Miles: not important, mostly a service day.
The morning breaks to squirrel activity outside my tent. Pickwick is ideal habitat and there is a healthy population of friendly critters. I take a moment to relish the fact it isn’t raining and the morning is cool without any humidity. There is a mild breeze coming in off the lake, coming through the tent that I remembered to position side-on to the prevailing winds.
I pull out my phone and look for a breakfast spot. The Outpost at Pickwick Lake gets the vote, with a trip to Lake Hill Motors motorcycle shop and museum in Corinth after a meal. On the way I pass a small muddy pond with two turtles on a rock in the middle. That reminds me, I almost ran over a huge snapping turtle in the rain the other day. The Outpost is a themed restaurant and what looks like a gift shop and maybe ice cream shop. The food was excellent and there were no crowds this early. I really liked the decor.
I have received suggestions that I need to stop in and see Lake Hill Motors as the TAT passes through Corinth, MS. It’s about 35 miles down the road and I follow the TAT to the general area. I have been going over in my head my plans to stage tires for an eventual swap to something more dirt oriented. I plan to order and have them shipped to the Great Plains Bunkhouse or to Topar Racing in Trinidad. But since I’m here I figure I’ll check and see what they have. Upon entering the showroom, I’m greeted by lots of motorcycles, utility side by sides, atvs, and over in the distance a huge collection of vintage bikes of all kinds.
I walk through the makeshift museum section, figuring I would delay my eventual disappointment at another dealer that doesn’t stock tires for adventure bikes. There are all kinds of bikes here. Race bikes, dirt bikes, cruisers, salt flat racers, everything. You have to walk through a couple times to just see things you missed. There’s even a TAT section and Sam Correro’s XR600.
I was greeted at the parts counter and explained that I’m riding the TAT and maybe looking for a set of tires. The parts guy also has a Tenere and this bodes well for me because tires are in stock. I grab a Motoz Dual Venture up front, as I have already had great luck with these twice before. And for the rear they had a Motoz Tractionator RallZ, because the Adventure wasn’t available. The RallZ rear tire is a 80/20 off/on road tire and the DV is a 70/30. Both will be light years ahead of the barely 50/50 tires I was running for the pavement sections.
Since I was a walk in, the service staff were busy working on their current projects but the combination of the parts and service guys worked out a way to get it done. They got me some shade just outside the service bays, and a couple Pitbull stands to lift the bike. They said if you can do the removal/install labor they can do the mount and balance. Done. I whip out my tool roll and get to work. In exactly two point seven seconds my shirt is wet from sweating in the Mississippi humidity. Heck, I would have still done it if I had to mount the tires with my own spoons. I really appreciate the service and support they showed me. Another A+ dealer in my book. I didn’t know it then but the tires would be essential in only a few miles.
Back on the TAT, the pavement immediately turns to thick gravel and I start to scrub off the mold release on the new tires. I’ve got to get them roughened up before I get caught out on wet pavement with two new tires.
The roads switch back and forth between gravel, pavement, and my least favorite pavement sprinkled with gravel. The gravel roads suck today because they have just been given a new top coat of gravel. I can tell it’s fresh because the only tire marks in it is from the grader that spread it. That means the top few inches have not been compacted yet. What’s worse still is that I can see they put down this fresh gravel in order to cover the muddy roads. So it’s thick, loose gravel over slimy Mississippi mud. Great. Only Oklahoma has worse mud than Mississippi. I grin and bear it as long as I can. I get through some deep sand sections, some water holes over gravel base, and lots of standard gravel. The last straw for me today was a downhill section that had my tires growing in diameter as they rolled. Thank my lucky stars for these new tires. I get turned around at the bottom and claw my way back up the hill with the confidence of new knobbies flicking gravel and peanut butter mud out the back.
