MORE OFTEN than not, when it comes time to prepare for the Arkansas history class I teach at the University of Arkansas, I head to the library. I immerse myself in new topics, refresh my memory on old material. This year, though, I thought I’d do something different.
I got on my bike.
On June 11, I set out for a 10-day, 875-mile solo bicycle ride around the state, starting and finishing in Fayetteville. I planned to hit all of the major geographic regions, but I chose to spend the most time in the southern part of the state, which I’d never been to, even though I spent three years teaching in Helena.
Textbook maps of Arkansas clearly delineate these regions with different colors and distinct boundaries. Justifiably so, a common theme of the history deals with the social, political and economic differences that arise as a result of these varied landscapes. My hope was that in traveling slowly like this, camping out every night, I could see the land and talk to the people. I could experience the setting of the history I’d be teaching about. I could not only see the effects of the differences, but also the common threads that run across the land. And I could do it in a way that work and kids had kept me from for over a decade: on two wheels.
I SET OUT as soon as it was light enough to be seen. As I wheeled my bike to the end of the driveway, it was clear that my attempt to pack light hadn’t been entirely successful—my desire to eat reasonably healthily required a stove and cooking pot—but the cool air, fast roads and views of Ozark foothills south of Fayetteville made for an easy start.
U.S. Highway 71 out of town follows the White River, which at this point in its course is clear and fast-flowing. Gradually, the climb getst steeper and the views more expansive. As I pedaled, I noticed partially occupied schools, motels and shops from a time before the interstate, back when this was the main route to Northwest Arkansas.
The Ozarks passed almost too quickly in the cool of the morning, and I found myself slogging through the shadeless industrial sprawl along the Arkansas River. It had heated up enough on the long descent from the Boston Mountains to the Arkansas River Valley that the glue holding my bike shoes (which had apparently been deteriorating in my closet for the previous decade) together failed, and the shoes came apart entirely. Regular application of duct tape for the remaining 835 miles would keep the shoes together, but I could no longer clip into the pedals, and so lost the benefit of any upward pull.
It was hard to tell if it was heat or the somewhat drab scenery that was slowing me down more. As I crossed the river and began to ascend gradually up the south side of the valley, glimpses of the distant Ouachitas began to cheer me up, but not enough to overcome my exhaustion. Sitting outside of a gas station along U.S. 71 with 100 miles behind me and 16 still to go that day, the suspicious looks I got from both a sheriff’s deputy and the handcuffed prisoner he was transporting as they took a smoke break did little to encourage me. I forced myself back out, though, and crawled into the first night’s camp.
Although I was just a short drive from home, I felt very far away.
ON THE second day, a tailwind and gradual downhill route sped me into Mena for a late lunch and a long sit on a bench on Mena Avenue. One resident helped me find duct tape for my shoes from a friend who ran the theater in town, and another who was bored and looking for cash offered sex in exchange for money. Such is the small town.
Heading west from Mena, and having had my fill of gravel roads for the day, I decided to stay on Arkansas Highway 8 heading toward Norman on the Caddo River. Slowed by an unexpected lack of pavement through the empty national forests, I found myself miles behind schedule. About 4:30 p.m., the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I knew my only option was to knock on a door and look for shelter.
The owner of the house, Tony, a retired engineer from Texas, was blasting Renaissance chamber music in his living room, surrounded by mounted heads from his African safaris. After sizing each other up to make sure neither of us was likely to be a murderer, we relaxed into conversation. The low taxes, cheap land and lack of civic services (including cell service, I discovered) drew Tony to the Ouachitas. Who needs the government when there are healing crystals and roadside unpasteurized-milk stands?
The rain didn’t let up until well after dark, so Tony invited me to stick around. It was late, and I was tired and still hadn’t eaten as we continued to talk about the Constitution and drink Scotch, but having a conversation that lasts for more than a few minutes can make you feel at home, at least a little. A bit before midnight, I headed out, cooked a quick dinner and soon fell asleep next to his truck.
