Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Too Cool!!

It used to be tough to be cool. But not anymore...

For anyone who regularly experiences outdoor activities in high temperatures, they know first-hand that heat stress is the enemy. So with the summer heat beating down upon Texas, I began researching ways to temper the brutal sun.

When I embark on such a challenge, I don't limit my search to biker solutions. Although we are nine million strong, we are much too small a target market for significant research and development. No, I try to look at who - collectively - must deal with adverse heat conditions and buy in large quantities, as these demographics catch the clothing marketeers attention. For example, athletes, law enforcement, and the military. So this is where my journey began.

My first foray was to research and purchase micro-fiber garments often worn by athletes and law enforcement. The intention was to find both cooler clothing and sun protection. But being a Harley biker at heart, I also wanted color selection that was fitting of the brand. All-black or something darker is highly preferred.

The concept behind micro-fiber garments is the fabric wicks the moisture away from the body and uses it too cool as the breeze blows through the fabric - an evaporative effect, if you will. The pluses of micro-fiber shirts include a wide color selection and several reputable sports apparel manufacturers. The downsides are cost (they run $50+ and up) and the non-biker affiliated logos are prominently displayed. I found a version of the UnderArmor HeatShield shirt that caters to law enforcement which has the logo  blacked-out, and thought it to be a pretty good compromise. I also wear micro-fibre under-garments when riding and find the advantages to include a much cooler ride for "the boys" and the thinner seams created less pressure (pain) points where in contact with the seat.

While much more comfortable than a cotton t-shirt and underwear, the micro-fiber can't adequately battle the 95+ degree temperatures of the South and Southwest on its own. So I looked further...

It seems one of the unintended consequences of the wars in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq is the development of personal cooling technologies that help our brave soldiers work efficiently in the soaring heat. Clothing cooling technology ranges from evaporative cooling vests, which are worn over a lightweight t-shirt; to a hybrid approach consisting of evaporative cooling and ice packs which is also  worn over a t-shirt; to a self-contained cooling system which runs on a lightweight battery pack and can be worn under the protective field uniforms.

I discovered that one of the innovators in the field is TechNiche International and that they had a relatively broad product offering at all levels and price points. With product prices ranging from $79 to over $500 per unit, I opted to start with the entry-level HyperKewl cooling vest with the mandarin collar (for sun protection on the neck) and zip-off sleeve attachments.

The HyperKewl concept is relatively straight forward - simply soak the lightweight vest in water for 2-3 minutes to let the specially polymer-embedded fabric absorb water, then gently squeeze out the excess and wipe down. The vest gains some weight as it absorbs water, but once put on, you won't notice the added weight...only the instant coolness as it begins to produce a "wind-chill" effect of 10-15 degrees.

We used the vests extensively on a recent 860-mile, four day journey through Arkansas with mid-day temperatures ranging from 95-100 degrees. I'm fair skinned, so I wore a black micro-fiber shirt underneath, while my bride wore a traditional short-sleeve cotton t-shirt. The vest is designed to provide 5-10 hours of cooling comfort, but we found that the cooling effectiveness peaked at around 90 minutes when running down the highway at 70 mph. But not to worry, the vest can be re-soaked at any time and we found the timing was about right for a rest stop anyway! I used the vest with and without sleeves and found that once my core was cooled (using the vest only), the desired comfort level was achieved. So I don't recommend spending the extra $$ for the sleeve version unless you want the ability to use the vest w/arms as a lightweight jacket in the event the temps drop or you are in higher elevations.

A few caveats to share. First, the concept of evaporative cooling is based on the cooling effect the water adds to an otherwise dry(er) wind stream, so the effectiveness of the vests will decline in areas where high humidity is common. Second, this product is a choice of function over fashion. The color selections are limited and the quilted appearance of the fabric may not appeal to some. Third, the quality appears to be good, but I've not yet used the vest long enough to know what perils the repeated use and sweat effect will have on either the appearance or efficiency of the vest. And lastly, (and it is a nit), but the black vest has a bright blue inside liner and matching blue thread is used to sew the two together. The result is a black vest with hints of blue threading visible from the outside, a minor unintended consequence, I'm sure.

If function is what you value and you frequent high-heat rides, the HyperKewl vest is money well spent. It has definitely extended my riding season and opens up new options for where/when to ride!

© 2011 TRHG Holdings LLC

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Butt Hurts

Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks when I get a new bike. I make my purchase decision based on the features and functionality of the bike as a whole, knowing that there will be certain aspects that I will want/need to change. And the process of making those changes is often trial and error.