I look at the map and formulate a strategy for today into tomorrow. Judging on where I’m at, I’ll be crossing the mighty Mississippi River tomorrow. I know from experience that just after that is the TAT check in, an unmissable fixture of the trip. If you don’t stop and sign the book, get your picture taken, and listen to the long drawn out syllables of Mr. Percy Kale, are you even doing the TAT? I wonder if I can find my picture from 2018 there? So logistically speaking, I don’t want to get too close today, because I want to time it so that I swing by while they are open. The best place to stop is Batesville, MS. A town that has everything I need in case I need to hunker down an extra day.
I say hunker down an extra day because I’m always watching the weather. And tomorrow calls for possible severe thunderstorms. Since I got a smoking deal on a motel I decide to hold the option for an extra day. The hotel says no problem.
You see, I’m in the part of the country now where motorcycles and mud don’t play nicely. I’ve seen years of TAT reports and filed them all away in my mind just to make better decisions when my time comes. Mud is no joke, not fun, and can be unsafe when solo. I keep reminding myself that the TAT isn’t an absolute. It’s a guide. If you have to detour a muddy section, do it.
The last two days have been high on maintenance, low on adventure riding, but it was a mandatory evil that will pay dividends down the road. The Arkansas section is better, the Ozarks are looming in the distance. A burger at the OARK Cafe has my name on it. I will be there soon. Now to play Garmin Roulette and see what pops up for dinner.
There are two kinds of wake-ups on this trip. Camping wake-ups and motel wake-ups. Motel wake-ups are always the hardest for me to light the fire and get going. Probably because the shades are drawn and the air conditioning is humming away.
Weather is on my mind again. Like a fly that returns right after you brush it away, the daily thunderstorms have gotten on my last nerve. I’m flipping between my favorite weather apps, trying to glean insight into anything that will help me make a decision on wether to get on the bike, or stay another night. There is a large storm approaching, but also a high pressure coming in from the north that will move the storms path southward, but to what extent I can’t yet tell.
I wait until 0930 and make a call. Get on the bike. The brunt of the storm is moving south and I might miss it. I ride along a raised levy for the Little Tallahatchie River. A beautiful worn in two-track guides my way. I’m approaching a note I made on my map 4 years ago. “Land opens, better views, cotton fields”. I take note of the changing landscape, where the value of trees is secondary to the value of flat, open land for growing all manner of things.
Twenty five miles later, I feel sprinkles. Like Lilliputian cannonballs, rain drops start impacting on my visor. I guess I’m not going to completely miss the storm after all. I cautiously approach a dirt road that heads off into the woods. I pass an animal skeleton that looks like a bad omen. One, then two sections of slippery mud that isn’t deep, just slick. I approach a section that looks very soft, with tire tracks on each side that are full of light coffee colored water. That’s a big nope for me and I need to turn around.
The trail isn’t wide enough so the good idea fairy flies in and lands square on my shoulder. I somehow think it’s a perfect time to learn one of those standing “elephant turns”. Wherein you use your body as the pivot point and rotate the bike around you using steering and throttle. This is the kind where you’re off the bike not where you’re in motion on the bike. I begin by reviewing the steps in my head. Good stance, lean the bike into you, full lock left turn, be deliberate in the application of power, pop the clutch and get the back tire to break traction. Follow through. Easy enough. My first attempt sees me stall the bike, forgetting that I have that big meaty rear tire now with all that traction. I try again, everything works but very little pivot. Just feeling things out. Learning as I go. Last try, give it hell. The bike pivots against my right hip and the back tire swings around, it was a valiant effort until I pull the clutch and the bike stops moving. It’s pointing the right direction but it’s not leaning on me enough. It’s too vertical. And it’s heavy. And it has momentum. It unceremoniously flops over to its right side away from me and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m not worried about damage, I have plenty of crash bars. And the ground is soft and slightly muddy. But now I have to pick it up. Lesson learned.
I notice immediately that upon the bike tipping over, I put my right hand on the bike somewhere to catch my own fall and the pad of my thumb is in lot of pain. Like a Hollywood couple, it’s probably going to leave a bruise.
