Florida to the Ozarks by Way of Barber Vintage Festival
Florida to the Ozarks by Way of Barbers
About to Cross the Mississippi into Arakansas
Morning couldn't break too early. It was time again for my annual pilgrimage to Barber Vintage Festival. The antique bike festival was held yearly at the Barber Motorsports Park, nestled in the hills east of Birmingham, Alabama, just outside the little village of Leeds. This would be my third year attending.
It was early October and I needed a break after a summer of being alone in the house with our two kids, who had been out of school since June and had only returned in late August. I am a bit of a rolling stone and being stuck at the house to be the daycare provider for two children for three months with the constant whining and tantrums had worn on me. A road trip promised to be a welcome break from the kids' incessant bickering, constant struggles to get them to do homework now that they were back in school, and an escape from the wreck of what used to be our nice home, now littered with toys, discarded wrappers, dirty clothes, and scattered dishes.
I'll admit it; although a feel a twinge of guilt to say it; I have no illusions that I am the greatest dad. My patience had left me years ago and readjustment to having children later in life and the requisite forbearance required had not been easy with my temperament. I often prefer to be alone—a condition usually denied to a father of young children. And I know, and have been told numerous times by well-meaning people, that “…they are only little once, spend as much time with them as you can. Soon they will be grown,” but I find it hard to deny following that urge to get out, and get out alone. As much as I admire the parents who do everything with their kids and who seem to enjoy, no, live for that experience, I just feel something tugging me away.
I have had an internal conflict with how to balance the time I need to spend with my kids and wife and the time I need for myself. One one side, the kids needed a dad around and Andrea needed support, too. On the other side, this wanderlust seemed to be an innate part of me. Would I do my kids service by example, showing them to deny their dreams by staying home when their dreams called? There must be a healthy balance, but I've struggled to find it.
Ever since I left my parents' home I had been on my own seeking adventure and new experiences, first moving to the Great Plains to work after a stint in college; after that a tour of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize; from there it was a move from Michigan to Florida; next sailing a small boat, mostly solo around the Bahamas, the US east coast and the Caribbean; with other jaunts thrown in here and there, finally ending with riding motorcycles. I blame my parents for this. They used to pack us in our 1964 Volkswagen Beetle or various other vehicles and haul us Mid-Western kids to strange and exotic places like Colorado, or Pennsylvania, or West Virginia, or Florida, or the caves in Kentucky. Those trips generally took us not to major tourist attractions, but to small town America, often on back roads and usually camping in a musty old canvas tent. I don't know if it was the places or the people, like the beautiful young West Virginia coal camp girl I fell in love with for the first time on one of those trips, but those trips and experiences stuck with me and gave me an appetite for more. I find it strange that my mother has always hated the idea of me out traipsing about, whether it was on a boat or a bike, yet part of why I do it is because of the traipsing we did as a family when we were young.
In spite of all that I had tried to be responsible and do all the fatherly stuff—I held my temper, doled out what I thought to be judicious rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, took them to their appointments, and endured their continual raids on my office and all it contained. I know I am supposed to say how much I was going to miss the little ones when school started again but really, by that time school could not start soon enough for me. I would still have them after school until their mom came home from her “real job” in an office, but during school I could enjoy the quiet of the house inhabited only by me and our house cats and settle back into my work routine uninterrupted.
Now that the kids had settled into their school routines, I could think about relieving a little of that wanderlust that always is floating around in the back of my head. Because of Andrea's flexible work schedule, she could come home when the kids got out of school and work from home for the rest of the day as needed. That set the stage for the opportunity for me to make my escape, while I would have to shove the guilt I felt for leaving her alone with the kids for a week to the back of my mind. Besides, we had a clever plan that we hoped would make the time alone with the kids easier for Andrea. She had decided to go to the beach with the kids and a friend of hers, who adored the children, and spend the weekend playing in the waves and sand. The kids can't get enough of the beach and the promise of them getting to go would hopefully curb their tendencies to misbehave before the weekend and the constant physical play the weekend would provide them might keep them easier to keep in hand. That at least would ease the burden of child care at least for two and a half days.
Beside the joyful release of fulfilling some of my lust for wandering, the trip also would provide benefits for my business, publishing, and promoting, books on motorcycling. Books were shipped ahead for me to sell at the festival's swap meet area, but the really important advantage of going was the opportunity to network it provided. I could talk face to face with magazine representatives about future advertising and marketing plans and offer review copies to people in the position to review and promote the books. I also figured in a stop on the return trip to visit my website host and discuss some issues that had developed with the websites.
As I looked over maps preparing for the trip, I was struck by how close to Arkansas was Birmingham. Heck, I would already be two-thirds of the way to a place I had read about riding in, but had never been. As long as I am that close, I figured I might as well add a couple days and ride some new mountains. Besides, one of my best friends from high school lived just outside of Little Rock and I had not seen her in over thirty-five years. I owed her a visit.
Usually, I rode from home in Lake Wales to Pinetta, Florida, just across the Georgia line from Valdosta, where I joined friends from H-E-L USA, Luis and Debbie, riding the rest of the way up with a small group of four or five bikes. This year, however, I would be riding up with a partner. Roger and I had ridden up to the second Motorcycle Kickstart Classic ride in the Blue Ridge Mountains the may before, and had found a nice balance between us on the road, so I knew riding with him on this trip would add the camaraderie riding with a fellow biker contributes without the the hazards of possible catastrophes that riding with an unknown rider can bestow on a ride.
