Common Tread

Riding the Ozarks: The return of the original midget

Nov 24, 2017

Every spring and fall, a small group of large friends takes a multi-day motorcycle ride in the Ozarks. I’m only an occasional participant; in the past I’ve often had time, but lacked a motorcycle that was simultaneously fast and reliable enough. A new-to-me air-cooled Ducati Multistrada solved the latter problem, but this year their “fall ride” conflicted with a big Montreal conference on Intelligent Traffic Systems, which is becoming my thing. So, when they called, I had to beg off again.

However, my friend Jim suggested that the two of us take an early and abbreviated version of the fall ride anyway. I’d get in a couple of days of good riding and he’d pre-run some of the roads the regular group would revisit at the end of the month.

“Great,” he said when I jumped at that chance, adding “I’ll call Aunt Grace and tell her I’m coming down with the original midget.”

That probably needs some explanation. The first time I accompanied those guys, we just followed our noses around northern Arkansas. We rode until late afternoon and then picked a suitable motel whenever we felt the need for a shower and a beer. That was how we discovered Aunt Grace’s Stay-N-Play Resort. The sign said “Vacancy” and the look said “affordable.”

Two of the Kansas City guys, Bill and Dave, entered the tiny office where Aunt Grace told them she had a room with three king-sized beds and a sofa that turned into a cot. One room for four; that’d nicely stretch the travel budget.

But, she eyed the two guys in the office, one about six feet, three inches, the other six feet, six inches, and spied a third tall one outside.

“You’ll have to to take two rooms,” she told my friends. “There’s no way any guy your size could sleep on that cot.”

“Don’t worry,” Bill said. “We’re traveling with a midget.”

He meant me. I easily fit on the pull-out sofa.

Although Aunt Grace’s place was not God’s gift to motels, it was clean and located within easy striking distance of some great roads. So they made a point of staying there the following spring. That time, it was the same three tall Kansas Citians and one Chicagoan, Tom, who is roughly my size.

“Oh,” Grace said when they arrived, “I see you’ve brought a different midget.”

Which, you have to admit, was a witty remark, on short notice.

Aunt Grace and Mark Gardiner
Aunt Grace herself and the author. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Since then, those guys have stayed at Grace’s place at least a dozen times. It’s gotten to the point where Grace gives them the keys to her own personal car when they check in so they can all drive to dinner.

Pre-running the fall ride: Ozark valley daredevils

Kansas City enjoyed a long, warm fall this year, but the morning Jim and I left it was in the 40s. One of my secrets to staying warm is a cold-weather cycling overall that I wear under my riding gear. I’ve had it ever since I spent a winter cycling 50 laps of the TT course on the Isle of Man. It’s snug but I can move in it; it’s got a breathable fleece back but a windproof front. As a bonus, there’s even a little sewn-in moleskine butt pad. (Not made from real moles; that would be cruel.)

Thus ensconced, I followed Jim south towards the Ozarks. That involved wasting the first tank of gas on relatively boring terrain between K.C. and Springfield, Missouri.

An orange engine warning light flashed at irregular intervals on the Multi’s dash. The bike felt fine, but I couldn’t help but imagine various worst-case scenarios. Eventually, I decided that even in the worst case I’d just get a ride back into K.C. on the back of Jim’s BMW, rent a truck, and retrieve the Duc. After a while, I talked myself into believing it was just a bad sensor.

Then, the light stopped coming on which might’ve meant that whatever the problem had been, it’d resolved itself. Or, the light had burnt out. Either way, I was relieved. Lesson: It was the light that bothered me, not the problem.

The first time the Ozarks ever crossed my mind, I was living in Calgary, listening to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, as in vinyl, sometime in the early 1970s. It was 30 years before I actually saw them. As in, mountains. On that first approach, I was baffled by the complete absence of any detectable mountains — or even hills — on the horizon.

The explanation: The Ozark Mountains are really the Ozark Valleys. A 47,000-square-mile limestone plateau that’s been eroded into network of valleys a thousand feet deep, criss-crossed by a thousand miles of fantastic motorcycle roads.

Ozarks map
A few of the choice roads in the Ozarks along the Missouri-Arkansas border provided a shortened version of the fall ride. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

It’s not undiscovered; I mean, there’s a festival in Eureka Springs called “Bikes, Blues, and BBQ” and “Bikers Welcome” signs are common. Even the local cops seem to realize that visiting motorcyclists pump a lot of money into the regional economy. But compared to clusterfucks like the Rock Store or Tail of the Dragon, the region’s conspicuously uncrowded.

The mountains you’re used to probably have pointy tops, eh? Well in the Ozarks, the highlands are what was left over as the plateau eroded and the valleys were cut. As a result, the highlands are the flat terrain where the farms are, along with driveways, tractor traffic, occasional loose livestock, and other reasons to keep things reasonable. Besides, you can’t carry any lean angle on most of those sweepers unless you’re cornering at 100 mph plus, and the cops may be accommodating but they’re not that accommodating.

The roads in the valley bottoms tend to be more serpentine; the ones that cross the valleys are the most technical of all. My friends use this rule: Double the speed on the warning signs and add five.

