Johnny Cash was born here, Arkansas loves bikers, and Best Western wants to cozy up with Harley-Davidson. These are just some of the things I learned riding through the Ozarks last month.
It was the first time I’d turned a wheel through the Natural State, but you have to be a cave dweller not to know this place is lousy with great motorcycle roads. That’s mainly because Arkansas’ marketing-savvy tourism bureau has left no route unturned in its mission to pitch motorcycle touring to outsiders. Neighboring Tennessee might have more actual miles of scenic twisties, but Arkansas prints a whole pamphlet on the subject every few years. I have a stack of brochures to prove it.
Not only that, but the entire population is in on the effort. If you’re a biker, it seems Arkansas wants you to feel damn good about it. Heading west across the state—whether it was a depressed town or a bustling village—we’d see teenagers and businessmen alike giving us the thumbs up as we rode by, I guess to make sure we were really whooping up our two-wheel status in life.
Hell, even a state trooper who’d pulled a speeder over on the opposite shoulder of Interstate 40 made sure we all got a hearty wave.
Protect and serve, you know.
A bunch of us media types had come to Arkansas to tour the state on Harley-Davidsons while getting a crash course on Rider-Friendly Best Western properties. The two companies are co-promoting a partnership that includes a loyalty program for riders (you don’t have to be a Harley owner but it helps) and bonus rider amenities at some locations. The itinerary would be simple; we’d ride west from Memphis, Tennessee to Little Rock, Arkansas, leapfrogging between Best Westerns while sampling the best of the state. Sounded good to me.
We had decided to start our trip from the eastern border of Arkansas, which is defined by the mighty and really muddy Mississippi River. Just across the river lies Memphis, which not only has a sizeable airport, but is home to Bumpus Harley-Davidson, where we’d be renting our bikes.
Memphis, of course, is also the Home of the Blues, and it’s where Beale Street sits. Dozens of makeshift bars scattered among the music clubs down Memphis’s most famous thoroughfare are more than willing to ply you with a stiff drink—legally. Beale Street tosses blues cats, buskers, beggars and frat boys together along the sweaty asphalt, and washes them all with rich neon signage and soulful blues rhythms.
We convene for dinner at Blues City Café, and the menu’s pretty much what you’d expect from a tourist joint in this part of town: giant plates of catfish, cornbread, black-eyed peas and fried chicken waft through the place. Bellies full, we shuffle out into the bustling stretch of Beale closed off to street traffic. Gravelly-voiced buskers, pockets stuffed with harmonicas, approach, imploring us to come inside and see the show.
This supremely relaxed neighborhood block party was a hard place to tear oneself away from.
The humidity hangs heavy in these southern climes, and most t-shirts are soaked through after 20 minutes... "
The actual ride though, starts the next day at Bumpus Harley-Davidson where our group convenes to pick out bikes for our multiday swing through the Ozarks. After scribbling through the rental agreement, I snag a 2012 Street Glide, situate my gear and take my place behind Ron Pohl, a Best Western VP along for the ride.
The Home of Elvis ain’t exactly known for its great roads and lack of traffic, so we beat feet out of Memphis as fast as we can, crossing the Mississippi for the Arkansas border. Arkansas stretches nearly 300 miles from Ol’ Miss to its western border with Oklahoma, and in between is geography that ranges from muddy delta lowlands to the rolling Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, all crisscrossed by enticing roads.