The day before we were to leave I had loaded enough gear and clothing to last me a week, more or less, and provide something for both hot and cold weather, both of which I could expect at that time of year, leaning more toward the cool side for the Ozarks part of the ride. The tail bag was expanded to its maximum and contained all manner of electronic gizmos I might need on the road—my netbook, Kindle Fire tablet, camera, and a waterproof box with my air card and all of the gadgets I would need to keep them all that stuff charged. I had installed a double USB mount on the handlebars, next to the GPS holder mount and so could run the GPS while charging my phone or other electronics while stowed in the tank bag. The tank bag sucked itself down onto the tank with it magnets mounted underneath and I added extra security by clipping a tether from it around the handlebars. Soft saddlebags were thrown over the rear portion of the saddle with a convenient top bag made to clip to the saddlebags underneath. The whole thing then clipped to the frame. On the little shelf formed between the left side of the top bag and above the left saddlebag I strapped my tent. On top of all this I bungeed a large dry bag filled with sleeping bag and mat. The whole mess was reminiscent of a camel with an abnormally rear-shifted hump.
The Bonnie Loaded and Ready to Go
It was a chilly morning for early October in central Florida as I made last minute adjustments to all the bags and camping gear strapped on the back of my Bonneville T100. Roger arrived minutes before the departure time we had agreed on. We agreed on a back roads route to the north and rolled out of the drive about 8 am and headed north on FL 17 to Haines City and our first fuel stop before continuing west into the Green Swamp to Deen Still Road and FL 33. At Groveland and we headed west and north to Bushnell and then Floral City where we picked up US 41. Once north of Dunellon we had the highway mostly to ourselves all the way to US 27 at Williston. At Chiefland we turned north on US 129 north to US 90, then west to Madison where CR 145 took us on into Pinetta, a quiet little village with nothing to denote its presence but a scattering of house and a blinking yellow light.
Although as time passed the air warmed, the chill that had started the day stayed with it in a small way all day. It grew warmer; into one of those days where you are warm when standing and chilly when moving at highway speeds on the bike—perfect riding weather. There was just the smallest hint, almost a ghost, of the chill in the air all day. I started with my jacket liner in and it stayed in all day, but I was able to remove the sweatshirt I had underneath my jacket and had never quite needed to change form my vented gloves to the heavy winter ones stowed handily in the outside of the left saddlebag.
Luis, Debbie, and their daughter Elizabeth met us at Luis's closed shop soon after we called them. We followed them east on county roads and down their enormously long dirt-road driveway. At their house was a new, a gigantic, motorhome they had just procured for stationing at their newly purchased north Georgia mountain land. Although I had come prepared to tent camp each night of the trip, there was no need to unload the bike here with the motorhome hooked up to power and the air conditioning cranking. Roger and I unloaded what little we needed considering the luxurious accommodations and “made camp” in the RV while pizza was ordered for everyone, provided by our hosts. The rest of our time in Pinetta was spent helping Luis load bike frames and parts into their trailer for sale at the festival swap meet and chatting about bikes over beers.
I made a call home before turning in and found out things were not going well on the home front. Jacob had been promised the beach weekend with the provision he got his book report done and handed in. That day he had lost it, a very common problem with my son, and was beside himself with the thought he might be left at home with the grandparents while Mom and his sister, Tess, trotted off to the beach. Now when I say Jacob “was beside himself” I mean he was making life a living hell for Andrea. I was already 280 miles away and in too deep to head back. Andrea would have to deal with it, and then I would have to deal with her ire when I got back. I hoped for the best.
Bedtime was early, soon after sundown, and it was not long before we were asleep in our comfortable accommodations.
Morning dawned cool and foggy. We hastily drank coffee in anticipation of an early start, hoping the fog would not be an impediment. Trailer loaded we followed it and Debbie and Elizabeth in the van out and back to the shop where a few more things were loaded while we waited for the other two riders to join us.
Soon Kevin's silver Dyna rolled in, and we got acquainted while waiting for Chuck, our final rider to arrive. We did not wait long before we could hear Chuck approaching on his Honda Valkyrie long before he appeared into view, with his exhaust howling like a banshee in heat or a Ferrari under a green flag.
Once all together we roared out of town following the van and trailer, Harley Ultra Classics playing lead, followed by the Dyna, then my Bonneville, and Roger's Shadow Phantom, with the screamer tagging behind and sparing our eardrums, along usually quiet country back roads and to our breakfast stop in Thomasville, Georgia. We all were fairly experienced riders and in this small of a group we rode well together considering our relaxed pace with a minimum of sling-shotting. As we rolled along, in spite of the fading fog and increasing sun, there was still a chill in the air. I was outfitted the same as the day before, in t-shirt and sweatshirt under my jacket with thermal liner installed and my perforated leather gloves covering my hands. Whizzing through the countryside brought alternating chill and warmth as we passed through sections of shaded road, then sunny patches. I began to consider whether I should have dressed more warmly, and was eagerly anticipating our breakfast stop. After a hot breakfast and more coffee and back on the bikes thoughts of cold faded as the day warmed and soon I was comfortably moving through the south Georgia landscape along with my four riding brethren.
Soon we were past Camilla and on GA 37 to GA 41 to GA 520 riding towards Fort Benning and Columbus, where we crossed into Alabama on US 280. On the way, we took a break next to a shady pecan grove and snacked on fresh raw pecan meat that was almost as sweet as candy.
I made a quick call home to Andrea to see how she was faring. She and her friend, Leah, were leaving work early and picking the kids up from school to get to the beach as early as possible. Luckily, by the time I called Jacob had regained his composure and buckled down and redid his report and handed it in on time after all. He would get to go to the beach. I breathed a sigh of relief and hung up feeler better and a bit less guilty for having left her to be a single mom for the week.
The hills began to grow as US 280 rolled further northwest into the Alabama heartland. We were finally entering the margins of the tail of the Appalachians. Not far past Talladega National Forest we stopped for lunch at the AL 25 turn-off that would take us towards what could finally be called mountains.
I had ridden AL 25 before. Also known as Dunnavant Road, it was also sometimes called “Mini Tail of the Dragon.” While in all honesty Dunnavant Road couldn't hold a candle to the famous road in eastern Tennessee, it did have welcome twists and turns and was a tree-lined mountain pathway to Leeds with a hairpin curve thrown in to keep us on our toes. On this curve the year before on my vintage CB350 I had worn leather off the toe of my riding boots and had an abrupt and disconcerting experience when the kickstand on my heavily-laden CB had touched down before my pegs. It was a fitting entrance into Leeds, Barbers, and the surrounding mountainous countryside we had finally reached after the flat fields of cotton and grove after grove of pecan trees we had sailed by.
