Arkansas and Missouri: Drought in the Ozarks

We intended to cross on a ferry, but the river was too shallow and the ferry wasn't running, so we detoured into Tennessee and crossed on pavement

We intended to cross on a ferry, but the river was too shallow and the ferry wasn’t running, so we detoured into Tennessee and crossed on pavement

We set off at first light, bound for a ferry crossing of the Mississippi River, but other riders at a gas station informed us that the ferry we intended to take was not running due to record low water levels in the river. There were other ferry crossings, but fearing that they also might be closed sent us south into Tennessee and the certainty of a bridge crossing.

As we entered Arkansas I noticed the terrain was dry, very dry, and the crops were stunted and often brown. There was not a cloud in the sky nor a hint of a breeze as we traveled rural roads along the northern part of the state through farm country that seemed to be producing little but dust. The thermometer on my instrument cluster flirted with the hundred degree mark and Barley looked none too happy. What water we saw was brown and stagnant, often with a greenish scum of algae on top. I made it a practice to pull into every rest area to give Barley a chance to rehydrate, but travel that day was arduous at best.

From a bridge I noticed a clear blue river below, and took the next turn to give my dog some relief from the heat. I found a small shoreline park in a nameless town and pulled over. Barley made a beeline for the river while I shed some gear and followed. The water was startlingly clear and shockingly cold, so I retreated to the bank while my dog splashed around making happy sounds. A youngish couple laughed at his antics and struck up a conversation with me. They explained that the reason the river was so cold and clear was that less than a mile upstream it emerged from a massive subterranean cavern. They noted our direction of travel and remarked that we would soon be entering foothills and the temperature would probably drop to more reasonable levels.

They were right. We began climbing shortly after getting back underway, and the mercury dropped to the high eighties. There were a few reservoirs along our route, and I noticed that the water level in each was way down. We reached Mountain Home, Arkansas late in the afternoon and I decided to make it a short day. The marathon run from the storm the day before had left us both tired. We shared Mexican food, found a hotel, turned on the air conditioner and fell asleep.

Push Mountain, just to the southwest of us, was a ride not to be missed according to locals who frequented an online adventure rider forum. Local advice had in the past unearthed some real treasures, so we set off in the pre-dawn darkness to check it out. We were not disappointed.

We timed it right! Flatness in the dark, curves when the sun comes up

We timed it right! Flatness in the dark, curves when the sun comes up

Sunrise at Push MountainThe road up and over Push Mountain must have been engineered by a motorcyclist! The flawless pavement led us on a wonderfully serpentine path illuminated by a nearly full moon and a sky full of brilliant stars. On one switchback I faced a thin strip of cloud bathed from beneath by the salmon-colored tones of the rising sun. It was so beautiful I pulled over so Barley and I could enjoy it. We sat on the ground leaning into each other, surrounded by majestic oaks, sharing a granola bar and feeling the sun’s warmth on our faces.

Forays thru the sidestreets often yield gems like this

Forays thru the sidestreets often yield gems like this

By ten o’clock we were praying for sunset. The temperature had reached 108°F. Every field we passed was brown and lifeless. The few cattle we saw raised clouds of dust with every step they took. Armadillos joined the ranks of the occasional roadkill. This was very different from Vermont!

There was a small cooler in my topcase in which I kept snacks of nuts and dried fruit. At a general store I moved those snacks and filled the cooler with a five pound bag of ice. For as long as this heat lasted we would stop every thirty minutes to drink cool water. I also dipped a washcloth in the cold water at every stop to wipe down Barley’s belly and paws. He came to enjoy that routine and would immediately go belly up when he saw me reach for the washcloth. At one stop a Harley rider in full leathers noticed the delighted expression on Barley’s face as his crotch was wiped down and remarked wistfully, “I’ve gotta give that a try!”

Everything was brown. Any field with livestock was bare dirt

Everything was brown. Any field with livestock was bare dirt

The water level was down a bit at Bull Shoals Lake

Bull Shoals Lake between Arkansas and Missouri

We had plans to linger in Arkansas’ Oachita Range and camp in Petit Jean State Park, but the heat was so oppressive we turned north instead, hoping for more moderate conditions at the rally site. We played in Bull Shoals Lake for a bit, noting the low water level, then caught a ferry across to the Missouri side. Once again we followed roads tailor made for motorcyclists until the hills flattened out, then continued north on a four lane highway. I spotted a Sonic Drive-In just off the highway in Warsaw, Missouri, so pulled over for a bite to eat. A Sonic far behind us in Kentucky had been so incredibly dog-friendly that we had patronized them a few times on this trip. This one was no exception; unbidden, Barley’s bowl was filled with ice water and he was given a small dish of soft-serve vanilla ice cream.

While we were sitting in the shade of their canopy I weighed our options. Late in the afternoon the temperature was still well over one hundred degrees. There was no breeze. Worried about my dog in conditions like that I opted out of camping at the rally site at Sedalia just thirty miles up the road. Word was that all Sedalia hotels had been filled by rally goers. But across the boulevard from Sonic was a sparkling new hotel with vacancies.

They did not allow pets.

I have found, however, that if you are polite and your dog is both cute and well-mannered, many hotel managers will waive that rule. In many cases it’s probably more of a screening tool than a hard and fast rule. So it was at this hotel. And of course we did our best to remain unobtrusive and considerate of others, never made noise and always scooped the poop.

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