My biking buddy Nathan Gibson and I have typically taken at least 2 multi-day bike trips annually for the past 5 years. Our most notable trip was in 2015, a 3 week/3,000 mile adventure trip to the Sturgis bike rally in South Dakota.
This spring, Nathan suggested we ride to Branson, Missouri. Given the old saying “it’s the journey, not the destination”, I was immediately on board with his choice.
Our trip to Branson would be a 2 day ride, first to Paris, Texas, then to Eureka Springs, Arkansas (just an hour from Branson):
Thus it was, in mid May, 2019, to find us launching off at daybreak from Nathan’s house for our trip North. The initial route was to be a familiar one to us: Highway 79 from Roundrock all the way to Palestine then beyond. This route has to be near the top of the list of pleasant north-south highways in Texas.. minimal traffic; generally high speed limits, and beautiful green countryside all along the way. We passed a score of lookalike settlements, with names like Thorndale, Rockdale, Hearne, and Franklin; each sadly in a state of deterioration, and each clearly on the way to oblivion within the next few decades.
This year, the month of May earned the award for best Texas climate and most beautiful scenery ever. We rode past one beautiful farm and ranch after another, each with pastures carefully manicured and vibrantly green. It is calving season, and it was pleasant to see so many mama cows and their young calves, luxuriating in the green grass and enjoying the sunshine. It is actually a bit sad thinking that mama and her calf are assuming a long and idyllic life on the ranch, unaware that in a few short months, they will be loaded up and on to the execution chambers. I suppose one could argue that these field-raised cattle will enjoy a much better (albeit short) life than their feedlot counterparts, who will spend their entire lives standing in a muddy, crowded enclosure.
Still, I can’t help but wonder just how much beef sales and consumption would decrease if one of these pastoral images of mother cow and calf standing in a beautiful meadow, was posted on the wall of the meat counter. Or, if we actually labeled the “product”: “ground cow” rather than ground beef?
Our first night’s destination was to be one of the most egregiously misnamed cities in Texas.. “Paris”. I am here to tell you that there is absolutely nothing about this city that could ever remotely resemble the “real” Paris! In fact, I’d venture that, save for the existence of the Paris Junior College, the whole town might very well have disappeared long ago.
Nevertheless, we were in Paris for the afternoon and evening, and so we deemed it imperative that we pay homage to the one landmark that defines the city. It seems that the city fathers, back in the decade prior to the turn of the (this) century, cooked up a plan to create a tribute to the most iconic structure in Paris, France.. the Eiffel Tower, of course. We had done a bit of homework prior to our arrival, and were already aware of the existence of this “duplicate”. From online photos, it was very clear that Eiffel Tower #2 would be just a shadow of the original. However, as they say, “pictures don’t do it justice”. In this case, the online photos, presented without adequate perspective, don’t begin to depict just how diminutive this “clone” is.
It is not my intent to cast aspersion on the noble efforts of the good townspeople of Paris, but, upon my first in-person sighting of the actual “thing”, three words immediately came to mind: “underwhelming”, “embarrassing”, and “insulting”. Honestly, I have seen ranching windmill towers taller than this!
To make matters worse, the designers of this exercise-in-poor-taste inexplicably decided to top the entire affair with a giant Texas-style 10 gallon hat… WTF? Perhaps they were concerned that without that differentiating feature, lost travelers might think they had taken a wrong turn and had actually wound up in France?
Further research reveals that the town was named, not after the surname of some local rancher, but, yes, after its “sister” city on the Seine. Due credit must be given though, to the fact that Paris (Texas) was one of just a handful of Texas counties to vote against secession at the start of the civil war.
But wait, there’s more! The tower is located immediately adjacent to what should rightfully be the town’s true claim to fame (yet deceitfully cropped from most of the online photos, including my own) .. a large and tastefully executed memorial to veterans of various wars. It is honestly one of the nicest such memorials I’ve seen (and I’m NOT a big fan of memorials), with separate sections for each of the major wars, including Vietnam, Korea, and even Iran/Afghanistan. What an effrontery the “Eiffel Tower” is to that solemn display! To me, such juxtaposition would be tantamount to placing a carnival ride next to a funeral home. Go figure!
