Ozark Bound

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys, Kentucky Tourism, Ohio Tourism
April 1 2015

The beauty of the Ozarks and its quiet, pristine roads invite this group of motorcyclists to leave home far behind

More than 50 metres below, the Niagara River’s deep blue torrent roils around the concrete piers of the Peace Bridge, and as we approach U.S. Customs, I do a balancing act on my new Yamaha Venture as the traffic stops and starts. I can see the log booms holding back the remains of Lake Erie’s winter cloak of ice as Tom and Dianne, Jeff and Debbie, and Tina and I begin our trek southward to milder biking climes.

boosting a battery in motorcycle With Ontario’s smog far behind, we ride through the hills of beautiful Cattaraugus County on NY 219. A light rain falls as we proceed gingerly down the exit at Boston, NY, where Tom and Dianne pick up a piece of metal and flatten their rear tire. My little lifesaver bag of tools proves its worth, and after a three-hour stop, and some help from the boys at Hamburg Honda, we’re on our way again – except Jeff’s battery is now dead from powering my little tire pump, but a boost from another battery is all that’s needed to get underway.

The rain shows off the Allegheny Mountains’ exposing a multitude of greens. The morning mist-filled air inflates us with the fresh scents of spring. In Ellicottville, we park the bikes in front of the Ellicottville Brewery and Restaurant for lunch. Seated among huge copper vats, we have our senses teased by the malty smells of fermenting brews during a delectable lunch.

We leave Ellicottville on NY 242 west over the hills. Winding through New York’s ski country to Little Valley, NY 62 runs south into Pennsylvania. With the steep Allegheny Mountains on our left, we relax and cruise along in this utopia of bends and curves following the lazy Allegheny River. At Franklin, PA 8 takes us south to our hotel just north of Pittsburgh.

The next morning dawns sunny and we head to Wheeling, West Virginia, and points south on SR 7. Hugging the curves along the banks of the Ohio River, we cast cautious glances at the huge tugboats churning up the muddy water as they push gangs of barges northward against the current. At Clarington, Ohio, we find Highway 78, a great winding road with little traffic that takes us west to Woodsfield, where Ohio 26, snakes its way south through Wayne National Forest. I catch glimpses here and there of some of Ohio’s more than 125 covered bridges as we whiz by on this pleasantly crooked road.

Old Habits Die Hard

hillbilly hot dog sign As I’m not getting any younger, the thought recently occurred to me that it might be time to own a cruiser style of motorcycle. So, with Tina and me aboard our new-to-us Yamaha cruiser, with the trailer behind, we’re ready for all the curves and demands that Ohio 26 has to offer. However, as I enter a left-hander, and being a bit overzealous, the left floorboard grounds hard, then the kickstand. I can’t lean any farther, so I straighten up a bit and look for an avenue of escape. With less than a metre between the pavement and a shallow grassy ditch, I strike a line up the gravel shoulder. All is well, until the trailer whips sideways and slides into the ditch, pulling the bike farther onto the shoulder. Forward momentum then brings the bike back onto the asphalt, sideways, back tire howling with displeasure. Immediately, my old racing experience comes to the forefront and I put my foot down, countersteer with the slide, and grab a handful of throttle, hoping for the best. The bike and trailer fishtail back and forth a couple of times, then straighten up under acceleration, and we continue on as if nothing happened.

It turns out cruisers ground out at a lean angle of approximately 24 degrees. My previous mount of many years, a Gold Wing, grounds out at about 45 degrees. Even though there’s snow on the mountain, I guess there’s still some fire in my furnace.

A few kilometres later, rollicking along on the south side of the Ohio River, we stop in Lesage, West Virginia, for lunch at the renowned Hillbilly Hot Dogs. The joint is packed with bikers and cagers alike, and the menu is absolutely everything hot dogs. We opt for dining outside, even though a couple of old school buses and assorted buildings offer out-of-the-weather eating spots. This is a quirky place to stop for lunch, and we spend a few hours just reading all the signage and trying to see everything. Years ago, owners Sonny and Sharie had met in Hollywood, California. Not being happy with the “weenie huts” of the Golden State, they arrived back in Sonny’s home state, West Virginia, and with more hot dog selections than anywhere else, Hillbilly Hot Dogs was born.