I know better than to try to pick the bike up fully loaded but on good days I can pick up the beast with everything on it. Today that’s not happening. The weight of the bike simply pushes my boots into the mud. I remove the duffel and one soft pannier and I can now, with significant effort, right the ship. I position myself back to the seat, left hand on the throttle, and right hand on whatever works. I lift and immediately feel a twinge in my lower back. Not good. I fix my posture and power through with my legs, walking it back in the gooey slick mud. It really wasn’t bad, just awkward. And heavy as you’d expect. My back will remind me for the rest of the day the importance of good lifting posture, and the consequences of getting older.
Back to the pavement and it’s not sprinkling, it’s raining now. I turn left and up ahead I see the looming arch that is the bridge over the Mississippi River, marking another landmark on the TAT. Like a naval aviator lining up behind the fantail of the carrier, I’m lined up with the massive steel bridge carrying me into the next state. Arkansas.
About 20 miles later I break out into sunshine and thin stratus clouds, and the weather should be good for a few days. I swing down and say my hellos at the TAT check in. A staple of the TAT these years, everyone knows you have to go by and see Percy and Glenn and sign the book, and get your Redneckistan sticker. I mentally prepare myself by practicing speaking at three quarter speed and extending my syllables. Things move at a different pace down here.
After leaving the TAT stop, I make my way to the next section knowing the mud is mostly behind me and it’s mainly gravel ahead. A dump truck driver flashes his lights at me. This means my high beams are on, he likes my bike, or there’s law enforcement ahead so watch yourself. I’m banking on the latter, and I check my speed. Two over. No big deal. About a mile up the road I pass the Highway Patrol SUV while doing 52 in a 55. I give a wave and he probably knows I’ve been tipped off. All's well that ends well.
I stop at Bendi’s Diner in Clarendon to strip off my Gortex overpants and grab a bite. The food is great and the service is friendly. I marvel at the efficiency of the girls behind the counter. How they can multitask helping customers with all their needs while simultaneously talking about all the small town gossip. I am entertained.
I have a few miles left before I can knock off for the day, but I’m in no hurry. The sun is out and the day has turned beautiful. I can be on pavement or dirt or gravel it doesn’t matter. I’m just so happy it isn’t raining.
Three deer run out from the bushes across the road one at a time, single file. Like soldiers from World War 2, they dart from hedgerow to hedgerow trying not to be the one that gets picked off. They all survive today’s mission.
I spend the rest of the afternoon on various gravel roads, playing with settings on my steering stabilizer to pass the time. It is one addition to my bike that changes everything in soft sand and loose gravel. With it turned down my front end wanders like a drunk taking a sobriety test. You just have to let it float around and don’t be too rigid on the bars. But with it dialed in, it’s like power steering. The bike just goes straight and I feel safe. One handed through gravel is even no problem.
I pull into Bebee and grab a room at the Rodeway Inn. I could go further today but tactically there is no point. There isn’t a motel or camping where I need it positioned if I pass this up. This also puts me in good position to hit the OARK cafe tomorrow and ride through the Boston Mountains section of the Ozark Plateau.
The morning of day ten arrives, my eyes open, and I’m laying on my stomach in bed. I give my hips a few exercises to see if my lower back is ok or if I’m a cripple from yesterday’s incident. Preflight checks ok. A bit sore but I think I’ve avoided anything that’s going to slow me down. I get suited up and load the bags on the bike.
The ride starts good, buts it’s mostly paved back roads around peoples property and more or less sticks to a grid layout of ninety degree lefts and rights. I’m getting bored of it and I’m anxiously waiting for open dirt roads. It’s starting to get warm and I’m tremendously thankful for my modified jacket. I recently took up industrial sewing for manly items like gear bags and I made a cover for my friend’s welder. I made two of the bags that are on my bike on this trip and one of my most ambitious projects has been putting in waterproof zips on the cuffs of my jacket. Doing so allows me to fit my gauntlet gloves and then zip the jacket over them. It also allows me to ride with them unzipped and channel huge amounts of air up my sleeves. It’s awesome in the summer.
