Sleeping soundly during a warm starry night within my fly-less two man domed backpackers tent, I awoke at sunrise. Emerging from my shelter, most surfaces were damp with morning dew. Grabbing a cup from the picnic table I walked a few steps to the water spigot to down an Aleve – Damn that bourbon last night was good! Since the cookset was still out, a simple breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee was enjoyed before breaking camp. We attempt to pick up Missouri 19 south but are thwarted twice with yellow Pavement Ends signs. Sigh. The Garmin Nuvi fixed to my handlebars is programmed to avoid unpaved roads but I swear I’ve seen rutted Jeep tracks that this device is more than happy to say, “This way, follow me!” So take its navigation recommendations with a grain of salt.
Finally on Mo 19, we proceed south through the small town of Salem, MO and beyond into the Current River valley. The road is spectacular: hilly, forested and windy with plentiful constant radius curves. Orange construction signs warn of Loose Gravel and No Center Line but the tarmac is perfect. The road construction project ended, the only task left was to remove the erroneous warnings. Arriving at Fred’s Fish House in the small boarder town of Mammoth Spring, Arkansas I secure a parking spot at their front door. As I’m removing my helmet, an old-timer steps up carrying a white Styrofoam container stating he and his wife got the last of the fish. What? How could Fred’s FISH House run out of fish?! Turns out the ol’ dude was just pulling my leg… these Ozarkers are such crack-ups! Seated at a large table with a red and white checkerboard patterned plastic tablecloth, I note a large portion (nine fillets) of catfish on the menu along with two sides, so I enticed a fellow Nomad to split the order with me. The catfish was sublime, deep-fried moist and flaky white flesh beneath a thin, sweet corn meal coating. A side of pickled green tomatoes was also quite good.
Proceeding back north into Missouri, we ride 15 miles northwest to Grand Gulf State Park with its hiking trails and picnic area. A self-proclaimed “Little Grand Canyon” the title is hardly befitting. Tree covered and beautiful, the park contains a small canyon with steep stone walls a mere 150 feet tall with the width narrower still. The highlight of the park is a natural bridge spanning 250 feet with an eroded 75 foot arch. But none of this can be seen from the top of the canyon or anywhere along the 0.8 mile Natural Bridge Trail hiking loop. One must descend to the floor of the canyon on unmarked rough trails – something no one in our group did, mainly because we were not informed. I only became aware of this fact once back home and checking their website.
Our next stop was in West Plains, MO to load up on a case of cold beer before continuing west on county CC to the North Fork Recreation Area campground. Hidden within the Mark Twain National Forest, the north fork of the White River caresses the western edge of the secluded campground. Twenty campsites are divided amongst multiple asphalt cul-de-sacs. We select the first loop, ride past the RV of the campground host and secure three sites. Being a Sunday night in the off-season, the place is empty: we never even saw the host. Facing another clear warm evening, I once again pitched my tent without stakes or fly. The campsites are wooded with large hardwood trees and low brush. Privacy between loops is good but the sites within a loop are visible to each other. Basic amenities of a table, lantern post, and fire ring are provided at each site with a water spigot shared by all. Vault toilets and no concessions round out the offerings. Once settled, a quest for firewood ensued with the best luck at surrounding vacant sites.