Crossing the Ozark Mountains on an Ultra Classic Electra Glide

I could feel the disgruntlement of the Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, the one with all the options, as we swung on to I-155. Her sentiment was that I might as well be in a Winnebago if I wanted to go on the Interstate. The Ultra, whom I will call Ullie as she has the lines of a well-fed woman, is definitely a backroads kind of bike despite her girth.

No worries, I say, stroking her tank, this will just be for a brief bit. To cross the Mississippi River, US 412 merges temporarily with the Interstate 55 at Dyersburg, Tennessee. A few miles later we are over the Big Muddy, as locals refer to the often brown-colored river, and taking the first exit in Missouri, going through Caruthersville. And there, out in the middle of roughly nowhere, is a sign advertising a casino! This is one of those strange places where floating gambling is legal, but betting on land is illegal, so the casino is on what I suspect to be a very unseaworthy riverboat. Give it a miss; I’d rather invest my money in gold bars and bury them in my back yard.

This is the back way to Hayti. Hayti? Funny name. Local lore has it that the town was named after the Caribbean island of Haiti, though nobody knows why. Not much in Hayti, an Interstate exchange and a farming center out in the fertile alluvial soil of the Mississippi River valley—if you can call a hundred-mile-wide stretch a valley. And big earthquakes, too. Apparently a couple of monster quakes that hit this part of the world back around 1812 actually caused the Mighty Miss to flow backwards for a bit, and definitely rerouted the river. Not many Europeans were around at the time, and
the Native Americans did not leave any written remembrance, so much of what we know comes from those learned types who study tectonic plates and such. The scientists say these quakes were 8-plus on the Richter scale, enough to flatten Los Angeles today. Umm…not a bad idea.

Ullie and I are back on US 412, a four-lane road headed due west as straight as the overused arrow simile, where Ullie’s sixth gear is a virtue. Four lanes become two before we cross the Little River (it’s not big) passing expanses of cotton and corn that roll on to the horizon, along with the occasional farmhouse and church. Not much traffic until we come to the town of Kennett, a county seat with some 10,000 souls in residence. This is the sort of place that rolls up the sidewalks around nine o’clock, though the fast-food joints probably stay open a little longer. It’s an old town, platted by the railroad back in 1846, but treated unkindly as of late. In contemporary Kennett, highways have replaced the rails.

Outside of Kennett I stop by an abandoned warehouse where half-a-dozen very skinny horses are trying to find something to nibble on; not much nibbling on that patch of dirt. I look at the map, and the sky. The map says I could stay due west on a state road, which may well turn to dirt when I cross into Arkansas, or continue on US 412, which goes in the same direction, though not as directly. With a lowering sky I decide to stick to pavement.

I push the 30-pound button and Ullie burbles into life, telling me she’s glad she’s not a horse like those underfed ones. (If you are curious about the 30 pounds, they refer to the weight of the starter motor and bigger battery necessary for electric starting.) Off we go, first, second, third, fourth, fifth…we don’t need sixth on this road. Crossing the St. Francis River we are now in Arkansas. I am told the name comes from a Native American word for a south wind; then on to Paragould, a slightly more prosperous agricultural county seat, with a handsome courthouse.

The main advantage to being a county seat is that a lot of lawyers come to live in the area, buy houses, rent offices, take clients out to dinner, and make the economy go round. The Union Pacific Railroad runs through town, and I imagine the old rail yards still employ a goodly number of people.

It’s still straight and flat out here, and Ullie is getting bored—never a good sign. I tell her that the Ozark Mountains are only a few miles away, and she perks up. At Walnut Ridge I get lost trying to outsmart the map. There is a big road around town, but I don’t want to go through the place and end up on a maze of streets that refuse to go where I want, plus the signs for US 412 are too infrequent. Ullie does not mind the endless stop signs, and chortles at my expense—I do appreciate her clutch with its light pull.

Finally we are free, merging with US 63, and entering the village of Portia. Was that named after some high-ranking politician’s girlfriend? Or maybe a Shakespearean scholar had something to do with it as Portia is the name of a leading character in Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice.”

It looks like rain ahead. It starts raining just as a big gas station with a roof appears. Time to feed Ullie and get my wet-weather gear on. As I’m suiting up a stripped Sportster appears, coming from the other direction, with a young man and a girl aboard completely soaked. She is not happy, not happy at all. She gets off and storms into the convenience store while he pulls out a cell phone, and I hear him ask someone to please come to the station with a car. Dear, dear…and that all could be avoided with some raingear in a saddlebag.

The road is good, well-washed pavement, but visibility is bad, so Ullie and I chug along behind traffic. Little cars send up spray, big trucks obliterate the road. Occasionally the two-laner turns to three, with an overtaking lane in my direction. A downshift and an authoritative twist of the throttle gets me by whatever is in front. That fuel-injection system is nigh-on perfect. Somewhere along the way we pick up US 62 and lose US 63; any connoisseur of road maps knows that even-numbered US highways go east/west, odd numbers, north/south.

