Arkansas’s 19th-century western border bumped up against what was then Indian Territory. Although the Native American tribes enforced their own laws, the territory had become a haven for outlaws seeking refuge from American justice. The borderlands between Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma have a colorful history and some of the 21st century’s best motorcycle touring roads. Over the next five days, we’ll gallop over these borderlands on our steel ponies to discover what tales they have to tell.
Ozarks to Indian Territory
It’s Sunday morning in the Victorian-era town of Eureka Springs, AR, which resides deep in the shadowy folds of the Ozark Mountains. We saddle up for our long ride: Jeff Armitage mounts his red Kawasaki KLR and quickly gets it a-thumping, while I tickle the starter button on my orange KTM Adventure; it answers immediately with the big twin’s authoritative staccato beat. Then we’re off on a cool, clear fall day with many miles of adventure waiting down the road and around a few hundred curves.
We motor single file across the one-lane, arch-type bridge known locally as the Little Golden Gate of Arkansas. It lifts us up and over the White River, which is flowing down to the first in a daisy chain of Ozark recreational reservoirs in Arkansas and Missouri. Arriving in Beaver, AR, on the other side (population approximately 100), we pause to appreciate the tranquil river setting, punctuated by the graceful arcs of a lone fly-fisherman repeatedly casting his line.
Climbing out of the Ozarks’ rugged Boston Mountains area, we arrive on the Springfield Plateau in southwestern Missouri. Route 90 takes us on a thrill ride across rolling hills. One minute we’re racing a rushing stream, and the next we’re threading through a narrow valley. Now it’s up, up, a steep incline. We crest the hilltop and a previously unseen series of sharp curves demands an immediate hard lean left and then right—yeehaw!
Route 90 finally spits us out in the Christmas town of Noel, MO. Substantial sedimentary layers of limestone rock overhang the route along the Elk River. We soon cross the border into what was formerly Indian Territory but has been the state of Oklahoma since 1907. After riding over and around gorgeous Grand Lake, we end the day in West Siloam Springs, where the rustic-looking Cherokee Casino offers us an all-you-can-eat buffet at an attractive price. We promptly trade some paper money for food, but forgo the gambling.
The Trail of Tears & Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas
Morning sunshine promises another beautiful day of touring in these borderlands. Oklahoma Route 10-scenic follows a gently sinuous path through Oklahoma’s Ozark foothills. After some distance, the heavily forested terrain opens up into a distinctly defined valley with the Illinois River. Towering bluffs with lush foliage line the road’s edge on our right. Dappled sunlight through the trees caresses the road ahead.
The byway deposits us in Tahlequah, OK, which is the capital of the 285,000-member Cherokee Nation. The tribe’s business operations include gaming establishments, horse racing parks, hotels, golf courses, and various other retail stores that are said to contribute more than billion to the local economy. But the Cherokee’s arrival in Indian Territory in the early 1800s was not voluntary.
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KTM 990 Adventure
After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Cherokee and several other tribes were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast. Many of them died from disease, starvation, and exposure on the forced march along what came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.” It’s said that, even today, bills are not accepted or dispensed in some Indian casinos, because Jackson’s face appears on them.
Crossing back over the border into Arkansas, we spur our steeds south to Fort Smith, where the National Historic Site has the remains of two frontier forts (hence the historic “Little Gibraltar” nickname) and a section of the Trail of Tears along the Arkansas River. This site, however, is perhaps best known for the period during the late 19th century when it hosted the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas. This court had jurisdiction over the murderous outlaws hiding out in Indian Territory.
Isaac Parker, portrayed as the merciless “hanging judge” in such films as Hang ’Em High and True Grit, presided over this court between 1875 and 1896. Reconstructed gallows, like the ones originally built on the courthouse grounds, demonstrate that up to six executions could be held simultaneously. And this is precisely the number that were executed on September 3, 1875, the first batch of death sentences carried out of the 160 handed down during Parker’s time on the bench.