Chronicles readers may recall my “Old Route 66” (September 2013) and “Keep the Water on Your Right” (February 2015) motorcycle travelogues, in which I rode through small towns and rural areas to reconnect with the land and people of America. A road trip can do this like no other kind of journey, and doing one astride a motorcycle creates an intimacy with the road absent in other vehicles. Riding a motorcycle, one is exposed to every scent in the air, whether good or ill. Every change in temperature or humidity is felt immediately. Moreover, small motorcycle tanks mean regular stops at gas stations, and even those with iron butts need breaks to shake out their limbs. This means talking with locals, getting the feel of small towns, and resting at a beautiful spot next to a stream or atop a mountain.
Our first two long-distance, multi-state rides were sponsored by the Southern California Norton Owners Club. On those trips, we SoCal riders were joined by several members of the North Texas Norton Owners Association. For the uninitiated, Norton was one of the top British motorcycles before the bike went out of production in the mid-1970s. It is one of the many British bikes from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that riders today like to restore and ride. The Texas Norton boys thought it was time to return the favor of sponsoring a ride and decided upon a route which would take us from Texas through Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Since the principal objective of the ride was crisscrossing the Ozarks on back roads and since we’d be riding British bikes, the president of the Texas club, Richard Asprey, titled the ride “The British Invasion of the Ozarks.” Richard is a Brit himself, who took a circuitous life path to end up in Texas.As a teenager he went to work in the insurance industry in London. Brilliant and highly motivated, he moved through the ranks quickly and soon was off to Bermuda, where many of the British insurance firms had relocated to take advantage of the regulatory and tax benefits of a British Overseas Territory.
Richard found the weather, sailing, and fishing idyllic, but the islands that comprise Bermuda have a total land area of only 50 square miles. Not only are there few roads on Bermuda but it’s possible to exceed the speed limits on a bicycle or skateboard—15 mph in the town of Hamilton, the capital city, and 20 mph in the countryside.
After not too many years, Richard was off to Florida to start his own insurance business. The business grew rapidly and frequent cross-country travel caused Richard to relocate more centrally, and he chose Dallas. His roots sunk into the Texas soil like no place before, partly because in the Norton Club he found a group of guys who shared his passion for vintage British motorcycles, both restoring them and riding them hell-bent for leather, and for 70- and 80-mph speed limits.
One of the several homes Richard owns in Southlake, an upscale suburb of Dallas, serves as the clubhouse for the Norton Club and as the stable for Richard’s collection of British bikes, including Vincents, the crème de la crème for collectors of British two-wheelers. The clubhouse has such amenities as a full bar and walls decorated with motorcycle engines sliced in half, displaying their inner workings.
The Southlake clubhouse was the point of departure for our ride. Instead of leaving on our bikes, we climbed aboard a bus chartered by Richard and were driven to a farm between Paris and Powderly, Texas, where our bikes had been stored in a barn well ahead of time. In this way, everyone had to have his 50- or 60-year-old motorcycle well-prepared for more than a week of hard riding. No excuses and no late arrivals.
Walking into the barn we were greeted by a gorgeous sight. Waiting for us were some 17 classic British beauties, including my 1968 Matchless G15CS Scrambler and the 1970 Triumph T120R Bonneville of my riding partner, John Wiley.
Soon we rolled our motorcycles into the daylight, primed the carburetors, and kicked the bikes over. By the twos and threes they fired. The sounds got my blood up—nothing like the deep rumble of strong, four-cycle, piston-driven engines—electric vehicles can go to Hades. Minutes later we were at the edge of the road that ran by the farm. On my bike behind me was my wife, Susan, eager as always for a new adventure. Ride-leader Dennis Tackett gave the signal. We pulled onto the road and roared north.
