As things tend to go, this springtime became extremely busy in everyday life before I knew what really happened. Weeks went by like minutes, and before I knew it April was staring us in the face. Thoughts of a quick escape from realilty flourished in my head, and I knew the therapudic powers of a gateway would work wonders for Penny. When something is important to you and you realize that it's truly part of the foundation of life, you never second guess it's merits or consider putting it on the back burner. Such would be thoughts of our first trip of this year, despite the poor weather possibilities. The time had come, and it had in fact been far too long in between adventures compounded by an unusual extension of winter weather well into March. No borders would exist between us and the great wide open.
We decided, after looking at the big map of the United States that hangs on my office wall, that Arkansas would be a good place to venture to over this extended-extended weekend. Penny was concerned that I wouldn't be seeing anything "new" as she noticed all the blue-lined roads in the northwestern Arkansas area, but I assured her that this was not only a place that I enjoy riding through, but also that there are hundreds of previously unexplored miles for me to discover. There were a few places that I wanted to show her, and others that I knew we'd just happen upon, and the key was to just go, make it up as we went along, and take the time to enjoy a very simple life for a few days. We did just that.
Penny was all ready to go by the time I got home from work, and after some last minute packing, we were on the road. Tuned into channel 19, the CB radio was keeping me entertained, as well as keeping me aware of the location of both smokies and hot chicks in cars...truckers are great. As we rode away from the concrete and buildings of Chicagoland, the open spaces led to severe wind gusts and I was fighting to keep the ST going straight. I knew that the wind was going to be a burden for the day, but I was determined to get both of us as far away from Chicago as possible. After a quick roadside stop to ensure Penny that I did in fact have control of the bike and that the wind wasn't going to do anything except help better define my arm muscles, we continued down the Interstate.
A few miles later and after some interesting discussions about the level of my sanity with some truckers, we made it to a rest stop outside of Bloomington. I was using this as my "test the waters" point to see if Penny was willing to continue on, and I was assured by words and mannerisms that she was doing much better than earlier, and was even realxing a bit, which is sometimes a difficult task. We were in fact making pretty good time, and I was sure that we could make it to Hannibal, MO tonight as we had hoped.
We passed through Springfield, IL and took the exit for I-72 West. Immediately, conditions improved. The wind did not die down, but a headwind is a lot easier to handle than a crosswind. The last hour or so was very nice as the sun began to fall towards the horizon and the hawks circled overhead. There was very little traffic, and I finally got that sense of relaxation, partially due to the traffic and partially because I wasn't having to fight tooth and nail to keep the ST on the road. Crossing the Mississippi river, I heard the familiar sound of Penny screaming "Hello Mississippi River!!!!!", a tradition that I won't even try to explain.
After a difficult day of riding, I'm pretty sure I heard a sigh of relief from behind me as we pulled into Hannibal and spotted the Best Western hotel. As I was unpacking the bike, I was reminded of something that I had forgotton over the winter - the blank stare. Exiting the elevator in my Stich and boots during the ST unpacking process, I interrupted two people engrossed in conversation - who once they saw me, turned silent, and had a classic look of confusion on their faces. "What? Haven't you ever seen someone in a snowsuit?" I wished I had the guts to say. I find it's better to just chuckle and go about your business. There's no way I could ever explain to people (short of giving them my web page address) the what's, where's, and why's of motorcycle travel.
The attendant sent us to a nice cafe in the old downtown area where we enjoyed a great meal in what ended up being a restored bordello from the early 1900s. I decided to try the chicken special, and when I say "wow" I mean "wow." This was one of those meals that you cut into small little pieces so that you can enjoy it more. After a walk through the downtown area, we made it back to the hotel and enjoyed a quick dip in the hot tub before calling it a night.
We were up and moving pretty quick this morning and decided to make a quick stop at Lover's Leap just outside of town. The morning air was crisp and a gentle breeze surrounded us as we looked up the Mississippi towards town and enjoyed a fantastic view of the surroundings - despite the typical Illinois sighting of a nuclear power plant in the distance. I always enjoy this ride down the river and I was reminded this morning of our first trip last year where we traced the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota. There were a lot of colors appearing from the redbuds, dogwoods, and wild flowers and I knew that we had hit this at the perfect time of year. As we rode along, it was a constant game of "hey, look at those trees" and just when we thought we saw the most perfectly colored grouping of trees, another field would appear with even more colors to awe over. After a really nice morning ride, we made it to Louisiana where after a quick run through town, we returned to the first restaurant we spotted and enjoyed a really good breakfast.
