Show Me Missouri Part I: Road Bound and Reeling

Country road

The Missouri roads beckoned my friends and I to travel east towards the Meramec River, a peaceful 220-mile waterway perfect to accommodate the day-long Float Trip 22 native Missourians had agreed to take together. A winding, sallow green river thought to have once been “the river of ugly fishes” or “ugly water” in Algonquian, the Meramec is a common destination for college students on a budget. For $32 each, we rented three large rafts and the whole grounds of Garrison’s Camping Resort in Steelville, Mo., population 1,429.

missouri-map

Though in time, after crossing most of the state, we would meet up with the larger group of floaters from St. Louis, we began as two car loads of friends.

In the first car, Andrea drove. She had spearheaded the Kansas City effort – collecting money and buying hot dogs and bagels and she was hell bent on making good time. Sisters Kelly and Courtney rode passenger in a straight shoot to the campsite 241 miles and 4 hours away.

Marisa reluctantly agreed to drive the remainder – my crazy cousin Monica, her new beau Devin and myself – a random mishmash of personalities crammed into a white Hyundai Sante Fe. Monica and Devin packed for a fortnight’s stay. With their three-room tent and rain tarp, two sleeping bags and mattress pads, a grocery store aisle of food, chairs, clothes and other miscellaneous bags – it was a good thing I only brought a small backpack. I had a swimsuit, tank tops, underwear and a hairbrush. I understood that I had under-packed only gradually as we forged ahead in the blazing July sun rising from the pavement. Deodorant, toothpaste and contact solution were rare commodities on the road and would pose great problems for me in the future as I attempted to “ruff it” in the woods.

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Of course, beer was the primary concern. The old bearded man at the counter thought I was pulling a stunt, coming in there, scratching my head and asking him how much beer a girl my size could gracefully handle on a two-day float trip. He laughed and carded me – and I did my best to look outraged but cracked – I would have carded myself if I was him. After handing over the ID, only recently of any use to me, he said “Happy 21st little lady,” and rang up my ambitious 18 pack of Miller Light.

Setting out, we discovered that our car shared  a strong curiosity and desire to explore. We made a pact to extract as much adventure as we could on the road trip ahead. From where we sat, making good time was making bad memories. With I-Phone in hand, we were able to access the Internet to locate coming attractions of town oddities, intrigue and the just plain bizarre.

Marshall, Mo. was the first town to peak our interest. Technically not even on our driving route, we didn’t know this gem was located 20 miles north of I-70. We were the only car in sight and sped off towards the historic downtown Square of Marshall, home of Jim the Wonder Dog Park.

marshall

There once lived a Llewellyn setter capable of performing the most incredible of acts. Owner Sam VanArsdale discovered his otherworldly talents over time in the late 1920s. Jim could understand his master’s commands – beyond the routine sit-shake and roll-over. He could carryout the most specific of requests, sniffing out cars by color, make and license plate numbers and obeying orders communicated to him directly in different languages, writing and Morse Code. And the list of super-canine deeds goes on in the brochure – yes, there is a brochure.

Jim the Wonder Dog

Jim the Wonder Dog

Marshall, Mo. was so awe-struck by Jim the Wonder Dog that nearly 65 years after his passing, the town dedicated a pristine park after him on Lafayette Street directly on the site of the old Ruff Hotel where Jim lived. And anywhere else, perhaps Jim would only have been remembered on a plaque or in their dreams. But Marshall townies built a gazebo instead and erected a proud statue of the great animal larger than most humans. They lined the flowering garden with a brick walkway inscribed with the names of all donors and installed a permanent water-proof guest-book.

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In the words of “The Babe” in the 1993 classic, The Sandlot, “Heroes get remembered but legends never die.”

We instantly warmed to the Marshall scene but had to cool our heels when the locals started screaming at us, “Wrong way!” while we drove across the historic square oblivious to all one-way signs. Monica jumped out and asked for directions in her $2 cowboy hat and aviators she had purchased at U.S. Toy the day before in preparation for the trip. “Can you tell we’re from out of town?” she laughed.

JTWD Monica

I could sense the patience of the locals on the Square wearing thin as Monica hurdled over the statue for a photo-op probably no one in Marshall has ever had the moxie to do themselves. Rest In Peace, Jim the Wonder Dog, 1925-1937.

I attempted to check out the The Marshall Democrat-News located next door to the park but found myself stepping back slowly towards the door once I entered a small white room that resembled a sterile dentist’s office. There were six people working on old computers and they were all staring at me. Not to mention I wouldn’t pay a nickel for their Wednesday paper, let alone 75 cents – forget about it.

Proud of our great state find and back on the road, we were hours away from the campsite upon the dinner hour and sped through a Sonic for burgers. From Jefferson City to the tiny town of Westphalia, Mo., population 320, we played road games children play with their parents when they’re bored in the car.

The middle of Missouri is breathtaking and on Highway 63, the small towns capture everything you’d a want a small town to be; with manicured lawns and a Main Street of shops, one ice cream parlor and two restaurants the locals swear by, flower boxes in the windows and old men in rocking chairs on the porch, old women in dresses sitting next to them, children playing outside and a great steeple that stands tallest against the horizon of the setting sun. It was a pure America I rarely get to see with modest Americans I’ve never really known – it sent me reeling in our passing car.

Country America

We continued on the scenic drive through the St. James vineyards and rolling wooded hills of Cuba. Nearing our campsite, we stopped at an old country store as the sun set deeper through the trees. An old man in cut-off jean shorts and a white beard two-feet in length told us we were driving in the wrong direction. Monica told his daughter we had overshot our target and she responded by asking Monica what kind of gun she used. We thanked them for their help and hightailed it out of there.

Garrison's signGarrison’s Camping Resort had an unmistakable look reminiscent of the classic summer camps seasonally visited by kids and pre-teens for generations. Rows of stacked canoes lined the gravel drive leading up to the rustic red-wood painted Office where visitors could check in, buy some country grub and shower in the one bathroom on property with plumbing. The rest of the party had arrived from St. Louis hours before. We pulled into the Garrison’s secluded back wood area where the primeval forest party was already in full swing. Everyone had set up and abandoned their tents to sit around the roaring fire.

The restless day of driving had left me stir-crazy and the unnatural feel of coolant from the car’s A/C on my skin had me itching to run around outside. The rest of the summer night was spent laughing and singing and drinking beer – no one cared about sleep seeing as the following day’s plans required as much energy as it takes to lie in a raft and float down a river.

To be continued…

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