The Twists Are Endless
The song 'Twist and Shout' may be an old tune but it captures some of the fun navigating this 54-mile rollercoaster. From Talihina, Oklahoma on the west end to Mena, Arkansas on the east, this trek gives any motorcyclist a refreshing satisfaction punctuated with curve-induced adrenalin. For motorcyclists in North Texas, this is the closest locale to wear a bit of rubber off the sides of your tires.
Connecting two states, the Talimena Scenic Drive (TSD) is the emerald jewel of the Ouachita Mountains; also spelled 'Washita', from the Indian phrase meaning 'good hunting grounds.' Differing from other mountain ranges found in the U.S., the Ouachita range runs east-west, instead of the familiar north-south contour. This is one of the highest ranges between the Appalachian and the Rockies, peaking at 2,654 feet above sea level at the Rich Mountain Tower, an old forestry observation point.
A good ride must start with a happy tummy and an empty bladder. This road trip began in Greenville, Texas, located on I-30 between Dallas and Texarkana. It's a growing area with an active biker community and a fair assortment of eateries that can satisfy a range of pallets. So, Mary of Puddin' Hill, a haven of heavenly treats and lovely luncheon dishes, was the first stop before leaving town. You may get sidetracked on the way to the deli since their store of sweets is in the front and the deli is in back (now who planned that).
Make sure you allow time for eating and ogling these home-spun sweets when you stop in at Mary's. And, try not to sample the 300 pound chocolate doll house, or the miniature general store that weighs in at 100 pounds of pure sugared delight.
The interior of this fine facility is not the typical style for tough-guy bikers. It's a rustic country girl theme that most guys can only endure for an hour or two. On the menu, I'd strongly suggest the tortilla sandwich with the red, white, and blue soup. The chicken salad sandwich is always an excellent choice, too.
If you need some time to walk around after a stop at Mary's, like I did, you're in luck. To the west of Mary's place across I-30 stands a statue of Audie Murphy, a famous World War II soldier. The nearby American Cotton Museum contains Murphy memorabilia, pictures, and history. The movie, To Hell and Back, in which Audie starred himself, recounts the World War II events leading to Audie's commendation for several medals. Audie was raised in nearby Celeste, Texas. Greenville, the county seat, used to be the center of cotton production back in the 1930s and this museum also yields a detailed insight to the growth, harvesting, and processing of cotton.
Different Ways to Biker Heaven
Texas motorcyclists can approach this visual vista from three directions: the east, west, or middle. I took the middle approach into Oklahoma for this ride using Highway 259 north out of Idabel.
Leaving Texas Behind
Highway 224 on the northeast side of Greenville takes you to Commerce where an obscure but pleasant Farm to Market 71 (FM71) awaits the curious rider. Through rugged ranch and brush country with a few low wetlands, FM71 provides an alternative trek to interstate and highway traffic. At Hagansport, Highway 37 leads out of Texas into Oklahoma through Idabel where Highway 259 snakes a path with more pine trees scenting the air. North of Idabel, logging trucks blow a parade of the 'just-cut' smell of wood into oncoming traffic; but that's not all. Bark and wood bits tend to fly off those trucks without warning, so watch for strewn debris from these big rigs.
Winding northward several parks, cabins, and boating areas for Beaver's Bend invite us to stop and enjoy a bevy of sights, food, and rest. But higher ground calls us on. Before us, the Kiamichi Mountains ramp up in altitude, teasing our bikes with gradual curves and glimpses of rising ridgelines through the bordering trees.
The small towns of Smithville and Octavia find themselves nestled in tree-filled foothills. At nearby A-to-Z Ranch, just north of Octavia, one can rest overnight in one of several cozy cabins. And while your two-wheeled horse rests, you can rent a four-legged horse to take you into the rugged mountains just south of Big Cedar. Some have chanced a brief glimpse of the wild fleet of Spanish mustangs that haunt the shadowed valleys and shallow canyons nearby. The 2004 movie Hidalgo and the story of Frank Hopkins makes one reflect on these descendants of the Indians' favorite steed and marvel at their continued existence with civilization's backdoor so close to their free spreading home.
Having a fair amount of daylight left, I traveled north to Big Cedar to view an historic monument known as Three Sticks National Forest Monument, commemorating five Oklahoma political figures of the 1950s. They are Senators Robert Kerr and Mike Monroney, former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert, former Governor of Oklahoma, Raymond Gary, and former Oklahoma City newspaper columnist R.G. Miller. The monument, on a crest of the Kiamichi Mountains, is perched with a grand view to the north.
Arriving at Biker Heaven
At the TSD, one can head west to Talihina, east to Mena, or continue north on 259. I took the east trek to Mena, enjoying the late afternoon golden shards of light and darkening shades against the ridgeline of the highway. Deer, bear, wild turkey, and other wildlife use this area, too, so be careful.
