His name was Benjamin but I called him “Grandpa.” I remember him as a jolly old soul, larger-than-life like Santa Claus, from his round belly to his wry little smile. No red suits here, though. Grandpa was a blue overalls and white t-shirt type of guy. I thought overalls were all he owned until I finally saw him in his Sunday suit. He called the Sierra Nevadas home, showed me how to pan for gold, let me sit in his lap and steer his Jimmy on mountain roads long before I could reach pedals, loved to scare us speechless four-wheelin’ up steep grades in his Willys Jeep.
Her name was Laura Belle but I called her “Grandma.” I remember how she loved to play the piano, thick fingers dancing on black and white keys as she sang Southern hymns. The ability to play music was just short of magic to me. Small glasses sat on her round face and it seemed she always had an apron on. She made everything from scratch, baked the best biscuits and flakiest pies. She could fry up a chicken like nobody’s business. I thought her a gentle soul until I saw her snatch up a chicken from the yard by its neck, hold it down on the chopping black and lop off its head with a hatchet, the chicken’s body running around with no head. She plucked that thing down in no time flat. Looked at grandma with a different reverency after that, but now knew why her fried chicken was so damn good.
What I didn’t realize was that was the way of life back on the old Harley family farm in Arkansas. Miles outside of a little town called Paris, it was a time when family’s had to be self-sufficient, milk their own cows, churn butter, raise chickens for eggs, whip up breads from scratch, chop wood to keep warm. The Harley homestead lay in the shadows of Horseshoe Mountain. My memories of the ranch were all second-hand stories swapped between my dad, his brother and sisters, tales of celebrating the 4th by tossing dynamite off the mountain, accounts of how Uncle Doug’s fighting cocks could filet you open with their spurs, rumors of an illegitimate bloodline to General Robert E. Lee. To me the Harley ranch in Arkansas was a mythical place, a place where my grandparents found their final resting place.
The opportunity to visit this resting place was definitely in the back of my mind when I learned I’d be heading to Fayetteville to cover the Bikes, Blues & BBQ Rally. With its combination of music, food, and incredible riding in the Ozarks, the Southern hoedown is developing a reputation as one of the rising stars of the rally circuit. We were pleasantly surprised the first time we visited the state to cover the Bikes, Blues & BBQ Rally in 2011, from the wonderful twists and turns of Pig Trail Scenic Route to the herd of elk we ran across after an accidental wrong turn on County Road 79.
Our journey to the Arkansas Ozarks would start over 500 miles away in Austin, Texas, where I picked up a 2016 Indian Chieftain to ride to the rally. What better way to put some test miles on Indian’s brash bagger than a three-state road trip! The 2016 Chieftain in the Silver Smoke colorway is a real looker, the one waiting for me in Austin the first I’d seen in person. The motorcycle was outfitted with a few handy aftermarket additions, including a KlockWerks Flare Windshield, a nice, wide solo seat, and a luggage rack, both straight out of Indian’s P&A catalog. The Chieftain had plenty of standard features that would serve me well too, from cruise control to big saddlebags to the ability to raise and lower the KlockWerks Windshield at the push of a button.
That first day we thundered across the Texas plains like a cavalry at charge, tapping into the tremendous torque the Chieftain’s monstrous V-Twin churns out to put plenty of miles between us and Austin. Because while there’s no shortage of scenery in the Lone Star State, the call of the Ozarks beckoned, mountain roads through thick forests and a heightened sense of exploration, the thought of reconnecting with loved ones long gone on my mind. We rode until the only thing under the moon were us, big rigs, and patrol cars bunkered down in their favorite hiding places in seemingly every Podunk town we passed.
The morning broke with the promise of a short stint on the super slab before we were off the beaten path. Fragments of the land’s tribal history resonated in the names of towns. We rumbled past Tushka and Atoka before leaving the interstate, then paralleled the pastures of the Choctaw Nation’s Pleasant Valley Ranch. Oklahoma is greener than expected, a stark contrast to the water-starved trees and grasses surrounding my home in sun-baked southern Oregon. Throughout rural Oklahoma, rusty cars sat in yards and next to barns like prairie-land status symbols as seemingly every house had at least one. If I was a vintage car picker, Oklahoma is ripe for picking.
