Two herons fly gracefully and low over the lake as I pitch my tent for the fourth night. A few hours later, fireflies make brief and random trajectories of light around the picnic table where I make a cup of evening hot chocolate with the help of the Jetboil. I am surprised at how late it gets dark, at around 9 pm, presumably because I have traveled North as well as East through two time zones. I am immensely satisfied at having reached my first destination, the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, fifteen hundred miles from home, a place I have wanted to visit ever since I used to visit Kansas City for work. And I’m looking forward to spending two nights in the same place. Time to make these notes on the last four days – the first four days really.
My planning seems to have paid off (I’m such a methodical beast). Progressively shortening each day’s ride worked well, and staying exclusively in State Park campgrounds with their bathrooms and hot showers and a picnic table at each campsite is perfect at $12 per night with the Senior discount! It hasn’t rained overnight yet. Of course, it means the bike is heavily laden, but my BMW R1200GS (2012 Rallye Edition in Red White and Blue – the flag colors of both my nationalities) is designed for it.
Day 1 – Tucson, AZ to Roswell, NM : 500 miles
I’d ridden from Tucson, Arizona to Roswell, New Mexico in a day once before. A few years ago I accompanied my friend Phil on the second stage of his ride from San Diego to Washington, D.C., along with another friend Rick, but I was frozen out (not by my friends, by the weather!) and had to turn back at Lubbock, Texas. But that was a January. Still, 500 miles and an hour lost make for a long first day. I have a sense of urgency to get this trip off the ground. I am going to Nashville, Tennessee for my first BMW Motorcycle Owners Association national rally, and they are expecting me and 5,999 others.
I knew I would lose an hour on the first day, Arizona doesn’t do Daylight Saving, so I put the alarm on for 4am and left an hour later after breakfast. I had been a bit anxious for the previous three days, making and remaking lists, practice-packing to see what would fit where, but experienced enough to arrange a place for everything and have everything in its place, and – most important – accessible as needed. The days of carrying the tent crossways so that I can’t open the side panniers are OVER!
Two years ago I fell off a smaller dual sport bike and broke my leg. Charlie and I were fifteen miles from the nearest paved road in the hills above Alamogordo, NM which is where they X‑Rayed then operated on my leg that night. So I decided to visit, not the scene of the crime exactly, but where that dirt road met the paved road, near High Rolls, NM. I hadn’t been able to see anything out of the back of the ambulance. It was a moment (of nostalgia?) and I continued up over the mountains through Cloudcroft, where Charlie and I had been headed but never made it to, convinced that I had never been there before.
Until Cloudcroft and the distinctive and beautiful countryside – a mix of farmland, meadow, and forest at altitude – started to seem vaguely familiar. Eventually, I realized that this had been a miraculous part of my route back from Lubbock that January four or five years ago. I had been rigid with cold, wearing everything I could fit under my jacket, riding so carefully in case of ice, and despondent that, with the mountains ahead, it was bound to get even colder as I climbed up and over. But the opposite happened, and that day it got warmer as I rode upwards. I was ever grateful for that, and hold a special place in my heart for a road that I didn’t even recognize.
But on this day, when the Bottomless Lakes state park campground (NM) came into view, I was relieved and ecstatic. The second order of business, after putting up the tent, was cooling off with a refreshing swim. Amazingly, I could float effortlessly. These lakes are mineral rich and salty, like the Dead Sea. So afterward I had to take a shower!
Day 2 – Roswell, NM to Lawton, OK : 400 miles
I lost another hour! Careless I know, but I’ll get them back later. I didn’t realize Central Time started at the Texas border until a big sign and the clock on my GPS told me so. So much for planning.
The Texas panhandle is flat. All over, nodding donkey pumps lift oil out of the ground that you can smell in the air. The weights and counterweights circle each other in an oddly slow rhythmic dance that would be soothing if the machines weren’t ugly and dirty. The land has been, and continues to be, a scrubby nothingness – no trees since I left the mountains – until it slowly transforms into grazing country for vast ranches, then over a long distance it gradually becomes greener and more recognizable as farmland.