Gulf Coastal Plain
MY ONE flat tire of the trip came on the road between Magnolia and El Dorado. This was particularly frustrating, as my main motivation (aside from the packs of stray dogs chasing me and the threat of impending darkness) during the previous day’s 130-mile ride out of the mountains was the thought of spending lots of time lounging around these two towns. I’d envisioned some casual coffee and Spudnuts to start the day in Magnolia, followed by a long lunch sipping Arnold Palmers among oil tycoons in El Dorado. I’d realized my Magnolia dreams, but this flat was cutting into my tycoon-hobnobbing time.
As I changed the flat, Charlie, whose yard I was in, told me how he supplemented his retirement from the local chemical plant by going to blackjack tournaments. He said his ultimate plan was to sell the pine trees on his 12 acres and use the proceeds for a Vegas blackjack trip.
I ultimately got my Arnold Palmers in the Murphy Arts District in El Dorado (which can rival any downtown that I’ve seen in the state). A surprise storm kept me there long enough to join the others watching the Razorbacks lose a baseball game. Then I rode on through the pines to the banks of the Ouachita River just as the airboats were coming in for the night.
HEADING EAST in the morning, the land, which had already seemed flat, somehow got even flatter. A tailwind and smooth shoulders pushed me along quickly. Entering the region of the state with towns named for the estates of slaveholding former U.S. presidents, I stopped first in Hermitage before continuing on to Monticello. Three men sitting on a detached bus seat outside a tire shop filled me in on the features and struggles of Bradley County. Seems I’d just missed the tomato festival in Warren. In Monticello, I replenished my quinoa supply and had yet another surprise good coffee stop at the Monticello Coffee Co.
Shortly after leaving Monticello, the landscape transitions from Gulf Coastal Plain to Delta. The flatness is the same, but instead of pine trees, there is agriculture—the issues of which are central to the history and culture of the region. At the Desha County Museum, lines of historic tractors conjure images of Delta residents who trudged back and forth across these fields for centuries.
The Delta has largely been drained, but you get periodic glimpses of how it once looked. Most of the trees have long since been harvested and the land turned into cotton, soy and rice fields. The challenges of this environment were on my mind as I turned off the main highway and headed to Arkansas Post, the site of the first European settlement in what would become Arkansas. What I found there was a very different version of the Delta than one I’d ever experienced. Among the preserved trees and wetlands was a scene akin to one you might find in a Disney movie. Deer grazed in the forest, swallows hovered above the lily pads and raccoons strolled right down the middle of the road, unmiffed by my presence. Mercifully absent were mosquitoes, the one creature I thought I was sure to find.
The next morning, crop dusters out at first light took advantage of the calm early-morning winds as I rolled into DeWitt for breakfast. I had resigned myself to the idea that I would probably have to get some sort of McMuffin, but instead found 420 & Turnrow, a pleasant coffee shop with real coffee, in a restored building on the square. As I was having my second cup, a man—Elmer, I later learned—who had been sitting waiting for the food pantry across the square to open, walked over, asked me a bit about my trip and then handed me a $20 bill. He explained he’d been blessed and wanted to pass it along. Then he headed back to wait for his bag of donated groceries. The Delta was full of surprises.
AFTER 2 1/2 days of near complete flatness with the wind at my back, the short-but-steep climb up to Battery C, a Civil War site overlooking Helena and the Mississippi River, hit hard. For the first time on the trip, I had to get off my bike and walk to make it to the overlook. I hadn’t been back here since I’d moved back to Fayetteville six years earlier. From up above, the town looked mostly the same as I remembered, but there were subtle changes. There was a new coffee shop and a place to get some decent burgers. There were also lots of new signs for historical sites. In Helena, they are commemorating the history of the region in new ways, with monuments for slaves who escaped to the Union Army, and another that will soon acknowledge the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919.
As I rode around town, I saw former students I taught as middle-schoolers who were back for the summer from college. Even though I still had a few days of biking to get back home, it felt closer than it did when I used to make the drive back and forth across the state.