25 came to an abrupt halt at US 78, which would take us west to Rex Lake Road . A final right turn off Rex Lake, less than a mile from where we had turned onto it, took us into the heart of Barber Motorsports Park and the Eighth Annual Barber Vintage Festival.
Once in side the park, we headed for the swap meet area, where Luis and Deb would be selling their wares. Luis had gotten a bunch of Norton frames in various shades of condition . One in particular that he called a “fastback,” which was a factory cafe-style bike with gold rear cowl and tank was for a tidy sum before the trailer was parked. The other Norton frame, a Honda Dream 250 complete except for side covers, and most of the parts were sold by the end of the weekend.
My Swap Meet Camp
I unpacked the Triumph as the rest went off in search of their hotel rooms or camping spots. I was going to camp in the middle of the swap meet and thereby provide a guard dog presence, just in case anyone got more than curious in the contents of the trailer after hours. These were rather luxurious accommodations as far as I was concerned. The grass at Barbers is like a soft carpet or putting green and sleeping on it would be a dream compared to my usual sleep-on-the-rocks routine, especially this year because I had finally broken down and bought a self-inflating sleeping pad to go under my bag. Now these are not cheap, which explains my long reluctance to buy one, and mine never really “self-inflated” as promised, but it took me perhaps six breaths to have it tight and ready for duty and the comfort it provided was worth every bit of the $70 I had paid for it. I won't camp again without one.
The tent was pitched at the back of one of our three lots and after running out for a bite in Leeds and to pickup an evening beer, the rest of the evening was spent getting to know our neighbors directly behind us.
Tony and Nathan had come down from Tennessee to try and sell a pisr of X500s that together might almost make one whole bike. They also had a variety of parts and pieces they hoped to send to better homes. They had brought a portable fire pit and we sat around the fire talking bikes. It was their first time to the festival and they were suitably impressed, and the real show had not even begun. Having a fire completed the experience and now I felt like it was really “camping.” But it had been a long day, and it did not take long for us one by one to wander off from the fire to our sleeping places. The night air moved in, perfect sleeping weather in the low 50s I guess, and soon I was asleep.
I woke to the sounds of scores of vendors untarping and setting up their display areas. The first order of business was, of course, a quest for black coffee. I had spied the day before an official looking trailer promising food and went to see if they offered coffee, too. They weren't open but would soon so I ambled back to camp to watch the early shoppers strolling by and stopping to pick up this or that rusty piece of invaluable metal. My neighbors were awake, too, and we chatted about the coming day. I noticed some passersby holding coffee cups so I turned my steps back to the trailer and was greeted by an open window. Coffee costs two dollars a “large” cup, but I wasn't going to argue. I am used to my morning pot and knew I was not really going to be awake until some of the hot goodness had settled in my stomach. Eventually, the rest of our group straggled in and I set out to walk at least half of the swap meet area.
The Vintage Festival at Barber's is something every motorcyclist owes themselves to attend at least once. There is continual activity for three days with racing of all classes of vintage AHRMA bikes all day long on the GP track. For those who grew up on dirt bikes or simply have a passion for that kind of riding, the festival offers dirt, trials and scrambles races where you can get up close and personal to the racers and their bikes, which makes for great action photography.
Trials at Barbers
Of course, there is the swamp meet, but this is not an average weekend swap meet; it occupies a large area on the southwest corner of the track with row after row of vendors. Not only can you find aftermarket and original parts for your Evo Harley, but also rare and exotic hard-to-find parts for makes such as Montessa, BSA, and Norton. Vintage bikes from the 60s and 70s such as Triumph, Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, you name it are there along with every part and old bike wrencher might need to finish an authentic restoration. For those who love old bikes, but don't have the time, experience, or inclination to rebuild a bike, there are finished restorations for sale, ready for the street or the dirt. If you are really on the hunt then you must leave yourself most of one day just to rummage through what's offered in the swap meet.
Swap Meet Entrance
Swap Meet Bikes
While wandering the grounds I strolled to the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club's are just inside the entrance gate. As the owner of a 1968 Honda CB350 who has succumbed to the charms of this old metal I am a member of the club and had to take a look at row after row of meticulously restored Japanese bikes. I am a rider of these bikes, fixing and riding and doing the minimal of cosmetic work in order to enjoy the experience of riding bikes that in my youth I was denied the pleasure of owning. So I am always amazed at the care and attention to detail put into these bikes, down to original, period-correct screws and small fittings. I had been in on the planning of the first state-wide Florida Rally of the group and stopping here gave me a chance to check in with other people involved in the rally. I also was able to finally meet face-to-face Bill Silver, also known as “MrHonda,” who I had been helping with a book he had written on the Honda Scramblers, but whom I had only known online.
The Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club (VJMC) Had a Prime Spot Just inside the Gate
Below the hill from the VJMC tents was the vendor area where Triumph, that year's festival sponsor, had a huge tent filled with gear and Trumpets. In this area, too, were Motorcycle Classics magazine, with its own bike show; Erik Buell formerly and famously or infamously depending on your viewpoint of Harley-Davidson, who had now gone on his own; and numerous other specialty vendors.
Erik Buell's New Offering
There is a perimeter road circling the entire track and scattered along it were visiting motorcycles, most of which were vintage examples of both rare and common makes. One of my favorite things to do at the festival is to walk along this smorgasbord of bikes, looking at the clever or unusual modifications the owners had made and watching for unusual marques.