To catch the view of valleys below one can pull off the TSD into one of countless scenic vistas and drink in the rumpled carpet of green pines, oaks, hickories, and maple meadows far below. Otherwise, keep your eyes on the road ahead, although that's not easy to do as a flat-lander like myself.
In Mena, the True North Bean Company is at the footsteps of the TSD, really only a few minutes from the steeper grades of Highway 1. I stopped in for a hot bowl of chili; a perfect balance of meat, kidney beans, and rich tomato taste. This quaint stop-in is a bookstore and deli combined, which works well for a casual place to taste your brew of coffee and browse a selection of books.
Leaving Mena, it's sunset time and I'm making miles westward on the TSD for a camping spot at the Winding Stair Campground, operated by the Ouachita National Forest Service. Nestled in the trees, right beside the TSD and the Emerald Vista, this park provides a perfect platform for a northern view down into the valleys below. At night, distant shimmers of clustered lights here and there suggest small nameless towns. On this weekday evening, there was only one other camper at the park, giving me a nice selection of choice camping spots. The overnight cost for a camp spot was $10. That's well worth it for the beauty and serenity of the spectacular views this park offers. Just to the west of this campground is a Backpackers’ camp. Available there is water, several tent pads, a picnic table, and a fire pit. Overnight cost is just $3 a night.
Day Two in Biker Heaven
Early the next morning I motor back east again, stopping in at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. Those interested in some pampering should book your stay at this fascinating establishment well in advance of your trip (I would suggest several months). The service, sights and ambiance will be a treasured memory for you. The lodge restaurant with its many large windows gives the diner an encompassing panoramic view to the south. This lodge, demolished by a fire in 1973, was restored to a grand presence that echoes its queenly history.
Motoring east to Mena for lunch and just across the street from the True North Bean Company is the Skyline Cafe. Their breakfast menu is quite varied, and should benefit all tastes. For the dinnertime steak and baked-potato crowd, the Branding Iron has a very pleasing menu.
If a mid-range lodging budget is your style, there are hotels in both Talihina and Mena. Mena also lists several Bed and Breakfast establishments.
Robert S. Kerr Memorial Arboretum and Nature Center
Near the TSD midpoint is the Robert S. Kerr Memorial Arboretum and Nature Center. This open air center provides informative detail on local plant and forest life cycles. With three self-guided trails that are very easy to walk, one enters nature's classroom with live samples and no tests. The center is funded with voluntary contributions.
Arriving at the West End
Coasting into Talihina, the lunch choice was difficult, between the Kiamichi Kitchen and a downtown favorite, Pam's Diner. The decision was further complicated by a good barbeque (Outlaw Barbeque) and trying to watch my diet (Subway). On this trip, my diet-watching didn’t win.
Got Gas and a Phone?
There are several gas stations in Mena and Talihina. On the 54 miles of the TSD itself, however, you will find no gas, period. Make sure you plan your trip with this in mind. Cell phone coverage was fair along most of the TSD, but I wouldn't guarantee a solid signal. My AT&T phone registered average signal strength at most vistas.
The temperature on the TSD is about 15 degrees cooler than the thermometer reading in Talihina. Pack a jacket and if it's partly cloudy in Talihina, then you may run into mist or rain on the TSD.
When to Go?
Anytime the sun is shining provides a great scenic venture on the TSD. The fall colors make for an especially rich and memorable trip. The colors peak around the end of October and beginning of November. The Talihina Chamber of Commerce keeps daily checks on the tree changes, so a quick phone call can help plan your optimal travel date.
There is much to explore in this part of America. The area history is fascinating, and the nearby lakes, parks, cabins, and family activities are too numerous to detail. This article serves only as a brief introduction to the beauty of the TSD, the emerald jewel of the Ouachita Mountains.
Winding Stair Campground, Ouachita National Forest Service Park
This park opens April 15 and closes on November 15 of each year.
Kerr Nature Center
This peaceful and serene area opens April 20 and closes on November 15 of each year.
NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY DESIGNATION:
In September, 2005, the state of Oklahoma received the distinguished recognition of having three of their state highways admitted into the National Scenic Byway Program. This program, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, seeks to preserve and enhance selected roads throughout America. The decision as to which roads are selected is based on local archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities of the highway. The three highways are:
1. Talimena National Scenic Byway
2. Mountain Pass National Scenic Byway
Highway 259, between Octavia and Page was designated the Mountain Pass Scenic Drive. This attractive 23 mile trek gains elevation but also beauty and rustic charm as you near the the Talimena Scenic Drive.
3. Mountain Gateway National Scenic Byway
On the north side of the Talimena Scenic Drive is the Mountain Gateway Scenic Drive on Highway 59/270 (22 miles in length) from the Arkansas State line up to Heavener, Oklahoma.
By Mark Rice