Riding the Buffalo River Region

"Every hilltop has its tradition; every hollow is full of tales and legends."

—Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph

The center of activity at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Jasper, Arkansas is the Ozark Café. Coffee cups rattle saucers in the café’s bacon-fried air while Billy Bell and his dad, Gene, hold court at a big checked-cloth-covered table. The family resemblance is clear between the two lean, sun-checked men gathered with a group of weather beaten locals swilling coffee and swapping the news of the day.

This has been going on in Jasper since the place opened in 1909. The rich red walls of the cafe are adorned with black and white photographs chronicling area history, and the stories in the photos on the wall live and breathe the words of the locals who have made permanent impressions on the café’s red Naugahyde and chrome chairs.

After breakfast, Billy and Gene took me on a quick walking tour of Jasper, and we visited the smallest county jail in the county.  “The cells here are known as the worst in the state,” Gene said proudly. “You don’t want to end up in the slammer in my town.”  We went inside to check out the cell, and Gene asked the deputy manning the front desk if he could show me one of the dank little cells.  “No tours today. We had a helluva Saturday night,” the deputy said dryly, “and the house is full.”

Serendipity granted me this ride with Billy and Gene. I was in the area with a couple of friends to join the Wudi Ride, an annual off-road motorcycle ride held in Arkansas each spring. A friend of mine met Billy while I was off on another assignment. Billy is not only an off-road rider, but also a street rider, and when Darrick said I was planning to ride the area on Sunday, he agreed to serve as a tour guide. His father, Gene, was free, and the two were happy to show me the sights in their native town.

Jasper is on one of the great motorcycle roads in the Ozarks, Highway 7, which runs from Harrison just south of the Missouri border down to Hot Springs in central Arkansas all the way down past El Dorado on the state’s southern border with Louisiana. Highway 7 was Arkansas’ first state-designated Scenic Byway, and the road curls through the Ouachita Mountains and north through the Ozark National Forest.

We headed east of Jasper on Highway 74, riding over to highway 123, a twisty stretch of pavement winding from Mount Judea to Lutton. That strip of pavement was great fun if you like to turn. Billy told me that riders came from as far as Australia just to ride this technical little stretch of roads. On the other hand, a Gold Wing rider I met at Turner Bend told me to “avoid 123 at all costs.” To each his own.

We looped back north along Highway 7, and came to the Ozark “Grand Canyon,” a deep, verdant valley much smaller than it’s Arizona counterpart but an impressive gorge nonetheless.

Gene and Billy had to return to Jasper that afternoon, and I decided to join them and take up John Hudson’s invite to see his home and the collection of things about his famous Dad.

His place is outside of town, a beautiful farm set along an Arkansas bluff. Ducks swam on a pond along his driveway, which leads up to an immaculate white ranch-style house. John invited us in, and showed us how the house was built around the one-room cabin built in 1826 that his father had grown up in. The original logs are preserved, as is the original porch. He has filled the cabin and porch with old photographs of his father speaking about his craft around the world, along with interesting collections of medical memorabilia.

In the basement, he had more memorabilia ranging from medical tools and more photos of his Dad at work to old guns. John had done most of the work himself, from digging out the basement to laying floors in the house. He also talked non-stop about his father’s accomplishments, and got a tear in his eye when he talked about him meeting up with this doctor in Europe, an old German whom his dad connected with.

After our little tour, it was time for Gene and Billy to get home to their families and time for me to get back on the road.

One of those, highway 74, took me west to Ponca. Billy suggested I watch the fields in the area for elk and, sure enough, I spotted a few cows and a calf on the way. Newton County had 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska released in the area in the early 1980s, and that program has paid off with a healthy population. In fact, Newton County now calls itself the “elk capital of the world,” and the town of Jasper hosts the annual Buffalo River Elk Festival to celebrate the herd. See more Rides along the Buffalo River Region.

I headed north on Highway 23 through Forum and Rock House and came out in the town of Eureka Springs. Legend has it that the springs had magical healing powers, and had restored the sight of a Sioux Princess. Indian tribes prized the springs for their healing power, and considered the area sacred ground. When Dr. Alvah Jackson “discovered” the springs in 1856, he reputedly cured his infant son of an eye ailment with the waters from the spring. The doc founded Dr. Jackson’s Cave Hospital and sold Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water across the country.

The town sprang around Dr. Jackson’s enterprise in 1879 and the legend of the spring’s powers drew moneyed Victorian Era travelers from around the world. Elaborate hotels, spas, and restaurants were built nearly overnight, and the flood of tourists and entrepreneurs made Eureka Springs the fourth-largest city in Arkansas by 1881.  Bike Friendly HOTELS include: 1905 Basin Park Hotel and 1886 Crescent Hotel

Today, the town’s architecture is a big draw for bikers. In fact, the entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Legends of mystical powers persist, mainly in the form ghost tours at America’s Most haunted Hotel and there are plenty of free flowing spirits at the many eateries and evening hot spots.

Mystical or not, this interesting little town draws a steady stream of tourists, nearly a million per year and is a popular place for motorcycle rallies and bike adventures.  See more Eureka Springs Rides.

I was due to meet friends on the highway in a few hours, and any mystical powers of Eureka Springs had to be absorbed as I passed through. In my brief tour of the town, I didn’t experience any noteworthy spiritual revelation. I did, however, get a speeding ticket later in the day. Perhaps my neurological path was accelerated a bit. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention . . .

The final leg of the day’s ride took me west of Eureka Springs on highway 62, which snaked up and into the low mountains of Boone County. A scenic drive on 187 dips south and west to run along Beaver Lake was tempting, and looked to be a good option for someone with time and two wheels.

My spring ride in the Ozarks ended a few hours later, as I turned north to head back to the still-frozen pavement of my native Minnesota. I’d soon be back home, telling stories to my friends and family about the trip. Travel does that—gives you stories to tell--and my favorite trips are those that send you home with great tales to spin.

When I think back to this ride, my favorite memory is of the Ozark Café, a place where daily legends are as deeply ingrained in local culture as the stripes of Ozark mountain pavement tumbling across the Ouachita Mountains.

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