Lost in the ride

This is the best part of cycling: getting lost in the ride, losing all sense of time and even forgetting about the bike itself — just being one with the path and experiencing whatever comes along. Several times each year, my wife and I journey south to the Ozarks country that comprises the border lands dividing Missouri from Arkansas. Other than the artificial boundary line, there is absolutely no physical demarcation to clarify one state from the other. There are great, long hills throughout the area, and then sudden expanses of prairie. Nary a straight road exists here, and the tarmac is chipped and patched and uneven.

Every four or five miles, a small community straddles the road. Along Highway 13, the town of Blue Eye exists in both states; the high school is in Missouri, along with the post office and a general store; the park and lower school and what appears to have once been a mechanic’s shop are located in Arkansas. The duality doesn’t seem to concern the residents: location is more a state of mind than any geographical definition.

I always stop for a moment in the city park as I roll through town. It’s tiny, and perhaps measures as much as 200 feet along each edge. Forming a square, it is the most visible  single feature in a town that is comprised of maybe a dozen commercial buildings, most of which appear to be abandoned — or very nearly so — and about 200 citizens.

A few miles down the road is Oak Grove, which is — if possible — even smaller than Blue Eye. Oak Grove is located at the intersection of two country highways, neither of which can boast more than a single pickup truck every ten minutes or so. A sign at the intersection indicates that a town called Maple is a few miles further on and I turn in that direction. Every now and then I notice a few other signs. Carefully hand lettered on painted plywood and posted at the edge of a pasture is the bold proclamation that Cosmic Caverns has two bottomless lakes. The caverns are a “must see family attraction,” but I’m disappointed to notice that there are no station wagons or minivans filled with excited kids plummeting down the long, steep hill to get to Cosmic Caverns. In fact, as I roll past Maple (Blink! It’s gone!) and hurtle up to the Cosmic entrance it is immediately clear that there are no visitors at all. A message board congratulates the graduating class of what I can only presume must be a local high school. A cat strolls languidly across the road, pauses, sits, and then yawns at me.

Further along I find myself at another divide and choose a direction at random. I pedal past a small house with large American flag decorating the front porch. For some reason, this delights me and I briefly stop to record the scene on my cell phone camera. Briefly — because a moment later, two canine residents discover my presence and chase me up a tall hill, giving up only slightly before I do.

In spite of this brief interlude, the ride remains casual and leisurely, a bit like I imagine some cyclotourists must have felt, in another land and another time. Later, back in Missouri, I turn onto a gravel path that is ambitiously labeled as a “road.” It wanders aimlessly, loosely tracing the shoreline of Tablerock Lake, up hill and over dale, and before long I am engulfed by the Ozark forest.

I consulted my journal and found the following note: “I headed out this morning along some moderately hilly lake roads surrounding Tablerock Lake. Heading south, I turned onto a side road that I’ve noticed before but was unsure where it came out. In fact, I was certain that it either dead ended quickly, or joined the main road into Baxter. As it turns out, the road meanders through a piney wood, eventually dissolving into a gravel tract. The morning was chilly and wisps of fog hung in the air; a faint breeze carried scents of mouldering wood, pine needles, honey suckle, and more. Totally unconcerned with speed, I stopped to capture the moments with my cell phone camera and this silly Instagram app.”

I was excited to come around a bend and suddenly realize I was in the presence of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. These large (and obnoxiously loud) birds somewhat resemble the almost mythical Ivory Bill Woodpecker — mythical because it was supposed extinct for decades, but in recent years has been discovered to have (perhaps) escaped the fate of the dodo… at least for now. I fumbled with my cell phone camera and tried to get a photograph, but the resolution is too poor to do any justice to these magnificent birds. That’s ok, really. My memory of the encounter will suffice.

During the ride, the passage of time was meaningless. The journey, thankfully, was not.

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