Friday, September 9, 2011

Days 42-45: Missouri the Beautiful, and Torturous


9/3 Day 42: St. Joe's State Park, MO to Brawley Park, Ellington, MO 66 miles (1811 miles)

         Today we finally seemed back in the rhythm of things again. Wake up, strike camp, eat oatmeal (except for Ben who is protesting oatmeal until we we have brown sugar, I think), and ride. We meandered our way out of St. Joe's Park and off into the Missouri wilds up what would be the last road with a shoulder we would ride for days.  Things were only just beginning to become hilly- Ozarky as we have come to refer to it- but only gently for most of the day. We passed small towns, and historic sites or ghost towns that were once towns, with names like Graniteville and Ironton that provided further evidence of the region's mining heritage. We passed quarries and countless fields and I found myself liking Missouri more and more. The people have all been very nice, and the  scenery has started to become intriguing as we've come further west. Hills that roll in a slightly different way, houses decorated just-so and a degree off from what we're used to, and countless small things that set the different regions of the country we've ridden through apart from one another. The fields and forests are a bit more arid, and we're seeing different animals squished and mangled on the side of the road; not to be morbid, but the amount of roadkill we've seen is staggering, and you really get to appreciate it on a bike at a whole new level. I can guarantee that when I'm old and gray, lose my vision, hair, and mind the last thing I hold on to from this trip will be the smell of dead animals in various stages of decay baking in the sun- it's made an indelible impression.
The Elephant Rocks, some huge pink granite stones deposited
here long ago when this was still an ocean bottom.
The Shut-Ins without people,
upstream from the swimming
area.
     











The Shut-Ins with people, chaos!
       We rode at a good clip, and our first big stop for the day was at Elephant Rocks State Park, a little park just off the route about .5 miles. With Labor Day weekend in full swing, the state parks and roadways were jammed full with out of towners and holiday goers- most of whom were driving huge pick-up trucks and pulling other vehicles behind them (yes, I did see a pick-up pulling another pick-up.) Elephant Rocks State Park is basically a small assortment of "interpretive" walking trails where you walk in a 1.5 mile loop and read little signs that detail the geological and industrial processes responsible for the unique rock formations inside of the park. The main feature is the top of a large granite dome where several huge pink granite boulders stand in a line, like a herd of elephants. Apparently the Ozarks are chock full of granite and the rocky soil is responsible for the predominantly oak and hickory forests that are draped over the mountains' tops. After a quick circuit around the park, some chocolate dipped bacon, and a quick flat fix we got back on our way and dodged holiday traffic 13 miles all the way to Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park.
       Now, when I stopped here I had no idea what the hell the park's name meant and just assumed that the Johnson family- a crazy clan of isolationist mountain folk- had reacted negatively when the state acquired all the land around their cabin to make a park. The family, then, locked themselves in and refused to leave until grudgingly being bought out, or dying in a shoot-out with local sherriffs, leaving behind a beautiful wilderness area for tourists to enjoy today. However, this is not at all the case. A shut-in is a term for an area of river that is enclosed on both side by rock- in this case, granite. Johnson's Shut-Ins are a series of granite fingers, pools, and small caves that create a spectacular swimming area better than any water park I've ever seen, and, on this occasion, much fuller and more dangerous than any I'd ever seen, too. We went down to take a dip, and what we saw was pure chaos: men, women, and children clambering over granite spires, jumping off of rock faces, frolicking among sharp stones, and rough-housing on the slick river rocks in a scene from a Massachusetts public works employee's darkest nightmare. Once we'd fought, balanced, and otherwise gymnastically made our way past the crowds, we took a nice, long refreshing swim in the river and washed off the sweat from 30 some-odd miles of more 100 degree riding. This park was super interesting, and very beautiful, I don't have space here to describe it all. Missouri, though, is an incredibly scenic state that I recommend visiting (by car).
           After the Shut-Ins we still had 30 something miles to  go and the day was wearing on. We thought to look for camping in a tiny town called Centreville, but when we arrived, we decided the sad looking, ramshackle town of 171 souls (159 must have been on vacation) was not the most appealing option. We got our late lunch at the 21 Diner, one of two restaurants in town. We were as hungry as we've ever been, having only done some heavy snacking to get us there. When we asked our waitress if the place took credit cards, she informed us they didn't and one of the two incredibly old women who comprised the remainder of the diner's clientele chimed in, "You'd better start carrying cash or checks with you on the road. Not a lot of places take those cards any more." Now that we know the credit card is a dying technology- an antiquated relic of a brief, misguided technological evolutionary dead-end- we will wise up, and start paying with checks or, better yet, wampum and shiny stones.
          After our meal, we paid the tab with cash and moved on to Ellington. It was en route that we got our first Ozarking. Three big, long climbs had us sweating buckets over the last stretch and when we got to Brawley Park, a sketchy little park in a sketchy little town, we set up shop, ate, and promptly passed out.

