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Blitzing the Mystery Road


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While the rest of the Chi-Town Crew was having a good time riding around Illinois, hanging out at HH and unbolting their Tupperware, I was off to the Internet BMW Riders Blitz to Branson. This was the seventh annual (my fourth) season-starting gathering of folks who are best buddies from the Big List but might see each other once a year in person (if that). Over the years, it's grown from about 14 riders to over 160 scheduled this year.


The trip down I-55 and I-44 is normally uneventful and tedious. This year was no different, other than the few moments of sheer terror east of St. Louis when, in a driving rainstorm, I either hit something or hydroplaned. The front end of the bike started slamming violently back and forth, tearing my left hand off the bars, the back end started skewing back and forth, the whole bike started drifting toward the shoulder, and I wondered if I was going fast enough to leave a roostertail wake when I would momentarily be sliding down the interstate. Thanks to the miracle of gyroscopic stability, the bike settled down before I ran out of highway and before I could do anything stupid, and I settled into some nice truck tire tracks until the rain stopped.


When I got to the motel in Branson (this is a non-camping rally), the parking lot was full of every model and color BMW you could want (and a few you wouldn't). I didn't even make it off the bike before being accosted by long-lost list aquaintances. After shaking about 30 hands and finally checking in to the motel, I rode over to the corner gas station for some beer to add to the communal cooler. (If you drink beer, you bring beer, and the spirit of the event somehow ensures that there's always enough.) When I walked up to the counter with my arms full of Heineken, the clerk said, "You must be with the BMW group up the hill." He informed me that just for us, they had a sale on Heinie and had just put 4 more cases in the cooler, because they had already sold 3. (Sure beats having to drink Busch all weekend).


Saturday was foggy and threatening rain. A large group of riders was headed out for a group ride and lunch at a trout farm up in the Missouri Ozarks, but I couldn't make up my mind whether to join them or to go off looking for a road in Arkansas that several people had been praising. I headed out on the ride route about 10 minutes behind the group figuring I would decide later.


One of the reasons I like to go to the Blitz is that living in flat Chicago, I need to re-learn how to ride twisties every year. My re-education started immediately on US 160 east of Branson, as the road dove around, over, behind, but never straight through the Ozark foothills. I was trying to catch up with the group, but got stuck behind a huge SUV pulling a bass boat on a trailer. The driver apparently had too much male ego to let anybody pass him on those twisty roads, and at one straight spot actually pulled into the middle of the road so I couldn't get around him. He was moving at a pretty good clip, though, and I was just warming up, so I stayed right on his bumper. As he realized he wasn't shaking me, his speed started creeping up and up until I was actually having to work a bit. Finally he pushed it too hard around a corner and the trailer started fishtailing across the road. Either his common sense or his wife must have given him hell, because he pulled off at the very next wide spot in the road and let me by.


By the time I got to the decision point, the fog was clearing a bit, so I decided to skip lunch and look for the magic road that people were raving about. I headed south on County J from Hardenville. At the Arkansas line the pavement changed color from gray to brown and the road became Arkansas 201. I wound my way over hill and dale (literally), through Mountain Home, and found Arkansas 341 just north of Norfork.


I had heard this road described as "as good as the Dragon." It was so new that my Rand McNally map showed it as unnumbered and unpaved. But other riders said it was beautifully paved, with almost no side roads or traffic. One rider said he went up it about 5 miles and had to turn back because he was already too tired from riding hard.


For the first few miles, I wondered what the big deal was. The road was fun, but it wasn't spectacular, and the pavement was badly broken up in spots. Then I came over a hill and hit the new part of the road.


It was outstanding. The pavement was brand new, grippy, with wide paved shoulders to provide room for error. The curves were banked at the right angle for speeds somewhat in excess of those posted on the warning signs. As promised, there were almost no side roads and no traffic. The curves were, indeed, comparable to the ones in Deal's Gap. But instead of being 11 miles of solid curves like the Dragon, which you can pretty much motor through in third gear, 341 has 20 mph curves separated by 5th gear straightaways. Accelerate hard out of the curve, upshift twice, brake hard, downshift twice, lean through the curve and repeat many, many times. It was one of the best roads for exercising all your riding skills that I've ever run across.


The end of 341 came too soon, and I headed northwest on 14, one of the Arkansas scenic byways. It's an example of Arkansas' old way of building highways, which is to run a skinny ribbon of pavement right on the ground up and down over the hills, disturbing as little of the countryside as possible. Unless you like old barns and junk cars, 14 is not as classically scenic as the better known Highway 7 (which actually has it's own tourist brochure), but that means it's not full of RVs and gawkers like 7. 14 just twists around and over and down the Ozarks. It's one of those roads where you see a sign that says 19 miles to the next town, and you ride and ride and ride around curve after curve and after an eternity the next sign says it's still 17 miles to that town.


I stopped at a restuarant called the Front Porch in Yellville for lunch, because in addition to the ubiquitous buffet (it's the law in the Ozarks that every restaurant must have a buffet), they advertised pit BBQ. I bypassed the lasagna and whitefish on the buffet and went for the BBQ pork sandwich. It was about 1/2 pound of tender, juicy pulled pork, with a pile of fries and homemade vinegar-y cole slaw. I highly recommend that you find yourself in Yellville at some point and stop in there for BBQ.


After lunch, there were a few more hills and curves to manage on 14 before I got back into Missouri and Branson. I proceeded at a snail's pace down 76, the main drag of Branson, looking for a shop for tacky souvenirs for the people in my office. Traffic was miserable, and it's not even the real season in Branson. I got back to the motel just in time to cover my bike before the afternoon thunderstorm hit, and to settle in for the evening banquet with tons of t-shirts and hats and other door prizes contributed by assorted BMW dealers, various awards for furthest riders (Connecticut and San Jose CA), oldest rider(77), youngest rider (15 1/2), most hard-luck rider (the 15 1/2 year old who low-sided his bike with 2 days on his new license), and other categories including Most High Tech Bike (yours truly). Then out to the parking lot for a brief headlight brightness showdown (inconclusive) and more brew and bull in the parking lot.


Sunday I actually managed to get up in time for the free continental breakfast, packed up, and said a round of another year's farewells. The sky was gloomy leaving Branson but quickly cleared up to one of the most perfect riding days I've ever experienced. I even had a tail wind for a change. Even with a stop at the Chicago Cutlery outlet in Lebanon, a traffic jam in St. Louis, an aimless wander in Springfield looking for Cozy Dogs (which was closed), and a leisurely meal at Steak and Shake, I made the 580 miles home in just under 10 1/2 hours.


Totals 1390 miles, countless smiles.

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I THOUGHT there was someone missing yesterday.


(what some folks won't do to get an early lead in the mileage contest!)


Sounds like a great time. See you next week!

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