Chasing Fall Color with The Burnout Babes
Winding through lush forests to mountaintop overlooks and tiny Ozark towns, six women on motorcycles lean into power and vulnerability on the open roads of Southeast Missouri.
Meghan Moorlach and her friends don't notice the woman eyeing them outside a gas station south of St. Louis as they park their motorcycles in the rain. But the woman notices them. "Look at you girls!" she hollers across the parking lot. "Hard-asses! Hell-raisers!"
The women raise their fists and let out a whoop-then walk in the front door, soaked and shivering. But as they take off their helmets, they're grinning. The Burnout Babes have just begun a tour through southeast Missouri, and weather hasn't dampened their enthusiasm for the ride. The group pieced together a new-to-everyone, three-day route through the Ozark hills, a loop of quiet backroads bookended by two storied byways that meet in St. Louis: historic Route 66 and the Great River Road. Planned pit stops include billion-year-old boulders, a Civil War battlefield, waterfalls that cut through granite, and ice cream (always ice cream). But the real lure is the road itself, an asphalt ribbon unspooling through sleepy towns, under the green-gold canopy of Mark Twain National Forest, and past signs advertising bait, barbecue and Jesus.
Everyone on this trip knows Meghan, who started The Burnout Babes, a women's motorcycle riders group in Des Moines. Most of them have joined Meghan on trips across swaths of the United States or over the Himalayas in India. For this ride, the wry and bespectacled Kat Hutchison traveled with Meghan from Des Moines. Cam Roberts and Vic Sedlachek-friends so close they're referred to as "CamAndVic"-arrived on touring bikes from Milwaukee. Nora Hess and Michelle Halweg roared down from Chicago.
Meghan launched The Burnout Babes in 2015 on Instagram to find like-minded women who love motorcycles. Michelle, who co-founded a similar group in Chicago called The Bleeders, describes it as a refreshing departure from hypermasculine, hierarchical motorcycle clubs. Groups like these just want to encourage people to get out on the road together.
"There's no president, vice president," Michelle says, taking a drag on a cigarette and waving the terms away like smoke. "Everybody gets a say."
On this Missouri sojourn, some of the women met for the first time among air mattresses and a pinball machine in a cozy St. Louis Airbnb. By the next morning, they're cocooned in a booth at Egg restaurant, trading routes and bites of each other's breakfasts while assessing their loose plan and alternative options amid a wet forecast.
"On a motorcycle, you might wake up and it's raining or you have a flat tire," Meghan says. "You can't get your heart broken if something doesn't happen. You have to go with the flow."
In an era of turn-by-turn directions, top 10 lists and full bucket lists crammed into a few precious vacation days, this slow, goal-free travel feels countercultural. It's raw and immersive.
"You're completely out in the elements; you're feeling the wind buffeting you, you're smelling the cows as you go by," Cam says. "It's a much more heightened sensory experience. I get bored on car trips. Even if the scenery is beautiful, I don't feel connected to it like I do when I'm on the bike."
The scenic Arcadia Valley marks the bullseye on the map for day one. The group wraps up the ride with dinner at Thee Abbey Kitchen, located on the misty grounds of Arcadia Academy, a former Catholic girls school that once drew students from as far away as Europe and Cuba. Katherine and Darwin Rouse bought the sprawling complex from Katherine's mother, who says she purchased these towering brick buildings because she'd seen them in her dreams. That kind of story is barely surprising around here.
The Ozark Mountains have attracted visionaries for generations. Mighty Osage hunters and revivalist preachers traversed the region, while Scottish, English and Irish immigrants coaxed a living out of the hills. Herbalists like Kerry Brock, owner of Shawnee Moon, a wellness and herbs shop in Potosi, scour the same terrain for echinacea, chicory and dandelion. Kerry turns them into tinctures by moonlight, just like her Native American mentor taught her. Tradition flows just below the surface of modern life.
Visiting the Arcadia Valley also means wading into the intimacy of its small towns. In Ironton, musicians gather on Fridays in the town square to play fiddle tunes and aching ballads distilled through generations of love and loss. This particular weekend, a fall celebration overlaps with the Arcadia Valley Mountain Music Festival (held each May and October). Meghan and her crew nod at vendors selling spicy pork rinds and blackberry pies in the street. High school beauty queens will soon be waving from parade floats. These towns see plenty of travelers, but few strangers. As the women scramble along the boulders of Elephant Rocks State Park the next day, they wave amiably at some familiar faces: a family visiting from western Missouri that they'd met the previous night after dinner.
