Story and photos by Ron Keys
The engine screams in protest as its compression tries to hold us back. Taking a firm grip on the handlebars, Tina pushing forward against my back, we descend from Howell Avenue’s heights at what feels like a 45-degree grade. In the village below, we wind slowly along the valley floor, our heads swivelling left and right, taking in all the temptations in the quaint little shop windows of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. At the Mud Street Cafe over breakfast, our wives, Tina and Marie, announce that all of these shopping temptations have proven too much for them. They simply must take a day off to explore the myriad treasures they might find hidden on dusty shelves in the back rooms of shops with unique names like “Another Thyme,” or “All That Glitters,” or “Delphia Dreams.” What in the world can two guys do with two bikes, a free day, and no passengers? I cast a furtive glance at Hank, who was trying to look like we would be lost without our wives, and attempting to look downcast I ask, “What time do we have to be back?” Arkansas, wild and beautiful, awaits us, and we can’t wait for breakfast to end.
As a child and a prodigious bookworm, I thought Arkansas was pronounced like Kansas, with an R in front of it. When French explorers Marquette and Jolliet arrived here in 1673, the name was Akansea and later Acansa. Although the name is of native origin, it was pronounced with a French influence. In 1881, the General Assembly voted and the name became Arkansas, pronounced ar-kan-saw. Sharing borders with six other states, Arkansas became part of the United States via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. And now, it is all ours for the day.
Leaving town on AR 62, we emerge from Eureka Springs’ canyon of springs to be surrounded by open fields of newly baled hay. At Berryville, we turn right onto AR 21 and carve our way through beautiful, sweeping curves. The towns of Cabanal, Metalton, Rudd and Kingston come and go as we head southward, rolling on to Boxley on the banks of the Buffalo River, America’s first national river.
In the 1960s, two groups established themselves; one group wanted to dam the Buffalo River for hydroelectric power, and the other wanted to save the river in its pristine glory. The political battle raged for a decade or more, but on March 1, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon declared it a national river, thereby preserving it in all its natural beauty. Two state parks, Buffalo River State Park and Lost Valley State Park, encompass much of the valley surrounding the river.
A gentle curve to the right, followed by a tight downhill left-hander, take us to the intersection of AR 21 and AR 43. Across the valley and just out of sight beyond a line of trees and against a mountain backdrop flows the Buffalo River, where we stop for a break. The silence is all encompassing as we take a walk around an old, abandoned house. A yellow and black warning sign with a bullet hole in it tells us of a frustrated hunter, and that elk may be present.
In 1933, the U.S. Forest Service unsuccessfully introduced elk to Franklin County’s Black Mountain, but within a few years, the elk declined and were gone again. Another try in 1981 proved successful, and the herd prospered. It’s rare to see elk during the hot months in the low areas. They usually stay high in the mountains from April to October, but can be seen regularly at lower elevations during the colder months.
A few miles on and we come to Ponca, where we ride along the north side of Buffalo Mountain. We follow AR 43 to Hwy 206 into Bellefonte and meet up with AR 65, where we head south to catch the part of the incredible Hwy 123 that we missed on a previous ride. After riding the southern part of AR 123 – the Arkansas Dragon – a few days ago, I’m looking forward to riding the northern segment today. A right turn off of US 65 at Western Grove puts us on AR 123, and although not as demanding as the southern part, its many sweeping curves keep our interest level high. Riding through Yardelle and Hasty, we hit the mountains again, and the bends in the road become more technical and frequent. I marvel at how radially symmetric the corners are. I have yet to enter any sphincter-contracting, decreasing radius corners. Running in wide, scrubbing off speed, and sweeping into the apex, with my knee brushing against the roadside weeds, I sweep outward again. I roll on the throttle, and as acceleration brothers up with centrifugal force, it brings me back to the centre line again. This is pure, adrenalin-rushing fun! And as a bonus, we have not seen the long arm of the law since we started this morning…