After breakfast, we continued down the river for a little while longer before turning inland to get around the St. Louis area. As we headed south along the river, and while heading inland, the trees were more and more in bloom and it had turned into a perfect day for riding. We made it through a couple of Interstate towns on route 47, and eventually found ourselves once again away from every bit of civilization and enjoying the 75 degree weather winding through the hills of southeast Missouri watching the colors go by. Route 47 was a really nice ride with a lot to offer. The road was twisty enough to put a smile on my face, and as it crested hills, the view of the road and surrounding forest was very nice and would quickly remind you of how desolate this area is. A quick turn onto route 21 offered more of the same and the redbuds continued to line the highway, and the small towns that occasionally appear were a welcome site rather than a burden. Many of the flowers and trees were blooming and in Small Town, USA, this is a very quiet and peaceful time of year. Each of the houses had it's own character, whether that be columns, balconies, or big front porches just perfect for a rocking chair. As we rode through these towns, I felt more and more relaxed and it constantly reminded me that we were a long way from Chicago.
We turned west onto a sideroad which took us into the national forest area and ended up stopping near an observation tower. As we rested there for a few minutes, a guy on a DR400 pulled up and we talked to him for a while. He commented to us that we picked "the best weekend to ride" and we agreed with him. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and we were all enjoying the spring day. He suggested that we head towards Dillard Mill which was about 10 minutes away. Penny and I had found it on the map and we were heading in that general direction, and his suggestion, and directions, made it much easier to find. Nestled away in the woods we found an old mill and took our time exploring and listening to the sound of silence. Only the sound of the wind and the gentle sound of the rippling water could be heard.
After leaving the mill, we enjoyed a few more hours of winding roads and beautiful sunshine in southern Missouri. At times, I write about information overload after seeing beautiful sight after beautiful sight, and while we didn't quite get to that point today, it was close. The redbuds and dogwoods blooming were quite a backdrop as we rode along and they seemed never ending. After hours of winding curvy roads, we finally found a dead straight road - which felt like a roller coaster. I felt my stomache drop a few times after cresting hills and felt the downward force during the dips as we rode through horse country and more cattle farms. We made it to West Plaines well before dark, and ended up at the Best Western again where we tonight decided to order pizza and grab a few beers. You gotta love a chick, um, I mean woman who thinks that's a good meal alternative.
A view of Hannibal, Missouri from Lover's Leap
Lovers Leap, just south of Hannibal, MO
Penny and the ST among the budding trees in Missouri
The ST roadside in the springtime colors
Penny among the colors of a budding tree
Some purple flowers that I wouldn't let Penny pick
Dillard Mill, Missouri
Penny at Dillard Mill
Leaving this morning, we weren't quite sure about the weather, but there was no doubt in our minds that we were going to keep going, seeing, and enjoying. That's what we came down here for. We ended up on route 101 that somehow got us into Arkansas, and that's how the day would continue. Let's go this way and see what we find. This morning, we found ourselves riding across a long bridge and a beautiful, big, blue lake surrounding us. Neither of us expected to see that, and I think that's one of the reasons it sticks in my mind now. It was a nice surprise and I was glad that I accidentally ended up on that road. We continued on through Mountain Home towards Bull Shoals Dam. The morning was still a little overcast, but there were so few people around and the view off the side of the dam was so nice that we really didn't notice the grey skies. After a couple stops around the dam, we made it to Flippin where we enjoyed another great breakfast - believe me, I somehow stumble upon the good breakfast places, and the grits this morning were excellent..