A Little Further Yet

Ozark BoundOn I-64, the tires hum and the engines purr as we super slab it west to Lexington, Kentucky. Following the Athens Boonsboro Road that circles the perimeter of Lexington, we mosey along past spreading green oaks, manicured lawns and mortar-less stone fences that border the road and divide pristine horse farms. The roads in northern Kentucky’s horse country are phenomenal for biking and I promise myself to return soon for a longer stay. Later, gathered at our hotel restaurant, we reminisce of the past two days’ adventures over dinner. Unlike other modes of transport, motorcycling is unique – it’s as much about good friends and socializing as it is about riding and seeing new things. Our third morning begins with KY 68 taking us southwest toward Mammoth Caves National Park. With more than 600 km of caves, a tour requires a reservation.

Dodging back and forth between trees, a narrow asphalt trail takes us up the mountain to the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church. Signs tell of the early settlers, and the nearby graveyard offers some insight into the history of the area. The road changes name to Flint Ridge Road, and continues wandering through the hills and forest until we suddenly merge onto I-65, which takes us to Bowling Green, home of the Corvette Museum. A bit north, and another super slab, I-69 takes us to Paducah, our lodgings for the third night. After our ordeal with the lean angle and the out-of-control trailer on the Venture two days earlier, our final travel day starts by answering an ad about a Gold Wing, and before we leave Paducah, I’m the proud owner of a 2005 Wing with all the trimmings. An expensive lesson, but I’m pleased to know that I’m not ready for a cruiser just yet. This just means that promise I made to myself about returning will come true when I return to pick up the Wing.

Leaving Kentucky, we ride across the Ohio River and immediately after, the Mississippi River, where Missouri, the Show Me State, welcomes us. In less than 300 km, the Illinois, Missouri and Ohio Rivers all converge on the mighty Mississippi River. Welcome to the Show Me State In Missouri, we roll west and then south to West Plains; after four days, we meet up with Lake Taneycomo and arrive in Branson. The huge Bass Pro Shops across the lake is a testament to an American rags-to-riches dream. John L. Morris started selling fishing baits and worms from the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield, just a few miles north of Branson. His lures and baits became so popular that he eventually opened his own store in 1971. Today, there are more than 60 stores across North America that fall under the Bass Pro Shops banner. Morris, a newcomer to the Forbes billionaire list, also owns the Islamorada Fish Company in the Florida Keys, where I ate a few years ago. And just south of Branson is Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge, an exclusive resort of rustic log buildings on the shores of Table Rock Lake. After four days of riding, we take a day off to relax.

The Pro Bass Shops silhouetted against Lake Taneycomo dominates the entrance to Branson, with the Scenic Railway Station directly across the street. A few decades back, it was thought that Branson would overtake Nashville as America’s premier country music entertainment capital. Filled with star billings, live theatre and abundant shopping, it’s a mecca for seniors, but above all, it’s a motorcyclist’s dream with the nearby twisty country roads beckoning us away from the maddening crowds. Exploring the area Leaving the Radisson Hotel, we catch Animal Safari Road and sweep down into the valley, where we follow MO 265 toward Table Rock Lake.

The damming of the White River formed almost 1400 km of shoreline that, from above, looks like a fiery monster twisting through the Ozark valleys. To fishermen, it’s a utopia of bays filled with bass, walleye and catfish. Winding past vineyards and estate homes nestled in the ravines, we catch glimpses of Table Rock Lake’s deep blue waters. On MO 76, and just before Silver Dollar City, we take a rambling ride through the hills down to Indian Point for a phenomenal view of the many bays along this massive lake’s shoreline. As the Yamaha thrums along, we leave the resorts and villages far behind and follow the undulating narrow, grey ribbon of perfect pavement. As we gently wind past fields enclosed with page-wire fences, the smell of newly cut hay fills my nostrils, and I tilt my head back and take in a great lungful of fresh country air.

We thread our way through the abundant curves of Mark Twain National Forest, and over each rise another magnificent vista awaits. There is nowhere to relax totally because the roadway is constantly rising and falling, bearing left then right, going uphill to a hard turn at the crest and back down again. Every motorcyclist should have these roads at their back door. It has been a good day and a pleasant 167 km journey around Table Rock Lake. As a storm approaches from the Gulf – and with it, golf ball-sized hail – our friends have fled for home. We have pushed the envelope a bit by staying an extra day, but this ride has been worth the risk. As always, the Ozarks have given us all the riding pleasure they promise.


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