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Arkansas Bike Tour: Daniel McKinney & Scott Allen

AdventuresDusty GilpinComment

Recently, Daniel McKinney and Scott Allen took a weekend bike trip through the scenic mountains of Arkansas. Follow their adventure in this guest post. Big thanks to both of them for submitting their photos and stories. Cheers!

Preface by Daniel McKinney

I have a cycle I go through quarterly that requires I go into nature and recharge from all the self indulgence I'm surrounded by daily. I get claustrophobic in this society of consumption and it requires me to find freedom in minimizing my lifestyle for a few days. This means withdrawing myself from the rat race that blocks the view of our true purpose of putting time into others instead of our wallets. I recently took a trip with a good friend Scott, to Northwestern Arkansas to do a 175 mile 5 day bike tour.

My goal on these trips is to put myself in an empty place and get lost from the hustle of everyday life. This isn't always the case. This trip began with the first 3 days and the last day fulfilling that goal; with a day in the middle spent recovering from steep climbs and many different pains I hadn’t ever experienced.

Through this trip I learned that places are better experienced through multiple senses and not just sight. The crisp smells of the mountain air can give you a connection to the surrounding landscape (best inhaled through long gasp after climbing a mile long 7% grade) and what your place is in them. The noise you hear allows your mind to slow down and appreciated the beauty that you are surrounded by.

This trip was a great recharge for me and I enjoyed every minute of it, even the hard climbs. If you have ever wanted to experience nature in its simplest setting, grab a bike or a pack and set out to find this refreshing view away from our busy lives. People are very important to our survival and some empty space can often open our eyes to this realization. Whether it be alone or with a friend, its encouraging to get lost and find that space for others needs in our lives.

Scott keeps a much better journal than I, so here is a view of our trip through his eyes. 

McKinney's  Trek Earle  loaded with approximately 50 pounds of gear.

McKinney's Trek Earle loaded with approximately 50 pounds of gear.

JOURNAL ENTRY by SCOTT ALLEN

My old Broncho II finally died in my last year of living in Boulder, Colorado, and I began mountain biking to work. It felt good to use my breakfast as fuel and my legs as levers, instead of relying on the internal combustion engine with all its waste and destruction. Later, living in Marin County, I’d sometimes bike a few miles to the Larkspur Ferry Station and boat into downtown San Francisco, a spectacular commute by Alcatraz and into the lovey Ferry Building with its little shops, including Blue Bottle Coffee, and then I’d bike from there to the design district for school. I finished that program and moved away four years ago. I hadn’t been on a bike since.

Day 1 – Fayetteville to Beaver Lake, 39.63 miles:

We drove to Fayetteville, parked in a back corner of an outdoor outfitter’s parking lot, and loaded up the bikes. We made some game-time decisions on what to take, and as important, what to leave in the car, including my camping water-filter—too heavy and probably not necessary. Hopping on and cruising the broken sidewalk of a busy highway with no shoulder, my bike was very shaky. My sleeping bag and food were strapped to the handle bars, two 32oz bottles on the frame, a full bladder of water on my back, and the saddles packed with a few clothes, sleeping bags, first aid kit. McKinney took the bulk of the weight, including the tent and bike tools. I was shaky enough to wonder how this was going to work, but as the hours went on I got under control.

It’s surprising when you visit a town for the first time and it’s so pretty you can’t believe you’ve never heard how pretty it is. Fayetteville was green and hilly and full of people out enjoying the late summer day. Once we hit the bike paths winding along creeks and behind homes and businesses, the biking was cool and easy. I couldn’t believe how long the paths lasted, twenty miles of more until we climbed out onto the country highways and started climbing.

I got shaky again on the inclines. It didn’t help that my ability to keep the front wheel in the narrow shoulder enabled my survival from speeding traffic rushing by. Travelling by car, it’s hard to get a grasp on how fast you’re moving. If you’ve ever changed a flat on the interstate with traffic moving at seventy plus a few feet away, you know what I’m talking about. You get that perspective on bike. The fear, oddly balanced bike, and the back and forth push of steep inclines led to the trip’s only fall – I fell into the highway and scraped up my knee, and was lucky there were no cars flashing by at the time.

McKinney and I had decided to eat out once a day to cut down on weight and to engage in the creature comforts unavailable on a bike or in minimum-gear camping. Day 1 dinner was a little country bar-b-que joint, where I temporarily forsook vegetarianism for ribs, pulled pork, baked beans, slaw and blackberry cobbler and ice cream. This last bit we really didn’t need, but felt the extra calories might help us up the next day’s hills. Leaving the restaurant, I asked McKinney not to let me stroll into a public place again without first throwing real shorts over my tight black biking shorts.

We slept at a campsite on Beaver Lake, on rocky ground, and felt every one through our thing bags and no sleeping pads. Despite the ground, though, I slept well from the day’s exertion. I fell asleep trying to pick out individual insect song from the cacophony, thinking of James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915.

Day 2 – Beaver Lake to Roaring River State Park, Missouri: 38.14 miles.

Inclines make me wonder if the trip is worth it. Downhills and bike paths show me it is. The legs don’t last so long on day 2. They go bad going up hills very quickly and I find myself breathing with each push, making counting games, and keeping my eye on McKinney, knowing I only have to keep up. Forget athletics, this is primal, not a game: Can you make it up this f****** hill or not?

There are two kinds of prayer while travelling by bike, well three:

1). "God, don’t let these cars kill me."

This one feels similar to being on a turbulent flight. The plane shakes and shakes and you must own up to your helplessness and lack of control and simply give in and make your peace, thinking, if I die, I die.

2). "Lord, help me up this hill."

