As a motorcycle enthusiast, I’d spent weeks looking forward to attending the Wild Hog Festival in Helena-West Helena. However, my wonderful weather app indicated rain. It was then that my husband, Jay, reminded me that “there are Harley owners and then there are Harley riders.” We were definitely riders.
This year we decided we’d start the cycling season as we do each year with a trip to the Delta. Of course, that includes a buffet breakfast stop at The Iron Skillet in North Little Rock, a well-known meeting place for bikers to see familiar faces before getting on the road.
Outside the restaurant, a few riders were giving advice on eastbound construction issues from I-40 to Brinkley. That led many to follow our route on Highway 70 through the communities of Lonoke, Carlisle, Hazen, and DeValls Bluff. We’d then steer off to the right on Highway 49 through some of The Natural State’s richest soil, stopping only for a hot cup of coffee in Marvell before heading on to Helena-West Helena.
A ride like this allows you to catch up with agricultural neighbors, watching rice being planted and levees being established. I could only think that it seemed like the planting season was a little behind this year, but I was sure that the late spring rain that’d kept me off the roads had also most farmers out of the field.
On this particular day, traffic along Highway 70 was very congested, with the west-bound traffic taking the same idea at Biscoe. However, once we got past that link to I-40, it was nothing but open road, cool air, and Destination Delta.
Upon arrival in Helena-West Helena, you could see the pride of area leaders in their community’s Civil War history fully displayed at the new Fort Curtis Battery Park and Freedom Park. Those riders heading west from across the Mississippi River also had a perfect view of the warm southern charm of the soon-to-open Welcome Center.
Open for festival registration was the make-shift Wild Hog Saloon, every year’s “happening” location. Next door, Rio Lindo, the Mexican place I call the town’s restaurant anchor, was very busy. I have fond memories of it being my first stop back when it was “Oliver’s,” a time when every biker this side and back of the Mississippi River looked for Grady Mitchell and his sidecar. Of course, he’s no longer with us, but his spirit remains.
Once registered and checked into the hotel, we ran into a couple from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, something that always reminds me of the amazing number of states represented here. Then, as we sat on the Helena-West Helena levee listening to some of the best music ever at the 14th Annual Wild Hog Festival, I thought how far this little Delta town has come from its rich history along the Great River Road.
As motorcycle enthusiasts settled in for the two-day festival, I noticed that the mural on the Delta Cultural Center of famous blues musicians that have passed through the area can be seen from the Main Street Stage. This, no doubt, has led to a few festivals sprouting up throughout the year. Even the American Queen Steamboat makes stops three or four times annually so that travelers can tour the historic sites.
Some of the best shopping can be found in the unique shops along Cherry Street, and while I couldn’t haul too much in my motorcycle bags this trip, I noted a couple of “want” items in the Handiworks store. However, there were few vendors this year, but it was nice to encounter the traveling exhibit, ““Lincoln: The Constitution and The Civil War.” Still, when the weather’s sunny and spring like, vendors are rewarded with thousands that line the street.
Now, if your timing was just right you might find yourself up close and personal with famous native, Sonny Payne. I listened as a California couple, who came to the festival with the intention of meeting him, got their wish when he graciously stepped behind the mic so that they could get their photo memory taken. They even told him that they had a room for him if he ever came to California.
Weather conditions, however, quickly turned to warnings and alerts. Fortunately, we left in time to make it to our hotel just as the bottom fell out. The next morning, we stopped at the Conoco, Helena-West Helena’s nicest, friendliest gas station. In fact, if customer service is their goal, they win hands down. There we wished the bikers at the pumps a safe trip back to their home in Tupelo, Mississippi, another example of how far folks come for good music and the fellowship of other bikers.
The annual festival would not be complete without a Sunday morning Biker Blessing on Cherry Street. The Christian Motorcycle Association is part of every Arkansas festival, serving as volunteers in some capacity. Thus, with our iron horses blessed, my husband and I started off to our annual stop at the last restaurant on the way out of town, McDonald’s.
Though we were a bit out of practice, we knew rain was ahead of us so we worked hard to put on our raingear before heading toward the Louisiana Purchase State Park, a fascinating place from which Little Rock’s Baseline Road gets its name. Now, if you don’t know the park’s history, you might enjoy this link: http://www.arkansasstateparks.com/louisianapurchase/.
Did I mention that we’re riders, not just owners? It rained from Marvell to Brinkley, and a stop at Break Tyme in DeValls Bluff to ease the ride was an idea shared by many other bikers. Fortunately, the stop allowed us to visit with a couple that was traveling by car back home to Memphis. They’d spent a great weekend in Hot Springs at The Arlington Hotel for a class reunion, and raved about the hot bath and massages. We spoke about where we’d been and what there is to see and do. Because the woman was a history buff, I gave her some “I Rode the Civil War Trail” lapel pins for her historical club. She said they’d plan a trip and promised to look up Arkansas.com.
The rest of the trip along Highway 70 westbound from Hazen, (parking lot full at The Hulsey House), to North Little Rock was dry with a light breeze and sunny skies. Therefore, when I pulled into our drive, I knew three things could be checked off my bucket list: the 2013 Wild Hog Festival, one of the eight Civil War Trail campaign rides, and my first ride in the rain this year. Thus, until the next journey, remember to keep your sunny-side down and look twice, save a life! The motorcycle season has begun!