Following Jim, following that rule, resulted in lean angles that might’ve been just a hair shy of knee-dragging range — if we’d been on sport bikes and hanging right off. It was not the first time I’d followed him and wondered, “Does his brake light even work?” He seemed to adjust his speed on the throttle alone, and his body position was equally old school. By contrast I need to trail brake to initiate a proper turn, and hang off or at least weight the inside peg.

I suppose if I rode a BMW with a Tele-lever front end, I might change my style, but an equally plausible explanation for the apparent difference in our effort levels is that he’s just a better rider.

The good Ozark roads aren’t made of regular grey asphalt. For some reason (the admixture of local limestone?) the roads are a warm beige color that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else. There can’t be much frost that far south, either; they’re as smooth as the governor’s driveway.

We came upon a sign for Aunt Grace’s Stay-N-Play just around the time I was aware that riding at that pace took a significant effort. We checked in, in her tiny and crammed office. Grace told Jim a long story about how she and one of her other old-lady friends had just driven to the Yukon, to deliver a rebuilt transmission to her friend’s son, who’d broken down on the Alaska Highway.

Grace’s mom, who has to be pushing 90, heard Jim, poked her head out of the back room, and told us Grace still hadn’t cleaned her car after that trip.

“So you’d better take my car to dinner,” she said as she tossed my friend her keys.

We didn’t go far to eat; then we stopped and picked up a couple of tallboys at a gas station, and returned to the room tired and ready to watch the baseball playoffs and crash. Around 8 p.m., there was a knock on the door. It was Grace, with a paper plate of cookies — still warm — covered with a plastic shower cap.

Aunt Grace's Stay-N-Play
Jim loads the BMW as they prepare to leave Aunt Grace's Stay-N-Play. Oh, the boat? Arkansas lawn ornaments, you know. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Day two: Gas station encounters and a ferry ride

The next morning dawned damp and cool enough to prove the Multistrada’s cold-blooded reputation was well earned. It’s one of the first bikes I’ve ever actually owned that’s new enough that you just punch a button to start it, and it does the rest; no little tricks of this much choke and that much throttle. It took a few tries while deep inside it somewhere, a computer considered its options, and then came up with some combination of fuel, air, and spark advance that resulted in internal combustion.

As we were saddling up, an older couple came out. He walked with a cane.

“Is that a BMW? My son had one; he sold it. I’ve still got a Boulevard 1500 but…” he shook his cane, “I can’t ride any more.”

That’s another thing about traveling by motorcycle: You have all these little interactions with strangers. Partly, of course, because you tend to stop more often, but also because something about motorcycles invites conversation.

Once, as we were filling up, a woman came over and launched into a long story about how when she’d been an assistant pharmacist in Boston, she’d worked for an abusive boss who rode a black Ducati. That seemed like quite a leap into a topic for a complete stranger at a gas pump and I didn’t really want to engage, but since she wasn’t going away and I hadn’t finished topping off, I thought I should say something.

“Well,” I volunteered trying to sound non-committal, “not all Ducati riders are bastards.”

“Oh I know!” she said. “There was another pharmacist in that shop who loved her Ducati. She was a tango dancer, she was single. She was slim and had big boobs.”

“Well,” I said. Luckily the gas nozzle clunked off and I made a show of hanging it up, closing my gas cap, and pulling on my gloves. “We’d best be going.”

dew on the motorcycle
Dew on the Duc: a fall morning in Arkansas. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

“Since we’re coming to a fun part,” Jim said, “you can lead.”

By that point, I was very familiar with the pace he finds interesting, which was about as fast I was comfortable sight-riding an unfamiliar road.

A lot of the good Ozarks roads run through National Forest land, so there are few hidden driveways. Still, there’s wildlife to watch for, and sawmills mean you can meet a logging truck any time. For an hour or so, I tried to stay wide and wait until I could see an exit line before fully committing to any turn. I watched to ensure the “vanishing point” in curves was not getting closer to me (which would indicate a decreasing radius). I came to trust that Arkansas road builders had banked every tight bend, and learned that — perhaps because the Multistrada is long and tall — the front doesn’t love that moment of neutral throttle at mid corner. It’s a machine that wants you on the gas the moment you’re off the brakes.

ferry across Bull Shoals Lake
Jim relaxes during the free and uncrowded ferry ride across Bull Shoals Lake. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Our route back towards K.C. took us across Bull Shoals Lake by ferry — no charge, courtesy of the Arkansas highway department. Then we were in Missouri again, back on grey asphalt, and while the road was just as good, I rolled off a little knowing the cops wouldn’t cut us any “tourist” slack with our in-state plates.

We rode north past signs advertising taxidermists, gun shops, and walnut hulling; past a Mahindra tractor; past an Amish guy driving a horse-drawn buggy towing a trailer loaded with two kayaks. I noticed the first traces of fall color and the first few falling leaves.

When my friends returned for their proper fall ride, there was more color. Sadly, they had to bring the replacement midget. But, two days’ riding’s better than none.