9/4 Day 43: Ellington, MO to Summersville, MO 49 miles (1860 miles)

          We woke up and did our morning routine as we were circled by two older ladies doing walking laps around the shelter we had camped under for the night. We had a vague idea of the Ozarking we were about to receive, but our imaginations could do it no justice. There was a veritable hell of up and down between us and the next town, Eminence, a center (or at least as central as any place in the Ozarks can be) for horseback riding, kayaking, and general outdoorsmanship, like shooting stuff and riding motorized vehicles. The thing is, in the Ozarks, there is almost nothing other than hills except for trucks and rivers and the occasional suicidal group of bike riders. The Missouri drivers kept things interesting for us when the hills didn't, as they seemed utterly baffled by our presence in the middle of effing nowhere. They would come flying around the latest tight, blind turn going 60mph, slow down behind us and observe our 4 or 5 mph progress up the latest 12% grade hill for a moment, then hare off around us in the other lane around the next blind hill or tight turn going 59 mph (a little slower to be considerate).
City pups check out our rides.
          The people in the cars must have been the wild alter-egos of the people in the towns, because- it bears repeating- everyone in Missouri was super nice to us. Once we made our way to Eminence we were, yet again, starving and found our way to the Ozark Restaurant where I had easily the most delicious bowl of potato and mushroom soup I've ever consumed. I paired it with a grilled cheese and a huge, greasy basket of fresh cut fries and a couple cups of coffee. After lunch, we played with the stray mountain pups that were wandering around town mooching off of everyone and shortly found ourselves grinding our way up the next gnarly hill. Only a few miles down the road- and it bears mentioning that throughouty the entirety of Missouri, we were literally on maybe 4 different roads total, there is just not much in the middle of the state- we came upon a neat little geological feature called Alley Springs. Alley Springs was yet another site of rare natural beauty nestled between maniacally steep hills. The Springs are a natural spring that draws up an average of 81 million gallons of crystal clear, cold water. There is a very old mill on the site with tons of archaic machinery inside, and a bunch of informative plaques detailing the mill and springs' various points of interest, but the real attraction is beyond a doubt the amazing pool of clear water.
The Alley Springs well up right here.
And rush out the sluice gates by the old mill.
   

















               When  we were done checking out the lush scenery, we began the climb out of the valley where the spring was located. The heat from the day before had broken, finally, and it seemed as though the seasons were finally ready to shift. The 14 miles through the mountains were much more bearable in 70 degree weather than 100, but when we reached Summersville at just shy of 50 miles, we were ready to quit. Another big factor in our decision was the fact that between us and the next town was 23 miles of nothing, and more hills. The city park in Summersville was a little disappointing, since it didn't have running water, so we began casting about town for more options. We ended up coming across Dave Barnett, a helpful guy who seemed like Mr. Popular around town. He guided us to another dinky park in town, but this park had water, an outhouse, and one other excellent feature. The park was located behind a self-service motel, meaning that all the doors are unlocked and if you want to stay for the night, just lock the door and leave some money when you go.
       We had no problem using one of the rooms for its shower and restrooms; in fact, Dave said that if anybody gave us trouble, just tell 'em Dave Barnett told us it was ok. Equipped with this fool proof defense against trespassing charges, we cleaned up and settled in to camp after a mac-n-cheese dinner. We also found out that Charlie was only a town behind us in Eminence, and had spent the holiday weekend both riding and spending time with his family who were visiting him in the mountains.