For all the technology and creature comfort built into the 2009 H-D Ultra Classic, the seat is not the highlight of the experience. In fact, it makes my butt hurt after a couple of hours on the road. Maybe it's just my particular butt, as I've changed the seat on every bike that I've ridden for any period of time. And it's seldom a simple fix because one really doesn't know if you've found the perfect seat until you get a few hundred miles on it. So I've become quite adept at buying and selling used seats on ebay and Craigslist.

But this one has me perplexed. I had rented an Ultra for a weekend before I purchased, so knew the seat was one of the first modifications. I ordered the new H-D Hammock seat at time of purchase, and really liked the rider comfort, but the passenger pillion slanted down, causing my bride to constantly slip out of position. I returned the Hammock and went back to the original.

Then I heard about the mid-year seat change in 2010 that introduced a "low" version of the original Comfort Stitch seat. I special ordered it and knew within a couple of hundred miles that it wasn't going to work for this rider. The "low" feature created a pocket that crowded the "boys" and positioned me too close to the tank. I found myself constantly pushing myself back in the seat, placing pressure on my tail bone. So I sold the seat on ebay and went back to the original. And began a search for something better while continuing to ride.

I checked-out all the usual after-market seats - Mustang, Corbin, Saddlemen, etc. - but wasn't impressed with their width or depth of foam on either the rider or passenger portion, or both. Also considered a custom build from Russell Day-Long, but hesitated at the cost and inconvenience. The H-D Road Zeppelin (RZ) was always an option, but I wasn't willing to fork over the big bucks for a new one with the recent experience on the other three. Then I found a "almost new" one on Craigslist and bought it....along with a rider back rest.

The RZ is an improvement, but still doesn't meet my criteria for long-distance comfort for me or my bride. The rider back rest, however, is a god-send. I've always wanted to get one, just never made the leap. I'll never ride (long distances) without it now!

So where do we go from here? I'll likely be placing an order for the Russell Day-Long in the next few weeks. I'm impressed with the engineering and have not found a single bad remark about them. More importantly, the raves seem to address on all the points that cause me pain today. Fingers-crossed...and RZ for sale.

I've been tinkering with the RZ a little to see if we can make it work.

The critique from the bride was that she was slipping forward when braking and that the (Tourpak) backrest/armrests were too low because the seat felt higher. Further observation was that she was actually sitting a little forward in the seat as a result of the backrest, which kept her from slipping back into the "pocket".

An online search for Tourpak relocation kits yielded several candidates, but a unit made by George Anderson seemed to be getting rave reviews. George's kit is first class - excellent design, quality manufacturing, and awesome powder coated paint (gloss black). It allows the Tourpak to be moved back 1 1/4 or 2 1/2 inches and raised by approximately 5/8 inch. The combination of moving backwards and slightly up was perfect for allowing my bride to scoot back into the pocket for a more comfortable ride and placement of the backrest/armrests.

It took about 30 minutes to install the Tourpak relocation kit and 90 minutes for the initial test ride. It received a thumbs-up approval from the bride. We're giving it a 1,400 mile test run to Arkansas at the end of the month and I'll post an update in that ride report.

© 2011 TRHG Holdings LLC

Monday, May 16, 2011

Help Select Phil's New Helmet

An update to the Rider Down!! post.

While still heavily sedated, Phil has stablized. They performed angioplasty today to repair the blockages that were causing the heart attack. Looks like there is a blessing in the accident after all. 

With spirits a little higher, I need help from the community. We're shopping for new helmet for Phil so that he has no excuse when he's ready to ride again. I'd like to get your thoughts on a style that suits him perfectly.

He is getting a little thin and grey on top...

And we've caught him wearing Rhonda's nightgowns a time or two... 
We have friends who sport this look...
And he enjoys sports...
Then, there are the food groups...
And the bling thing (this one is reserved for Liz)
And he can get a little cranial on...
But I think one of these would be his first choice...
Images from the Internet, author unknown
(but highly respected for their creativity)

© 2011 TRHG Holdings LLC

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rider Down!!

As I accelerate out of a turn, I always check my mirrors to ensure the riders behind have followed. I love to watch the smile on their face as their headlights straighten back up.

But this time was different.

Just as I went to look in the mirror, I heard a screech and saw the smoke of a skidding tire, followed by bike and rider flipping in the air. Phil didn't make the turn.


Yesterday afternoon was the ideal setting for the perfect ride. After a cool, cloudy morning, the skies cleared and the temps edged into the lower 70's. I strolled over to Phil's to talk him off the mower so that we could take a ride before it got too late. I'd mapped a three hour ride that covered both known roads and a couple of promising new candidates, and was anxious to check them out. We'd be back in time to have dinner with the girls and play cards well into the night, a ritual that we've all cherished for over 34 years.

