A Hidden World and a Retractable Dog Leash
At 1:24am on Thursday November 7th, Ernie and Scotti Lechuga arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, soaking wet and exhausted from their record-breaking 1,030 mile adventure on the Arkansas High Country Race route. Here, Scotti recounts their 5 days, 18 hours and 24 minutes of adventuring through their home state of Arkansas.
I held the hot cup of coffee between my two palms, knowing the precious contents within might be my last for a few days, and that soon I would lose feeling in my fingertips.
It was 6am, and Ernie was driving us to the Clinton Presidential Library in downtown Little Rock. The car thermometer read 28F, and our fully-packed bikes were gathering ice crystals on the car rack as we flew down the freeway.
I had spent so much time dreaming about this trek; now it was time to execute. It seemed surreal — a feeling matched by the mysterious fog coming off the Arkansas River that morning as we rolled out of Little Rock at 7am with 1,030 miles yet to go.
Arkansas is a mysterious state, one most foreigners can’t place on the map. We have neither the altitude of Colorado nor the oceans of California — much less the notoriety. Instead, we have moody hillsides, hidden thick forests, pastoral valleys, and complex river systems.
Although cold, the initial hours of our ride felt very familiar and easy — these were our stomping grounds outside of the capitol city. Energy was high, and as we rode through Hot Springs’ Central Avenue on Friday afternoon, it was bustling with tourists and those coming to warm themselves at the bathhouses and spas.
We’d blasted through our first century, but in leaving Hot Springs behind, we were also departing from the terrain we knew best. Most of what lay ahead was a complete mystery with pure speculation based on the course profile.
That first night, our clothes were soaked through and temperatures dropped well below freezing. Arkansas humidity is a nasty trickster. This time of year, when the waters are warmer than the nighttime air temperatures, the fog comes rolling in with fury. Garments get sandwiched between the humid environment of your sweat and the outside air density and just can’t pull moisture off your skin. We spent most of our ride feeling damp and cold.
When it was time to rest, we climbed into our sleeping bags, but didn’t feel the warmth we were expecting. We had brought 40 degree bags with us, however, it was 29 degrees and dropping. It was a sacrifice we’d chosen to make to travel lighter, and I pulled the hood of my sleeping bag over my head and curled into a fetal position. My toes were tingling with cold, and we didn’t rest well.
Moving was the only thing we could do to get warm, so we moved. The next morning, we rolled through Hatfield and pounded some biscuits, eggs, bacon, and very weak, (but gratefully hot) coffee. Bellies full of fatty American comfort food, we tackled Day 2.
Out of Hatfield, we faced a series of four massive climbs: Rich Mountain, Poteau Mountain, Petit Jean, and Mount Magazine. We were pedaling hard and going nowhere — tracking up and up for hours with gradients reaching 19%. Descents were quick with little recovery, choppy and broken up by short kickers that destroyed momentum.
I thought I knew Arkansas, but had no idea climbs like this existed within the radius of our backyard. We’d stumbled into a hidden world of gravel brutality, each punchy climb followed by a swift, chunky downhill that never allowed for a rhythm to be found.
At the end of Day 2, we took a short rest on Mount Magazine, aware of being slightly behind schedule. We summitted Magazine early the next morning, and on Day 3 concluded the South Loop (416miles) with a nice big burger stop at the locally infamous Freddy’s Whataburger
In starting the North Loop, we exchanged the Ouachita Mountains for the Ozark Mountains, with tons of big climbing still ahead. We hit White Rock well after dark, and it seemed to go on with no end. I started playing eating games to pass the time. I had Chex mix in my back pocket and sour candies in my top tube bag, and I began alternating on the 5 minute mark. Five minutes… crunch on Chex. Five minutes more, chew on a sour candy. For some reason it helped pass several dark hours.
That night was long as it was cold, and the only place we found to stop was a gatehouse to a closed-down campground. The door was unlocked, and inside was an 8x8ft dry concrete floor just big enough for two people to lay down. We decided to stay, but ended up being extremely cold and disrupted. Shepherd dogs on site found us, and despite our attempts to make kind introductions, they barked outside the gatehouse door for the next two hours. I was shivering anyway, so we decided to get back on the bikes and continue moving on after a short, bone-chilling rest.
