Ozarks, Too
(Forts, Sporks and Spelunkers, Part Two)

   In 1984, on our way to Texas, we stopped for the night in a sleepy little town in southern Missouri. It was a quiet town nestled in the hills by the Lake of the Ozarks. We ate in a nice little cafe that evening with good, home-style cooking. Nothing fancy, or memorable, for that matter, which about sums up the whole town. We went for a short walk after supper and discovered a small marina on the river. We watched a few people try to catch fish with canned corn without much luck. We went back to our v-shaped corner room at the Kings Inn, and the next day continued our trip to Texas. Who could've imagined in 1984 that sleepy little town would grow up to be Branson, home of 35 music theaters and more on the way! It resembled Las Vegas far more than the quiet little town nestled in the hills we had seen thirteen years before. I had to really fight the urge to turn around and wipe the dust and glitter off my sandals and tires, but we had a destination, so I persevered. And then, there it was before us: the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum.

   The Ripley's Museum is designed to look like it has just survived a strong earthquake, which makes it fairly easy to recognize when driving down the glitter-lined strip of music theaters. We had a good time inside, and enjoyed the shrunken heads, deep-sea diving helmet, the tilted room, optical illusions, the rocking hallway, wax dummies, oddities and curiosities, and making faces in the two-way mirror. We didn't know it was a two-way mirror, however, until we were almost done with the tour and were on the other side where we could watch the new arrivals make faces in the mirror!

   After a quick bite to eat, we headed back to Springfield. We made a short detour to stop in a quiet little lake town called Rockaway Beach, to give the children a glimpse of what Branson was like before someone turned it into a giant version of Elvis' rec room. The locals in Rockaway Beach moved more slowly, talked to tourists (us), fished with canned corn, and looked like they enjoyed not living in a metro area.

Becca at the Bass Pro Shop Fishing and hunting Museum in Springfield, MO    Once we got back in Springfield, we went to the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and Fishing and Hunting Museum. That's one big sporting goods store, folks! Someday I'll go back and spend a week in there, which is about how long it would take to see everything. They should offer camping sites inside, though. They have real wild birds and animals roaming around inside, so why not add a few campers? You could fish and hunt and have a grand time in climate-controlled comfort. Indoor camping. Hmmm. No more vacations ruined by the weather. No bugs. Probably the wave of the future. Mark my words: if someone's not working on it yet, they will be soon.

   Next day we crossed the border into Arkansas to go to Eureka Springs (for Becca) and the Pea Ridge Battlefield (for Adam). We went to both places, but neither really panned out as hoped.

   A professional fishing friend of mine is fond of saying "Don't fish memories," meaning: just because fishing was good one day in one spot doesn't mean that same spot will be good each time you go there. Which is not to say you should avoid that same spot, though. The fish were there for a reason, and if that reason still exists, the fishing may be good again. The analogy of our fishing lesson being: a good time in Eureka Springs in 1984 (or 1973 when I first visited) does not guarantee a good time in 1997.

   Like Branson, but to a lesser degree, Eureka Springs has been invaded by commercial development. We did not get up to see the Christ of the Ozarks overlooking the valley or peruse the stage where the Passion Play is presented. On our way out of town we stopped at Thornecrown Chapel, but there was a private service going on so we couldn't go in. We did get to The Queen Anne Mansion, which turned out to be a beautiful old house with slightly overpriced self-guided tours. It might be fun to stay overnight there - and it is open as a hotel - but it's too expensive for our family. Sadly, Eureka Springs was a dud.

   We stopped at Onyx Cave on our way to Pea Ridge. Located way down deep at the bottom of a knob, you enter the gift shop, and then it's a bit like going down into your Grandma's basement. But what a basement! You wear headphones and listen to a recorded guide, and take as much or as little time as you need. Adam doesn't really remember our 1984 visit, and Becca had never been in a cave, so they were both impressed. It was a good first cave experience: they couldn't really get into trouble but weren't hindered by the tempo of a guided tour, either.

Restored Elkhorn Tavern, Pea Ridge Battlefield, Arkansas    From the cave we went to the Pea Ridge Battlefield/Park. Here's a bit of advice: get there earlier than forty-five minutes before the park closes at 5 o'clock. I had assumed erroneously that the park would be open into the evening. So what did we do? We were there, and Adam would never forgive us if we didn't do at least a cursory tour. Here's what I gleaned from our whirlwind driving tour of the battlefield: there was a valley surrounded by hills. One side defeated the other. There was a tavern called the Elkhorn Tavern. The battle is also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern. You can even walk up and look inside the restored tavern and see the remnants of the road where the Rebs retreated. There is a nice scenic overlook above the battlefield. The interpretive center has lots of books and other merchandise for sale, plus a museum section. Pretty pathetic, huh? I think we tried to cram too many miles and places to see into one day. It happens. The worst part is that after being in the car most of the day, we would all have liked to have been able to stretch our legs and wander the battlefield and read the plaques, pose for and take pictures, and savor the site a little more. We were all ready to do something, but ended up not really doing anything except putting miles on the car.

   The next day we began to turn our sights northward again. On our way to Hannibal, we saw a sign for the Onyx Caverns and decided to stop. Our guide was polite and nice, and the cave was OK. The highlight was when she told Adam he had just killed a stalactite. She explained to us that the oil on your skin causes the water drops and their minerals to run off the stalactites instead of sticking there and helping it grow. Not just for a short time, but for twenty-five years! And then when it finally does begin to grow again, it's an icky gray color. We saw others that had been handled many years earlier by explorers and miners, and the new growth was gray. Our guide told us she doesn't usually point this information out anymore on tours because most adult tourists just scoff at what she says because she's only nineteen. Shame on us!

