Category Archives: Bicycling

Wal-Mart, Art & a Little Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas

I was a checker at Wal-Mart the day Elvis died. That’s where I was 40 years ago today. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college that I spent some time working at Wal-Mart, which recently had opened in my hometown.A fellow employee, or I suppose an associate as we were called, came into work and told that Elvis had died. So it’s not so much Elvis that I am thinking about today but Wal-Mart.

A few days ago I spent some time in Northwest Arkansas, where it all began for Wal-Mart. Bentonville still is the corporate headquarters of the retail behemoth.  I was struck by how much that Walton money has propelled a little-known place in the Ozark Mountains into such a vibrant business and tourist area. It’s one of the Top 25 fastest growing metro areas in the country.

Here’s three Wal-Mart inspired attractions you don’t want to miss.

Walmart Museum. In 1950, Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin variety store called Walton 5  & 10 on the square of then-sleepy Bentonville. The facade is restored just as it looked in 1950. Inside, there’s a candy & souvenir shop, and it’s full of visitors close to 9 p.m. on a August weeknight. In the back, museum exhibits tell the story of Wal-Mart in an engaging timeline from the 1950s to today, including his 10 Rules for Building a Business.

Wal-Mart timeline
Sam Walton’s bust overlooks part of the Wal-Mart timeline
Sam Walton's pickup
Sam Walton’s 1979 Ford pickup

Driving a humble pickup truck isn’t written in those rules, but his 1979 Ford F-150 is on display there as an endearing symbol of Walton’s humility.

“I just don’t think a showy lifestyle is appropriate. Why do I drive a pickup? What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?” is the Sam Walton quote on the display.

The museum complex also includes a soda fountain. A few doors down is a newly-opened War-Mart Neighborhood Store. It  fits into the quaint square look, resembling a Whole Foods more than a discounter.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There’s no place outside a metropolitan area that has such a diverse collection of art, sculpture and architecture. And, there’s no prettier setting. Art pavilions are nestled around two-spring-fed ponds with forest trails winding through the 120-acre site, about a mile from the Bentonville square.

Original portraits of  George Washington by famous artists Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale are there. So is Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter oil painting and a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was disassembled in New Jersey and reconstructed there. There’s several Andy Warhol originals including one pop art of the Coca-Cola bottle that museum founder Alice Walton (daughter of Sam) paid $57.3 million for at Christie’s Auction House. Walton outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art  and paid upwards of $35 million reportedly for Kindred Spirits, a famous Catskills Mountains landscape.

Crystal Bridges Museum
The design and setting of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is just as interesting as the art inside.

Opened in 2011 with $317 million from the Walton Foundation, Crystal Bridges is the first major art museum built since 1974 in America. Admission is free thanks to Wal-Mart  although special exhibits have fees and may be booked so plan ahead. A gallery exhibition of acclaimed Dale Chihuly glass artist just closed, although there are some pieces in an outside setting on exhibit through mid-November. Upcoming 2018 special exhibitions include a Georgia O’Keefe show.

Razorback Regional Greenway. This 37-mile bicycle & jogging path may have a less obvious War-Mart footprint, but it’s there. A $15 grant from the Walton Family Foundation jumpstarted development of this path that connects the growing communities of the area from south Fayetteville to Bella Vista Lake north of Bentonville and near the Missouri state line.

I spent a little over an hour riding a section near Fayetteville, and it should be on the short list for anyone looking for the top places to ride in the South. The  Fayetteville area was busy but not too congested and close to restaurants, coffee shops and micro breweries. Farther north, the path goes to quaint downtowns, through tunnels and over bridges. It connects with about 20 other trails and spurs to such places as Crystal Bridges, three Arkansas lakes and the University of Arkansas campus as well as to shopping and residential neighborhoods.

Those are three Wal-mart-connected reasons to visit Northwest Arkansas. There are many more, including the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, an entertainment venue, and Walmart AMP, a music pavilion in Rogers.

It’s not just Walton money that has made the area prosperous. Tyson Foods and  J.B. Hunt Transport are both headquartered there. In fact, J.B. Hunt founder Johnnie Bryan Hunt has an interesting entrepreneur story of his own as he was often carried a money clip of $100 bills around town, handing them out to people in need.

Sounds a little like Elvis to me.