We glanced over a map at breakfast, and decided to head down Route 7. I knew that there were a lot of things to see along that route, and I also knew that it wasn't too terribly twisty if the weather got any worse. Route 7 was just as I remembered it - simply a great ride. Starting off from Dogpatch, we made our way up the mountain by way of the numerous switchbacks and twisties, much to my delight. Penny even gave me the green light to wick it up one more notch - still well within the lines of safe riding, but enough where I really enjoyed the run up the mountain. At the crest, we pulled over at the first overlook to see the Grand Canyon of Arkansas. The area was beautiful and the redbuds hadn't left us yet. We stayed there a few minutes until some obnoxious Harley riders pulled in and started generally making asses of themselves. I'm sure they made their comments when they saw the Honda (gasp!!) I was riding, but they were a distant memory before long, and I figured that they would not re-appear in my rear view mirror anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the rain started in just a few miles down the road (I do remeber thinking that the Harley riders were going to be leaning even less, if that's possible, on the way down the mountain). I slowed down a bit, sometimes even more when the thick fog engulfed the ST. Luckily, the temperature was still pretty warm and we were able to continue on, with a stop at Booger Hollow of course. With postcards and souveneirs in hand, we continued on and the rain did let up a bit. While some of the views from the highway were obscured by clouds or fog, others were clear and very nice so we'd stop and take a look. We eventually made it down to Ola where we stopped to grab a couple sandwiches. The ST tends to stick out like a sore thumb in small towns like this, as someone earlier this morning reminded us when he told Penny "That sure is a fancy biiiike." This afternoon, we struck up a conversation with a truck driver who used to have a Goldwing and we exchanged a few stories of our travels before continuing on to Nimrod Dam where we enjoyed a quiet lunch overlooking the dam. Besides the thundering sound of the water exiting the bottom of the dam, there wasn't another sound to be heard.
We decided to head towards the town of Mena for the night and set ourselves up for the Talimena Scenic Highway tomorrow. Between here and there were miles of desolate, beautiful, trafficless roads through the national forest. The towns grew smaller and smaller and everything was a very bright and clean green color due to the scattered showers of today. The smells from the forests found their way inside our helmets as we rode along. At one point, we stopped roadside a bit and walked over to a bridge over some creek in the middle of nowhere. Again, everything was silent except for the sound of the water gently trickling along. I think only 2 cars went by as we were stopped there. I could tell that Penny was very relaxed and de-stressed by the environment, as was I. We eventually continued on to Mena and grabbed a hotel room for the night. With little in the ways of choices for food, we made our way to Wendy's across the street. Penny got a kick out of my double-take on the guy wearing ropers with spurs on them, and for a quick second, I realized what those people in Hannibal thought when I got off the elevator....except that ropers with spurs, Wranglers, and a big ol' belt buckle are standard issue in these parts. As we sat there eating, the rain started coming down in buckets and we had to wait until it let up to run back across the street to the hotel where the ST sat dry and safe underneath the overhang of the roof. We just missed the bad weather as the Weather Channel reminded us. A big red blob of storms rolled through that night but all looked good for the morning.
The ST at Bull Shoals Damn
Bull Shoals Dam - I still have a question
Penny and the ST along Arkansas Scenic Route 7
Penny at an overlook along Route 7
An overlook along Scenic 7
A stop at the Booger Hollow Tradin' Post - population 7, coutin' one coon dawg.
Nimrod Dam, Arkansas
Tad and Penny at Nimrod Dam
The ST at Nimrod Dam
A creek somewhere in Arkansas
After the usual coffee search, which took an unusually long time and required a trip across the street, we suited up, wiped off the ST and headed out to the Talimena Scenic highway. The red blob of rain that we saw on the radar did a number on the trees along the highway, and branches were strewn about the pavement making cornering a little interesting. As we reached the crest of the road, the first view reminded me why I wanted to take Penny here. This route reminds me a lot of the Cherohala Skyway in Tennessee, another road that we enjoyed together, and as we made our way west towards the Oklahoma border, we shared that same joy now. After a few scenic turnouts and a quick stop at the Oklahoma state line, we made it to route 59 in Oklahoma and the fuel light came on. Now, I am more than willing and comfortable stretching the legs of the ST, and even though I told Penny that we had at least 35 miles until we should be worried, something tells me she was a little bit nervous. This was compounded by the fact that I headed south three miles to a town that didn't exist. Well, the town existed, but it was a church and two houses. About 25 miles later, we reached Hodgen, OK and found some go-go juice. After chatting with the attendant, Penny found out that there was a little downtown cafe in Heavener, just a few miles up the road. Arriving there, we found the "Downtown Cafe" and enjoyed a nice breakfast while chatting with the locals.
Originally, we were going to head back into Arkansas and make our way north, but after about 1/2 mile, I pulled over and said "Let's not miss the second half of the Talimena." We weren't in a hurry, and it took no convincing for Penny to agree. After a nice wheelie out of the parking lot of the seed plant, we were on our way back south to the Talimena, and we soon realized that we made the right choice.