9/5 Day 44: Summersville, MO to Hartville, MO 62 miles (1922 miles)

         There was a chill in the air when we woke up, and there was a cold north wind blowing- it felt for all the world like a crisp, Autumn morning. We had a nice breakfast of cereal with milk and coffee from the convenience store down the road and the meal was complemented by a quartet of hostess cupcakes Mandi had bought and lit with birthday candles for my 26th birthday. I made a wish not to die in the frozen passes of the Rockies, and blew out all the candles but one, hopefully 3/4 is good enough. With the hardest part of the Ozarks (we assumed) behind us, we set out for Houston, about 23 miles west. The day's riding was, in a word, perfect. There were a few tough climbs here and there, but mostly the terrain was mild, the sky was blue, and the weather was excellent for riding.
Neat hand painted saws. Collect the whole set!
         When we stopped in Houston, we made our way to the Hayes Cafe for second breakfast, not entirely knowing what to expect. Both of the owners were working that day in the cozy little diner, and one of them, Millie, was our waitress. She was a sweet lady who was pleased as pudding that we had found her restaurant on the internet and appeared there because of its 4.5 star rating, which "made her day." We all had the breakfast combination for $5, and almost all of us got a pancake. The pancakes at this place were the size of serving platters and mine came with a lit candle in it that Millie's husband had run across the street to the Dollar General to buy just for me after Erin told them it was my birthday. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the coffee was $.50 for a bottomless cup. We loved this place, and they have some really cool, old painted saws on the walls that Erin and I are going to try and buy one or two of for our new place in Oregon. We stopped at Wal-Mart on our way out of town for supplies and it was off into the highlands again.
        Not too far along, we were forced to stop once by kittens, and Ben fed them a few pieces of jerky, and a few miles down the road, we barely avoided being totally stopped in our tracks by a small kitten stampede. The views were marvelous as we travelled along a high 1500 ft ridge between Houston and a two building town called Bendavis; the sky was a picture perfect blue and scudded with dollops of creamy clouds that floated over the vast, rolling emerald horizon. I never thought I would turn 26 in a sparsely populated backwoods town in Missouri, but the views I was treated to, and the indescribable day of riding we had, made it a day I'll never forget. It was a long haul over a town-less expanse to our destination for the day, Hartville, but when we got there we had another pleasant surprise not long after our arrival: Charlie had caught up with us. We camped on the courthouse/library/police station/treasurer's office lawn, ate pizza, had more cupcakes, and I fell asleep tired and feeling lucky to be alive, having a great adventure.

9/6 Day 45: Hartville, MO to Ash Grove, MO 75 miles (1997 miles) ** My count is off by a few miles, so our real count was 2008 miles at the end of the day, and we celebrated mile 2000 this day**