Northwest Arkansas was a welcomed change of pace. We rode along the Greenway, a beautiful meandering bike path connecting three of Northwest Arkansas’ largest cities. The terrain flattened as we crossed the Missouri state line. Round hay bales dotted the pastures, and the road followed a peaceful stream for hours of easier pedaling. We made up some time through this section, with Ernie taking massive pulls and me reminding him to keep on eating.
Rolling into Eureka Springs on Monday night, we splurged on a 30 minute dryer session. We threw all our clothing into a big industrial dryer and put it on high heat, grabbed a Subway sandwich and almost fell asleep while waiting on our gear to dry. A rain storm was on the horizon, so we debated back and forth on whether or not to sleep now at 8pm, or push on. These decisions are hard, and we finally agreed to sleep four hours to let the storm pass. When we woke, we felt good about our choice — the roads were saturated with water but the storm had moved on, and our recently dried clothes felt like a luxury as we continued forward at midnight.
Day 4, although beautiful, destroyed our bikes. The storm from the night before had left some hefty puddles and hike-a-bike sections too muddy to ride through. Our drivetrains were screeching. In Jasper, Ernie found a self-service car wash to spray down the bikes while I ordered food from a local dive. We used the “divide and conquer” team plan often, each taking a role to save time. We joined back up and crammed in some sandwiches, lubed the chains, and kept going.
That night we stopped in Witt Springs, where several of our dotwatching friends had opened the doors of the local community center so we might take some food and rest. We crashed on a couch for two hours, and when the alarm went off, I felt I’d had a full body beatdown. I stood up and almost keeled over. My body had stiffened terribly within those short two hours — knee joints and ankles had started to swell, and my achilles tendons felt as tight as violin strings.
I shuffled like a China doll over to my clothes to get dressed, deep breathing to control the pain. Ernie didn’t look too fresh either. We studied the route one last time together and committed to make it home without stopping. It would be 230 miles, our longest day on a bike (ever), and over some very tough terrain.
It had just passed midnight on Wednesday Nov 6th. On we rode, through some of the more technical and rocky sections of the route. Upon dawn, the clouds were growing thick. A big weather system was coming our way, and it was brewing up to be a massive headwind the whole way home. On top of that, my right knee was aching violently and was getting worse by the mile. My speed was slowing with the increasing pain, and the rain was toying with us on and off.
My injury had slowed our progress so badly that with 60 miles to go, Ernie insisted we stop and figure out a way for him to tow me. At a local Walmart, we purchased a retractable dog leash. Ernie clipped the doggie end to his seat post, then zip-tied the control end onto my aero bars. I continued to pedal, but at a very limited capacity. On hills I could lock out the leash and let Ernie pull hard to help me get up and over. It was already agony for both of us, creeping in slowly to our final destination. Then the rain came hard, adding insult to injury. We spent the last 4 hours riding into the rainy headwind of a storm system pounding Little Rock.
But we were together pure grit, determined to make it home. When we arrived at the parking lot of the Clinton Library at almost 1:30am, there was no one there. We’d been on the bike over 25 hours. We stripped out of our wet clothes, threw our bikes on the rack, dishevelled as they were, and pumped the car heat up to full blast. We laughed deliriously, completely wasted from our effort. We’d never ridden 230 miles on road bikes, much less gravel bikes, in the rain, with a knee injury and retractable towing device! What a crazy, wild adventure. Ernie was the hero of the day. We’d finished in 5 days, 18 hours, 24 minutes — a new course record.
Dry but still shivering, we went straight to Waffle House, an iconic American late night diner. I ordered one of everything, and Ernie asked me, “Can you eat all that.” I said “Hell yes, I can.” And we stuffed our faces with waffles and syrup, biscuits, fries, and hot coffee. 10,000 calories later, we were sleeping like babies.