I leaned the ST into the spur road from 59 up to the Talimena and noticed a familiar shape sitting in the road...a turtle. Here's where my Steve Erwin mentality and voice takes over. I just haaad to turn that ST around and saaave this guuuy from ceaartin demoise. He already had the same idea and was making his way to the shoulder. I made sure that he was safe, let out an Erwinesque "YES!!!" and we continued on.
The Oklahoma portion of the Talimena is just as nice as the Arkansas side, and as we rode along we were both happy that we decided to finish the trek. The sun was shining and it had turned into an absolutely gorgeous day. The road twists, rises, and falls along the top of these mountains (OK, a plateau that was eroded away over millions of years, but they still look like mountains to me) and we found ourselves stopping more and more to admire the view of the valleys, and of the road snaking off into the distance. At one point, Penny and I each saved another turtle (YES!!) and we eventually made it to Panoramic Scenic Vista where we sat for a while listening to the wind and enjoying a peaceful and quiet moment. It's moments like this one where the scenery is perfect, there's nobody else around, and you just get that feeling of "if I don't get back on the bike soon, I may never leave this place" that really make memories. This one was just that.
As we descended from the Talimena, the temperature rose to a balmy 82 degrees - in April. We shed a few layers at a gas station and made our way back across the Arkansas border. As we passed the seed plant, I turned in and joked, "Wanna go do that again?" After 1/2 second of reconsideration, and a quick "Naaah!" I wheelied (aw c'mon, like you've never wheelied an ST) out of the seed plant and we made our way across the border back into Arkansas. The road conditions on this particular road were pretty bad and we experienced continual light chop as we rode along. I was getting a little uncomfortable with the heat and the road (which was causing Penny to slide into me a little more than normal) so we took our time and stopped a bit before making it to Mt. Magazine. OK, so I left out the part where we rode through the town and Penny was admiring the young cowboys and their Wranglers....sue me. Mt. Magazine is one of the staple visits when in Arkansas, but unfortunately the road was slick and full of winter-gravel today, so there was little fun to be had on the way up to the top. At the first overlook, the classic stop, I took the usual bike picture and we walked down to the fence to admire the view. There were a few buzzards circling and it was just a little hazy, as it usually is, but I was glad that we stopped there.
From there, we headed to the Pig Trail Highway, a.k.a. Route 23, and began heading north. We wanted to end up somewhere around Huntsville for the night so that we could visit Penny's aunt the next morning. Huntsville came and went, and we ended up riding to Harrision where we found a lot more hotels and food than in previous towns. I made a quick beer run, and we ordered pizza, relaxed, and hit the hot tub before calling it a day.
The ST stopped along the Talimena Scenic Highway
Crossing the border into Oklahoma
A stress-free moment along the Talimena Scenic Highway
A breakfast stop in Heavener, OK
The ST and a view of the road twisting through the mountains
Another view of the ST along the Talimena
Penny taking a moment along the Talimena
A hazy view from the top of Mt. Magazine in Arkansas
The ST at Mt. Magazine
After a short ride, we ended up a Penny's aunt's house just outside of Omaha, Arkansas in a very nice, secluded, quiet, tree-lined area. Yes, I really liked their house, especially the backyard which looked like virgin forest. Her aunt made us a perfect breakfast of eggs, toast, and fresh venison sausage, and we all sat around talking for a while until we had to take off. We had two days to get home from here, and we didn't want to feel rushed or have to push on if the weather turned bad. We said our good-byes and headed up the road to (gulp) Branson, Missouri.
What? What the hell is Tad doing riding up through Branson? Well, call it compromise. Penny, who really likes the touristy places, really wanted to drive through and see the theatres. In order to keep myself sane, I decided that I would try to find the most tacky thing there...unfortunately, the entire place is tacky and no one thing stands out. I made the best of it, and we even stopped at a souveneir shop (insert whip sound here) right next to the Osmond Family Theatre (featuring Tony Orlando) to get some gifts and memorabelia. A few doors down was Penelope's Family Restaurant, and I would have scanned the pictures in, except that my scanner broke (well, actually I think my SCSI card died) when I went to scan the first of the Branson pictures...go figure. Heading out of town, just when I thought we missed it, there it was - The Andy Williams "Moon River" theatre. Anyone who is a Simpsons fan will know the reference there.