A slice of Missouri life. A new truck, pulling an old truck, in
front of a Mack  truck (with Confederate flag grill). Not pictured:
fire truck, 2 pickup trucks, and truck pulling ice machine.
            For breakfast we cooked up some sausage, had some monkey bread- which is this amazing cinnamon raisin bread that has 1420 calories per loaf-, and had some assorted other goodies for breakfast to prepare our bodies for a long and draining day in the saddle. The Adventure Cycling maps are good for many, many things, but they are not as accurate as they could be with their topography. The devil, as they say is in the details, and there were tons and tons of devils lying in the spaces between the elevation levels waiting for us. We had thought, judging by the maps, that we were out of the worst the Ozarks had to offer, but found that we were wrong. The 10-15 mph NNE winds that had begun a couple days ago were still blowing, and at best were a strong crosswind, but at worst, were a pretty impactful headwind that would take about 3 mph minimum off of our pace. As we packed up, one of the locals on his way to the library stopped to chat with us. The direction of conversation has definitely changed since we entered the Mid-West and got on the TransAm Trail.
          For starters, while we were something of a rare oddity when we forged our own path through New England, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the people in the tiny towns along the TransAm see tons of cross country cyclists a year. The log books we've been reading at restaurants, gas stations, and campgrounds rarely have gaps of more than a day between groups or single bikers making their way across the nation when the season is at its peak around June. We had thought for the longest time that maybe we were sort of the last unicorns of cross-country riding, since we'd seen so few fellow riders. Since we are crossing so late in the season, we've still only seen three (Nigel, Charlie, and Tom, a fellow I neglected to mention earlier, but is a 70 year old man riding from OR to DC for the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps).
                The fellow we met that morning in Hartville, however, gave no indication of having ever seen cyclists of any kind before. He was very preoccupied with telling us all about the white-tail deer hunting season, where to see turkey, and what sports teams to root for. I asked if they rooted for the Royals or the Cardinals since they were so far west in the state and he looked at me like I'd just lit a Bible on fire and said, "Cardinals. The Royals suck." But with his accent in was a lot more like "Cart-nals. Thuh Royls sauck." Then he went on to tell us about what kind of animals we'd see in the Ozarks, "One time I saw a honey bear get in my trash, one time a brown bear- little brown bear- got in my trash, and one time a black mountain lion- we call 'em panthers," he then rolled his sleeve up quickly and as a fluid part of the conversation pointed to a tattoo on his arm of a panther and said, "Panther." matter of factly. So instead of local history and the story of peoples' cousins riding motorcycles across the country, it's now more crops and hunting.
If you look into the distance, past the first hill, you can see
the ridge where we had to climb back out of the valley. This
valley was comprised of 3 1,000ft ridges with a few couple
hundred foot climbs. Our final Ozarking.
        The hills were smaller by a bit, but no less frequent and no less steep. We still had lovely, cool weather to ride in, thankfully, because if it had still been 100, we would have had an incredibly difficult ride. We made our way 26 miles to Marshfield, the next town over from Hartville, after crossing two bridges that were out (by pushing and pulling our bikes through mud and gravel) and had a gigantic lunch at Sonic's. I wolfed down 3 grilled cheeses, a small french fry, and a 14oz shake after a small snack of gummy candies. After Marshfield there wasn't much, and miles of it. We rode all day up and down and around the mountains we had thought we were through with. We hit the highest elevation in the Ozarks, around 1550 feet, and by the end of the day we had covered 75 miles, mainly out of necessity. There are few towns, and even fewer places to camp. Our options had been to camp at 47 miles or camp at 75, so we went for it. It was a grueling day that stretched us out to our highest mileage yet over some of the hardest terrain we'd yet encountered. We hit our 2,000th mile in Walnut Grove, MO, and went through one final, huge Ozarking in the valley between us and Ash Grove, our destination. When we finally arrived at the city park in Ash Grove, we were greeted by... more bikers! Johnathan and Shelly are headed east to Virginia from Oregon and we happened to meet up in Ash Grove, a reasonable estimation as middle point for the trip.

John and Shelley stare into the sun for a photo. Thanks
guys, happy trails.
             They had come 2600 miles, and we 2000, which means we should probably change the name of the website to 4600miles.com (but we won't). Charlie made a beer run and we had a few beers with them over our respective camp dinners in the park. We told them how hard they were about to get Ozarked by the brutal mountains, and they told us how we were about to be bored to death by the flatlands between us and the Rockies. We swapped stories and tips on places to stay, and what gear to use, and general chit chat until it came time for us to bed down after another long day.

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