Trailing behind us was the ever-present Alton Gillespie, driving the chase truck and trailer with spare bikes and bike parts. Alton works for Richard as a driver and a painter. Some think he looks like an aging hippie, but he’s all down-home Texas and will do anything for a friend. He loves his time on the road, whether it’s cruising on the open highway or maneuvering the truck and trailer on impossibly narrow and twisting mountain roads. The riders all know that if your bike breaks down and is beyond a quick fix, Alton will pull into view before too long. The riders also know if they want a custom paint job on their gas tanks or on anything else, Alton is the one to do it—even out on the road. I’ve seen him deftly pinstripe tanks and paint emblems on them at night in motel parking lots.
Northward we rode through Lamar County gazing at farms and ranches devoted to raising corn, cotton, and cattle. The flat or gently rolling terrain was dotted with occasional stands of timber. We were soon rumbling through Powderly with its normal assortment of small-town Texas businesses, including a Dairy Queen, a Dollar General, a bait and tackle shop, and a gun store. Also, in no more than a three- or four-mile stretch of road I counted six churches, four Baptist, one Church of God, and one Methodist—and this was in a lightly populated area. We pulled into a gas station to fill our tanks and out of a police vehicle stepped a Lamar County Sheriff’s deputy. He looked like John Wayne. He wore heavy artillery on his hip and a cowboy hat on his head. Just when I thought I had seen the poster boy for the department, out the other side of the vehicle stepped his partner, an even taller version of the first deputy. Don’t mess with Texas.
Soon we were on a bridge and looking down upon the Red River. The water was a murky green but the banks of the river had more than enough reddish mud and sediment to warrant the name. Into Oklahoma we went. The first thing I noticed was the Red Warrior Ballpark and the Choctaw Casino. We were in Indian Country and those Lamar County deputies were on the other side of the river.
Turning east, we rode through hilly and forested McCurtain County—a good Irish name, I thought. The county was actually named for Green McCurtain, a Choctaw chief, but his grandfather was Irishman Cornelius McCurtain from County Cork. We stopped in Broken Bow, a town of 4,000 whose name I had known, like nearly everyone else I suppose, from childhood. I was surprised to learn the name didn’t come from an Indian origin in Oklahoma but from Broken Bow, Nebraska, which I had never heard of. The Oklahoma town is home to the Broken Bow Savages, regularly one of the top football teams in the state. There is a strong Choctaw presence in the area, and Broken Bow is about 18 percent Native American. Lumber mills and paper plants dot the countryside around the town.
From Broken Bow, we headed north to Talihina, a railroad town of about a thousand souls. Importantly for us, it’s the western terminus of the Talihina Scenic Drive, which heads east for 60 miles along a ridgeline of the densely wooded Ouachita Mountains before the road twists down into Mena, Arkansas. The sun was setting as we climbed into the hills, bathing the lush countryside in a golden glow. We were mostly alone for the entire length of the Talihina Scenic Drive, not only enjoying the views of forested hills as far as we could see but also allowing us to do some serious throttle-twisting and leaning. It was dark when we arrived at the Mena Mountain Resort, an upscale place for the likes of us.
The next morning we began our ride to Hot Springs. Two miles out of town we passed the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. Here it was in 1981 that drug-smuggling pilot Barry Seal began flying in Columbian cocaine. The DEA eventually caught up with him and he turned informant. He then began flying sting operations for the CIA. Columbian drug lords were not pleased and they had Seal gunned downed in Baton Rouge. The CIA continued to use his Mena-based plane on missions to aid the Contras in Nicaragua until it too was shot down. All that went on at the Mena airport with Seal and his drug trafficking and later with Seal and the CIA remains unknown.
Leaving Mena behind we rode through countryside that was more lush pastureland than cropland. Horses, usually thoroughbreds, were in abundance. There were several expensive-looking horse farms. Ninety miles down the road at Hot Springs we learned why. On the southern edge of the historic town is the Oaklawn Park racetrack. Susan already knew it well, not because she had been there, but because she watches a horse-racing channel and races at Oaklawn are aired regularly.