 

Tammany Trace: Louisiana’s “Hall of Fame” Trail

Earlier this month, the Tammany Trace was named one of the Hall of Fame trails by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and I thought it was about time I blogged about this wonderful bicycling spot in Louisiana.

I was just getting back into bicycling a few years ago when I came up with the idea of bicycling 55 miles for my 55th birthday. Seasoned cyclists are used to knocking that out in one morning, but I reserved a whole weekend. I had not ridden more than 10 miles at a time in 30 years.

Thirty years!!!!!!

I found the perfect route in The Tammany Trace, a rails-to-trails project on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The Tammany Trace is 27.35 miles from the western point in downtown Covington through Mandeville and Abita Springs to the end point at Highway 190 west of Slidell.

Double that and you’re close to 55 miles. (Eventually, another four miles will be paved to extend the trail into the center of Slidell.)

Louisiana may not be the most bicycle friendly state, but it has much to brag about with the well-maintained Tammany Trace, built on an abandoned Illinois Central Gulf Railroad corridor. The Rails-to-Trail Conservancy, a nationwide trails organization has named 30 Hall of Fame trails for their scenery, historic significance and other values. The asphalt trail is free of car traffic and dedicated to cyclists, walkers, in-line skaters and such.

My favorite stretch is the 12 miles between Mandeville and Covington. It passes bayous and shady pine forests, quaint towns with farmers markets, museums and cool eateries.

The popular Abita Springs Brew Pub and Restaurant is right on the trail. Abita beer and root beer is bottled a little over a mile away. I’m not into beer, but here’s an excellent article on craft breweries to explore on and near the trail.

I loved getting off the trail and exploring these three spots:

Downtown Covington: From art galleries to a hardware store that has been around since 1876, there  is a lot of see in downtown Covington. There’s a farmer’s market each Wednesday and Saturday.

Lake Ponchartrain Shore: We stayed at a guest house in what is known as Old Mandeville on the most recent trip, and that was great as it was only a few blocks away from the trail in one direction and the shore of Lake  Pontchartrain in the other. Lakefront Park on the shore is another great to place to cycle and people watch. And the homes on Lakefront Drive overlooking the park are gorgeous.

Dusk at Lakefront Park

Fountainbleau State Park: This is what Louisiana state parks are supposed to look like — live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and lovely cabins on the water.

In the Northshore you can get great New Orleans-style meals without the hassle of the city.  Some of the popular New Orleans spots such as Acme Oyster House, Mandina’s and Cafe du Monde have Northshore locations.  There also are some nice independent restaurants too. We liked Nuvolari’s, an old Italian restaurant just a couple of blocks from Lake Ponchartrain in Mandeville.

The Tammany Trace is in St. Tammany Parish, one of Louisiana’s so-called  “Florida parishes” because they were once part of western Florida.  With that history, the parish has a vibe that is a blend of Florida and Louisiana. It is Louisiana’s fastest growing and most affluent parish.

The Tammany Trace will always be a special place for me as it was there when I discovered (at age 55 then) that I could still ride a bike.

Tammany Trace bike path
The Tammany Trace bike path winds through the heart of Abita Springs.
Photo courtesy: LouisianaNorthshore.com

 

 

Rolling on the River: Bossier City’s Bike/Pedestrian Trail Extension

The recent opening of the two-mile extension of the Arthur Teague Trail inspired me to hop on my bicycle and check it out.

I recommend you do too.

The trail now extends for seven miles along Bossier City’s side of the Red River, but the highlight is the newly-opened southern leg that takes you right by the Red River National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge opened in 2012, but I had never visited there until now. Red River National Wildlife Refuge is a quiet nature lover’s paradise just two minutes away from one of Shreveport-Bossier’s busiest traffic areas –the Jimmie Davis Bridge that crosses the Red River.

Once the path crosses  under the bridge, you’re greeted by hardwoods and river frontage vegetation,  which were still lush and green from summer rains when I visited in late June. Before you know it you’re at the Wildlife Refuge with trails, a pretty lake view and visitors center with interesting wildlife exhibits.

I especially liked the places that invited you to linger –benchs throughout the trails, rocking chairs on the back porch and comfy chairs inside by a window where you can  spend a few minutes watching the birds fly to and from the feeders.

