“Sometimes it’s worth lingering on the journey for a while before getting to the destination.” Richelle Mead
Opening my suitcase on the tranquil tile floor of the bathroom, the dust of my recent journey floats in the frigid morning air.
I breathe in every gritty detail, rifling through the stories that are bound to be inflated over time, tales that will no doubt, inform our lives for weeks and years to come.
Travel has a way of shifting your thinking, forcing you to prioritize that which is important, and that which is not.
It’s early, I have no idea why I’m awake, but I know my hairbrush is somewhere in the bowels of this worn suitcase, and for reasons unknown, I can’t write with unbrushed hair or teeth. Okay, sometimes teeth, but never hair.
You don’t return from Missouri unscathed, its constant panorama of rural beauty infuses your being, as if Walt Disney, the landscape becomes the inspiration for your Main Street if you will. The central core of your being. Or at least a reason to slap on mouse ears, and head out on an adventure, one that will get under your fingernails.
Why Missouri, you might ask?
“Good question,” as my granddaughter Audrey is known to say.
If you’ve ever traveled, then you know there’s a stark difference between the planning, and execution of a vacation.
It was either a conference call or group email that got the ball rolling. Once a date was selected, we started making plans for a mini-reunion with our bold, venturous, beloved cousins in Branson Missouri.
Of course, our flights changed several times prior to takeoff. This seems to be our post-COVID reality. Regardless, whenever I’m in an airport, I think my life is about to drastically change. The plane will be hit by lightning, they’ll be an emergency landing in Canada, while some kid throws up in my lap. None of which happened.
What changed drastically was me.
We had to reroute, reimagine, and reprioritize repeatedly, but we forged a new path to the midwest and landed in St. Louis, Missouri none the worse for the wear.
I’m giving you fair warning because some excursions have a way of altering your current reality. The mysteries of the Ozarks are about to unfold, trust me when I say there will be flashes of insights, unexpected landings, and trubulents are part of the deal.
Securing a rental car is a ridiculous process because every mode of travel has its signature aberrations. We had to shuttle no less than 20 miles from the airport with all our luggage and persons to pick up our vehicle from the nicest rental car employee ever. I keep telling myself we’re not in California anymore, stop expecting incivility, you’ve landed in hospitality central.
Don’t get used to it.
We depart on a three-hour journey to Branson, isn’t that what Gilligan thought?
Our first detour is, of course, Ted Drewes, who has been selling frozen custard for over 80 years in St. Louis. Their motto is “our business is service.” This is interesting, because when Sue tried to tip our young server he said, “oh, we don’t take tips.”
Sue said, “You don’t? I’m sorry.”
He said, “No worries, I love my job and they pay me really well.”
Only in middle America folks! What if we all adopted this perspective on life?
We hit the road, tires squealing on the wet pavement, but got sidetracked in Rolla because four middle-aged people who haven’t eaten a proper meal in 24 hours should not be sequestered in a compact Sudan, for hours on end. Especially if someone in the car has been asking trivia questions for two hours straight.
Now we all know that nearly three percent of the ice in Antarctic glaciers is penguin urine, high-heeled shoes were originally created for men, Bubble Wrap was intended to be used as 3D wallpaper, and elephants can’t jump.
Yes, we ordered martinis.
After consuming a surprisingly good meal in Rolla, we head towards Camp Long Creek at Big Cedar Lodge. If it sounds romantic, it’s because it is, with over-the-top charm.
Finding the exact location of our camp was admittedly challenging. We came shockingly close to taking out an automatic gate but in Larry’s defense, it was pitch dark. After several wrong turns (and a little cussing) we found a ranger, who guided us toward our rustic homestead for the weekend.
Gail and Mike are troopers, still in their street clothes, they greet us with the cabin lights on, and generous hugs. Honestly, you can handle just about anything when you travel with common sense, and a slight grin, especially when Mike hands you a splash of wine in a crystal goblet.
Falling into bed that night was absolute heaven. And the pillows passed the Cheryl test, meaning, they were soft and not overly fluffy. I have neck issues, because contrary to popular belief, I’m not rubbery. Rubberneck, get it?
Let’s move on…
One thing I love and hate about traveling is feeling disoriented and removed from my comfort zone ~ temporarily. I think we woke up at 5:00 am our time. It was 7:00 am in Missouri, 6:00 am mountain-time, but I was too groggy to calculate multible time zones. I simply follow my nose over to Gail and Mike’s cabin where they’re brewing fresh coffee.
On the table was a marvelous spread of fresh fruit, danish quiche, and pastries, along with fresh bagels, cream cheese, and lox! I know. I know. How does she pull this off in the middle of nowhere? We hardly said good morning before grabbing plates and assuaging our hunger. Traveling can certainly provoke a capricious appetite.
Gail kept us on a beautifully choreographed schedule with grace and humor regardless of our inability to appreciate the complexities of agendas and inflexible timetables. We have tickets for an open-air tram ride through the beautiful Dogwood Canyon in less than an hour and I still have to shower, deal with my disobedient hair and figure out my footwear. I chose comfort.
After caravaning to the canyon, we arrive in paradise. I’m not kidding. This particular land refuge was established by John Morris, who owns half of Missouri by the way, his fingers in every known civic project, oh, and every damn Bass Pro Shop in America. Yeah, that guy. If there was a Garden of Eden, it was modeled after Dogwood.
The tram wove us through mile after mile of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen, past waterfalls, treehouses, ancient limestone caves, dogwood trees, elk, buffalo, eagles, and groundhogs if you’re into that. I believe there was even a pool of rare yellow trout. We ended up at the main lodge for lunch and discovered the best-kept secret in the world!
