The original idea was to seek out the best roads in Arkansas, a task I realized would be impossible in the few days I had to spend here, even with the aid of my excellent Butler Map of the Ozarks. As it turns out, any road in Arkansas that’s not an interstate is a great motorcycle road; bike tires should wear evenly here from shoulder to shoulder with no need at all for a harder compound in the middle.
The hardest part of riding in Arkansas for us bi-coastal types is getting here, but my Victory Cross Country 15th Anniversary Edition loaner, complete with heated grips and seat and cruise control, made the eastward trek quite literally a blast. East of Phoenix, AZ 60 is a beautiful two-lane drive through high country with little traffic and open sightlines that lets you proceed even faster than the 70-mph limit, and sets you on a backroad trajectory right into Arkansas – so fast the vents in my excellent Shoei Neotec had sucked my hair into stylish cornrows by the time I climbed off in Brownfield, Texas, after covering the 800 miles from Blythe, California on day two of my ride. Kudos to the traditionally styled Victory’s ability to cover ground in a very modern way at a burn rate of no less than 36 mpg.
There’s nothing like a long motorcycle trip to re-gap your synapses and restore your belief in the time/space continuum. Most of the time the hours slide by unnoticed, leading to nothing more revelatory than cocktail hour. On a motorcycle slicing along at 80 from 150 miles away, two hours has you in Roswell, New Mexico, just as predicted – with just enough time to stop for a photo and a wrong turn.
Once you’re there, Arkansas is like going back 20 years or maybe 120; there’s just a little bit less of the me-first attitude that’s prevalent on the west coast. Everybody drives American cars, Baptist churches outnumber BMW coupes, and nobody understands why you’re disgruntled to climb off your motorcycle after an 800-mile day and find out you’re in a dry county.
Yes, we already knew about the Ozarks. But did you know about the Ouachitas? The latter lie south of the Ozarks, on the other side of the Arkansas Valley. Pronounced WHAH-shih-tah, the lake of the same name is the biggest one in Arkansas – 40,000 acres of water with 700 miles of shoreline. I did not fish, but the experts tell me it is as good as it gets, chock full of largemouth bass, crappie, stripers, etc.
The striper, I learned, is a fish that can live in salt or fresh water (prefers brackish), and grows to 40 ell-bees in Lake Ouachita. The Garmin people were there making a nice new map of the bottom. If you hire a pro guide, he can take you to bang on the front door of whatever species you had in mind for about $60 an hour. Not really in the mood to battle fish after my two-day (and one night) flog from the OC, I chose to kayak the Caddo – a measly $40, ride upriver included.
Learn all about oil at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover, one of 52 state parks in Arkansas. The oil boom made the city of El Dorado wealthy, and it still has a bustling downtown built around the county courthouse. Originally incorporated in 1843, the 1921 boom saw the population grow exponentially. Billionaire H.L. Hunt’s oil empire began here when he won an interest in an oil well in a poker game, and lived in El Dorado until he followed the oil west to Texas in 1932. Lunch at fayray’s is excellent, then take the walking tour of 15 historic buildings clustered around the square.
The Granite Club
The Granite Club was constructed in 1928 of all imported materials from Europe, during a boom that sent the population of El Dorado from 3800 to 40,000 in less than two years. Another boom is underway now, thanks to horizontal drilling and fracking. The more history you learn, the more you realize nothing is new.
Scenic Byway 7 has to be one of the most beautiful motorcycle roads in the world – sometimes fast and open, sometimes under canopies of trees – but never straight for long.
Wegner’s Crystal Mines
The Ouachita Range runs east to west, squeezed between North America’s other ranges, and for that reason (or maybe not), its geological richness coughs up all kinds of crystals and diamonds and petroleum products. Proprietor Richard Wegner of Wegner’s Crystal Mines outside Mt. Ida, is a happy rockhound transplanted from Chicago decades ago. Not only can you dig up crystals, he says if you’re nice you can camp on his 218 beautiful, environmentally friendly acres (surrounded by National Park on two sides), and fish in his lakes. Tell him MO sent you.
The Blacksmith Shop in Historic Washington State Park
If you’re a knife nut, stop by the blacksmith shop in Historic Washington State Park, a stop on the Southwest Trail since 1824 – only 14 miles to Mexico, which became Texas. In fact, there are 30 preserved attractions here, including chicken fried steak. This guy blacksmiths in the shop where the first Bowie knife was produced. Try not to piss him off.
B.W. Edwards Weapons Museum
In fact, the Weapons Museum in Washington has all kinds of knives and guns, and a WW2 German helmet a soldier mailed home to a friend in Arkansas with the address label still stuck to it.
Bill Clinton’s childhood home
42nd POTUS Bill Clinton was born in Hope, Arkansas, and here’s his trike to prove it, out in the yard of his childhood home, which you can tour. On the other side of the fence was the yard of his friend Vince Foster.
Hot Springs was and maybe still is the Sodom and Gomorrah of Arkansas, where Clinton honed his craft and where Al Capone came for mercury rubs before the invention of penicillin. Watch the ponies at Oaklawn Park, right in the middle of town since 1905.
The Hanging Judge’s courtroom
Over a period of 21 years, Federal District Judge Isaac C. Parker sentenced 160 people to death from his bench in Fort Smith, acquiring a reputation as “the hanging judge.” It wasn’t really his fault though, since federal sentencing guidelines in place until 1898 required the death penalty for those found guilty of rape or murder. There was quite a bit of that going on in that part of Arkansas given the friction between various Indian and lately-arrived tribes with both Union and Confederate leanings. Of the 160 condemned, only 86 were executed. (To put that in perspective, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas oversaw his 500th execution in 2013.) Anyway, see Judge Parker’s courtroom at the Fort Smith Museum of History, ride the trolley through town, etcetera…