Rounding a corner I surprise four young deer who look like four pre-teens who just got caught playing with matches. Wide eyed they dart for the bushes.
My Garmin seems to have every gas station in it no matter how many years it’s been abandoned. It’s not the first time I’ve been guided to a relic. I decide to get gas later, as I’m seeing an easy 62.5 miles per gallon while on back roads.
I skipped breakfast knowing that I’d be making the Oark Cafe for lunch. However, I didn’t realize that it was 200 trail miles to get there. I would be eating about three hours after I wanted to.
The gravel starts and it’s good, near great. It’s no Pennsylvania dirt road but as compared to Mississippi gravel Arkansas roads are superior. You have to use caution in these parts though, as I had my run ins with many vehicles today. Almost all of which were either on my side or at least in the middle of the road. Side by sides, atvs, trucks, and even sedans all out like they are the only ones on the road.
I note that there were some fantastic views today from the mountains. There were lots of elevation changes and just in general some really great riding. So much I almost got bored with it.
I make a stop at the TAT Shack, a single wide trailer that is available for riders to stay overnight if needed. I looked for a cold drink but there was only beer and I was feeling like I’d wait till later for that. I found my sticker from four years ago still holding strong on the door without any peeling. I had a look around and was on my way.
I arrive next at the Oark Cafe, another staple of the TAT experience. I’m ready to eat but first I look for another of my stickers here. I find it hiding behind some others on an open window. When I enter I’m greeted with some amount of excitement and fanfare. I’m totally clueless as to what the attention is about but apparently they have been reading my daily stories and were expecting me to arrive today. They apparently thought I was way more important than I was and I felt awkward about the whole thing. The only thing of importance as far as I was concerned is getting a burger in me because I was starving. I hadn’t eaten for two hundred miles and it was worth the wait. If you guys read this, thank you for the warm welcome and the hospitality. The Oark Cafe is someplace every TAT traveller should plan a lunch stop.
After leaving there, I began the climb to the White Rock Mountain overlook. Some excellent gravel roads but I remind myself to watch for potentially more traffic. And there is.
Soon after that I need to make a big decision on the TAT. Am I going to run Warloop Road or not? I have the advantage of having driven Warloop before so I know what to expect. I fully have the confidence that I can ride it. Warloop Road is commonly considered the toughest section of the TAT. While that can be debated against other sections like the giant gravel talus of Ophir Pass or maybe even some spots in Oregon, it is undeniable that Warloop is more difficult than the typical TAT road.
I weighed the pros and cons of doing it over in my head. Being solo plays into it. But I don’t want to skip all the fun stuff just because I’m alone. Then I remember the “elephant turn” and how just dropping the bike could be a trip-ender. I have about six thousand miles left to reach home and I decide not to attempt it. I’ve done it once before and there is nothing on that section worth getting hurt and risk not seeing the beauty of Colorado, Idaho, or Utah or Oregon. But I hope the Aussies do it because they will have a blast.
My day ends in Alma, Arkansas. Tomorrow after about 50 trail miles I’ll pass into Oklahoma. The long trek across the north part of the state, where most people say it’s boring. I for one look forward to it. I’m actually getting tired of riding in a tree tunnel for hours on end. Being from Arizona I deeply appreciate the green forests and all the trees east of Oklahoma, but I need views. I need open. And I really need to get across Oklahoma to get to the really good stuff. Here’s to making tough decisions and not getting hurt so you can ride another day.
I’m excited to get started this morning. Excited to get to a new state. Each one holds its own unique personality. From the people to the plants. Even the dirt that I’m driving on changes to let me know I’m making progress.
Today’s dirt starts right off the highway where it ended yesterday. A mix of wet areas that haven’t yet recovered from the recent storms, and dry sections consisting of a combination of gravel, turtles, and armadillos.
I ride the gravel in and out through shady wooded lanes, and next to hobby farms with cows and horses. The weather is still nice but I’m sensing a change is quite literally in the air. My motorcycle's air temp shows 90°F for the first time this trip, a clear indication that I’m transitioning to a warmer climate.