We arrived as scheduled for a motorcycle show in the middle of town on Central Avenue. After putting our bikes on display, Susan and I, and John Wiley, strolled along Central to see the sights. Hot Springs was founded as a health resort in the middle of the 19th century and has maintained that nature ever since. There is Bathhouse Row, the Army and Navy Hospital (now the Arkansas Career Training Institute), which opened in 1887 for Civil War veterans and greatly expanded in the early 1930s into a multistory eye-catching stone edifice, and the 16-story art deco Medical Arts Building erected in 1929.
During the late 19th century the town also became known for gambling. Illegal, of course, but gangster Frank Flynn owned the cops, who would even collect debts for him. Legal gambling could be had at the Oaklawn track that opened in 1904.
During the 1920s and 30s, Hot Springs became a vacation spot for dozens of gangsters, including Owney Madden, Bugs Moran, Dutch Schultz, Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone. When Capone came to town he rented the entire fourth floor of the Arlington Hotel for himself and his companions. The 11-story, 480-room Arlington is the largest hotel in Arkansas. Strategically located on Central at the north end of Bathhouse Row, it is the landmark edifice of Hot Springs.
That dozens of America’s most notorious gangsters and their floozies were regular visitors to Hot Springs and made the city’s landmark hotel their headquarters didn’t bother Mayor Leo McLaughlin. In 1926, he was elected on a platform promising to improve city streets and to make Hot Springs an “open town.” McLaughlin served as mayor for 20 years and was enormously popular, if corrupt. Not only had he been born in Hot Springs but he had been a star athlete and class president at the local high school, a state legislator, and the city attorney. He was also a WWI vet. Capitalizing on McLaughlin’s “open town” and the characters who visited it, there is the Gangster Museum of America on Central, not far from the Arlington.
If gambling and gangsters are part of Hot Springs’ history, so, too, is baseball. The Chicago White Stockings (later the Cubs) hatched the idea of spring training and opened their first camp at Hot Springs in 1886. Players liked the mild weather and enjoyed the mineral baths, claiming the hot sulfur soakings did wonders for their aches and pains. Other teams soon followed the White Stockings and Hot Springs became the home of spring training.
In a pre-season game in Hot Springs on St. Patrick’s Day, 1918, the Boston Red Sox faced off against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Boston’s regular first baseman couldn’t play, so the manager grudgingly let the team’s star pitcher fill in. The pitcher-turned-first-baseman hit two home runs. One soared over the outfield fence and landed in a woodpile some 500 feet from home plate. The other went even farther and landed in the city’s zoo, a distance of 573 feet. No one had ever seen a ball hit that far. It was the beginning of the end for Babe Ruth’s pitching career. Today in Hot Springs there are two plaques and a home plate marker dedicated to the Babe and a Baseball Historic Trail with plaques and markers commemorating other players and events.
There are many reminders in Hot Springs that it was the boyhood home of Bill Clinton, although he was born in nearby Hope. Actors Billy Bob Thorton and Alan Ladd were both born in Hot Springs but both moved when young.
After an evening of conviviality—the Texas boys are fond of singing in restaurants and bars—and a half-night’s sleep, we rumbled out of Hot Springs and headed north on Highway 7. We climbed through the Ouachita Mountains and arrived in Russellville, home of Arkansas Tech University and Tyson Foods. Tech’s campus is beautiful and squeaky clean. It started me thinking how cluttered and grungy most state university campuses have become in California. I also thought about the road we had ridden for 75 miles—well- paved, correctly banked, and clean. While some roads still meet that description in California, most are deteriorating badly. Yet, we pay the highest gasoline taxes in the nation to maintain our roads. Gasoline in Arkansas is 40 percent cheaper and her roads are far better.
Perhaps because of Tyson Foods, there is a growing Hispanic population in Russellville, now about 14 percent. Blacks, who accounted for 17 percent of the population in Hot Springs, are only about 6 percent in Russellville.
