BY ALEX ROBERTS
In hindsight, it’s quite obvious I started my bikepacking trip on the Arkansas section of the Trans America Trail with lots of misconceptions. I began with misconceptions about the terrain and natural beauty of parts of the state, misconceptions about the people and their reactions to cyclists, and misconceptions about a friendship that I thought couldn’t get any better. It was the experiences and memories of realizing the fallacies of these that made this trip so special and unforgettable.
Day 1: Delta Blues
As Aaron, Dylan, and I rolled out of Helena into the Arkansas Delta, I expected the roads to be flat, easy, and ugly. I was right about one of those. They are flat. But they were anything but ugly and easy. Had the Fab Four visited this part of the state, the Strawberry in Strawberry Fields Forever would have likely been Cotton. I was amazed to stop at many a crossroad and see cotton fields as far as I could see in every direction I turned. From time to time, cotton was still on plants with the glowing white fibrous cotton providing a sharp contrast to the brown of the winter fields and dirt roads.
The landscape was dotted with the juxtaposition of old farmhouses and new, modern harvesting equipment. Cotton is king, and large-scale commercial farms rule the land. Long gone are the days of bloody hands and arched backs. However, as a big fan of the Delta Blues, I couldn’t roll through these areas without imagining the days spent in these fields and the nights of this region that were the inspiration for so many of those songs. That said, it was the country blues of one of Arkansas’s most famous native sons, Johnny Cash’s I Never Picked Cotton, that was playing in my head most of the day. A notable exception was during some long hike-a-bike sections through flooded fields when muddy water brought to mind Muddy Waters. Got My Mojo Workin’ kept my mind off of the displeasure of thick mud and decreased mileage.
Being January, the last light still fades early even with a pancake flat horizon. We ended Day 1 in DeValls Bluff with a debate over slaw on barbeque sandwiches, talks with the chief of the volunteer fire department concerning the challenges of a rural volunteer agency, and local generosity in the form of a concrete pad to pitch our tents on behind the fire station with a water faucet as an unexpected amenity.
Day 2: Compare and Contrast
Though the pad and generosity were appreciated, especially for ease of set-up in the dark, we entered a wildlife management area early the next day with prime campsites. The big, loose gravel that was a steady feature of the first day was appearing less and less, and the landscape had transformed from endless fields to tunnels of trees and the first appearance of some rolling hills. A roar in the distance was soon discovered to be truck traffic on I-40 as we crossed over this artery of commercial transport for the one-and-only time. The Arkansas TAT is heavy on towns that time forgot; towns where time seems to progress at a slightly slower pace, and the interstate crossing was a noticeable contrast even this early in the trip.
Another contrast provided by Day 2 was the wind. What had been a northwest headwind the day before was now a southeast tailwind blowing us along. Unknown to us at the time, tailwind would be a rare occurrence this trip.
Continuing on the contrasts, Day 2 also had the first roads with Hill and Mountain in their names. Though never long, they were definitely a wake-up call for the legs.
We took a short detour off-route for a dinner and resupply stop in Rose Bud. Traveling by bike seems to nurture an inherent curiosity and even a surprising amount of respect as evidenced by the conversations with the locals at our dinner stop. Answering either the Where you coming from? or Where ya heading? immediately lead to further questions about us, the route, and our gear from both young farm hands and an 89 year old war veteran enjoying dessert thanks to a gift card he had won at a local high school football game. It was obvious his eyes had seen much in his long lifetime, but bikepackers were something new.
Our dinner and darkness were simultaneously settling. We set-up camp in a pine grove which provided both natural beauty and natural air freshener. In addition, the padding of the fallen needles was most welcome. Though the stars shone on a cloudless night, the temperatures stayed mild. We stayed out of the tents and bags the latest this night and shared what still seemed like gluttonous deserts even after a big day in the saddle. Sitting in what is likely a pulpwood forest, it seemed appropriate that a Pulp Fiction quote popped in my head, and I smiled with the recognition that Mia Wallace was right in her assessment that being able to comfortably share silences is an indicator of truly great relationships.
Day 3: What the Shale
The hills came alive on Day 3. With steep climbs and insanely fun descents, the beginning of the saw-toothed Ozarks felt like a homecoming even though we were not yet halfway to the end. An average ascent of 100 feet for every mile was to continue for the rest of the route, and a tight Achilles was starting to become rather worrisome.
Soon after passing through the old town of Scotland, whose abandoned post office and other decrepit buildings gave the community the feel of a ghost town, we climbed the biggest hill of the day. Concentrating on the scenery helped me push an increasing trepidation about my Achilles to the back of my mind as did the final eye-watering descent which had us drop over 1500 feet in just a few miles to Appleton before a flat 8 miles to Hector and dinner.
