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!

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