A half-dozen miles north we climbed up into the Ozarks. I was surprised. I had expected to find the mountain country beautiful, but I didn’t expect to find more well-engineered, well-maintained roads, and tidy and prosperous-looking farms and hamlets. Where was the Ozarks I had heard about as a young kid in the early 1950s? Where were Ma and Pa Kettle? Where were the barefoot kids, rutted dirt roads, and primitive cabins and outhouses? Nowhere that I could see.
We stopped for lunch at the Cliff House Inn, which overlooks the Arkansas Grand Canyon. I think I’d call it the Grand Valley of the Ozarks. No matter. It’s beautiful, green, and covered with broadleaf forests interrupted by small farms.
No more than a few miles north of the Cliff House is Jasper, a typical small hamlet in the Ozarks. The town is clean and well-maintained and the people are friendly and helpful. Most are Arkansas natives, although there is a population of retirees from out of state. With its relatively mild climate and opportunities to hunt, fish, and boat, I can see why retirees like it. About six miles north of Jasper we crossed the Buffalo River. Looking west from the bridge, we could see striking white and gray limestone bluffs, which are characteristic of Ozark river canyons. After 240 miles of country road from Hot Springs, we arrived in Eureka Springs, a prominent vacation spot since the 1880s.
Eureka Springs has only 2,000 residents but gives the impression of having triple that number because of the many tourists who visit. Eureka Springs was incorporated in 1880 after years of people claiming that water from the local springs cured their ills. After the arrival of a railroad in 1882, the town boomed, becoming something of a playground for the wealthy. Constructed of stone, most of its buildings date from the late 19th century, giving the town a solid but quaint appearance. The town is all hills and the steepness of the roads reminded me of San Francisco. Also reminding me of San Francisco is Eureka Springs’ sizeable gay population.
A couple of miles outside of the town is Thorncrown Chapel. Built of wood and glass, it’s all light, and brings the outdoors indoors. Susan and I immediately thought Frank Lloyd Wright. As we learned, the architect, E. Fay Jones, had apprenticed with Wright. Thorncrown is meant to be a place of quiet reflection and meditation. We sat in silence for some time. When we walked back to the parking lot, which is purposely a bit of a way from the Chapel, John and I tried to start our bikes and putt away as quietly as possible.
The next day was aggressive throttle-twisting on a 200-mile loop out of Eureka Springs. We crossed the White River on the one-lane, wooden-planked Beaver Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in Arkansas. Later, one of our riders hit the ground on a sharp downhill curve with a decreasing radius. He and his bike were well banged-up, and an ambulance took him to a hospital.
While we were waiting on the side of the road, Rebel Bradshaw came riding up to us with the Confederate battle flag flying from a staff on the back of his motorcycle. Rebel is not a sobriquet, but his given name. I mentioned we had seen the Confederate flag commonly waving from houses and farms in the Ozarks. He said almost everyone in the Ozarks had a relative or two who had fought with Confederate forces in the Battle of Pea Ridge or the Battle of Wilson’s Creek or some such engagement, and they were proud of their heritage. For them, the flag had nothing to do with blacks or slavery. The nearest slave owners and their plantations were in southeastern Arkansas. The ancestors of today’s Ozark residents were poor dirt farmers, who fought to defend their kinfolk and homeland.
The next day we took a route that led to Buffalo Point for lunch. In the parking lot I met a retired motorcycle cop from California. He told me he had been living in the Ozarks for 16 years and his decision to leave California and move to Arkansas was the best of his life. He said the motorcycle riding and fishing are incomparable and the ills that plague California are foreign to the Ozarks.
After a 200-mile day, we reached Mountain Home for our night’s stay. With a population of 12,000, the town is a commercial center supporting farms, recreation, and tourism. I was working on my bike in front of our hotel when a representative for a company that manufactured farm equipment asked me if he could be of help. I said I needed a particular bolt with a particular thread but everything in town was now closed. No problem he said—he’d have security open the company store for him and he’d get what I needed.