Paris behind us, Nathan and I turned our attention to the upcoming task at hand.. namely, outwitting the daunting weather that had been forecast for the following day, when we were scheduled to ride to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Both of us had other weekend commitments, so had agreed to limit our trip to 5 days, thereby literally insuring that each day of the trip would need to be a riding day. Problem was, the forecast was as discouraging as could possibly be. Rain, thunderstorms, high winds, and even tornadoes were on the docket right along our planned route up until very late afternoon.
But, hope springs eternal, and after a late night pow-wow while referring to current weather and radar, we collectively agreed that a daybreak launch might give us the best chance for a successful mission.
Our experience on that soggy day was the genesis for the title of this blog, fulfilling the prophesy of “Twas the Worst of Times”, a day that we both agreed topped our personal best category for worst riding day in our collective experiences.
Initially the following morning began with rain-less, but seriously overcast skies in Paris. As planned, we saddled up and hit the road just as the sky started to lighten, with optimistic visions of a 12 noon or earlier arrival to Eureka Springs. All went well until shortly after the first hour of the trip, when we encountered the first wave of rain… light at first, but rapidly increasing in intensity. We were clearly riding right into the core of the storm. Finally, in desperation, we spotted an exit from the toll road and scooted into an abandoned gas station we spotted.
It wasn’t 5 minutes after we got the bikes situated underneath the small station canopy that machine-gun thunder commenced, accompanied by an incredible downpour. Within an instant, the streets and drains were flooded and overflowing. We abandoned the bikes under the canopy, and made an unprotected mad dash for a nearby local cafe/breakfast joint.
By the time we made it to the door, both Nathan and I looked like a couple of wet, plucked chickens. As we walked in the eatery, a fine establishment clearly catering to a “local” clientele, all conversation inside stopped, and all eyes were on these two drenched old codgers. Later I told Nathan if we had been a couple of zebras we wouldn’t have garnered any more (unwanted) attention.
The bright spot of this unplanned delay was the outstanding breakfast we both enjoyed. When the waitress delivered Nathan’s order of eggs with a “side” of ham, we had a discussion as to whether he had received the left or right “side” of the pig, as the huge hunk of pork literally obscured his plate!
While on the subject of food, it is said that an army travels on its stomach. I can state categorically that THIS army traveled well throughout our week, scoring 5 star meals almost exclusively throughout our trip. Memorable highlights would have to include the following-day breakfast at “Oscar’s” in Eureka Springs, an outstanding Indian meal in Branson, then last but not least, our return to Mecca at Sylvia Mae’s Soul Food in Jacksonville (much, much more about that later!)
I will spare the reader all the details of our further weather-related travails except to say that the day, originally slated to end at our destination near noon time, required THREE frantic emergency stops to seek shelter and hunker down for periods of an hour or more; a major reroute to skirt the storm band which was moving in waves; and a narrow brush with a tornado which touched down just 10 miles behind our own path..resulting in the delay of our final arrival to Eureka Springs until 5:30 PM that evening (As Nathan’s sweetheart, Susie quipped, “It’s not the journey, it’s the destination”)
Ironically, by the time we finally rolled in to our lovely cottage near the center of town, the sky had cleared and we were welcomed with blue skies, sunshine, and a perfect evening temperature.
That we made our destination at all on that day was most definitely thanks to Nathan. It seems that with his years of managerial experience, Nathan is uniquely equipped to see both the forest AND the trees, in stark contrast to my own persona, whereby when once I’m settled in on a plan, I tend to put on the blinders and forge dead ahead regardless of external circumstances.
Upon assessing the likely unpleasantness of the day, Nathan had reviewed my carefully planned back road route to Eureka, then tactfully suggested that we skirt the ominous, eastward moving front of rain, thunderstorms and lightning by detouring to the west then straight north until we were almost parallel to Eureka Springs, then straight east to the destination. It turned out to the exact perfect plan, without which we might have well spent that evening in a pup tent alongside the road!
Eureka Springs, AR
Our original plan was to ride direct (via back roads) to Branson from Austin, but as I was reviewing the route, I noted that we could arrive at the end of the 2nd day at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and then be just an hour away from Branson the following morning. Neither of us had any idea of what to expect of either Eureka Springs or Branson, but some brief online searches showed Eureka to be an interesting and popular destination, so that stop was put on the itinerary. So glad we did! This lovely village of less than 2,000 inhabitants has to rival the most picturesque spots on the planet!