Attendees' Bikes on the Perimeter Road
Just before I had left I received an email from a magazine I had written for before asking me to do a story on the festival, and so I was wandering camera in hand snapping away for pictures that could be used along with the story. I went down to “Ace Corner,” a cafe racer specialty area that was supposed to have good inside track views and snapped some pictures of the bikes whizzing by, only to find blur after blur when uploading the photos to the computer later. I did the same thing at the track-side forested hillside, so popular with race watchers. I obviously needed more time training myself with my DSLR. I took picture after picture as I strolled along, of the swap meet area, the bikes parked along the snaking perimeter road, the bikes at VJMC, and the air show over the track at midday. The auction bikes, too, were captured in my flash as I wondered what kind of prices such priceless motorcycles might fetch when the gavel went down.
Air Show over the Track
Stunt Show on the Track
Iron and Air's Cafe Racer at Ace Corner
Dime City Cycles' Cafe Racer at Ace Corner
Highly Customized Cafe Racer
Colorado Norton Works Restores and Modernizes Old Nortons to Make Them Dependable Riders
Customized Helmet Show
Friday, after a quick run out for my evening dinner, I came back to camp at the swap meet. A couple spaces away and across from our spot was a group that drove in with a large motorhome, equipped with fold-down handrails and a roof deck. When I returned to my tent the whooping and hollering had just started. I sat down at the fire with our neighbors and we chatted as the night began to cool down from the sunny 80s that had baked us all day. During the day I had sold a book at a substantial discount to Tony, with an agreement for him to provide me coffee for the rest of the weekend, solving my expensive coffee situation in the mornings. During the evening conversation, I found out that Nathan had lived in my town for a year “back in the day.” After swapping Lake Wales stories of “Is this still there?” and “Do you remember…” we each wandered off to our tents as the volume from the sky-deck club climbed louder and louder. Surprisingly the tumult had little effect on my passing into sleep.
Saturday was the busiest day at the swap meet. During the day Luis all but emptied his trailer of goods. I wanted to get as much of the magazine photography out of the way early so I could head out with Roger, who I had ridden up from central Florida with, into the mountains northeast of Leeds. I continued my wanderings winding up the picture taking in the morning, sporadically stopping back at our swap meet spot to check in and to enable some of the others to wander off on their own quests.
By three o'clock Roger and I met up and headed out on our search for twisties, with a vague idea that most of the mountainous area appeared to northeast. We left Leeds behind us and headed north on US 441 through Leeds and north past Interstate 20. After the I-20 we continued on this road northeast until AL 174, which looked like our best bet for putting us in the mountain ridges that ran roughly roughly parallel to I-59 on the north side and hopefully into some twisties. 174 would become County Road 9 just past I-59 and would start climbing. As it was about to crest the ridge it made a hard left and ran just south of the top until turning back on itself in a tight hairpin that put us on top of the ridge at 1800 feet altitude. Here we took a quick break in a gravel pulloff and overlook where we could look a thousand feet down into the valleys we had crossed.
At the Pulloff
The plan was to follow County Road 27 north across the convoluted landscape and join US 231, which we could take back southeast to US 78 completing our loop. Instead, we got off 27 somehow and found ourselves running the crest of the ridge on rural and scenic County Road 24 emptying us back where we started at the same overlook where we had started. It was now late afternoon and we decided instead of trying to find our original route and continue, we should high tail it back the way we came. The added bonus was we could run that hairpin again in the opposite, and downhill, direction.
We retraced our path and arrived back at Barber at six o'clock. I had put off going to the museum until after our ride, but as we pulled into the parking lot the visitors were being shooed out and the doors locked. Luckily, I had been in the museum twice before and the pictures for the article of the collection would have to be selected from the previous visits. This was a small price to pay for the fun of getting out and riding in the area and for the purpose of giving the readers an idea of what the museum was like the older pictures would serve just as well, and I had many of then from which to choose.
Roger and I had chatted on motorcycleforum.com about meeting up with other members who might be going to attend at a restaurant in Leeds where 441 crossed I-20. One member from North Carolina had stopped by the swap meet booth earlier with his friend, and others had indicated they were attending, but Roger and I ate alone. While it would have been nice to meet face-to-face with some other members, we weren't really surprised. With so much going on at the motorsports park it would be hard, especially for first-time attendees, to tear themselves away. We enjoyed our meal together and talked about plans for the next day. Roger thought he would ride back with the Pinetta group and then take to the Interstate to get back the same day. I, on the other hand, was heading on alone to the Ozarks. I had received more good news of a great weekend had by Andrea, Leah, and the kids which further relieved my guilt for abandoning Andrea, leaving her to single-parent the kids while I went off gallavanting.
My destination was in northwestern Arkansas, near a little village called Wesley, a little east of Fayetteville. If I was going to make it before dark I was going to have to leave well before dawn on Sunday morning. I settled down early for my last night camping at Barber after a bit of chat and a shot of bourbon enjoyed around the “camp fire” of my new friends, Tony and Nathan.
Tomorrow would start the part of the trip I was looking forward to most. As much as I enjoyed riding with a few friends, I would be back in my element from here on riding solo into new lands. Nothing compares to the experience of riding solo and becoming one with your bike in a way that is impossible when riding in groups where an eye must constantly be watching the group and trying to stay in synch with it. Now all I had to synch with was myself and I had all day to think about whatever came to mind. It was during this part of the trip I quit thinking about each thing I did and I just let it happen. It is a kind of synch between bike and rider that is similar to what I had experienced in my days as a solo sailor where all the tasks aboard my boat to get her from one place to another were done competently without consciously thinking about them. It must be akin to what an athlete feels when he or she is in the groove and the body does what it has been trained to do without conscious effort. In a way, this part of the trip was the real start of the adventure for me.
In the chill of the dark morning I broke camp and reloaded the Bonnie. Birmingham traffic is awful, but I figured I'd be safe at 5 o'clock on Sunday morning so I passed through downtown in the predawn darkness on empty city streets following US 78 to the far side and into the countryside northwest of the city. It was cold, but I had taken precautions and broke out my winter gloves, reinstalled the liner in my jacket, and had donned a sweatshirt under that. 78 was a wide and empty divided four lane highway rising and falling over the diminishing foothills of the tail of the Appalachians. It is soon to be upgraded to Interstate 22 as the signs along the side and on the overpasses attested.
