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.
The freeway stretched down through the endless corn and grain elevators of Central Illinois. The harvest was on and armies of red and green harvesters churned across the huge, square fields.
The freeway floated in a heat haze, the endless straight sections and rhythmic thump, thump, thump of the tyres over the expansion joints lulling everyone in to silence.
The radio stations came and went, and the only intellectual exercise was counting the miles down to St. Louis and estimating the arrival time based upon the assumed actual speed of travel as opposed to the (usually hopelessly optimistic) speedometer reading.
As the distances on the signposts are always to the central Post Office, this is always an empty exercise as your perceived arrival time is when you enter the outskirts of the city, so you're always wrong, but it's a good way to stay awake and alert on a long car journey
Especially after a gut-busting lunch in a truck stop at Troy IL.

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.
Missouri is dry on a Sunday (a quaint relic of the disastrous and gangster-producing Prohibition era) and so East St. Louis (which is just across the Missouri River in Illinois) is the closest place the citizens of St. Louis can get booze on a Sunday.
Many stores in East St. Louis cater solely for this bizarre Sunday trade, which is technically illegal as it is against Federal Law to transport booze across a State line without a licence. But of course nobody enforces the law, and as actually drinking isn't illegal on a Sunday, just buying, I could never understand why they couldn't just buy the booze on the Saturday, but there you are...
The famous St. Louis gateway arch, celebrating the pioneers who went West from St. Louis in their wagon trains (and looking suspiciously like half a McDonalds sign) is an endlessly fascinating photographic subject: the light hits it in different ways at differing times of the day.
I often wonder if McDonalds have offered to build a second one next door.....

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!).
The preservation of them is occasionally questionable, but at least you can get right up to, and on to the exhibits. All museums should be like this.

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 following morning we discovered Shoneys, who do the best breakfast anywhere, without exception, for $3 each (definitely worth a blatant plug, if it makes them think about coming to the UK).
Then we drove South West in to Missouri.

 

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" and "The Beverley Hillbillies".
We would see if we could find any evidence of this and their famed inter-breeding....

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...
Leaving the freeway at Lebanon MO we headed North to the Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
The US Government does State Parks very well: they are well-funded, well-organised and well thought-out, both in why they are there in the first place and what they want them to be to the American public. Hence there are good signposts, consistently good tourist literature, maps and websites, well-tended picnic area, trails, conveniences, waste bins and trail blazes. You always know what to expect from a trail, and the trails are always worth exploring. National Trust take note.


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.
We were the only guests, and resonances of the Bates Motel were strong.

 

Further East to Bull Shoals State Park, a ferry entirely unmarked on any map took us across Table Rock Lake.
Windy roads then took us East to Theodosia and Greer MO. We walked along the river at Greer Springs, and the late summer sunshine glinted though the trees. It was raining at home, or at least we hoped so. Being late in the season we were often the only visitors, and the peace was absolute.

 

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.
The mills were hundreds of years old and unrestored but for new paint, but on the whole were in very good order.

 

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.


At RockBridge 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.
Near Owls Bend MO we stopped for a swim in the river, and it was cold but very refreshing. Nude swimming is technically illegal in the US (the country is so prudish I never worked out how they could be seen as sufficiently immoral to be damned as "The Great Satan" by Ayatollah Khomeini's Revolutionary Guard in Iran following the Revolution in 1976). This is why I am never convinced by Revolutionary Islamic rhetoric: never denounce what you have not experienced, and then thought deeply about afterward) but like so many laws unless you are offending someone no one really cares.

 

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.
There are places where you can drive 500 miles and the scenery doesn't change. Perhaps this was why we felt more at home in Southern Missouri: the scenery was like rural England, only warmer. The people were friendly, the only evidence of lack of public health a girl serving in an ice cream store with a huge hairy mole on her forehead.


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.