The Ouachita (wah-shi-tah) River runs through it: the largest mountain chain between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The gentle folds of the ancient Ouachita Mountains offer some of the best motorcycle roads in America. We’re based in a place that Native Americans called the Valley of the Vapors, so named because of the steam produced by thermal springs bubbling up at over 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m eager to see what we’ll discover during the next four days on our adventures from Bill Clinton’s hometown.
Loop 1: The Legend of Little John
Cool temperatures and an overcast sky greet us on Saturday morning as we depart Hot Springs to explore the meandering backroads that thread through Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains. Bruce is riding the red Kawasaki KLR, and I’m on my trusty orange KTM 990 Adventure. Our journey begins with a northern trajectory along Arkansas Scenic 7, which is probably the most famous touring road in the state. We follow writhing black tarmac up and over one ridge after another. After a suitable warm-up period on sweepers, though, Route 7’s curves become more intense. We’re leaning hard through a series of tight hairpins, rapidly climbing and descending ever-steeper elevation changes.
The two-wheeled fun continues on Route 27, which leads us into the Arkansas River Valley region. Mesa-like mountain ridges rise high above the expansive valley floor. Route 154 claws its way up Petit Jean Mountain, where we arrive in a land encompassed by an enduring 18th-century legend that originated when the French were exploring this area. Petit Jean State Park is dedicated to the remarkable journey and plight of a young Parisian girl. When Adrienne Dumont learned that her fiancé was leaving to explore the New World, she disguised herself as a cabin boy and sailed on the same ship as her betrothed. Her disguise was extraordinarily effective; she was dubbed Petit Jean (French for Little John) by the crew.
After arriving on this same mountaintop that we’re riding over today, she fell desperately ill, and her true identity was quickly discovered. She begged her fiancé for forgiveness and asked to be buried at a beautiful spot overlooking the river below. As darkness descended on the mountain, she passed away. Many years later, a mound of earth was found that was thought to be Petit Jean’s grave on the mountain named in her honor.
Standing atop a high bluff, not far from the grave of Petit Jean, we look out upon a windswept vista. The Arkansas River meanders close to the bottom of the mountain. The Ozark Mountains, which appear as ghostly silhouettes across the valley, add to the expansive view. It’s easy to understand the allure of this special vantage point in Petit Jean State Park. To the east, Route 154 cuts a majestic path across the verdant green valley; it beckons us to follow it, and we do.
We stop to refuel in Oppelo and encounter a man and his daughter in a vintage Chevy pickup parked on the roadside near us. “Junk Yard Dog Classics” is emblazoned on the vehicle’s door. Bruce strikes up a conversation with the cherub-faced man dressed in overalls. We learn his hobby is restoring vintage vehicles. He and his daughter are on their way to check out a Model A Ford as a possible future project. We wish them a pleasant afternoon and make our way south back to Hot Springs.