If you’re more outdoorsy, there’s six miles of marked and mowed hiking trails — one leads to a children’s nature play area, another one on a levee through an old pecan orchard and another through a wild plum thicket. (Plums are mostly gone now but visitors are free to pick plums and pecans for personal use when available).

I didn’t make it through all the paths as the heat of the day was chasing me. But, it’s a place for all seasons — butterflies, dragonflies & reptiles during the summer (yes, that includes snakes and alligators), spring nesting and migrating birds during the winter. The refuge’s brochure lists 246 species of birds, from cardinals abundant year-round to rarer willets, large shorebirds seen at intervals of two to five years. In October, the refuge hosts a Fall Wildlife Celebration with hayrides, canoeing and opportunities to see wildlife up close.

Plenty of reasons to go back there.

Red River National Wildlife Refuge is open sunrise to sunset everyday. The visitor’s center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. most Saturdays; and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays occasionally. (Weekend hours depend on volunteer staffing).

There are many entry points for riding on the Arthur Teague Trail. Favorite spots are the Bossier Sheriff’s Substation/boat launch and Walker Place Park, where you can take the new bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the motorized traffic on the parkway. The trail’s northern terminus is near Diamond Jack’s Casino, and there’s good river views all along the way, although there’s little shade along the northern section. 

Walker Place Park
Walker Place Park

 

 

 

Cycling Along Caddo Parish’s Sunflower Trail

Highway 3049, between I-49 and the Red River north of Shreveport, is smiling with sunflowers this time of year.

The two-lane farm road is a state designated Scenic Byway. It became a favorite bicycling route of mine shortly after moving to Shreveport 35 years ago.

About 20 years ago, one farmer planted sunflowers along the route. Another followed and then another until Highway 3049 and some connecting roads became part of the Sunflower Trail. That trail shows off its sunflowers each June with a festival. This year’s event is this Saturday, June 17.

That day,  Highway 3049 and its side roads will be busy with sightseers, but most other times bicyclists only compete with a few cars, farm vehicles and perhaps a turtle crossing the road. Some of the roads have a bumpy chipseal surface and a few potholes, but those drawbacks are outweighed by a flat terrain throughout the entire country route.

The scenery of sunflowers, lush green pastures and lovely plantation homes is reason enough to ride there, but there’s plenty of history too, It’s all documented on historical markers erected by the Red River Crossroads Historical Association. In between, you’ll find fresh tomatoes and melons at Ryan Farms Produce at Dixie, (return in the car later for those), chicken fried steak and other tasty lunches at Main Street Restaurant in Gilliam and who knows what else along the way.

One of my favorite routes includes the Sentell Road loop off of 3049. Beginning at the Dixie Cotton Gin, the 7-mile horseshoe-shaped loop curves around to hug the Red River levee and passes rich farmland, sunflowers and more history. Here are a few photos from that loop. There’s a huge sunflower field with a walking trail and opportunities to take photos or clip  your own sunflower souvenirs. At another nearby field, you can pick a dozen zinnias for $2. (It’s on the honor system. You put your money in a box.)

Click on small pictures to enlarge and read captions

Cairo Plantation
Cairo Plantation along Sentell Road has been in the same family for over 100 years.

If you go this Saturday, check out the sunflowers, art and food vendors from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Gilliam, a lawn and garden tour in Dixie, homemade ice cream at a restored plantation commissary.

If you’re going to bicycle, go on a quieter day. But don’t wait too long. The sunflowers will only be there a few weeks.

Click on any picture to launch gallery and read captions

More information and a great map overview is available at:

redrivercrossroadshistorical.org/sunflowertrail

 

10 Reasons to Cycle on Harts Island Road This Fall

Harts Island Road, a 6.5-mile straight ribbon of road in South Caddo Parish just south of Shreveport, is a favorite of local cyclists during any season, but it’s particularly scenic during fall when the cotton fields are full and the leaves start falling along the path. Here are 10 reasons why we like it.

1. Cotton

South Caddo Parish cotton
Louisiana cotton acreage is declining, but there’s much to see in late September along this road. But hurry.  I was there yesterday afternoon and a lot had already been harvested, although there was still plenty along Highway 1, which parallels Harts Island.

2. Pretty Sunsets

Valley Gin at sunset
Sunset over Valley Gin. This gin, one of the few remaining in Caddo Parish, is about to get busy.

