I wake up fully rested this morning in my room at the BEST WESTERN PREMIUM Speedway Inn & Suites. There’s nothing like a touch of luxury to add to a pleasant night’s sleep. After a filling hot breakfast in the hotel’s modern lobby bar, I’m ready to load up the Road Glide and ride off.
My first stop today is not far away, but it is back over the river on the Missouri side of Kansas City — a slight bit of backtracking. I don’t mind. I’m headed for a tour of Harley-Davidson’s Vehicle and Powertrain Operations factory in Kansas City, Missouri.
I pull up in front of the 358,000 square-foot facility. A line of Harleys, belonging to factory workers, is parked in front of the building. The designated Harley parking functions as a big, ever-changing kinetic sculpture and a display of company pride. It makes an impression right off the bat. I enter the Tour Center and collect my free ticket for the next tour. The one-hour tours are given every weekday at regular intervals between 9:00 am and 1:30 pm on a first-come, first-served basis. Children under the age of 12 are not permitted on the tour, and everyone has to wear full-enclosed, low-heeled shoes (1″ or below).
After watching a brief video about the history of Harley-Davidson, and another about the Kansas City plant, I don protective glasses and a listening device along with the rest of my small tour group. There are about eight of us in total, plus John, our tour guide and Heather, who will trail our group for safety and to make sure that nobody wanders off. No cameras or recording devices are allowed inside the factory, which makes total sense. Not that there are any secrets. There’s simply so much ground to cover, and so much to see that stopping to take pictures or video would bog down the tour, and we’d never get through. John guides us through the factory line, explaining the bike building process along the way, and answering questions as they come up. Line workers wave as we pass, enjoying the audience. The well-lit, high-tech factory is clean and organized, and seems very relaxed. Nobody’s scrambling, nobody’s yelling — there’s an air of competence and professionalism. Sophisticated manufacturing techniques are on display, with robots and automation employed at many critical junctures. But when it comes down to certain tasks, only the human touch will do, and the factory is loaded with teams of professionals. The Kansas City plant is organized on the “just in time” method of manufacturing, which manages parts and supply inventories to be available as needed, not held in stock. According to John, every bike on the line is made to order — they roll off the line and head directly to the dealership that has placed the order. Bikes are not built to be stockpiled and sold later. The only completed bikes on premises are the ones that have just been completed. They are immediately boxed for transport, and are on their way to dealerships across the US and across the world. The Kansas City plant makes the V-Rod and assembles the Sportster lineup.
I love factory tours, and this is a really good one. John is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide, and I come away from the tour freshly impressed with the Motor Company. There are so many processes and functions involved in making a motorcycle, and this factory takes equal care in creating a quality product and in caring for the people who build it. It makes you wish you could work there.
Of course, there’s a gift shop full of Harley-branded stuff. The factory is also a pin stop for HOG members, so I make sure to buy a KC pin to add to my collection. I toured the York, Pennsylvania factory a few years ago, and I plan to get to the Wisconsin factories this year to complete the set.
The skies have darkened during my tour — it looks like serious rain is about to fall.
I get on the Road Glide and hit the road again. The bike seems to be riding with a little more pride now — or is that my imagination? Together we head back across the river into Kansas, then turn south. We leave most of the rain clouds behind, but we drag the heat and humidity with us as we go.
I stop in the tiny town of Garnett, Kansas for lunch. Mr. D’s Restaurant has taken over an older building that still advertises for the “Pioneer Restaurant, Sunflower Gifts & Cheese.” I just couldn’t resist, and I’m rewarded with a very good, homemade barbeque lunch topped with a slice of freshly-baked apple pie, and another young waitress who calls me “Sweetie.” I knew that sign wouldn’t steer me wrong.
I don’t mean to complain, but when the mercury tops 100 and humidity remains above 95%, I can’t help myself. I have to stop every hour to drink more water — I don’t wait for the effects of the heat to show themselves. I know that heat exhaustion can creep up on you, and short of getting off the bike altogether, the best weapon against it is to stay hydrated. I stop at a rest stop on US-169, and discover a historical marker from the Kansas State Historical Society that tells the story of The Bloody Benders. Apparently, the Bender family preyed on unsuspecting travelers along this road during the 1870s, inviting them into their house for meals and supplies, then murdering them, stealing their stuff and burying them in mounds on the property. Just as the Benders’ crimes were uncovered, the family disappeared, leaving behind “one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Old West.” Creepy!
I ride on to Coffeeville, Kansas, where I fill up the Road Glide’s tank and pick up some more water for my personal tank. I ride into Coffeeville’s historic downtown, which was made famous by another criminal family from history: The Dalton Gang.
The Dalton Gang terrorized trains across the Midwest in the early 1890s. Three Dalton brothers and two of their pals decided to make one big score by robbing both of the banks in Coffeeville at once, in broad daylight on October 5, 1892. They didn’t count on strong opposition from local lawmen and townspeople. A bloody gunfight ensued, and when it was all over, four members of the Dalton Gang were dead, including two of the brothers. Three townspeople and Town Marshall Charles Connelly were also killed in the battle. Emmett Dalton was shot 23 times –miraculously surviving to serve 14 years in prison before receiving a pardon and moving to California.
Coffeeville remembers the events of 1892 with a Dalton Museum, a big mural on the side of the hardware store, and a beautifully preserved downtown. While I walk around taking pictures, the streets are as deserted as could be. I pass a big clock and thermometer in the town square — the temperature was still 100 degrees at 6:45 pm. No wonder everybody is inside.
I get back on the bike for the final push into Oklahoma. Another hour south on US-169, a few turns and I’m pulling up in front of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Tulsa Inn & Suites before the sun fully sets. I’m welcomed with freshly baked cookies and a very cheerful front desk clerk, who is more than happy to recommend several nearby restaurants for dinner. I go up to my room, change out of my riding gear, and decide to take the recommendation for “the best authentic Oklahoma meal you’ll ever have,” even though it means I’ll have to get back on the bike to get to it.
Just two miles away from the BEST WESTERN PLUS Tulsa Inn, I glide into the parking lot at The Spudder. The exterior of the barn-style building is decorated with classic gas and oil iconography and equipment — including a spudder, which is a portable cable-tool drilling rig. The oil theme continues inside. If you’re a fan of the History Channel’s American Pickers, you’ll get a jolt from this place — they’ve got an amazing collection of enamel signs, glass gas pump tops and other ephemera. The specialty of the house is steak, and I order a bone-in ribeye that knocks my socks off. Come to The Spudder with an appetite, because the entrees and sides are all very generous. I eat myself into a meat coma, then ride back to the hotel for the night.
Tomorrow is my final day of riding on this trip. I always get reflective at this point in a ride — torn between missing home, and already nostalgic about the experiences that I have accumulated. Tonight, I’ll dream of bank robberies, gun fights and meat. Mostly, I’ll dream of meat.
Miles Ridden: 290.9
NEXT: Five State Motorcycle Marathon: Day Five, Tulsa, OK to Dallas, TX and Home Again