Through the panhandle and into Oklahoma is evidence of the hollowing out of America. Boarded up shop fronts and shuttered businesses line Main Street of every little town I pass through. Bigger towns have entire strip malls closed down, the buildings decaying and weeds growing in the parking lots. Lubbock is the exception, and because it has Universities and Colleges, I find, ironically, a healthy Superfood Acai Bowl for lunch.
Into Oklahoma I become adventuresome and leave county roads for farm roads, so narrow that tractors pulling farm machinery take up both lanes. It’s a mistake, my farm road terminates at a T‑junction with a dirt road and I have to backtrack about ten miles. Oklahoma, I learn, has been home to 67 different Native American tribes, some with names that I knew in my childhood in England – Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche – presumably from TV Westerns.
Towards the end of another long day, three hills appear, then small clusters of low hills, rocky eruptions out of the flat ground. It is the edge of the Wichita mountains. But the GPS tells me at every turn that I should take a dirt road to arrive at Great Plains state park (the name says it all). I am close, and it is bizarrely insistent, so eventually I do take a dirt road and after a mile I come out on a paved road proving that I didn’t need to. Damned GPS. A few weeks ago this lake rose so high that campsites near the water – Tom’s Reservoir – were flooded. It is still high, but so pleasant to swim in that I don’t bother with the showers, which aren’t free anyway in this campground.
Day 3 – Lawton, OK to Hunstville, AR : 400 miles
I decide to take freeways to save some time today, not realizing these are toll roads. Riding North towards Oklahoma City I see lightning up ahead. As I hold up traffic behind me at the toll while I fumble with money and gloves etc. the lady says there’s a bad storm coming and she hopes I can ride it out. I get closer to a massive visible weather front that has layers from top to bottom in distinct separate colors with clear horizontal edges, and it extends from my right to as far as I can see to my left. The topmost layer is light blue and the layers get progressively darker on down until the band in front of me at ground level is black. In my mirrors, I can see receding blue sky dotted with white clouds. I ride under the massive front and into the dark. At half past nine in the morning it is so dark that my headlights light up the road. There is more lightning ahead but no rain yet. Just as I decide to turn off the highway, thunder explodes and torrential rains start. I shelter under the narrow roof of a gas station, fill up with gas and put on my (readily accessible!) rain gear. These are called Frogg Toggs and are loved by motorcyclists everywhere that it rains. It’s the simple things.
When the thunder stops and the rain slows I start off again but it’s a challenge to see through my wet and fogged-up spectacles and helmet visor, and, I expect, to be seen on the road. The GPS is waterlogged and the controls on the touchscreen will no longer respond, with the result that for most of the next two days it (the GPS) tries stubbornly to route me back to Oklahoma City. It is useless for navigation, so I get out my iPad (ta da!) and a power cable that I have to route from under my left butt cheek up to the tablet in the tank bag. The first time I stand up the cable breaks and it too is useless. I ummed and ahhed about bringing paper maps of each state with me, but I’m glad I did.
A hundred or so miles on an Interstate is a warp in space. I can travel at warp speed but there’s no view, no sense of the landscape, just a wall of deciduous trees on both sides from point to point. But I’m dry when I stop to take off the Frogg Toggs near the border with Arkansas and treat myself to hot food. Shame that I rode off not seeing my black vinyl rain mitts resting on the black vinyl drybag, and lost them.
Arkansas is green and hilly and dotted with valleys large and small. It looks tailor made for small farms. When I get onto smaller roads they rise and fall and swoop round lovely curves. I am the only camper at the walk-in sites at Withrow Springs state park campground – one lonely paper reservation hanging on a row of ten signs. It is very tranquil here, and the birdsong is very different from Arizona.
Day 4 –Hunstville, AR to Lake of the Ozarks, MO : 200 miles
At last, a short day. I spent over an hour in a Starbucks in Springfield, Missouri on the way. Whatever you think of Starbucks, it is a place with reliable Internet, free electricity to charge up devices and, oh yes, coffee. The Lake of the Ozarks state park is pretty big and it’s five miles in from the park entrance to the park campground. But it pales in comparison with the lake that seems to be everywhere and to go on forever. I wish I had more time to explore.