The first leg of the ride was outstanding. Traffic was very light and the sun peeked though the tree canopies that enveloped the quiet, two-lane farm-to-market (FM) roads that snake their way through the East Texas forests and countryside. The FM road network was built in the 1930's and '40's to allow the transport of farm and ranch products to regional markets. Sometimes the roads follow old stagecoach or cattle drive trails that crisscross Texas. But for the most part, the roads follow the property lines of the day because the landowners donated portions of their land to allow the roads to be built.

The result is sweeping turns and twisties that follow the natural lay of the land. The roads are generally well maintained by the great State of Texas and are the routes of choice for most bikers, especially if you just want to cruise along at 50-55 mph so that you can really enjoy the scenery.

Today's routing took us west along FM-346 and FM-344 towards Lake Palestine. We stopped for a butt-cheek rest on the south end of the lake, talking about the perfect weather, the great condition of the roads, and the honey-do lists that could wait until "tomorrow". The next leg followed the southwestern shoreline of the lake to FM-315. Turning south on FM-315, the road meanders through the countryside, providing an outstanding mix of woods, ranches, and farms that mask the historic oil fields beneath. We crossed over US-175 and the road got even better - all the way down to Brushy Creek. We turned west on FM-837 for what was to be a 5-6 mile journey through the sweepers before turning north to begin our return.

The plan was to take a couple of FM roads that I'd not travelled before. On the map, they looked to be a great find, running parallel to the beautiful FM-315. But it turns out they were little more than county roads, so we continued west to TX-19, then north into Athens. The extra distance added a little time to the trip, but we had plenty of light remaining and would make it back in time to help with dinner.

We took Loop 7 around the southeast corner of Athens, exiting at TX-31. We had a couple of choices for the way back to Tyler - TX-31, a four-lane divided highway that is the most direct route, or FM-317, the more scenic route. About 100 yards beyond the TX-31 merge is the turn-off for FM-317. It's more like a "Y" exit, actually, a 45 degree type turn that we've all taken a thousand times without a second thought.

I don't know if he was distracted by the merge and took the turn-off to FM-317 a second too late or too fast (though we were only doing about 35-40mph at the time), or if something else caused him to over-shoot. But Phil swung a little wide and hit light gravel in the middle of the turn. It's not obvious whether his footboards grabbed or the tire regained traction, but when "whatever" happened, both he and bike became airborne. Luckily, in different directions. The bike flipped 2-3 times while Phil went into a "tuck and roll" maneuver that he learned from playing high school and semi-pro sports.

For all the things that went wrong yesterday, a few things went extremely right.

The oncoming car was already slowing for the stop sign ahead and saw everything happen with plenty of time to react. He was also an ER nurse at the hospital that Phil was about to visit. By the time I turned around and parked, he was already in action, providing pertinent patient medical information as I was talking to 9-1-1. An off-duty policeman was the next vehicle to arrive and began directing traffic. Then a Good Samaritan trucker (who I believe was also a biker) came over to help.

The 9-1-1 operator kept me on the line and was relaying emergency care tips (keep him talking, don't move him, etc.) until the cavalry arrived. For a small town, the response time was amazing - the Emergency Fire Response team was there within five minutes and the ambulance within another two. While it seemed like an eternity, the total duration of the call was only 7:46 minutes. Thank God for the caring people who choose this calling. The local hospital was a 7-8 minute ride away.

The emergency room staff initiated care based on the field diagnosis - difficulty breathing, a fractured clavicle, broken ribs, and lacerations on the left side of the head and left arm. X-rays revealed that the broken ribs had bruised and/or penetrated the lung and the spleen was bleeding. When the doctors inserted tubes to drain the chest and abdomen, he began experiencing a heart attack.

At that point, it was determined that he needed to be transported to a Level 1 trauma center in Tyler for further treatment. The CareFlight helicopter arrived 20 minutes later and he went into emergency surgery to have his spleen removed immediately upon arrival. He made it through the surgery and his vitals were stabilized by heavy sedation. Further diagnosis and surgical treatment of the heart condition will have to wait until his overall condition improves.

While Phil lies there fighting for his life, I write this blog entry to show respect for a husband, a father, a friend, a man I admire. I write to try and remember the smallest of details that will give us any clue as to what really happened. I write to heal, thinking there must have been something I could have done differently in leading this particular ride. I write to accept the fact that, sometimes, accidents happen.

We always ride safe, but perhaps never safe enough. Please be careful out there and pray for my friend and his family.


It's been a little over ninety days and, as recoveries from motorcycle accidents go, this one has been spectacular.