Our own lodging, the Sherwood Court, turned out to be perfect for bikers. A collection of some 10-12 ground-level “apartments” and individual casitas allowed for parking our bikes right at our doorstep. The onsite owner/manager Patrick, even provides a complete cleaning kit in each room (towels, rags, and spray cleaner) expressly for the purpose of sprucing your bike after long hard days on the road. The Indian was looking pretty sad after our previous day’s water-boarding, and appreciated the special attention!
We were just blocks away from central downtown, which boasted way more interesting restaurants than a settlement of this size deserves, and we took ample advantage of two, “Local Flavor” for dinner, and Oscar’s for the following morning breakfast, both of which offered outstanding fare.
We were so enthralled with this little magical jewel in the mountains that we decided to alter our original plan of leaving the next morning for Branson. Instead, expecting (rightfully so) that Branson would prove to be just one giant theme park, we opted to spend the day in Eureka and delay our arrival to Branson for late afternoon. It turned out to be a great call.
Our mutual biker friend, David Shiflett (in absentia for this trip) is an architect, and naturally a student and fan of great architectural edifices. Via texts, when David learned we were in Eureka Springs, he insisted that we take the time to visit a beautiful place on the outskirts of town called the Thorncrown Chapel. Seeing this place nestled in among the trees was truly an awesome adventure, and one of the highlights of my own trip. Pictures don’t do the chapel justice.. it is really something to experience in person. All four walls (and much of the ceiling) of the chapel are virtually all glass, and it was interesting to note that every single piece of glass was spotlessly clean, to the extent that there was the feeling one was sitting outside, in the middle of nature!
We also opted to take a ride on the local “trolley” which stops at a number of interesting locations around town. The vehicles used are modern, but finished inside with period, gleaming brass fixtures and mahogany woodwork.
One trolley stop was the historic Crescent Hotel, which, of course, required us to loll around in the top floor bar until the next trolley came by.
Finally, in late afternoon, we saddled up and hit the road for the one hour ride to Branson. This day, in stark contrast with the previous, welcomed us with pristine blue skies, a perfect riding temperature, and a winding, biker-perfect route through some beautiful Northern Arkansas countryside. In fact, we both agreed that this day “Twas the Best of Times” in stark contrast to our trials of the previous day.
We rolled into Branson around 4:00 in the afternoon. The “city” itself is in a beautiful geographical location, surrounding by semi-mountainous wooded terrain and many lakes. Our predetermined impression that Branson would prove to be just one huge amusement park remained unchallenged as we wheeled into town. Every imaginable diversion is to be found on the main drag: ferris wheels and other carnival rides, roller coasters, go kart tracks, “skydiving” facilities, chain eateries, and most prevalent, a plethora of “theaters” boasting nightly revues, primarily of a country-western, religious and/or patriotic theme. We could understand how this place might offer attraction for a family-style vacation, where parents can turn their little rugrats loose to their hearts content.
But there was little of interest to be found for us old codgers. Not even the Andy Williams Moon River theater piqued our interest, especially since A.W. himself, supposedly a Branson resident in his later years, finally gave up the ghost in 2012.
After a quick survey of the “offerings”, we opted to forego all the exciting activities that Branson had to offer in favor of a brisk early evening walk from our hotel to a nearby Indian Food restaurant (which turned out to be excellent).
At dinner we began planning our next day. It seemed that the only fitting action for Branson was to arrive late and leave early (It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, remember?)
We had two days left to get back to Austin. In my infinite pre-trip wisdom, I had laid out picturesque, off-freeway routes, as we typically prefer. The only problem was, following these much slower and greater distance routes was going to result in a pair of 8-9 hour days of riding, a duration that was sure to test our battle-weary and road-seasoned butts. The originally planned next day’s destination was to be Shreveport, LA, a city that both Nathan and I had previously experienced, and one we collectively agreed was likely the armpit of the south.
Nathan’s legendary “Forest AND Trees” vision came to the rescue once again, as he suggested that a more direct, albeit freeway-centric route, would serve to cut hours off our riding times for both of the last two days. With that new vision, we were able to concoct an alternate route that would completely bypass Shreveport (sigh of relief) and simultaneously get us much closer to our Austin destination in less time. Riding in freeway traffic is never our first choice, but sometimes you have to compromise in order to make the best of a situation.