3. Sunrise Isn’t So Bad Either

Sunrise at Pecan Station
Sunrise at LSU Pecan Research and Extension Station, the only research center of its kind in the country dedicated exclusively to helping pecan growers. There’s 60 or so acres of trees planted for research.

4. Flat and Shady

Hubby embarking on a shady stretch
Hubby embarking on a shady stretch

5. Speed Limit 25 mph

25 mph
The posted speed limit is 25 mph, and there are only a dozen or so houses so there are only a few cars and farm trucks along the route. Yellow crop dusters, like the one overhead, are commonly seen.

6. Fall Color

Goldenrod along Harts Island Road frames an old farm house located across Highway 1. Goldenrod is just starting to bloom and they’ll be more color from the hardwoods along the road soon.

7. Today’s Industry

Bentler Steel Plant
The ride gives you a glimpse of the new Benteler Steel plant, among other industries, at The Port. The German-owned company spent $1 billion and is expected to employ 750 or more.

8. Pretty Pasture Scenes

Pastures, natural gas fields, cotton fields and dense stands of hardwoods make up the landscape
Pastures, natural gas fields and cotton fields make up the landscape.

9. History

C.M. Hutchinson & Sons
The abandoned C.M. Hutchinson & Sons store stands as a reminder of the area’s rich past. The route includes settlements of Robson, Gayles, Caspiana, Frierson plantation, key spots in development of Caddo Parish’s cotton and oil and gas industries. I would love to go back in time and hear some of the stories told in this store.

10. Lovely Live Oaks

Lovely Live Oaks
The live oaks shade some lovely homes too.

A round trip on Harts Island Road makes a nice leisurely ride of 60 to 90 minutes. It’s not the car-free traffic of dedicated paths like the ones on both sides of the Red River, but it’s close. The only motorized transportation is the occasional farm truck or car going to one of the dozen or so houses along the strip. You can lengthen the ride by heading west on one of three roads intersecting with Harts Island–Robson Road, Hwy 175 or Ellerbe Road but expect more traffic and higher speed limits.

Going south on Highway 1, turn right on Hart’s Island just across from The Port of Shreveport-Bossier water tower. Drive less than a half mile to the Louisiana Pecan Research Station. If you’re interested in growing pecans, stop in and get some information.  Otherwise, park along the side of the road, get on your bicycle and enjoy a beautiful fall ride.

What are your favorite spots along Harts Island Road or scenic bicycling routes you love around Shreveport-Bossier City?

 

Ride America’s Rails to Trails And Never Say “Car Back!”

When I became interested in bicycling again a few years back, I started reading up on old railroad beds that had been converted to bike trails.

No car traffic. Small towns, rural scenery, city waterfronts. Rest stops and water fountains along the away.  Sounded great.

And it is.

My first rails-to-trails ride was on the Tammany Trace on an old Illinois Central corridor in South Louisiana. I rode the entire 27.6-mile trail and back during my 55th birthday weekend. It’s a beauty. Since that ride about four years ago, I’ve been to others, including the Katy Trail in Missouri, a 238-mile trail that stretches  across most of the state. (For the record, my husband and I rode sections not the entire Katy Trail).

There are new trails to ride almost every day thanks to The Rails to Trails Conservancy,  a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating  a more bikeable and walkable America. Their website TrailLink.com contains a wealth of information on these trails–not only on rails-to-trails conversions but all traffic-free bicycle and pedestrian paths. You can find out about surface types, towns and things to do along the routes, user reviews and more. Most trails also have their own websites independent of TrailLink.com.

Rails-Trails
There are plenty of tools available to research rails-trails.

I have the TrailLink app on my phone that points me to nearby trails while I am traveling. A few like the Katy are crushed limestone, and we were glad we had hybrid bikes with wider tires when we rode. The trail was smooth but we couldn’t manage much more than 8 mph in places. I prefer the paved trails (either asphalt or concrete) with small towns to explore along the way.

There are plenty of rail-trails with all types of surfaces. According to TrailLink.com, there are now 1,997 miles of rail-trails comprising 22, 470 of miles in the United States. Another 777 trails are under construction.

Most rail-trails have speed limits of 15 mph or so, You aren’t competing with racing cyclists, but you are sharing the trail with pedestrians and, in some cases, equestrians and skateboarders.

