, ride without helmets is a selective filter for dumbasses. Don't get me wrong, lots of people who ride with helmets are stupid, too. I suppose there's an evolutionary case to be made that eventually helmetless riders will become extinct. But it's not that this huge crowd will all go and bash their own brains out by riding without protection – any more than it was hunting that killed off the prairie chicken.
It's habitat destruction that will do them in, too. Because in the same way that corporate farming has wiped out almost all the long-grass prairie, private enterprise is wiping out the middle class regular working stiffs who used to (among other things) buy all the motorcycles. I'm willing to bet that if you asked the Cassoday crowd – which shares none of my other opinions –  “Is the middle class under siege?” they'd certainly say it was. It really doesn't matter if you're inclined to applaud George Carlin's anti-corporate rant, or if you side with the Tea Partiers and say the middle class is being taxed to death; no matter where you are on the political spectrum, the truth as the vast majority of Americans see it is that real wages have been falling for years while wealth's been concentrated in the top 1% of the population and dramatically concentrated in the top 0.1%.
For years by the real-estate bubble gave a false sense of security to the middle class, who may have seen their real income falling, but thought it was more than counterbalanced by increasing home equity. The aging population of motorcycle buyers tracked perfectly with people who were spending that home equity. 
I suppose the richest 1%'s growing share of wealth speaks well for the prospects of motorcycle manufacturers like Vyrus. And the top 10% of the population's holding it's own, so Ducati and BMW might be OK (in fact, they survived the recent recession much better than OEMs with larger market share.) But don't kid yourself: the American motorcycle market absolutely needs to inculcate new young riders. Harley-Davidson's openly said that that's the goal of it's '48' model; ironically, it's also said that if it can't get concessions from its unions, it will relocate assembly plants out of Wisconsin. The motorcycle industry also needs to ensure that its offering models that median-wage earners can afford.
Henry Ford and his Model T rung the death knell of America's home-grown motorcycle industry. And you can love or hate America's obsession with the car, which he inspired. But it's noteworthy that Ford was determined to raise the wage of the American worker, if only to ensure that the average worker could afford to buy his cars.
Where am I going with this? I guess I'll just point out that even though it wasn't over-hunting that killed off the prairie chicken, it only made sense to lower bag limits as populations fell. 
A new focus on helmet use – and yes, I mean helmet laws; regulation – should be a focus of the AMA. They've spent far too long kow-towing to ABATE, and the like. While the AMA coyly suggests that it's a good idea to wear a helmet, it's lobbied to rescind helmet laws in many states. In coded language meant to appease the Cassoday crowd, it makes statements like, “We support research into the causes of motorcycle accidents,” instead of helmet laws.
I've got news for the AMA. 99% of the vehicles on American roads are not motorcycles. So non-riders are never, ever going to notice us, or expect us to do the things we do – like appear from behind a mailbox. You can study the cause of accidents all you want, they're still going to happen, and when they do helmets will make a huge difference in our survival.
So while I don't have an easy prescription for saving the middle class and getting the American Dream back on track, there are two things the motorcycle industry can do to ensure a future in which the the average guy with a median salary becomes a motorcyclist for life: we can introduce interesting new bikes they can afford (Kawasaki, bring the Ninja 400 to the U.S., not just Canada) and we can lobby for, not against helmet usage so that the new riders we do recruit have the best possible chance of becoming riders for life. 
If that kills off the scene in Cassoday, so be it. It was headed for extinction anyway.
What the fuck is with the needlessly aggressive dress of these fucktards? God DAMN It, this is tiring.


  1. Maybe these "runs" are the way dentists and lawyers meet each other to increase their client base now, supplanting Rotary and the Elks and so forth.

  2. I have been to Cassoday ride many times. I prefer the old days, at least a decade ago when the cafe had breakfast buffet and less Harleys on street, no fuzz, less crowd. High school kids sold cups of coffee, pop and cookies to raise money for their schools. It was actually fun. Now it is a Harley V-twin fare and how you can blend in by wearing tons of black leather,jeans, bandana, and chained wallet. You are right; it is a small Sturgis. It is actually worse with full of preaching Christian bikers. If the crappy band was not playing, they take over the mike and force feed you words of the Lord.