Chase the Blues: New Orleans to Hot Springs
- New Orleans
- Eureka Springs
- Hot Springs
Distance: 1,500 miles
Experience: Juke joints, antebellum mansions, and mountain weirdos
We left New Orleans at sunset. Our plan was to head to Mississippi, ride north to Memphis, then cross the river into Arkansas and ride until we hit the Ozark Mountains. From there we'd snake our way south, back to Louisiana.
It's tempting to explain this 1,500-mile loop with some lofty rhetoric: that we set out to explore a culturally rich swath of America where jazz blurs into blues and then into bluegrass; where swamps morph into sun-blasted farmland before rising into rugged hills; or where the South bleeds into the heartland and the Old West. But my buddy Kirill and I vowed to let go of any preconceived notions about the South and allow genuine surprise — an endangered commodity in the digital age — be our primary navigator. No Google, no Wikipedia, no GPS. We would talk to people and go wherever sounded interesting.
After four hours on the road, we pulled off Route 61 in Natchez, Mississippi, a town justifiably popular with antebellum fetishists. Prior to the Civil War, Natchez was home to half of all millionaires in America. Many of their lavish mansions remain standing, some meticulously preserved, others in varied states of graceful decay. We stayed at one of the former, a historic inn called the Burn, and we got back on the road in the morning, after a tour of the property.
Dense pine forests soon gave way to flat, freshly plowed vistas as we made our way 200 miles north to Clarksdale on the advice of a guy on a Harley who stopped to admire my 1972 Honda CB750. According to legend, it was at a crossroads here that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unparalleled chops on the guitar. Not far from that storied juncture, we came upon the Shack Up Inn, a compound of curated dumpster art, dive bar, and rusted clapboard cabins. The problem: no vacancies, not there or anywhere within 50 miles of town. Our arrival, it turned out, dovetailed with the annual Juke Joint Festival, a four-day blues extravaganza.
Luckily, we stumbled on an angel by the name of Zelena "Zee" Ratliff, who runs the Riverside Hotel in the town's center and gave us the room she typically reserves for herself. "You know the history of this hotel, don't y'all?" Zee asked, explaining that it was once a black hospital, where, in 1937, Bessie Smith died after a car accident. Zee's grandmother bought the property in 1943 and converted it into a rooming house. "That's where Muddy Waters stayed," Zee said, leading us down the hotel's narrow hallway. "That was Ike Turner's room, Howlin' Wolf stayed there. . . . " Our minds thoroughly blown, we dropped our bags, devoured a plate of rib tips at Larry's Hot Tamales, and meandered through the packed streets, bopping in and out of dingy blues clubs until we were too tired to stand.
From there it was on to Arkansas. A number of folks along the way told us to check out Eureka Springs, in the state's northwest corner, saying only that its steep and scenic roadways are a biker's heaven. We headed west, over the Mississippi, where after an hour or so the road, Route 63 and then 412 began to rise and dip and curve, egging us to ride on as we entered the foothills of the Ozarks.
With its cockeyed streets and gingerbread Victorians perched on rocky bluffs, Eureka Springs resembles a Swiss Alpine village teleported into the belly of America. Back in the late 1800s, people flocked here believing the waters could cure everything from cancer to "hysteria." Today it is a fiercely liberal stronghold in deep-red country. Think rainbow flags, delightful eccentrics, art galleries, organic cafes.
Kirill and I settled in at the Basin Park Hotel, a regal stone edifice built in 1905. A search for refreshments led us to Brews, a coffee and craft-beer hangout. "This is a place where everyone's accepting of your personal truth," explained bartender MacKenzie Doss. We heard that sentiment so much that evening — from artists, from trout fisherman, from the dudes who bought us shots at a bluegrass bar called Chelsea's — that it seemed like the town's unofficial motto.
The next day's hangover was blistering but worth it — a few brain cells bartered in exchange for new friends, and nothing that couldn't be cured with a canoe trip around Lake Leatherwood, one of the many state parks in northwest Arkansas. We could easily have spent a week there, but we began our southward journey along Highway 23, a tree-shrouded oasis of hairpin turns with an understandable cult following among motorcyclists. We cut east on Highway 215, a similarly picturesque road along the Mulberry River, and then south on Route 7. At nightfall we reached Hot Springs, then camped on a point overlooking Lake Ouachita.
After packing up the following morning, we mapped out our circuitous route back to New Orleans: 600 miles taking us along back roads and through Shreveport and Lafayette, the center of Louisiana's Cajun culture. Kirill offered to ride in the lead, without informing me that he had opted to cheat our rules by programming the route into his phone's GPS. Dumb idea: Unable to understand why we weren't taking the most direct route possible, Google asserted its algorithmic authority to steer us on a less spectacular, more efficient path. It wasn't until we'd ridden some 250 miles that we realized the mistake we'd made. Backtracking would add two days to the trip, so we opted to grind out the 280 miles still separating us from home.
My Honda, however, seemed to believe we needed one final adventure. The 44-year-old machine blew a fuse in a rainstorm 150 miles from town, providing me with the thrill of finding myself on a wet, unlit highway with a dead engine and no headlight. The wiring was literally fried, simmering with the smell of burning plastic. Kirill, eager to make amends, bypassed the fuse with the help of a knife and peppermint gum. Astoundingly, the engine started right up. An hour and a half later, we were back in the swamps of south Louisiana, skirting the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain, with its stilted fishing camps and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss — a landscape that felt about a million psychic miles away from where we began our day.