Once Phil stablized from the spleen removal, the doctors began working on the heart attack complication. A secondary artery was 100% blocked, but had already begun to self-bypass, so no repair was deemed necessary. The other blockage was 99%, so they inserted a stent. The blockage was in the main artery running across the front of the heart, known as the "Widowmaker". Had the heart attack occurred anywhere but in the hospital, it would likely have been fatal. The test also revealed the left side stent (from a previous heart attack) had begun to narrow, but the cardiologist recommended deferring repair until he fully recovered from the injuries. In a twisted fate sort of way, the accident saved his life.

Phil spent twenty days in ICU and another three days in the hospital before being released. His recovery was impressive enough that the team of doctors did not feel physical therapy was required. A second, more exhaustive, x-ray revealed that he had actually broken his clavicle in two places and had six broken ribs, not three, as originally diagnosed in the first emergency room. Only time will heal those bones.

He was very fortunate, to say the least.

Phil spent an additional month recuperating at home with very limited activities and returned to the cardiologist a month later to get the old stent repaired. Today, he lives in pain, but gains strength and mobility daily. And he suffers from some short-term memory loss from the concussion. Let that be a lesson for those "real" bikers who try to justify riding free - if you want to remember where you left the keys to your bike, wear a freakin' helmet. At last tally, the hospital bill (excluding the doctor/surgeon bills) was over $500K and he is just now getting back to work. 

Not exactly the ideal way to "take some time off".

We documented the entire recovery in a separate blog and it served as a great communication medium for his extended friends and family. It has also served to help Phil understand the severity of his injuries, as well as appreciate the love and support of those around him. He definitely has a different perspective on life today.

The bike came through the accident much better than the rider. It was repairable and has been returned to like-new condition. Phil has taken a couple of short rides to test his confidence, but his limited mobility and low tolerance to heat limits his endurance.

The whole experience has changed me forever. 

© 2011 TRHG Holdings LLC

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Bikes That Built Me

A fellow blogger, Gary France, recently published pics of the bikes that he has owned in his lifetime. After reading it, I began thinking about the bikes that I have owned and realized that these bikes did, in many ways, build me.

I grew up in a lower middle income neighborhood on the edge of a dusty West Texas town. While money was very tight for every family I knew, it was not uncommon for a motorcycle to appear in the driveway when the male teens approached their 15th birthday, the age at which we could obtain a motorcycle driver's permit in Texas. As teens, we were a sometimes wild, but a pretty industrious group of kids - mowing lawns, paper routes, working at the local Whataburger, and other typical first jobs to earn a little coin. And we were more than willing to put up a fair share of those proceeds towards the purchase of our first bike.

My story was no different. I inherited a paper route from an older brother when I was 13 and immediately began dreaming of buying a motorcycle when my first month's profits were deposited in the bank. For two years I delivered the paper route on my bicycle - 15 miles twice a day in the sun, wind, rain, sleet and snow...uphill both ways. I saved every dollar and constantly worked on my parents to let me upgrade to a motorcycle. My mom was a big believer in the perils of motorcycles and, to this day, I'm not sure I ever won her blessing. But I did eventually get the bike.

Photo from the Internet.

It was a 1973 Suzuki TS100 and it was a real beauty. Our neighborhood was surrounded on three sides by a vacant field, a creek, and farmland. This "enduro" model was the best of both worlds - most of the creature comforts of a street bike with the suspension and tire clearance that could handle some light off-roading. The 'light off-roading' occaisonally included jumping over friends and their bikes using self-made moguls as launch and landing pads. The only accessory added was a luggage rack that made it easier (and safer) to hold my worn newspaper delivery saddle bags.

I learned a lot from that first bike experience. First, long-term goals can be realized if you work hard. Two, salesmanship. Not only did I have to sell the paper delivery service to my customers, I had to sell the concept of certain danger on wheels to my highly risk averse parents. But even parents couldn't argue with the concept of business productivity. I was now able to deliver my paper route in half the time! Three, despite what it looks like when Evil Knievel does it on television, coming down after a high jump can hurt! Why didn't they ever include those, "Please don't try this at home" warnings back then?

Four, my mom was right, motorcycles are dangerous. I had two accidents on that bike - the only accidents that I have experienced! One that involved taking a shortcut where I shouldn't have and hitting a single strand of barbed wire that an annoyed farmer so kindly put up. And the other involved being hit by a drunk driver at 2am, which gave me my fifth learning - the advantage of leverage. The drunk driver was a car salesman driving a demo car and while the accident did little more than swing my rear tire out from under me, breaking the gear shifter, and scraping a couple of places on the bike and my butt, he was scared to death of the potential legal and criminal consequences. A tidy little settlement soon followed.