Halfway between Birmingham and the Mississippi line with my reserved light on I lef the nascent Interstate for the little town of Eldridge just as daylight was about to break and fileld up the tank. I took the opportunity there to go inside the little combination gas station, convenience story, and restaurant to grab a large cup of coffee. The early rising locals were scattered about the seating area doing the same. We sat while we drank and discussed the hunting season and prospect for deer this year, with the inevitable deer strike story thrown in, and perhaps embellished. The shot of coffee had revived me and I went out side to lube the chain before chucking the bottom of the cup, remounting the bike, and heading back up to US 78 and continuing west to Tupelo, Mississippi, on the still deserted highway in the growing light.
Not one to savor the experience of riding through big cities, to avoid Memphis I took US 278 west from Tupelo on good two lane pavement, heading for the Mississippi River and the first crossing south of Memphis. Soon after my departure from 78 I could see a bank of ominous dark clouds gathering up ahead. I passed another motorcyclist going the same direction as he pulled into a small parking lot. A mile or so further down the road as I watched the sky get darker, I realized he must have pulled over to pu on his rain gear and when I saw an empty covered fruit stand I turned off the road and pulled under its metal roof and the sky grew wilder and did the same. I had my rain jacket on and the pants on one leg when the sky let loose and poured its wet contents onto the shed roof. I finished dressing in a cacophony of pelting rain and still under shelter I remounted the Bonnie, negotiated the now wet gravel entrance, and returned to the road in the midst of the downpour, relatively safe from being drenched. My rain jacket caught the wind up the sleeves and billowed out making me feel like the Sta Puft marshmallow man. I'd need to do something about that once I found a lull in the rain, but for now I puttered along trying to see the best I could through my rain splashed visor under a dark gray ceiling. The wind had picked up tremendously from the west-southwest and made for a turbulent ride when combined with the wind caused by my forward motion as I rode into the teeth of it.
Soon I could see what I thought was the edge of the front, a tranquil bright blue spot to my right. But the front was teasing me and the clear spot stayed just out of reach as I apparently paralleled the front and I stayed tucked just inside its northern edge.
The rain continued as the land grew flatter and cotton field appeared around me and I approached the Delta area of Mississippi. I was looking for a small road to the right, MS 3, at Marks but blew right by it without a clue and ended up at US 81/49. I turned right and rolled north to a place where 49 would split off and continue to the mighty river and my crossing to Helena, Arkansas. Finally, the blue sky was close to overhead and the rain had fallen off and almost completely stopped as I crossed the last levee, so I pulled to the paved shoulder just before the bridge across the Mississippi next to an Indian casino to took off my rain gear and to grab a photo of the bridge ahead that would be my gateway to Arkansas and the first time I had ridden in the West. Rain gear stowed away again I rode over into Arkansas.
On the other side I continued to follow US 49 out of Helena and to Arkansas 1, which led me north to Wynne and US 64. Heading almost due north it was nice to finally have the wind more or less behind me. Unfortunately the front had not finished toying with me and not long after my entrance to this new state the blue hole in the clouds closed up and the rain began again. At least this time it rained with less authority and I was able to keep rolling and not have to stop to re-don my gear. The rain came and went but the skies slowly started to improve and the each rain shower was lighter than the previous. Somewhere around my turn to the west ay US 64 it left completely and I regained the sun. Then all I was left with was the terrific wind blasting me from the front and left side, or forward of my port beam, as I would have said so many years ago when I depended on the wind to sail from one place or another. The land opened up and gave encouragement to the wind which now fairly howled across the farm land as the flat fields rolled quickly by and I struggled to keep the bike on the road as gusts roared in.
US 64 moved me west and turned into a Interstate-like four lane for a short while heading southwest, where it joined US 167, then a short time later split off again to continue west to Conway and Interstate 40.
It was getting well into the afternoon now and I was starting to have doubts about my arrival time. The wind was still blustery and threatening to knock the wheels out from under me. I hopped onto I 40, the first real Interstate I had ridden on the trip so far, with the intent to haul ass and get to Wesley before dark. But there is a time warp in Arkansas, I swear, or some kind of space-time distortion. Anywhere I pointed my front wheel toward took me fifty-percent longer to reach than even my unoptimistic estimate forecast. This phenomena followed me for the rest of my time in the Ozarks.
I continued west and as the afternoon was waning I found my turnoff at little AR 23. This was my first real chance at riding in the Ozark mountains and this road did not disappoint, but with darkness falling quickly and quite a way to go I could not relax and enjoy the ride as I should have. I sped on 23 through marvelous hills and mountains, into and out of the rapidly cooling shade cast by their flanks, with plenty of twist and turns on my way north to the junction with AR 16. I turned left on 16 and went a short distance where 16 met AR 295. 16 went northwest here and 295 went northeast then north. If followed far enough 16 will take you into Fayetteville, but I knew that was further than I needed to go and Wesley, where my camp was waiting, was east of 16 on AR 74, where it joined for a while with 295 forming a circle with me at the moment at its southern edge. Light was fading fast, the sun having set behind the mountains quite a while before. The cold was coming on, chillier than it had been even in those cold mornings at Leeds. It was time to make a call. Stopped on top of a concrete divider at the 16 and 295 junction I took out my phone and searched my contacts list. No “Doc” listed! I was sure I had entered the info into the phone before I left but what I was seeing was telling me otherwise. I was in deer-infested mountains and would be riding in the dark soon. I scrolled back through all my old called or received numbers, hoping Doc would be there, but apparently we had not talked on this cell phone. Then I remembered that initially he had texted me. I looked over those old texts and luckily found my host's number there. I texted him and told him I was lost. We agreed I should ride up 16 to where it joined 74 and text again when I got there. I hopped on the bike, mindful of his warning to “watch out for deer!” and when I could I stayed behind cars so if something jumped out they would take the brunt of it instead of me. I got to the intersection without incident and texted again. Doc gave me final instructions and I picked up a sandwich for my evening meal, threw it in the baggage, and hopped back on the Trumpet for the last short stretch of the ride. Doc would be waiting for me at his “road” on an ATV.