This one I tended to pray in a demanding tone. Those early climbs made me question if the trip would be worth it. I should mention here that though he was carrying far more weight, and was on a tour bike with fatter tires than my street bike, McKinney was faster up the hills. My bike coasted faster, so I was able to catch up on the down hills, and this was a good system, put the faster bike in back.

3). "Jesus, this is gorgeous!"

For downhills and vistas of lakes and blue ridges.

After spending most of the day climbing we got the trips longest and steepest drop, coasting up to 40 mph. Forty on a bike feels like 110 in a car, and is absolutely exhilarating. Our cellphone map showed a bit of a shortcut to camp through a gravel road and we decided to try it. Gravel on thin-wheeled bikes takes some balance, and I quickly learned that you are not to turn, but a subtle lean is enough, like skiing through powder, though infinitely bumpier. Our road turned into a driveway complete with NO TRESPASSING signs, and after some debate we chose not to go knock and ask permission to travel through, fearing dogs and shotguns. And so back on the bikes and out the way we came till we hit sumac. This little misadventure would henceforth be called ‘gravel training’, and led to the trip’s only flat tire. But it was the best possible flat. We had made camp next to the lovely and trout-laden Roaring River when McKinney hears a sudden hiss and the front tire of my bike, unmanned and idle for maybe an hour, deflates.

McKinney had made a couple of camping hammocks, and while he went fly fishing I read and napped a few feet up in the air, listening to the river.

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We unloaded all the gear and pedaled the suddenly light bikes up the road a bit to the lodge and ate in the nearly empty dining hall. Dumping black pepper on his dinner, McKinney explained, “I’ve had old-people food before.” After dinner we called our wives from the kitschy lobby, full of chainsaw carvings and trophy heads, sitting in what felt like the most comfortable seats we’d ever experienced, though it may have simply been in contrast with the bike seats.

Pain tends to creep around on the bike. It could be that you only hear the squeakiest wheel, or the muscle group that happens to be shouting the loudest at the time. On day one, we both agreed, it was the neck. It was enough to make me wonder if I could ride for four days. By day two though, my neck felt surprisingly better. Perhaps I had gotten used to the odd posture, or maybe it was just that my ass was on fire.

Our second night of camping was on thick green grass, a few yards from the softly gurgling river, and free of rock.

Day 3 – Roaring River State Park to Eureka Springs, Arkansas: 26.3 miles.

Our shortest but hardest day, up up up gorgeous, winding country roads, and then, Eureka! Rolling into this beautiful little hippy tourist town was a relief, especially knowing we’d be there two nights with a day of rest in between. McKinney and I decided to fork over an extra $20 per night to sleep in a cheap motel on the outskirts of town, and so, after an excellent lunch of fish tacos and sangria at Aquarius Taqueria, we headed up the hill.

Eureka Springs was full of tourists when we arrived, but by 6:30 at night it was pretty empty. The locals are friendly and speak slowly, and there appeared to be a lot of local musicians, though some festival had supposed swept up most of the best of them. Like any tourist town, ES has a love/hate relationship with its tourists, and we found a vein of rude business owners mixed in with the very friendly populace. However, the bikes seemed to earn us more than our share of respect and proved to be an excellent conversation starter wherever we went.

I found Brews, a great little coffee/beer bar at the top of a very steep hill, a difficult walk, much less bike ride, and called McKinney to meet me there and I’d give him $20 if he could bike it. Maybe Lance Armstrong could have done it, but only after doping. On the porch I listened to a local character unspool conspiracy theories and realized why such outrageous fables are popular: it’s because plenty of real conspiracies exist that the more outrageous ones find a food hold in our cultural imagination. We biked back to our room to watch the Republican debates. We drank Belgian beer and treated the spectacle like the sporting event it was: pure entertainment.

Day 4 - Rest.

It felt weird to have an entire day with nothing to do but read, write, and peruse local bookstores and coffee shops, good-weird. I spent the afternoon kicking it in Oscar’s Café. There’s something about cafés in old houses. We attended an open mic at a labyrinthine, storied hippy institution called Chelsea’s Corner Café and Bar and many of the townies were already familiar to us from the previous 24 hours. We played pool and darts and heard the good news that the ride back to Fayetteville would be “mostly downhill”, a factoid I must now refute. One young ponytailed lad sung “Truth” by Alex Ebert, one of my faves and not something I expected to hear out in the world. Eureka Springs, you are a strange little jewel.

Scott, with his Bianchi loaded to the max.

Scott, with his Bianchi loaded to the max.

Day 5 – Eureka Springs to Fayetteville: 61.8 miles.

This was the emptiest ride of the trip, truly country with little traffic and almost no businesses. After the first day I’d taken to leaving one water bottle empty to save on weight. We’d been stopping enough that one bottle plus my backpack bladder was more than enough, but day 5 was hot and long, and I missed my chance to fill up at a restaurant some 30 miles in and so ran out. We shared the half bottle McKinney had left and rode thirsty for some miles before hitting a gas station. We walked like old men and purchased to gallons of water and I made lemon-lime sports drink from powder I’d packed, on ice, and it was the tastiest thing in the world. One friendly old man stopped to ask about our trip, but most of the folks out there stared at us like we’d dropped in from Mars, or maybe Venus.

The final 20 or so miles were back on Fayetteville’s impressive path system, cool and lovely in the shade, and in the knowledge that we were almost there, though the miles felt longer and longer. We hit the town at rush hour and the final fifteen minutes were the most treacherous of the trip with one driver of a giant pick up pretending to turn into us – funny! – but then we were turning into the parking lot, singing the Rocky theme, having left behind liters of sweat and months of stress. I understand that our net elevation gain must necessarily be zero, but in my memory the trip was primarily uphill. It was also primarily gorgeous country, fun, relaxing, and completely worth it.