My sixth lesson was...re-sale matters. I got my money's worth out of that bike from the paper route and fun alone. I kept it in tip-top shape and sold it to an airman at the local Air Force base for almost what I paid for it three years earlier and I've been wheeling and dealing ever since.

My second bike came along when I was in college. I don't recall exactly how it happened, but along the lines of bigger is better, I bought another Suzuki enduro, the TS400, my junior year.

Photo from the Internet.

I used the bike to go to/from work, but really didn't get all that much use out of it as I recall, though it did provide some additional learnings. First, just because you're older doesn't mean you have to grow up. The reality may not always match the memory, but you have to give it a try once in a while. Second, brand matters. Maybe it was because my first bike was a Suzuki. Maybe it was because Suzuki really was the better bike in the day. But you couldn't have sold me any other brand at the time. And the third lesson was...re-sale matters. I made money on selling this one. Wait a second, I can ride for a year for free AND pull a profit if I buy right? Hmmm...

I then entered the dark years...some 20+ of them where I didn't own a bike. Oh, I would occasionally get the itch and ride a friend's bike, but life just happened and I went a LONG time without riding. Then Phil showed up.

Like many of us, Phil had been on/off bikes over the years, but somehow got the bug to buy a Harley. A beautiful Road King, I might add. I think he knew from the day he rode up that I was in trouble, but it took me a few more months to come to that realization.

My day came when I happened across a 2000 Heritage Softail Classic. It was painted two-tone, Aztec Orange and Diamond Ice, a color combination available for only two years (1999-2000). The Seller had won the bike with a $10 raffle ticket, rode it for less than a year, and was selling it so that he could buy a ranch (including mineral rights) that would soon be determined to be in the heart of a natural gas field known as the Barnett Shale - the largest onshore natural gas find in the United States. He easily turned that $10 raffle ticket into a $100K royalty stream.  

Photo from the Internet. I didn't have the whitewall tires,
it but otherwise looks like my maiden Harley!

My bride was a reluctant biker wife, telling me, "I'm not going to be one of those biker bitches you hear about." We went to the local H-D dealership that weekend and within 15 minutes of walking in the door, my lovely bride came up with both arms full of leather and lace exclaiming, "Look what I found and it's all on sale!" She too had crossed over.

The Heritage Softail Classic was a great bike, but I made the mistake of riding a friend's Road King Classic about a year later. By then, we were taking regular overnight trips on the bike and the Road King's touring frame seemed to provide a MUCH better ride. So I made the ultimate Harley transaction - converting a friend of mine from a crotch rocket to my Heritage and rescuing a Road King Classic from an owner who never used it. And a new rider group was born.

IMO, the Road King Classic will be one of the classic Harley models. This bike was my primary ride for eight years, but along the way, we sampled a few others. After a few years of riding bitch, Liz decided she wanted to move into the rider seat. She took the motorcycle safety course and her graduation present was another classic, a 1997 Heritage Springer. 

The Heritage Springer was a pleasure to look at...and rode like a brick. Looking back, it was not exactly the best bike for a new rider, BUT LOOK AT IT! Determined to enjoy her new-found freedom, Liz cut her teeth on it and did very well on the open road. But with limited time to ride and hone her skills, she eventually opted to return to the passenger pillion and we sold the bike to a nice gentleman in Florida who was returning to riding after a long absence. He flew-in for the day. I picked him up at the airport, brought him back for a test ride and inspection, then back to the airport. He was absolutely giddy on the ride back, calling the shipper on his cell so that it could be delivered at the earliest possible date.

But I'm a trader at heart, so we dabbled in a few other bikes along the way...

I rescued a Fatboy from a guy who had been out of work for a while and had to quickly relocate to secure a new job. On the ride home, I discovered it needed new cylinder gaskets and I needed new jeans (mine were soaked with oil). Also a 1997 model, it was a lighter and smoother ride than the Heritage Springer. Once all the repairs were made, it became the first bike of a new rider in Houston. His wife said that he smiled all the way home.

A few months later, I ran across a deal on a 2001 Dyna Low Rider. Thinking it might be the bike to get Liz back in the rider seat, I bought it and shined it up. But it was a busy time for both of us and Liz's back condition was really starting to be of concern. After five months of sitting on the trickle charger in the garage, we reluctantly put it up for sale so that another first time rider could get his charge.

We're now touring with a little more creature comfort - a 2009 Ultra Classic. I just couldn't resist the upgrade in the larger engine, 6-speed transmission, new touring suspension, and new electronics that wasn't available in the trusted 1999 Road King Classic. And the cruise control is icing on the cake!