We made it back to the expressway and Branson began disappearing in my rear view mirror faster than a side of pancakes at breakfast. It appeared that the weather was not going to warm up, so with the vest cranked (Penny was wearing it) and the grips on a nice 2/3rds setting (man, that variable controller is nice), we began heading for St. Louis. We stopped every so often to warm up a bit, but overall the ride wasn't bad, and the truckers were, as always, pointing out the cops and chicks and listening to their general conversation kept me interested and helped the time go by. We passed south of St. Louis and crossed the river into Illinois at about 4:30, and for a few miles enjoyed a great view of downtown St. Louis and the Arch. Unfortunately, there is no scenic turnout or rest area to stop at, even though it's an impressive sight.
As it was during the trip out of Illinois, the wind picked up and it was a constant minor-struggle to keep the ST tracking in the correct direction. I already had no thoughts of trying to make it home today, and we ended up stopping in Litchfield for the night, hoping that the wind would die down for tomorrow. After a hearty meal at Denny's, the only place within walking distance, we relaxed in the hot tub and stayed up late hoping that the weatherman would change his forcast to 70 degrees and sunny. It looked like tomorrow was going to be more of the same, so we decided to sleep in a bit and let it warm up before we ventured home.
During the night, the howling wind woke me up a few times and I knew that this wasn't going to be a particularly fun day of riding. I explained this to Penny, and she did a great job of getting into the right mindset - after all, what other choice is there. We had enjoyed four great days of riding in Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and this was the only payment that we had to make. It was certainly worth the price of admission.
After our first battle against the wind, we made it to Springfield, IL and decided to visit our state's capital building. We greeted honest Abe, and walked around the gardens a bit before going inside. They were setting up for a press conference or meeting for the Mobile Homeowners Association, while the suits walked quickly through the hallways. The guard didn't even give us, in our Aerostich suits, a second glance, and even suggested that we go to the fourth floor and see the floor of the State Senate. The Senate wasn't in session at that minute, but it was neat to see the floor and notice the laptops computers at every chair. I wonder how many senators spend time playing solitaire?
Stopping about every 60 miles or so, we slowly made our way north, fighting the wind the whole time. The wind was coming out of the due north, and heading up I-55, which goes northeast, the sidedrafts were pretty bad. I figured that I-35 would be a better option, and despite the fuel prices of today, I decided to let the mileage suffer and head directly into the wind. Good decision. While my mileage plummeted into the 32 miles/gallon range, the ST plowed straight ahead and with little effort. We exited at Route 72, and completed our last part of the journey, passing Leigh at a stoplight as we approached Streamwood. "Damn, " I thought. "Now that (bleep) knows I'm home."
The wind is an amazing thing bringing with it amazing powers.
First, and least importantly, we fought the wind during almost every mile of Illinois. While this didn't make for a very enjoyable ride, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. Just being on the road is enough to make everything else seem insignificant. The wind was the necessary evil of this trip, and as much as it sucked big-time, I'll never complain about it. After all, a bad day of riding...and none of these days was even close to bad.
There were countless moments on this trip when the only thing I heard was the wind. While at Dillard Mill, the wind was the perfect background noise for the water flowing over the dam. Not another sound could be heard. At the Grand Canyon of Arkansas, I looked upon Penny, her hair blowing in the wind with the incredible backdrop of the valley behind her, and was reminded just how nice it can be to travel through life with her by my side. Near the end of the Talimena, I stood looking out over a panoramic view, with the wind hitting me in the face and reminding me how important it is not to get caught up in the whirlwind of life and to take advantage of every situation you can.
Finally, the wind seemed to just whisk away all of Penny's cares, worries, and stress, and for that, I thank the wind. It worked it's powers to perfection here, and I get a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment seeing her release and let go of the problems of everyday life and just enjoy the now. As difficult as that may be for her day to day, on trips like this, she seems to adapt without any problem and it at total peace with the world. Even with the few minor setbacks that she tends to have during these trips, overall, and when it's important, she is in a place that few know and understand, and I'm glad that I can help her get there. The last step taken is by her though, and all I can do is show her the way.
I've been trying to think of a good name for the ST1100 for a year now, and after this trip, it became blatantly obvious to me. The ST1100 shall hereforth be known as "STress-Reliever." I think that name fits, and it's powers of tranquility are too amazing.