There are some exciting rail-trails/greenways under development. The East Coast Greenway is a 3,000-mile project that will connect Maine to Key West, Florida and many Atlantic Coast cities between them.  Closer to home, a 132-mile Northeast Texas Trail is being developed between surburban Dallas and the outskirts of Texarkana. Some sections are already open, but it’s a mix of gravel, crushed stone and asphalt. Study the map and read the comments on road conditions carefully before you head out.

One of my favorites to ride was the High Trestle Trail in Iowa, so named because it includes a 13-story converted railroad bridge over the Des Moines River. The bridge lights up at night giving the experience of  riding through a tunnel. My current favorite is the one I rode most recently: Tanglefoot Trail in Mississippi down the path of a railroad built by William Faulkner’s great grandfather.  The fun is experiencing small towns along the route. You can read about my experience here.

High Trestle Trail bridge
Sunset on the High Trestle Trail bridge near Des Moines, Iowa

Next month I’m going on vacation to Washington and Oregon, and I’ll be trying a couple more rail-trails.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy also has a Rail-Trail Hall of Fame–currently at 30 trails. They are recognized for such things as scenery, maintenance and community support. Here’s a few from that list:

Elroy-Sparta State Bike Trail in Wisconsin. This is the original rail-trail, opening in the 1960s. Wisconsin has a vast network of rail-trails, and we are just going to have to go back to Wisconsin to explore them all. We did enjoy the Hank Aaron State Trail along Milwaukee’s lakefront and the rural Ahnapee State Trail in Door County, Wisconsin. The Elroy-Sparta is crushed limetone and features three tunnels. The 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta connects with three other trails to form 101 miles.

But I’m partial to the paved trails, so I’ll be exploring these Hall of Fame trails soon:

Georgia’s Silver Comet Trail and Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail: These  trails join together for 95 continuous miles. The Silver Comet, named for a popular passenger train that traversed the route during the 1940s and 1950s, is the longest at 62 miles beginning on the east at Smyrna  just outside Atlanta. At the Alabama line, it joins the 33-mile Chief Ladiga and proceeds to its western end at Anniston.

Longleaf Trace. This is one in my home state that I keep intending to try, but I have just not made it there yet. The route is mostly a rural 41 miles through fields and the trail’s namesake longleaf pine forests.

Seeing Longleaf Trace on the list makes me want to plan a trip tomorrow. Anybody want to ride with me?

 

 

 

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Bicycling Trip: Big Bridge, Big Rock in Little Rock

Hubby and I were new to  bicycling when one of the first trips we made was to Little Rock, Arkansas.

I had read that the longest bridge in North America specifically built for bicyclists and pedestrians was the Big Dam Bridge (name explanation to come later). So we loaded up our bikes and headed to Arkansas to check it out.

We made a day trip of it then and just piddled around riding along the Arkansas River Trail on both sides of the Big Dam Bridge. But we’ve been back since for a weekend and will go back again to this bicycling jewel just three hours away from our home in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The Big Dam Bridge, which celebrates its 10th birthday today, spans 4,226 linear feet across the Arkansas River seven miles west of downtown.  As for the name: The story  goes that when funding was an issue, a county judge said “we are going to build the dam bridge” and declared he was talking about its location over the Murray Lock and Dam. Others took it another away.

Whatever the name origin, the Big Dam Bridge has been a beacon of health and fitness activities in a southern state better known for rice and gravy.

Big Dam Bridge
Big Dam Bridge-Photo Courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Big Dam Bridge is a climax of the 16-mile Arkansas River Trail that connects Little Rock and North Little Rock. Most, but not all, of the trail is a dedicated path with no car traffic. There’s two other downtown Little Rock bridges where you can bicycle over the Arkansas River, including one right by the Clinton Presidential Library. Yet another bridge, west of Big Dam Bridge, is at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Maumelle rivers and takes you to the 1,000-acre Two Rivers Park. More on the four bridges here.

Riding over the bridges may be entertainment enough, but we discovered there’s lots to see within a stone’s throw of the bicycle trail.  The trail connects to 38 parks and six museums. On the south bank of the river (or Little Rock side), you have the state capitol, River Market (farmers market, shops and restaurants) and the Clinton Presidential Library. On the North Little Rock side, you pass the USS Razorback WWII-era submarine and get a glimpse of the scenery that earns Arkansas the nickname “the Natural State.”