The lessons learned with these bikes followed those in the early years:
  • Buy what you will ride - it really doesn't matter what brand or model, just get out there and enjoy!
  • Only buy what you can easily afford - you don't want your passion to become your burden, and
  • If you buy right up-front, you can (almost) ride for free!
But the greatest lesson learned is to enjoy the wind in our hair, the smell of flowers (and, in Texas, occaisonal dead skunk), and reconnecting with each other. Liz and I have always enjoyed driving to explore the great USA and doing it on the bike makes the experience even more vivid.

Every bike has a story. What's yours?

© 2011 TRHG Holdings LLC

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It was a cold day in...April

As much as I love to ride, sometimes life gets in the way.

Over the past 60-days, my riding (and writing) time has been consumed by attending to my lovely bride in her recovery from major back surgery and the sale of, and resulting move from, our primary residence. With the recovery going very well (hoping to have her back on the bike by the fall) and the move behind us, it was time to get El Semental Negro, my new trusty steed, out on the road to stretch his gears.

With only a couple of days advance notice, I was able to persuade my buddy Bill (aka “Iron Butt”) to join me on the 2-day, 850-mile ride through Northwest Arkansas. Actually, I had hoped to make it a 3-day ride, but ole' Iron Butt had other plans.

It was a cold day in…April when departed the new base camp in East Texas. Making a run into the mountains always results in cooler riding temps, but it was a chilly 48 degrees when we hit the road at 7am. Not that cold until you get going 70mph, which tends to be the low-end of the pace when riding with Iron Butt.

Bill had traveled light, bringing only a lined nylon mesh jacket, so he layered-on his rain suit to help knock the wind chill. Knowing he’d get no sympathy from me, he sucked it up and only whined in the form of a weather report, “Looks like the clouds will burn off and I’ll take this crap off after our first stop.” We figured we’d ride for a hour or so, then stop for breakfast and the temps would catch-up. Wrong. We were in leathers (or in Bill’s case, the rain suit) the entire day since the temps barely topped 60 degrees.

Tour de Arkansas - 2010
Map created using Microsoft Streets and Trips 2009
© Microsoft Corporation 2009

It was Bill’s first journey into Northwest Arkansas on a motorcycle, so the plan was to cover as much road as possible, stopping for groceries and Kodak moments as the whim hits us. Our target destination for Day 1 was Ozark via Hot Springs, so we hit the slab (I-30) in Texarkana to cover the flat lands as quickly as possible. We exited I-30 at Caddo Valley, where we took AR-7 north towards Hot Springs.

Running almost the entire length of the state, from Harrison in the north to El Dorado in the south, AR-7 is the central nervous system of great motorcycle roads in Arkansas, with many, many great loops and side roads along the way. For months, Bill has been going on and on about riding AR-7, so I routed as much of the trip as possible to accommodate his lust.

As we danced around the foothills of the southern tip of the Ouachita Mountains, the road into Hot Springs was a good warm-up to things to come. We stopped for lunch at the Brick House Grill in downtown Hot Springs, then scouted a few candidate sites for Thunder Road Motorcycle Lodge before hitting AR-7 for our first run through the mountains.

Bill gets a woody every time you talk about running the twisties through the mountains, so after giving him a heads-up about Arkansas signage (multiple chevrons on a curve generally indicate you can take the curve at +20mph over the posted speed, while a curve with a rectangular solid arrow sign deserves more respect), I told him to take the lead and that I would meet him at the convenience store in Ola. My experience is that it is best to let the boy run on the first set of twisties and you’ll either see him pulled over by local law enforcement authorities along the way or waiting patiently at the designated rendezvous site. Despite his excellent driving skills and track record, I always look for fresh skid marks along the way, just in case the road bites him…or he it.

AR-7 did not disappoint. The trees and foliage were in various stages of bloom and the air full of sweet smells (and pollen). The road was in great condition, with only one small section under repair. We were taking our journey mid-week, so there were a fair number of retirees maneuvering their massive recreational vehicles in an effort to reposition for the next step of their endless road journey. At times, threading these moving obstacles courses are considered added entertainment when performed on mountain roads. And on some days, they are nothing short of death defying learning experiences, which I experienced on the return leg of the trip.

After a quick break in Ola, we headed west on AR-10, which meanders through the Petit Jean River Valley between the Big O's, the Ouachita and Ozark national forests. The road is lined with farms and thickets, crisscrossing creeks and streams as you follow the sun. Along the way, one often catches a whiff of the unique aroma generated by a chicken farm which, if you haven’t been blessed with such an experience, is about like sticking your nose in your 3-year-old’s worst diaper…times 20. You know you are out of range when the burning stops.

