Sunday, April 30, 2006

Conway, Arkansas to Little Rock, Arkansas

I just took a small Sunday drive today from Conway across SR 64 into Beebee and down SR 67 to Little Rock. It was a pleasant ride through the farmlands. I left around 10:00 o'clock this morning so the traffic was pretty light. Things don't get hopping until noon or so, as most of the cars are in church parking lots until then. As I got into North Little Rock there was quite a bit of construction on 67 and the traffic picked up considerably so it was hairy going for awhile. Once I made the quick hop on SR 67/I-40 to I-30 south into downtown everything calmed down again. The city seems nice and clean. It's a smaller city but pretty. It's laid out on two sides of the Arkansas River. There's a revitialized riverfront developement with shops, resturaunts and a park (complete with a pavilion for live performances). Of course all of this was closed while I was there.

After getting off the bike and walking around the park for awhile I decided to head over to the William J Clinton Presidential Library. It's a pleasant looking building from the highway so I thought I'd get an upclose look. I wasn't in the mood to walk around inside so I thought I would save that for another trip. I did get some nice pictures of the outside. Like everything else around here, Sunday morning seems to be a good time to go. The library was open but there were no long lines or crowds to fight. I made one last pass through town and the auto and pedestrian traffic was beginning to pick up. I headed back up SR 67 to 64 and hightailed it home.

The day was sunny and mild. I think the high was 74 degrees. After yesterday's deluge I was happy to get out on the road for a bit.

Miles - 132

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Conway, Arkansas to Mt Magazine State Park, Arkansas

I took off this morning at 9:30 or so headed for Magazine Mountain. At 2753 feet it's the highest point in Arkansas and it's only 84 miles from Conway. I have a semi-tradition of trying to make it to the highest point in whatever state I happen to be in. I don't always make it but I have been to the upper most reaches of New Jersey, Alabama, Colorado and now Arkansas. I should clarify, I'm talking the highest paved point. I'll leaving the hiking to Lisa.

I pulled out of the hotel and jumped on I-40 headed west just to the next exit. I got off and took off across State Route 64 which parallels the interstate so close it keeps popping in and out of view. 64 was still better than I-40 though. It's a well maintained road. It's pretty straight for the most part, but there are curves and hills enough to keep it fun. Traffic was light and there was ample passing room for the occasional calico pick-up with the crooked bumper. The road cut through several small towns. They were a lot like small towns everywhere with empty shops and boarded up gas stations. The road also seemed to be road kill central. If you weren't seeing a carcass you were smelling one. It was an olfactory overload.

On SR 64 I went through Morrilton and on into Russellville. I wasn't sure where I was heading. I was using a bad photo copy of a bad map I had stuffed in my tank bag and the roads were hard to see. I saw a little auto show in a store parking lot and decided to seek directions and check out the cars. There were some pretty nice hot rods and motorcycles on display. There was a brand new Ford GT which seemed out of place in the middle of rural Arkansas. The owner (or the owner's son) was rubbing the paint to within an inch of it's life.

After getting directions from a security guard I was on my way again. For about ten minutes. I wanted to be on Arkansas Route 27, which I was for those brief ten minutes, but I ended up going west again on AR 22. It all worked out as it went around in a big loop anyway. The whole Magazine Mountain area is a part of the Ozarks National Park and a recreational area for boating, hunting, camping, fishing, hiking and you get the idea. All roads (as few as there are) lead to Magazine Mountain. If I hadn't got lost I might have missed the Subiaco Abbey. I came out of the woods and turned the corner and there was a huge-castle like building even more out of place than the GT. It seems that in 1878 some Benedictine Monks founded the Abbey and now it's an Academy.

I came into Paris AR. hungry and ready for a break. I stopped at a tiny little place called the Grapevine, where I had one of their creations called the Santa Fe. It was a delicious salad with black olives, corn, tortilla strips, chicken and the house avocado ranch dressing. I'm not usually a salad eater but it was really satisfying.

