Riding The Ozarks With Harley and Best Western

We’ll Always Have Little Rock

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.

Home of The Blues

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...

Ozark Odyssey

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.

The freeway drone subsides around Jonesboro, and Highway 63 mellows as we transition out of the Delta region. We’re rolling on rural roads now, and the pullout at picturesque Powhatan Historic State Park gives a chance to stretch out and snap some photos. Known for its preserved cluster of historic buildings along the Black River, this once-busy port was a chief shipping point in the 1800s, and boasts an Italianate-style courthouse high atop a rocky ridge.

A few more miles and we’re firmly in Ozark country, bursting through the hills of Melbourne and skirting the Ozark National Forest with a short stint on the Sylamore Scenic Byway. A changing landscape of rugged limestone bluffs rolls by, backed up by the subtle soundtrack of the rushing streams and waterfalls that lace the Ozarks. Panoramic views of hickory and short leaf pine stands pop on distant hills, and the lush greenery frames every hard turn and gentle sweeper through the towns of Sylamore and Fifty Six. By this time I’ve swapped the Street Glide for a Road King, and am loving the way the lighter and more open bike is railing through the curves.

The last stretch of Highway 65 south to Clinton is a perfectly mellow cool-down to the evening’s destination; the biker-friendly (water, wipe-down towels and lip balm in the room) Best Western Hillside just down the road from Blanchard Springs Caverns.

The Buck Stops in Little Rock

Arkansas Scenic 7 traverses the north-south length of the state to Louisiana, and is said to be a prime motorcycling route with spectacular views. Unfortunately, we would only spend a short time on the Byway as we circled the general vicinity around Little Rock, going back and forth from Clinton. The highlight, as we rolled south along Scenic 7, was climbing into the sloping Ouachita Mountains and stumbling upon the hilariously-named Nimrod Lake and its reason for existence, Nimrod Dam. The oldest Army Corps of Engineer dam in the state was worth an hour or so of chilling and photo ops, and it made up for the seemingly bizarre route choice.

Of course, we didn’t follow Scenic 7 to its logical scenic conclusion in Hot Springs, which I’m also told is a helluva little town, but veered east to the Arkansas’ capitol and largest city, Little Rock. A new, top-shelf Best Western Premiere property awaited us there, and it was hard to dismiss this one. With reserved bike parking, ultra-comfy mattresses and a poolside happy hour, it sure wasn’t the kind of biker-friendly flophouse I was used to.

The trip ended there, for all intents and purposes, as we all repaired to the bar after the long, hot day. Bikers aren't always picky, but free parking, soft towels and a cold brew do wonders for road trip happiness. Best Western may be on to something...CR

Bumpus Harley-Davidson

Strategically situated right on the Tennessee/Arkansas border, Bumpus H-D of Memphis not only rents bikes, but boasts the ideal location from which to base your Arkansas adventure. The sprawling dealership carries a full line of Harley-Davidsons and offers Harley’s user-friendly Fit Shop, MotorClothes apparel, motorcycle rentals, repairs and a full schedule of events most weekends.

Best Western / Harley-Davidson

Sometimes you just need more than a tent, and fleabag motels don’t always cut it. Reliable (and free) WiFi, a hot shower and a flat desk are the bare minimum requirements when you’re lugging a laptop and 40 pounds of camera gear. I’ve personally had pretty good luck with Best Westerns around the world, and they’re relatively easy to find anywhere in the USA—just like Harley-Davidson. Makes sense then, for the two companies to set up a partnership benefitting both their customer bases (which sometimes overlaps). The current multi-year agreement is set up to “meet the needs of this group of adventurers,” which basically means marketing directly to H-D riders and motorcycle enthusiasts. Best Western Rider-Friendly hotels (of which there are 1200 across the U.S. and Canada) offer goodies like wipe-down towels and cleaning stations—and discounted rates. Harley-Davidson’s Ride Planner tool, which riders can use to help plan rides, posts Best Western hotels along their scheduled routes too, making multiday trip scheduling that much easier.

Best Western International

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Gear Exam

River Road Laughlin Jacket

With a few caveats, the mid-weight Laughlin jacket wasn’t a bad choice for our trip through the Ozarks. It goes on easy and feels soft to the touch, and as a bonus, the polyester/nylon shell is treated to provide water resistance. The Laughlin also rocks plenty of storage, with front chest pockets that double as intake vents, and interior pockets to handle trip sundries. The removable, insulated liner also has a built-in pocket (with temps in the high 80s, we removed the liner for this trip).

Standard issue CE-approved armor takes up the shoulders and elbows, and a removable EVA pad offers back protection, with reflective piping for added visibility. This stylish jacket seems to cover all the bases, with adjustable closures, waist tabs and a snap-down collar. But things go south with the Laughlin’s price-point zippers—they’re low quality metal with grabby teeth, so they didn’t always catch easily or zip smoothly. We got so frustrated trying to zip it closed on one day, we simply left it in the saddlebag.

The Laughlin has a distinctive look and feel we like; we just wish it worked better.

Sizes S–3XL

AGV-Diesel Hi-Jack Helmet

What do you get when you cross an Italian apparel firm with an Italian helmet manufacturer? Designer helmets, of course. Not surprisingly, the helicopter pilot-flavored AGV-Diesel Hi-Jack helmet looks the business, with a fiberglass shell, solidly-applied paint and graphics, and curves at the sides that recall aeronautic military designs. A sliding visor (available in different tints—we recommend smoke) slides down from under the shell to cover your eyes. A Dri-Lex internal padding is removable and washable and a micro-metric adjustable buckle closes the strap.

The Jack brings an original look and a little more protection than a skid lid might offer. The drop-down shield is solidly built, but doesn’t block the wind as effectively as we’d like over 35 mph. And those ear bump-outs you’d think would make for a great headset location? That’s solid foam in there, so start cutting. Another beef is with the interior comfort liner; it unsnaps far too easily. Our sunglass arms were constantly catching and pulling it out.

The Hi-Jack is a nicely built, attractive piece of kit, but its function leaves something to be desired for open road touring.

Sizes S–XL