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May 5, 2009
The two-hour drive to Fayetteville, Arkansas from Oklahoma is a series of small rural roads lined with abandoned gas stations and not much else. Once into Arkansas on the far side of Ft. Smith, on Interstate 540, yesterday’s leftover low clouds clear and reveal tall, rolling hills similar to Ouitchas but greener if that’s possible, with streams and creeks marking every fold and crease in the topography. We continue north.
Just outside Fayetteville we pull into a small neighborhood of newly built ‘Old South’ homes. Clay, our ride host stands on the curb in his black Stowaway and waves hello. We quickly make acquaintances, load-up and head to Ozark Natural Foods for lunch and supplies. Next to the co-op style grocery story is a combination outdoor and military store called Uncle Sam’s. Cole purchases thick wool gloves with orange accents and finger-tops that hinge back when manual dexterity is a must. He also buys an adjustable Navy Captain’s hat.
Back in the car and headed for Jasper, Arkansas, Clay gives us the low-down on the ride, ‘Jasper Disaster’. There are two routes, one is 60 miles the other 80. With a late start and his assurance the longer version doesn’t offer much more than added distance, we opt for the shorter condensed option. Across from the courthouse, where it turns out Willie Nelson’s parents were married, we empty out in front of an abandoned real estate office and get set to roll.
The ride starts, we cross a bridge, make a left and climb without warning or warm-up, for four miles to the top of Mt Sherman. Shacks and houses on their way to being shacks line the road. Every residence has at least two dogs, one of which is invariably a hound dog. Hanging from a tree near the top the climb are two Japanese motorcycles. At the top, the ridge stretches-out and rolls ahead to offer views of the Buffalo River Valley. It’s sixty-five degrees with high clouds and a light wind as we twist and rush our way into the next valley to cross the Buffalo River. The second climb starts with a mile-long six-percent grind and finishes with a series of steep steps. At the top, a 15-mile undulating ridgeline is easily pacelined, without traffic or interruption, as we rotate at 23mph across the top of the Ozarks. After the town of Harrison we pass the Dog Patch, an abandoned mill-themed amusement park. Defunct buildings, water-slides, waterfalls and several weed-choked parking lots haunt us. After a climb and more southern wilderness we arrive back at Jasper. Not that we expected ‘Deliverance’ or banjos exactly, but the countryside and people both are more remarkable than we’d ever imagined.
At the Ozark Café we get baskets of sweet potato fries served with packets of honey, and delicious milk shakes. As we’re packing up to leave for Fayetteville we meet a local gentlemen who, it turns out builds mountain bike trails and once rode his bike from Virginia Beach to the northern coast of Vancouver B.C.
An hour later back in Fayetteville we grab dinner with Clay’s wife before heading back to their house where they happily put us up for the night in spite of our numbers and increasingly sub-optimal smell. Cole decides to sleep in the van.
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