Once I was finished I went one block and turned south on AR 309 which turned into the Mt Magazine Scenic Byway. It lived up to the name too. You start to climb up the mountain into the trees. The road at this point is under some major construction. It looks like it is being widened and the curves smoothed out. It'll be nice when it's done but for now it's a mess and a hazard. Fortunately that doesn't last long and the road turns into a decently wide two lane. The fun really started here. There were some tight twists and switchbacks along with some high speed sweepers and traffic was light. There were a few campers but like 64 there are several good passing areas. And for some reason people seem to freeze up in fear when a motorcycle pulls up behind them on a twisty mountain road. I had to slow down for fear of driving some guy off the road. He was going way too fast in an effort to keep ahead of me. He finally pulled over to let me pass.

Somewhere along the way I started back down. If the highest spot on the road was marked I missed it. As fun as the road was, I wasn't too upset and probably wouldn't have wanted to stop anyway. On the way back I looped around to AR 27 and found the route back to Dardanelle, where I had originally went awry. I was getting tired and thirsty by this time so I headed toward I-40 for the quick trip back. It was interesting to see how different the land was compared to the back roads, even though I rode most of the way right along the highway for the first half of the trip. The freeway seemed a lot more desolate and the terrain along it was swampy. Way too much traffic too.

It was a great ride. It reminded me of so many other places I've been but it was also distinctly Arkansas. Very sparsely populated and green. It was a good side to the state that I haven't seen too frequently since I've been here. The state has moved up a notch with me (the western side anyway).

Miles - 201

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Conway, Arkansas to Clarksdale, Mississippi

I left yesterday at around nine o'clock in the morning for Clarksdale Mississippi. I was headed for the spot where US 49 and US 61 intersect, known in the world of Blues music as the crossroads. It's on that spot where the legend of Robert Johnson is rumored to have started. Robert lived in obscurity until he supposedly signed a deal with the Devil in Clarksdale one night (and I guess he still is pretty obscure to most people). I was very excited to see what I felt would surely be a creepy, swampy and lonely stretch of road. I headed east on I-40 from the hotel I'm currently staying in toward Little Rock. The weather was calling for record highs for Easter weekend. It was in the mid-seventies already at nine. There were some high scattered clouds but it was otherwise perfect. I stayed to the interstate for the first 90 miles to exit 216. I got off at Brinkley Arkansas and headed down US 49, thrilled to already be on one of the roads that was my goal. Glad to be off the interstate, I took off to Helena Arkansas, on the Mississippi river. The road cuts through farmland and reminds me a great deal of northern Ohio around the Toledo and Findlay area, just a lot less people. I got to the Helena Bridge and stopped to stretch and get a picture of the bridge. Unfortunately there wasn't a good place to pull over close enough to see the river itself. I passed several motorcycles going both ways. Like I said it was a perfect riding day.

The rest of the 177 miles was pretty uneventful. It was a flat straight shot to the first intersecting of 61 and 49. It turns out the two merge for several miles before you hit the crossroads. The anticipation was building although I was noticing the four lane highway 61 & 49 had become. I simultaneously saw the sign for 49 east and 61 south and the big cloverleaf off ramps. So much for a dirt road with trees covered in Spanish moss and owls staring at me. I got off and headed toward town. At the intersection of State road 161 and US 49 was a sign with three guitars proclaiming I had found the crossroads.

I had no plan other than riding to Clarksdale and Rosedale and seeing what happened when I got there. I tend to not plan my trips out very well preferring to use the destination as more of a reason for the ride. When I got to Clarksdale I saw signs for the Delta Blues Museum so I headed downtown. This part of Mississippi is beautiful and the people are friendly but it's a dirt poor part of the country. The downtown area was dead on a Saturday afternoon. There were some attempts at economic stimulation. The museum itself seemed to be the centerpiece for this renewal. It was in a remodeled train station with some shops in matching buildings a little down the street. For as quiet as the town was I was surprised to see several people touring the museum. The Delta Blues Museum was nice, clean and the guy at the front desk was helpful and friendly. Some of the displays were the "muddywood" guitar designed by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame. It was created from a chunk of Muddy Waters childhood home torn free from a tornado. Built for fund raising to pay for the museum in 1988 it goes on tour from time to time but is usually on display in the Muddy Waters cabin inside the museum. There were several guitars and old instruments on display. There were several Stella guitars there. These were apparently the guitar of choice for the blues artists of the 20's and 30's. I have to make a disclaimer here. My knowledge of the blues derives almost entirely from artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn, ZZ Top, and Led Zepplin. I have a few John Lee Hooker albums and know some of the more well known names. I like the music however and the museum instilled me with an interest to check some of the artists out.