Ice-cold Dogwood Beer. Try and keep that between us.
We don’t have a lot of time to lollygag because we have tickets to the Dolly Parton Stampede tonight. We think we’re going to see Dolly in person, or at least a clip of Dolly, but oh no, the reality defied all expectations.
Slipping into our evening attire, we head to Branson to check out the town before the Dolly show, stopping for some pre-show chips and margaritas. Arriving at the theater, we pass a freshly painted pristine barn full of horses, pigs, and fresh-faced teenagers, dressed in patriotic gear, eager to join you in a picture.
Now isn’t this curious?
We’re beginning to realize our concept of the Dolly show was sorely misinformed. It’s actually a good old fashion, down-home, rodeo-style event. As Sarah Reijonen says, “how you live your life is up to you. You have to go out and grab the world by the horns. Rope it before it ties you down and decides for you.”
Horses, pigs, dogs, and comedians storm the arena as an army of waiters present you with a mid-western dinner, more like a hometown buffet, and it did not disappoint. The first course is a huge bowl of creamy soup, followed by an entire chicken (one for every human), slabs of pork, fried potatoes, biscuits, corn, and so you don’t go home hungry, a hardy pastry for dessert.
Just when I think my stomach is about to burst, the show comes to an explosive end with cannonballs, Dolly singing in the background, and American flags proudly circling around the arena. It was the closest I’ve come to a revival service in my life. I felt saved. Transfigured. Renewed. With a mild case of indigestion.
Back at the homestead, we gather in our sweats for a glass or two of Severance wine from Mike’s exclusive collection. It was an experience in itself, after which we engaged in a few rounds of Mexican Train, accompanied by soft guitar music via Mike.
It was one of those nights that just fell in place, one you never wanted to end.
If I thought I was transformed by Dolly, I was dead wrong. Today we’re attending a renowned production about the life of Jesus, and although our expectations are tepid, they were quickly resurrected so to speak. Clearly, whatever we were seeking did not come in the form we were expecting. As Neal Stephenson says it is what you don’t expect… that most needs looking for.
I’m not sure how to explain the impact of this event, other than to say every scene was impressive, majestic, spectacular, and stirring. The actors, the sets, the live animals, the music, and the message all came together with bursts of insights so powerful they could not be ignored.
The gospels come to life in this depiction of Jesus’ life and for once you see his mission as a whole, uncut as if viewing a completed puzzle instead of one piece. You walk away from an event like this transformed. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or not, the message of this young man’s life is enough to not only modify your previous convictions but enhance them.
After being inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we head to the top of the mountain for dinner and a little exploration. Yes, golf carts were involved, and I will not apologize for the shenanigans that followed. As we traverse this sacred ground, entering caves, passing waterfalls, and ogling the spectacular views for the better part of an hour you can’t help but be taken in by the pageantry of it all. Of course, we stopped at the Bat Bar for cocktails because that’s what you do in the depths of a limestone cave full of bats!
Good times. [See my reel for details]
We only gave ourselves an hour to explore the museum of Native Americans who lived in this region. That was a colossal miscalculation. It boasts of having the largest collection of Native American artifacts in the world. I could have spent an entire day strolling, reading, and immersing myself in this primitive culture of spears, leather, and nomadic living.
Which suddenly seems appealing to me?
Our dinner at Osage was fabulous, or would have been, had a snafu with our service not occurred. But it afforded us time to sip wine and slip out on the balcony to watch the sunset, accompanied by live bagpipes, with a live cannon explosion at sunset.
Again…only in Missouri.
As all good things must come to an end we were cognizant this would be our last evening together. Larry set a fire in the outside pit and we enjoyed a glass of delicious wine, s’mores, and the kind of conversations that only happen around the magic of a campfire.
Our final morning found us sipping coffee at Gail and Mike’s place, packing up our bags, loading the cars, before heading to the College of the Ozarks for brunch. This is a unique place. A highly sought-after educational experience, which is free to all students, who are lucky enough to meet the admissions standards. Every student is expected to work for their tuition, adding to their life skills, character, and formation. The student-served brunch was the fruition of our journey.
Before long, it was time to say goodbye to the Severances and head for home.
As if twelve-year-olds, we could not refrain from pulling off Route 66 to see the famous Uranus Fudge Factory, because the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between. And we took great pleasure in engaging with this crass but comedic occasion.
The minute you walk through the doors of the factory, the entire staff yells, “welcome to Uranus.” It’s mortifying, then funny, and then you find yourself yelling at the new arrivals.
The famous St. Louis Arch was a worthy stop, before returning the rental car, and shuttling to the airport. What I’ll realize about this fabulous experience, maybe years later, is that it modified my expectations. From Dolly to Jesus, from bat caves to the top of the mountain, from custard to fudge, we’ve been reshaped, Missouri style.
At the end of the night, caving to the exhaustion of travel, there was just the two of us, leaning against our familiar pillows, side by side, soon to be transported by dreams to regions all our own. As Larry and I ease into retirement, we’ve found a new vocation, maybe our only true vocation, to travel the backroads of the world, discovering aspects of ourselves in the dust of our journeys.
I’m Living in the Gap, recently escaped from Branson, I’m begging you to join me in the comments.
“Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern. The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other. We wander in the ambient noise, checking one more time for the flight coupon, the boarding pass, the visa. The process convinces us that at any moment we may have to submit to the force that is implied in all this, the unknown authority behind it, behind the categories, the languages we don’t understand. This vast terminal has been erected to examine souls.” Don DeLillo