|The Ballards - USA Missouri|
We visited Missouri, home of the Ozark "Mountains" (so called, with rare American irony, because they are in fact rolling hills - the highest are the Boston Mountains in Arkansas at 2,560ft, hardly a mountain....) in September 1994 when Lucy was 9 months old.
Travelling with a small child, buggy, backpack, nappies and baby food is not for the faint-hearted; it's lovely now the girls are older and don't require all this specialist kit!
We started out by flying to Chicago to see some old friends, then the following day we drove to where Nessa used to work when she was living in the States. She lived a glamorous life with the horse-racing set in Barrington and Florida.
The following afternoon we flew from Chicago down to Peoria to visit our old friends Howard and Shirley, and after spending a few days with them we drove on down to Missouri, known as the "Show me state" for it's unbelieving denizens.
From Peoria we drove to St. Louis.
Entering St. Louis, the freeway floats above the squalor
that is East
St. Louis. Occasional glimpses of the (literal) underbelly of the
city showed the endless blocks of single storey white-painted clapboard
houses with chain-link fenced gardens that form the working class suburbs
of all American conurbations. They stretched away to the horizon, interspersed
with alcohol stores and gas stations, unsynchronised traffic light sets
and endless car dealerships, fast food joints and motels.
The historical buildings in downtown St. Louis have been beautifully restored. The main freeway running alongside the river has been sunk in to a cutting so as not to interrupt the sightlines across the river. Why can't we do this in the UK?
We then went on, in sweltering September heat, to the
Museum of Transportation
in Southern St. Louis. This has a fascinating collection of cars and trains
from all over the US and Canada and their web site has a great explanation
of how the train
nomenclature system works (move over, Robbie Coltrane!).
That night we stayed in a motel in Southern St. Louis,
and were the last people of the year to swim in the pool before they closed
it for the Winter.
The area encompassing Southern Missouri and Arkansas
has a reputation as a hardscrabble, sparsely-populated agricultural area
best known for it's bib-wearing smallholding farmers known as "hillbillies",
as in the TV series "The Waltons"
The Ozarks are limestone karsts covering a huge area stretching from Central Missouri down in to Arkansas. Over millions of years the rain has eroded deep river valleys, caves and sinkholes. The hills are rounded by the rain and with the rocks so porous much of the goodness is washed away, leaving poor soil.
Rolla MO held a pleasant surprise: the Sirloin
Stockade. This is a warehouse family restuarant where, for $8 you
can have a huge steak, endless Coke or coffee, endless salad bar, endless
pudding runs and ever-attentive waitresses. If this chain ever comes to
the UK, with US steaks and identical pricing, 90% of UK restaurants would
go straight to the wall. Shameless plug again...
Drifting South West, in true Road Trip fashion, down
near Table Rock State Park we came across an unrestored
40s motel in Cassville MO,
so we felt we had to experience it. The old wooden chalets, the slightly
damp smell, it was all very Norman Rockwell.
Further East to Bull Shoals State Park, a ferry entirely
unmarked on any map took us across Table Rock Lake.
We drove from Mill to Mill, from spring to spring, following
a guide book we found in a motel. The aimless drifting, many walks with
Lucy in the backpack and peaceful scenery were a tonic.
In Eminence MO we stopped at The Maple Tree Inn, quite the most friendly and picturesque B&B I've ever stayed in. I thoroughly recommend it.
we stopped and watched the world-famous fly-fishing, except that it was
a bit of a swizz: the trout were so thick in the water you could have
caught them with a net.
Travelling in the US is so easy: car hire is cheap, the
roads are good and well signed, and the petrol is cheap. The country is
designed around the car, but coming from the UK the scale of the place
takes getting used to.
No bibbed farmers were in evidence: all the agriculture looked profitable, and the inevitable pickups were new and shiny. The only hard evidence that we were South of the Mason-Dixon line at all was that the blacks were poor, and the McDonalds served grits for breakfast.
The weather was warm and sunny the whole time as it can only be across the MidWest. Coming from a country where we don't have a climate, only weather, the stability of the great American weather systems astounds me. Once it's sunny and warm, it will stay that way for weeks and weeks. And the weather people can predict the weather properly (which they still can't do in the UK!)
We eventually reached the Tennessee border and turned East, returning through Southern Illinois and back to the St. Louis-Chicago freeway. The land flattened out in to the huge-scale agricultural area that is the MidWest corn bowl and reaches North in to Canada, the agricultural machinery and truck containers grew massive once more, and we returned to Peoria for the depressing overnight "redeye" back to Gatwick.
Conclusions? The hillbillies are all stockbrokers, the Waltons house is a Washington weekenders residence, the hills are beautiful and under-populated, and worth a return visit when the kids have left home. I would like to visit the Maple Tree Inn in Eminence MO again.