There were two photography exhibits. One was a great series by a woman named Panny Flautt Mayfield. They are taken in Juke joints in the area. My favorite has to be a more recent photo of Robert Plant dancing in one of the blues clubs. His face is covered in a scruffy beard, head down holding a bottle of Budweiser. His arms are held up in front of him and he looks like he's in a trance. Behind him is a heavyset African American woman staring at the camera looking happy and content. The caption reads, "Robert Plant enjoys the anonymity of the Red Top Lounge". It's instantly become one of my favorite photographs.

That afternoon I headed down Highway 1 to Rosedale (40 or so miles from Clarksdale) with Eric Clapton's song Crossroads running through my head alternating with Led Zepplin's Traveling Riverside Blues. Highway 1 runs along the river and I thought maybe this was the route Robert Johnson took when he wrote the original song. The town was clean and quaint and the people were friendly. An old gentleman honked at me when I first got in to town. Thinking I had pulled out in front of him or something to that effect I turned and he waved. It seems that everyone honks and waves to everyone else. I liked it.

I got home at around seven with the idea of going to a local blues bar and seeing some live music. I think that would have been a perfect event to end this post on. Unfortunately riding all day in the heat took it's toll and I fell asleep, waking up just long enough to get undressed and into bed. The next day I got up early and left under cloudy threatening skies. The wind hit me broadside all the way back to Conway.

All in all it was a pretty good ride. The roads were pretty much straight and dull, the scenery was not bad, not great but the big draw of it all was treading the ground that so many legendary musicians had walked on and seeing the place were the Delta blues was born. I don't think I've ever been where the music fit the place so appropriately.

Miles - 455

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Conway Arkansas to Clinton Arkansas

Well, I was able to take my first real ride of the season finally. I'm working in Conway Arkansas right now. One of my co-workers took a ride last weekend toward the Natural Bridge and said Arkansas 65 was a nice road. I took off at around ten o'clock. The Weather Channel was calling for rain so I grabbed the rain suit and headed out. It was heavily overcast but the clouds were those high kind that usually mean no rain (right away anyhow) and it was about 72 degrees. I jumped on I-40 briefly and headed off exit 129 northbound on Rte 65. The road was in pretty good condition. Traffic wasn't bad, it was light and most people were watching their speed. After about five miles I saw why. There were three State Troopers in the next five miles. All told I would see about eight Troopers on the trip. The only thing I saw more of were churches and antique stores. I've literally never seen so many churches in a 40 mile strip of road. The road went through several small towns and the area seemed a lot like the places in Alabama I've rode before. The litter was less than around Conway which was nice.

The Natural Bridge park is about three miles north of Clinton. The road into the bridge is narrow, barely one lane but it's only a mile or so and there doesn't seem to be much traffic. There's a small gift shop and a very short nature trail and "hill billy" display including a still. It cost $4.00 to get in to see the bridge. The gift shop is strategically placed to block the view which works out for the proprietors because if you could see it from anywhere coming in it would only take a glimpse to see it all. It was more of a reason to ride somewhere. The woman in the gift shop was nice and helpful. When I mentioned the twisty and steep nature of the road she mentioned the park is closed from the end of November until the first of March.

By the time I got to Clinton the sun was out and it was gorgeous. The trip back was uneventful. I was looking forward to stopping for lunch at the Mexican restaurant I passed on the way up. It was as good as I had hoped. It was so nice after lunch I decided to ride to Little Rock. Little Rock is thirty miles southeast and by the time I got to Little Rock the sky to the south was so dark you couldn't see the skyline of the city. I decided to hightail it home. All in all it was a great ride, but than there's ever hardly a bad one.

Miles - 144