One North Little Rock natural spot is an area known as Big Rock, where the river Delta meets Ouachita (pronounced Wash-i- taw)Mountains just a bit off the trail. There once was a quarry there that made railway ballast for 100 years. A smaller rock outcropping on the south side was named “Le Petit Rocher” or “the Little Rock” by a French explorer.

Checking out the Big Rock on a 2012 ride
Checking out the Big Rock on a 2012 ride

What impressed me on my visits was the mix of people using the trail — overweight individuals  struggling a bit but pushing forward on the Big Dam Bridge incline; families with children in bicycles with training wheels and one or even two in baby strollers; old folks, couples and singles walking dogs (and availing themselves of the dog waste bags provided); and serious cyclists/runners in mesh jerseys or no shirt at all.

The Big Dam Bridge 100, the largest bicycling event in Arkansas, will draw crowds to Little Rock Sept. 24.  (There are shorter distances in addition to a century ride). I’m not participating that day, but I look forward to enjoying bicycling in Little Rock again soon.

Big Dam Bridge cycling tour attracts thousands
Big Dam Bridge cycling tour attracts thousands. Photo courtesy Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau

Arkansas River Trail website. If you want more than 16 miles, you’ll find extended rides that go out to scenic Pinnacle Mountain State Park or the 88.5-mile Grand Loop traversing  several Arkansas counties on a mix of paved paths, on-road bicycle lanes and rural roads.

Little Rock’s Arkansas River Trail is one of the bicycling spots featured in a new 45-page glossy Arkansas Road Cycle Guide.  It’s a wonderful publication with routes segmented by easy, moderate and difficult. You can download it here or have it mailed to you.(There’s a separate guide for mountain cycling enthusiasts).

Arkansas Road Cycling Guide
Arkansas Road Cycling Guide

Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau

North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Bobby’s Bike Hike in the River Market rents bicycles and offers family-friendly bicycle tours around the city.

Magnolia, Arkansas Day Trip Ends With a Bicycle Wreck

Magnolia, Arkansas, 75 miles north of Shreveport, is an appealing town of 12,000 with retail still going on around the courthouse square.

Today when many  downtowns have turned to payday loan centers and junk stores to fill space, it’s refreshing to see clothing stores, local pharmacies, a jewelry store, bakery and even a boutique hotel on the square.

Central Baptist Church tower as seen from gardens
Cecil Traylor Wilson Gardens and Central Baptist Church tower make a nice addition to downtown Magnolia

I spent a few hours bicycling around town last Saturday, and I’ll just go ahead and say that part did not go well. Hubby David accompanied me but decided it was too hot and better to enjoy the shade of the magnolia trees around the courthouse and the lush pine grove at Southern Arkansas University. A wise choice that day.

I  wrecked and tumbled over the handlebars while riding my bicycle on the path on the campus of Southern Arkansas University.  The path was very smooth and well-maintained, an asset to the campus and town. Purely cyclist error on my part.

Bicycling in Magnolia before the fall
Bicycling in Magnolia

I’m OK now — still nursing a few bruises and considering how this all will affect my cycling. It’s sobering, particularly as this fall came within a few days of billionaire tycoon Richard Branson’s near-fatal crash as his bicycle hit a speed bump.

My thoughts vacillate between “everybody falls now and then, I just need to be more careful next time” to “no, that attitude is too flippant. I could have really hurt myself. I need to find a safer activity to enjoy.” 

Before the fall, I cruised around the side streets of downtown Magnolia.

Magnolia is known for its murals painted on the sides of corner buildings. They are charming and colorful and depict Magnolia’s agricultural and oil and gas roots.  One of the murals pays tribute to the cinema. It’s painted on the side of what was once the  Macco Theater, one of six local theaters plus two drive-ins that once were in Magnolia. Sadly, there are none today since The Cameo closed in 2012.

I enjoyed popping  into the Magnolia Bake Shop, which has been in operation since 1928.  The building looked bland, but there was a line inside, which I figured was a good sign. The pig and blanket and strawberry cupcake that I got were both delicious. I liked the small town prices–$1.19 for the cupcake!