Creeks, forests, and wells pulling gas out of the Fayetteville Shale formation abounded on Day 3. Riding by the wells, my love of nature made me disappointed at the presence and disruptions of these large metal buildings rumbling from the industrial beasts within.
As in Rose Bud, our dinner stop resulted in several inquisitive conversations. The commonality of hats, dirty jeans, and work boots revealed what else these people shared. They were all employed by the gas companies. Knowing that, I realized that without that revenue source, Hector might more closely resemble Scotland, and I couldn’t help but be a bit less upset about the drilling.
Our inquiries to the locals were again with regards to where to camp as darkness had fallen as we ate. As the first night at DeValls Bluff, the local fire department again volunteered a place for us. With the ghost town feel of Scotland one of the most distinct memories of Day 3, it is fitting that we bedded down in the in the middle of the fire department’s haunted hayride route and décor complete with ghosts of its own.
Day 4: The Pied Bikers
Pie was our goal for Day 4. It was 68 miles to the next community. With several previous bike rides around Oark, we knew the pie and burgers there would be our best meal of the trip. But the “oldest continuous-operation store in Arkansas” shows its age in its hours. Closing time is 4 PM, and the hills between Hector and there were to make this deadline a challenge.
In a bit of irony and a bigger connection to Greek Mythology, my aggravated Achilles was far-worsened leaving Hector. The first 40 miles had nearly 6000 feet of elevation gain, and I was struggling. The steep climbs were beyond ideal for my gearing, and I was forced to grind up them at 50-60 RPMs. This quickly took its toll with a tight Achilles rapidly becoming painful enough to prevent me from being able to pedal out of the saddle or even put much power to the pedals while seated. This was to plague me all the way home and beyond. In fact, I’m still dealing with it as I write this.
True to form and true to friendship, as was the case on many Trans Iowa training rides and during the race itself, Aaron fell back to check on me several times and even slowed his pace to ride along and chat. Additionally, as the terrain went downhill and flattened near Oark, he made sure to let me hold his wheel and have a break from the headwind that had been a constant companion for the past two days.
We made Oark with nearly an hour to spare, and I can say without a doubt the chili cheeseburger, curly fries, and cherry pie usurped the magically delicious moniker from Lucky Charms. I can only hope that buying Aaron’s dinner was somewhat of a repayment for his help that day.
Though we made Oark, we missed our next goal. After dinner, we held a fairly spirited pace to get to Turner Bend, a popular put-in/take-out spot on the Mulberry River, and their beer selection before they closed. We did not know their winter hours, but were optimistic they would be open until at least 6. Pulling in the parking lot at 5:35, some of the locals said we were five minutes late. One fellow, Big Al, joked with us about falling from the sky as we were anything but a common sight. His friend said he makes that joke a lot because he was actually former special forces and was in a helicopter that was shot down in Vietnam.
Dylan was getting a ride home from there so he could be to work the next day. We asked his ride to bring us beer, but by the time the beer arrived, the night air was too cold to want one.
Day 5: Over and Out
We had spent the night nearby the store so we could resupply in the morning. Bringing a 32 degree bag based on the lowest forecasted low of 29 I thought I was in good shape but might have to wear some extra clothes to bed. That night I wore them all. I felt massively cold overnight and questioned my usual affinity for cold weather. However, I felt more justified when we were told by those same locals the next morning that it had gotten to 10 degrees overnight.
Yes, the same guys from the night before were at the store as soon as it opened, and it didn’t take long to realize they are a standard feature. I know what we were doing in no way compares to what he had been through, but Big Al was so impressed we had spent the night there with as little gear as it seemed we were carrying that he bought us coffee. Another, the one jestingly in charge of “collecting the bridge tax from us,” instead paid us with some homemade deer jerky. Aaron and I warmed up with the coffee and breakfast burritos, and though a bit underdressed, or at least improperly dressed, we felt like one of the guys.
Rolling out saw Aaron and I part ways as he was heading to a mountain bike festival and my goal was home. After the big climbs of the morning were no longer providing me defense, my riding partner was a relentless 20 +MPH headwind all the way back to Fayetteville. Being a solo ride, I had plenty of time for reflection on the past four days. As I thought about them, even the increased pain of the Achilles couldn’t stop a smile. For I realized over these days great friendships had been made somehow even better, the parts of Arkansas that I thought before this were ‘not pretty’ really are, and I was massively thankful for an amazing wife that had let me play in the woods all week. I also realized that I’d gladly do this exact route again. So, who’s in for next time?