About fifteen miles in, I notice that the smell isn’t going away, so I begin looking for the culprit. No nearby chicken farms. Lunch wasn’t that spicy and my pants are clean. Bill is too far behind me for it to be him. Hmmm. And just then we pop over a hill and come upon the shit wagon – literally a dump truck LOADED with twelve cubic yards of chicken shit. OMG! And he’s turning on our next cut-off!

Our eyes were watering as we rounded the corner and Bill was shouting, “We gotta get around this guy!” We did and just as he was disappearing from my rear-view mirror, I realized that we had turned on AR-307, not AR-309. Damn! We had to make a U-turn and were blessed with one final whiff as we sped by.

With fresh air back in our face, we found AR-309 and headed north to The Lodge at Mount Magazine, located within the Mount Magazine State Park. The mountain has hosted several lodging establishments since the late 1800’s, and if I am not mistaken, all of them have been destroyed by fires, forest or otherwise. The current facility was built by the State of Arkansas and was dedicated in 2002 by then-governor Mike Huckabee (of the 2008 presidential campaign fame). The lodge has a breathtaking southern view over the Petit Jean River Valley and boasts bluffs higher than 200 feet. For those of you who are more adventurous, Mount Magazine also offers a hang gliding launch site (must be Class 4 certified). I’ve never stayed at The Lodge, but have attempted on numerous occasions during summer months only to learn that they book-up quickly.

It was easily 10 degrees cooler in the mountains (back into the 50’s) and after a 30-minute rest stop and photo shoot, we continued on our final leg into Ozark. On the north side of Mount Magazine, AR-309 follows a path cut out of granite, providing spectacular sights along the way as we switch-backed through the Ozark National Forest. This was the first time I have travelled south-to-north on AR-309, and I think I prefer the north-to-south perspective better.

With limited options in Ozark, I tend to stick to what I know, and I know Rivertowne BBQ always delivers great groceries. Today was no exception and we feasted on a combination plate of brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. Perhaps the only BBQ joint in the world that doesn’t sell beer, we went next door to The Speak Easy lounge for a couple of rounds and to see if my old buddy Curtis was still around. Curtis the rest of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players were nowhere to be found, but we did meet Roy, who appeared to be Curtis’ little brother based on the stories he told. We stayed at the Days Inn and awoke to 45 degree temps the next morning.

After a hearty breakfast at the Ozark Restaurant and a refueling stop, we headed for the Pig Trail Scenic Byway (AR-23). The most recent winter has not been kind to the Pig Trail, as there were several crews repairing the road where erosion generated by the melting snows have caused rock slides and road collapse. The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department is to be commended for making the repairs so quickly and it looks like the road could use a complete resurfacing in the next year or so. Meanwhile, I caution riders to watch for loose gravel in areas where the repairs have been completed. 

Deer were foraging for food along the road and we encountered several herds of white tail deer feeding after we turned east on AR-16. This road runs the ridge along the Ozarks and provides spectacular views to the north and south. It was along here that we also snuck-up on another shit wagon, but we were able to swing around in record time, avoiding the nasal burns. I thought seriously about taking AR-21 south, having received good reports on that road from another biker at the BBQ joint the night before, but opted to stick with the original plan of coming down AR-7 back into Russellville.

It pained me to cut the trip into NW Arkansas so short, but doing so was the only way we were going to complete this ride in 2-days. Given more time, I would have made a loop on AR-7, AR-123, and AR-21, several times, then spent a night in one of my favorite towns, Eureka Springs, before exploring more sites in and around the Ozark National Forest. Hopefully, it wet Bill’s appetite enough that he’ll return.

I know I’ll be back and I’m not waiting for another cold day in April to do it!

© 2010 TRHG Holdings LLC

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder...

A welcome shout-out to the followers of Jack Riepe of Twisted Roads fame. Jack is an accomplished author, comedian, and (albeit a little known fact) a babe magnet from way back. One can only hope that when they grow up, they can attain such status. Welcome and I hope Thunder Road becomes a frequest stop for you all.

It is said that absence makes the heart grows fonder. As such, this winter has been absolute HELL on bikers. Whether it is the repeated episodes of Snowmageden in the Northeast or unseasonably wet and cool temps across the South and Midwest, Mother Nature has not been very accommodating to those longing to feel the wind in their hair and bugs in their teeth.