I expected the trip heading west back across the Delta to be slower than the way east, due to prevailing winds, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much harder it would be. The trip to Little Rock was like riding into a hair dryer for 90 miles. My planned breakfast in Clarendon on the White River turned into lunch. Bendi’s, the diner in town, was packed. It was Ed’s (one of the regulars) birthday, I was told, so the mood was boisterous. Stuttgart seemed to have some interesting restaurants and museums, but I was too hot, tired and cranky to check them out (although I was intrigued by the way the town actually smells like rice).
Fortunately, clouds rolled in and provided some relief from the heat. It was practically cool when I reached England, site of the so-called England Food Riot of 1931, in which farmers demanded food from the Red Cross in the wake of drought and depression. Like many events labeled “riots,” this one was largely exaggerated. While it made headlines nationwide, there are no signs of it in England today.
On the advice of an England native I’d met days earlier, I stopped for a quick bite at Gautreaux’s. I was told this restaurant does gizzards “the right way,” which apparently involves boiling them before frying. As I was in another potential race against the dark, I went for the fried okra instead.
River Valley (again)
THE HILLS west of Little Rock were a welcome change after spending an entire day battling a hot headwind on my ride from the Mississippi River. The fast descent from Petit Jean to start the day almost made up for the misery of getting to the top the day before. I barely had to pedal in the 20 miles to the Arkansas River, which I crossed for the eighth and final time at Dardanelle. On the ride down, I was surprised to find myself among cotton fields. But for the views of Mount Nebo in the background, I could have been back in the Delta. The River Valley here seems to blend aspects from around the state: the agriculture of eastern Arkansas with the industry of Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock. It touches upon the mountains of the Ozarks and Ouachitas but has broad swaths of the flatness of the lowlands. With all that is going on here, it seems like there should be better coffee.
EVEN THOUGH I was still a day away, once I got to the Pig Trail, I felt like I was basically back home. Its switchbacks made the trip back into the Ozarks considerably easier than I’d expected. I was glad, as I was racing to get to the store at Turner Bend on the Mulberry River before it closed. I was out of stove fuel, so I needed a sandwich. And the campsite was close enough to the store that if I bought a beer, it would still be coldish by the time I got my tent set up. I got to the store in time, bought my dinner and biked the remaining 3 miles to the national forest, where I expected to finish the day with a nice swim in the Mulberry, followed by a peaceful evening communing with nature. Redding campground, it turns out, is a Franklin County hot spot on a Friday night. I got my swim, had my sandwich and lukewarm beer, and drifted off to the sound of the cracking of Bud Light Lime cans.
IT’S FAST riding along the White, through towns with maybe a gas station in them. In Crosses, the town where Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle, I stopped for breakfast at the Pig Trail Cafe. The owner, Hooshang Nazarli, who has run the cafe and gas station since leaving Iran in 1978 and is the namesake of the “hoosh burger,” was working the grill. The only other customer was a man reading his Bible while he ate, but people periodically came in to ask how to use the 40-year-old gas pump, which had nowhere to put a credit card.
After my eggs, potatoes and self-serve coffee, I got back on my bike for the final push. As I got close to town, I passed by the same Sonics, O’Reilly Auto Parts stores and farmers’ co-ops that line the approaches to most Arkansas towns of any size but was glad these were on the outskirts of home. Coming up the final hill on my block, I had to stand up on the pedals and work like I did on every other climb of the previous 10 days.
Many other camping trips I’ve gone on have involved a car ride to get out of town, which can create a division between where you live and what you’re visiting, and make them seem far away in your mind. There was no such division and distance on this trip. By bike, the transitions from uplands to lowlands and back again are gradual. Countryside turns into suburbs, suburbs into cities, then back again. Where you are at any given moment becomes more significant, and all of those points are momentarily connected by the thread of the ride. The space you cover shrinks in your imagination. Coming back home, it became temporarily but powerfully clear that all of these places—the gravel mountain roads, the pine clear-cuts, the swamps, the cotton fields, Tony’s carport, my students’ houses—are just a bike ride away.
Brian Hurley teaches, writes and runs in Fayetteville. He’s dreamed of living in the Natural State since first visiting the Ozarks as a teenager. He lives the dream now with his wife and two sons, overlooking the foothills.