In all fairness, Doc did say in his invitation post: “OFF ROADERS ONLY” so I was not surprised when I spotted Doc headlight on the right side at the start of a dirt path. We said our hellos and Doc informed me that the road was rough and there was a little water crossing on the way to his place four miles or so up. “Up” is right; the road wiggled its way across the Ozark landscape across a valley and up a mountain. I had ridden on the dirt roads, usually clay grove roads, before. In fact I have at times purposely searched them out just for practice, so I was not too concerned about having to ride a mere four miles on dirt. As we rode on at times the road was smooth and comparable to a graded gravel road; not bad. At times, though, it turned into a passage across exposed rock, albeit more or less flat rack. The “gravel” was a collection of round rocks ranging from the size of golf balls to baseballs. A little momentum got me through the water crossing with no surprises even on this “street bike” and soon we arrived at Doc's mountain home, perched on the crest of a ridge and looking through a gap in the trees down into the now dark valley we had ridden through before our ascent. There was a roaring fire already going down in the area I was going to pitch the tent. After a little chewing the fat at the fire, Doc left me alone to eat my sandwich and call my family. I got about a half minute of clear communication with Andrea then lost contact completely. I was not to get through again at all, but at least I was able to let her know I got in safely. Tomorrow, when I was out exploring the Ozarks I would be able to check in again. I crawled into my bag dressed in my sweats, exhausted from the day of fighting wind gusts and soon was asleep in perfect camping weather, the wind having dropped at sundown and the temperature falling.
My Camp in Doc's Backyard
I woke to the view of the valley now in sunshine illuminated below and climbed out of the bag with the promise of coffee wafting in the air. The Ozarks mountains were in full autumn color under a blanket of reds, oranges, and yellows with spots of green from the pines counter-pointing the riot of colors. I found Doc and the coffee, up on the wide veranda jutting out from his house from which we could sip the hot brew and watch the glory of an Ozark morning develop around and below us. I had carried up my maps and Doc and I set to work figuring a doable day ride from here to the outskirts of Little Rock that would give me the best riding roads northwestern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. I had only a day to get in some just-for-fun riding then I had to meet my friend and afterward start the long trek home.
Doc and I planned the Day's Route Here while Sipping Our Morning Coffee
Autumn Was in Full Swing in the Ozarks
Doc suggested he take his dirt bike and we could go out the other way together completing the loop his trail made back to the paved road. I rolled up the tent and had the Bonnie loaded almost instantly, having had plenty of experience by now loading and unloading it. We rolled away from the house and up the trail. Doc, on his more capable dirt bike, would ride up ahead and wait for me on corners, so I could take my time on the Triumph. This was idela so that we could both ride at our own paces stayin within the capability envelope of our bikes and experience. Doc moved ahead, but the Bonnie did well and Doc didn't have long to wait at each stop. I found standing on the pegs helped a lot in the rougher patches and soon got the hang of riding over rock and loose rubble. We stopped for some pictures and then at the end of the dirt, we said our good-byes and I rolled onto the pavement and back to AR 74.
Our Bikes Parked on the Road to Doc's
The View from Our Stopping Place
Yours Truly and My Bonnie
I headed northeast here and rolled along in the still early morning light on a quiet country road among hills and pleasant valleys. Passing a large golden field on my left I saw what I had hoped to miss the night before—four large does racing across the field toward the road. There were tow cars in front of me and they barely slowed. I was not willing to take any chances and I rolled to a stop. The group saw me ahead and heard my motor growl and with one jump changed direction and bounded off in the direction from which they had come in the filed flood lighted by the morning sun.
After admiring that spectacle of nature I moved on and came across the little village of Huntsville, where I spied a pastry shop. I stopped for more coffee and a taste of a delicious freshly made poppy seed muffin while I jotted notes of things I wanted to remember about the ride and took a rest before my day long adventure got into high gear.
I have done my share of riding in the Blue Ridge and Smokies, so I did not expect the Ozarks to be very impressive. After all, mountains in the Blue Ridge are four or five thousand feet high with occasionally higher peaks; the Ozarks, on the other hand, are in the neighborhood of two thousand feet high. However, in the Blue Ridge the valley floors may be at three thousand feet, where the valley floors in the Ozarks may be one thousand or even five hundred feet, so the change in elevation you see in the Ozarks is still impressive. Admittedly, they are not as dramatic as the Smokies, but all that we love as riders—all the twisties, elevation changes, beautiful views, quiet valleys, and in the right season the glory of autumn—are offered by the Ozarks. Of course, the Blue Ridge Mountains are taller, but unless you just want a higher drop from which to fall to your death, the Ozarks have all a rider's heart desires.
After breakfast I found AR 23 and took it north twisting my way into Missouri where 23 changed to State Highway P, which landed me at the junction of Missouri 86. From here I turned east and followed 86 as it meandered just above the Arkansas line until I reached US 65, which is the major southern route into Branson, Missouri. I turned toward Branson and there found a Taco Bell, which I had been craving for days and which apparently are almost absent from the state of Arkansas or Mississippi. I called Andrea from the restaurant, letting her know where I was and my plans for the rest of the day. It sounded like things were going well on her end, too, which encouraged me. After lunch I found Missouri 76 that took me away from Branson and the traffic and landed me on US 160 well east of the city.