Between each stop, the road brings focus and solitude, even if it's within the white noise of your own helmet. The sun-dappled ride to Missouri's highest peak, 1,772 feet above sea level in Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, is an exercise in mindfulness. To get there, The Burnout Babes follow yet another gently winding road, their bodies leaning reflexively into the curves. The soothing rhythm of the forest is a constant, comforting blur until the trees part to reveal a rippling vista of russet, emerald and flax.
These boots were made for riding-and airing out after many rainy miles.
When the road west through Mark Twain National Forest unexpectedly turns to gravel, the group stops to assess the risk. Although everybody grinned earlier at Kat's cheeky "Fake it 'til you make it" quip, the shadow side of a motorcycle's power is vulnerability-to the elements, to road conditions, to rider fatigue, to other drivers. On or off the road, the fragility of life always hangs close, unspoken but respected. Cam's and Vic's bikes bear stickers honoring friends who died young, and Cam carries the ashes of a friend in a slim pendant. They take a closer look at the gravel, discuss, then ride out slowly, with the deliberate air of a procession.
On the other side of the forest, they cruise past quiet vineyards and over the Meramec River, where locals take leisurely floats. Before hitting Route 66 on the final push back to St. Louis, they roll into Cuba, bikes silhouetted by the sunset. They find a bar called The Rose and are welcomed like sisters by Rose herself and other bikers.
"When you're on a motorcycle, that's the common denominator," Vic says. "You can go somewhere fancy, you can go somewhere rough, but if you're a rider, you have a baseline appreciation for each other."
The proprietress pours a glass of moonshine, and the women pass it around. It's as bracing as the cold night air. They drink to new friends, to the trip's end, to the expansive peace of riding alone, together.
A scenic 300-mile loop swings from St. Louis to the Arcadia Valley and the rugged soul of the Ozarks, then back on old Route 66.
Arcadia Valley Towns Roughly 90 miles south of St. Louis, this little-known three-city region includes one former girls school, two bluegrass festivals and a collection of mom-and-pop shops. Rolling hills and antebellum architecture recall a quieter time, when wealthy St. Louis residents escaped to the country for the summer.
Drop your bags at Arcadia Academy, a former girls school in Arcadia. Bed-and-breakfast suites feature claw-foot tubs, and stone bungalows have full kitchens and big porches.
Down the road in Ironton, Arcadia Valley Roasting Company serves cake doughnuts and coffee from a farm in Nicaragua. Debra Hendron reimagines her grandmother's lye and pine tar soaps at Arcadia Valley Soap Company.
For hearty road food with a sense of humor (Half-A-Clucker fried chicken), try FDC cafe in Pilot Knob. It's just steps from Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site, which commemorates a Civil War battle that left Ironton's courthouse with cannonball scars.
Natural Wonders Just west of Arcadia Valley, the route sweeps past a cluster of cool parks. At 133-acre Elephant Rocks State Park, visitors hike the 1-mile Braille Trail to explore giant pink granite boulders that rise up above the forest.
Taum Sauk Mountain State Park claims Missouri's tallest peak and the state's highest waterfall. A section of the Ozark Trail starts below the falls, winds over the St. Francois Mountains and through a passage of volcanic rock. About 30 miles away, the summer dreamscape of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park rushes through the valley. The Black River carved chutes and pools into stone to create the natural water park.
A staggering 750 miles of trails crisscross the 1.5 million acres of Mark Twain National Forest (broken into six districts). And you'll find striking fall drives below the tree canopy at Ketcherside Mountain Conservation Area.
Route 66 Much of the 85-mile stretch of Route 66 between Cuba and St. Louis runs parallel to Interstate-44, but worthy detours mark both ends of this leg. The FourWay restaurant prepares elegant salads and locally sourced chicken souvlaki in a former filling station in Cuba, which earns its nickname as Mural City.
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard has been making its famously rich goodness in St. Louis since 1930. (The Concrete milkshake is so thick it's served upside down.) Also in southwest St. Louis, the doughnuts at Donut Drive In are just as addictive.
Just north of St. Louis, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge spans the Mississippi River. This historic Route 66 site with a 30-degree turn is now closed to motorized vehicles. Bike or walk across to reach Illinois' Great River Road stretch on the other side.