Ozarks vs Appalachians vs Aliens – Ellington to Houston

Ok then I’d better ‘fess up. There are no aliens in this post. Unless you include the cockroach we found in our hotel room this evening. That was pretty alien, well less of the pretty actually. But anyway the headline was there to grab you into the great Ozarks vs the Appalachian debate and if you’re still reading this, then I guess it’s worked.


The Ozarks may not be as high as the Appalachians but they certainly pack a punch. This is a view we’ve seen hundreds of times over the last few days.

So which one is the toughest for cyclists to ride? Well there’s a clear winner – but the argument isn’t as straightforward as all that. Let me explain. The Appalachians are high and hard with endless switchbacks traversing some severe mountain passes. The Ozarks are much smaller but also tough because of the sheer number of climbs, one after another. On any comparison the Appalachians are the heavyweight winner with killer punches to throw, like Hayters Gap and the Blue Ridge Mountains.


If we hadn’t done enough climbing already we scaled this fire watch tower for spectacular views over the Ozarks

But the Ozarks punch above their weight. They may be dwarfed by their eastern neighbours, yet rather than going for the big knockout, they grind you down with wave after wave of smaller punches, exhausting you into submission rather than knocking you down. And, in places they can be much steeper than the Appalachians. And here’s the reason, as explained by Ben who we met in Marion.

It’s to do with the engineering. The roads over the Appalachians were designed with the aim of achieving the lowest gradient, so each climb is a series of switchbacks. The roads through the Ozarks in comparison just follow the contours, straight up, straight down. There’s no grading here, you’ve just got to go with the flow. And sometimes that isn’t easy. So there you go the Appalachians may win the belt, but the Ozarks will have you begging for the bell as you enter the 99th round.


Spectacular views over the Ozarks from the Fire Tower

So wanting to get our climbing in early before the heat of the day and to minimise time on what we’d been told was a very busy road, we left our shelter in Ellington just after six am. I’d not had a good night, sleeping on a concrete bed in the corner of a children’s playground is not quite what I had in mind when I planned the trip. During the night various trucks came and went from the car park right next to us, each one leaving with a roar of engine noise. Frogs and birds chattered all night long, various insects crawled across our sleeping bags and at one point I became convinced I could hear the moaning of wild bears in the nearby woods.


Lone Rider: Louis has not taken a long bike tour before, but manages to pack an amazing amount into each day and still be in front of us.

In a state of semi-sleep and exhaustion I could think of no other animal that could make such a strange sound – and I was sure it was getting closer. By morning, by which time I felt more tired than the night before, all was revealed. My bears had been no more than cows. How foolish had I been? But I was still glad we tied the food up into the rafters – the cows of Missouri are famous the world over for their climbing abilities.

Powder Mill

The crystal clear waters at Powder Mill

Talking of which we were back into climbing mode ourselves on the road from Ellington to Eminence. This 25 mile stretch was beyond doubt one of the hardest sections of the TransAm so far, numerous steep hills followed by fast descents time after time – and never enough momentum on the way down to push you far enough up the next climb. At one point I noticed the Garmin was registering 2.1mph – I really didn’t know you could ride that slowly without falling off. Hot exhausting and never ending – although a detour at Powder Mill to gaze into the crystal clear mountain waters proved a welcome relief.


Amish buggy and trap in Summerville

We ate a late breakfast at ‘Maggies’ in Emminence before continuing onto our destination, rather bizarrely named Houston in the county of Texas. En route, and not content with climbing on our bikes, we climbed a fire control tower to wonder at the beauty and scale of the Ozarks below and ate lunch with Louis in Summerville where we feasted on strawberries bought from an Amish mother and two children, their buggy parked in the shade of a shut down service station. I would have liked to have chatted to her, but was unsure of the protocol, but she did tell me a little later she had sold all the strawberries and she and the children waved goodbye to us as she drove the black horse drawn buggy out of town. We followed for a while on our bikes, a strange sight seeing a horse-drawn trap alongside giant American lorries. Truly a country of contrasts.

Another bad night for finding somewhere to stay so after an exhausting day and failing to find a church, fire station or campground, we were forced to check in to a Southern Inn costing 35 dollars each.

Miles today: 72
Miles since First Landing: 1449

Written by Paul

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