I'm 38 years old and I've only been west of the Mississippi River by air. Today, that all changes. As the miles tick down to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the anticipation is beginning to grow. If I'm going to tour Missouri, I have to complete a pilgrimage. I have to cross a watercourse of such great physical and metaphorical power that its mere existence has inspired millions - and me - to wander free.
Let the Journey Begin
A slew of passages from Mark Twain had a lot to do with that. And just as one of my childhood heroes, Huck Finn, set off on a raft to find adventure along the Mississippi, I too am set to begin a journey on its banks. My sturdier "raft" is a Kawasaki Concours, and the currents to draw me along are the twists and turns of Missouri back roads. Morning comes and the time arrives.
Awaking to a bright, beautiful day, the weather uncharacteristically cool, I shove my "raft" from the riverbank. The tides of Cape Girardeau's rush hour quickly take me, but providentially I am flying against the flow and heading west out of town. Soon the traffic fades and I find myself unfettered in peaceful countryside.
This region of Missouri seems to go from cityscape to country space in no time. In a matter of minutes, vehicles vanish in droves and the roads are all but vacant. The sure-footed and reliable Concours is a nice choice for this trip. The roads are smooth and clean with the grass growing right up to the pavement's edge. There are curves, but they are mostly of the sweeping variety. It's easy to build up a good head of steam here, so be careful.
Right off the bat, there's something I'm not used to, lettered route names. Route ZZ to Route F to Route U seems odd to someone used to the more traditional numbered system. Nonetheless, these are some of the best-marked roads I have ever seen. Most of the lettered routes are the secondary roads. If you like solitude, shoot for these. The lettered roads off of Route 34 are so barren they begin to take on a sort of eeriness reminiscent of a Stephen King story. Honestly, I went for 20- and 30-minute stretches without coming upon a car in either direction. While the desolation of the surroundings may seem creepy, the people certainly aren't. Practically every time I stopped to take photos, the drivers who came along were concerned that I was alone and checked to make sure I was okay.
Winding west on Routes 143, 21, and 106 there are a few small towns, but generally this is open country. Cattle farms give way to open fields and patches of woods. The rivers and streams are crystal clear; and their gravel banks and easy access from the road seem to beckon a certain rider to stop and wade on in. I fight the urge and press on toward the former frontier town of Eminence, which bills itself as "The Heart of the Ozarks." Looking around town it's easy to see why. While not a big town, just about anything a visitor to the region could want is here. Canoeing, horseback riding, fishing and camping are all activities catered to in Eminence, and there are several restaurants and small motels here for the famished, weary traveler.
Rolling south on Route 19, the real roller coaster ride begins. The terrain is rolling hills and the road goes right over them, arrow-straight for miles - up and down and up and down and up and down...it's almost hypnotic, and kind of like Deal's Gap except that it's vertical. The sun is beginning to wane as is my desire to continue riding. The roller coaster has leveled out on Route 17 and a room waits in West Plains.
Springfield; The Big City
Wednesday dawns and again promises another beautiful day. Typical Missouri, head away from town, blink, and you're out in the country with the road to yourself. Route K out of West Plains is a peaceful ride as is Route 181 toward Cabool. Turning south on Route 95, I stop and picnic at a quiet rest area. It's there that I begin to notice some high clouds bearing the weight of things to come.
The ride on down Route 95 is very relaxing and enjoyable. The near absence of traffic is still almost unbelievable. These are not the classic 'motorcycle roads' full of twisting turns and peg-dragging drama, yet the peacefulness and solitude bring an enjoyment that is, in its own way, a great riding experience. You can let the machine settle into its own rhythm and dictate pace.