   When we turned off the interstate to go to Onyx Caverns, I saw signs that said "Historic Route 66." The frontage road along the freeway was a piece of true Americana! I had to get my kicks! So I turned off and almost got more than I bargained for. The Sheriff's Department from Rolla, Mo. - complete with drug-sniffing dogs and people wearing fatigues and carrying large semiautomatic weapons - was stopping cars as they came off the interstate onto Route 66 (It does wind from Chicago to L-A, more than two-thousand miles all the way, you know) and checking for drugs. They ran our license plate, my driver's license, asked why we were on Route 66, if we had a map with Route 66 highlighted, and what was the nature of our trip and how long had we been in Missouri and when were we leaving Missouri. When I said I simply wanted to get my kicks on Route 66, they did not smile. They asked me to turn off the car and then had a dog walk around it three times. We were clean, so they sent us on our way. The car just ahead of us, though, had all its doors open, the hood and trunk open, and all the luggage out on the ground and opened, so it could have been much worse, I guess. They were very polite to us, and told us there were some good restaurants on the west end of Rolla where we could eat. Then they all ran to stop the next car, which didn't look like it wanted to stop and be sniffed!

Tom and Becky in the cave. From the tourism brochure. Mark Twain Cave. Hannibal, MO    We got to Hannibal that afternoon and went to the Mark Twain Cave, where Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher and Indian Joe seem to still lurk in the shadows. If you're going there to see where the movie was filmed, you should know that it wasn't filmed there. It wasn't large enough to allow for the camera equipment needed for the filming, so they had to use another wider, more open cave instead of the real thing. But this is the cave Mark Twain was writing about, and it has seen its share of celebrities over the years. Jesse James used the cave for a hideout for a time. His signature is on a wall, but it's in a section they don't let you see anymore. The whole cave is like a giant guestbook, full of old signatures on the walls, but it's against the law to write your name up there now, and they do watch you. One man on our tour had been there thirty years before when it was still permissible to sign the walls, but he hadn't done it. (Of course, thirty years ago was 1967, and he was in college, so it's understandable that he may have some memory gaps from that time period.) Now, with his grandchildren in tow, he wished he had. Like on most cave tours, they turn out the lights when you get deep inside so you can experience complete darkness. My son and I were ready, though, and simply switched on our indiglo watches. It was an enjoyable cave, but - like so many things we saw - too commercial for my taste. It was also a bit too close inside for my wife's taste at times. She was glad to see blue sky overhead again.

Sign outside a pastry shop in one of the seven Amana Colonies, central Iowa.    The next day was Friday, and the compass continued to point steer us north as we crossed the border into Iowa, bound for the Amana colonies. I was quite surprised to find out these were not Amish settlements. Who knew? AMana. AMish. We weren't there long enough to really spend much time figuring out what exactly they are, but we did spend half a day checking out the wineries, pastry shops, butcher shop and cheese shop, the woolen mill and restaurants. Mark it down as another place we need to go back to someday to investigate and experience further.

   Saturday was another long travel day; luckily, the final one. We made it home in one piece, tired and glad to be able to sleep in our own beds. The cat was glad to see us, too.

   In my mental autopsy of this trip, I keep coming back to the same feeling: too many places, not enough time and too little planning. We ended up minimizing some portions of the trip we could have - or should have - maximized. We threw it all together so fast we didn't have time to do the research we usually do, and had to do a lot of quick studying while on the road, which is when you should have your eyes open for extras. Like Rockaway Beach. Places and things which will renew your spirit. Isn't that why we go on the vacation? To recharge our batteries? I made the right decision when I told my wife I wanted to be home on Saturday so I could have a day to recuperate before going back to work.

   It wasn't the best of times, and it wasn't the worst of times. It was time we'll remember, but I don't think it will be a ranking vacation. Gettysburg was a ranking vacation. The week we spent at the Wagon Wheel Resort on Lake Shagawa near Ely, Minnesota is a ranking vacation (mainly for the rain and flu bug which hit everyone but me!). The week Mary and I spent in Florida one February was a definite travel eye-opener and is a top vacation contender. So, I'm afraid this one will just sort of fade away into mediocre memories. I would like to go back again and do it up right, but some other year. Next up on the trip horizon: Charleston, South Carolina. With any luck, we'll go when it's 30-below up here and 70 and sunny there!

   Zimmy

Copyright © 1997 Mike Zimmerli

I'm on Route 66! It winds from Chicago to L-A, y'know.

Past Ramblings
Between The Eyes Storms With Names Waffle House Today?
Another Winter of Discontent Coming Clean At Last Living the Dream
A Life Lived Well I Wish I Was in Dixie Constantly Yours
Stretching His Wings And We Laughed A Flag-waving Spring
The Magical Allure of the Swirl The Case of the Missing Christmas Letter The Milk Jug of Death
Potluck Into the Breach Another Discontented Winter
Free Refills A Time for Thanks Time to Catch Our Breath
June is Busting Out You're On the Air There's a Song in the Air
The Time of Firsts It's In the Basement Life's Roller-Coaster
The Picture Fishing Lessons Backward Glances
Frost Weevils A Fairy Tale Life Guilty As Charged
March Madness The Changeling Jaws of Life
I Should Have Raised Goldfish Grandma Zimmy My Million-dollar..uh Two-thousand-dollar Smile
My Grand Canyon The Young Boy and the Sea Habitually Yours

Ramblings Special Editions:
Forts, Sporks and Spelunkers
Summer Vacation 1997
[Part One] [Part Two]
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
(2800 miles In Nine Days With Two Kids in the Backseat)

Summer Vacation 1996
[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three]

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