Missouri turned out to be a surprise. It wasn’t even in my plans: I was going to run through Iowa again. The closer I got to the Ozarks the better the roads and the views. Much of it is surrounded by trees and you can literally stop noticing the forest for the trees. Eventually though I fell in love with the way the roads would undulate and follow the land. Some of these were obviously once dirt roads, made by the horse and ox drawn carts of yesteryear.
Since I had no destination in mind I let the National Park Service’s (NPS) app guide me. You can reserve campsites (among other things) and I used their map to locate something along a reservoir. I never made it straight into the actual Lake of the Ozarks State Park, nor did I go by Ft. Leonardwood, where I went to school while in the US Marines. I did remember driving trucks through the steep grades though, and hitting almost the same area while pulling a trailer with a motorcycle brought back some memories of being 19 again, learning to keep brakes cool while keeping the engine in the correct gear.
Those beat up old 5-ton trucks were a lot more work though, and I made good time, handily beating the setting sun as I reached Lake Wappapello, and a campground called People’s Creek. It was by a boat launch and a manicured beach with several day-use sites. I picked my space perfectly, with two trees overlapping and creating dabbled shade for the entire day. With almost no breeze I needed the shade.
The campground even had showers, and was almost empty, giving me a playground to wander. After some phone calls and studying the map, I could spend three nights there, then head to meet my buddy Milliken after he recovered a bit from his surgery. It’s a weird world, but when you roll with what you’ve got, more times than not you’ll be surprised at your results.
So I spent a few days wandering the area around the lake, soaking up scenes, dodging sporadic rain showers, and falling in love with this food truck right by the entrance to my campground. It’s called Rollin’ Smoke BBQ, and the lady there spent over two years developing here own crazy recipe. It’s basically a giant empanada, filled with any number of things you’d find at an American BBQ joint.
I was hooked on the pulled pork and loaded baked potato. It’s harder than it sounds to get this right. She had to make mashed potatoes with the usual toppings of a baked potato– at the right ratio and mixed properly– then deep fry it in an empanada-like piece of dough along with the pulled pork and BBQ sauce. The result was something really special, as the dough had a sweetness to it, everything cooked through without being surface-of-the-sun hot inside, and it all balanced with the savory flavors of the baked potato and pork. And she only charged $8.50 for the damn thing.
I’d go back just for one of those, but the roads and the views from the lake make is a special place I’ll always remember. Add to it that the campsite had water and power too, while costing the same as most park’s non-electric sites, and I kind of wanted to stay a month. However, I had people to meet.
Milliken and I hadn’t talked since we were in the Marines, probably 1999 or so. I tried to navigate to his place using dead reckoning and the compass on the bike, but ended up making some interesting circles. “Hey, I remember this town from 15min ago.” After wandering onto a dirt road yet again, I set up the GPS and told it to avoid highways, and ended up on an interesting piece of land.
I entered Illinois over a massive bridge and saw the mighty Mississippi for the first time in over a decade. I then turned almost immediately and went south (well, technically northeast at first), up and over another huge bridge that crossed the Ohio River and brought me into Kentucky. The way the rivers meet– and the way they split apart and back together– make that area an interesting mix of farmland, levee roads, and towns that likely once flourished when there was a huge need for lumpers and wagon drivers.
It’s truly amazing how much commerce still happens on that river. Our generations fail to understand how much we owe to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, along with several others like the Missouri and Colorado (and Potomac). Before trains or planes, and well before a proper highway system, it was difficult to even pull an ox cart cross-country. Roads were glorified foot paths and so rough that many products would break or be spoiled by the time they reached new markets. River barges brought raw materials to the coast as well as manufactured goods.
Dodging rain as the Ozarks flatten out into fields or corn and beans.
Nowadays it would be no surprise to see barges be of little use. The high cost of labor means that how something is loaded and unloaded can make it too expensive, even if it’s transported cheaply. This is a reason the rail industry has nearly forgotten the boxcar, which needs to be loaded by hand or forklift, unlike flatbed cars that can hold shipping containers ready to be hoisted onto trucks or ships.