After passing Daisy on Arkansas 43, we encountered that rare stretch, that Zen moment when it’s just you, a motorcycle, and the road. The drumming of the Chieftain’s big pistons played the hypnotic beat of an American V-Twin, the exhaust note like a Cliff Burton bass line. A car passed in the other direction only every now and again, drivers usually extending a country wave like we were part of the local clan as we passed by. We charted a course for the mountains rising above the horizon in front of us as the forests thickened.
We stopped at a crossroad for a quick map-check. A makeshift roadside park, a handful of park benches beneath scraggly pines, sat at the juncture. A man in a white Oklahoma Department of Transportation truck pulled up alongside, asked if we’re going to the rally and which way we were headed. Turns out he was a rider too who was rolling up with friends the next day. With the love of motorcycles a common bond, he shared trader’s secrets, dished the scoop on a route we just had to take. And when a local tells you it’s the best road in the state, you take it.
Gas stops can be far and few in these parts, so before heading into unknown territory we stopped at a country market a stone’s throw up the road first. Inside the store, a collage on the wall was filled with pictures of locals proudly holding big catfish, black crappie and largemouth bass pulled from Sardis Lake and nearby waterways. We munched on fresh fried catfish and snacked on Praline Pecans, immersed in the ambience of southern Americana.
With bellies and gas tanks full, we began our quest to find Talimena National Scenic Byway. When the sign to the turnoff says “Winding Stair National Recreation Area,” you know you’re in for a treat. The road instantly climbed up a series of bends leading up to the ridgeline as Highway 1 cuts a swath through Ouachita National Forest. The low-end torque of the Indian Chieftain effortlessly powered the big bagger up the grades. In minutes we reached the first viewpoint, an unobstructed view to the south above a dense canopy of foliage. Ouachita is home to both deciduous and coniferous trees, shortleaf pines intermixed with black oaks, maples and underlying scrub. The next 50 miles was a roller coaster ride up and down the ridgeline, a ribbon of road carved through the forest, countless viewpoints offering panoramic vistas as far as the eye could see. The first handful of leaves were taking on fall yellows, our only regret of the ride not being able to see them all in full fall splendor. A roadside sign welcomed us into Arkansas, “The Natural State,” and then wound down the backside of the mountain range into Mena.
We continued to stay off the beaten path on the trek to Paris, weaving our way northeast on back roads. It was entertaining to just explore these parts, riding with destination but no direction. With towns so spread out, we kept a constant eye on our fuel gauge and erred on the side of caution by filling up frequently.
Considering many of the buildings in Paris are on the National Register of Historic Places, I sensed the little town doesn’t look much differently than when my grandparents lived there. Brick buildings and canopied storefronts circle the historic white columned Logan County courthouse in the center of town. A multi-colored painting of old “Paree,” France, complete with a picture of the Eifel Tower, dresses up the wall of a building at the corner of the square. The red-bricked bell tower of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church stood out against the blue-hued sky as we rolled west out of town. A little further out a Captain America replica bike sat on a rusty makeshift metal pillar out front of an old motorcycle shop.
Though I’d only been there once before years ago, recognizing the turnoff to McVay Cemetery seemed almost instinctual. In the distance, the rocky face of Horseshoe Mountain overlooks the grassy plot. The twilight sun hung low in the sky on one side, the brightness of an almost full moon rose on the other. Farms still surrounded the cemetery and the land remains much like it did when the Harleys called it home.
With the engine of the Chieftain off, the cemetery was quiet save for a handful of birds singing their song to the setting sun and cows mooing across the road. I walked up the little knoll where my grandparents rest past gravestones weathered with age, their lettering wearing thin and colors faded. Many dated back to the 1800s. Bloodlines of the McVays and Harleys are intertwined and though I never knew them, many who lay at rest here are family of some kind. The stone of my grandparents is embedded into the ground and was covered with freshly mowed grass. I dusted it off, then set about scraping the lichen that had grown in the grooves off my grandparent’s names. Soon the words Charles Benjamin and Laura Belle were clear again in the marble face. Next to them lie Charley V.B. and Ella O. Harley, my father’s grandparents who died before I was born. I paid my respects in silent prayer, tell them how I loved and admired them, touched their stone in a show of respect. Since I had no flowers, I tucked my calling card into the edge of the grave and grass, ceremoniously laying my name down next to theirs. My path back to the bike took me past statues of two small angels, their wings outlined against the purple sky. My visit has left me sated knowing the roots of my family tree are buried deep in a peaceful place that’s changed little over time, a quiet, grassy bend in the shadow of a mountain.
