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story.lead_photo.caption Hills are friend or foe, depending on the legs and lungs of the person pedaling the bike. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

An unexplained mystery shrouds our corner of the Ozarks, a slow uplifting of the land that makes our hills steeper as the years roll by.

Any hiker or cyclist who's been in these parts awhile knows the hills are way steeper now than they were 20 years ago. And I'll guaran-darn-tee you they'll be even hillier next year.

OK, so maybe it's not geology's fault. We all know the real reason these hills are getting steeper -- birthdays. As the thicket of candles on our cakes becomes a forest, we get winded blowing them all out. Sooner or later, we'll all need a leaf blower to put out the fire.

When you're 20, it's a cinch to hike or pedal uphill, barely breathing the whole time. When you're carrying around an AARP card, it's wheeze, wheeze, wheeze all the way home.

We know it's true, thanks to this report from our Tour de Madison County cycling group. Last month, some of the gang ventured down to the Mulberry River Road Scenic Byway for a fall foliage bike ride along ultra-beautiful Arkansas 215. Their ride started at the Arkansas 23 and Arkansas 215 junction, then headed east to Oark and back, about 35 miles. It's truly one of the best bicycle rides in Arkansas.

After their trek, one of the bikers filed a dispatch stating the byway was ablaze in color on the two-lane highway beside the Mulberry River. Her prose was a joy to read and ended with, "the hills are getting hillier."

Years ago when our group started riding this riverside route, we remarked how flat it is smack in the middle of the steep Ozark National Forest. Now we talk about hillier hills.

Fast bikers will testify, "the hills are your friends" for the workout they dish out. It's true our slower bunch isn't pedaling up these "friends" as much anymore.

In the days before the Razorback Greenway, we'd ride a lovely blacktop loop every Sunday morning through the Madison County countryside. Car traffic was minimal on these quiet, early mornings. A highlight was stopping at the Clifty Store for coffee -- 25 cents with free refills.

We loved the Clifty Store, sitting out on the front bench under the awning sipping our brew. Away we'd chat with the regulars who arrived in a parade of pickups and four-wheelers. We got to know everybody in Clifty, and they knew us. It was a sad day indeed when the store closed, and our java stop went away.

Coffee is important to our little group, especially on cold rides during winter. When the store closed some years ago, we switched our Sunday ride over to the Razorback Greenway and its wide selection of coffee stops. We found a perfect stop at the halfway point of our new Sunday morning route. But friends and neighbors, the coffee costs way more than 25 cents.

We've grown to love the greenway so much it's hard to imagine biking on a public street. We don't get the hill exercise we did over Madison County way. Two of the climbs were real killers, but we grinded them out every Sunday.

You want hills? You can find them on the greenway. There's the big one at the Great Wall of Lowell. It's arrow straight along this massive retaining wall. It's not Madison County steep, but it gets your attention.

The lung-buster climb on the north side of Crystal Bridges museum rates a solid 8 on the wheezer scale.

Nowadays when I tour our old Madison County bike route, I get winded just driving up those hills in a car. No doubt about it, the hills have gotten hillier.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at [email protected]

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