This area has seen significant rainfall in the week prior, I’m seeing the results of all the radar images I’ve been tracking. The hills are still shedding water from their saturated slopes, trickling across sections of the road at every turn. Ruts have been cut where water removed the gravel that was once there and I cautiously splash through the many potholes filled with miniature reflecting pools.
I approach a muddy section with my outriggers deployed, my legs off the pegs firmly extended at forty five degree angles to the sides, just in case. Fortunately the base is solid and the mud holds no danger this time. It causes me to wonder what lay ahead though.
At this point I take notice of the landscape. I stop and I’m at a perfect point looking North. If I look to my right, I see the remnants of the Ozark Plateau gently descending towards my location. To my left, the land appears to have succumbed to gravity. Pulled flat as far as you can see into the oil producing flatlands of Oklahoma. It’s a bittersweet moment, leaving the mountains behind that I have spent so much time exploring the last few days. But new adventures await on the horizon.
Soon after, I reach the town of Lincoln, Arkansas. The last Arkansas town before I pass into Oklahoma. It’s a small town, hard to tell which buildings are open or abandoned. I stop at the American Drive In. An obviously patriotic typical old fashioned type place. I order my food and take a seat in the back. Everyone in town eventually stops here if you wait long enough. The menu is made of black letters pressed into white plastic lines above the counter. The kind you would see in the eighties. It looks absolutely period correct here and not a bit out of place. The food is simple and adequate to kill my hunger, nothing more or less and exactly what it should be for such a place. The cherry coke is extra special because of a pump of Ghirardelli’s maraschino cherry syrup. I listen to people come and go and to conversations being had at other tables. It is Smalltown, USA in a bubble. If you sit patiently you begin to feel a little like you could, in a small way, be part of such a town. A place where the local high school football season record is more important than anything in the news. A place where sweet tea is the expectation when ordering ice tea, if you want it unsweetened, you better ask.
Up the road my nasal passages are suddenly attacked by odors that resemble dairy farms and death. The size and shape of the buildings can mean only one thing. Chicken farms. The single most offensive smell in the countryside in my opinion. It’s almost enough to make me give up chicken completely. If only they weren’t so damn delicious.
On my map is a waypoint marking the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. I reach it without a visible indication. No big fancy sign like on the interstate. Not even a little one. Just a change in the color of gravel where one road maintenance crew transfers their responsibilities to the next crew.
The more that I ride this area, the more evidence I see that there was a very significant flooding event recently. All the roads are covered in gravel washed from the hillsides, and the back roads have either been hastily repaired or are in need of repairs from washouts. Very large trees have been ripped up with their root system intact, and there is foliage tangled in fences ten feet above the current water level. Further evidence sent me back the way I came and I enjoyed a nice reroute. The road was completely washed out and not yet repaired. These types of reroutes are common all along the TAT for one reason or another so just expect it.
I stopped in Moody to top off gas and a guy pulled up next to me asking if I was on the TAT. Indeed sir, indeed.
The humidity has been turned up to eleven and the heat is not far behind. I strip off my jacket and the wind through my wet base layer is like an old swamp cooler at my grandmas house in August. Unfortunately without the deep freeze with Fudgesicles hiding in the bottom.
I decide that Salina is a good stopping point for today, or more accurately Locust Grove just south of there. With this humidity, camping makes me feel like a wrestler in a trash bag trying to sweat out that last ounce. There’s a Best Western with a friendly staff that wants you to leave your bike up on the porch where its safe and a nice pool in the back.
I enjoy a really good meal at the Mexican food joint in town and I’m not yet in the part of the country where my sweet tea requests are looked upon like I’m crazy. “Uh, we have raspberry.” Get outta here with that.
The riding today was awesome and a little of everything. Dirt, gravel, turn-arounds, reroutes, obstacles, water crossings, steep gravel downhills and long steep uphills. I really loved it all and it was one of the best days of riding on the trip.
The pool is calling my name.