all we got was loose, sandy red gravel. And a headwind.
No barely-there shoulder roads, no shin-deep slush mud, no Play-Doh fire roads. Here’s what we did get: fast gravel, a pinch of sand, and a headwind. Oh, and just a little bit lost.
Getting lost seems to be the name of the game. The inspiration for riding in St. Francis National Forest comes from a ride my friends Josh Gorman and Mike Crum set up with the Rapha Continental Team in 2009. They rode levees from Memphis to Helena, and before I get to the getting lost bit, let me just call attention to the part where they rode/waded through flooded floodplain. You know what it’s like to ride across the Memphis Arkansas Bridge and turn back because the road was under water. I mean, we’ve all been there, right? But undaunted, those guys kept going forward.
And from the sound of it, once they got to the forest they took a wrong turn toward the river, whereas last March Carter and I took a wrong turn away from the river. This is all very easy to do because the roads are not all marked so cue sheets are only partially helpful and Google Maps shows roads that aren’t there. So you’re riding a bit on intuition, a bit on memory, and a bit on what the girl in the gift shop says.
IT’S WORTH GOING JUST FOR THE GIFT SHOP
Fantastic gift shop, there at Mississippi River State Park. It’s where we parked last March but this time it was the midpoint. We drove down 61 and it was a much easier and faster drive than going out 40 then down. Helena was a bit of a ghost town at 7:00AM Sunday morning but we parked in front of a pizza joint, made plans to get down on some slices after the ride, geared up and took off with a tailwind saying, “Git!” And it’s right there, at the edge of town, that the gravel starts. And it’s right there, 1000 feet after the gravel starts, that the boar’s heads are mounted on rebar pikes. But undaunted, and after a few pictures, we kept going forward.
The gravel clacked against frames and pedals and shot off all directions except up. It was a little bit loose here on the Great River Road, what we would refer to as the red gravel. Once we climbed up onto Crowley’s Ridge Parkway it became packed and grey, the kind that turns your tire white. We rode that white spine, snaking back and forth, up and down with that tailwind slapping our asses and trying to keep in mind to not burn everything here; to save it for the ride back into the headwind. And it would have been great had we made the turn like we were supposed to. But remember, there are not many road signs. We figured out from a nice man with some horses and a good looking hound that we were on the side of the lake with no outlet so we kept going forward backwards to the road we knew and took some pavement into the gift shop.
IT WAS ONLY ABOUT 4 EXTRA MILES
After figuring out the way around, the way that I wanted to come in, Carter asked the girl in the gift shop if we would be riding on red gravel or grey gravel. And bless her color-blind little eyes because she told us grey gravel but all we got was loose, sandy red gravel. And a headwind.
When we came to a fork we said “Hell yes” to the route that took us back to the grey gravel and rode that spine all the way back into Helena (with more pictures of the boar’s heads, natch, and the natural watercress at Big Springs) to the truck and the aforementioned pizza joint. Which was closed. So we ate some more bars and chocolate rice crisp bites that Carter made from a Skratch recipe, apples and pickles and headed back to Memphis with a stop at Interstate BBQ which is never a bad consolation prize.