Riders Enjoying AR 23 Just North of Huntsville
I buzzed along this road running parallel again above the state line north of Bull Shoals Lake, which is really a dammed up river that flowed from Table Rock Lake, a similarly dammed river turned lake that lies west of Branson. The plan was to follow this road until I came to State Highway M, which should have ended at a ferry that would take me back to Arkansas. Fifteen or so miles indeed took me to the river, but dead ended with no ferry. I was hoping to find fuel on the other side of the ferry and my reserve light had been glowing orange for a long time now. At least the Bonneville still has .92 gallons left when that light comes on. Back to 160 I flew, enjoying the twists and turns again M had offered on the way in. The detour and worry about running out of fuel was a small price to pay for some good riding.
Once again on 160 after checking my map, I headed east to MO 125 and turned south, with the miles now racking up since that light went on. Luckily, in a few miles I spied a small gas station where another bike had stopped and was able to replenish my fuel supply and end the worry. Not far beyond the station the road ended at the ferry, which at the moment was docked a half mile away on the far landing. I was once again in Arkansas, as the border doesn't follow the river course as is often the case, but is an arrow-straight line running east and west intersecting the lake in various places. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and take a few photos before the ferry returned. The sportbike from the station and its two riders joined me and one car for the ride across. We parted ways on the other side and I headed south on 125 to AR 14, then west to AR 7, famed for its excellent riding.
Peel Ferry on AR 125 Taking Me back to Arkansas
I had the joy of riding 7, but only as far as US 65. My error on M and the Arkansas time warp had me running late again and if I was going to see my friend in Bryant early this evening I needed to make some time.
Although 65 was a busier road, punctuated by a few small towns, it was still a lovely ride and I enjoyed it as the day grew late. At Clinton I veered south-southwest then south on AR 9 all the way to AR 5, also known as Hot Springs Highway which took me into Benton. It had long since turned dark and cold. I had called my friend, Brenda, to let her know it was not going to be a dinner meeting but a mid-evening one instead and now it was late enough to call it off for the night. We arranged to meet for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, which was almost across the street from my hotel, the first hotel I had stayed in on the trip. I wasn't happy with myself because a morning meeting would mean a late start after breakfast and I had wanted to run straight through to Dothan, Alabama, in one day where I would have a place to stay at a relative's home. But there was nothing to be done. I had not seen Brenda since high school over thirty years ago when our close group of friends were as thick as thieves and I was determined to see her again, so I made the best of the luxurious room and bed.
I was packed quickly in the morning and met Brenda at the restaurant while the sky was still pink from the newly risen sun. She had just had an operation as a result of a serious illness and when I had talked to her three weeks ago it was questionable whether she would be up for a visit, but the operation had gone well and she was able to drive to meet me. Over breakfast I found out that her prognosis was excellent and her recovery was swift and she should soon be back in the best of health. We discussed old friends and lost friends as old pals usually do and made plans to meet up with each other again at least on Facebook, when she finally moved into the twenty-first century and logged on.
For the previous day or so I had been hearing an ominous sound emanating from the rear brake. It started quietly but as time went on the sound increased and I became concerned. In my rush in the dark to get to Benton I let it go. I don't know if it was my hurry or just the reluctance to prove to myself what I already knew, that I had a mechanical problem, but by the time I checked the brake in good light on the morning I was meeting Brenda, I had worn the rear pad completely out and the rotor, too. This was an inexcusable maintenance failure on my part and I felt guilty for letting it go this far. I should have known better and checked sooner. Now I would be riding with only a front brake from Little Rock to home in Florida, almost a thousand miles away, where I would change the brake pads, and unnecessarily spend more money, which was in short supply at that time, on a new rotor.
It was ten o'clock by the time I rolled out of the parking lot—not a good sign for making it to Dothan at a reasonable hour. I headed southeast, hoping for the best, but then it occurred to me that I had not bought the kids souvenirs, a big transgression in daddy-land. As I moved southeast I watched for any sign of somewhere I might find something, at this late time almost anything, that said “Arkansas” somewhere on it. I made several false stops, coming up empty each time.
One of the Stops I Made in a Vain Attempt to Find Souvenirs for the Kids
I had headed out on AR 35, hoping to see another side of Arkansas and to cross the Mississippi further south. I followed 35 into the Delta area across some of the flattest land I have ever seen. On riding forums Florida is often ridiculed for being flat, and the section for Florida riders is called “Flatistan” at advrider.com, but whoever laid that name on Florida must have never ridden through southeastern Arkansas. As I moved east and south my GPS often told me I was at an altitude lower than my driveway in central Florida. Cotton reappeared and stayed with me from here to the Florida line. The harvest was underway and I got to see the crop in all stages of growth and from picking to loading to baling into truck sized bales, which then were slid into the back of special trucks and hauled away, to mills I suppose.
I followed 35 to US 278 turning south towards Lake Village. I stopped at a station here to fill the tank and get some food at the next door McDonalds. As I was pumping, a lovely woman walked up to me to look at the bike. We struck up a conversation and I learned that she was about to buy a bike herself so we chatted about bikes and I suggested taking the MSF which she planned on doing. It's funny how sometimes these kind of things happen; I had never met this woman but I instantly felt a connection and I think she did, too. Talk moved past bikes and she said she had left New Orleans after Katrina and moved to Benton, Arkansas (where I had stayed the night before), and that her daughter had stayed behind in the Big Easy. She was driving down to help her with some project. It was a pleasant break from the solitude I had had riding alone for the last two days. We exchanged numbers and promised we would meet up someday if our paths crossed again. It's funny how you never know how many people you pass by each day that could have ended up being friends if you had only taken the time to speak up and talk to them. It's a little life lesson that can enrich us if we take the leap of faith to connect to others.