Like many on a budget, I used my portion of the Christmas budget to fund this year’s "wish list" - new rain suits for my bride and myself, faring mirrors, and a new bag made to fit the tour-pak rack. I used the winter garage time to install said gifts, perform needed maintenance, and give the bike a general deep clean. In the evenings, I would find myself cruising virtually - surfing the Internet for cool places to visit, reading biker-related stories, and sharing route ideas. In short, I'm anxious for some serious road time.

This year, my goal is to put 12K miles in the saddle through a combination of three or four multi-day trips and regular weekend excursions. One trip will be to explore new roads and sights in Louisiana and the Piney Woods of East Texas, while another will be into the lush mountains of Northwest Arkansas. And if the work schedule allows, perhaps a return trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway for our 30-year anniversary. I suspect the rainy season is going to continue into the spring, so it will be early May before we do the big rides.

The Grand Central Hotel - Eureka Springs
Photo compliments of the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission

I’m most excited about returning to Eureka Springs in Northwest Arkansas. It is said that one-third of the nation’s population lives within a day’s drive of Eureka Springs and it remains a favorite tourist destination today. A step back in time, this Victorian village was founded in 1879 as a spa town when natural hot springs were discovered. By the 1890’s the town had grown into a full-blown resort town built on the mystic healing powers of the springs.

Downtown Eureka Springs is approximately two square miles and is built vertically into the mountain sides. The eclectic collection of vintage homes and commercial buildings remain today, as does the steam train that carries tourists through the valley. The downtown area is also known for its narrow roads that were originally built to handle horse and wagon traffic. While the Historic Loop can handle normal automobile traffic, many of the neighboring residential streets can barely handle two motorcycles passing mirror-to-mirror today.

US Route 62, the early days
Photo compliments of the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotions Commission 

With the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T, the number of cross-country drivers began to grow exponentially, despite the fact that most roads were dirt or gravel, at best. In 1916, the US government introduced the national highway system and Route 62 (US-62) runs from Niagara Falls, New York to El Paso, Texas via Eureka Springs. This portion of the highway was constructed in the 1930’s and considering it was during the Great Depression era, it came just in time to help revive Eureka Springs as a tourist destination. When first completed, the highway was known as the Ozark Skyway and Ozark Trail.

Coupled with AR-23 (the Pig Trail Scenic Byway), the roads in and around Eureka Springs make it a top motorcycle destination. Perhaps the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotions Commission sums it up best, “Eureka Springs is fortunate to be one of the few places in America that still has the mid-century roadside culture intact to tell this part of our history – The Auto Age.” All of this history, and even today there is still not a single traffic light in the town.

One of the many biker draws for Eureka Springs is the number of options to entertain visitors. The town actually has three-faces – the historic downtown district, the entertainment highway, and Beaver Lake.

Spring Street at Night
Photo provided by the Eureka Springs Tourist Center

The historic downtown district has a wealth of art galleries, local shops, museums, and restaurants for evening entertainment or as an alternative distraction for spouses or significant others who have tired of riding. The City Auditorium was built in 1928, opening to John Phillip Sousa and his 67-member orchestra. Since then, many first-rate acts have continued the show - Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dwight Yoakum, Mavis Staples, and Bill Cosby, just to name a few. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Historic Downtown area is via the trolley that stops at most hotels located along Route 62 ($5 all-day fare).

The highway (Route 62) hosts most of the hotels, motels, and roadside eateries, as well as the world famous The Great Passion Play, the Pine Mountain Jamboree, and the Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down Music Theater. For lodging, the Rodeway Inn Swiss Holiday Resort caters to biker and car club needs and interests. Joe “Mr. Big” McClung (owner) and Ray “Ray-Ray” Beber (manager) are riders themselves, with Joe having ridden the roads of NW Arkansas for over 40-years. If you’re interested in a guided historical or scenic tour, give them a call a few days prior and they will deliver an unforgettable experience. Another must-stop is the Rockin’ Pig Saloon, the Rowdy Beaver, and Bubba’s BBQ.

A short drive northwest of Eureka Springs, the White River flows into Beaver Lake. This pristine lake is tucked into the Ozark Mountains, boasting 600 miles of shoreline and 30’ visibility that is the perfect setting for great fishing, water sports, hiking, and day recreation. The area also offers fantastic motorcycle touring. One of the must-ride roads is AR-187 that loops off of Route 62 and includes the Beaver Bridge (915’ in length), reportedly the first suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River and only remaining suspension bridge in Arkansas.

Beaver Suspension Bridge on AR-187
Photo by John A. Weeks III

If you haven’t been to Eureka Springs before, make the trip. If you haven’t been there recently, come back soon – as the area is truly a unique biker experience. It's enough to make the heart grow fonder...

© 2010 TRHG Holdings LLC