In any event, I was now in Kentucky, and the roads wandered through forests, and it wasn’t too long before I started to see tobacco barns. These buildings are usually more than 100 years old and built with gaps in their sides. They have big doors that are usually left open. The entire purpose is to hand the tobacco leaves inside for drying, letting air move through but keeping rain away. Some tobacco is dried in the sun, but it can loose a lot of its flavor profile if this is done incorrectly.
The plants themselves are always beautiful to me, as their leaves will go from green to yellow from the bottom up. Most farmers also plant sequentially, with rows being a few weeks apart– each section yellowing at different times. I expertly (luckily) dodged some more rainstorms and made it to Milliken’s house. He was in high spirits, walking with a slight hitch in his step from recent stitches but he didn’t have the drained and exhausted look of someone who’d been in the hospital for three days.
I had a great time catching up on current times and reminiscing about the old days. I had to cut things short though since I was heading to Clarksville, TN, for the night. I set the GPS after heading north, allowing me to incorporate Land Between the Lakes N.R.A. into the ride. It added time, and a lot of it was just staring at walls of trees on either side, but this is another unique and important area for American history. I’m not interested in detailing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s work in the area though, so I’ll just say there are still some beautiful towns in the area.
I spent the following day in Clarksville with a friend by the name of Paul. I’d met Paul and his wife Meredith while on another loop around the country back in 2020. At the time they lived in Florida though. Being military veterans and motorcycle travelers too, we got along great and stayed in touch, so meeting up with them in Tennessee was a treat. We talked motorcycles and the military of course, but also of Paul’s charity work for disadvantaged and special needs children.
The guy is all heart and a strong reminder that just because someone is gruff and loud on the surface doesn’t mean they don’t have a deep compassion and understanding of the needs of their community. Paul is a credit to any community he chooses to help.
Next stop though was the Lexington, KY area, and a meet up with my family for the first time since they left California almost a year ago. The ride out there was bipolar, with the sun being hot and the air being cold. That’s usually my favorite type of weather but with humidity the air temperature can really change on you between one valley and the next.
Just the same I really fell back in love with Kentucky, having now ridden many more backroads than interstates, seen more of its history, and then poking around Lexington for two weeks. I got to tour some distilleries, ride through different quarters of town, and even sample some local tacos. Tacos this far away from Mexico are similar in concept; you take ingredients that are popular locally and put them in a tortilla.
It makes for excellent pulled pork tacos, BBQ tacos, fried chicken tacos, and international fare like bulgogi tacos (Korean style BBQ beef). It also makes for $4-$6 tacos when the ones off a street vendor in Southern California are $2-$3 and are better despite being meat, cilantro, and onions in a tortilla.
It reminds be of sushi. In Japan the idea of these specialty rolls we all eat is crazy. Why drown fish in all these sauces and sprinkles of tempura and green onions and imitation crab? They thought of tempura frying an entire roll is just crazy. But that’s what “fusion” cuisine is. In that sense, it’s cool the lowly taco has found such a following. At the same time, sushi also started as a street food: it was a grab-and-go snack. Either way, I long to return to Mexico and get guisado tacos. Hell, even in the desert hell-hole of Victorville, California, you could get a $2.00 taco al pastor that I’d literally crave all week until Angie set up her stand again on Thursday.
Next up though was not more tacos: it was heading south to go north. The Blue Ridge Parkway and the many wonderful roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains were calling, and I made my way through the Cumberland Gap toward the Cherohala Skyway…
From one of the tours (Buffalo Trace) we went to the cemetery that Daniel Boone is supposedly buried at, and found some other famous graves as well.
3 thoughts on “From Ozarks to Bluegrass– Eastbound and Down”
Great areas to ride. I spend the winter in northwest Arkansas and can attest to the fine roads and minimal traffic.
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Yeah it surprised me,.even though I driven around Ft Leonardwood way back when as saw some of it for myself. I was probably too much an angry 19yo Marine, stuck with nearly the whole 4yrs to go.
My brother went through Army training in 1955 at Ft. Lost in the woods misery. I learned to ride a motorcycle in Saigon 1967. Bought the bike from another pilot then picked up a Vietnamese issued license, no checkout, and off to OJT.
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