A nice little road for bicycling!
There is a big river, the White River, running between West Helena and where I wanted to go today. There are two bridges, one well north of Helena and the other well south of Helena, so I had two routes to chose from. I chose the one less travelled this time and relied on my GPS to route me to Stuttgart, AR via the bridge to the south.
I rode to McD's - a little way back into West Helena - to get breakfast and two 'hot apple pies' to take with me. I also took an extra 2 liters of water in a Platypus water bladder so I would not get dehydrated today. After Breakfast, I headed west on US 49 - nice shoulders! - for a few miles before turning south onto a small road as instructed by my GPS. It was a great bicycling road which crossed a bigger road going south a few miles later. My GPS told me to continue straight. I was now on a small residential, as opposed to rural, road and things were looking good. Then the road surface became sand and loose gravel that I couldn't ride. My GPS was set to not route me on dirt roads. Not so good.
A slightly bigger road with a rail trail running along it
I rode back a quarter mile or so to the road heading south and headed south figuring that my GPS would re-route me. That road ran parallel to a nice rail trail that seems to start near US 49 and go quite a ways south. I didn't want to go south, I wanted to go west. My GPS re-routed me on another dirt and gravel road, but this was a bigger one that ran straight and flat, due west. I wasn't happy about riding it, but my GPS said ride it for 4.7 miles and I'd reach the highway running south.
The dirt road that was hard to ride
It wasn't easy riding on a loaded bike with a 700x28 front tire, but after a mile or so it got better when most of the sand and gravel went away. Now I could ride it almost like a paved road. Then it got sandy without gravel and I had a harder time. Then it got smaller and turned in a way that didn't match what the GPS showed. The GPS still told me to ride it. Then it ended, after three miles of hard riding, in a corn field. I turned back and met a farmer coming out, with his grandson, to work in one of his fields. I think he thought I was crazy to be out there on a loaded bike, but he was still kind enough to tell me that I had to retrace every thing I'd done and go north to US 49. So I did.
The corn field I reached after riding the dirt road for three miles
When I got back to the start of the dirt road, I had ridden 18 miles and I was exhausted. I stopped in the shade to rest and recover, and eat one those hot apple pies. It was bit dusty, as was everything on my bike, but it was good and I had plenty of water to drink with it. My shirt was salt encrusted from my sweat. I had about four miles to ride to get back to US 49 a few miles west of where I had left it two hours earlier.
Wheat harvesting equipment on US 49
When I got back to US 49, I headed west, eight more miles, to Marvell. I wasn't sure at that point if I would go south, on the highway I had been trying to reach, or north on US 49. The wind decided me. I've had north winds for the last five days, but today's wind was pretty strong - 10 to 15 mph - out of the south. Both routes had about equal north and south heading components, but, if I stayed on 49 I'd get the good wind first and the bad wind later. The fact that 49 had incredibly wide shoulders and really smooth pavement also encouraged me to go for immediate gratification. I'd worry about the bad bridge on US 79 and the headwinds I have to fight, later. I stopped for a snack in Marvell - an RC cola and a iced honey bun ;} - and spent the next two hours riding US 49 and then US 79 to Clarendon, the town before the bridge.
A dust devil in a field on US 49
Riding north west with a south wind was good. This area is flat - I measured 200 feet of climbing in 80 miles - and very agriculture intensive. The wind made it easy to ride - I noticed that, for a while, I was riding at 15 mph with no noticeable air flow around me. The lovely shoulder and pavement meant that I didn't have to pay much attention to traffic - which was light - or road conditions - which were close to perfect. Instead I paid attention to the fields and the wheat harvest related activities around me.
I saw a big row of wheat trucks - semi's with special trailers for hauling wheat - waiting in one town. I saw many combines on the road or in the fields. Half of the big trucks on the road were wheat trucks. I watched a big dust devil make its way across US 49 and then across a field. I saw the stubble left in a field being burned - that was quite a fire! - and, later, grinding my way down towards Stuttgart, I saw a semi blow its engine. That was quite spectacular too, with a huge cloud of steam coming out of the semi's exhaust. Unfortunately, I saw most of these things through the haze cause by the many wheat fields that were being burned today. Note: I've never seen wheat field stubble being burned before and I lived in the middle of the plains for more than a decade and ridden all the plains states and provinces in harvest season. I think it must be a, relatively, local practice.
Wheat stubble being burned off a field after harvest
By the time I was on US 79 heading for Clarendon, I needed a break. There were no trees, but there were power poles, so I leaned my bike against one, ate my second apple pie and rested my sore hands, bottom and feet. All those places where my weight is supported on my bike, hurt. The rest of me was just tired and hungry. Half a dozen miles later, when I got to Clarendon, I was hoping to find a good place to eat a late lunch. I found the Corner Cafe, which offered a $5.50 half pound of catfish with fries, slaw, onions, pickles, and iced tea for folks over 55. It was a dollar more for younger folks. Damn that was good and I had a good visit with some locals. One of them had ridden his bicycle over the White River and back on a dare and said it wasn't too bad ;-}.
The scary bridge
After lunch, it was time for the bridge. The lady at the Welcome Station had described it to me accurately, as a narrow, bumpy, twisty thing with no way to get off the road. She said that lasted for several miles and that she was frightened when driving it in her car. It started a few block from the cafe, so, after my good meal, I was quickly riding onto the first bridge. It wasn't too bad, but I was glad not to have to deal with any semi's in my lane. Then it was a series of smaller, and lower, bridges connected by causeways. The causeway parts actually had shoulders, but the pavement was often in bad shape. It was a much longer and much more challenging ride than going across the Mississippi, but really not too bad. I was lucky in my timing since a mile or so after I finished the bridges and causeways, I was passed by a group of logging trucks and semis, but on the bridges and causeways I never had to deal with that bad a traffic mix.
After the bridges and causeways, US 79 had a decent should and riding wasn't too bad as long as there was a windbreak on the south side of the road. When the windbreak went away, I struggled to maintain 9 mph. When it was present - which was most of the time - I could do 12 mph. I had, after the river, about 15 mile to go to reach Stuttgart. Interestingly, the small town 8 miles before Stuttgart is Ulm. The other interesting thing, other than the truck blowing its engine, on this stretch was a train that finished passing me a few miles from Stuttgart and then stopped on a siding to wait for a train coming in the other direction. I measured its length - 1.5 miles exactly - as I rode towards Stuttgart.
When I got to Stuttgart, I decided to go slightly upscale on motels and stopped at a Super 8. That didn't work out well as the first room they gave me had an unusable weak wireless signal. The second room had a usable signal but I couldn't get on the net. Since the clerk had an iBook identical to mine and it did work, we couldn't figure out what was going on. I ended up getting a refund and a nice visit with the Indian manager. I then went back down the street to cheap motel, also run by Indians, and got a room for $26 less. No wireless here, and a smaller room, but there are fewer flies and mosquitoes in this room. There still a few of both, but the Super 8 rooms were much worse!