Writer Kat Robinson and photographer Grav Weldon head into the hills in search of what’s brought a stretch of Scenic Highway Seven back to life.
An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Arkansas Wild. Click through for a downloadable copy.
So far we’d been in the area for six hours and had seen a mere handful of people on motorbikes. The idea that the area had been saved by these two-wheeled tourists wasn’t standing up. We needed to find out for certain.
There’s still a spur that goes up to what was once the Dogpatch USA admission style and gift shop. Turning on the spur of Highway Seven that eventually becomes County Road 206, you see a sharp hill on the right, topped with cabins and chalets that overlook the road below. Years ago these were homes occupied by people who worked at Dogpatch. Twenty years ago most of them were in ruins, but individuals have revitalized them and made them into something special.
At the top of the hill, there’s an expanse of parking lot that goes on for what appears to be forever. This was the backend of the old Dogpatch parking lot, and trams would run this far out to pick up people from their cars or from the motel on the lot. That motel is now The Hub. It sits behind a round building that’s also part of The Hub, the old Dogpatch Convention Center converted to a restaurant and multi-use facility.
We drove around to the motel and I went in and met Randal Phillips. Randal’s a nice guy, but from first glance you might thing otherwise. He fits the stereotype for what television has taught us a biker should look like, but he was agreeable and full of good information. He checked us in and invited us to meet him and his wife for dinner at Scooter’s that evening.
After getting our photos loaded down into the computer and updates loaded to the web, we did just that, and got a tour of the convention facility to boot.
Randal and Debbie Phillips are high school sweethearts. They met at Valley View and entangled their lives together with each other. They share a passion for many things, and one of those things is riding.
Their motorcycle club did recognize one thing that was strongly needed for the clubs that rode Scenic Seven -- a rally point, a destination for clubs dusty from the road, somewhere to eat a good meal and grab some kip before rolling on the next day. The Phillipses and another member of their group got together and came up with a plan.
They had seen the ruins of Dogpatch and knew the property was up for sale. The location was prime, a jumping-off point for riders who wanted to take Scenic Seven and its side roads and enjoy the curves and valleys. They purchased the old motel and convention center in 2005 and started work on rehabilitating the property. Soon the Phillipses bought out their other partner, and they’ve watched the blossoming of their businesses as more bikes roll onto the property.
But when we had come up, there were very few bikes or anything else in the parking lot. I asked them about that.
“Well, it’s not the right time. Usually it starts on Friday afternoon when people start rolling in,” Randal told us.
We found out that most of the year, hotel customers are mostly limited to the weekends. It’s too hot in the summer for a lot of vacationers, and too chancy with the weather in the wintertime. But every weekend there are weekend warriors -- members of motorcycle clubs from Arkansas and all over the United States -- that roll in and stay a night or two. And during the late spring and throughout the fall it’s hard to find an empty room.
Business is up for Randal and Debbie, by 30 percent this year alone. Most of the advertising is word-of-mouth and not many people outside the area or the motorcycle community has heard of The Hub. That may change as the reputation grows.
The rooms at The Hub are not fancy, but they’re clean and they’re well equipped. I found on check-in that there was a small stack of torn towels on the dresser, with a cardboard sign that read “Bike, Boots & Etc. Rags.” I can honestly say I’ve never seen this amenity offered before, but considering the clientele it makes sense.
I had to ask the question. “So, are the folks who come up here just motorcycle enthusiasts, or are they bikers, one-percenters?”
Randal and Debbie looked at each other before she responded. “They’re folks, just like us. They love to ride and they have families.”
“So, weekend warriors, then?”
Randal laughed. “That’s a strange term. But yeah, just people like us who like to take their bikes out and ride on the highways.
“We don’t get to ride all that much any more because of the business. But we meet a lot of people who are like us who want a nice, clean place to sleep and somewhere to meet up.”
And The Hub is good for that, not only for the motel but for Scooter’s Restaurant. Four days a week the place is open, offering what some might call road food. That’s fitting, but it doesn’t cover how good the food really is.
We dined twice there, on Thursday and on Friday nights. I got a ribeye and Grav chose the Mushroom Swiss Chicken the first night… but the real star of the show for us was something Debbie’s come up with called Road Rash. It’s a spicy ranch-based dressing that we discovered went well on potatoes and fries, steak, salad and even green beans. The closest I can relate it to is a Cool Ranch Doritoes with cajun seasoning. It’s dang addictive.
We had to return for Friday night’s dinner, even though we’d planned to be back on the road earlier that day. Debbie had told us about the prime rib, and I am a sucker for prime rib. At Scooter’s it’s hand-cut by the cook, seasoned well and just… well, it’s one of the best prime ribs I’ve ever had in my life. You can even have it grilled and it still comes out remarkably good.
We also had to stay to finally see the bikes roll in. The next day in-between interviews at Little Switzerland Cabins and the Chamber of Commerce we caught shots of hogs on the pavement -- parked in front of Jasper stores, riding Scenic Seven and rolling into The Hub. The first group was out of Kansas City, in for a meet on the top of the hill. There were members from the B.O.B. Club and an event for a gathering called the Muffins and the Silver Foxes. Between dawn and dusk the Jasper area growled quietly with riders coming in and settling down for a full Saturday ahead.
And when we left out of The Hub in the late-afternoon light, there were dozens of bikes and a few cars, not the seas of vehicles that once populated the Dogpatch USA parking lot but plenty to stay the night and have a good meal. As we wandered down Scenic Seven past cabins and through Jasper and on past Scenic Point, we noted all the bikes and cars. This area is no longer dying off. It’s thriving again.