Eastern Arkansas

Eastern Arkansas
The light slanting through the slit in the blackout curtains seems to indicate the day has dawned bright and sunny. Slowly, like a tortoise, my dream-fogged head extrudes from the dark shell of the motel room at the door and swivels in the outside world. Yes, it's a beautiful morning to begin a tour. A familiar grin tugs on the corners of my mouth and suddenly I'm ready for that first cup of bad coffee.

Don't get me wrong  -  I love a good cup of joe. But there's just something about a watery, cardboard, lifeless splash of tannic swill that lets you know you're really on the road. Teaming up with the first breeze of fresh morning air, I'm ready to move on, to a better cup of coffee if nothing else. The "free" coffee at the same Interstate-accessible stack-o-racks that welcomed this weary traveler last night is shooing me away today. I know Little Rock has good brew somewhere, but the need to explore has me defying Captain Caffeine's orders to discover a proper mug. In this southern town, said mug found too often would then lead me on to biscuits, gravy, sausage, and eggs, and I certainly don't have time for a nap just yet.

Thrice the Rice

Gold Wing gassed and ready to roll, I bid the Arkansas capital adieu and watch the city fade into the horizon in the rearview. There's nothing wrong with cities, but I always find when riding that they look much better going than coming, unless it's late and I'm looking for a room. I race with the warm morning breeze, heading east across long straight country roads into the agricultural heart of the Natural State. The eastern Arkansas Delta region is nearly tabletop flat and the Wing easily gobbles the miles of Route 38 toward Des Arc.

The size of the fields is nearly incomprehensible. The distant tractors are small, slow-moving points trailing expanding, windblown billows of dust. The big diesels break and furrow the rich alluvial soil deposited over millions of years by the flooding of the Mississippi River and its many tributaries. It's a deep, ancient sediment that nourished thriving communities long before the first European explorer, Hernando De Soto, arrived in 1541.

Future rice paddies await spring flooding.

Over my years of traveling throughout the countryside, I've developed a pretty decent sense of which crops are which. Around these parts though, I find myself a bit confused about what these farmers are up to. It's spring and the planting hasn't been done yet, so I'm left to deduce the intended harvest by the way the fields are being prepared. These huge, flat fields are crisscrossed with serpentine, knee-high lines of soil, and despite the seemingly random placement of these graceful earthworks, there seems to be a method to the madness. After miles of curious musings, my amateur agrarian sleuthing finally puts two and two together when permanent water pumps become part of the mix. These super-sized spigots are obviously designed to flood the areas contained within these alluvial levees creating  -  rice paddies. Okay, maybe those signs for the Arkansas rice farmers cooperatives helped a little, but I figured it out, by golly. I later read that Arkansas is the nation's leading rice-producing state, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the total U.S. crop. So, if you ever learn you have a long lost Uncle Ben in Arkansas, be nice to him.

My eastern trek turns in a northwesterly direction in Des Arc with a left on Route 11. Although the roads are still long and straight, there seems to be a bit of a change afoot as I near Searcy. The flat expanses slowly begin to give way to rolling hills. The Delta scenery isn't bad, but miles and miles of flat fields do become a bit tame after a while. The sheer size of the farms and the amount of food they must produce is amazing, but to roving motorcyclists  -  well, we find more inspiration when plowing through the curves and swoops.

"Show me the Mizzou."

It's nearing lunchtime as I approach Batesville. My golf nut dad claims he can "smell" driving ranges when he's on the road. I know the feeling, but with me it's barbecue joints, and I have a hunch I'm not too far from one about the time my belly puts my eyes and nose on alert. I pass by the Batesville Speedway, a 3/8-mile dirt track that has to be one of Batesville native and NASCAR star Mark Martin's former haunts. If there's a racetrack, there's got to be some good "bad for you" food nearby. Sure enough, not too far up the road, I find just the spot. Dad's sixth sense nets him a bucket of golf balls, mine a plate of tender pork. I leave it to you: Whose mutant power would you rather have?

Back on the road and reenergized, I guide the Wing in the direction of Batesville proper and shoot the short but steep and curvy descent into the White River Valley. Here, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, there are plenty of places to find a bite, and a room shouldn't be a problem either. The historic downtown of Batesville drips with southern ambiance and looks like it would be fun to explore. Unfortunately, an ominous and suddenly cool breeze riding in on some low slate-colored clouds decides it in favor of a quick getaway. Thankfully, the ugly skies are more rumble than rain and I'm able to make it to Pocahontas with only a few drops on the windshield to show for it. As I'm checking in at the Days Inn, I can't help but think how nice it would be if they had…"a hot tub down by the pool," the medium moonlighting as a desk clerk informs me. She can uncouple my train of thought any time. Ah, the benefits of coming in off the road a bit early  -  there's plenty of time to have a soak and watch the clouds roll in.