The weather clears as we come to Norfolk Lake, and I am looking for some charming little motel with cabins right on the water. None of that is around here. From the causeway I see a big hotel and a lot of motorboats, but I’m not into traipsing down long corridors to get to my room, and leaving poor Ullie wedged in all night between a Mercedes sedan and a Yukon SUV; she prefers to sleep outside my door. Very faithful. Which means we’ll be sleeping in Mountain Home, not to be confused with Mountain View, about 40 miles to the south. View is a nice place, where I have been before, while Home is mainly businesses dedicated to all the tourists who come to fish on the local lakes. But I find a nice old-fashioned motel right next door to a restaurant that knows how to grill a steak and pull a cork—which may be why it is called The Steak House.

Old-fashioned motels generally don’t have in-room coffee pots, a very nice innovation in many American motels, so in the morning I have to walk across the road to get my java and look at the sky. Again, lowering. Should I put on my raingear before I leave, or hope for the best? I’m a hopeful kind of guy. As I sip my coffee I look at the map, which shows me there is a free ferry across Bull Shoals Lake if I head north. I’m always up for a boat ride.

To begin the day right Ullie and I will take the winding little Route 178, which runs up to the dam on the White River that has created Bull Shoals Lake. That’s a damn big dam, finished in 1951, creating a big lake that is useful for irrigation, recreation and preventing floods. There is a lot of of recreating around here, mostly having to do with boats. Route 178 is a lovely curvy road, making a great ride, and real down-home folks have their cabins along here. The salt of this great nation lives around here, independent-minded people who work hard for what they want.

I stop for some gas in Yellville, another slumbery little county seat with a population of less than 2,000 and a big courthouse. A fella named Archibald Yell was governor of the state back around 1840, but he decided to go off to fight in the Mexican War and was killed. Yellville is how he is remembered today. I am told that there are big doings the second weekend of every October, when the Yellville Turkey Trot Festival takes place. The festival festivities include turkey races, turkey calls, dancing, eating, and even something called the Turkey Toss, though my informant was suitably vague on that subject. Maybe they shot-put frozen turkeys; I’ll have to go back to find out.

From here I’m headed north to the ferry, and immediately we are pulled back to the 1950s, with woods, cattle grazing in small pastures, and old cars parked behind every house. Never know when that carburetor on the ’56 Ford Fairlane will come in handy. The road, Route 125, is narrow, trees pushing in on both sides, and the pavement is good. This is where that slickety-smooth gearbox comes into its own. Finally it’s time to pump up the shocks; a pretty sporty touring package, this Ultra is. We pass through the tiny community of Peel, where one Sam Peel had a store, became the postmaster, and decided to make his family name a permanent part of the state back in the 1860s.

The Peel Ferry is off-loading as I come up…one car. One car and Ullie get on. It is just a barge with a tug on the side to give it momentum. It has a maximum capacity of maybe six cars. A cable runs from shore to shore to make sure that we do not go astray. The captain is in the wheelhouse, and a young man (who loves his job) is on deck. He pays taxes on his salary, and his taxes pay him, since the operation is run by the state. In a way that is a perfect economic cycle.

We land in Missouri, and the numbering of the road stays the same; very sensible states, these two, sharing the same route numbers. In a few miles we are in the Mark Twain National Forest, weaving through the woods with the hollow echo of the mufflers spreading off through the trees. Glorious! At this point we’re on the northern side of the Ozark Mountains, which cover about 50,000 square miles. Here the mountains are more like rolling hills, slowly merging with the Great Plains.

Woods, woods, and more woods; I love our national forests, as well as the state and local forests. Trees are good because the lumber builds houses and the scraps provide the pulp for this magazine. Plus, trees are a renewable resource…though Ullie interjects that she does not want me trading out her big V-twin for a wood-fired steam engine. No worries, as I am very attached to that 60-horse herd that spins her back tire.

All good things must come to an end, so they say, and we are headed for civilization. Dang nab it! We arrive at the town of Sparta, population about a thousand; obviously the Europeans who settled here before the Civil War were well-read in the classics. Pulling out a map, I know that a decision must be made: more rambling, or head for the Rocky Mountains. Ullie understands the need to get home, so we go due west to the county seat of Ozark, and as usual it is built around a courthouse square.

Here we pick up US 65 (remember US 63 a little while back?) going north, and then hook into US 60 going west. Sorry, Ullie, the excitement’s gone, at least for the moment. I lean down and tell her that prairie traveling can be fun, too, in a different way, and we should soon see the snowcaps of the Rocky Mountains in 500 miles or so.

“All right! Let’s get to it,” she responds.


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