Day 8 - Brinkley to Conway AR
Today was a much better riding day than yesterday. It was still hot (high of 91 in Conway) and humid (but only 50% rel humidity), but, except near thunderstorms that formed in the afternoon, the wind was light. It was also a much better day because the route I used was much better riding than US 70. I wanted to avoid Little Rock which meant riding north to Beebe to get on US 64. Since I was already north of I-40, I decided to continue north on US 49 and then west on AR 38, west and north on AR 13, and finally west on US 64. I finished, in Conway, by riding a few miles on I-40 to get to the motel. I spent about 7 hours and ten minutes actually riding and covered 96 miles. This compares with about six hours yesterday to cover 70 miles. It was much more pleasant, as well as faster, riding today.
US 41 north form Brinkley is flat, well paved, lightly traveled and has a good shoulder. It is also fun to ride. There was a slightly shorter route I could have taken, riding on AR 17, but that road is narrow, has more traffic, and has no shoulder. I elected for the longer, but more pleasant ride. About eight miles up 49, US 38 heads off to the west. It isn't a very impressive looking road at the start - narrow, patched, no shoulder - but traffic is very low and, as it winds its gentle way through forest and swamp, it is pleasant to ride. About five miles down 38, it passes through the town of Cotton Plant.
Cotton Plant is a black town probably built to house agricultural workers. Like a lot of the small towns in Arkansas, it is scene reminiscent of the depression. Or, if you grew up in a southern state like I did, it looks like the black townships that existed before the Civil Rights movement. I guess these folk are better off than they were then - at least they do have some legal rights, but materially things have hardly improved here. This is in stark contrast to eastern Tennessee which seems much more integrated, both racially and economically.
There were several places to eat in Cotton Plant, all pretty down home and none open at 9:30 AM when I rode through. I greeted a number of folk who were out and about and got a great double take from man that was working on something in front of the bank. I said 'Good Morning', he said "Good morning' and then he saw that I riding by on a loaded touring bike. It didn't look like he seen one of those before <grin>.
Some 17 miles of nice riding after Cotton Plant, 38 crossed a big bridge over the White River and passes just north of Des Arc. This is a pretty, prosperous (white) city. I rode into town at 10:45 looking for a meal. I spotted a restaurant just west of the First Presbyterian church on the main street. It looked promising, but there were no other customers.
I went in, they were setting up for lunch with at least 25 tables, and one of the waitresses told me about todays 'plate special.' I sounded mighty good - fried chicken, mash potatoes with gravy, pinto beans, macaroni and cheese (?) and rolls for $4.50. It was large plate full of very good food - a great lunch for a hungry bicyclist. It was also served very quickly so I was well into my meal when literally dozens of folks came for lunch at 11 AM. This wasn't and organized thing, it was just a good restaurant in small town. Nice.
Des Arc is located near Bayou Des Arc and I wonder if some of the Acadian French made it this far up river? It is a beautiful little town set at the curve of a pretty river and surrounded by prosperous farms. As I was riding out of town I finally managed to get some pictures of crop duster planes, both loading up on the ground and spraying the rice field beside the road. There is an interesting looking Prairie County Museum in Des Arc as well as good food and a good looking ice cream place (I didn't try it), so it seems like a pretty ideal place for bicycle tourists to visit. I certainly enjoyed it!
After Des Arc, it is about ten miles to Hickory Plains. There is service station/ pizza place / store at the intersection of AR 38 and AR 13 and nothing else. By this time I was riding in the heat of the day and really feeling it, so I stopped, rested, and snacked (powerade and a mars bar) at that store. I really needed to get out of the heat after only ten miles of riding.
Another ten miles or so on 13 - including some gentle hills (!) as did 38 after Des Arc - brought me to Beebe. Beebe is the 'big' town (between 2500 and 5000 according to my map), but it isn't nearly as nice a Des Arc. I stopped at the 'Hometown Restaurant' for coffee and desert (and to get out the heat again!). I was then only customer and the owner closed for the day a few minutes after I got there. She fixed me a fresh pot of coffee, and fed me good peach cobbler with ice cream. We talked about Arkansas and she brought up the problems of economic disparity. She said too much of the state looked like the US was still in the depression.
After Beebe, I was riding on US 64. This was not as nice riding as 13, 38, and 49 had been because this section of 64 forms a short cut route north of Little Rock and there is lots of heavy truck traffic on it. Note that it isn't bad riding. It has a rideable, if somewhat bumpy shoulder for the first 20 miles and then. after Vilonia, the shoulder improves. The weather also 'improved' because a big line of thunderstorms moved through the area ahead of me. I was afraid I was going to rained on, so I put my camera in my 'electronics' pannier but as it happened, I only had to ride on roads that had recently been rained on. The temperature dropped 20 degrees - I even had to close the ventilation tab on my shirt! - and the winds picked up. I stopped in Vilonia at the Dollar store to get a snack and two of their plastic bags. The Dollar store Bags are bright yellow, so not only do they make good ran covers for my front bags, they also increase my visibility to drivers. Since I missed the rain , I didn't use the bags, but I'm sure I will have need for them in the future.
Riding into Conway was a bit hectic. Lots of traffic, pretty high speeds, but a four lane highway with good shoulder that lasted until a few miles from the center of town. When I crossed under I-40 I realized that I was one exit south from the motel I planned to stay at, so I crossed back under and rode I-40 to the next exit. I noticed that I would have to use an ear plug on my left ear if I were ride an interstate for any length of time - else I would lose my hearing on that side. Boy that was a noisy two mile ride! Getting on and getting off (especially getting off in rush hour traffic) were much more dangerous that riding on the interstate. I was surprised by how many folks wanted to use the shoulders on the exit ramp and how aggressive some of the drivers were in trying to get further up in the long line of cars at the exit. Definitely not polite drivers.