Next door was Stephens Olde Tyme Country Store in the former Macco Theater building. Only the painted palm trees on the front window gave a clue to the store’s bread and butter business–swimming pool maintenance and supplies. I had a nice chat with owners Leesa & Eddie Stephens, who are doing their part in making downtown interesting by adding a large selection of unique toys that you won’t find at the local Wal-Mart, their own brand of jellies and store displays that are worth stepping inside to see–including a large refinished card catalog, a 100-year-old pea thrasher (Emerson, Arksansas just l4 miles away is home to the annual Purplehull Pea Festival)

I didn’t make it to Lois Gean’s, the  store that Magnolia is best known for. The shop carries lines from leading women’s fashion designers and has been written up in Women’s Wear Daily and other publications.  I didn’t figure the store’s owners would appreciate a sweaty cyclist mingling with the haute couture.

Earlier in the summer, there’s a farmer’s market, Le Marche des Lois Gean’s right in the Lois Gean’s parking lot. I’ll come back for that! David and I did wander over to the Fred’s parking lot, where a man was peddling watermelons. We bought one because we have had some good ones from southwest Arkansas before, but this one was a bust.

Magnolia wasn’t its liveliest on a Saturday in late August, although just days before downtown was abuzz with activity when Blue and Gold Day, a new tradition, brought SAU’s 4,000 or so students to a square for a good time of school spirit and community pride building.

Another busy time downtown is the annual Magnolia Blossom Festival each May with a  steak cook-off  that is so competitive that it has been on the Food Network.

Magnolia is proud of its small university as it should be. The campus  is shaded by a lovely pine grove. There’s the aforementioned pedestrian/bike path, a duck pond, outdoor Greek style amphitheater, spacious rodeo arena and new buildings in a day when many strapped small colleges show no construction going on at all. SAU was recently named by BestValueSchools.com as the 6th most affordable small college in the country. And its mascot, the Mulerider, is  unique, right up there with TCU’s Horned Frogs and Penn State’s Nittany Lions.

The downtown area and side streets are really not conducive to cycling so the best bet is the path and farm road (a little over a two-mile loop) around SAU. You can extend the ride by cycling through the residential neighborhoods on the east side of campus and wind up behind the Flyer Burger Restaurant, which has good reviews on Yelp for its burgers and seafood.

Also, going north from SAU is Columbia County Road 13 to McNeil. It’s part of a 65-mile “Tour of Columbia County” loop around Magnolia included in the Arkansas Road Cycling Guide recently published by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. You can view it here.

I’d have to be in a large group and fully recovered from my fall to try that. The route, which extends to Highway 98 east of Magnolia, is a bit hilly and curvy in places, and I’m not sure too many rural Arkansans are used to seeing bicycles on the road.

 

Regional Bicycle Tours Showcase Small Towns, Rural Countryside

I was scared to try another organized bike event since my embarrassing debut at the Tour de Fire Ant a couple of years ago. But small town hospitality and a history-rich flat stretch of road wooed me to Bikes, Blues and Bayous in Greenwood, Mississippi last Saturday.

I did a leisurely 20 miles. About half of the 900 riders were going for the metric century (62 miles), but I wasn’t intimidated. Well, maybe a little.

But, if you are like me and enjoy seeing the countryside up close on a bicycle, you may want to check out some of the scenic rides coming up during the next few weeks.  Flat or rolling hills, rural routes or a rural/city combination-take your pick.

Bikes, Blues & Bayous started on a bridge over the Yazoo River and went onto Grand Boulevard shaded by 300 oak trees planted 100 years ago.  The movie The Help was filmed there. Then, it was over the Tallahatchie Bridge (of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe fame) and into the rural Mississippi Delta past shacks turned into a hotel and historical sites tied to the blues and the civil rights movement.

Tallahatchie Flats
Bikes, Blues & Bayous route passed Tallahatchie Flats, shacks you can rent for overnight stays

Most bike events, like the Greenwood ride, have a family-friendly fun ride of 10 to 12 miles, another in the 20 to 30 mile range,  another 40 to 50-mile ride on up to metric century and century rides. The great thing about these rides is most have police escorts at major intersections and sag wagons to pick you up if you break down–physically or mechanically.

You can check out the routes online beforehand and even see which ones have the best rest stops and after parties.