In our case, we realized that our change of plans was going to allow us to spend the night in Jacksonville, Texas, a little burg just north of Palestine where we had previously had a pleasant experience.
You know you’re back in Texas when 2-lane, unrestricted roadways sport a speed limit of 75 mph. That’s right, just blast right through those traffic signal intersections as though you were going to the moon! And that’s exactly what we encountered all along our route from the Texas border at Texarkana to Jacksonville, encouraging our bikes to quickly eat up the miles in between. Interestingly, on this and previous trips, I have employed the Indian’s onboard trip computer to learn that fuel consumption of around 43-44 mpg at 55 mph, rapidly deteriorates to a dismal 36 mpg at 75 mph. I can almost use my fuel consumption display as a speedometer!
Some 2 years ago, Nathan had read an article in a Texas magazine about a popular soul food joint in Jacksonville named “Sylvia Mae’s Soul Food”. He mustered a small band of agreeable bikers to make the 7 hour round trip ride to sample some of that soul food. Afterwards, I do believe that everyone in our little group would agree the food was worth every mile expended to get there!
As soon as we realized that Jacksonville could easily be within our day’s range, we both knew it would be sacrilegious to pass anywhere near this city without stopping in for another helping of Sylvia Mae’s goodies. Passing this up would be as disgraceful to going to Rome and not visiting the Vatican!
No doubt the reader has experienced a fine meal at some establishment, then returned to that same place at a later date with visions of that first meal, only to find the mind had exaggerated that first experience, leaving the second trip a disappointment. To be honest, I somewhat expected that our second visit might not measure up to the first. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and both Nathan and I agreed that our second Sylvia Mae experience literally exceeded both our expectations!
I won’t begin to try to describe just how delicious this food is, because only one’s taste buds can be the true arbiter. One could visit Sylvia Mae’s website, (http://www.sylviamaessoulfood.com/) but honestly, the photos there just can’t possibly do justice to the food. In fact, I decided that next time I come (and there WILL be a next time!), I am just going to order sides only, possibly the same ones I had on this occasion: fried cabbage (in butter with bacon), mac cheese, and cornbread cakes. um um.
Sylvia Mae herself was in residence, in fact, it appeared that the entire staff of this tiny place consisted of Sylvia herself and one waitress, with S.M. both holding court in the dining room AND apparently fulfilling the position of sole cook in the kitchen. Surprisingly, she did recognize both of us from our previous trip, and we had some great conversations about food, religion, and life in general.
Ah, life is sweet in a small town!
Thanks to our revised routing, our overnight in Jacksonville put us in range of home for a short half day ride. We departed at a leisurely time (compared to ALL the previous days) enjoyed a rain free trip back down highway 79, and then reluctantly parted ways as we got within the Austin metro area, each going our separate ways and arriving home shortly after mid-day, safe and sound, dry, and with more fond traveling memories in the bank!
As has always been the case, both our bikes (Nathan’s Harley, and my Indian ) performed flawlessly and without issue. Both bikes represent that rare commodity.. machinery actually built here in the good old USA! As far as I know, these are the only two brands now manufactured here, and it is a good feeling knowing we are contributing to the US economy (wonder what Trump has contributed.. the crappy neckties he buys from China?)
My own bike, a 2014 Indian Chief Vintage, is, in my opinion, the state of the art for road-going traveling bikes. Equipped like a modern car, with fuel injected engine, ABS braking, with massive hydraulic brakes, cruise control, keyless ignition (wireless pocket fob), and intelligent, self canceling turn signals. It is amazing that Polaris, the parent company of the brand, has been able to design a 900 pound behemoth to respond to such a light touch on the road. A mere nudge on either handlebar when underway is sufficient to to guide the beast on the right path. Of course, maneuvering in the parking lot is always an exercise in anxiety, and somewhat akin to moving a refrigerator with a hand truck!
Although I do frequently enjoy the solitude of solo trekking on my bike, and do try to get in one or two annual trips on my own, there is nothing better than the camaraderie of a good buddy of like mind on the road. Nathan is a perfect riding mate.. always agreeable, always eager to bear his share (or more) of the expenses, a safe and conservative rider who enjoys the same aspects of travel as I do.
For a different perspective of our trip, you can CLICK HERE for a Nathan’s decidedly more humorous account.