Morning came with the prospect of making the final push to the rally. We bunked down in Fort Smith, a short ride from Fayetteville, host city to the Bikes, Blues & BBQ Rally. We entertained the thought of riding Pig Trail Scenic Byway again but learned before the rally that the road was closed due to landslides in the spring. Wanting to stay off the highways, we opted for U.S. 71 instead.
Once out of town, the road graced us with sweeping curves and scenic views of Lake Fort Smith. The Indian Chieftain dipped stably and tracked true as we pushed hard through the turns. We’ve become particularly fond of the way the rear shock sorts out the road and keeps us comfortable in the saddle for long stints. With a little time to spare, we detoured at the road to Devil’s Den State Park. Dropping in off 74 from the east, we tested the lean angle of the Chieftain and scraped some floorboards coming down a wonderful series of switchbacks that lead into the park. Devil’s Den is spread about 2500 beautiful acres in a valley of the Boston Mountains. Trails splinter off in several directions taking hikers to natural bridges, waterfalls, caves and crevices. A native stone dam forms an 8-acre lake in the center of the park. As much as I would have liked to explore one of its hiking trails, we blazed a trail to Fayetteville instead to begin our Bikes, Blues & BBQ Rally coverage.
This doesn’t mean our adventures through the Ozarks were over. Contrarily, the Fayetteville chapter of the International Association of Firefighters was holding a poker run the very next day. The run included a 160-mile journey through the back roads of northwest Arkansas, looping up to Eureka Springs on Highway 23 before turning south on Highway 21 to Kingston, then doubling back on Highway 16. Proceeds from the event benefit Camp Sunshine, a summer camp for children who are burn victims, as well as the Special Olympics.
We rolled through Highway 23’s series of sweepers at an aggressive clip taking full advantage of the Indian Chieftain’s 1811cc Thunder Stroke 111. School kids lined the main street into Eureka Springs twisting imaginary throttles as they beckoned bikers to rev their engines. The historic downtown Eureka Springs has old world charm, Victorian-style buildings and hotels squeezed tightly into a canyon. We pulled our first card at the Cathouse Lounge before boogieing out of town.
Outside of Eureka Springs we dropped the pace to enjoy the scenery, red-siloed barns and cattle in fields of green, big rolls of harvested hay in ranchers’ fields. Our next card stop was the local BBQ and brew hangout called Sugar Booger’s. Though the BBQ sure smelled good, we pressed on. As we rode, the first leaves of fall dropped like light rain from the trees and began littering the road. In what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a bright-eyed blond brother and sister, both knee-high to a grasshopper, stood roadside with their grandmother waving to the parade of bikers passing by.
Making our way back to town on Highway 16 we came across a familiar friend, one we met by chance last time we were here. It’s hard to miss him on his 10-foot-long chopper, the front wheel frozen in a wheelie above the grass. It’s a literal hawg on a hog, everything cobbled together from scrap metal, from the frame of the motorcycle to the high-spirited, scythe-wielding hog itself. We’ve always wondered whose creativity birthed this iconic piece of roadside art. Though we don’t know who welded everything together, we do know the iron rider has its own storied past, a Pecos Bill-sized tale of riding with General Custer hunting buffalo, rolling with General Pershing during his punitive expedition into Mexico, and carrying “Little Boy” to Los Alamos before finally being used to run ‘shine. The tall tales of Texas ain’t got nothing on this Razorback.
Arkansas is aware of the riches it has to offer motorcyclists. The state publishes an almost 100-page long motorcycling guide to prove the point. From the roads to the scenery to the people, it is a gem waiting to be discovered.
The Southern spirit of the people in this area of the country would reach out and touch me one more time. A couple weeks after arriving back home, a text popped up on my phone from an unknown number. The message said “I was cleaning up at the cemetery and found your card at the foot of their grave. Thought I would send a picture.” The picture was of my grandparent’s grave marker, the lines of the lettering and flowers in the corner crisp and clear. I shot back a text thanking them for their kind gesture but never heard back, an anonymous message sent from their grave.
- Highway 1 is a 50-mile long ride along the ridgeline of the Ouachita National Forest.
- We took in the beauty of Devil's Den State Park during our recent road trip through the Arkansas Ozarks.
- We got lost during the Bikes, Blues & BBQ Poker Run and had to stop and ask a local for directions. #hawgonahog
- You can see in all directions on the Talimena National Scenic Byway.