It would be hard to beat Greenwood’s  setup with one stop complete with jazz music and refreshments served in vintage country store containers. If you biked further on down the road, you were rewarded with a church spread  more typical of a Delta bridal shower.

Some tour routes are loops. Others are out and backs, great if you are like me and want to stop to take pictures. You can note your photo ops going out and actually stop to take them on the return trip.

When you’re leisurely riding like me, who’s in a hurry?

Here’s a partial list of some upcoming rides within a three hours drive from where I live in Shreveport, Louisiana. You may want to plan early as hotel rooms fill during the most popular events.

Tyler, Texas. Beauty and the Beast, Aug. 13: This has moved from March to August, and it’s coming up fast. It begins  just south of Tyler through rolling hills and up “The Beast,” a .7-mile hill with a 13 percent gradient — that’s steep! Another popular one later this month is the legendary Hotter Than Hell 100 on Aug. 27, a little farther away in Wichita Falls, Texas.   You can just about count on 100-degree heat.

Alexandria, Louisiana, Le Tour de Bayou, Sept. 17: This ride begins and ends at the 216-year-old Kent Plantation,  the oldest structure still standing in Central Louisiana. There will be living history demonstrations and free tours of the house and grounds, which includes several interesting buildings such as a blacksmith shop and sugar mill.  This is mostly flat, especially on the shorter distances.

Little Rock, Arkansas. Big Dam Bridge 100, Sept. 24. This is the largest ride in Arkansas. The Big Dam Bridge spans 4,226 feet over the Arkansas River, making it the longest bridge in North America specifically built for bicyclists and pedestrians.  The rides provide beautiful hill and river scenery.

Benton, Louisiana, Seize the Road, Oct. 1. This begins at the Bossier Parish Courthouse and goes by scenic Bossier Parish horse farms. The ride benefits the Epilepsy Foundation and was cancelled last year because of stormy weather. Hopefully, there’ll be clear crisp fall weather this year.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, Bricks & Spokes, Oct. 1. The cool thing about this one is it’s the only time of year bicyclists are allowed on the old Mississippi River Bridge. The route crosses the bridge into the flat delta in Louisiana and (if you are adventurous) back into hilly Vicksburg and through Vicksburg National Military Park.

Marshall, Texas, Tour de Fireant, Oct. 8. Who knows, I may give this another go. The good thing is the ride doesn’t start until 9 a.m. so you can sleep in. Or come early for the 8 a.m. 5K run or do a run/ride combo.

Greenwood, Mississippi is an interesting town to visit. It has a rough past like many Mississippi Delta towns, but has some bright spots downtown including the Viking Cooking School, a boutique hotel and shops, and independent bookstore.

 

Tour a College Campus on a Bicycle

If you have a child going off to college this month, chances are you’ll be hauling a bicycle as well as dorm décor to campus. You may want to rethink the bicycle.

That comes from someone who has been around for six to eight move-out days in May and seen the racks full of abandoned bikes. Big schools like LSU have regular bike auctions to at least try to make some money on impounding so many of them.

I have a freshman Schwinn in my garage now that’s never been ridden. What I will suggest is pack up your own bicycle and explore a college campus on two wheels – one your child or younger sibling is attending, your alma mater or one near you.

If you can go early in the morning to beat the heat, August is a great month to bicycle a campus in the quiet before fall semester begins. School breaks – spring, fall and Christmas, also are good times.

Or you can do as my husband and I did a few years ago and choose a busier time. In our case, it was Game Day at Texas A&M, one of the largest campuses in the country.

“Are you kidding?” I asked when he suggested it. We were the only ones on bicycles that day, but It turned out to be a great ride. We got to watch the Corps of Cadets march to the stadium, ride around the academic buildings in peace and sample some of the Game Day atmosphere.

Bicycling at Texas A&M
Daughter Mary Grace riding on beautiful (and quiet) day after Thanksgiving ride on A&M campus

Take some time and explore a campus on two wheels. It doesn’t matter if the college is large or small, I promise you’ll discover something new.

I frequently bicycle around LSU Shreveport, a place where I worked for more than 15 years, and see things that I never noticed driving to work.

A campus doesn’t have to be on this “bike friendly” list to enjoy, but if you are looking for one that fits that description, check this list out.

Sunday bicycle ride LSU Shreveport
Seen on a Sunday springtime bicycle ride through LSU Shreveport