After a quick bite and more coffee, I crossed back over the Mississippi after tracing the contour of an ox-bow Lake Chicot. Not far into Mississippi, I made a last ditch effort to secure souvenirs at a little tourist shop at Leland on US 82. The shop turned out to be a museum dedicated to Jim Henson, who had been born in this small Delta town. The lovely woman tried hard to follow her much-loved script as I looked around, but the gift shop section turned up nothing not Henson related, and as interesting as the place and the man was, neither or my kids had been fans so I got back on the bike and kept on my way toward the east, passing Indianola made famous by B. B. King, this area being the heart of the Delta Blues. I wiash I had not been short on time as I saw signs for the B. B King Museum, the Blues being one of my favorite kinds of music and King being, well, the king of the Blues. Now devoid of hope for picking up souvenirs and contemplating the fate that awaited me as a failed father to my disappointed children, I continued on as the day grew late and I grew tired. I had talked to Andrea and had asked her if me being a day later would be alright with her. I was tired, the day was winding down towards darkness, and Dothan was still hundreds of miles away. She was more worried about me riding tired than any complications me arriving late would cause her. I thanked her for understanding and close to sunset I stopped in Columbus, just inside the Mississippi line. I spied a Best Western, which generally are biker-friendly and at which I get an AMA discount, so I pulled in and checked in. The price was reasonable and included breakfast, which made departure in the morning much easier for me. Also, stopping here early would give me the opportunity to shop for those darn souvenirs where I might have better luck in this bigger town. I asked at the desk and the clerk told me Walmart had all sorts of stuff with Mississippi written on it, or Georgia for that matter. She was talking about colleges, of course, but the kids only care about their gift being from somewhere else and that state name written on it sealed the deal. Besides, my son is a football fan and when I saw a cooling towel with Mississippi written across it I knew he would be happy. Among the other school spirit stuff I found a cheer bracelet with that desirable state name on it and threw in a nice soft throw I found covered with peace signs. That task completed I relaxed and had dinner at a conveniently located restaurant right in the hotel parking lot. The only other souvenir I wanted to pick up was a bag of shelled pecans for Andrea and I, but I was too far north for that item yet, and besides I knew where to find that as the road between Dothan and Valdosta would be lined with pecan groves. I headed back to the hotel room, tried to watch part of the presidential debate, but couldn't stay awake. I clicked off the light and was soon asleep.
I had been able to park right outside my door the night before so packing went quickly and soon I was partaking of the breakfast inside the hotel lobby. Word was another front with rain was coming through from the west and heading southeast, and I wanted to stay ahead of it and beat it home if I could.
I aimed my wheels southeast on US 82 and was soon back in the state of Alabama. I flew through the heartland of Alabama passing through Tuscaloosa, then Montgomery. At Montgomery I switched to US 231 and rolled past cotton field after cotton field until I got onto Rose Clark Circle that encloses Dothan about mid-afternoon. I stopped in an empty car lot and called my father-in-law's nephew, Lloyd, who happens to own the company that hosts my websites and e-mail. We got to know each other over the years on family fishing trips when kingfish were running out of Panama City, where he kept his boat. Lloyd gave me directions to his office which happily was just a bit further down the highway I was already on. I pulled up to Lloyd's offce and found him in his office, where his wife, Kay, joined us. Lloyd had just bought himself a Harley Dyna and we chatted about bikes and family and then about a minor issue I was having with the websites, which he assured me he would take care of. Then with an aim to get to Valdosta that day, I headed out to the bike. Lloyd and Kay came out and took a look at the bike whiel we said our good-byes, then I lifted the kick stand, fired the Bonnie up , and continued on my way to Dothan, taking US 84. Along the way I got my chance to get a few photos of the bike in front of a cotton field, a shot I had meant to get on previous rides through cotton country, but somehow had never accomplished. Arriving at Interstate 75 at Valdosta, it was just one exit north and a couple miles west and I would be at my friend's house.
I Finally Get My Cottonfield Photo
I usually don't mind a stop in Valdosta. It gives me a chance to catch up with another old high school friend, Julie, who now manages the gallery and teaches at Valosta State University. Julie was part of that knot of friends back in high school that Brenda had been part of, and the only one I get to see on a regular basis. Living in Valdosta, she is pretty much at the gateway to most other parts of the country I might ride to coming north from central Florida. I often make it a point to crash at her place and catch up with her and her dad, Jack, who lives with her. Only 280 or so miles from home, it is a nice distance for a day ride combined with a three day weekend, too, when I get in the mood for seeing my old school chum.
As usual, Julie welcomed me with open arms and even took me and another friend of ours out for a steak dinner and beer, of course, plenty of beer. More beer and stories flowed back at her place the rest of the evening and I went to bed fat and happy. Tomorrow would be an easy day—a nice way to end a long trip.
I woke to coffee brewing and not being in a rush I took my time having coffee, talking, and loading the bike. I didn't want to leave too early because I planned on stopping at a place Julie told me about to pick up a large bag of shelled pecans and I didn't want to get there before they opened. Finally, I said good-bye to Jack and gave Julie and thankful hug and headed back out, this morning in a thick fog.
I rode through Valdosta and picked up the pecans, then headed south on US 41 and into Florida. Just inside my home state I turned right on FL 143 at Jennings and in a few miles I was on Interstate 75 racing south towards home.
I normally eschew Interstates, partly because most of my riding until I got my Triumph had been on top of my ancient CB350, which although it would run at Interstate speeds, sounded pretty wound out and just made me uneasy. But the main reason I avoided Interstate travel was you just didn't get to see much countryside and local color, each mile looking roughly like the one before it and the one after. But this time I as on the Bonnie which seemed to thrive at 75 miles per hour and I had extended the trip already by a day and wanted to make good time in order to arrive before school was out so I could walk up to the school crossing a half mile from our home and walk my daughter home from school.
After a final fuel stop at FL 44, I hopped back on 75 for only a minute before merging left onto the Florida Turnpike and heading towards US 27 that runs right past Lake Wales. I made a final shift of my track at davenport to FL 17 and continued south on the now familiar roads into my little town and into my drive. I had just enough time to hop off the bike and walk to the crossing where my daughter ran to me with shouts of joy and, of course, “What did you bring me?!”
So the balance had shifted. It was time for me to be the dad who stays at home and spends time with the family. I'd do my best to be that guy and do a good job of it. It would be months before I could plan my spring escape, when he scales would tip the other way.
"Ride Your Own Ride"