We took a 170-mile loop the next day that included a ferry trip across Bull Shoals Lake, famous for its bass fishing, to Missouri. Waiting for the ferry we met Road Riders for Jesus, hardcore motorcyclists who were also devout Christians. They were good guys, mostly from Illinois, and all had life stories to tell. Once off the ferry, we found the Missouri side simply meant more streams, broadleaf woods, limestone bluffs, and lightly traveled country roads.
The next day was a 240-mile ride to Hot Springs. This time it was John’s bike with a problem—a bracket for an ignition coil had broken. We took the gas tank off and were busy devising a method to jury rig the bracket, when Bill Wagner, attracted by the vintage Brit bikes, walked up. He asked if he could be of help. I jokingly asked, “Do you have an ignition coil bracket for a 1970 Triumph Bonneville?” John and I almost fell over when he replied, “I sure do.”
Bill explained that his father had owned a Triumph Motorcycle dealership during the 1950s through ‘70s. When Triumph ended production in the late ‘70s, his dad stored all the spare parts he had in stock, and now Bill had them. He said he’d drive home and come back with the bracket, adding that it would take a little time because his place was 25 miles away. We tried to talk him out of making the trip but to no avail—25 to home and 25 miles back and then 25 miles to home for the night. Seventy-five miles of driving for a couple of strangers from California.
The next morning, we headed south out of Hot Springs. The country was now flat farmland, although not without stands of timber. Eighty miles down the road we reached Camden, a town of 11,000 on the Ouachita River. Closed industrial buildings, stores, and warehouses suggested the town had seen better times. We turned to the southwest. At Lewisville, we turned due south on Highway 29 and stopped to eat lunch at TJ’s Backwoods Bistro. There were several trucks and two police vehicles out front.
Already eating at tables inside were Lafayette County Sheriff Obie Sims and three of his deputies. Our group split up and took to open tables and booths. Susan and I, and John, and another Californian, Jeff McCoy, took a booth. When Sheriff Sims and his boys were leaving, they stopped and talked a bit with each of our smaller groups. I could overhear the conversation, the stocky Sheriff seemingly casual in learning where everyone was from. The Texas towns and the Texas drawls seemed to put him at ease. Lastly, he came to our booth. “And where y’all from?” he asked in a friendly tone. “California,” we collectively replied. He instantly scowled and gave each of us a penetrating look. More questions followed and, finally satisfied we had no evil intent, he began to describe the problem he was having in Lafayette County—to avoid heavily patrolled interstate highways, drug traffickers from California were taking the very back route we were on.
Twenty miles south of TJ’s we crossed into Louisiana. Halfway to Shreveport we turned west and arrived in Jefferson, Texas, a town of 2,000, which had seen riverboat traffic from New Orleans until the mid-1870s. Jefferson has been refurbished and its beautiful old homes and quaint downtown make it a tourist destination. Stopping there gave Susan and me the opportunity to see old friends from California, Bill and Karen Gleeson. Disgusted with what California was becoming, years ago they moved to Texas. Bill established a law practice in Jefferson and later became the Marion County district attorney.
The next day was a 200-mile dash to Dallas through the green hills and woodlands of East Texas and the ever more flat terrain as we approached Big D. Fifty miles to the east, we stopped for lunch on the eastern shore of Lake Tawakoni, named for a Caddoan tribe. When the Tawakoni were roaming the area, there was no lake. The lake was created in 1960 by the Iron Bridge Dam to insure a steady water supply for the growing city of Dallas. Some 20 miles short of our goal, the dark cumulonimbus clouds we had been anxiously watching opened up. With visibility greatly reduced and water accumulating on the road surface, we were riding, for the first time in more than a week, at or below the posted speed limit—an un-American ending to an all-Amerian ride.
Image Credit: Beaver Bridge over the White River